"We can’t force people to come out of their comfort zones. They need to be inspired." - Sean Devlin. Photo by Jeff Petry.
From our increasingly-trashed environs to corporate influence on everything that matters, I turn into a real sad sack if I spend too long pondering the big picture.
Turns out I'm not overdramatic - or at least I'm not alone.
Yes Lab "thought stylist" Sean Devlin of Shit Harper Did - a comically depressing website listing the PM's most horrendous accomplishments - feels it, too.
The long-haired, indoor-toque-wearing Vancouverite was in town November 8 on the Serious Issues tour, teaching activists how to move past played-out chants and tying themselves to things and instead stage actions that go beyond preaching to the choir.
The ongoing tour is a shared project of the Sierra Youth Coalition, the Yes Lab and TruthFool, the creative agency Devlin runs with Cam Dales, his Shit Harper Did co-conspirator.
"To be acutely aware of how messed up things are right now is to be overwhelmed, without a doubt," says Devlin. After years of giving his life to environmental activism, he says he fell into a depression with the failure of the Copenhagen Accord. His doctor told him to stop reading the paper for a while - a prescription that made him realize that sometimes apathy is just a method of self-defence.
But instead of shutting down, he decided to try organizing with a new tactic: jokes. "Humour is an escape - not from the truth, but from despair," he tells 15 well-groomed 20-somethings and one long-haired middle-ager gathered in a classroom at OISE for his day-long workshop.
The teaching session is full of live-action role-playing, storytelling training and tips on attention-grabbing. Among the video examples of past activist successes, we watch Occupiers who've infiltrated a foreclosure auction suddenly break out in a beautiful and unending musical lament, shaming potential buyers and shutting down the proceedings.
Then there are the Hamilton environmentalists who dress up as Conservative party hacks and ask flabbergasted folks on the street for donations to the oil sands - to match those the government is already offering in tax breaks.
Of course, its hard to talk about this kind of activism without mentioning the Yes Men, the corporate imposters who spawned Yes Lab, for whom Devlin works. Their stunts include deluding the media into believing Dow Chemical was planning to clean up the Bhopal disaster. In July, the group launched a faux Shell campaign urging an end to over-concern for animals and the environment "because you can't run an SUV on cute."
The workshop's take-home messages seems straightforward: most people love to laugh and don't like being lectured to, so discover a way to communicate that builds bridges instead of walls and lets people participate.
While I surely came in with my own preconceptions - the last room of activists I was in featured endless variations of bed-head - the message hits home. What can I say? I love and admire people who care about the world around them, but I can't say I've ever felt at home with the chanting, property destruction and all-or-nothing approach to activism.
To my more radical acquaintances, I'm part of what Devlin calls the "spectrum of allies"- a sympathizer who might be pushed away by the wrong approach.
"Sometimes we end up saying to these people, ‘How can you not care about this as much as I do?' and focusing our anger on our spectrum of allies," he explains.
"We can't force people to come out of their comfort zones. They need to be inspired."
That theory is put into play during the day's role-playing. When participants are told a chemical company has moved into their fictional community, they're given a few minutes to organize - and almost all quickly resort to chants and barricades. The choice of tactics leaves self-proclaimed moderate Ryan Brideau standing idly by.
"It's unfortunate that in many cases, the first action people take is either violent or involves strong language," he says. Despite his presence at the workshop and concerns about burning fossil fuels, Brideau is hesitant to call himself an activist - a term he thinks has a branding problem.
"If you could get through to people that you don't need to look and act a certain way to care about issues, you could bring a lot more people to your cause," he says. "I don't think that's a message some in the activist community are open to hearing."