The Judo of Change
Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 8:47AM
Kim Wilson

Hop (lightly) to the nearest bookstore, library, or Amazon one-click, to read Tina Rosenberg’s Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. For members and advocates of savings groups, this book has something to offer.  It serves up the “social cure,” which the author claims is key to solving stubborn problems like smoking or seizing basic rights like freedom.

Some chapters will reconfirm what you already know; others will shed light on ideas that you may have taken for granted.  At the very least, this book will justify your biases or because of its scant sources, bring them into question.

You likely knew that the geography of group membership matters, that proximity is key to unity. Yet, mega-churches across the world, or at least one called Willow Creek, have struggled with understanding the importance of nearness, preferring to organize small groups of members around affinity versus proximity.

Turns out, after years of research into the vanishing group problem, hip pastors landed on what savings group promoters have known for a long time: place matters.  Location-based groups trump interest-based groups, or so it seems. (Never mind Facebook and social media, that phenomenon is not adequately addressed in the book.)

But, here is something maybe you didn’t know: even place-based groups might not work. In fact, the Willow Creek experiment, detailed in the book, shows that neighborhood Table groups, as these social outcroppings are called, can fail.

They fail if you define success as group sustainability or as ease of manufacture. Table groups often don’t hold together over time and when they do a great deal of instruction, attention and commitment are the cause of their survival. Despite the dissolution of groups or the enormous investment in maintaining them, the multiplication of so many little neighborhood clubs, whether or not their groupiness holds over time, does bring about the transformational change originally sought by the community. People are less isolated, happier, whole.

There’s are lesson there for savings group promoters – maybe we should stop seeking group sustainability as a sign of success and turn our attention to the lasting changes enjoyed by group members and their neighbors.

Don’t worry, this book is not about churches, or AA, or fighting AIDS, tobacco, math clubs, or the social resistance that brought down Milosevic. Yes, it’s about all these things on the level of story-telling but at its root, this book deals with what makes human association hum.  And it’s loaded with credibility, sort of.  Read Rosenberg’s summary of Grameen II and you will know that she did her homework, if you call a CGAP template citation homework. Grameen groups are no longer about joint liability, where borrowers guarantee the success of other borrowers, or pay the price. But, the average journalist gets this wrong.  At least Rosenberg gets this right. She acknowledges that a borrower’s interest in respect from peers is pressure enough for her to repay her loan; she needn’t be threatened by a peer’s loss of services to keep current.

 I resonated with Rosenberg’s sketches of American life, and her glimpses into rural India, where she closely follows a few change agents to unlock their secrets of success.  

Sidebar: I was however a bit surprised at how scant her actual research was; it relied mainly on one book. But, Rosenberg did go to India in 2008 and interview the subject of her source, a woman named Sarubai Salve. That meeting appears as revelatory in the author’s depiction:

A few years ago, if anyone had asked me about the transformational ability of positive peer pressure, I would have thought of alcoholics Anonymous, and maybe nothing else. Now I see the possibilities everywhere. The movement that really drove its power home to me, however, came during 2008 visit to India. When I met Sarubai Salve, I was researching an article for National Geographic magazine about community health workers, not looking for join-the-club stories. But, it was a revelation to watch this steely, competent, authoritative woman – without a doubt the most respective woman in the village – and to realize how she became who she is.

My favorite chapter, the Judo of Fear, deals with potency of human networks in the Balkans. She says about CANVAS, the political action movement, which mobilized thousands of students, to take down a dictator,

“[CANVAS] teaches us the use of branding, humor, dilemma actions (note: the author does not explain dilemma actions), and techniques for turning fear to advantage. It shows groups how to make people want to take part by structuring the movement so that your members can see themselves, and be seen by others, as creative, clued in, valuable and heroic.”  

Is not that a great message for any movement, whether inspired by resistance or inspired by dreams? 

Article originally appeared on Savings Revolution (http://savings-revolution.com/).
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