Our summer break continues this week with an episode of The Pledge, a podcast about people who are taking an active role in improving democracy in the U.S. The show’s first season features a group of women working in grassroots political organizing in Alabama.
This episode tells the story of Oni Williams. As a resident of one of Birmingham’s poorest neighborhoods, Oni regularly visits barbershops and strip clubs to speak with members of the community, inform them of their rights, and encourage them to speak out. She is a stellar example of what democracy in action looks like.
Since this episode was recorded, Oni announced that she’s running for Birmingham City Council in a special election to be held October 8.
Joyce Ladner was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was mentored by Medgar Evers, expelled from Jackson State University for participating in a sit-in, and failed Mississippi’s voter literacy test three times. She discusses those experiences with us, along with the disconnect between learning the principles of civics education knowing that some of them didn’t apply to her.
Joyce also describes how Emmett Till moved her generation to action, and how Trevon Martin is doing the same for a new generation of organizers. She visited Penn State to deliver the annual Barbara Jordan lecture, hosted by the Africana Research Center.
[4:44] What was the catalyst for you to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement?
The catalyst for us was the lynching of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Mississippi
[5:15] How did that make you feel and how you did you translate those feelings into your actions?
I remember feeling very very powerless back then. Sort of visceral reaction came when I saw the photograph of Emmett Till on the cover of Jet Magazine. That photograph made me feel that I had to one day do something.
[9:42] Did you see any changes or any integration efforts following Brown v. Board of Education
No, what happened to the Deep South was that the Southern states immediately after the Brown decision came down rushed to build new schools for black children, so we got a new school.
[14:42] What do you think is missing from how civics education and democracy are being taught today?
I took high school history and social science civics to become good citizens. We were informed with a knowledge base in ethics and values, and about what democracy was. I think that one of the worst things that’s happened in subsequent years is the decline of civics education. A lot of social science type courses have suffered tremendously.
[16:55] What do you think about Black Lives Matter Movement?
Black Lives Matter is to this generation what’s SNCC was to my generation, and also Trayvon Martin is to this generation what Emmett Till was to mine. Here you have a case of a young man who was just shot and murdered and the response to it is a national outpouring of anger and eventually that anger was channeled by young people (college students and non-college students). I should say is the case in a manner that was very similar. I was so excited to see that finally we have some movement activity.
[20:16] What was the process to become a registered voter?
I tried to register to vote three times in Harrisburg, but I failed the voter register literacy test because all black people who went to register were failed. At the same time all white people were registered. I was required to write essays on two questions, one was an interpretation of section in the U.S. Constitution. They never gave us reasons. They just says “you failed to pass this test, you didn’t answer these questions adequately”.
[24:41] Was there something that united all the different organizing that you did, whether for civil rights, voting rights or all of those?
Freedom was the reason to do all of this. Equality was later added but freedom remain the constant.
[26:57] What advice did you have to say to young people or anyone who wants to get involved in organizing and trying to impact what they perceive as injustice?
Freedom is not free. Each generation has to fight for those same rights all over again because they’re not permanent.
20 years ago, Srdja Popovic was part of a revolution — literally. He was a founding member of the Otpor! movement that ousted Serbia Slobodan Milsovic from power in 1999. It’s easy to characterize social movements as a bunch of people rallying in the streets, but successful movements require a lot of planning and a unified vision around a singular goal — things that are often easier said than done.
Srdja joins us this week to discuss why Otpor! was successful and anyone can use the same principles of what we describes as “laughtivism” to fight for change. He is the director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CAVNAS) and author of Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.
At the end of the episode, Michael and Chris compare Srdja’s discussion of anger and fear with some of the results we’ve seen from our Mood of the Nation Poll.
Srdja visited Penn State as a guest of the Center for Global Studies, the same organization that hosted Syrian journalist Abdalaziz Alhamza in the fall. Our episode with him is a nice companion to this conversation with Srdja.
How should a social movement balance its members individuals goals and views against the larger goals?
How do you see the apathy and fear Srdja described playing out in today’s political climate?
Do you think Otpor!’s approach could be successful in a place like Hungary or Brazil?
What are some recent examples of laughtivism? Are they effective?
[4:20] What was the the political climate in Serbia when the Otpor! movement began?
We started with large students protests. We were occupying campuses and all the intellectuals were there. The first large-scale demonstrations started in Serbia and we figure out that in fact, we can win local elections if opposition is united, but we lost. After three months on the streets every day, we understood that it’s a very stupid way to have everyday protests because are very costly. The movement grew from 11 people into several hundred, then performed a large tactics of recruitment and and grew up up to 70,000. We had a pretty clear vision of tomorrow — we were trying to build unity among the civil sector and the opposition parties. We stayed cool and nonviolent and focusing in low-risk tactics.
[10:15] What are some of the the strategies you recommend for people to build broad coalitions or movements?
The first thing is you need to understand what you really want to change. You need to look the terrain and your constituency. Try to listen and try to find the smallest common denominator that will bring groups to your side. Try to figure out why the people who are pro change and against change feel that way.
[13:32] As these movements grow, people come in with their own ideas. How can you be receptive to them without curtailing the main goal?
It is really important is to figure out your grand vision and the grand goal. Movements are driven by the people, and the best thing people bring to the movements are their ideas. The way the Serbian movement operated and several other movements we worked in in the past, like Egyptian movement, was to make a highly decentralized structure. That creates a culture in the movement where everybody can become a leader.
[15:16] How do you push forward for social change given the prevalence of nostalgia?
When you take a look at the biggest obstacles to the social change of any kind, it’s either apathy or fear, and if you really want to make a change you want to deconstruct these obstacles. The key for change in these cases is to turn up into enthusiasm.
[20:39] How is laughtivism an effective tactic for authoritarian regimes?
There are a few reasons why humor is so powerful in these situations. The first reason is that humor breaks fear and makes scary situations look a little less so. The second reason is that humor attracts people and gives them something they can get behind. The third is that it disrupts order, which dictators and authoritarians thrive on.
[25:18] How are these tactics translated into public policy?
Some politicians think that democracy is all about winning elections and then winner takes all, but social movements are now taking a new role which they call defending democracy. They are actually defending the courts, defending the parliament, and defending the pillars that are already there.
[32:55] What does democracy mean to you?
To me, it means having the right balance between strong and active state and strong and active people to hold the state accountable.
In his book Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World, James Miller encapsulates 2500 years of democracy history into about 250 pages — making the case that “people power” will always need to be at the heart of any successful democracy.
James is a professor of politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. in New York City. He is the author of Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947–1977, and Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. He was recommended to us by Astra Taylor, and you’ll hear some similarities between how James and Astra view democracy and our role within it.
Starting next week, we’ll be expanding our focus to look at the state of democracy around the world, starting with Hungary. We’ve talked in broad strokes about how democracy is on the decline outside the United States and are excited to dive into what’s happening in a few specific countries.
What do you make of the notion that democracy is “people power?”
Based on the definition James provides, is the United States a democracy?
What are the origins of democracy?
Where do the ideas of democracy comes from?
What can affect democracy or democratic processes?
[4:50] In your book you talk about the ideal of democracy survives. What that ideal is and where it comes from?
The term democracy comes from ancient Greek and it’s not just cuddly abstract power. It really connotes people who have weapons in their hands and you have to respond to them. A literal translation of the word democracy in the English would be “people power.”
[8:34] What can history tell us about trying to marry this the ideal of democracy with what what it ends up being in practice?
It’s very misleading to try to draw direct lessons from history because so much in politics is situational. It depends on the context, on the culture, on the level of development of the people or a group that’s trying to become self governing. In the modern period the democracy is an idea and as an ideology, it’s inherently unstable because there’s a core ambiguity about to what extent it can be realized in practice and there’s a further ambiguity and that it’s proven to be a very powerful legitimating mechanism as an ideologies, and you end up with regimes that talk about democracy but don’t for a nanosecond really mean it and the cases of communist countries like North Korea and China are to most Americans self-evident.
[14:22] Where did the French get their ideas about democracy?
They obtained some ideas from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who grows out of a modern Republican tradition and ends up backing into a kind of support for democracy. There is an American version of democracy that does appear in the course of the 19th century and it develops on a different path than democracy in Europe and yet in the United States think we invented democracy. So the one of the more weird facets of the story of modern democracy is America preening itself on being the birthplace of modern democracy, which is false and being a place where the great protector of democracy which we’ve used repeatedly in the 20th and 21st century as a rationale for imposing by gunfire democratic ideals on foreign countries.
[18:40] Can you talk a little bit about what the people’s party and the people’s constitution in Rhode Island look like?
At the time of the Revolution after the Declaration of Independence most of the states, the colonies, drafted their own constitutions, but during this whole ferment Rhode Island basically just ratified as Colonial Charter and kept it in. A convention was declared and there’s a draft of the new Constitution which of course by the rules of the state legislature in Rhode Island was illegal. It ends up a short of the Civil War.
[22:11] In the 20th century, public opinion polls enter the picture. How did they impact perceptions of democracy?
The conception that allows that to happen is the notion that democracy is ruled by public opinion, and this is proposed as a definition of modern democracy by Woodrow Wilson in writings before he became president of the United States. This nascent science of the monitoring of public opinion takes root in the United States. First of all in commercial applications through market research, but very quickly spreads to politics and emerges as a kind of practices in the 20s and into the 1930s. Finally, in the 1936 presidential campaign for the first time you have newspapers and magazines printing public opinion polls on who supports the different presidential candidates for the first time in history. Is that public opinion polling? It’s a two-way street. You can find out what people think they want and then you can try to manipulate it and you can manipulate it in part by the questions you ask.
[27:29] Knowing what you do about democracy’s history, where do things go from here?
The vitality of democracy in a modern setting, in effect, depends on the continued irruption into the public sphere of the voices of ordinary citizens and that this eruption of voices will often be unruly and may even create chaos. That’s the nature of democratic revolts. I have no sympathy for people who keep denouncing what they call populism which to me just means it’s people power that they don’t like. It’s a group of people who are advocating policies they disagree with.
Last week, we heard from Salena Zito about the segments of middle America who supported Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama. This week, we talk with another Pittsburgh resident, Lara Putnam, about a different version of Middle America — the college-educated, middle-aged suburban women who have dusted off the organizing skills honed through decades of volunteering to affect change in their communities.
Lara is a Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author with Theda Skockpol of the article “Middle America Reboots Democracy.” in the journal Democracy. She argues that grassroots work is happening behind the scenes in “purple” suburbs, areas that are ignored in the red state/blue state and urban/rural media narratives.
Grassroots groups like those Lara observed in western Pennsylvania are mixing traditional organizing tactics with social media to raise awareness and push for change at the local and state levels, far away from the divisions that bog down national politics. To borrow a line from the article, “If your question is how the panorama of political possibility has shifted since November 2016, your story needs to begin here.”
Thank you to WESA and WYEP in Pittsburgh for allowing us to use their community studio to record this interview with Lara.
What is the relationship between social engagement and political engagement?
How does the populism Salena Zito described differ from the populism behind the groups Lara observed?
Lara argues that local grassroots groups have been overlooked by the media and national political parties. Do you agree? If so, why do you think it’s happening?
Both Republican and Democratic grassroots appear to want to make America great again. Can both visions of America coexist? Is there a possibility that these two less ideological groups merge into a new political coalition?
Lara said that many of the grassroots groups she observed are lead by middle class women. Do you think the tone or activities of these groups would be different if they were run by younger women? Or by men?
[3:28] As a history professor, how did you come to write about a political movement?
Lara: After the 2016 election, I looked around at local politics to see where I could make a change. Based on the national political coverage, I expected to see high levels of energy and organization for progressive politics in the city and little in the suburbs. However, what I found was actually that I was missing the real story. What I saw in these smaller towns was people engaging again in the political process through organization. This wasn’t getting covered nationally. This is where I kicked into historical gear. We know that large scale changes nationally have their roots in local developments. Therefore, it leads us to believe that these changes at the local level should be looked at as the possible motivation behind future national changes. So face to face groups which appear insignificant, can actually lead to large political changes.
[6:35] What does middle America mean to you after your research?
Lara: These movements are being started by women. Particularly, women who had already been involved in the political movement prior to the 2016 election. What we mean by “middle America” here is that these democrat movements are taking place not in the stereotypical coastal democrat strongholds, but rather in small rural towns in the middle of the country.
[9:30] Why do you think the national media is missing this trend?
Lara: The national media is really obsessed with candidates. While this does impact the spread of movements like the ones we’re seeing, it doesn’t completely stop them. Remember that politics is local. Most political conversations and political knowledge is shared in local conversations such as when people are running errands in town. This is how information is usually shared. The media tends to underreport this type of grass roots kitchen table politics.
[11:30] Do these groups still see support from the Democratic Party?
Lara: Part of the story here is that the Democratic Party changed. This is why we’re seeing many of these groups being created recently. The party used to be structured in such as way that you could join it and know your fellow democrats. You had a sense that you belonged to an actual place with real people rather than simply an email list. How the party today has embraced these new organizations has varied around the country. In some places, the local party structure has embraced these new groups while in other places you’re seeing more resistance to bringing them into the fold. Whether or not this osmosis process happens depends a lot on the level of maturity of these groups. What I mean by that is how organized and structured they are. When a group is very structured, it tends to more naturally fold into a larger equally as organized group.
[17:25] Do you think there is room in these left leaning groups for someone who voted for Trump in 2016 but have since changed their minds?
Lara: I think there are many different “middle Americas” out there. People are complicated and terms such as progressive means different things in different places.
[21:31] How are these groups communicating and utilizing technology to advance their cause in 2018?
Lara: Some groups have become hybrids of older and newer models in that they’re utilizing both face to face as well as technological forms of communications. For example, groups will often have several facebook pages. One will be public where as the other will be private. This private page has sort of become the 21st century face to face conversation.
Over the past few months, the members of Generation Z have combined the tenets of traditional social movements with the power of social media to reimagine what it means to protest in a democracy. That energy was on display during the March for Our Lives events held around the world on March 24.
We interviewed several students from State College, Pennsylvania (where our podcast is based) who attended March for Our Lives events locally and in Washington, D.C. They speak passionately and articulately about what they believe in and how they’re working to carry forward the energy they’ve create
In this episode, you’ll hear from:
Kyra Gines and Kayla Fatemi, high school students who organized the March for Our Lives in State College.
Lilly Caldawell and Lena Adams, who organized a walk out at their middle school.
Hannah Strouse and Cian Nelson, who attended the March for our Lives in Washington, D.C.
If what we saw and heard from these students is any indication, the future of our democracy looks very bright.
[6:34] Kyra on activism and motivation for the march for our lives event.
With everything happening this year, it felt natural to set up these events and continue to make our voices heard. I want to do what I can within my constraints. I can’t vote for a number of years, but I can work with those who can and who set up events like this I can go up there, I can make a speech, and I can make my voice heard. I will continue to do so until I can hear and see change.
[7:48] Kayla on activism and the movement towards creating change.
One good thing about the United States in the right to free speech and the right to express ourselves and to vote. Democracy for us is voting in those who will be advocating for our lives. This was something I felt I had to do. I think many other students had the same feeling after watching the Parkland students who are our peers. We are a different generation than the millennial generation. We are a lot more vocal and a lot less afraid. We’ve seen a lot of things happen (school shootings) and if something is going to happen we are going to have to do it ourselves. Our generation is finally becoming old enough where we can go out there and do these sort of things. We are continuing to work on voter registration. We also have another school walkout scheduled for April 20th, which is not sponsored by the school.
[10:19] Lena Adams from Delta Middle School on how students created a similar march at their school.
We worked really hard at getting to participate in the walkout without any school suspensions. The majority of our school walked out to support changes in gun legislation and to memorialize the victims (Parkland). I thought that was really cool.
[10:48] Lilly Caldawell on the student protest at Delta.
After Parkland, I had heard about the walkout and I wanted to start something similar at our school. I’ve seen some of my friends here today which is awesome. I think it’s amazing that it is the youth, even middle school students who are really starting to notice and take action. This will bring attention to politicians that they need to take more action. We can’t just say ‘thoughts and prayers’ in hopes that will fix the situation.
Interview with Hanna Strouse and Cian Nelson
[11:48] Can you describe your first impression of the March For Our Lives in Washington D.C.?
Hanna: I had been to the Woman’s March before so I sort of expected a large crowd, but I thought it was actually tighter when I was actually out there in it, which I was not expecting at all.
Cian: There were just so many people. It made me feel good to be around people who shared my opinions. It made me feel good to stand up for something I believe in for once.
[13:44] As you’ve had a chance to reflect on your experiences, are there any moment in particular that stand out to you?
Hanna: All of the speakers were amazing. I respect them so much. They’re my age and they’re speaking infant of 800,000 people. To be honest, all of them are doing outstanding things, and that is really resonating with me. Our generation is going to be the one that really hammers hard on this whole gun control thing. We are going to be the ones really standing up for this change.
Cian: It made me feel really good to be a part of generation Z. The one speech that really stood out to me was from Emma Gonzalez and her six minutes of silence representing all the time it took for those seventeen lives to be taken. It was sort of outstanding and horrifying at the same time.
Hanna: It (six minutes of silence) felt awkward. I was confused, but when she said this was the amount of time it took for seventeen of her classmates to die I realized that was no time at all. It felt like forever when it was silent. Imagining your in a classroom where you have to stay quiet during that amount of time is terrifying.
[15:53] Is there any characteristics of your generation that you think will maybe take things in a different direction or reach progress we haven’t seen thus far?
Cian: Generations are becoming more progressive over time in my opinion. Our generation is the tech generation. We’re the only generation to not remember a time before the internet. We know how to utilize it. We’re set to become the most educated generation yet.
Hanna: I also feel that we’re fed up with the things that have been happening. I’m 18 and I know so much about what is happening in our government, and it is making me angry that nothing is being done to prevent things like Parkland. It just makes us angry. With this digital age, we have this opportunity to put out our anger for more people to see, which is really helping.
[17:12] So tell us about your family growing up. Are you from political households and have you guys talked about politics a lot?
Hanna: So my family is very political. My dad is involved in the local government, so I started to get really into it. I wanted to know what he was talking about so I would research what he was saying and I made my own opinions. My family is very liberal, but I feel that we do have some differences in our opinions and in how we approach things.
[17:56] Have you noticed in these past couple of weeks since the shooting any change or increase in activism amongst your friends or other people at school?
Hanna: There are first time protestors, but I feel like it hasn’t changed very much. Our generation is stigmatized for being lazy and unengaged. But I feel like we have that stereotype because we are afraid to engage because everyone tells us we can’t.
[21:16] Do you sense any division among your generation about the best way to move forward and see the change you want to have happen?
Hanna: There are some divisions. I know there are some people calling for a total gun ban. I know others who are calling or an assault rifle ban. I know some who are just calling for background checks. I feel any of those options would do amazing things, and would save so many lives. It’s just a matter of how far you’re willing to push it.
Cian: This might be unrealistic, but I think we should go as far as Australia and Japan.
Hanna: Also, the say they (Australia and Japan) handle giving guns is very interesting. If you look at Japan, they have to go through a background check, a physical health screening, a mental health screening, and then they do classes. They then have police who make sure you’re storing them correctly. Why don’t we do that here. It has saved so many lives in Japan.
[22:48] Did being at the march and hearing from the students talk about the communities who are not represented make you reconsider your own background and your own privilege?
Hanna: I know that I’m have a lot of privilege because I’m a white American. While, as a woman, I couldn’t walk a city street at night, I could do it during the day time. I wouldn’t be shot for walking down the block. I know that this is a really big problem for people of color. Many of them don’t feel safe in their cities. That is so saddening to me. I have no idea how that must feel,
Cian: I know that I’m a white straight male. I feel like I don’t have any right to complain about anything and that I should just let minorities do the talking. I agree with that because they’re the ones experiencing these tragedies and inequality.
Hanna: I do think it’s amazing that the face of this movement is a bisexual Cuban female. That just speaks volumes at to how diverse the movement is going to be. The fact that we have someone not male, white, or straight as the leader is kind of amazing.