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How We Can Inspire People to Care About Social Change and Feel Good About Themselves in the Process

People only become active in social change movements because these movements speak to deep longings that go far beyond those for economic justice.

If the Wisconsin struggle between the unions and Governor Walker showed us anything, it was that the needs that animate people around progressive causes are not simply needs for money or financial security. The need for community and its accompanying feeling of belonging and the need to connect with something larger than the self, the need for meaning, were every bit as important in generating the special enthusiasm and emotional engagement seen for weeks in and around the state capitol in Madison.

This has been the experience of the Left for generations. Movements that engaged people at a deep level had the most staying power and the most impact. At this level, people are motivated by a range of needs other than those for economic security, including needs for meaning, connectedness, recognition, and agency.

Unfortunately, despite evidence that this is so, progressives are often blind to the importance of these needs.

People only become active in social change movements because these movements speak to deep longings that go far beyond those for economic justice. These needs interact, overlap and rise and fall in importance depending on the situation. The civil rights movement spoke to a hunger to be connected to something bigger than the self. But the institution that provided the base of this movement, the black church, thrived on its power to provide recognition in dozens of way to its members.

The women’s movement initially based itself on the relational power of small groups, arguing that personal needs and suffering can form the basis of a political agenda. The highest periods of member engagement in the life of a labor union occur when people feel a sense of agency in standing up to a boss or during the height of a campaign. As Cesar Chavez once observed, “When a man or woman, young or old, takes a place on a picket line for even a day or two, he will never be the same again.”

And, yet, this transparent reality is hidden from view in the work of organizers and leaders of progressive organizations who too often treat their staff, members and public audiences as if most of these needs are irrelevant. Instead, members and potential members are seen as motivated only by narrow economic self-interest with staff treated as one-dimensional means to fight for that end.

Corporations have understood the crucial motivational role of so-called “soft” -- that is, non-economic -- needs apart from the paycheck for decades. Almost every book on leadership published in the last 20 years emphasizes the importance of relationships and recognition. Huge studies have been done on companies that have succeeded and failed in an attempt to come up with the secret sauce of success, and invariably, the answer involves the ways in which the culture of a company engages employees at levels above and beyond compensation. In a recent article, Arianna Huffington reports on a similar emphasis in advertising today, with more and more corporations explicitly touting their social engagement and desire to speak to a higher purpose.

Too often, the Left discovers its campaigns for economic justice and various aspects of the social safety net fall on cynical or resigned ears, even among our system’s greatest victims. Conservative groups, on the other hand, often seem better able to connect with these same "victims," even though the connection seems to progressives as patently opposed to these victims' economic self-interest. The growth of mega-churches, the rise of the evangelical movement, and the recent popularity of the Tea Party all involve people drawn to communities that support a political and economic system inimical to their own needs for material security. The reasons have little to do with anyone’s economic bottom line. They do so because they appear to address multiple levels of suffering and multiple needs.

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