1. Spill red wine on the carpet.
2. Bring a 6-inch stack of photos from your just-completed family vacation.
3. Talk about excessive corporate influence in American democracy..
At The Story of Stuff Project, we’ve recently gotten a lot of comments from people who say: “I share your concerns, but I’m often not sure how to bring them up in conversations.” At a meeting last month, a man came up to me and said, “I love your films, but my friends aren’t talking about these things and every time I try to introduce these topics, I sound like a communist or a nag.”
Then last week, I was in a carpool and asked the other passengers if they were excited about the outpouring of people power in Wisconsin. A young woman actually put her hands over her ears and said “Stop! I can’t bear to talk about this kind of thing.” I was surprised: maybe it was her blue hair and lip piercing, but I just kind of figured she had an anti-authoritarian streak in her. I pushed, asking her why. She responded: “Because we can talk and talk, but nothing ever changes.”
OK, so it seems people are hesitant to talk about the really important issues of the day because it’s frustrating, it feels ineffective and sometimes, it’s lonely. It’s uncomfortable.
An ecologist friend told me that it is on the edge of ecosystem boundaries that the most exciting things happen. I think it’s the same with social boundaries: by stepping out to the edge of our comfort zone – and then maybe even taking one step farther – we can make exciting things happen.
We’ve got to figure out how to move the kind of conversations we need to be having as a society from the margins to the center of public debate. And that means we need to embrace the discomfort that comes with that.
We’ve been grappling with this at The Story of Stuff Project ourselves. Last year, we made three films on pretty straightforward problems: the wastefulness of bottled water, toxic chemicals in personal care products, and the mounting problems of e-waste from all our discarded, unrecyclable gadgets. While those are all really huge problems, it’s not that uncomfortable to speak the truth about them. And we didn’t meet a lot of resistance – few people push back and argue that reproductive toxins actually do belong in sunscreen.
But while making those films, and working with the super-smart dedicated activists addressing those issues, something was gnawing at us. We knew that there are deeper, often unspoken, obstacles to solving these problems. We also knew that talking about those deeper issues is hard and uncomfortable, and if you persist you may not get invited back to dinner.
But we’re in this to win, which means not just changing our shampoo brand, but changing the dominant paradigm, the fundamental assumptions that drive our unhealthy, wasteful and unfair society. We’re not interested in making movies forever while environmental health hits all-time lows and the income inequity gap hits all-time highs. We want to win: to get toxics out of products, to reduce waste and to build an economy that prioritizes the well-being of the planet and people above everything else, including corporate profit. And we can’t do that without talking about uncomfortable issues.
So we stepped right into that space of discomfort. We made an animated film about the problem of corporate influence in democracy. Check it out, and if you want to join us, please share it with friends and then talk about it.
And since we’ve been asked for practical tips on starting these hard conversations, here are some lessons we’ve learned over the years.
Start talking by listening. Listen to what the group is already talking about and make connections. Tying issues of sustainability, justice and democratic engagement to topics that are already on people’s minds provides a more immediate connection to otherwise abstract ideas. Are they teachers concerned about budget cuts at the local school? Parents concerned about harmful chemicals in everyday products? Commuters sick of traffic jams and longing for clean fast public transportation?
Lead with your values. Although we may wear different clothes, eat different food and sometimes seem outwardly different from one another, virtually all of us on this planet share a solid foundation of good values. We all want clean air, healthy products and good safe jobs. We want happiness and security and love. And we want these for our kids and our neighbors’ kids too. If we enter the conversation with those values, rather than by listing every corporate wrongdoing of the week, we may find more open minds and open hearts to make real connections with.
Be brave. Remember those who came before us, who weren’t afraid to raise those uncomfortable issues even when doing so risked losing their homes and jobs, sometimes even risked violence. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who kept speaking out against racism, even after his life was threatened and home was bombed. Think of Rashida Bee and Champa Devi, two women survivors of the Bhopal disaster in India, in which a U.S.-owned pesticide company leaked toxic gas into the sleeping city, killing thousands including members of their families. They haven’t stopped speaking out for 25 years. The courage of these people to step right into that discomfort zone made our world better. Certainly we too can find the courage to keep raising these hard issues until we get to the other side of the discomfort, where the solutions can be found.
Now you tell us: How do you find the courage and the tact to bring up the tough issues we need to be discussing in your communities? We need to know, because we’re all still learning.