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Transforming Despair into Action for Darfur

General Assembly 2007 Event 2046
Speaker: Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé (known as Frankie), from The Small Planet Institute, is best known for her book Diet for a Small Planet. She spoke on activism and dealing with fear, not only as it pertains to the conflict in Darfur, but in general. The Small Planet Institute is a source for solutions-oriented news stories and for further materials on Living Democracy. Her other books include Hope's Edge, which she wrote with her daughter, Living on Democracy's Edge, and her newest, Getting a Grip.

"Hope as a form of power" is the theme of many of Lappé talks—not schmaltzy hope, not just grasping at straws, but rather the hope that we find in action, in "random acts of sanity." She told the story of the gadfly journalist I.F. Stone, who was asked in the 1960s if anyone was paying any attention to his columns in the relatively obscure Village Voice. He replied, "If you expect to see concrete acts from your work right away, then you have not asked a big-enough question."

Lappé told the audience that "For too long it has been the 'evil others' who have been the problem, and to rid the world of evil, you supposedly have to get rid of those persons." She reminded the group that "ordinary people can become perpetrators of inhumane acts." It could be any of us who could become a killer, she said—for example, the situation at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq . She referred to "Social Modeling," as in the "ordinary people" in Hamburg 's Battalion 101 in 1942 becoming killers of 38,000 Jews. She also mentioned Prof. Phillip Zimbardo's controversial Stanford experiment in 1971 in which perfectly normal people administered pain to colleagues when they thought it was socially proper to do so, having been told to do it by an "authority."

According to Lappé, extreme imbalances in power provide the condition for allowing "othering," the anonymity that allows for inhumane acts. The building and sustaining of emerging democracies helps to ensure that these extreme imbalances do not emerge. The recent involvement of the rebels in Darfur in talks to stop the violence is the beginning of re-righting the balance.

We need to hear about the good news, too. The Human Security Report 2005 gives a more balanced perspective on the news, not just the bad news. Lappé gave some examples. One was that since 1988, more than 100 conflicts have quietly ended. "The single most important reason for the decline in physical violence…" she said, "is the upsurge in international activism. Another example is that eleven countries have reduced malnutrition to below 20% of the population.

"Bold humility" is the way to deal with fear, according to Lappé. "From evolutionary times, there is no stronger fear than that of being separated from the pack, which surely meant ultimate death" she said. But if you know intellectually that the pack (e.g. the government) is going in the wrong direction ("over the falls" is the metaphor she used), then you have to be bold enough to separate and go your own way, and that's very scary. Ideas are powerful and can overcome the natural instinct to stay with the pack, she said.

The "humility" part comes with the recognition that it's simply impossible to know what's possible; therefore we're free to do that which calls us, which in turn, allows us to become "hope in action." This leads to the "courage of an expanding heart," We can face the horror of Darfur or the homelessness in the U.S. without our hearts breaking. Lappé said "We must learn to weep, yet sing and celebrate at the same time." She quoted a Chinese philosopher who declared that "Hope cannot be said to exist or not exist. Rather, it's like the roads across the earth: when many people pass one way, a road is made."

On the unforeseen consequences of activism, she said "You never know who's reading your protest letters to the editor, or viewing your street protest." She told the story of six women protesting in the rain in front of the White House on the need for disarmament. Soaking wet and cold, they wondered why they were doing so. They later found out that Dr. Benjamin Spock drove by, and thought that if this meant so much to these women that they were standing out in the rain, then he should check it out, and he came to be one of the most prominent protestors in the disarmament and peace movements.

Reported by Allan Stern; edited by Pat Emery.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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