Lessons for the Future: New Alliances

Presentation to Embedding Equality
in Policy and Media Work

Dr Katherine Zappone – October 2009

I have been invited to offer a few reflections on ‘lessons for the future’ with regard to new alliances for policy and media work. Or, in other words, to attempt to answer the question: what kinds of alliances do we need to influence national policy and to communicate messages so that together we can bring about substantive change, effective change, for equality across the grounds, especially in light of the enormous challenges being thrown up by changes in the social and economic landscape at international and national level? To answer this big question, even provisionally, I will draw on three resources: my own experience and praxis of working with so many of you and engaging with the issues and the people that you represent, my observations of new alliances that are being formed in the current climate, and the beliefs that influenced the establishment of the new centre that Ann Louise Gilligan and I have established, namely: (a) an ethical vision that community is at the heart of public and civic life and that (b) sustainable progressive change is rooted in vibrant participatory democracy where citizens and residents take responsibility for their communities and constructively engage with those who govern.

I want to outline five types of alliances (or joining) that I think can support our capacities to effect substantive change, that is, change that will reduce inequity, poverty, discrimination and prejudice. And oh what a world that would be!

1. Alliance of music, words and images in our media work

To begin, I want to say a few words about an alliance or a joining of music with words and images in our media work to influence change. This is also to refer to the extraordinary opportunities there are within the world of digital and new media. Many of you may have already seen a ‘short’ film, produced by CoCo Television for MarriagEquality, called ‘Sinead’s Hand.’ This afternoon, I want to emphasise especially the power of music, in our communications. So, take a listen to the sounds, rhythm and words that accompany the film:

Ocean and Rock’ words and music by Lisa Hannigan

These sounds, rhythym and words communicate – like nothing else – the evocative feel of new and forever love between two individuals, and it accompanies a short film, with the message that every person ought to be free to marry the person they choose to love, that those within a minority group (LGBT people) shouldn’t have to ask permission from those within a majority group (straight people) to marry the person of their choosing. Short film, music that touches the heartcore, words that communicate the message. An alliance or joining of sound, rhythym, words and images to make a lasting impact, and then, the distribution of this ‘short’ through a ‘viral campaign’ throughout the virtual world. Some of you may be familiar with the work of Malcom Gladwell, especially his bestseller, ‘The Tipping Point’ where he outlines the theory and communication practices of how ‘little things can make a big difference’ and bring society to a ‘tipping point’ where all of a sudden, it seems, attitudes and behaviours of a whole society shift. He suggests that the best way to understand the emergenge of such change that marks everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. He says that ideas and products and messages and behaviours can spread just like viruses do, and he invites us to develop innovative practices that spread messages by initiating contagious behaviour. MarriagEquality reports that this short has already been viewed by 230,000 people - a little thing that hopefully will contribute to making a big difference. What I want to emphasise now, too, is the significance of an alliance between what can touch the heart and the mind simultaneously.

2. Alliance of principles/ethics with analysis and activism

As change-makers it is crucial that we conduct rigorous and ongoing socio-economic analysis to get a picture of how the implementation of government policy and consequent funding lines actually impact the lives of those within our society whose rights are violated or whose choices for human flourishing are hampered through inequality and poverty. This analysis is also a pre-requisite to imagine the recommendations for policy change and the messages contained within activism. What I have found, though, time and again is that both our analytic critique of what is and our creative imaginings of what might be, hold more potential for genuine change if they are guided by a clearly articulated set of principles or sense of ethics. When I use the word ‘ethics’ I am not referring to that which exists within the realm of ‘religion’, I am referring instead to the ideas and concepts that flow within contemporary philosophic and political thought, the best of which is grounded in praxis – or, reflective activism – for civic change for the good of the common. 

When it comes to ‘embedding equality’ – which in itself is a wonderful metaphor – it provides us with all sorts of images and avenues for real change that people can feel and see in their daily lives – I think this alliance or joining with ethics means at least two things:

(1) that we must be constantly vigilant regarding the meaning and sufficiency of the principles that guide our work. For example, ‘equality’ in itself is an ethical principle and we’ve worked hard to understand that sometimes it can mean same treatment, same rights, same protections while at other times it can mean different treatment, different protections and same rights. But is ‘equality’ in itself sufficient to ensure the adequacy of our understanding, to inspire and motivate the perserverance and shape of our activism? I tend to think not, and more recently, I have been reading and thinking a lot about ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ (as it is written about in constitutional or legislative documents). One of the great contemporary philsophers (and economists) writing about this ethical principle is Amartya Sen – particularly his work entitled ‘Development as Freedom’. In this work Sen re-interprets the powerful ideal of freedom by arguig that a society characterised as ‘equal’ must provide people with the social and economic freedoms ‘to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value’. In other words, a society filled with substantive equality for all means that each one of us are free to choose the lives we wish to live. And so both principles of ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ now feature, now guide, now inspire and motivate much of my work in legislative and policy change. 

(2) Secondly this alliance between ethics, analysis and activism also supports a resistance, I think, to the hegemony (massive dominance) of the ‘business model’ to all that we do. Yes I am as much for strategy and tactics and ‘market analysis’ and ‘logic models’ and outcomes and evidence-based policies as the next person. However, this framework and its tools should not become so dominant that it swallows up or disintegrates the ethical vision, the urgency for social justice, that not only drives but shapes how we do our work. Should our politics become so pragmatic or ‘market-led’ that we lose sight of what will support the good of the whole, inclusive of the small local group as well as the strong national organisations? As we get soundings, for example, of how the whole local and community development sector may be re-organised according to visions of efficiency and effectiveness, how will we respond from our positions of relative strength?

3. New alliances between citizens and residents

The third alliance for supporting our capacities to effect lasting change that I want to propose is new ways to work together as citizens. I do not mean to exclude those who are not citizens by phrasing it this way, in fact I think their participation is significant. But what I want to suggest instead is that we think about new ways to form alliances within the overall canopy of perceiving each other as citizens, as those who have a constitutional and civic responsibility for the shape of our social and economic systems – regardless of whether we come from the political, public, private or community/NGO sector. So often in the past I have engaged in equality work with a, shall we say somewhat rigid sense of myself as an activist, or as a NGO sector policy analyst or community educator or a human rights advocate. And, when clothed in these self-perceptions, I have often been ready to gather my arms for the fight with or intensive lobbying of the politicians or the civil servants (of course, the more senior the better) or the wealthy business women or men. I prepare myself for the contest, or for the rallying of the troops! Again, it’s not that I am saying there is no place for this any longer. Contests, confrontation, and dissent of course have a crucially important place within our work. Instead, what I want to suggest is that – given the exceptional times we are living in and the huge challenges we face – it is time also to find new ways of working together with a sense of shared identity as citizens, even though we may be positioned differently. It is time for us to seek out ways of working with civil servants and politicians and residents of communities or those whose interests we represent, so that we can educate and learn from each other – given where we stand – and then to use that new knoweldge which has been constructed together in developing shared strategies or back within our own inpidual sectors. 

Let me give a recent example of this from within my own work – as I am sure you may have examples as well to share. Ten days ago, an event was held within South Dublin County, as a joint initiative between our centre, a community education organisation, An Cosán, and South Dublin County Council. Together, we invited citizens and residents of Tallaght to come to what we called a ‘Town Hall Talk’, held within the space of the Public Library of Tallaght. It is referred to, by South Dublin County Council, as one of their newly designed ‘Spaces for Change.’ The intention was to hold an event where we could gather together within the context of local government, and hear from expert speakers to educate and inform us about one of the most critical national issues of this time, namely, NAMA. The Town Hall Talk was opened by the mayor, several of the county councillors were present, so too some of our national political representatives and civil servants of South Dublin County, and over a hundred residents, all sitting beside each other as we listened to Professor John FitzGerald of the ESRI and Professor Brian Lucey, of TCD Business School offer their different and differing perspectives on NAMA. What happened next was not a debate per se, rather we invited those gathered to reflect on what the men had presented through conversing with the people beside them, and then to formulate questions for our speakers. Councillors, TD’s, community activists, mothers and fathers, civil servants, business women and men held mini-dialogues with each other and then formulated observations or questions. These were answered in the spirit of a group of concerned citizens together exploring the complexities of this issue, and with the hope that everyone present would bring the insights generated in our togetherness back to conversations and deliberations within community, family, local and national policy and legislative circles. There was exceptional engagement that night and I am certain that no one walked away without having learned something new, thus in a stronger position to contribute to the national resolution of how to reform an economy without disassembling a society.

4. New Alliances between different organisations, across sectors and ‘grounds’

This is also a time, I believe, to form new alliances between different organisations, across sectors and ‘grounds.’ Actually, we are witnessing much of this activity going on right now, (and some of you have referred to this in earlier presentations on the day). Groups, organisations and sectors are organising ‘Communities against the Cuts’, ‘Women against the Cuts’, the ‘evolving role of the Third Sector’, the Equality and Human Rights Alliance, ‘March for Marriage’ - all brilliant and innovative examples of mobilising the masses for massive change. Numbers do make a difference, let us make no mistake about that. And let us not understimate the power of ‘slow change’ – namely, how people can be inspired and motivated through the first taste of activism and ongoing critical education – to spread the word within the circles of family, community and local settings. In fact, I believe we need more ‘slow change’ and we must not sacrifice it at the expense of constructing sharp, powerful messaging. Yes, we need to think in terms of ‘messages’ as we have learned from the communication experts, but I believe that the ‘messages’ will stick better and have greater staying power, if in fact more and more people enter the life-long process of critical learning, thereby building a significantly more empowered citizenry, people who can speak for themselves to compliment the ‘speaking for others’ that often political, public and NGO leaders must also do. Embedding equality and freedom in a sustainable way will be more likely to happen if our policy recommendations are consistently rooted in reflective viewpoints from the ground and our messages are received by people ready and ripe for change. So when we mobilize our new alliances, are we also finding new ways to compliment this work with empowering learning opportunities – within the virtual or physical world?

5. The power of connecting analysis, activism and soul

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the Equality legislation in Ireland – as we remember the people, the policies, the messages and the extraordinary alliances that were formed in so many ways that enabled the ushering in of such enlighted legislation – I think it is a fortuitous time to review how we nurture and sustain ourselves as leaders, as the ones who often stand at the forefront even as we find new ways to touch the coalface. 

What do you do to sustain your activism and analysis? What investment do you make in your greatest resource – your very Self? How do you keep fire in your belly? As a wise friend of mine once observed, the only people who tend to ‘burn out’ are those who once ‘burned’. Do you want to ‘embed equality’? Do you want to reach for freedom? Do you want to wake up each morning – or even, most mornings – and feel ready to begin, again? 

I say to you, if that’s what you want, it is essential that you ‘take time for soul’. I’m not going to give you a definition for what that means, I’m simply going to ask you to find out what it means in your own life, if you are not doing much of it now. ‘Take time for your soul’. For me it means, being with the one I love as much as I can, having dinner parties with friends, taking regular breaks, reading poetry regularly, and taking regular and on-going times of quiet, times of silence, to be mindful of who I am, whom I am connected to, and how to let go of the things that don’t really matter. Let me leave you then, with a short blessing or wish, if you will, that I often end my quiet time with – as I image a family member or friend or colleague. This afternoon, I wish it for you: May you feel safe and protected. May you be free from inner and outer harm. May you be healthy to the extent that you are able. May you be whole. May you experience ease and a deep sense of well-being.