Someone once asked me this question.
“Whose approach do you prefer: Martin Luther King Jr or Malcolm X?”
“Both”, I replied. “And Rosa Parks. And the Black Panthers.”
My friend stared at me, speechless. Talk about asking a simple question and getting a difficult answer!
When you’ve worked in countries like South Africa and led organizational/societal change at home — or maybe if you’ve just lived long enough — you learn that change rarely comes about because of a single leader or strategy. To make substantive change, enduring change, it takes a variety of approaches.
We need the moderates — the diplomats who can inspire courageous but peaceful protest; the people who can argue with the powerful without losing control.
We need the academics and media — people who study the issues without bias, but can raise the alarm when our freedom, safety, democracy and human rights are threatened.
We need the people who will be uncompromising in demands and language. They’re not comfortable company at the dinner table, but they’re essential.
We need the everyday heroes who will stay put in their seat on the bus, refusing to obey an unjust law.
And you need the people who, like a sword hanging over our heads, will threaten our peaceful, comfortable existence.
I salute Nelson Mandela, a hero for our times. And yet, I know that a much less popular person, his former wife, Winnie Mandela, also played a vital role in bringing about revolution.
Imprisoned for it, tortured by prison guards, then, later, hated by many for her worst actions as a guerrilla leader. But how can anyone deny the impact of her war against the apartheid government?
How can anyone deny the role of the freedom fighters who were killed, imprisoned or exiled from their homeland? The journalists who were imprisoned or exiled for criticising the apartheid government?
On a humbler level, I’ve experienced a thing or two. As a founder and former president of a prominent Black Canadian organization, I saw people so set in their preferred approach to change, that they made enemies of those who fight the same battle in different ways.
Guilty, your honour. As an impatient young leader, I made enemies unnecessarily. Missed important opportunities.
Later, I realized: if we’re all fighting for the same outcome, why on earth are we not working together? Why dismiss and belittle those who disagree with you on strategy but share the same goals?
Age and learning about how societies and organizations change have helped me to see the bigger picture. And this I know today:
It takes several kinds to bring about change, so let us learn to value them. And where possible, let us work with them, not against them.