George Lakey and How We Win

Systemic/Books

A review
How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning
George Lakey
Melville House Publishing, 2018, 221 pages

George Lakey and How We Win
By Wade Lee Hudson

George Lakey understands internalized oppression. If anyone would support mutual support for self-improvement, you’d think he would. But his new book, How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning, primarily relies on top-down training. 

Though the book presents many valuable recommendations concerning tactical nonviolence, as well as a compelling overview of Lakey’s rich, long history as an activist and nonviolence trainer, it does not propose intentional, open-ended, peer-to-peer support as a way to unlearn negative conditioning and become more fully human. 

How We Win includes some material about personal issues. It affirms the need to “avoid competition” between activist groups and to “establish productive relationships” between activists. Lakey says:

Because a movement’s learning curve depends on how healthy its organizational forms and processes are, this book is not only about strategy and tactics, but also about what goes on inside the groups that wage the struggle…. Injustice distorts our working together….  To make big change the movement needs to grow and be sustainable…. [Training needs to challenge] participants to make learning breakthroughs…. We present ways of working together that don't burn people out, ways that support campaigners to be the best human beings they can be…. Campaigns...provide a container for healing and growth…. Campaigns can be designed to help people gain some experience of their own deservingness,...an expansion of their humanity.

Chapter Three briefly addresses “learned helplessness,” which is described as “the result of miseducation by schools and media that disempower by withholding the truth about our own history.” It also reports on “internal work” with angry AIDS activists, which Lakey facilitated when he conducted leadership workshops that involved “listening to their stories of pride and hurt and tenderness and risk-taking” as a way of helping them find their own power. 

The most interesting part of the book is Chapter Four, “Tackling Oppression to Free Up Our Power.” It consists of a written dialog with Daniel Hunter, who mentors and trains climate change campaigners around the globe. Hunter tells Lakey, “Each of our members and colleagues carries their own invisible stories of hurt, trauma, and isolation.” Hunter recounts a story about how during a meeting break, he spoke with a member who had been unusually quiet. That member explained that he had just received an eviction notice and said, “I just want them to know why I’m out of it.” Reflecting on that situation, Hunter comments about the importance of “how we should be treating each other,” and says, “Our group was a little microcosm with what's in the culture.” Hunter reports:

I did not want to side with my own middle-class training, which is to set aside our own “personal” problems and get the work done….  I knew from painful experiences that if we don't create space for people to show up honestly, the eventual backlash in the group would be severe…. And I was genuinely worried about losing the thread of the meeting, and spending our entire time processing….  But I was conscious about another dynamic: I didn't want to put people in a position where they were asked to reveal more than they wanted… My choice was to provide a space for what I call “open sharing.” I said, “Before we head into the next session, I want to create a space for people to share whatever is on their hearts and minds today.”  At first there was quiet. Then those two and others shared from their hearts. I encouraged people to ask of the group anything they needed. And people listened, deeply enough that when we closed the open sharing, everyone looked ready to move forward.

Our groups can't solve all the problems of oppression. But we can become places for holding each other — even healing and challenging each other. Creating a culture is one of the key gifts of campaigns.

Lakey replies, “I couldn't agree more about culture-creation —  many great social movements have developed internally a kind of counterculture that prefigures the society they hope to build.” 

He then addresses the need to examine “the class bias of anti-oppression work” and reports, “I meet activists who say they will never willingly attend an anti-oppression workshop again because they don't want to spend hours being told how bad they are. They know intuitively that's not empowerment.” 

Lakey says that during two days spent with college students learning to be anti-racist allies, he

asked them to share a moment in their lives when they had experienced a new “aha” about their own racism.  We made a long list. Only one person reported that being “called out” in a group gave him that “aha” moment…. We articulated that “calling out” was embedded with classism! Their activist culture used a tool of domination….  What is wrong with most traditional anti-oppression training [is] the focus is on managing and correcting and teaching — in other words, the hallmark function of the middle class…. The list the group had made was full of alternatives….

[The] working class...acknowledges peerness —  it's an egalitarian style. Generally, they don't correct, because that implies hierarchy:  they don't like bosses, and most don't want to be one.  Middle-class people, however, are usually trying to respect bossing and bossiness. 

Elsewhere, scattered throughout the book, are points concerning the value of impromptu “learning moments,” such as reconciling conflicts between racial groups and between “in groups” and “out groups” within an organization. Lakey acknowledges that at times all of us are prone to be oppressive while operating in one of our many identities, which requires sensitivity to “what works in reducing the level of oppressive dynamics in our groups.” Toward that end, Hunter comments, “Blame and shame are out. It’s about walking with people and building deep, meaningful relationships.” Lakey affirms “continuing to recover from the wounds where society hurt us, wherever we’ve internalized the oppression.” And Hunter closes his contribution to the dialog with Lakey by talking about the need to heal wounds, “like how middle-class society taught me to make everything into hierarchy,” which “distances me” and calls for activists to “heal from the ways oppression damages and deforms people’s innate humanity.” 

The book also affirms:

  • Building “an invincible container, strong enough to hold the shock and grief and fear that rocked out training.” 

  • Avoiding simplistic identity politics that blocks strategic thinking.

  • Providing “appropriate support and safeguards” so people can go beyond “their comfort zones” and try out new behaviors.

  • Forming small affinity groups “to make the ideal of horizontal, participatory decision-making more realistic.”

  • Nurturing “an atmosphere of positivity.”

  • Making sure “everyone is thought about,” which “means participants will think about themselves differently.”

  • Expressing gratitude, “appreciating people for what they’ve done.” 

  • Building courage.

  • Coping with “polarization in our immediate backyard.”

  • “Welcoming humility and supporting each other’s preferences and choices.”

  • “Learning from other movements as well as our own, and sharing with one another.”

These insights and the others cited above are important. But the book does not take them to their logical conclusion. It doesn’t build peer-to-peer “open sharing” into its proposed strategy as an explicit, regular feature. 

How We Win relies on training, which means to form by instruction or drill, to direct the growth, to teach (a person or animal) a particular skill or type of behavior through practice and instruction over a period of time. Training is top-down, one-way. 

The closest the book comes to affirming an explicit commitment to self-improvement is the introduction to the section titled, “Find the Balance of Joining and Differentiating,” which opens:

In addition to workshops specifically preparing for the next action, some campaigning groups include a brief skill-building session in some of their membership meetings. 

By making education and training an explicit part of what your group does, you strengthen your campaign in multiple ways.

But that formulation is ambiguous. What skills? And who selects the skills to focus on? And how does this relate to “open sharing”?

This section does later recommend mutual support:

One method is to talk honestly with a couple of comrades you trust and ask them to support you in this practice….  Meet with your buddies periodically to report your progress, share your feelings, and listen to their supportive feedback…. Even a few people doing this over time can change the culture of a group and free the members to operate on a new level.

But this proposal focuses on one specific issue — “joining and differentiating” — that has been pre-defined for the group to deal with. It does not propose open-ended mutual support, with  each member identifying their own issue, not does it propose adopting a related policy. And this kind of peer-to-peer support is never mentioned again. It’s not integrated into the book’s overall proposed strategy. 

In fact, at one point, Lakey discounts the value of all members being attuned to self-improvement and suggests instead delegating to certain members the responsibility to “focus on consciousness-raising within the group itself.” He also cites as a positive example the United Auto Workers success in building an interracial union without “a focus on attitude, on unlearning prejudice, on the psychology of individual change.” He then concludes:

In other words, if the energy now going into white people delving into their psychological depths to ferret out racism, and people of color drawing attention to micro-aggressions,   were instead focused through campaigns on changing the major policies that sustain institutional racism, it's far more likely that racism will take a major hit (emphasis added).

But it’s not either/or. Self-examination and political action are not mutually exclusive. We need not do one instead of the other. We can delve into our psychological depths without going overboard. 

Those passages contradict the affirmation of self-improvement presented elsewhere in the book. Moreover, Lakey contradicts his affirmation of working-class egalitarianism with his frequent promotion of professionalized training that emphasizes one-way, top-down impact, as reflected in passages such as:

  • You’re using stories...to build our muscles.

  • The quickest way to accelerate growth is by reinforcing positive behaviors.

  • My role was to help him grow.

  • Our job as activists is to shape people’s hearts and minds.

  • I was trying to help our group acknowledge the existence of multiple identities.

How We Win concentrates on how to use top-down training to help organize nonviolent direct action. It does not propose that activist organizations adopt policies that encourage their members to support each other in their efforts to become “be the best human beings they can be,” and it offers no suggestions for how to structure activities that enable activists to do so. The book’s five-step “Roadmap to Transformation” focuses on policy reforms in political and economic institutions, and says nothing about personal, social (daily life), and cultural transformation.

Training, top-down education, instruction, and the one-way transmission of knowledge are valuable, to a degree. But the most important learning is peer learning, and the most important support is peer support. A balance between top-down and horizontal is key. 

Activist organizations could strengthen their efforts by: 1) adopting written policies that encourage their members to support each other with their self-improvement, and; 2) set aside time for members to provide that kind of open-ended mutual support concerning issues that each member identifies as a focus for herself. 

Explicit, intentional commitments can help nurture peer support. Putting goals in writing can help deepen commitments — and help spread those values and principles to the general public.  Developing simple, easily reproduced methods like the Twelve-Step program could help spread mutual support for self-improvement

How We Win fails includes many valuable recommendations concerning direct action and personal growth. If we expand on the kernels of insight concerning egalitarianism scattered throughout the book, we can develop a strategy for systemic transformation — using evolutionary revolution to advance simultaneous personal, social, cultural, economic, environmental, and political change, each reinforcing the other, geared to the same purpose: to serve humanity, the environment, and life itself.