In 2016, as I engaged with activists worldwide to discuss the increasing wave of authoritarian populism, I felt uneasy about the prevalent warlike language permeating our conversations. The rhetoric surrounding the enemy, organized armies, committed soldiers, and innovative weapons seemed out of sync with our shared concerns for democracy, human rights, and social justice.
Around the same time, I was discovering Lakoff’s book "Don't Think of an Elephant!" where he illuminates the profound connection between language, cognition, and the construction of reality. Drawing from insights in neuroscience, Lakoff argues that the mere act of verbal expression holds the transformative power to shape and mold our understanding of complex issues. Specifically, he explores how linguistic framing can evoke and activate mental frameworks, demonstrating that discussing concepts in terms of opposition inadvertently engages the cognitive structures one seeks to challenge.
It was within this context that I sought an alternative metaphor, eventually discovering the appropriateness of the jazz band analogy during a meeting of European donors in Paris, organized by Ariadne
In stark contrast to the rigid structure of orchestras, inherently unsuitable for us social-justice warriors and rebels at heart, where a single director dictates every move and musicians obediently follow predetermined music sheets, the jazz band metaphor beckons activists to envision a collaborative effort unfettered by a predefined script. It not only recognizes the imperative need for diverse instruments but also advocates for a departure from a one-size-fits-all approach, fully acknowledging the complexity of the challenges we face.
Activism, akin to a jazz band, thrives on fluid leadership, allowing individuals to shine in their best light. Different forms of activism, from grassroots organizing to community education, policy advocacy, direct action, and culture change, play diverse roles contributing to a shared vision. In this dynamic setting, each activist takes turns in the spotlight, appreciating one another's strengths in various contexts.
This dynamic also holds true in the narrative field, where diverse stories, formats, messengers, and audiences come together as a unified tune, sharing values and a worldview that communities can dance to and sing along wherever they go. Some stories activate supporters, some engage flexibles, and some neutralize antagonist messages, but together they wield power in creating meaning and facilitating lasting social change.
Working as a jazz band necessitates activists to master the art of riffing off each other, understanding strengths, weaknesses, and coordinating seamlessly. Recognizing when to step forward or support others is vital for creating a harmonious impact, tailored to the demands of each circumstance.
This metaphor becomes particularly relevant as the challenges of our time demand continuous adaptation to the energy in the room. Activists must learn to adjust their performance to play the type of music aligned with their goals. This flexibility requires honing skills in audience research, understanding the differences among supporters, flexibles, and antagonists, and being receptive to feedback on what resonates.
If activism is envisioned as a lively jazz ensemble, freedom and improvisation are foundational, but basic agreements are necessary for a harmonious impact. Activists must align on the collective key they operate in, preventing a cacophony and allowing each individual to play freely while showcasing their expertise.
This shared key is akin to the meta-narrative or the Northern Star—a guiding principle that aligns the ensemble's efforts. It serves as the essential agreement allowing for coordinated improvisation amid the diversity of styles and voices. This key is woven from the fabric of shared values and the worldview that fuels our collective dreams of dignity, care, and liberation. We must ensure we build a shared and textured understanding of these values.
Just as a jazz band's performance thrives on the synchrony of instruments playing in the same key, our shared foundational agreement empowers activists to operate cohesively amid their differences. It becomes the rhythmic backbone, facilitating seamless collaboration.
In conclusion, the jazz band metaphor emerges as a profound lens to navigate the intricate landscape of advancing global social, gender, racial, and climate justice activism. Its value lies in its capacity to seamlessly integrate diverse efforts while accommodating the nuances of local contexts, unique skills, and essential flexibility.
Recognizing that each activist possesses a distinct role and a valuable contribution, our shared challenge is understanding the right audience and discerning opportune moments to step forward or graciously yield the spotlight. The futility of appointing an orchestra director or imposing rigid music sheets becomes apparent when considering the dynamic nature of our collective work and the rebellious aspect of our characters.
Let us collectively abandon the pointless uniformity. Instead, celebrate the diversity within our groups and recognize each activist's perfection for a given occasion. The specter of inhumanity is among us, and the substantial challenge we face demands our collective strength. Let’s identify who excels at what, strengthen bonds, and practice playing with each other. Let’s embrace trial and error as part of our collective learning journey, finding joy in the process and inspiration in each other.
By embracing fluid leadership, appreciating the diverse strengths each activist brings, mastering the art of riffing off each other, and skillfully adapting to the energy of the room, activists can compose music that resonates with society, enticing people to dance to our beat.
Mónica Roa is Founder and Executive Director at Puentes, Inspiratorio's home.