Alistair Rooms, Community Organiser, Citizens UK
In organising theory, the world as it is and the world as it should be are said to be in tension together. I came across this idea in community organising training but have recently been studying Theology and have come across some deeper understandings of the tension between world as it is (waii) and the world as it should be (waisb). Some of these ideas described so beautifully, and the wisdom can be applied to community organising that I just wanted to share them. I’ll outline a few thinkers’ ideas and then talk about how this can work in practice for a Catholic boys school I work with in East London. It may be helpful to think about how this tension plays out for you, or for your organisation…
The organising method states that we live with the reality of the world as it is, racism, homophobia, poverty, war, while many of us in reality want to build a future world as it could be one of radical inclusivity, peace, justice etc. Often people’s understanding of the world as it is, are stark and pessimistic, of course there are amazing things in the world that we live in e.g. Cake. Focusing on reality could be seen as the ‘realist’ end of the spectrum. On the flip side, the idealist and generally people’s hopes for the future ‘inclusivity, peace and justice’ often feel detached from reality, and campaigns can have aims that are impossible to achieve anytime soon. The argument made in organising is that without power the reality of how things get done in the world as it is, we cannot move from the world as it is, to the world as it should be. Good organising work is about balancing realistic perspectives and idealistic ones.
So how have other people talked about the tension between the world as it is, or the world as it could be?
James Stockdale, a former vice-presidential candidate in the USA, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam described who made it out of the prisoner of war camp saying,
Interviewer: “Who didn’t make it out?”
James: “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”
Interviewer: “The optimists? I don’t understand,”
James: “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’
And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
He states, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality”.
He balances the hope that things will get better while facing the realities of what they faced in the prisoner of war camp. The difference between a realistic hope and blind optimism meant life and death for the other prisoners..
Jurgen Moltmann, a German theologian who was a prisoner of war in the UK, describes the tension between the possible future and the current moment as, “present and future, experience and hope, stand in contradiction to each other… with the result that man is not brought into harmony and agreement with the current situation, but is drawn into the conflict between hope and experience.”
He writes: “Hope alone is to be called realistic, because it alone takes seriously the possibilities to which all reality is fraught.… Thus hopes and anticipations of the future are not a transfiguring glow superimposed upon a darkened existence, but are realistic ways of perceiving the scope of our real possibilities.”
When I first read these quotes, I had to read them again and again just to take them in. They articulated something I had been feeling about organising, that effective organising holds the duality of an ideal future together with the realism of the present. To hold hope in a world of hard realities, grounds hope in the realism of the present, it means hope becomes a tool that can be used.
Balancing Realism and Idealism:
So in for these prisoners of war, who faced stark realities it was important to get the balance between idealism and realism right. This is also true in organising, too much idealism in organising and we might start campaigns to end all wars, led by two community leaders that have no realistic chance of winning. In the words of Malcolm X – “In order to be an organiser of anything you must analyse cold hard facts.”
If we have too much realism, campaigns can be so stuck in the current reality that they can’t imagine anything changing for the better. Campaigns need to have ‘realistic hope’.
Campaigns to raise awareness ironically have the worst of both worlds, too much idealism and too much realism. Their theory of achieving any change is based on an idealistic notion that when people find out new information they immediately change their behaviour, this might happen on occasion, but can we afford to rely on it? They also have a pessimistic realistic view of what is possible, that the best ordinary people can achieve is to get a message out into the world. Campaigns to raise awareness could do with a bit more ‘realistic hope’ and aim to change actual realities. For those involved in community organising, people often have too much at stake to simply run raising awareness campaigns.
Martin Luther King explains the tension between reality and future in one of his sermons,
“The idealists are not usually realistic and the realistic are not usually idealists. The militant are not generally passive, nor the passive to be militant. Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony. The philosopher Hegel said that truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.”
This balance between the idealistic and the realistic is what fueled so much of his organising work in the civil rights movement. He discusses the creative space between the reality of the world and the potential for a better future he wanted to build, let’s call this realistic hope. It’s what is needed to build effective organising campaigns.
Realistic Hope in practice:
Sometimes in organising people are asked to reflect upon the current reality vs the hoped-for future because this can lead us to act. Other times, moments come along that force us to reflect. Pope Francis in the book ‘Let us Dream’ describes the Covid-19 pandemic as a ‘threshold moment’ and writes a proposed plan for how the world can move forwards . He describes a ‘threshold moment’ as a moment of crisis change can stem from. We saw this in public life in the UK, with immediate policy discussions about, what do we want to come out of the crisis? Big policy decisions and ideas from the fringes like a universal basic income were seriously discussed by decision makers at the highest level.
In my history lessons at school, I learned that the creation of the ‘New Jerusalem’ of the welfare state, the National Health Service and huge social housing projects came out of the ‘threshold moment’ of WW2 as people imagined what possible reality they could build out of a stark and brutal time in the country’s history.
So, what does the creative tension of realistic hope, balancing idealism and realism and ‘threshold moments’ mean for community organising and organisations?
Well, here’s how it applies in one school in East London. St Bonaventure’s is a secondary school and sixth-form, situated in the Forest Gate neighbourhood of East London. The school was founded by a Franciscan Order in 1829 who sought to set up a school in the area for students of faith to better themselves through education. The school went on to support young men to get junior jobs in the financial district of ‘The City’ supporting them to take on roles beyond the local Dockyards. Like many religious organisations the Franciscans were founded to balance idealism and reality. They took a vow of poverty to experience the realities other people face but went with the ideal of bringing education to people who hadn’t necessarily accessed it before. It’s worth stating, that even today over half the children who live in Newham are judged to be living in poverty .
Maybe they are a special case, but many civic organisations are founded with a realistic hope for a better world? Is yours? If so, what is the founding story?
For St Bonaventure’s ‘realistic hope’ is embedded through their founding story, school song the work they do. Their school song’s ends with the lyrics, “With courage strong and true, we step into the fight, we listen, care and get involved, in the world our mark to make…So let us live to change the world.”
The school also experiences ‘threshold moments’. The school has lost two students to knife crime in the past few years with good students being attacked for simple online interactions and a tragic loss of life shaking their community. These threshold moments where the reality of the vision and ambition that drives the work they do educating children” is stark against their students being killed by the reality of knife crime. It is in these moments where the community come forward and wants to act, with an outpouring of people who want to act.
One of the strengths of the school is the fact they don’t just want to act in these threshold moments, but they are committed through their organising campaigns to organise for a better world. They are involved in organising work that balances the fact, they are a school who face the reality of knife crime, while being unable to totally end it entirely, they are building strategic campaigns to support students to make their and the lives of their peers safer. They’ve run successful campaigns for a locally run public health approach to youth violence, for better transport home for students and for a living wage for workers.
Good organising campaigns, have realistic hope. They balance reality and a healthy dose of practical idealism with clear implementable actions. Campaigns need to get comfortable in this uncomfortable space if they want to be successful.
Anger at Reality + Realistic Hope + A Plan= Action.
The sentiment around a realistic hope is described by one of my favourite writers, Rebecca Solnit, one of the 21st Century’s Social Change theorists she writes, “To hope is dangerous and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say this because hope is not like a lottery ticket that you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say it because hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out of the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed.”