In recent months I’ve noticed a new way of social activism emerging in Jordan and it’s happening on a grassroots level. By grassroots I am referring to something that is taking place on a societal level and not by government bodies, institutions, NGOs or social entrepreneurs. Different issues, causes and people have been coming together in very small amounts to fight for something that can be carefully categorized as a problem for the Jordanian society as a whole.
The problem is, a common thread that seems to run throughout these movements is that the people behind them and the people that seem to flock to them are from a certain segment of society that is somewhat disassociated with the problem. In other words, the issue they are fighting for or against is not necessarily an issue that affects them personally, but they feel a need to play a role. And this is great. I am not one to come down on any form of social activism.
However, this brings me to the topic at hand: how social is our social activism?
Yes, there are issues being fought for and there is movement by some who are typically western-educated, middle-to-upper class people living in west Amman. However, when these people fight for a community they are relatively disassociated from, to what extent is that community involved.
From observation, I can safely say that most NGOs and government bodies in this country have often dictated to communities what they think is best for them, all the way from their offices in Shmisani. Few of them have worked in the communities they operate in – the communities they advocate for, the communities that find them spending massive amounts of money, time and effort.
The same might be said for this new wave of social activism that seeks to be grassroots yet seems fairly disconnected from the communities they seek to empower. Don’t get me wrong, the affluent segment of society in this country, or what we commonly refer to as “West Ammanis”, do indeed have a lot to offer. They are, by nature of their backgrounds, change-agents. However, what remains comes down to the approach. How do west Ammanis tackle societal problems that they are not necessarily connected to? How do they create change in communities without being a part of those very communities?
The danger lies in their tendency to apply ideals that are incoherent with the majority of this country – a majority that operates, thinks, and behaves in a certain way. This tendency might stem from the very background of a traditional west Ammani. Let’s face it, we’re stuck in a bubble. Personally, one of the biggest problems I’ve faced on a daily basis is the need to think outside the bubble I inhabit, no matter how thick its ozone layer is. Otherwise, whatever solutions you think of, whatever methods you choose, whatever initiatives you take may not be applicable when forced to consider the voice of the majority. And whatever way you look at it, you will always be the outsider with outsider ideas and ideals, trying to enforce change in an otherwise contently static status-quo.
So what’s the perscription?
To get a better sense of things, I’m forced to look at what is perhaps the largest and fastest-growing community in the world right now: Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg, its founder, once famously said that “you don’t start communities, they already exist.” In other words, the question we should be asking is how we can help them do whatever it is they want to do or are already doing, better. Give them, what Zuckerberg cleverly refers to as “elegant organization” (see: What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis).
In other words: the role of a grassroots social activist in Jordan should be to help create real change in a community by empowering that community to do things for themselves. It’s the only sustainable method. And in the process, the most you can hope to offer them is a bit of elegant organization in order to help them do what they truly want to do.
And by the way, on a side note, just because they might not be doing something you think they should be doing, doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It’s their community. It’s their way of life. It’s essentially their choice. I am completely tired of a small sliver of people dictating to a large majority how to behave, think, speak, act, live and operate. It is not only elitist in its most purest form, but borders closely on pre-historic colonialist views on the oriental world that often send shivers down my spine.