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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ground-up organizing

NATO and Facebook Join Forces in the Global Digital Age screams the Blog headline.  I am reading the Tech page of The Huffington Post on 19 April 2012.  I reread, assuming that the announcement is a hoax, but when I see that the authors are Dr. Stefanie Babst and Elizabeth Linder, I know that it is not.  Not a hoax.   I think not.  Yet the proposed unity seems too practical to be real.  A major political alliance is working with a profitable digital social network.  This ought to be interesting.

According to The Huffington Post, "Dr. Stefanie Babst is NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy";  Elizabeth Linder is Facebook’s Politics & Government Specialist for the Europe, Middle East and Africa regions."  And they explain:  "In pursuing our efforts to contribute to this global conservation, we -- two individuals at Facebook and NATO -- have started to collaborate. Because we believe that instruments of diplomacy, no matter how hard or how soft -- or how smart, for that matter -- bring people together."  WOW!  At the end of the blog, a gloss cautions: 

"Their views expressed are solely their own and do not represent the official views of NATO or Facebook."
So what is going on?
The blog is a collaborative post that begins by predicting how this digital age will appear in future history texts for school students.  Delightfully optimistic, the two authors state that history will foreground
the influence of "the social web" and "how the social web impacted public institutions, elected officials, and diplomats by propelling them into conversation-based communications."  The rest of the lengthy post emphasizes the importance of "understanding how we can use meeting places on the web to communicate in more effective ways. Communications technology gives us the distinct privilege to be more open on issues that affect us all, to be more conversational on questions that would benefit from wider citizen commentary, and to be more responsive to and inclusive of the people whose ideas can help us shape our policies." Bapst and Linder see this public, non-selective communication between traditionally inaccessible organizations and the individuals interested in security as vital to progress in world peace and justice.    And as they see it, this conversation is not merely between two strata of society, but among all strata of humans.  Wow!  The article ends with them detailing their organizations have already done in the service of this model.

My excitement about the possibility reminds me of the high spirits I had  had in the free speech movements of the late 1960s and the 1970s.  The popular movement that originated in California is well-known.  As part of it, however, the emergence of computer technology and global communications encouraged dreamers like Noam Chomsky, Marshall Mcluhan, Ivan Illich, and Paul Goodman to imagine a future in which technology would advance all human understanding through free education, connection, cooperation, and subsequent good-for-all commerce.   Those of us who read their work at that time started forming small groups--communes and Universities Without Walls--to live our revolution into reality,  Goddard College in Vermont thrived and a similar structure at Roger Williams College in Rhode Island became strong for a while.  I was one of a group of students trying to create something similar at Clark University in Massachusetts.  We didn't last long, but we went as far as opening up our classes and organizing a community center through which we tutored for the GED and advocated for neighborhood people to gain credit for prior knowledge and work experience.  We helped individuals produce resumes.  We had many ideas, but we didn't yet have the technology.  We also had to complete our college business-as-usual, so one by one, we abandoned what after all had only been a classroom project.
Paradoxically, that college experience gave me an appreciation of immigrants and first generation Americans who didn't want to skip barriers and established institutions to get what they needed.  They were proud to be Americans and willing to take whatever came with it no matter how unfair it was or how marginalized they were. With them, I learned what you can only learn about freedom from those who experienced oppression.  I no longer remember names or examples, but I strongly recall that hearing those voices started my path to world citizenry and gave me a distaste of isolationist policy and privilege forever. I was an English and Education major at Clark University, but what had the greatest impact on me was taking down perceived walls to consult with the very ones we intended to help.
Thirty years later as a high school English teacher, I ran into the Ivan Illich idea again in the kind of coincidence that opens up the doors of wonder.  In 2005, I spent four weeks with a busload of teachers  traveling through Southern Mexico on a Hayes-Fulbright Grant.  The surprise occurred in Oaxaca when we visited a small institution called Universidad de la Tierrathe University of the Earth.  From the on-site seminar, I learned that this was indeed the theory in action and was part of a growing number of self-sustaining communities that put the tools needed into the hands of students who assessed their own need.  I was transported back in time by seeing both Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman among the library books, and brought back into the present by meeting Gustavo Esteva, one of the University's founders and co-author of Grassroots Post-modernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures.  During my visit, we focused most on the empowerment of Mayan communities who were examining the value of cultural changes.  We watched a film they had made "Regeneracion Cultural de Nuestras Comunidades" for outreach in their own communities. Just today, while writing this blog, I learned that the Universidad de la Tierra is included in The Común Tierra Project, a major research project on sustainable communities in Latin America (from Mexico to Brazil), that began in May 2010 and is in process  until May 2014. 
The NATO/Facebook project is an idea whose time is overdue, and--if it is successful--it could lead us forward into an era based on a practical politic of peace, freedom, responsibility, justice, and respect for all.  We will have to see what compromises NATO will have to make in order to truly share the power.

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