Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Making Our Experience Count

Making Our Experience Count

Climate change, flooding, bushfires, poverty, inequality, youth unemployment...The complex, interconnected problems of a changing world can seem quite overwhelming for citizens of any age, fueling a sense of helplessness and apathy. How can everyday democracy help counter a sense of powerlessness in the face of such complex problems?

Yesterday  I drove a group of kids to a club activity. The news was playing on the car radio, with reports of more flooding, along with an account of the latest child poverty study by the NZ Salvation Army- saying what we know: how serious the issue of child poverty is, and that NZ's current approach to "Work you way out of poverty", isn't working as a solution for many of the complex situations that families with children currently face.
There was a long pause in the conversation after I'd turned off such dismal news.
In the silence one of the kids in the car said quietly,   'The world is so messed up."
My heart sank, and my reply was too quick, I said too brightly, "I know but that's why so many colleagues, in fact everyone we know is working really hard to tackle tackle this".
Even as I said it, I knew how inadequate it sounded as a response.
At the time we were driving through the maze of road cones, gravel and demolished buildings that is the down town of Christchurch city after the quakes, and a bus pulled out in front of us. The bus had  a picture on the back of it of the Christchurch student volunteer army leader Sam Johnson who had networked with 24,000 people on facebook and arranged up to 10,000 youth to work in groups of between 10- 100 each day to help clear silt after the earthquakes here
The advertisement just said "make our experience count". It is a standard public service warning to remind people to secure heavy furniture etc to avoid more deaths/injury from any future quakes.
But what was also interesting was the empowering impact the advertisement had. The child glanced at the advertisement, and then said thoughtfully..."The world is really screwed up but not that messed up..."

I understood what he meant, and not for the first time I was grateful to the New Zealand mental health experts who argued very strongly that any public service disaster messages for Christchurch should be empowering and not more images of doom or disaster.

More than that I again felt especially grateful to the students of Christchurch for their collective response to the earthquake disaster- because it has had a profound and far reaching positive role modelling effect for a new generation of young people, demonstrating the power of  collective "efficacy" in the face of what can be quite overwhelming events.

The power of collective action was demonstrated by the students and other community groups after the disaster in Christchurch, and it continues today often in student led experiments with new transition buildings, new art projects, new community gardens, and new local economic ideas, in the face of often strong central government resistance.

These activies provide a way to test new ideas, and thinking, but the collaborative effort also reminds us that it is not what we can do as individuals that really counts, although individuals taking a stand for example on moral principles or offering new ideas, matters enormously in a democracy, but it is the power of what we can do together, that really makes the long term difference.

When we interviewed Christchurch children aged 8-12 years before the earthquakes, a number of children revealed how years of neoliberal market economics has also impacted on their ideas about what makes a "good citizen". Some thought it was very important that citizens were 'self helpers', able to stand on their own two feet, others through good citizens were citizens who could effect change in the market, as social entrepreneurs or ethical shoppers. Still others thought good citizenship required a sponsor, a philanthropist or charity to support them to fund the school library, or playground

There is nothing wrong with this view of citizenship but it is a very thin response, in two ways. First, it leaves the causes of everyday injustice unchallenged, even if we tackle the symptoms of inequality and injustice , we don't think wider about what systemic actions are causing this situation. Second,  the thin citizenship of self help individualism undermines the capacity of collective effort as democratic community.  As Christchurch residents know, in the scale of an earthquake or natural disaster, there are real limits to what even the most determined individual can do. We also need the power of collective effort and the support of others to sustain our individual capability to take action.

In a changing world, young children can feel like "eco-worriers" who care very much about the changing climate or poverty, yet feel disempowered, by the situation, burdened by a sense of responsibility that they have to solve these issues themselves. Others  growing up in inequality may struggle with a sense of isolation.  It is only a very small step from feeling overwhelmed by a problem, to disengagement and cynicism, as Clive Hamilton reminds us in Requiem for a Species, apathy, that "why bother" attitude, is a rational response to a sense of powerlessness.

Given the scale and the complexity of many social and environmental problems we now face, it understandable that citizens, young and old can feel disempowered. Overwhelming apocalyptic imagery about a changing climate or constant statistics about poverty often doesn't help, if the problem is so big, why think about it? Why not carry on business as usual? What good will worrying about these issues let alone taking action, do? Far easier to justify our disengagement, "I have enough to worry about, its their fault they are poor", "I work hard", "I  saved for a house built on high ground, why can't they...?"

Yet it is not all bad news. Even after three decades of emphasis on the values of economic individualism in New Zealand, many New Zealand children we interviewed still expressed a confidence that they could also take collective action and significant empathy for others. When we asked children where they felt they were listened to and when they felt they could make a difference, the answers came out thick and fast: they felt listened to in team sports with a caring coach, in mid decile community schools where children met people unlike themselves, yet also felt  respected and safe. Other children felt proud of taking part in culture groups like kapa haka, community gardens, on school camps or combined school musical and theatre performances and felt they mattered. Some children commented on taking part in everyday community action or protest, about real issues with more experienced citizens and peers.

Each of these activities might not sound like the lessons in citizenship, and they are a very long way from civics tests and facts about politics, but the best way to learn about democracy is by  doing democracy. The opportunity to engage in respectful,  collective discussion and to take action with others, is an important seedbed of a different, richer kind of citizenship.

 Opportunities to learn about citizenship by taking action and collaborating with others are  important for any age group. It is easy to overlook for example the way the roots of the Student Volunteer army itself grew out of a group of students from a theatre club and a student hostel.

I have written previously about the sea change that is represented in the rise of a new generation of collective action and is now visible in new feminist thinking and new student union activity in solidarity with other groups , challenging traditional economics textbooks and experiments with  networked action to resist unfair global tax or business practice or to encourage a variety of new cooperative ideas.

It is part of a wider rediscovery of collective citizen power after financial disaster and in the face of a changing climate, and growing inequality. But it is collective action that challenges 'group think', and rediscovers new ways to create meaningful democratic citizenship in everyday life.

It is in this everyday collaboration with others that we as citizens begin to appreciate the extra-ordinary power of ordinary people acting together to achieve a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Fabulous and heartening news, so pro-active and an intelligent response from the youth of the world. Seems to me NZ is leading the way forward in response to our rapidly changing world. Thank you. x :-)

  2. thanks Carol -there really is so much happening everywhere right now, it is a very exciting time of sea change in politics and economics

  3. I know there will be many difficulties and challenges but I am determined to do it. If it does not succeed then it will be a lesson for me as well