My Interview with David Gershon @The Trump Antidote

Social Change 2.0 and Beyond @ thetrumpantidote.com

imagesDavid Gershon, founder of the Cool City Challenge and other ground-breaking endeavors for social change.

Our correspondent, Aliss Terrell, interviews David Gershon, visionary social architect, climate activist, and author of
Social Change 2.0, and The Low Carbon Diet.

Aliss Terrell:

It seems we are at a turning point in American history. How do we address the challenges we are facing?

Gershon:

In America, our systems are stressed in every area—education, health care, politics, the economy. When a social system is stressed it can either break down or break through to a higher level of performance and social value. In systems theory, this is called second order change.

It’s important to understand the difference between social change 1.0, which is incremental, and social change 2.0, which is more deeply transformative.

Social change 1.0 is business-as-usual thinking, based on four approaches, the primary levers of government at national, state, or local levels. The first is command and control. Its underlying assumption is that the only way you can get people to change is by forcing them. You make them change by passing a law and punishing them if they don’t follow it.

The second approach uses financial incentives. You pay people or you incentivize them with penalties. The expectation here is that the only way to get someone to change is through economic interest.

The third approach is awareness campaigns by NGO’s, government agencies, etc. The assumption here is that there’s a deficit of information and, if we inform people, they’ll change. Of course, there’s a big gap between knowing and doing. So that has lots of limitations.

The last approach is protest, as in the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the Arab Spring. People are saying “this is not acceptable,” but offering no alternatives, other than more 1.0 solutions.

When none of these approaches work, you have two directions left.

One is despair, cynicism, and apathy, states of mind where a lot of people are right now. The other is empowering people to want to change. My book Social Change 2.0 is about the kind of change that transforms the whole social system.

The Empowerment Institute helps people create compelling visions and acquire the tools to implement them. We build capacity for second-order change around the most strategic issues for our evolution as a human species, such as low-carbon living.

Right now we need to change the way we think about change. Trump is forcing people to look more deeply at their beliefs and methods, especially about climate action. If we lose our planet’s viability to support life, there isn’t a lot of latitude for business-as-usual approaches.

What do you see as the growing edge for the resistance movement? How can people go to the next level?

A colleague of mine, Dennis Hayes, helped co-create Earth Day in 1970. There were many different groups engaged, and he came up with the phrase “ecology of action,” an eco-system with lots of niches, each one important for the system to be healthy. We need laws, financial incentives, and awareness campaigns. But the challenge is that these first-order change tools are not sufficient to create change at the scale of transformation we want.

It’s very important to protest, to say no, but we then have to learn how to say yes. You can reinforce change with legislation and financial incentives, but if people don’t want change in the first place and those means are repealed, then you regress.

Let’s say Obama wants us to step up for climate change but businesses, cities, and individuals don’t care about it. A new President comes in with different priorities and we regress. If people are involved because they see the need for change and know what to do, then we have a lot better chance for sustained results. Ultimately, the opportunity is for all of us to define what we want, how we want it, and to focus on a more sophisticated metric for social change than, “We don’t like the bad things this person’s doing.”

There’s a hunger that hasn’t been here before. We’ve been assuming everything would get taken care of by a progressive political leader at the national level. We now see that’s not going to happen, and in fact would never have happened. Even if Hillary were president, people would have stayed complaisant. Now at least we’re awake. It’s a great moment.

What is the Cool City Challenge?

The Cool City Challenge is a non-profit initiative of Empowerment Institute to address climate change by reducing CO2 emissions at the grass roots level. It’s designed to make our cities more sustainable, resilient, and livable. The fundamental idea is that 70% of the planet’s carbon is emitted out of cities and 70% of that is from of our daily lifestyle practices, so that’s where we have to start in order to have global impact.

How did The Cool City Challenge develop and how does it work?

When I first committed to climate activism in the early 90’s, I explored ways to engage people in my quest. How does one get one’s arms around such a huge, globally challenging issue? What I can offer is a thinking process, how to conceive of a social innovation like this, how to design and architect it.

First I defined the end state as motivating individuals to adopt sustainable behaviors. The next question was, “What’s holding someone back?” “What beliefs are stopping them from taking effective action?” We found there were several issues: “I don’t know where to start. I don’t know which actions are the most important. I don’t know how to do them. And if I did them, I don’t know if it would make a difference. So I’m not sure it’s worth bothering.”

So we synthesized the information that was overwhelming people and created the Green Living Program to help them reduce their solid waste, use water, energy, and transportation more efficiently, learn to purchase in a more eco-friendly way, and then learn how to empower others. Through trial and error, we found we had to build a peer support group to generate social motivation for people to follow through. Then we had to develop structured meetings, action recipes, self-directed meeting guides, and a whole series of other things. This then became the first sustainable lifestyle program. More than an awareness campaign, it was an actual behavior change program.

After years of iteration, we found we were able to help people reduce their solid waste by 40%, water use by 32%, energy use by 16%, C02 emissions by 15%, vehicle miles traveled by 8% and people were saving about $400.

Then we asked two more questions: “People have adopted a more sustainable lifestyle, but will they continue over time? “How do we get enough people to do this so it has a far-reaching impact on climate change?”

We did eight research studies that showed new behaviors were not only sustained but improved upon. Then we discovered a way to organize people into teams at the block scale. Most people didn’t know their neighbors, so meeting them filled an unmet need. Social isolation became an opportunity instead of a limitation. We gave them a very simple script, “Hi I’m your neighbor from up the street, I’d like to invite you to a gathering about a program sponsored by our city, to better conserve resources for the sake of our children, get to know each other better, and create a healthier, safer, and more livable block. Can you make it? It’s this Thursday 7:30 to 9pm.”

The benefits drilled down into what we call intrinsic motivations, internal needs rather than external. We didn’t force people, pay people, or shame people. They were doing something because they wanted to. They wanted greater meaning and purpose, a deeper sense of community, and a sense of agency. “I can actually make a difference on the block where I live.” We were able to get a 25% recruitment rate per block.

So fast forward as we iterated on this model around livability issues in inner cities, resiliency issues in New York City post 9/11, water issues and carbon reduction across many cities. But the priority remained climate action.

This has led to our Cool Block program, which we’re piloting in California, integrating all these issues and this methodology into a block-based behavior change program. We’re now doing it in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Palo Alto, in partnership with a wonderful company called Josie Maran Cosmetics. They represent a new social change model in business, what I call corporate social engagement, where companies step up, take on big issues, and put real funding and commitment behind it.

So that’s our process. We’re just completing the pilot phase and we’ll begin scaling the program later this year. So far it’s working well, in fact, the 25% recruitment rate has gone up to 55% because of the multiple benefits this program provides: sustainable living, resiliency, climate action, an explicit focus on social cohesiveness and livability. It doubled thanks to this more expansive curriculum.

The Cool City Challenge was recognized by NASA and a consortium of Silicon Valley thinkers. Tell me about that.

In 2013 NASA and an organization called Sustainable Silicon Valley Partners sponsored a Showcase of Solutions for Planetary Sustainability. Hundreds of scientists, inventors, and companies submitted their proposals for better water management, energy use, and transportation to a panel of experts from academia, research, business and venture communities. The Cool City Challenge won the top prize in the category: “Most outstanding solution addressing human impact on the planet.”

Why focus your climate activism in California?

We looked at California because it’s the most progressive state in the US, it’s very committed to the issue, and as the 6th largest economy in the world, has autonomy to act. It was the best place to anchor our climate work, test it, and ultimately, scale it. The Green Living Program we developed in California, became our Global Action Plan that has now diffused to 22 countries.

Is the Cool City Challenge being implemented in other states besides California?

We’re not in a position to do that. We really just want to hunker down and learn how to get our programs working well before we start taking on the responsibility of other places anywhere else. I’ve had interesting conversations with a group called C40, the largest world cities dealing with climate change. They’re very eager to implement behavior change and very interested in our program, but I’ve told them we’re not ready for that level of diffusion yet. I work in cities where I can be very hands on and tinker until I get the social innovation working right. We’ve chosen three cities diverse enough to provide different kinds of social learnings.

 You’ve outlined these programs in a series of workbooks?

Yes, and the blueprint is laid out in Social Change 2.0 so whatever social issue people are working on, they can use that framework. There’s a study circle guide for community projects, and questions to help people apply the content.

A template for action?

Exactly. The goal of Social Change 2.0 is to literally create a blueprint. It’s a pattern language for creating transformative social change. Lots of people are using it in many different contexts.

How much leverage does California have to resist Trump’s policies and how much can the state impact national politics?

It has huge leverage. Our constitution gives a lot of power to the states and local communities, so there are lots of possibilities. It will involve a negotiation process, but I see California, as the premier early adopter state, leading the way for the country. There’s an incredible amount of talent and financial where-with-all there.

Do you agree with urban planner Audrey Noeltner’s statement that mayors are like CEO’s and have more leverage than other politicians?

Yes, I would agree with her. Even Obama could only get so far. Communities are where you can do social experiments without all the crazy national politics. If you choose early adopter communities with a similar mindset, you don’t have to sell climate change, you present the benefits, how it will improve their quality of life and sense of meaning through the contribution they’re making. That’s what people really want.

Has Trump’s blatant disregard for environmental concerns changed national or international strategies for your work?

Well, it’s made everything I do more relevant. The biggest opportunity of Trump is not really in any one content area where he’s regressive. It’s about accelerating the learning curve for people to get smarter about the process of social change.

The climate work and all the social change work I do, the whole framework is now much more on the agenda. This is where people will need to turn after they frustrate themselves with protest.

There have been wonderful articles in the New York Times, by Tina Rosenberg, who writes the Fixes Column, and other commentators, who say protest is a venting mechanism, but then what? As Einstein said, you can’t solve the problem at the same level it’s created. You can’t hope for better results when you use tools that haven’t worked in the past. So I feel very privileged, very excited that our work over the last 35 years now has such relevance.

Do you think our democracy is in a state of emergency? Is there a real threat of a totalitarian take over?

 It comes down to whether you see the glass half full or half empty. I see possibility where others see only problems. I believe in human beings’ ability to learn and grow, which is the core of our Empowerment work. I believe we’re coded for self-improvement because we want a better life and we‘re smart enough to evaluate what will allow that to happen. We’re relatively slow as a species, but eventually we come along. If you look at the last hundred years, you see we’ve evolved. So I don’t think we’re going to regress in that way. I think people are projecting their fear mentality onto the situation. What I find is that democracy is actually being strengthened in a way I’ve never seen before. The fourth estate, the media, is now more energized than they’ve ever been. The New York Times readership, cable news, Internet viewership are all up. The judiciary branch is more empowered than it ever has been. Cities and states feel more empowered. Other countries that became dependent on the US are now asking more profound questions about themselves.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times by Maureen Dowd, who said Trump actually has made America great again, just not the way he anticipated. And I agree! So, I’m not worried; the fear is getting people out of bed in the morning. It’s good people are awake and taking responsibility for our democracy. Eventually they will ask the next set of “how to” questions and when they do it will catalyze an evolutionary moment for transformative social change.

Any other thoughts about dealing with the “Alt Right”?

At the level of activism, the antidote isn’t just reacting to problems; it’s being clear about our choices, thoughts, and beliefs. If we respond in kind, with fear of “us and them,” then we’re just playing into that same polarization. The opportunity here is to think in a more inclusive way about our country and the world. I call it building a unitive field, a place where we see only “the us”.

Trump is a polarizing individual. So what’s the antithesis of that? We have to be disciplined every day. Where we place our mental attention is what we create. This is a key principle in Empowerment. If we believe in “us and them” and work from a place of fear, we’ll feel morally righteous while reinforcing what we don’t want. I don’t go to the fear place, generally.

In your webinar you mention your work with the Rhode Island Fishery partners and how synergy benefited the local economy and the entire Atlantic Ocean. How can we create synergy in the US and a compelling vision that will carry us forward?

That’s another growing edge–the next place growth needs to happen. On my website, there’s a section under Societal Empowerment, called “A Dream For Our World” about the First Earth Run we organized, passing a flame around the globe as part of the UN Year of Peace in 1986. We had 45 heads of state and 25 million people participating in 62 countries. 20% of the world’s population watched it through the media. It was a huge initiation into a unitive worldview on the planet. In that section, you’ll see “Seven Actions to Change the World” based on our learnings about building unitive culture: how to befriend the other, how to create experiences in a spirit of cooperation, how to be what we call a dream keeper, to believe we can be successful as a human species and make our earth a viable place over the long run. It’s a free tool and designed to be shared virally. I encourage people to put these actions in practice and share them with others.

There’s whole chapter in Social Change 2.0 on synergy as an accelerator of social change. To create a real solution you need the whole system, you need everyone to be involved, which is why Trump’s polarizing worldview will not succeed.

Obama was way ahead of his time. He was a unitive political leader unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Even though the world wasn’t ready for it, he kept using all of his skills and natural instincts to bring all of us into a unitive place, as best he could, within a divisive political system with built-in constraints. That’s why he came out of office with such high approval ratings.

In the Cool City Challenge we have to get government, business, and all different parts of the civic sector in place. It’s an eco-system. Synergy isn’t just a nice thing to have; it’s essential.

One tool the Empowerment Institute uses for behavioral change is visualizing present history from the future. Can we re-imagine our current political situation from a future perspective to pull ourselves toward positive outcomes?

We have to envision what we want or we won’t create it. We need to project what we want coherently into the future then backcast to see how to get there. It’s a very powerful tool I used in the fishery intervention that you described and many other projects, including the climate change work we’re doing. Projecting a new possibility for the future opens our imagination.

Another core principle of ours is shifting from pathology to vision. When we focus on pathology, our ability to generate a solution is defined by the problem. We’ll always be trapped in the history and the limited thinking of a problem-solving mentality. When we focus on what we want, our vision, then our solution is unlimited. Our vision of possibility propels us into the future.

Outside my office I have a poster: “And the angel shrugged and she said, ‘If you fail this time, it will be a failure of imagination.’ And she gently placed in the palm of my hand, the world.” (Author: Brian Andreas, editor’s note)

I feel this is humanity’s opportunity. We need to open our social creativity. This is where everything I’ve said comes from. My question has always been, “What’s possible and how can we create it?” It’s profoundly empowering and effective to place your focus on envisioning new possibilities. The problems don’t go away per se, but it activates your ability to generate solutions. It’s also much more fun because you’re always energized.

What opened your imagination and galvanized you to become an activist?

For most of my life, I’ve had this desire to make the world better and to ask the “what’s possible” question for societal change, my body, my relationships, and my work in companies. When you ask that question, you get surprising answers.

Recently I was invited to speak at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative. These are business, government, and academic leaders who’ve been very successful by following the rules and who are now looking at their lives and wanting to give back. I started off by saying, “My biography is very different from the ones you might be seeing here because I’ve asked very different questions and gotten very different answers. What I offer you is to do the same. This is my number one question, ask it and see where it takes you. ‘What’s possible? And how can I make that happen?’” That has taken me here, truly. At each step of the journey, like during the Cold War: “What’s possible so these two countries don’t blow each other up?” Then “What’s possible for climate change, for personal evolution, for our empowerment work?” So that might give people a starting point. Imagination is fertile. Not everyone’s a social architect but everyone has an imagination and now we also have the tools to apply when we begin to dream.

What new insights have emerged from your collaborations and conversations since the election?

I’ll give you two thoughts on that from a social change point of view; one’s a story and one’s an understanding of the physics of change applied to social issues.

When we were organizing the First Earth Run, passing the torch around the world, we had Hopi elder Grandmother Carolyn come to the UN and offer the Hopi Prophesy. We had Iroquois Chief Shenandoa light the fire. It was an incredibly symbolic, powerful moment. One of the things Grandmother Carolyn said has always stuck in my mind. It was about noticing what’s not being seen. We only see the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is where it’s really happening, where all of it is.

So in this Trump moment, we see a prominent person operating from a fear state, pulling in people who also operate out of a fear state, and then getting a reaction, often of fear. People feel threatened by his narrow vision of “us and them.” But underneath that, the mechanisms of American democracy are being strengthened. The sense of agency is being strengthened. What appears on the surface isn’t the deeper reality.

And of course, everyone fears he’s going to take us into a nuclear war, but I don’t buy that one. I think our species is intelligent enough to prevent him from derailing our ability to stay on the planet. That’s one insight.

Then I’ll offer the science of change from a physics point of view. Contraction forces expansion and vice versa, as in Trump following Obama. We’re now in a period of contraction, and there’s a tremendous desire for expansion. People are not just reacting; they’re innovating and investing all kinds of resources in creating new societal possibilities.

The next four years will be a social laboratory. What we’ll see on the tip of the iceberg every day is the chaos and everyone’s reaction to it. Underneath, there will be a tremendous amount of positive, constructive social innovation, organized and designed, tested, like the work we’re doing, among others.

I see it as a fertile time to figure out as a species how to deal with systemic, deeply entrenched social issues. It’s an interesting paradox. What seems so bad is causing amazing innovation. Evolution is a mystery and we’re a part of it.

What are your news sources?

The New York Times and the Huffington Post, but I read books more than news. I choose authors with visions and strategies for the future that help me connect dots. I love Thomas Freidman’s vision because he’s not just reacting to problems. His new book, Thank You For Being Late, An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, has a lot of clear analysis. I’m very interested in periods of human evolution where we achieved major breakthroughs like the American Revolution. I’m inspired by Thomas Jefferson and his deep belief in human potential. I’ve been influenced by Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation and Jarrett Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel about how concepts spread more quickly when there’s an actual blueprint people can copy.

I’m a pattern thinker so I see patterns in everything. I look to the natural world as a fantastic teacher for social system design. I’m learning right now how bees use collective intelligence to achieve amazing results. I love what’s going on in technology because there’s so much innovation. One of my aspirations is to help upgrade the social change literacy in the technology world so their investments have greater positive impact.

 Is it time for a Second Earth Run?

The “Dream For Our World” section on the website is somewhat of a Second Earth Run, using the power of the Internet to diffuse the same principles without having to run around the globe and physically enact it. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but the First Earth Run’s ultimate aspiration was to build a planetary unitive field, where we connect as a human species with the Earth we live on. So that is a start. There’s a video of the First Earth Run so you can have a vicarious experience of being there. All the essential elements we learned from that event are listed among the Seven Actions. If people apply them in their communities, they’re already effectively doing a Second Earth Run.

A Virtual Second Earth Run!

Yes, absolutely!

When the Trump administration is replaced in due course, would you accept a future cabinet position?

I enjoyed seeing that question in your list, but it’s probably not where I would add value! That model has constraints. I always say Obama was a 2.0 president in a 1.0 political system. Where I add value is in optimizing the whole social change eco-system, including the 1.0 and the 2.0, all the players who aspire to create change, from businesses, NGO’s, local, state or federal governments, and your basic every day neighborhood organizers, my heroes, the people actually doing it day to day, right in their own back yard.

Everything I’ve said about everyone else applies to me: there’s a vacuum, there’s tremendous potential, people are open, asking more profound questions, receptive to upgrading their ideas about change. But we have to also believe in the future or we’re actually creating a dystopian scenario. The movie Tomorrowland is a perfect case study. So I’m working with my partner, Josie Maran, on a strategy we call Reinventing the Planet, to utilize this high-leverage moment for second order change on a global scale to help people believe in and create the future they want. Just a small idea! Over the past year and a half, we’ve designed a four-part plan.

The first part is reinventing climate action to keep the planet viable for human evolution. The Cool City Challenge empowers individuals to reduce their carbon footprint. Starting in California, we can scale it across a city, then across cities around the world, to significantly impact climate change. It’s a whole system approach, with behavior change that creates demand for new technologies, new legislation, and new markets. That’s the first pillar.

The second asks “Is there an accelerator of human evolution to make us smarter faster, more skillful and conscious?” Our answer is the IMAGINE initiative. With 80% of the world in development mode, the leverage point is women’s empowerment. The key is what the World Bank and UN identify as “agency,” the ability to believe in yourself, envision and create what you want: ”I am and I can.” Our program is now implemented by 24 NGOs in 12 countries, improving the lives of millions of women, their families, and communities.

The third space we’re working in is reinventing social change itself with the international social transformation community at our Empowerment Institute, using the the Social Change 2.0 book and study circles. I’m also planning a MOOC for this kind of training at a global scale.

The fourth is reinventing business as a force for social good. We’re empowering corporations to increase their social impact and brand value by investing in second order social innovations. We call this Corporate Social Engagement. We’re creating a billion dollar Reinventing the Planet investment fund for projects we will help incubate in our Think and Do Tank: Reinventing America’s Inner Cities, Reinventing the Middle East, and other little ideas like that. The aim is for business to become a social change player on the planet at this critical time. So as you can see, I already have a lot on my plate!

You’ve invented your own cabinet post: Secretary of Sustainability for the World.

I will make a small tweak. How about we call it Secretary for Reinvention. That’s basically my self-anointed job title. Since “A Blueprint for Reinventing the World” is the tagline of my book, I’m stuck with having to figure out how to do it.

You have a favorite quote from St Exupéry. Since I’m speaking to you from France, shall we close with that?

Yes, it goes something like this, “When you want to build a ship, instead of gathering wood and assigning tasks, awaken in people’s hearts a desire for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Links and Resources:

Bio

Empowerment Institute

Social Change 2.0

Webinar on Transformative Social Change

Cool City Challenge & The Cool Block

Workbooks

 Seven Actions

 IMAGINE 

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Urban Freedom Fighter, Audrey Noeltner

My latest interview for The Trump Antidote

audrey-noeltner

Audrey Noeltner, Franco-American social entrepreneur with degrees in Urban Planning from Concordia University, Montreal, and Sciences Po, Paris, co-created One, Two, Three…Rap! to make English accessible for underprivileged youth through Hip Hop, organized forums for grass roots activists in Paris suburbs to exchange best practices with NYC community organizers, and co-founded the NGO Womenability in 2016 to promote gender equality in world cities.

 As an activist, urban planning guru, and a dual US-French citizen of the “Millennial” generation, what’s your perspective on the election of Donald Trump?

 The election was traumatic, devastating, but it was also a great wake up call. It’s America! We can’t give up without a fight! I think this is the last time WASP males will control the government because more women and minorities will demand their rights.

What differences and parallels do you see between your two countries?

Our generation, the Millennial generation, is finding out democracy comes not only with rights but with duties. It requires engagement. For most of human history, we’ve had autocracy, monarchies, or oligarchies. Democracy’s very young and to make it work, we have to invest time and energy. Obama’s election motivated young people, gave them faith in the system, made politics sexy. Unfortunately, Hillary wasn’t able to do that.

What makes me optimistic about the coming French elections is that people here love politics, much more than Americans. Everyone’s talking politics at family dinners and parties. We still have to be extremely cautious. What happened with Trump can happen with Le Pen.

In the US everyone was sure Hillary would win, but they didn’t realize voters in the central states were angry, surviving on the minimum wage or unemployed, denied the American Dream they were promised.

In France we have a similar situation. Unemployment among young people is 24.7%, compared to 11.5% in the US. French young people are angry that so many jobs have been outsourced because of globalization. In the north, most of the factories have closed; people have been out of work for years. Last week I spoke to the mayor of a village near the Belgian border. He said 60% of the electorate voted for Le Pen 5 years ago and he’s afraid the number will be even higher this time. Here in Paris most people are liberals, more like American Democrats, but we can’t just focus on our own social circle.

The problem for our generation, the Millennials, is that we don’t really know how to fight. In France, we’ve never had to fight for anything–abortion rights, health care or free education. Most of us have had access to all that since we were born, but now we see how the system is excluding others. What happened with Trump might scare people enough to create a movement that reinvents democracy to include everyone: Democracy 2.0.

How will a Trump presidency impact women and minorities?

 We’re going to regress on women’s rights and abortion. Without qualified women in top leadership positions, young women won’t have role models like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. And as Meryl Streep said, bullying and negativity don’t create peace. Whether you like Obama or not, his image promoted peace. Trump is promoting hatred of women and minorities.

In this context your work is vitally important. How did Womenability come to be?

In 2015 I was working out in the suburbs at an urban development firm that organized participative town hall meetings. In that area, there were no women in cafés, I had to be careful about what I wore, very few women were taking part in our meetings about how to design the cities of the future. One morning I was biking to work on my pink bicycle and a man assaulted me verbally, using the language of violent rape culture. I was so shocked I told my colleagues, Charlene Ourraki and Julien Fernandez. We agreed it’s not normal that women still don’t have the same freedoms as men. Women get harassed on their way to work, men don’t. If a woman sits on a bench to eat lunch, guys hit on her, as if sitting on a bench is an invitation. Men don’t have to worry about it. It’s not right. I’m an urban planner, I work for cities and I want equal rights there.

So Charlene, Julien, and I went to several NGO’s in Paris, we approached the city government and the ministries. They all said, “We know there’s a problem but we don’t have solutions.” So the three of us founded Womenability to travel the world, see if this was a problem everywhere, look for inspiration and solutions. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.”

How did you develop the methodology?

Womenability methodology is based on a Canadian tool called Exploratory Walks. In the 1990’s, there was a lot of crime targeting women in downtown Montreal. The city and local NGO’s were studying ways to make the area safer. They took two-hour walks with different groups, young, old, disabled, and filled out a questionnaire. I worked for the project when I was studying in Montreal. The questionnaire focused on security: Could you hear if someone was chasing you? Would someone hear if you called for help? Would someone see if you got raped? Would you see your aggressor?

For Womenability, the NGO Genre et Ville helped us change the questionnaire to focus more on what makes a place more welcoming for women, what makes women want to be there. We were inspired by the work of Jane Jacobs, in my opinion the most influential urban visionary of our time. To create safe communities, she said we need “more eyes on the street,” more people have to be there. To go a step further, if women feel welcome, they’ll be visible day and night and the better the city will be for everyone.

Our strategy worked on three levels: first, identify world cities with female mayors to raise awareness about gender issues and inspire more young women to go into local politics. Second, collect data on exploratory walks, to see if women feel more welcome in some places, if they are harassed more in others. Third, find solutions by interviewing change makers who innovate for better cities.

How did you finance the Womenability World Tour?

 We were funded by a Swiss foundation, called Pro Victimis, 30,000€, crowd sourcing 7,000€, City of Paris, 3,000€, Ministry of Women, 5000€, in partnership with UN Women France. To continue, we’re looking into consulting for cities. Finding funding takes 30% of your time when you run an NGO.

Where is Womenability on the gender spectrum?

 When we designed the questionnaire, we wanted to include everyone. We asked an LGBTQ NGO for assistance to make sure we included the whole spectrum of identity and sexual orientation represented today. We wanted to challenge gender stereotypes. For example, one question was about street cleaners, police officers, bus drivers, postal workers… are they men or women? Is it 50-50? Reactions were revealing: “Oh my God, only men are doing construction work, only men driving buses, most police officers are men.” Not everywhere of course. For example, in Montreal, you do see women in these jobs.

How do women experience the city differently?

 There are two main areas—accessibility and attractability. Cities are much less accessible and comfortable for women than for men.

Some examples, without getting into stereotypes: Here in France the percentage of women and men taking their kids to school and daycare is really different. It’s still at least 70% women. To drop off your kids in the morning, you need a stroller and few sidewalks, stairs or escalators are adapted for strollers, so it becomes a nightmare. In other countries, Sweden or Bulgaria, there are rails on all the stairs everywhere, so transportation is easy. In addition, women are left out of public meetings and politics. As for sports in France, depending on the area, 70, 80 and even 90% of public recreation facilities, skate parks, soccer fields, basketball courts, are mostly used by guys.

To evaluate attractability, we based our questionnaire on the five senses.

In terms of sight, when you walk down the street, what do you see–groups of men standing around, sexist advertising, women with big breasts selling underwear, sexist graffiti with penises.

In Paris 74% of the streets are named after men. The vast majority of monuments are to men. There are only two metro stops named after women. All the statistics are on our website: it’s a male-oriented décor and this really has to change.

Next, 77% of us don’t like the way cities smell. What do we smell? Often it’s urine, which doesn’t just stink, it reminds us that a few hours earlier, men were urinating, exposing their genitals, marking their territory. Women interiorize this and it makes them feel unwelcome.

Women think twice about taking kids outside with strollers or bikes because it exposes them to pollution, especially in Chinese cities, and in Paris, there’s a lot of asthma when air pollution peaks.

Next, hearing: cities are very stressful due to traffic engines and honking, but even worse, street harassment. Here are some figures:

 According to our data, an average of 58% of women report being catcalled more than once a month. That’s huge: more than half the female population being verbally harassed at least once a month. For 30%, it’s once a week. It’s a real issue. In Montevideo, Uruguay 72% of women are harassed more than once a week. In Zurich 40% are harassed monthly.

In terms of taste, the reactions were more positive because cities offer a variety of foods. 75% of women like the tastes of the city, but hesitate to eat outdoors because of pollution, noise, and harassment.

For the sense of touch, 57% of women don’t like cities because they’re dirty. They don’t want to sit on benches or hold handrails in the subway. So cleanliness is a problem. In this category you can also count physical harassment. 25% of women are physically harassed at least once a month. That’s huge. It varies from place to place: in Khayelitsha Township, South Africa, it’s 69% once a week, in Mumbai, 15% once a month, and in Malmö, it’s 16%, monthly.

Which groups are particularly vulnerable and why? 

The LGBTQ community is by far the most vulnerable to street harassment. When we asked, “Can you express your sexual orientation in public?” 52 % said no, so that’s something we really have to work on. Cities can play a big part in public education campaigns.

Next come women living in poor areas of metropolitan suburbs traveling long distances to work, so more subject to assault. In enclaves of extreme poverty, such as Khayelitsha Township, women have to use outdoor toilets, near bars, where there’s no lighting and a high rape and murder rate. These women don’t have access to the most basic need, sanitation, because they’re afraid for their lives if they go to the bathroom.

Minority women are targets. In France veiled women were harassed after 9-11 and the recent terrorist attacks. In some places there are very rigid patriarchal communities where it’s harder for women to go to cafés because of their culture. Of course, we have to avoid generalizations that discriminate against these minorities. When women were attacked on New Year’s Eve last year in Cologne, Germany, both the Media and the Extreme Right in France used the word “refugees” when it was actually North African migrant workers who had been there more than 5 years. It’s a sensitive issue.

What makes for a gender equitable city?

That’s a great question. It’s important to discuss what’s wrong, but it’s even better to consider solutions. There are three things we can do. First, raise awareness, recognize the problems, collect data about how public facilities are shared between genders. Second, educate municipal employees and teachers about stereotyping, train city planners to create gender equitable cities. Third–gender mainstreaming. We’re collecting best practices around the world, such as changing the way facilities are designed, opening specific time slots for women to practice sports, and providing lighting where needed. Action is possible at all levels, citizens, NGO’s, public authorities, local governments. Of course, to act you need political will and money.

How many countries did Womenability visit?

We traveled for seven months, to 20 cities in 16 countries (France, Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Switzerland, USA, Argentina, Uruguay, New Zealand, Japan, China, India, Botswana, South Africa)

Were you in contact with female mayors in the US?

Yes, the most inspiring was Annise Parker, mayor of Houston. She invited us to breakfast, walked to meet us, and walked us to her home. Among other things, Parker spearheaded a campaign to eradicate human trafficking through Houston’s waterfront. It was very refreshing to meet a gay mayor, who adopted four African American children in conservative Texas. She’s living proof you can be anyone you want, whatever your race and sexual orientation. Her love for the city and her dedication to women’s rights were memorable.

What impressed you most on your world tour?

The worse conditions are for women, the harder feminists battle on the ground. That blew me away. For example in Argentina, abortion is illegal, femicide is prevalent and still considered a crime of passion, so men don’t go to jail for killing their wives because it’s “passion”! There’s so much outrage, many women and men are completely engaged and determined to change things. We were fortunate to participate in a walk for Ni Una Mas (Not One More), thousands of women and men in the streets, marching together, Ni Una Mas graffiti everywhere. Old and young, so strong in their feminism, gave me hope.

In India, the situation is horrible for women in public spaces. In Delhi and Mumbai, women can’t go out after 6pm. They have to be with men. There’s a movement called Why Loiter, a group of women who go out on Saturdays between midnight and 2am, without men. They’re just as deeply committed and brave as African Americans who sat at segregated lunch counters and Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus during the Civil Rights movement. When we walked with them, all the men, rickshaw drivers, and even police were threatening them: “You’re asking for trouble, go home!” The women answered, “No, we want to show it’s possible, so men accept women being outside!” Being a feminist there is completely different from being a feminist in Paris. Here people may joke about it, but there, you’re betraying your family’s values. Young women there take risks to change things. People say you’ll never find a husband, or a job. Yet 40 people participated in our walk; it was our biggest one.

When we did the walk in South Africa, men and women chanted, “No more murders, no more rapes!” In the face of tragedy, they were joyful and empowered. Their movement gave me hope, too.

In China, you can go to prison for being a feminist. We spoke with activists there whose lesbian friends kissed at their graduation and had to go into hiding for months because the police were after them. Public toilets there are reserved for men and when women demonstrated, they were arrested. Feminism is dangerous in China. It’s quite a reality check.

We also observed good practices, like positive discrimination. In Malmo, Sweden, we visited a huge indoor skate park, owned by a woman who started “girls only” Monday nights to help girls can catch up with guys on their skills and confidence. There were girls everywhere, fathers teaching little daughters. For soccer, the city ruled that to use public playing fields, every team had to have at least one girl. Certain time slots were reserved for female teams. By comparison, you mostly see guys at skate parks in Paris and New York.

In Wellington, NZ, instead of little green men on the pedestrian crossing signals, they put a woman’s silhouette, and not just any woman. It’s Kate Sheppard, the country’s most influential suffragette. Thanks to her, New Zealand was one of the first countries to legalize women’s suffrage. So now you see the silhouette of a beautiful woman with a big hat at pedestrian crossings there. It’s a small thing but it says a lot. Walking around the Wellington city center is empowering. Next they plan to install a signal representing a famous Cuban transsexual, whose trademark is also a big hat. Cities can do a lot for tolerance on the gender spectrum.

A cool example of ways to discourage public urination: In India, they put tiled images of Hindu gods in problem corners and men stopped peeing there so they wouldn’t get bad karma for committing sacrilege.

Another fun one: In the squares and neighborhoods of Kaifeng, China, every night at 7pm, hundreds of women gather around boom boxes to practice their line dancing with choreographers. Imagine that Place de la République or in Times Square. It’s great seeing women who appropriate public spaces and take ownership of their rights with music and dancing. The city government encourages it with an annual contest to select the best choreography. Women are visible and there seems to be zero street harassment.

I could also mention the breastfeeding booths in New York airports and free Jujitsu classes for women in Japan…

Do you think the US election has awakened dormant feminism and gender awareness?

 The Women’s March got more press coverage than the inauguration. It sent a very positive message to the media and people all over the world. “We fucked up but we’re not going to let women and minorities down.” Seeing millions of women and men, old and young, marching energized me. We’re stronger than ever, united against sexism, misogyny, and racism. Now we all have to return to our communities and organize.

Before, a lot of people in France, particularly young people, saw feminism as something negative, superfluous, “We’re all equal today, it’s only for women who hate men.” The election revealed the truth. America is still sexist and racist. So is France. Male politicians don’t always respect women. To stop Trump, local movements and NGO’s have to work together. To quote my friend Milan Taylor from the Rockaway Youth Task Force in New York, “We have to organize, organize, organize.”

How can we best act for gender equality?

We have to keep speaking out and be proud of being feminists. Raise our voices when we see discrimination. Parents have a huge responsibility to eliminate stereotypes on the whole gender spectrum. If you work in marketing and you see a sexist ad, if you’re in education and you see something sexist in a book, it’s really important to say so.

This was a theme at the 2016 World Women’s Forum where I co-led a panel. Norma Bastidas, World Champion Triathlete and survivor of human trafficking said, “It’s easy, don’t buy sex and don’t buy cheap stuff.” Who makes the cheap stuff? Mostly women and kids, paid nothing. In France, it’s sale season and everyone’s rushing to H&M, Mango, Zara, to buy fucking cheap stuff that isn’t ethical.

I agree with Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy that “Feminism is about solidarity among women.” So don’t buy stuff from Pakistan, where women are practically slaves.

A great quote from DNC CEO Leah Daughtry: “One woman can do everything. All women can do anything.” We have to stick together.

There’s a lot of anger because a majority of white women voters didn’t support Hillary whereas a higher percentage of Black women did. We have to celebrate each other’s efforts. The more successful women there are the better it is for everyone.

What other insights have emerged from your collaborations and conversations since the election?

 At the World Women’s Forum, the consensus was “to build bridges not raise walls.” That’s what we’re doing right now. Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, has launched a campaign to stop street harassment. It’s now illegal to harass women in the street and the fines are quite steep. This sets a new standard. The transit authorities in NYC and Paris have followed suit, so things are moving in the right direction.

Two words have stood out in my recent conversations with women activists: Trust and Care. From now on, they’ll be the focus of my work.

We have to create more trust between ourselves as citizens. In Paris, more than 80% of women think that if they’re raped on the Metro, no one will help them. Rape is rare in the subways here, but women are afraid. We have to restore trust between people, elect trustworthy politicians, restore transparency, find accurate news sources. Society will be better for it.

We need to care for each other and for other women. If we see a woman in trouble in the street, we have to do something. As men and women, we have to care for children and refugees. At the Women’s Forum, I learned that in Saudi Arabia, the word for refugee is “guest.” We need a shift in perspective.

Trust and care must become priorities for our generation.

I do see some positive changes in the business sphere. For example, Shiseido, the Japanese cosmetics giant, is reducing working hours so their employees spend more time with their families. Japanese culture places great emphasis on working long hours for social status and the country has the lowest birth rate in the world. Shiseido is literally turning off the lights in all their buildings at 7pm to make sure employees leave work. The head of Coca Cola just made a statement about being a feminist and committed to making the board of directors 50% female. Even if Trump is president, local communities, cities, and businesses will move forward. We don’t have to wait for politicians.

Deep divisions have come to light in the US, France. The meme is “cities vs. the country.” How can we best heal the divide?

 This is a consequence of urbanization; rural areas have been left behind. I think it can be partly resolved with movements to eat local and produce local, bringing more jobs and artisanal activity back to the countryside. We need journalists to cover what’s happening there, not just the cities, so the public grasps that reality. Life is harder in the country, the standard of living is lower, there are fewer options and facilities.

Here’s an idea: The European Erasmus program is the greatest success the EU has implemented thus far. Americans probably haven’t heard of it, but all EU university students can spend an academic year at another EU university, anywhere they want, Spain, Italy, Germany, 28 nations. It creates unity and pride in European identity. Perhaps we could set up an Erasmus program between rural and urban areas? Outside the cities, most people have no contact with minorities; they have no idea who they are. Racism comes from fear of what we don’t know, so if city people spend time in the country and vice versa, it could change things. If we can reinforce the idea of unity, we can solve many problems.

What do you see as the next step for gender equality, in the US, Europe? 

Mentoring is vital. Women must encourage other women to believe in themselves. Role models like Michelle Obama or Angela Merkel set a precedent, but there remains a great need for mentors, men or women, who stand beside us throughout our careers.

Rumor has it Hillary Clinton may run for Mayor of New York. How much impact could she have?

 As Mayor, she’d be the type of role model we need in New York and across the US, just as Anne Hidalgo is a great inspiration for woman entering politics in France. Hillary would be sensitive to discrimination issues; she could raise money and create programs in favor of girls and women. Most importantly, I believe mayors and local government are the ones who can bring about the greatest social progress. They have leverage that even presidents don’t have. In the US, a mayor can raise the minimum wage, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, educate and create awareness campaigns, establish a sanctuary zone. They can demonstrate and lead by example. Wellington, NZ, Mayor Cecilia Brown rode her bicycle to kick off Hillary Clinton’s official visit as Secretary of State. That was a strong statement.

Mayors are more like CEO’s than politicians. They can move faster than national governments. Mayors of the 40 largest cities in the world are acting locally with global impact through the C40 organization. They’re doing amazing things: reducing greenhouse gas emissions more than the COP21. So I think Hillary could have major impact as mayor of New York.

Where are you in your work right now?

I’m no longer president of One, Two, Three…Rap! My good friend Hatoumata Magassa has taken the helm and is opening an office near Paris, in the first ever Hip Hop cultural center in France. Our MOOC, “PimpMonAnglais,” was just selected as the “Most Original MOOC” at the Google France My MOOC Awards. It’s exciting to see my first venture growing up.

Charlene Ouarraki, Julien Fernandez, Gabriel Odin and sixteen Womenability volunteers are analyzing data from the World Tour for our final report, to be published on March 8th for International Women’s Day. Julien Fernandandez, Marguerite Carlo, and Ilona Mitrecey are editing our videos of outstanding activists and inspirational female mayors for a webdocumentary. Also in the works: exhibits and an international forum with the mayors and our partners, to expand awareness and share solutions.

Everything is on womenability.org

How do you see the world of tomorrow?

The future lies in the cities; they’re the solution, not the problem. They’ll reduce climate change, create less waste, recycle more. More people will be biking. Women will be safer. Women, minorities, and youth will be involved. Mayors, planners, all those creating cities of tomorrow, will include all ages and their visions. We’ll learn to trust and care for each other.

I’m very optimistic. Thomas Friedman said pessimists are often right and optimists are often wrong, but optimists are the only ones who change the world. I believe in my generation. We’re going to wake up and take action, get off social media, go out, be part of a movement, get our candidates elected, or become candidates ourselves.

Bio:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/audreynoeltner

NGO:

www.womenability.org

Association:

https://onetwothreerap.com

Press:

http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2017/01/21/les-femmes-et-leur-place-en-ville-de-baltimore-a-bombay_5066527_3224.html

My Interview with Gail Straub @ The Trump Antidote: Methodology for Resilient Resistance

(Some people have had a problem with the links on this page. Please excuse the inconvenience. They should be working now. Don’t hesitate to contact me!)

A New Era of Creative Change

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My interview with Gail Straub, co-founder and Executive Director of Empowerment Institute and the Imagine Global Initiative for the Empowerment of Women

The election aftermath: existential disorientation, radical creativity, fierce unstoppable action, the Beloved Community, grass roots activism, climate change, compassionate engagement, her article “John Lennon Lends Me His Glasses,”… and where we go from here.

www.thetrumpantidote.com/interview

Gail Straub: John Lennon Lends Me His Glasses

www.empowermentinstitute.net

www.imagineprogram.net