Picture the eldest person who held you when you were a new born. When were they born? That’s how far your personal history stretches back. Now, picture the youngest person in your extended family. If they live a full and healthy life and die of natural causes, how long are they likely to live for? And then there is you, held there, right in the middle of your 200 year present.
When I go through this exercise, I get an image of my half-Chinese great-grandmother, my maternal grandfather’s mother, holding me in her arms in her comfy green velour arm chair. She was 76 when I was born, a fact easily verified by her convenient birth year of 1900. And when I think of the youngest person in my extended family, I think of my first cousin’s unborn baby. There is a good possibility that child could live until 2100 and beyond. Imagine!
To be able to comprehend my own life, I must not only understand my history, but also hold a vision of my future. We do not operate in a vacuum – context is everything.
The same concept applies to ideas around social change, everything from Aboriginal rights, transitioning to renewable sources for energy, to deeply ingrained gender norms and biases.
In order to bring about social change, we must first have an understanding of how we got to where we are today.
How and why did our Aboriginal people become marginalised in their own country, their knowledge and culture disregarded and belittled?
How and why did we become so reliant on fossil fuels for energy?
How and why did women become seen as less valuable than men?
History is important, and if you want to change behaviour, you have to understand how it occurred in the first place. What group of people had the largest stake in benefiting from the situation in the first place? Why? How are out of date and irrelevant beliefs and practices maintained, even to the detriment of the whole?
So yes, understanding is important. But equally important is the vision for the future. What could the world look like if norms and beliefs changed?
What would happen if Aboriginal people and their knowledge were given the respect and dignity they deserve? What would Australia look like if we learned about agriculture, land management and social structures from the people who looked after this country for 60 000 years? How would we view ourselves and our country if we acknowledged fully the wrong that was done, and why, and then walked together into the future of our own creation?
What would the world look like if we used renewable sources for energy instead of fossil fuels? Seriously, can you imagine? I imagine every building a miniature power station, and small wind and solar farms powering every town. I imagine clean air, land and water, and mitigated climate change. I imagine a sustainable future for our planet.
And what, I ask you, would the world look like if women were valued as much as men? How would it feel to live in a world where it didn’t matter what gender you were? How would it feel to feel safe and valued as a woman in public spaces, in the workplace or at home? How would it feel as a man to be able to break out of rigid masculine limitations?
We could go on and on, and I’m sure you’re already imagining the future without racism, poverty, inequality and so on.
It’s the vision for a better future that keeps us inspired and passionate while doing the often dispiriting work of changing entrenched ideas. It is our ability to dream of a better future that will bring people along with us – not painting a horror, dystopian future, nor pointing accusation and blame at the people who got us here in the first place (hint: it was all of us who got us here).
Let’s face it – history, both our personal and collective histories – can be very divisive. History is written by the victors, so there is often a lot of rewriting and investigation which needs to happen before a true history emerges. For example, read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, to start to get an accurate picture of the depth of Aboriginal agricultural and horticultural knowledge, and how the evidence of farms and villages were wiped from our history, literally and metaphorically.
On the other hand, a vision for the future is uniting. We all want a future with a clean earth and power that is cheap and endlessly renewable. We all want a world where women; ourselves, our mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives are safe and respected. We all want a world where wrongs are acknowledged and ancient wisdom harnessed to care for our beautiful land and its inhabitants.
We may disagree how to get there, but the vision itself is uniting.
A vision brings us together. It breaks down the barriers between left and right, old and young, conservative and progressive. A vision asks only that we use the skills we have to bring about the world we want. It doesn’t care what colour our skin is, what gender we are, and it certainly doesn’t give two hoots about what God we believe in, or not.
John Paul Lederach said to remember that the person in front of you is a human first and an opinion second.
You may feel as though the conflicts about your past and present make it impossible to work towards a vision with a person who holds opposing views to you. I imagine that’s what environmental activists and farmers thought before they combined forces to defeat fracking and coal seam gas exploration in Victoria.
For every major social shift, once opposing forces must come together. The civil rights movement, end of apartheid, women’s rights, indigenous rights, animal rights, the environment movement – none of these would have been successful if many groups had not joined forces to create a shared future.
What is your vision for our world? Please share and inspire us!
NB This post was inspired by a podcast interview between Krista Tippett, John Paul Lederach and America Ferrera