The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Our Future Democracy

Amongst the hundreds of articles, discussions, and books addressing the ills of today, there are many that speak of what the future could look like.  Visions, dreams - utopias even.  Most of these scenarios of the future look to societies using renewable energy, highly efficient public transport, organically and locally produced food, sustainable fabrics, green housing, satisfying work that provides sufficiency without exploitation, and a raft of other aspects of human life.

Often within those visions there is mention of governments being receptive to this new thinking, and acting in a way that will enable this new society to emerge.  Social action groups too, when determining their strategies, will often target their elected politicians.  There will be talk of deputations, letter writing, petitions, rallies on parliamentary steps, sometimes even support for particular candidates.

That journey, however, is a dead-end one.  Our present democratic system – electoral, representative democracy – has failed.  It has failed to deliver the promise of equity and equality.  It has failed to provide us with a sustainable future.  Most importantly, it has failed in it’s most fundamental raison d’etre – it has failed to be representative.

“What?  Not representative!”  I can hear the shouts of alarm and incredulity now.  Just look around, look at our politicians.  How many of them are like the person next door, or the shop assistant at the supermarket?  How many look like the barista pulling your morning coffee?  Very few I would suggest.  Furthermore, for how many of them is politics their career?  The sad fact is that it is increasingly so that those who are represented in our democratic chambers are – career politicians.

And that is not good.  Electoral democracy is giving us decision-makers drawn from less and less sectors of society at the very time that the world needs greater diversity of representation in its public decision-making.

So, when we envision new societies we need to also think of new ways to conduct our pubic decision-making.  We need to rethink our democracy, rather than accept it as a given.

Samuel Alexander is a writer who has given much thought to what he calls the “sufficiency economy” – a post-growth economy and society that “is shaped by an acceptance that ‘just enough is plenty’ … (that is) nothing short of revolutionary.”  Alexander notes that, from our current perspective, the shift to this new society “will not arise in liberal democracies until there is a culture that wants it, at which time those cultural values will be embraced by representative politicians and used to shape public policy in order to keep or win office.”  However, as Alexander goes on, “this understanding of representative democracy might be nice in theory, but it assumes that democracies are functioning well.”

Alexander concludes that democracy is not functioning well.  He is one of the few new society visionaries that has dared to raise the question of democracy in that future society.  He raises more questions than answers in his treatment of this topic.  Are there any answers?

Bastard-proofing democracy

Perhaps there are.  The ancient Athenians in creating democratic processes were keen to “bastard-proof their system.”2  One of their primary mechanisms for doing that was to use the lottery system.  Many, if not most, of their representatives were chose by lot – known as sortition.

Anyone who has sat on a jury knows that those chosen represent a diversity of backgrounds and experience.  Those jurors are charged with making the decision on whether a person is guilty or not guilty.  They do so after having heard the evidence of expert witnesses and the arguments of lawyers.  Their decision is based on this input, not on their prejudices or preconceived notions of guilt or innocence.  Why should such a system of selection not work for those charged with making our public decisions?

The claim that we need to elect people who are best suited or competent to represent us in our parliaments, senates and councils fails to convince.  It fails in two ways.  We can all think of politicians who have clearly been incompetent and open to manipulation and being swayed by corporate lobbyists.  Indeed, too many some would say.  Secondly, it fails because it assumes that we do not have sufficient faith in our own common sense.  If we are competent enough to cast a vote, then we are competent enough to take on a public decision-making role.

Dangerous democracy

A further argument for envisioning a new form of democracy lies in the very faith we put in our present democratic outcomes.  All around the world we see examples of people and communities seeking greater say over their lives and affairs.  From the Arab Spring to Occupy, from blockading mines on threatened farmland to indigenous peoples blockading ports in canoes, from divestment campaigns to Transition Towns; everywhere we look people are demanding greater say. 

But governments only know one way to deal with issues – by imposing programmes, laws and restrictions.  The danger then, in putting faith in present democratic institutions to solve our multi-faceted crises, is that we will further enhance the oligarchic approach to public decision-making.  That is a recipe for disaster. 

The original Athenian system provides an example of a way to avert that disaster, for it curbs the accumulation of power.  Quoting Dr Fuller again, “(in the Athenian system) power was possible, power consolidation more of a challenge.”2 

Envisioning sortition

Yes, it is worth giving thought to new ways of doing democracy; ways that enhance representation, ways that reduce the rise of oligarchs, ways that tap into our collective wisdom and common sense.  This blogsite has written about the benefits of sortition elsewhere.  See here and here.

We cannot dream of a new, sustainable, society without simultaneously imagining a new democracy.  Sortition offers one, hopeful, possibility.

1. Samuel Alexander, Sufficiency Economy, Sufficiency Institute, Melbourne, 2015, Chapter 4.
2. Dr Roslyn Fuller, Creating a Framework for Sortition.  Dr Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland.  Her forthcoming book is Beasts and Gods:  How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose to be published in November 2015 by Zed Books.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Building Alliances of Mutual Aid and Respect

"Cowboys and Indians" coalition march on Washington
In today’s inter-connected and complex world it would seem that building alliances between differing issue groups would be straight forward and simple.  Alliance building is often crucial to the success of most campaigns.  But sometimes in our focus on the issue that concerns us we can neglect this aspect of community organising.  Within that last sentence lies the key to building those alliances.  What concerns each of us is what motivates us.  Extrapolating that, it becomes clear that what concerns others is what motivates them.

If in my self motivation I can seek out and find what motivates you, then together we may be able to form an alliance that fulfils each of us.  That is no less true of groups than it is of individuals.  You could say that our mutual self-interests are what builds the alliance.  It is important to note here that self-interest is not the same as selfishness.  Selfishness claims that my cause, my issue, my concern is paramount and that all other causes, issues, and concerns are not only of lesser importance, they are of no worth at all.  Self-interest on the other hand, speaks more to who I am  and what my aspirations are; to my essence.  Indeed, the word essence and interest have the same root, esse

Looked at this way, it is possible to discover that my self-interest and that of someone else share something – a common humanity.

Noticing this common humanity it becomes much easier to build alliances.  No concern or issue today stands alone.  All are interconnected.  All issues, and their solutions, have an impact upon other issues.  When that too, is understood, it becomes much easier to build alliances.

Easier – yes!  Doing so, however, requires intent and it requires thinking “outside the box.”  It requires each of us momentarily dispensing with our self-interest and listening to, accepting and understanding the self-interest of others.  Oftentimes that can be difficult to do when we get caught up in the issue that is of concern to us.  We see our issue as urgent, a priority, and we see our campaign building entirely from within this perspective.

We must learn to look outside our own perspective.

Two Examples

Perhaps one of the most intriguing alliances that has been built in recent years (at least in the western world) has been that of the Cowboys and Indians coalition.  Intriguing because of the nominally politically incorrect name, but also because of the historic animosity between North American native peoples and the European settlers who invaded their lands in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The two groups, as well as environmental organisations, came together to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline1 that threatens both the Cowboys and the Indians.  The ranchers and farmers are opposed to the pipeline because of their lands being confiscated for the building of the pipeline.  Native American organisations (such as Idle No More) claim that sacred lands are being desecrated, resulting in health and environmental perils.

This example brings together at least three concerns: loss of land/livelihood, health threats, and climate change activism.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in Australia, the Lock the Gate coalition has also brought together often disparate groups.  Farmers,  Aboriginal owners, environmentalists and others have joined forces to stop the coal seam gas and coal mining in rural areas of Queensland and New South Wales.  The alliance has successfully overturned gas license applications as well as declaring 280 communities across Australia to be mine-free.  The importance of this alliance in the opposition to fossil fuel exploitation cannot be overstated, with Australia being one of the world’s largest exporters of coal.

These two examples are of large, nationally-based alliances; however, the need to seek alliances even at small, local level is just as important.  No issue is paramount.  No concern is of greater urgency than any other.  No cause has priority.  All are interconnected and supporters of one cause will find that by seeking alliances with other groups, that there will be common ground.  That common ground is often our common humanity.

The case for building alliances can best be summarised by an African proverb:
“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go further, go together.”

1. The XL pipeline is a 3,500 km pipeline planned to be constructed from the Alberta (Canada) tar sands drilling grounds southwards, across the USA, and terminating at the refineries in Illinois and Texas.  It is estimated to cost $7 billion and produce release approximately 1.37 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over its 50 year timeframe.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: art in social movements

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Ars longa, vita brevis is one of those Latin maxims that occasionally gets quoted.  Translated as art is long, life is short, the saying is full of meaning.  One of those possible meanings is that the art we create today may survive not only our individual lifetimes, but possibly have significance well beyond the space that we inhabit.

If art is long then those of us working in community development, advocating for social justice, or seeking sustainable futures, cannot ignore its power.  Art can inspire.  Art can be a learning aid.  Art can send a message.  Art can unleash our creative talents.  Let’s use it.

The use of the arts in social change movements has a long and proud history.  One of the earliest examples of activist theatre, for instance, dates to 425 BC when Aristophanes play, Acharnians, was performed at the Athenian Lenaia.  More recently we have seen the development of guerrilla theatre, emerging especially from within the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

This highly public, in-your-face, form of theatre brought the anti-war message into the public sphere perhaps more than any other medium did.  It could not be ignored.  Guerrilla theatre struck a chord not only for those who witnessed it, but also for for those who performed – most of whom were not actors in the traditional sense.

In another art form Picasso’s Guernica is one of the most recognisable paintings in the world.  The painting is an indictment of the use of warfare in resolving differences.1  Painting too has been taken to the streets, and street walls.  Who can dismiss the impact that Banksy has had on our awareness of consumerism, globalisation, and corporate misdeeds?

Musically there have been artists moved by a desire to create music that ranges from anti-war anthems such as Buffy Saint-Marie’s Universal Soldier through to those, like John Lennon, imagining better worlds.  More recently, the current shootings of black people in the US have spawned dozens of rap, hip-hop and other protest songs.

Literature too has been a favoured medium by many that would seek a more socially just world, or warn against techno-corporate takeovers of our lives.  Books such as 1984, Brave New World, Animal Farm, and The Dispossessed, come to mind.

But art and social commentary does not, and should not, start and stop with the professionals.  Those of us working in social movements can use art just as creatively and usefully as those for whom it is their livelihood.

Guerrilla theatre has already been alluded to, but even within our collective learning endeavours using art can have great power.  We can use paint, collage, movement, role-playing, songs, poetry, drums, clapping, chanting, or story-telling to explore our understandings and create visions of the futures that we want for ourselves and our grandchildren.

Indeed, the more we use the arts the more we tap into creative sources and intuitions that we did not know we had.  We can all be creative and artistic.  We may not pen a tune that will rise to the top of the hit parade, we may not paint a portrait that hangs in the Louvre, and we may not write the bestseller reviewed by Oprah.  But we all have some degree of creativity within us.  For some it may be a few words of a poem, for others it may a splash of colour on a poster, and others it may be a particular dance that evokes connection with the earth.

For those facilitating social action groups it is important to remember that everyone is different and that we have differing learning styles and differing ways of expressing what we feel and think.  The greater the variety of methods used the better.

Art is definitely long.  Art is also able to change the world.

1. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica hangs in Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain.  It was painted in 1937.  Widely recognised as one of the world’s most powerful and moving anti-war paintings, it is huge, measuring 3.49 metres in height and 7.76 metres in length.  Picasso is believed to have painted it in response to the bombing of Guernica, a village in the Basque region of Spain by German and Italian planes.

Friday 9 October 2015

Communication is Precarious

Communication is a skill that is a crucial one in the community development worker’s tool kit.  By practicing effective communication the community development worker is better able to do their job, as well as providing a good role model to those around them.

Talking, speaking, hearing, listening.  What could be easier?  After all, we have grown up doing it, haven’t we.  As babies, we heard our parents, or other adults voices.  We learnt to imitate the words and then tested them out, by speaking.  Simple, piece of cake.

So, how is it that communication can be so difficult sometimes?  Why does apparently simple communication break-down?  Simply because there are at least six processes going on in the simple transaction between one person and another.  Think about it.  Before I say something to another person I must first have a thought or intuition.  Then I must put that thought into words, before finally speaking those words.

The person to whom I am speaking then goes through the opposite three stage process.  First, they must hear my words.  Then they interpret those words, give the words meaning and finally, derive a thought from that interpretation.

That’s six steps.  I am not suggesting that every communication flows in this logical step-by-step manner, nor am I suggesting that any of it is necessarily conscious.  However, each of these elements is involved in some way in my communication with one other person.

That means there are six ways in which communication can break down, can go astray and lead quickly to mis-communication.  And, that’s just with one other person!

Learning Listening and Speaking

Effective communication is something that can be learned, but rarely do we take the time to do so. 
How can we more effectively listen?  We can learn to focus on the speaker and their words by not interrupting, avoiding distractions, watching for non-verbal cues, not pre-judging, and not making assumptions.

As a speaker we can improve our communication by focussing on our internal thought processes.  One technique is to use the THINK acronym, by asking ourselves whether what we want to say is:
  • Truthful
  • Honest
  • Inspiring
  • Necessary
  • Kind
Next time you find yourself in a conversation that seems to have become derailed, step back and see if you can figure out where the problem may be.  It may be in your thinking patterns, in the words you use or in the speech you have just given.  Similarly, it may be that you were distracted at a crucial time that someone was telling you something and you never heard the words, or that you interpreted their words in a different way to that in which the speaker intended. 

It may be worth talking about the mis-communication.  This time listening attentively and speaking thoughtfully.