Doing what one can with what one has…
In ‘The Professional Radical’, Marion K. Sanders quotes an interesting anecdote. He says one of the greatest political organizers the world has ever seen – Saul Alinsky was once lecturing at a college run by a very conservative, almost fundamentalist Protestant denomination. After the lecture was over, some students came to Alinsky, and narrated their woes.
Their problem was that they couldn’t have any fun on campus as the authorities would’ t allow them. Earlier in the lecture, the speaker had talked about the strategy of effecting change in the society. He had gone to talk at length about various rules, ifs and buts governing the tactics involved as part of a bigger political strategy to bring about a desired change.
Certainly, for the students already ragged by strict rules and regulations at the campus, it was a God-sent opportunity that the biggest organizer of the time was around in the campus. In his lecture, Alinsky talked about the biggest mantra of his career as a public organizer — doing what you can with what you have got!
Obviously it seems way too simple a thing for anybody to heed it seriously. But give credit to the American academic culture, the students there believe in simple things and act on them with sincerity of purpose and actually use these simple means and methods to solve even the most complex of problems. This is a general culture propagated by the colleges and the universities there. So the students, despite their misgivings, had no reason to doubt the efficacy and potential of this counsel.
“Now tell me what have you got?” asked Alinsky to a group of students who sought his counsel about their situation. “Practically nothing,” said the students, “except you know we can chew gum!”
This visible resignation and hopelessness in the students’ answer notwithstanding, the organizer knew what to do with it, and how to go about with what his people (the students) had, to bring about a change they wanted.
He said, “Fine. Gum becomes the weapon. You get two or three hundred students to get two packs of gum each, which is quite a wad. Then you have them chew it and drop it on the campus walks. This will cause absolute chaos. Why, with five hundred wads of gum I could paralyze Chicago, stop all the traffic in the Loop.”
Now isn’t it too simple a tactic for anybody to believe that it would work? Obviously the students felt no different. They looked at the organizer as though he was some kind of a mad man.
“Come on Mr. Alinsky you must be crazy; but we are not. We came to you seeking your help in making our campus authorities to concede some concessions, but here you are telling us a funny joke! You must be nuts to believe that it will work and we must be absolute idiots to carry it out in such a hope. Go away; we were fools to have come to a joker like you.”
This is how the students might have felt, but they opted not to utter a word. Perhaps because they didn’t want to be rude to the guest. The students left and the organizer too flew back to some other town to counsel some other people about how he felt political and social change could be brought about.
After about two weeks, the organizer gets an ecstatic letter from the students saying, “It worked! It worked! Now we can do just about anything so long as we don’t chew gum!”.