Growing Cultures of Deep Cooperation

Communities, Solidarity, and Transformational Learning
Michael Johnson

Living in community and being involved in collective action in all its forms puts one right in the middle of what blocks the development of cooperation and mutuality. What an advantage this can be! Peter Senge, who helped develop the concept of the “learning organization,” describes it:

“We are unable to talk productively about complex issues because we are unable to listen...Listening requires opening ourselves. Our typical patterns of listening in difficult situations are tactical, not relational. We listen for what we expect to hear. We sift through others’ views for what we can use to make our own points. We measure success by how effective we have been in gaining advantage for our favored positions…[I]t is rare for people with something at stake truly to open their minds to discover limitations in their own ways of seeing and acting.”

I am sure this doesn’t surprise anyone. Senge then goes on to talk about the alternative being a matter of the heart:

“The path forward is about becoming more human, not just more clever. It is about transcending our fears of vulnerability, not finding new ways of protecting ourselves. It is about discovering how to act in service of the whole, not just in service of our own interests. It is about rediscovering our courage—literally, cuer age, the rending of the heart—because the only progress possible regarding the deep problems we face will come from opening our minds, hearts, and wills.” [1]

That seems quite clear, and it makes the big question quite clear: how do we “transcend,” “find new ways,” “rediscover,” and “open up?” I have been directly involved in exploring these questions for 45 years. For communitarians and activists it is literally “becoming the change we want to bring to the world.” Other worlds are possible, but we have to learn how to create them. Learning how to become the change is at the core of our work, whether we realize it or not. Voicing our enthusiasm for alternative economic causes doesn’t mean we know how to listen deeply. Just because we choose to live in community doesn’t free us from the oppressive practices and ways of thinking we have learned growing up. Nor does being “committed to the cause” open our hearts or minds.

Personal and cultural transformation is lifelong work. We need imaginative processes, new ideas, deep relationships, and supportive sites for this kind of work. In this section of the IC/SE Theme people from across the globe who have pursued this work and thought it about it seriously share their experiences.

I would draw your attention to two pieces in this section, both titled, “Community as Crucible,” both interviews with long-time participants in transformational work in community.    

George Caneda talks to the basic impulse: “There’s a lot of fear in this dare to create something new. Who the fuck are we to challenge the existing culture. And at the same time there’s this big desire for it. There was a yearning or intuition of a new place that could be created by transforming ourselves. So, let’s try something.”

Laird Schaub notes that the work of researching and developing personal and cultural transformation in the crucible of our communities is “hard work…and it's an ideal where we often fall short. It's part of our struggle as a movement, even as a culture.”

[1] Senge’s quotes are taken from the Forward of a powerful little book by Adam Kahane: Solving Tough Problems: an open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities.

About the author: 

Michael Johnson: Entered a Kansas monastery in '63, left in '66; entered law school in NYC in fall of '67 and left in winter of '67; became an 'outside agitator' at Columbia in April of '68 and discovered that the far left can be as top/down as the middle and right...deeply involved in group dynamics and community organizing in NYC '68-'73...bottomed out in Phoenix '73-'76. A member of the desegregation unit of Austin school system '76-'80.

Co-founded an intentional community in Staten Island, NY in '80, in part an experiential research center in democratic culture...still there 33 years later...immersed in the worker co-op and solidarity economy movements since 2007 with the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (New England), GEO, and the Community Economies Collective. Right now he is focusing on developing a network of groups committed to exploring personal and cultural transformation--the Becoming the Change project.

Citations: 
When citing this article, please use the following format: Michael Johnson (2013). Growing Cultures of Deep Cooperation. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 16.
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