Juicy Trouble

Interesting, these early days of Troublemaking. Or maybe manic is the better word? As emotions ping from giddy to terrified, as I go from feeling like a visionary to a fool. Some days, I proudly proclaim, “WE’RE TRYING TO START A MOVEMENT.” The next day I can’t summon the courage or clarity to say what in the world we’re doing. On those days, the only movement I want to start is out the door.

Alternatively exhilarating and humbling, this risk-taking stuff can leave you looking for something to hold onto.

Last week was one of those humbling weeks. I was in Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, one of South Africa’s poorest provinces, working with principals and school administrators from “disadvantaged schools”. Male and female; veterans and newcomers; white, black, and brown; each of these people was distinguished by his or her humour, wisdom and resilience. South Africa’s education system is in deep distress (me being kind), a climate in which it’s so easy to resort to ranting and finger pointing. And yet these Principals approached their challenges with empathy and balance, genuinely searching for solutions rather than feasting on problems. I kept thinking of those Hollywood movies about heroic principles who transform schools by wielding baseball bats and pithy sayings, all set to a searing soundtrack. Hollywood hasn’t come calling for these folks yet, but they sure looked like heroes to me.

And there I was, little old American white lady me, intoning about the importance of “courage” and “bold leadership”. To people who contend everyday with 50-60 children in a classroom, routine power outages, gangs, drug abuse, and physical threats. “Now go make some trouble!” I urged them, seriously yet cheerfully. Right. To people who know Trouble. Intimately.

I kept waiting for one of them to point out that when your work is a daily battle for survival, you don’t pick fights. Even moral ones. You put your head down and hope to make it to tomorrow.

I kept waiting for one of them to call me a Fraud.

But, remarkably, they didn’t. Maybe because I admitted up front that my Troublemaking cred is fairly thin — that my biggest regret was not having made more Trouble in my life. Vulnerability is a great leveler.

Remarkably we spent two very rich days together, exploring why Troublemaking mattered and how to do it in real life. Among other things, we discussed the difference between “good” and “bad” Troublemakers, pirates who pillage versus pioneers who forge new paths. I framed our version of Troublemaking as constructive rather than just disruptive, and explored how adherence to principles rather than the pursuit of power drives good Troublemakers. The Principals related that South Africa’s history of Troublemaking usually involved “scorched earth”—destroying in order to create something new. That violent confrontation is perceived as the only way of boldly pursuing an agenda for change. So to reframe Troublemaking as a gradual, generative process of pursuing those bold visions for social change seemed to energize these Principals with a new sense of possibility.

And, over the course of our two days together, I might have found some things to hold onto: ideas that could serve as a foundation for this burgeoning Troublemaking Movement (Yes, I used the word. Today’s a good day.) I started playing with how effective Troublemakers work along a spectrum from persuasion to protest, artfully deploying a range of strategies to advance their Mission depending on the circumstances they’re confronting. How conscience, organizational capital and professional credibility give us the platform to make really juicy Trouble.

Daniel and I know that to give meaning to Troublemaking beyond a motivational device, we need to dig deep into how to make it work over time “back at your desk.”

So as we bring our Troublemaking ideas to different audiences we see great opportunities to play and experiment with them, to learn together about practical strategies for Troublemaking and create a shared body of knowledge. Not to just make us feel good, but ultimately to be able do more good. That’s the point, isn’t it?

For so many around the world, it takes real courage just to show up to work every day. How do we leverage that everyday courage for greater social good? To, for instance, transform education globally?

Exhilarated. Humbled. And Grateful. That’s how I felt when I said goodbye to Port Elizabeth. I know it’s still early days here at Troublemakers. But I expect I’ll continue to feel that way for many days and months to come.

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