In May of 1983, Canadian MP Eugene Whelan was late to dinner. The dinner was actually at his own house where he and his wife, Liz, were to host Aleksandr Yakovlev, the Soviet ambassador to Canada, whom Whelan had bonded with over their mutual love of agriculture. The other guest of honor was none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, then Secretary of Agricultural for the USSR.
While they waited for Whelan to arrive, Yakovelev and Gorbachev opted to go for a walk among the corn and soybeans growing outside the Whelans’ home. As they walked, they noted how much more productive Canadian farming was compared to the Soviet methods. The more they discussed this, the more both Yakovelev and Gorbachev admitted to one another that things needed to change back home. Though neither knew it at the time, that conversation was the beginning of Perestroika, the wave of change that swept through the Soviet Communism Party in the 1980s.
I was reminded of this last week as I finished lunch with a friend. We had spent a Sunday afternoon discussing politics and the problems mounting up in the world. As we parted ways, my friend remarked how, though he had enjoyed our conversation, he would continue to really only focus on changing himself and the world directly around him; the issues we’d discussed were far too macro for either of us to have any sort effect on them.
Yet that’s exactly what Gorbachev and Yakovelev were able to do because of their discussion in 1983. Obviously my friend and I aren’t high level government officials, but the fabric of our conversation was woven with the same thread: there are things wrong with the world and we should actively seek solutions to fix them.
Conversations such as this happen every day. At dinner tables and on park benches. Over chess matches and after soccer games. In Sunday school classes and before PTA meetings. As we start to feel the weight of the world being lowered onto our shoulders, I have found myself drawn into these discussions with people of my generation who have a variety of political opinions.
And more often than not, though the conversations start with complaining, the more we talk the more we uncover common ground. The guy on the left admits his intense dissatisfaction with Obama and the woman on the right recognizes the positive impact of many government regulations. We begin to see that we have very similar complaints and as we discover this common ground, people seem to become more amenable to common solutions.
Finding that common ground isn’t always easy. We don’t always recognize the validity of others’ opinions and positions. Sometimes, we don’t even really hear each other at all. Productive conversations take patience, respect, and openness – things that are hard to come by sometimes.
That means that productive conversations take time. It takes time to build trust and gain perspective. That also means that whenever the opportunity presents itself, we should be talking about things that we think should change. The more we voice our opinions, the more we realize that others share our same sentiments or at least respect our willingness to articulate how we feel.
The obvious issue though is that many of us don’t think we have the time. However, in his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky argues that, for the last several decades, people have slowly been given more time due to changing working conditions and they are starting to use their free time more constructively. The space in which we find time to express ourselves can be filled with endless television watching, but perhaps a better use would be using it to creating things, which Shirky argues is the direction in which we’re heading. Look at the rise of home brewing, Pinterest projects, home vegetable gardens, or even YouTube singers. Each of these illustrate that we have the desire and time to create something, so when it comes to changing the world, why not the take the ideals so well contained in our words and put them into the actions of our hands?
Conversations alone don’t change the world. Actions do. Conversations are where actions begin, but they need to turn into more than raising awareness through status updates and hashtags. Sure, those are good places to start, but as Shonda Rhimes, creator and head writer of the TV show Scandal, told Dartmouth graduates on Sunday: “A hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show.”
We have seen it work before through the examples of Martin Luther, Mahatmas Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others. Sometimes such titans of history make us shrink in fear that we don’t have the kind of character to beat back relentless opposition, but they were all just people too. People who had doubts, who cried out to God in fear, who wondered if anything around them could actually change.
And sometimes they’re just your neighbors. My neighborhood in Atlanta was once the site of a proposed highway that would connect downtown to an outlying suburb. But the people who actually lived along the suggested route were adamantly opposed to it. They fought against it by filing lawsuits, marching in the streets, dragging mayors into their backyards, and chaining themselves to bulldozers. At almost every turn, they were met with opposition. Politicians – from the city council all the way up to a former president – who had worked to secure land and funding continued to try and push the project through. But still the neighbors fought them. For nearly 15 years, they continued to oppose the project at every turn. Then finally, in the lead up to the Olympics, the city caved and the neighborhood won. Today, the area is home to one of the largest parks in the city is surrounded by some of Atlanta’s most vibrant communities.
Because of conversations that started at dinner tables and on front porches, ordinary citizens came together against overwhelming odds. They found the time to organize and act. In essence, they found the time to care. Like Shirky says, we have the time. We just have to use it.
Thinking back to my friend’s comment, I certainly understand his viewpoint. Conversations about how to change the world happen all the time and most of the time don’t lead to much. It’s easy to think you can’t change much about the world around you, but the more we get to talking about it, the more support we can find. Even the biggest events started with words. Words that became actions. Actions that became movements. And movements that lead to results. So what do conversations lead to? Everything.