Charles, me and power

Published 11:10 am Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In the mid – 1970s I was chosen by the organization for which I was working in Tampa, FL, to attend a week long seminar in Miami aimed at training community organizers.

On the first morning of the seminar, and after a rousing keynote address, the large contingent of attendees was broken up into groups of eight to 10 people and assigned to rooms where the training was to take place. The group I was assigned to gathered at the appointed time and place, eager to learn how to change the world. After the expected starting time passed without an instructor showing up, we began to talk among ourselves – introducing ourselves and eventually sharing ideas about what we believed was going to happen during the ensuing days of training.

As we talked, I remained watchful, glancing out the door, searching for the instructor. On a couple of occasions I saw a well dressed black man walk past the door. His three-piece suit was well cut and he carried a cane, as he strolled by first in one direction, then the other. I pegged him as one of the event sponsors checking up on how sessions were going and felt a little apprehensive that our instructor was late. Within minutes the group became so absorbed in our interaction that thoughts of the instructor were left behind – we were coming up with many interesting strategies for changing how business was carried out by our local governments.

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Suddenly there was a clatter and bang as that cane I had seen bounced off the floor, the wall and the trash can. Our collective jaws dropped and total silence fell on the room like a blanket of snow. We all looked to the door where that well dressed black man stood with a scowl on his face that was intimidating and yet irresistible. Then the deep voice rolled over us. “Well, good morning to you, too. I am Charles and I’ll be your instructor for the next few days. It’s good to have so many ideas about how to proceed from where you are, even if you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re headed. That’s where I come in.”

I hope I never forget the next 30 minutes of that experience. Charles began our training by explaining that what we were engaging was the changing of the power base in the communities that we represented. Paraphrased he said, “If you have no power and disagree with those who do have it, you must know how to change that. You could ask them for it. In all likelihood they would laugh at you. If they said OK and “gave” you some power, then, of course, they could just as easily take it back – so you wouldn’t have gained anything by asking.

No, young idealists, if you really want power, you must TAKE it. And in order to take it you must approach the task in an organized fashion, converting your community to the ideals that you represent.”

As Charles explained things during that first half hour, I realized that underlying his premise was one of those ideas that I laughingly had catalogued as “things my father never said”. Briefly stated, Charles presented a plan that included: a) First you have to articulate the issues being contested, b) Then you have to get the attention of the people  (as he had done with his cane), c) Next you must implement strategies for popularizing the message, as well as strategies for fending off challenges from those in power, d) Finally you need a thorough plan to follow when put in the position to create change [Or, as my father never said: “You have to have a sound bottom under the boat or it just won’t float.”] and, e) Afterwards, you must maintain contact with and listen to the people who helped you and faithfully guard against those who have been deposed.

The massive change that is attempting to manifest in the Middle East is roughly following this pattern. Events in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East are unfolding rapidly since December of 2010.

The protests by the people and the varying responses from entrenched regimes has been spectacular and frightening to watch. Organizers have the attention of the regimes, have clearly posed the issues, and their strategies have worked thus far.

The tenacity of continued protests suggests that strategies for fending off the entrenched regimes are working to varying degrees. While the world seems to be firmly on the side of the demonstrators, there are those lingering questions at the back of our minds: “Do these boats have bottoms, or are they doomed to sink?” And, “How will the dictators who are losing their power in the region react, both in the immediate scenario, and in the long term?”

Don Weathington is a retired psychotherapist and business owner who lives in Gillette Woods at a place called Birdland.