The trip to London from which I’ve just returned was the first time I had visited that country since 1987, twenty years. I’d seen some of my English friends at international meetings or on visits to the U.S., but until this month, we hadn’t sat together for long, convivial chats, taking stock.
I learned a great many things, including some lessons I’ve had to learn again and again. This post is about the simplest and most far-reaching lesson: individuals can make a huge difference.
Residents of the British Isles have access to an astoundingly powerful illustration of this truth. In early May, two men shook hands. One was Member of Parliament and religious leader Ian Paisley, long-standing symbol of belligerent Protestant commitment to maintaining Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, with all that implied about indifference or opposition to Catholic civil rights in the region. The other was Martin McGuinness, also an MP, and a former member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and inmate of British prisons; at one time forbidden under the “Prevention of Terrorism Act” from entering Britain, he later became a chief negotiator for Sinn Féin.
It was the second in a series of epochal handshakes: a couple of weeks earlier in Dublin, Paisley had shaken hands with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (Ireland’s prime minister), signaling the acceptance of peace and power-sharing in Northern Ireland. The Paisley-McGuinness handshake followed their taking the oath of office as First Minister and Deputy First Minister—in effect co-leaders—of government in Northern Ireland.
The handshake didn’t usher in heaven on earth. It simply opened a path for Northern Ireland to do the hard work that had so long been postponed by The Troubles: building infrastructure, educating and employing people, creating livable communities. Still, the earth moved: imagine Jerry Fallwell and Jesse Jackson occupying the same violently contested territory and one day deciding to kiss and make up, and you begin to get a sense of the Twilight Zone character of this handshake moment. Some headlines called it “the miracle of Belfast.” This BBC piece gives some of the flavor.
None of my friends could have predicted it, they told me. When I asked for an explanation, one politically astute friend spoke of McGuinness’s and Paisley’s personal characteristics, their attachment to family, their involvement in religion, their humor, suggesting personalities as much as party policies had determined precisely when each man’s hand could be extended. I see his point.
In every sphere, individuals have surprising power to influence the course of events. In the past twenty years, my friends in the U.K. who had been on-the-ground community arts workers—running participatory arts projects with groups of kids or elders, for instance—had come to work on another level. Some now work in the broadcast media or create multimedia installations, run organizations or provide advice to development agencies. What they all told me was that the fairly coherent community arts movement of the 80s—which found a galvanizing common enemy in Margaret Thatcher’s policies, uniting to support the long miners’ strike, oppose the poll tax or fight the march of government-assisted gentrification—was no more. There wasn’t anyone who wanted it enough to take on the hard work of pulling people together.
Instead, they told me, many of the methods and approaches of community cultural development had been adopted by educational and cultural institutions. People all over the country do participatory photography projects with kids or create theater with refugees, for example. But there is no forum to share, examine and discuss experience, and because of that, it is common to run into the methods and techniques being employed without any sense of the underlying reasons for doing so. Kids are assisted to create photographic self-portraits because it will be fun and they will learn about photography; that it can also help them craft their own sense of identity within the group and discover their own values may be forgotten unless the individual practitioner brings that awareness out in the work.
My friends who were veterans of 70s and 80s British cultural activism were disappointed that the movement’s history seems to have been erased, that no one seems to know about the pioneering work their cohort and predecessors did. Looking around the table, they acknowledged that none of them had made it a priority to write that history down.
As I traveled the last couple of weeks, I met younger people who were studying the field from an academic perspective. Their accounts of community cultural development history and challenges were footnoted with quotations from American authors who’d observed from afar, people I’d never seen at meetings, people who’d never been directly involved in grassroots work, but who published in academically recognized journals. Each time they are quoted, their authority is affirmed. As time passes, the somewhat distorted account crafted from their writings will become the definitive story, and people will draw from that story as they move forward. In the realm of ideas, seemingly minor individual acts add up to something that matters, at least to me.
I hope New Creative Community and some of my other writings will help to balance these distortions. I hope others will take the time to record their own experiences and observations for posterity. Whether my hopes will be fulfilled is a question of individual choice, though, not historical imperative.
I seldom follow the news when I’m on the road. (I generally find it’s still there, pretty much the same, when I get home.) One of the headlines I returned to this week was from Monday’s New York Times. Colonel Stephen Abraham, a lawyer and Army Reserve officer, was posted to Guantanamo in 2004. What he saw there so horrified him, he became the first insider “whistleblower” to speak out from a position of enough establishment credibility for Congress and the courts to take notice. His reasons seem personal, as the Times tells it:
“A political conservative who says he cried when Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency, he says he has remained a reservist throughout his adult life to repay the country for the opportunities it offered his family. His father is a Holocaust survivor who emigrated after the Second World War.
“’It is my duty,’ Colonel Abraham said of his decision to come forward.”
What if the message we can derive from so many arenas of public and private life is true? What if the actions of a single individual can trigger profound change, in small ways and large? That prospect makes me want to reexamine my life. What handshake am I withholding? What story do I need to tell? Where can I make a difference by standing up and speaking out?
One thing I like about traveling is what it teaches you about yourself. More lessons from the road next week.