Too often, activists advocate policies
without really engaging or involving people. We need to find ways to lure
people into involvement in social change, help them see how meaningful it is.
One way to do this is to bring people together to talk.
Conversation is an overlooked strategy for social change,
even though it has figured prominently throughout history: the coffee houses of
18th-century England, the salons of the French Revolution, the
consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement.
Over the years I’ve found there are three levels of
conversation: the personal, the public and the political.
The personal response
Conversation involves connection and response to people in a
congenial, convivial manner — making people feel welcome and appreciated. So
try this: Develop the habit of “stop and chats.” Chat when you go for your
walks or you’re standing in a line or sitting next to someone in a cafe. When
we greet each other, we create a culture in which people feel they belong and
they begin to care for others.
In a conversation, you don’t argue with people; you don’t try
to convince. Just tell your story and ask others about theirs. Conversation is
a barn-raising, not a battle.
Everyday personal conversations evoke the habit of response
and connection — the first step in social change because people learn to turn
to each other.
The public response
The next step is to build on this practice of personal
conversation. Groups or organizations must bring people together in small
groups to talk in greater depth about matters of substance. For instance, every
time a group has a speaker, they need to follow the presentation with a small
group of people talking together.
Further, you can build ongoing conversation circles.
Conversation circles have three parts: exploring your own experience, exploring
the cultural forces affecting us and brainstorming actions for change.
A conversation circle is cooperative and egalitarian. It
helps people develop the habit of coming together, to respond with
collaboration and equality. Most of all, it helps people feel connected and
Such social experiences are so important that Robert Putnam,
author of “Bowling Alone,” recommends that all groups and organizations develop
a “social-capital impact statement,” showing how they’re building connections
The political response
Ultimately, we need a political response: marches,
demonstrations and rallies — huge events that involve hundreds of people. They
must be occasions of community, caring and joy. The experience of joyful
community is the key to massive change.
So let’s quit having a lot of dull, boring speeches at our public
meetings; ask people turn to each other and talk. Put chairs in circles; serve
food. You need singing and chances for people to gather for conversation.
These protests will succeed because they build on the skills
learned in daily conversations and small groups — because we have learned the
habit of turning to one another. If we become committed with talking to each
other, a massive outcry for change can build. In the process, we learn that we
are always “better together.”
John Dewey said, “Democracy is born in conversation.” History
has taught us that the biggest force for change begins when you take time to
talk — it’s something we can all begin to act on now.
CECILE ANDREWS is
the author of “Living Room Revolution: A Handbook
for Conversation, Community and the Common Good.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.