by George Lakey
George Lakey has been active in direct action campaigns for six decades and co-authored the most influential movement strategy guide of the civil rights era. In this excerpt from his 2018 book, How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning, he explains why it’s so important for movements to have a bold and inspiring vision for transformation, even — or especially — as they fight to respond to current injustice.
Come and go with me to that land,
Come and go with me to that land,
Come and go with me to that land, where I’m bound.
This is the chorus of one of the great old black spirituals expressing a deep need of human beings: to move toward the light, rather than simply flee the darkness. We won’t get mass movements that can sustain the struggle for major change in the United States until we align ourselves with the human need to know where we’re going.
The feminist activist and author Grace Lee Boggs put it this way:
People are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative. We need a vision that recognizes that we are at one of the great turning points in human history when the survival of the planet and the restoration of our humanity require a great sea change in our ecological, economic, political, and spiritual values.
U.S. political culture has become vision-averse in recent decades, a trend that accompanied the decline of the left since the 1980s. The decline of vision on the left was one reason most movements had trouble retaining the mass support they’d earned previously.
Activists said, “Come and go with us because we are protesting this or that injustice.”
If a bystander asked, “But where are you going?” the bystander would have gotten no answer. Movements lost sight of the land to which they were bound. Activists thought if they simply described vividly enough how terrible climate change is, or how unjust racism or sexism or poverty is, masses of people would reorder their priorities and join them. That’s not the way it works.
Join me in a thought experiment: if we were walking along on the sidewalk and a vanload of strangers stopped on the road alongside us and rolled down the windows, and someone inside asked if we’d like a ride, we might be interested. Chances are, though, we’d ask, “Where are you going?”
Most of us would decline the offer. A random van might be going anywhere. Most of us do like to choose our destinations.
A vision is not the same as a blueprint. It’s a model that evolves as more people join and offer creative input, although the principles are clear.
The fully developed vision includes rigorous backup for the policy wonks in the room, but it is presented in its most common sense version so people can see and feel what it will be like to have, for example, an economy that puts them first instead of profits.
Vision builds credibility. This is a cynical, fearful, and despairing age. People know it’s easy to praise some values, then rush on to condemn this or that — politicians use that formula all the time.
In 2016 Pennsylvania went, barely, for Donald Trump after a poll found that 72 percent of voters believe “old ways don’t work and it’s time for radical change.” An independent movement can go father and offer much more credibility than a real-estate billionaire. Are we willing to envision what the radical change that 72 percent of voters wanted would look like?