Social justice activist Linda Stout (www.lindastout.org) believes anyone can change the world — they just need to find people with a shared vision of what that world should be. Stout, author of Collective Visioning: How Groups Can Work Together for a Just and Sustainable Future (May 2011), and Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, which has published Feet to the Fire: The Rethinkers Guide to Changing Your School (January 2011), will be at Octavia Books tonight (June 14) at 6 p.m. to read from their books and sign copies.
In their books, Stout and Rethink pay homage to each other with a chapter about their experiences together. Stout met with Rethink after Hurricane Katrina and used her collective visioning techniques to help the schoolchildren come up with a picture of what they wanted their schools to be and ways to accomplish their goals.
Collective visioning is a process in which a diverse group of people who care about the same issue or community come together, share ideas, desires for the future and experiences to discover common grounds — the things all are concerned about and what they would like to change. The emphasis, Stout says, is on setting aside racial, economic and social differences and focusing on the hopes, desires and problems they all have in common in order to energize a movement for change.
“We vision around a collective community,” Stout says. “It can be done in the form of meditation (then picturing in your mind what you want and drawing a picture of it), or it could be a series of questions where people are telling their stories.
“I took the (Rethink) kids in New Orleans into a time machine into the future and then we had them collectively draw their ideas and then had people build on their ideas. Someone might draw a garden and another person puts a windmill and park around it. Then we go back and look at [the picture] and decide what we want to work on for the next year or two.”
Those children wanted to change the way new schools were built after the 2005 levee failures washed away much of New Orleans’ educational infrastructure. The junior high students’ vision was for schools to include community gardens, restorative justice circles, green space for outdoor classes, cafeterias serving healthy foods and more. Stout says she meets with Rethink every summer, since the students change every year, to refresh the collective visioning plan and help the group stay on target.
This summer Rethink is focusing on health: ways to address diabetes, high blood pressure and stop the school-to-prison pipeline, Stout says.
Feet to the Fire is the story of how Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools initiated changes to reform the city’s public schools. It’s also a handbook for other youth to follow to organize around an issue, gain public attention and create change. There is a chapter on collective visioning.
Stout has been an activist since the early 1980s when she formed a group that later joined with the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign to halt the buildup of nuclear weapons and curb the threat of nuclear war. That campaign was so successful that in June 1982 nearly a million people attended a rally in New York City to protest the nuclear arms race. The freeze was endorsed by 275 city governments and 12 states. Despite that success, the campaign organization itself ran out of fuel, which taught Stout something about sustaining a movement.
In 1984, she worked with the Piedmont Peace Project, a multiracial peace and justice organization in North Carolina that won the National Grassroots Peace Award. In 2000, Stout founded Spirit in Action, an organization aimed at creating a just and equitable world. Stout, who 13 years ago wrote Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing (a book that is on the reading list of some universities), says collective visioning has been used by more than 120 groups to achieve common goals.
“It’s been my passion for my whole life — to help create and find the power for justice that we need in the world,” Stout says. “Visioning is a tool, a step to getting there. I’ve found it moves people toward what we are working for instead of what they are against. It allows us to move collectively together.
“ It’s not some kind of woo-woo dream about the possible; it’s based in reality. If people had told the Rethink kids … that they could deal with a multinational corporation that provides school food and could negotiate better foods … even adults would not have believed that possible. But it happened.”
Stout says some of the groups she helps start on a local level and join larger networks that share the same goals.
“I am totally committed to having us change the world,” she says. “We can start at a local level, but we can expand that to national and international levels. They have to be connected (to have global influence).” Such expansions, she says, allow cross-pollination of ideas and motivate people to look beyond their individual issues or strategies and focus on the larger picture of enacting change in a broader sense. “We don’t have the power to make the difference unless we’re working together,” she says.