New rules

By David Parkinson

Fog on the town.

When taking part in community organizing activities, if your envisioned community is to survive the transition to a non-fossil-fuel-based existence, it is important to keep in mind a vital distinction: is this community going to operate under the old rules or under the new rules. The old rules will not work, but the new ones might, depending on what they are.
(Dmitry Orlov, “How (not to) to Organize a Community“)

I’m not sure it makes sense to lead off with this short excerpt from Dmitry Orlov‘s latest black-humour-laden meditation on how to do community organizing more effectively; anyone who goes off and reads the whole piece will see why not. But it struck me as a topsy-turvy enough piece of writing that it got me thinking about how our efforts to sketch out the future we’d like to see are likely to be as wrong as they are right. Recognizing this and living with it should be the first step for anyone who wants to make an impact, no matter how trivial.

Orlov, always a contrary sort, proposes that the most resilient communities in the future are the ones least likely to look viable in the present — in fact, he predicts that the sketchiest and most marginal communities will carry on as though very little has changed, while those who took the most care to prepare will face the most drastic reversals of fortune. Although he has his tongue in his cheek to some extent, I see the larger points he’s making: that we are fools if we think that the future will radically break with current trends, or if we think we can create the future at will based on what we think is needed and what will work. He is also making the point that the raw materials of the resilient future might be in the places we’re least likely to look. And that’s the point that really struck home for me.

The smartest overall approach is to try as many things as possible, making sure that each project is getting the attention and energy it needs in proportion to its likelihood of creating positive change. To remember that even the best intentions can go sideways and that we need to accept the curveballs and reverses that come our way. Taking this humble approach makes those little successes and advances all the more precious.

Last week I promised to follow up by applying David Korten’s five characteristics of successful social change to “a local project which I believe has huge potential to create vast amounts of positive energy in the region while connecting our efforts to others elsewhere.” This project is our community radio station, CJMP FM, which has a new board and has started creating working groups to get the station back on the air broadcasting music and spoken-word programming of local interest. I’m already deeply involved, because I have long been a supporter of community radio. I think it has huge potential for increasing and improving communication and connections in the region.

Korten’s questions sound a little bombastic for a low-power FM radio station in an obscure corner of BC, so I’m going to answer them from a small and local perspective rather than from the perspective of a global movement, which is where Korten is coming from. And his questions are posed as though we have already built the project in question; CJMP is tottering along right now, but with many hopeful signs and many new people getting involved. So I’ll answer these questions in the future tense instead of the present — as though we were a little further along.

Does CJMP FM help discredit a false cultural story fabricated to legitimize relationships of domination and exploitation and to replace it with a true story describing unrealized possibilities for growing the real wealth of healthy communities?

There are so many little efforts percolating away in our region, many of which are coalescing around the Transition Town concept.  Communication among these projects and the people involved in them is still fragmentary and sporadic at best. If we’re going to work better together to connect these various efforts and cooperate amongst ourselves, it will be hugely helpful to have a focal point for communicating and sharing information. Radio has the advantage of being very direct and immediate: it does not put up the barrier of written language, so anyone with something to say can get their thoughts out. And the message is heard as it is spoken. All of our attempts to build the pieces of a local economy not based on desperate resource extraction and other worn-out ideas need an ongoing conversation. We’re lucky to have a community radio license, with the explicit mandate to “provide a local programming service that differs in style and substance from that provided by commercial stations and the CBC.” Everything that is happening in our region is appropriate for our airwaves. No bottlenecks and phony barriers. Let the community talk amongst themselves and stand back.

Is CJMP FM connecting others of the movement’s millions of leaders who didn’t previously know one another, helping them find common cause and build relationships of mutual trust that allow them to speak honestly from their hearts and to know that they can call on one another for support when needed?

Well, we won’t have millions of leaders anytime soon. How about hundreds? Community radio has an incredible power to bring people together, to expose them to the hidden treasure in their own backyard: the people, places, and things that they never knew about. This is what CJMP FM can be for the region: a place where anyone is welcome to say or play whatever is on their mind; to reach out and find friends, allies, and adversaries; to host the never-ending conversation of who we are and where we’re heading. Commercial media are fine for some things, but the presence of an explicitly non-commercial alternative is a great thing for everyone. It makes some people nervous, and that can’t be bad.

Is CJMP FM creating and expanding liberated social spaces in which people experience the freedom and support to experiment with living the creative, cooperative, self-organizing relationships of the new story they seek to bring into the larger culture?

In a word: hell yeah. I can easily imagine the numbers of talented and imaginative people all around here who just need some basic training in order to seize their rightful chunk of the airwaves and get going. When the community owns a slice of FM bandwidth there is simply no reason not to put the welcome mat out and get as much input and support as possible. As far as I can see, this region has never had genuinely open media, meaning that those who care get to participate and those who participate get to make the decisions. This will be a wonderful experiment in seeing how much we can unleash the potential of all corners of the region and let the conversation roll on by itself.

Everyone has something worth saying and hearing. Commercially-driven media simply cannot let all these voices through and continue to satisfy the advertisers who pay the bills. Hence the need for the alternative. It’s just that simple, and we can celebrate that the Canadian government continues to support this way of thinking.

Is CJMP FM providing a public demonstration of the possibilities of a real-wealth economy?

Let us sincerely hope so. Funding is always a challenge for community radio, even when the economy is doing well. Now that we appear to be heading into a prolonged downturn, we need new models for continuing to make change happen when the grants and funders are hurting and as the government withdraws money from social spending. This challenge faces many local organizations and projects many of which have been out there for much longer than this baby radio station. So how do we do it? This is all up in the air right now, but it seems to me inconceivable that CJMP will survive without a large number of enthusiastic listener-members who are willing to put their money down to support something that gives them what they cannot get anywhere else: immediate, real, representative news and opinions about what’s happening around us. We cannot compete with commercial media, especially radio stations, which sell listeners to advertisers and need to create a homogenized sound that will attract the greatest number with the least passion. We are in the position to transmit the real sound of the community, in real time. That has to be worth something to people.

Is CJMP FM mobilizing support for a rule change that will shift the balance of power from the people and institutions of the Wall Street phantom-wealth economy to the people and institutions of living-wealth Main Street economies?

We’ll see how much CJMP FM worries about the structures and institutions that create the imbalances and pathologies that are dragging our social systems down. It will be enough to create a marketplace of ideas and to get people connecting around the authentic life of the region. We need to build all the alternatives that we need, in ways that meet our local needs; and in order to do that, we just need to communicate freely and openly without the outright censorship or self-censorship that comes from having heavy-handed advertisers or funders hanging over us all the time. Some people believe that people want more honesty and genuine connection; others fear it. For myself, any future that I care to live in is full of different voices, outlandish opinions, wild sounds, and the unending chatter of a community finding itself and declaring its own needs and desires. No authority can impose these things on us. And somehow out of all this cacophony we will build something that people can’t do without — because it’s irreplaceable.


Post facto

October 2010
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