Larger social change and permanent institutional change is not easily created by working within the system, by working within existing institutions to create that change. When working within the existing institutions, we are limited by the ways those institutions “frame” problems and solutions, and by the existing powers-that-be and by habitual routines to which people are accustomed. At best, very minimal, gradual, incremental changes result, and it is virtually impossible to pursue successful, major efforts to take needed, completely different approaches to change.
At the same time, there are many significant problems with trying to create change completely outside existing institutions. First of all, it is hard, if not possible to be “outside the system.” Alternative schools, for example, may appear to be outside the system, because they are separate from existing schools, but they are still inside the dominant system of education and subject to legal, funding and attitudinal constraints. Alternatives “outside the system” can present worthwhile models to emulate, but in order to have impact they must somehow begin to be in “contact” and dialogue with the existing system.
This is the role of what, over the years, I have called “experimenting communities.” And to a significant extent, WISR was founded as an effort to create an “experimenting community.” Such groups/institutions . . .
• are committed to engaging their participants in ongoing participatory inquiry and collaboration, in order to improve their groups/community’s practical efforts, AND to continually re-evaluate their values and purposes;
• are open to people from all walks of life, and honor the knowledge and experience that each person brings to the effort, including for example, the powerful and the disenfranchised, people of all generations, people from wide ranges of ethnic groups and economic circumstances;
• are concerned with both immediate tasks and the bigger picture (of long-term, larger-scale change);
• promote meaningful relationships among their participants, and provide their participants with the interpersonal support and intellectual stimulation to aid their participants efforts to create change BOTH within and outside existing systems; and
• more specifically, help participants to build bridges to their sought-after, next important steps in their lives, and in their endeavors to collaborate with others in creating constructive, imaginative, changes.
To further dialogue about this notion of “experimenting communities” that are both “inside” and “outside” the system, and their role in helping to support progressive social change, I wish to mention to previous articles that I co-authored. Both articles give important insights into some of the ideas behind WISR’s founding and subsequent efforts to keep WISR alive and “true to its early principles.” And they provide food for thought for others who wish to use similar ideas to form their own groups and institutions that will support others working for social change.
The first article was written with a colleague of mine in the College of Community Services at the University of Cincinnati (1971-73), Harry Butler. Upon my arrival at the U of Cincinnati as a very young idealistic professor, I persuaded Harry to work with me to convince others at the College to allow us to initiate an experiment there–an “Individualized Learning Program.” We got the program off the ground in the 1972-73 academic year, with about 30 undergraduates participating, and with Harry and I as the main faculty involved (along with several others on a more peripheral basis). Most of these 30 students helped us to plan the implementation of the program, and when I left to return to the Bay Area after that academic year, the students who had not yet graduated worked energetically and resourcefully to preserve the program’s integrity at least for a couple of years. The program continued to exist on paper quite awhile after that, however. Harry and I felt it was important to articulate many of the nuances which distinguished this experiment (kind of an early version of WISR that existed within a traditional university) from most other efforts to create “innovative” and “individualized” approaches to higher education in the 1970s. In reading this article again tonight, I am aware that the distinctions that we emphasized then still hold true today, and the qualities of the “experimenting community” and script improvisation approach that we were attempting to practice are qualities that are very important even today in what some of us call the “WISR way.” Those who wish a copy of this article should request a copy by e-mailing me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The second article was written in 1980 by three of us who founded WISR (along with a fourth colleague, Barbara Valentino). That article looks at the “bigger picture” of needed social change for social justice, and asks the critical question, “does alternative higher education need an alternative.” In re-reading the article tonight, I believe that we saw even then how most of the best efforts to create alternatives in higher education were being co-opted, and despite the best intentions of some, these efforts were moving toward support of the status quo rather than progressive social change. This article may be found at: href=”http://commons.wisrville.org/files/2012/02/ihe.bilorusky.et_al.pdf
I believe that a critical examination of the valid points as well as the limitations of these articles and perspectives may provide for further dialogue at WISR as we discuss how to move forward in ways that keep the best of WISR and WISR’s integrity intact, while aiming to enable WISR to make a most significant impact on society, for example, by supporting some of the most important sentiments and commitments thus far expressed in the 99 percent/occupy movement.