Social pioneers are agents of change. They forge new responses in thinking and acting when it becomes apparent that failures and breakdowns within society are harming innocent people. In the past, such “social contradictions,” which once seemed insurmountable, have repeatedly been overcome. Fifty years ago it occurred in places like Selma, Alabama, as change was accomplished through the civil rights movement. It occurred in South Africa as apartheid was abolished after decades of struggle. It is occurring today in the decisions of ordinary people to alter their life style, lower their carbon footprint, and challenge “business as usual” in the face of the slow but overwhelming crisis of global climate change. Accumulative actions taken by committed people can and do alter history. They are like a wedge blade chiseling new pathways through hardened stone where no way forward existed before.
The wedge blade is a metaphor of transcending the impasse of divided societies. When the ICA symbol was created in the early 1970s, the major divide represented by a line down the middle of the circle was between the “pro-establishment” and “disestablishment.” Today’s political polarization is typically labeled conservative-liberal. Tags often change, but polarities persist with opposites seeing the other as the source of the problem. True leadership, however, transcends the divide. Nelson Mandela did this through the symbolic power of celebrating rugby victories, the white man’s game, to forge a new sense of national unity across post-apartheid South Africa.
Few people have such a high profile platform, but we all encounter similar dilemmas of harmful dysfunctions perpetuated within divided societies. A perversion that frequently accompanies polarization is that people tend to demonize those with whom they disagree. ICA avoids the blame game by always starting with the assumption that everyone has contributions to make in creating new solutions and that diverse viewpoints provide a richer understanding of the whole. This is key to building collaborative relationships. It also is in contrast to those who intentionally polarize and personalize. In “Rule for Radicals,” Saul Alinsky advises organizers to “personify problems” and “identify an enemy” against whom action can be mobilized. ICA’s approach is to transcend polarization by finding a third way forward.
Some debilitating contradictions in society, of course, are very complex and cannot be directly addressed with the same facilitative methods employed in local communities. The expansion of industrial agriculture in developing countries is an example. By design, small farmers become indebted through mono-cropping, using artificial fertilizers and pesticides and depending on genetically engineered seeds designed to be sterile, thus making it necessary for farmers to buy more and more seeds. These are harmful and unsustainable practices that occasion suffering among the innocent. Though this is a large and important issue, not unlike the American civil rights movement of the 60s and the apartheid struggle in South Africa, there are many ways to transcend the situation and serve as a social pioneer. Rather than demonizing companies that perpetuate these practices, ICA strategically builds alternative demonstrations of possibility. ICA permaculture projects in Zambia, India, and the GreenRise Building in Chicago, along with similar initiatives around the world, keep ICA on the leading edge, implementing action to create new solutions.