The Political is Personal–And Vice Versa

This is the third in an ongoing series of posts about organizations I will be featuring in my forthcoming book, Connecting the Dots. Previous posts covered:

Stranger’s Guide

Zebras Unite

The Commons Project

The next one will explore the Mary Hoch Center for Reconcliation

While supposedly writing my next book, I took a detour and read John Kotter, et. al., Change, Jeffrey Kottler’s book with the same title (albeit with a different subtitle), and Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici’s The Systems of Work of Social Change, all of which I’ve reviewed separately elsewhere—just click these links. They are three very different books that approach change from very different perspectives, but they all revolve around a phrase that has been at the center of everything I do since I first encountered it in the early days of the modern feminist movement in the 1970s. 

The political is personal. Since it is an intransitive sentence, you can just as easily flip the word order and view it from another productive angle. the personal is political, too.

These three books reinforced the idea that if you start from a systems or complexity perspective, the first version of the sentence is easy to see. If you dig “downward” from the political realities of our interdependent world, their  personal implications.

More importantly, it helped me clarify the potential that lies when you do flip the sentence. Seeing those personal implications, in turn, points us toward ways in which we can intellectually move “upward” and see ways to change the political world.

Reading them didn’t quite take me back to the drawing board in writing Connecting the dots. However, they did help me see some of the key points I will be making more clearly . Even more importantly, they reinforced a shift in my approach to the project that has been brewing for some time. 

I’m not just writing a book about movements I like. I’m also helping them succeed.

I also know that I’m not going to be the make-it-or-break-it  person who determines whether or not they take off. I also know that I’m not likely to live long enough to see the massive social transformations all of them are working for.

Still, it is fun—and rewarding—to be engaged as a participant observer with the emphasis shifting increasingly toward the participant rather than the observer as the words accumulate in my cloud storage account.

The Political Becomes Personal

I didn’t need these three books to be depressed about the fact that, as George H. W. Bush liked to put it, “we are in deep doo doo.”  Nor is that conclusion likely to come as a surprise to anyone reading this post. Taken together, however, they helped me see that it the doo doo is actually deeper than we realized. Not only do we lack both the political institutions and the political will enable us to clean up the mess , we haven’t fully recognized that coping with the doo doo has to bring out the very best in us, which will be the key point of the second half of this post.. 


I can work through the first one very quickly. Not only are the problems we face serious, but our inability to deal with everything from climate change to racism to the failures of our democracies has deepened the disappointment, impatience, and anger so many of us feel.

Each issue we face calls out for immediate action, including the ones that have been around “forever” like racism in the United States or that are likely to be around forever, like climate change.


But we can’t “simply” approach the problems one at a time.

I have used systems theory and complexity science as the starting point for everything I do since I first “met” the former as a sophomore in college in 1966. In the 1970s, I added the idea of wicked problems and, more recently, intersectionality and complexity to my conceptual tool kit.

Whichever term you prefer, they all describe the world we live in today. Everything is interconnected, including the problems we face. Again, that is a point I already made in the first draft of Connecting the Dots. However, after reading these three books, I will do more with their historical and cultural implications.

I’ve been a fan of Kotter’s notion that we are in the middle of a major historical transition between two of what he calls human operating systems. The modern Industrial Age was built largely using one that focuses on hierarchy and top-down leadership. The world that is emerging today will require a different one that is based on networks,  engaged individuals, and a view of authority that stresses the power I exert with you rather than the power I hold over you. Kotter argues that the firms he advises have to use elements of both. I now realize that the groups I’m working with do, too, but that they are also helping us all navigate this transition. 

Meanwhile, Rayner and Bonnici talk about the how deeply the systemic crises affect us down to the cultural level, which is another way of saying the individual level. They draw out attention, in particular, to the ideas laid out in an article by Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz which I also read as a college sophomore on what they called the two faces of power. The first is the one Kotter and so many others get at—the way we actually go about making decisions. The second face determines the issues that actually make it onto our agenda by determining the problems we “see,” take seriously, and the like. That, in turn, reflects cultural norms which, for instances, “blinded” us to the importance of LGBTQ+ issues for decades.

As they put it,  our problems

Derive from the values, norms, and beliefs that we bring into our daily lives. This is the most elusive and controversial of the characteristics of (today’s) social problems (p. xxvii)

Personal Congruency

That takes us to the political as personal.

As a long-time systems theory guy, this third point has always been at the heart of my work on one level. If everything is interconnected, everything I do—and everything I don’t do—matters. I may not be able to change the world singlehandedly. But, my actions count. As does my inaction.

In an interconnected and intersectional world, that literally includes everything. I’m not saying that one could or should work for social change 24/7. I’m pretty sure you can’t do that, because I know that I can’t. I need time for friends and family. I also need down time. I spend more time than I care to admit reading mystery novels and watching sports on television, because we all need to relax.

But then, in recreation, we literally re-create ourselves.

Those caveats aside, I have to pay attention not only to the immediate effects of what I do, but on its indirect and often quite distant impact as  my actions ripple out across every system and network that I am a part of.  In other words, the ways I deal with my family members or the young people I work with is every bit as important as the ways I interact with my political colleagues and adversaries.

Shortly after I discovered systems theory, I started exploring social and, later, clinical psychology which is why I somehow stumbled across Jeffrey Kottler’s book on personal change. In barely three hundred pages, he works through most of the key approaches to personal mental health stressing the ways in which the seemingly competing schools of thought overlap rather than differ.

Central to it all is Carl Rogers’ idea of personal congruence which I encountered first as a graduate student in the early 1970s and which I now see in three complementary ways. 

  • Rogers is best known for his sense that we are healthiest when the various parts of our own personality are in sync with each other
  • That can only happen when we are, in turn, in sync with the realities of the world around us—including its shortcomings
  • You have to spend your whole life redefining what it means to be congruent because both you and the larger ecosystems you live in are constantly changing as well

Put simply, if we want to do intersectional work well, we have to not just deal with our internal demons, but we also have surface all of the often unspoken mental models we use when we make sense of the world and determine what to do about it. Then, we also have to develop the mental tools that allow us to make a commitment and stick with it, because changing the world is the work of an entire lifetime—and probably longer.

When I blend what I gleaned from Kottler’s book with the lessons of systems theory as outlined by Rayner and Bonnici as well as Kotter, I found myself returning to the work of therapists like Carl Rogers who talked about our need for internal congruence or finding ways for our personality traits to reinforce and even amplify each other. Now, however, I’m convinced that we  have to seek the same kind of congruence between our own internal needs and those imposed on us by the larger systems of which we are a part.

That starts with what my colleagues call self-care which is another reason why I was drawn to Kottler’s book which pulls together much of what is known about the overlaps among the dozens of schools of thought in mental health. I have personally been involved in a number of efforts to provide social and psychological support for activists during the pandemic. However, I want to farther here and suggest that we all need to sustain our own balance during these tough times, including those of us who organize such efforts. That involves striking a balance between understanding the impact that the social and economic forces beyond our control have on us and then figuring out how we can best respond to them both today and for the long haul.

In my own case, that has meant spending my entire political and professional career exploring why I do what I do, which includes noticing and assessing what I don’t do. That, in turn, takes place on two levels—in my political work itself and in my work with my therapist with whom I’ve just “celebrated” our tenth anniversary.

The Personal Becomes Political

But I hear you  say something like, “gee, it’s great that you feel better about yourself and your relationship with the cosmos, Chip, but so what?”

Here, when I flip the order of the sentence and ask how the personal then shapes the political and build from the individual to the larger world, I draw three conclusions about what we all could and should do. They point to a new kind of activism that may help us create what the MacArthur Foundation calls in its tagline, “a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.

Emphasis on “may.”

In other words, this focus on the political implications of the personal is one of the common denominators that define the groups I’m working with and including in my book .

Be Constructive

The first one might seem trivial at first glance. However, it is not.

Ever since my days as an anti-war activist in the 1960s, I have rejected the use of all forms of violence as a political tactic. That certainly includes physical violence but it also has led me to avoid protests that carry with them any hint of coercion, although there certainly are times in which one has to say “no” in the loudest possible terms, including on several of the issues we face today.

But non-violence only tells me what not to do. 

As discussed by the likes of Rayner and Bonnici, systems theory points us toward actions we could take that are constructive and make things better especially in the medium- to long-term. As they see it, acting constructively from a systems or complexity perspective entails fostering connections that will in time lead to a redistribution of power and other resources. In their words, that means working through groups that

can be purpose-built to forge new relationships, building connections that nurture a new way of seeing the future (p. 53)

Those two terms deserve a bit more attention though I would  place them in the opposite order for the purposes of this blog post:

  • Nurturing new ways of seeing the future. We may not be able to define exactly what a better world might look like a decade or so from now. However, can identify some key positive goals that we are shooting for. So, it behooves us to ask what an America that has finally confronted its racist past would like? Or, a United States that provided health care and other basic social amenities to everyone? Or, perhaps, most importantly, what a world would be like once it has dealt with the climate crisis, something that Kim Stanley Robinson has done in his remarkable new novel, The Ministry of the Future.
  • Building new relationships. To me that means means going beyond the ones we are already a part of. In this case, that means reaching out across issue and, especially, ideological divides on the assumption that we can at least gradually find ways of working together toward these and other common goals. We may not know exactly how we will get there, but it is obvious that we won’t reach any such goals with expanding the network of individuals and groups that want to put themselves on the right side of history.
Start With Bight Spots

What I’ve just said is all well and good. Still, statements like these can often be little more than some nice words. And, as we all know from critiques of performative stands taken by some corporations and politicians on racism or climate change, statements unsupported by actions can be utterly meaningless–or worse.

Each of these books reinforced a key point I’ve long made about building on what are known as bright spots or positive deviants. As analysts like Chip and Dan Heath have shown, there is almost always something that is  “working” in the most dysfunctional system. Along those lines, the organizations I’m working with have identified individuals, organizations, and places where intriguing initiatives on race, the economy, climate change, and the like are already under way.

Whether you are talking about individual (Kottler) or corporate (Kotter) health, the key isn’t just identifying those bright spots . As we all know from our own failed New Years’ resolutions, the challenge is to keep them going. Hence the importance of everything from establishing routines to devising metrics against which to judge progress to holding celebrations to mark key milestones. Bright spots are particularly useful because success with one of them can readily open the door to identifying other potential bright spots your team can create next.

Congruence matters here, too. I’ve seen too many movements get derailed when they adopt tactics or otherwise engage in ways that conflicts with their core mission and values.

Build to Scale

That inextricably leads to the thing that all those organizations want to do—take their initiatives to scale.

As I wrote a few months ago, going to scale is not simply about growing the size and/or the impact of the organizations I am writing about. It also involves what I’ve been calling going to scale inward in which we, again, see the importance of joining the personal with the political.

I liked these three books because they each focused on the way individuals and societies transform themselves. In their own very different ways, they make a point that I’ve been harping on at least since the 1980s. Those of us who think of themselves as agents of social transformation have to transform ourselves as well. We will not succeed unless our own thoughts and actions are consistent with the kind of society we want to create. 

No one I know fits the bill (yet) on that front.

To be sure, going to scale will involve developing new roles and routines, establishing new authority flows, and forging new decision making structures that are far more inclusive than anything we’ve imagined before. Organizations will have to be less hierarchical and more agile. Individuals who have historically been excluded from those decision making circles will have to be empowered. Those of us who have lived lives of privilege will have to learn how to share those privileges. As my colleague Adam Kahane describes it, we will also have to see that one of our key challenges is to get rid of the obstacles that keep people from reaching those transformational goals.

As that happens, we will make progress in a number of directions that Rayner and Bonnici helped me clarify far more than I had in my book or my political work so far a version of which you can see in this graphic from the Collective Change Lab where Rayner now spends some of her time. As they and the people I’m working with all see it, the “deep relational world can” help us:

  • Cultivate new collectives or groups of individuals who share a common set of values and a Creating a collective sense of “we-ness” that at least obliquely leads people to question cultural norms about powerHelp them create new networks and platforms that amplify their work 
  • Empower those individuals and organizations so that they can be true problem solvers
  • Develop leadership at all levels, especially at the grass roots
  • Disrupt existing power relationships and replace them with new policies and institutions that in keeping with our interdependent and intersectional world in which it is obvious that the political is personal and vice versa

How My Role Will Change

These three books did more than just sharpen the focus of the one I’m currently writing. 

They helped me reshape the way I do all of my political and professional work in whatever time I have left/ 

In particular, I’ve decided that I’m not “only” writing a book. As the Farmers Insurance ad on my Saturday football games puts it, I’ve been around for a while an “know a thing or two” about movement building (but not insurance). So, while I don’t have the time to work with all of the twenty or so organizations I’ll be profiling in the book, I have chosen to give a significant chunk of my time to two that lie outside of peacebuilding where I’ve made my home for the last fifty years.

With any luck, both of these new endeavors will be rewarding—and fun—for all concerned. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.