Last nite, Jon Stewart, on the Daily Show, dubbed the 2010 mid-term election results to be the “Maybe We Can’t” voters’ response and a referendum against Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign so popular a mere two years ago. As my loveys know, I have been a busy mama this campaign season volunteering in a big way for a local school board candidate. My sassy-ass wit and well-researched snark afforded me the really great opportunity to be a speech/campaign writer. It’s been a great ride and the votes are still being tallied but alas, it looks like my candidate is not likely to win. As if working on this campaign was not enough to keep me out of trouble, I started up a brand new PTA with all the workings of non-profit tax status and organizational paperwork to be done while managing my household and the the special needs of my children. Whew! Now that I type it all out that does seem busy!
And while I was polling, writing and making calls for my candidate, filing paperwork, and waiting for special education meetings for my kids, avoiding folding the laundry, I was also reading this little book that had the terrible misfortune to be published now, rather than the timely two years’ ago time frame. The book, entitled Yes You Can!: Your Guide to Becoming An Activist by Jane Drake and Ann Love seems so ill-timed this week. As I watch the news crews fall all over themselves to gaffaw and slobber all over the Republican Wave and Tea Party Mandate results of the 2010 election I’m kinda bummed that the book title seems quaint and kinda tragic today.
Still, the book is largely a good tome on becoming a young activist. It seems taken from the dated and widely read (in activist circles, anyway) text, Rules for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky in 1971. Sisters, Drake & Love, attempt to update and break up the the steps toward becoming an activist by inserting anecdotes presumably associated with each one. Mostly this idea works, but the tactic does strike this post-modern mama as smacking a little too much of an identity politics stunt that seems dated in itself. Each anecdote is based on a personal story of an activist that is likely to be unfamiliar to a young reader and therefore slightly disjointed from the associated step and it’s explanation.
So for each step there is a STORIES section, a STRATEGIES section, a SKILLS section, and a TIMELINE: Milestones and Setbacks section. This seems like a thoughtful and creative way to attempt to make the material accessible for a young reader. However, more often than not, I was left wondering how the story, timeline and anecdote connected to the step being described. The step or focus of the chapter seemed to get lost in the extraneous information that was supposed to bolster the point. For instance: in the Step Five: Baby Steps, Giant Leaps chapter, there is an introductory anecdote about Janie and her Poppa dying of lung cancer as impacting the personal battle for getting Janie’s parents to quit smoking. Then there is the Story of Smoking vs. Nonsmoking: a Seesaw Battle of Rights followed up by the Strategies section of Gandhi: Non-Violent Change – One Step At a Time and the Skills section with The Elements of a Good Poster/Posting only to be followed up with the Timeline Milestones & Setbacks section of Tobacco and Non-Smoker’s Rights. What?!
I am a long time activist and student of activist literature as well as political theory and philosophy hobbyist. I personally can kinda draw the connections between Gandhi’s brand of activism and the baby steps that Janie might have had to take in order to make the giant leap to a smoke-free household. I can appreciate that information because I have an educated background that helps me make those connections. But a young reader, with little knowledge of Gandhi or the history of the smoke-free public spaces movement will have very little context for making the connections between Gandhi’s non-violence actions and the smoke-free successes. Complicating the Step Five chapter even further is the addition of the Skills section about making a poster or writing a relevant facebook post. Again, I can make the connection between Gandhi’s non-violent efforts and a good communiqué because I have the expertise to do so, but I do not think a young reader is able to make this connection. Finally, in getting back to the timeline of Tobacco Users vs. Non-Smokers Rights is to lose all sense of what the original intent of Step Five is all about.
I want to be clear though; the information in this handbook is rock solid. I kept thinking to myself that the step-by-step guide and skills could be photocopied for easy dissemination amongst young activists as a really handy pamphlet. Separately, the timelines with related anecdotes make a really interesting brief history of social change activism for young readers. I am just not so sure that the organization of the information together is as easy to connect with as the authors intended.
This was a lofty vision to be sure. Each chapter is so chop full of information that I often felt overwhelmed in reading despite none of the material or ideas as being new to me. I kept worrying over a young reader trying to make sense of the information without the benefit of my knowledge-base. When I asked my 16 year old son to look over the text, he confirmed my worst fears. I kinda wondered if maybe this book would benefit from a slight re-organization with some graphics and points of interest to break up the density of the text. Maybe that would help “air out” some of the big ideas and separate the supportive anecdotes from the important steps’ descriptions.
Despite my concerns, I do really like this book and feel that with some support in the reading (maybe an activist seminar or class) that a young person could really learn a lot from this material and take away a new process for successful social change strategizing. And even though Jon Stewart laughingly says, “maybe we can’t” I say I hope that our kids will. I want a world filled with kids who want better and work for a positive way of living. With a book like this available, maybe they just might.