Transform the System: A Work in Progress

7: A Mutual Support Method

What easy-to-learn method could be widely used to provide
mutual support for self-development and political activism?

Small mutual support teams that embrace shared values and principles can nurture self-development. In Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, Tina Rosenberg reports that “from the affluent suburbs of Chicago to the impoverished shanties of rural India” mutual support teams have helped smokers stop smoking, teens fight AIDS, worshippers deepen their faith, activists overthrow dictators, addicts overcome addictions, and students learn calculus.[1]

Such teams could also help compassion-minded individuals set aside counter-productive tendencies and become more effective — and inspire politically inactive people to become more active. Those teams could serve as social greenhouses where we could develop our ability to relate as equals, create models, and strengthen our ability to help transform the world.

Small circles of trusted allies could help one another undo society’s negative conditioning. We could learn to become more compassionate, realize our potential more fully, avoid hate-filled scapegoating, stop being so mean to one another, and diminish discrimination. As we solidify those habits, we could expand them into the larger society, relying heavily on the power of example.

To confess is at the heart of every religion. It’s the path to redemption, being reborn, becoming a new person — and essential to help organizations recognize mistakes and grow. As individuals, we can of course do a lot on our own — privately within our own minds — to promote self-development. But we can also support one another in that effort. Verbalizing to others helps us better understand our thoughts and feelings. And listening to others is often a learning experience. We can accomplish more, and achieve deeper growth, by engaging in mutual support than we can by acting alone.

Many historical examples illustrate the power of small, supportive groups. The disciples who followed Jesus were a group of twelve, and Christian house churches based on the “priesthood of all believers” have been potent for centuries. Many political organizations have used affinity groups, precinct-based teams, cells, neighborhood organizations, and other constellations. Book clubs, poker games, bowling leagues, gangs, various “posses,” and other such groups all provide informal support.

The Bushmen in southern Africa, who lived in small bands, had a ritual, “insulting the meat,” that helped them maintain their egalitarian society. When a hunter returned with a large kill, he’d be greeted with light-hearted, inaccurate insults about the quality of the kill or the level of his skill. It was a way to discourage the hunter from thinking too highly of himself. Such methods to nurture humility benefited everyone.[2]

Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs have demonstrated the effectiveness of self-governing, self-perpetuating communities based on: 1) concise core principles, and; 2) a consistent, easy-to-learn format that facilitates self-improvement without extensive training. In such programs, the willingness to openly, honestly admit mistakes is key to the healing process.

The True North Groups initiated in the corporate world by Bill George developed a more open-ended approach. Rather than focus on a particular issue, such as substance abuse or Bible study, or training people on particular skills, those groups nurture deeper intimacy by means of radical openness. Each participant can discuss anything.[3]

With that kind of open-ended approach, political activists committed to compassionate, systemic transformation could gather with other activists to support one another in their self-improvement. Activists, after all, are often as addicted to activism as twelve-step members are addicted to mind-altering substances. We could encourage the development of communities whose members set aside time to support one another in an open-ended manner with: 1) their personal efforts to become better human beings, and; 2) their political efforts to help improve national public policy.

To the best of my knowledge, no such community exists. Some excellent organizations nurture both personal and political transformation. Examples include the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, Glide Memorial Church, #LoveArmy, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Network of Spiritual Progressives, and Thrive East Bay. However, it seems there’s no organization that uses an easy-to-learn method to help its members set aside time to provide open-ended mutual support for self-improvement and political action.  Once such a method is established, a wide range of other groups could use it — and join a growing, larger community.

To maximize its effectiveness, any such project would need to avoid authoritarianism of the kind reflected in Chairman Mao’s reeducation program in China in the 1960s and in social rehab programs like Synanon in the Bay Area in the 1970s, which were based on vicious, judgmental “criticism-self-criticism.” One way to prevent authoritarianism is to borrow from the Harm Reduction model, which, instead of demanding total abstinence, asks individuals to define their own substance abuse goals.[4] Another way to minimize authoritarianism is to have individuals simply report on their self-development efforts, with no “cross-talk” from others. Twelve-step programs take that approach.

In those ways, mutual support team members could help one another gradually loosen the System’s top-down conditioning and cultivate positive new habits to carry into the larger society. Bit by bit, they could liberate their inner hunter-gatherer, increase their self-knowledge, learn to relate as equals, and become more cooperative, peaceful, and playful. Undoing old habits often requires intentional effort, but with dedication and the willingness to be vulnerable, all of us who seek a more compassionate society can move down that path.

Personal transformation is rarely a matter of sudden, total, irreversible conversion. Rather, it’s a gradual, ongoing process. We often fall back into old ways of operating. Two steps forward, one step back. Perfection, permanent salvation, and total enlightenment are not possible. We can only do our best, knowing we’re good enough and can be better. Pragmatic idealism is the wisest path.

Being open, honest, and vulnerable with close friends can be difficult. It’s easy to withdraw or focus on work, play, or superficial interactions. That reluctance may be especially true with political activists who are driven to reduce suffering and injustice. It seems to them there’s not a minute to waste and self-examination is self-indulgent navel gazing. But in the long run self-criticism and mutual support can nurture self-improvement and enhance effectiveness. 

Given that perspective, what easy-to-learn method could be widely used to provide mutual support for self-development and political activism? The method proposed here is to grow a Network of Mutual Support Teams whose members:

●      endorse the same mission statement, such as the one proposed in this draft declaration;
●      commit themselves to become more compassionate individuals and more effective activists;
●      report to one another about their personal and political change efforts at least once a month;
●      meet occasionally with members from other teams in the network;
●      nurture a spirit of community within and between teams.

The monthly reports, which would be confidential, could begin with a minute or two of silence to enable members to reflect, meditate, or pray. Members would then respond to this question: “What are you feeling and thinking about your personal and political change efforts?”

It would be clear that each member defines their own goals. There would be no pressure to correct any behavior. And there might be no “cross-talk” or other interaction during those reports.

Team members would, of course, support one another informally in many other ways. Feedback and advice could be offered informally later, ideally with consent. Additional meetings could be scheduled to go into issues more deeply. But all that would be optional. The only requirement would be the brief monthly report.

Reporting regularly can help hold us accountable for our commitments. Knowing we’d be asked to report, we’d be more conscious of our commitments during the month and more likely act on them. Since each member might report for only sixty seconds once a month, why not do it?

Regardless of their political or religious perspective, different kinds of groups could join such a network. Those groups include:

●      a committee within an activist organization;
●      a book club;
●      a religious organization’s social action committee or Bible study group;
●      a work group at a socially responsible business;
●      a group whose members belong to various activist organizations or do their activism as unaffiliated individuals.

Many groups could also share a meal and socialize informally as a way for members to get to know one another more fully. Time permitting, larger meetings could ask members to report briefly on their personal growth efforts as well as their political actions during introductions. Activist organizations could adopt official policies to encourage their members to support one another with their self-development. Residents of other countries could join the network, endorse its mission statement, and form mutual support teams to advance it. Individuals who do not participate themselves might see the value for others and tell them about it.

If you have thoughts about other methods for how compassion-minded individuals and organizations might nurture mutual support, self-development, and political action — or know of others who do — please share those ideas and information. And if you want to experiment with other methods, please do so and let us know what happens.

The basic goal is simple: an easy-to-learn method that people could use to support one another in their personal and political change efforts — a method that could spread widely and quickly as did the twelve-step method.

The method presented here seems to hold great potential for achieving that goal and growing a large community of people who endorse the same mission and use the same method for pursuing that mission. My life experience with many forms of mutual support and my experiments with and conversations about this method give me confidence in its potential to help transform the System — so everyone can be all they can be.

How that network of mutual support teams, or the other projects previously mentioned, might develop is another question, to be addressed next in the Conclusion.

NEXT: Conclusion



[1] Rosenberg, Tina, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, xi-xxiv.

[2] Suzman, 179-80.

[3] George, Bill and Doug Baker, True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development.

Retrieved from

[4] "Principles of Harm Reduction," Harm Reduction Coalition. Retrieved from


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