Lisa Bracken on Negotiating Real Social Change

How do you negotiate with somebody who has more money than you? Strength in numbers. It might not sound like a revolutionary idea. It sounds simple enough. But if that’s the case, why do so many people feel like they drew the short straw?

The problem is twofold. Having enough people who want change isn’t enough. They need to work together as part of a coordinated effort. But there is a cath-22. Once you place somebody in charge of your side of the negotiation, how can you trust them to use their newfound power in your best interests?

Lisa Bracken has some ideas. Her book, You and What Army?, lays down a game plan for achieving social justice. An important part of the process is the creation of “cloud coalitions,” groups of like-minded allies who work together but don’t necessarily require central leadership.

Her central point? Change is inevitable, chaos isn’t.

The Interview

Welcome to Trending Sideways, Lisa.

Thank you, Carter, for inviting me to participate in this interview. It is a privilege to share some of the concepts from my new book with your readers.

So Lisa, your book, You and What Army, is a guide for organizations and groups of people to negotiate their way out of a marginalized position. I usually think of negotiation as occurring between two people in roughly the same situation. When people with less power try to negotiate, their demands tend to fall on deaf ears. If I can point to a current example, there is an activist campaign to occupy Wall Street happening right now. People are being beaten and maced in the streets, and the story isn’t even making the news. Without “leverage,” how is negotiation even possible?

You’re right, we generally think of negotiations as occurring between two opponents who are relatively equitably situated. But access to justice is trending sideways, away from traditional approaches to political and legal representation as well as the fair administration of justice. This trend has been driven by the power of corrupted authority in the form of inappropriately influenced public policy.

Today, the gulf between those with resources and connections to influence and those without is widening. It has, in fact, widened to the point of creating a chasm. People don’t fall into cracks anymore. They get sucked into the chasm.

every system…from education to governance, food production to health care…all of them are connected to one another. Decay in one, spreads to others, like disease can infect the body.

Our modern society has become interdependent upon vast and complicated systems. These systems have resisted adaptation due to an adherence to status quo, driven by those in a position to reap the most reward from them. This has invited decay, and weakened these systems to the point of failure. That is because every system, from education to governance, food production to health care, transportation to telecommunications and infrastructure – all of them are connected to one another. Decay in one, spreads to others, like disease can infect the body.

When any one of those systems experiences significant disruption – whether external or internal, the repercussions are felt throughout the overall socio-political structure. At a time of recession and inappropriate corporate influence over political policy, our systems are simply experiencing more pressure than they can withstand. They haven’t just lost functionality. They now represent a risk of inward collapse.

When persistent conflict attempts to block access to conduits of resolution, resistance will increase.

The social justice movement, ‘Occupy Wall Street’ is a symptom of how broken systems adherent to failing status quo can manifest social unrest. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ is just the beginning. Increasingly, we will see broad and loosely organized social collaboration toward desired reform. When persistent conflict attempts to block access to conduits of resolution, resistance will increase.

Of course, chaos is an unnecessarily difficult path forward for everyone. Fortunately, social unrest and the causes of it can be efficiently guided in a positive, mutually beneficial direction. Intelligence gathering, elevating public awareness, coalition building, and harnessing principals of law… these can all be applied as tools of equity.

Once leverage is gained, constructive compromise can more easily reign. “You And What Army?…” specifically discusses effective techniques to productively guide all types of contemporary conflict toward adaptive transformation, which is a necessary mechanism of healthy societies and political policy.

You make a good point about the interconnectivity of the social, political, and economic systems. For the most part, the people who control these systems have similar class interests, and those interests don’t always align with the rest of us. But, as you said, chaos is not the ideal way to change that system. Your guidebook proposes a solution.

You refer to this process as an evolved negotiation campaign. Why did you choose this name?

Negotiation is a process, and it’s a relatively simple one… an ancient concept which involves narrowing contentious issues and finding resolution through a series of objections, concessions and compromise. But, as I note in the book,

“Efforts at conflict resolution among relatively equal adversaries have frequently launched with a conversation and ended with some agreeably constructive compromise… negotiating.

Sometimes, impassioned arguments are heard before a council or perhaps facilitated by a respected neutral party… mediation or arbitration.

Sometimes, the participant in possession of the bigger stick simply smashes their opponent.”

Today, average Americans are experiencing a lot of smashing with sticks, which is disagreeable to most of us on the receiving end.

Each of us can rebuild our negotiating equity through situational scrutiny; working together at a grassroots level and broadening our coalitions of support; devising sound strategies; engaging one another across social and mainstream media; generating leverage and, once in that coveted position of influence, work cooperatively to effect positive change. This is the essence of an evolved approach. And it works.

Some have said you have to have money in America to make a difference politically. I don’t subscribe to such an assumed, confining and artificially imposed construct.

Some have said you have to have money in America to make a difference politically. I don’t subscribe to such an assumed, confining and artificially imposed construct. I believe all you need is a healthy sense of personal responsibility and integrity together with learned skills and a dedicated passion for justice. Fortunately, those are qualities available to everyone.

As the book reveals, evolved negotiations represent an incredibly productive and accessible pathway toward productive transformation, particularly for those without resources… for those on the edge of the chasm and those who are struggling to climb out of it. You And What Army?… is the manifesto of the 99 percent if there ever was one. It is a conversational blueprint toward constructive re-growth, beginning with the people… the quiet, everyday heroes called to leadership in times of vacuous crises.

The idea that money is necessary in order to create real change is based on one big assumption: money is the only source of power. This is completely untrue and I’m glad that you have exposed this widespread myth.

With that in mind, why do you believe that this is the most effective method of negotiation? Does your argument come from personal experience, various success stories, or from an intellectual perspective?

An evolved approach is the most effective method of negotiating systemic failures represented by contemporary conflict because it fearlessly embraces conflict, encourages compliance through mutually beneficial cooperation and reasonable compromise toward genuine stability.

This approach evolves conditions together with adversaries in order to efficiently and effectively minimize risk, enhance opportunity and enact transformation – hence the name.

Stability is far more inviting of adaptation than a brittle, broken structure incapable of recognizing its own weakness.

Stability is far more inviting of adaptation than a brittle, broken structure incapable of recognizing its own weakness.

My belief in this approach is buoyed by personal experience, broad study of conflict in general, and intellectual reasoning.

I’ve experienced the extraordinary and relatively rapid benefits of this approach in working to evolve the energy industry, arguably the most powerful, under-regulated and resistant economic sector on our planet.

In working to elevate public awareness of operational risks, such as hydraulic fracturing, and bring about accountable and sustainable energy development, I recognized the challenges, opportunities and timeline then structured an evolved approach.

Upon reflective examination of similar conflicts throughout history, I discovered a similar pattern of systemic failure particularly relative to times of necessary but stifled growth. These moments in time were protracted and quite chaotic… periods of great socio-political disruption.

In accordance with my own approach, however, the concepts in “You And What Army?…” outline an orderly approach toward stable, measured, more predictable and therefore conducive systematic reform.

Good point. The goal of any system should be stability. When a system is defending itself overzealously it means that it is confronting inherent weaknesses. If the evolved negotiation approach incorporates this into its reasoning, it has quite a bit of merit to carry it.

So, getting back to our opening example, how would you deal with the situation on Wall Street? Following a massive bailout from the government, the banking industry only seems to have expanded it’s demand for more power. Banks are increasing fees on checking accounts and suing foreclosed homeowners. There are other examples I’m sure you can point to. What advice could you offer to the activists, students, and unions who are trying to incite change on Wall Street?

Change is inevitable. The idea is to guide it in a productive, positive direction, inviting all of humanity to participate in shared, lucrative evolution.

As a tool of change, cloud coalitions can be initiated, leveraged and guided.

In the book I introduce the idea of a “cloud coalition”; that is, the creation of a loosely organized coalition of surrogates who may or may not even know one another, but who share similar values and whose collective efforts toward reform can produce momentum, yielding leverage and the actuation of transformation. The cloud coalition is a tremendous tool of leverage which I, myself, have implemented, and I’ve seen take shape both spontaneously and as a seeded effort. As a tool of change, cloud coalitions can be initiated, leveraged and guided.

Guidance is of critical importance. Frustrated change has historically represented unfortunate periods of chaos. Chaos can be induced, and is easy to instigate; but, it is also extremely ineffective toward a targeted and efficient end goal.

Genuine, productive and efficient change fearlessly embraces conflict, approaches resolution from a point of fairness and endeavors to fix the problem through cooperative engagement.

As a society in the throws of necessary but stifled socio-political growth, we have an opportunity to productively guide the change we wish and expect to see.

In this time of recession, many people have begun to view Wall Street as an unfairly rewarded model of unearned wealth and avarice.

The conflict represented by ‘Occupy Wall Street’ should not be viewed as an overly simplified ‘problem with demonstrators’. In this time of recession, many people have begun to view Wall Street as an unfairly rewarded model of unearned wealth and avarice. It has then come to represent the infestation of greed and its corrosive influence on democratic politics as well as democratic values and opportunities. It now typifies ‘what is wrong with America’, which certainly points to broader system failures inclusive of corruption, waste, abuse, neglect and insular dismissal.

President Obama recently characterized the movement as an ‘expression of frustration’, which, in part, appears obvious. But, such a cursory assessment also minimizes what the occupation of Wall Street really is. It is a rupture of a decaying system no longer capable of serving its intended purpose. It is a symptom of failed adaptation. The occupation of Wall Street represents people in pain… the people who make America, not the people who buy and sell America.

Regardless how adamantly out-of-touch politicians from the left or the right would like to minimize this symptom of failed governance…, you cannot minimize 99%.

Regardless how adamantly out-of-touch politicians from the left or the right would like to minimize this symptom of failed governance, and regardless how robustly corporate dollars endeavor to finance that perspective, you cannot minimize 99%.

Thus far, demonstrations have been largely peaceful despite police efforts to curtail demonstration. This speaks to the shattering still of the dignified oppressed.

But, a continued dismissal of the root cause of these demonstrations are sure to produce more, which in and of itself can be helpful in illustrating the real challenges of advancing our systems into more productive models.

As has been demonstrated throughout history and around the world, the real danger isn’t in political demonstrations; it is in the persistent denial of why they are occurring.

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