Is it time for Transformation to be transformed?

The editor of openDemocracy’s Transformation section will be leaving in 2020. Where should it go next?

Michael Edwards
17 October 2019, 4.26pm
Blue Diamond Gallery/Nick Youngson. CC BY-SA 3.0.

“All great stories are love stories in one form or another, but the story of love and justice hasn't yet been told. With your help we aim to put that right. Welcome to Transformation.”

Some things you write have to be forced out like a stopper from a bottle. Others flow without much effort - like the quote above - which emerged from nowhere to land on the page just right.

It concluded a piece I wrote to launch a new section of openDemocracy called Transformation seven years ago, which was designed to provide a platform to explore the links between the ‘personal and the political’ in every sphere of life - or as our strap-line puts it, “where love meets social justice." There can’t be a revolution ‘out there’ without a revolution ‘in here,’ but the one doesn't out-rank or pre-date the other; they have to move in step.

The integration of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ change in this way is an old idea of course, with its roots in Gandhian teaching and the social-spiritual traditions out of which it grew, and emerging strongly in feminism and other social movements in the 1960s, but it’s also an idea that retreated substantially from progressive politics and activism from the mid-1970s onwards. In my view, that retreat weakened efforts to transform society by hollowing out the emotional heart of the left, promoting factionalism and narrow-minded thinking, and alienating potential supporters. Transformation is part of the re-awakening and re-integration of that personal-political tradition.

1,263 articles later we’re still going strong, publishing most recently on ‘mindfulness and social change,’ the trajectory of progressive politics through the lens of Woodstock’s 50th anniversary, the meaning of stress and mental health under capitalism, and how to go deeper in movements to address climate injustice. But by the time I leave the editor’s seat in 2020 it will be eight years under the guidance of one individual, which is more than enough. In anticipation of the need for new energy and leadership it’s a good time to reflect on where the section goes next, and to invite suggestions and feedback from our audience. Specifically, is it time for Transformation to be transformed?

Throughout our existence we’ve been guided by a philosophy that seems just as relevant today given the fractured and distorted landscape of politics and civic action: love is the anchor or inward expression of social justice, and justice is the outward expression of “love in calculation” as Martin Luther King once described it - a conscious design for remaking the world around a radically-different rationality than self-interest. Deep transformations are possible when love and justice reinforce each-other to create a permanent shift in direction among human beings and the institutions they create.

For example, there will be no end to patriarchy without deep-rooted changes in men’s behavior; no solution to climate change unless all of us reduce our consumption and carbon footprint; no decline in inequality unless we learn to share resources with one-another; no meaningful democracy until we work through our differences in a spirit of common purpose; no lasting peace if we continue to project our fears and insecurities onto other people.

But turning these examples around, there must also be real and living forms of politics, social relations and economics that grow from and reinforce the best qualities we want to nurture in ourselves. 'We must be the change we want to see in the world' is a favorite quotation often miss-attributed to Gandhi, but it’s equally true that ‘we must see the change we want to be’ – otherwise transformation is pure theory. And that means showing people that real economies can deliver justice and wellbeing; that real politics can bring people together to break the logjam of vested interests; and that real collectivities – families, communities, churches, social movements and states – can operate without reinforcing inequality and discrimination.

Along the way we’ve tried to challenge the reluctance of many progressive activists and writers to take the personal dimensions of social change as seriously as the political, by showing that personal change is not New Age narcissism; rather, it means engaging in the daily struggle for dignity and justice in a different spirit that opens up more effective routes to action.

At the same time we’ve also aimed to challenge the reluctance of many spiritual, psychological and self-help advocates to take the political dimensions of personal change as seriously as the inner life they espouse, by showing that love flourishes more easily when new institutions are built on sharing and solidarity instead of the mindless pursuit of competition, growth and power.

In that sense Transformation is not another good-news magazine. Instead, it’s been a place to engage with each-other about the realities and struggles of the radical imagination.

I think this philosophy continues to provide a fresh and rewarding frame through which to explore the urgent issues of the day, as well as the possibilities for deep-rooted change in the future. Perhaps it's even more relevant now given current trends in politics, activism and social media, which often seem to be animated by the worst expressions of ourselves instead of the best - fearful instead of generous, small- not open-minded, hate-filled instead of compassionate. But the ways in which these issues are explored, interpreted and prioritized must keep moving forward in order to stay relevant, take advantage of new opportunities and reach a bigger audience.

For one thing, the media landscape in relation to Transformation’s mission has changed since 2013. New networks and websites on both sides of the Atlantic have emerged to join established partners like YES! Magazine, Waging NonViolence, Daily Good and Kosmos - a welcome sign that the movement to revive the personal-political frame is growing. Seven years ago there were three or four places to publish the kind of content that regularly features on Transformation; now there are 25-30, not to mention the rise of generalist sites like Medium and The Conversation which also carry some articles with a similar sensibility.

openDemocracy itself has also changed, with new sections being launched that cover at least part of Transformation’s mandate – such as ourEconomy and partnerships around ‘depolarization.’ The traditional decentralized structure of the site is being replaced by a push for greater integration, though there will still be a role for projects and ‘affiliates’ which – like Transformation throughout its existence – have been autonomous.

The site is experimenting with more multimedia content and new strategies for building reader engagement, though Transformation’s format to date – three text articles per week of around 1,500 words each with the occasional debate in the comments section or a video or audio clip - is more traditional. So going forward it’s important to ask:

  • what exactly is Transformation’s niche in this emerging landscape as it continues to grow and diversify?
  • what kinds of content might be most effective in reaching more readers, contributors and partners?
  • and what structure or structures would best support these objectives - autonomous or integrated into the core of openDemocracy, or some mixture of the two?

In order to answer these questions it’s important to canvass as broad a range of views and voices as possible among our readers, partners, colleagues and contributors, and to that end I’ll be reaching out in the coming months to invite feedback on our work to date, as well as ideas and suggestions for the future. You can leave a comment below this article on any of the questions I’ve raised (or others that interest you), or if you prefer, you can contact me by email here.

Please don’t be shy! Self-critique and imagination are essential ingredients of any transformation worthy of the name. We shouldn’t be afraid of transforming Transformation.

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