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A How-to Book for Activists

Editor: This month we reprint a book review on making change happen: You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen, by Eric Liu. Book Review by Vicky Downs, reprinted with permission from The Voter, January 2018, a publication of the League of Women Voters–Seattle.

Where does power come from? Eric Liu tells us about migrant workers who hand-picked tomatoes and were “entrapped in debt peonage…the very definition of powerlessness.” Yet they began to meet in a local church and “resolved, together, to act.” They organized work stoppages, then larger strikes, followed by mass marches. The press noticed and after five years the workers got a raise. They did not stop, but went on to challenge supermarkets and fast food chains that bought tomatoes in bulk. Eventually Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King agreed to raise wages and reform their supply chain. In 2014 Wal-Mart followed suit.

The author asks us, if people “who started where they started could learn power and transform their lives, can’t anyone?” He suggests that if any of us believe change is needed, “ask yourself: ‘Who runs this place?’” Who has the power? Once you have those answers, ask, “How could this be different?” How do we find the power to make changes?

To do so we need to understand power itself. Liu defines it as “the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.” He warns us, “Power is a kind of language. If you don’t learn how to practice power, someone else will do it for you…and often against your interests.” Fortunately, power itself is neutral: “it is no more inherently good or evil than fire or physics. It just is.” He shows us how to understand it.

I learned that “power accumulates and justifies itself.” How could that work? We know lobbying is mostly done by and for the very rich. They and their lobbyists often justify their power by saying it is “not just deserved but natural.” They then suggest they’ve worked hard for their just desserts. Fortunately, we learn that “power is infinite” and can be conjured up, even by those who think they have none at all. This happened in Ferguson, Missouri. It began with the outrage at the police who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. Then “Progressives turned the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter into a rallying cry and the basis for reform agents.” Reformists are still working on this, but more people are demanding that the justice system treat all citizens with fairness and respect.

Liu takes it further. He says, “We’re in a period where people across the political spectrum from right to left are pushing back and recognizing that the only remedy is to convert this feeling of ‘not enough say’ into ‘demanding a say.’”

This book is a call to action for those who want change. The first thing to do is to get together with others to discuss what specifically needs to be altered or transformed. Once there is a clear topic—homelessness for example—then it is time to decide on the first step. There will be many steps thereafter, and probably a number of failures and retries, but a win comes with tenacity and flexibility.

Liu founded Citizen University, a nonprofit citizen participation organization in Seattle. Programs at the University are geared to cultivate “the values, knowledge and skills of effective citizenship.” He knows whereof he speaks, and this is his how-to book for the activists among us.

~Vicky Downs

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