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Use the power of rituals to strengthen civic spaces

If you have ever been to a school board meeting that got heated, a city council meeting where there was more shouting than problem solving, or found yourself worried that people might start swinging at polling stations, you are not alone.

You, yes you, can lower temperatures, keeping conflict productive and stop it from slipping into problematic or violent action. Research tells us that something as simple as a leader standing up and saying “There is no reason we can’t work this out and we can do so without violence,” goes a long way in setting the norm that civic spaces, places where people come together to exercise their rights and freedoms, are safe. But this can feel risky. That is why we are encouraging leaders, people who are community pillars of all stripes, to adopt a ritual that helps them get in the right head and heart space to play the powerful role that only they can play.

You’ve probably stood with a friend, looking at a cold pool or lake and said “Let’s jump in three. One. Two. Three. Jump.” The stakes in civic settings may be higher, but the principle remains the same. Stepping up in these moments requires preparation, steadfastness and most importantly motivation to do what needs to be done.

Why rituals matter to us: tangible benefits for ourselves and our communities.

According to Harvard, a ritual is simply a predefined sequence of symbolic actions. They go by names including routine, habit, best practice, ceremony and rules of thumb. The book “Ritual, how seemingly senseless acts make life worth living” has shown that these practices offer beneficial effects that range from building social cohesion, to reducing anxiety, to helping us manage grief and change. Perhaps most importantly, rituals help us deal with uncertain futures. 

Rituals make change possible.

Rituals have powered political and social change before. In his book, “Waging A Good War,” the military journalist Thomas E. Ricks explores the extensive rituals used by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in their campaigns to secure civil rights. Particularly they used songs (which are proven to build resilience) and routine to build esprit de corps and individual fortitude. The SCLC’s deeply strategic handbook for freedom army recruits is full of direction on activities, demeanor and behaviors that the Conference’s leadership felt were critical for a successful nonviolent movement. But to follow this guidance under pressure, especially in jail as the strategy dictated, they needed rituals to give them resilience and perspective.

From bystander to temperature controller.

No one wants to feel like they could have done more in a situation that ended poorly. No one wants to let down their team, office, constituency, or community. So when the time comes, how can you move yourself from bystander to temperature controller? The first step is knowing your ritual, whether it’s taking a deep breath, rolling back your shoulders and standing straight or thinking of someone you admire. Here is a DIY ritual maker.

  • State an intention. Make a clear, short statement of your goals. Whatever works for you to have clarity. For example: Don’t let things go sideways. Don’t hide from the issue. 
  • Visualize someone you admire. Picture someone whose courage you admire, this gives you something to aspire to. It should be someone who showed real grace under fire. It could be someone famous like Muhammed Ali, Neil Armstong, MLK or Malala Yousafzai, or you can visualize someone who would be proud of you for taking action. It could be a relative, that person who can wade in when the family is about to go at it and redirect. It could be someone fictional like Black Panther or a character from “The West Wing”. 

This may be enough to get you ready, but if you want a few more steps in your ritual, consider these add-ons.

  • Align your mind and body. Breathing helps get you out of fight-or-flight mode. You can take three deep breaths, or do the five-finger breath where you trade each finger of your hand with the forefinger of your other hand, breathing in when going up the finger, and breathing out going down. This exercise relaxes you and moves you into the part of your brain that thinks more and reacts less.
  • Musical motivation. If you’re musically inclined, you can hum or sing your favorite hype song, or listen to it on repeat as a warm-up if you prefer not to sing. We recommend “The Fire” by the Roots. 

Cooling vs. appeasing.

People often ask whether helping to lower  temperatures is the same as compromise. It is not. In fact, it’s better if you do not try to address the underlying issue at all. Social psychologists have shown that ambivalence on issues maintains dislike between opponents, and decreases respect among allies. Your charge in these moments is to offer people perspective and a chance to step back, not solve the conflict. It is worth remembering that civil rights activists and many nonviolent movements around the world, did not compromise on issues. They didn’t seek to find a middle ground on equal rights and their vision of justice. What they did do was act with confidence and clearly and unequivocally show that violence was not the answer, even in the face of individual or state violence. 

Willing to be willing.

If you’re in a situation where you feel the temperature rising, but are on the fence about intervening, run through your ritual and see how you feel. The simple act of listening to a hype song, repeating a mantra, or remembering your role model might just give you the courage, clarity and confidence to go from nervous and frozen, to nervous and taking action anyway. 

Share your rituals with us so we can show other leaders how it’s done.

This entry was posted on Friday, June 21, 2024 at 12:36 pm and is filed under Coalition, connection and network building. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.