Fitness, Practice, and Social Change

A central component of any change process – personal change or organizational change – is the concept of practice.
— Ng’ethe Maina and Staci Haines, The Transformative Power of Practice

I’ve been thinking a lot about practice recently. My current practice is pretty good: on weekdays, I get up, exercise almost every day, work at a job that is fulfilling and that I generally enjoy, eat good and reasonably healthy food, drink good beer, go to bed. I generally take enough down time on the weekends to recharge and keep in house in order, and I spend enough time with my spouse and kids to maintain good relationships with them. Over the years I’ve learned how to respond to most difficult situations with patience, humility and compassion instead of anger, frustration and insecurity. In Maina and Haines’s terminology, I’ve been intentional enough about changing my practice that my default practice now aligns pretty well with my “present-day values, politics, [and what I] care most about” (I should also note that I have been lucky/privileged enough not to have experienced the kind of trauma that can lead people, for reasons of immediate survival, to develop practices that in the long run are not healthy/aligned with their values/etc.)

Still, there are things that I would like to do more of: writing (beyond what I do at my job), composing and playing music, and being more involved in local political work. To some degree, these are limited by the number of hours in the day, but I recognize that if I want to find the time to spend even a few hours more on these activities, I need to change my daily practice.

I’ve also been thinking about practice a lot because I recently, largely by accident, became part of a fascinating and compelling online community of people who attended one of the institutions of higher education that made up my somewhat checkered higher-ed career. Over the past six months, this community — originally devoted almost entirely to witty banter mocking the seriousness of official alumni publications — has become equal parts comedy improv troupe, free-ranging discussion forum, and on-demand support group for any number of issues, with a good dash of exhibitionism, flirtatiousness and hedonism (“drink threads” are de rigeur on weekends, and common during the week) thrown in.

One of the things that I find especially fascinating about this community is how people have started using it as a sort of accountability mechanism to change their practice. As in, literally, people will post about something that they intend to do (but might be worried they won’t actually follow through on), in order to be “held accountable” by the group.

This is most noticable in a spinoff group devoted to fitness. And, even without having had a conscious desire to improve my own fitness practice, I have noticed that the ritual of posting my daily workout to the fitness group, reading other’s workouts (at all levels — from starting to get off the couch to qualifying for national triathalons), and us all encouraging each other with comments and “likes,” has increased the length of my runs, the intensity of my gym workouts, and my curiousity about other forms of exercise (I’ve even flirted with the idea of re-learning how to swim).

The world of fitness, of course, as both a social phenomenon and a capitalist industry, has done an exceptional job figuring out how to create this kind of culture of accountability and encouragement. The kind of camraderie formed at races, in zumba and spin and yoga classes, etc., is crucial to the industry’s profitability and growth — and this has naturally spread to social media.

Now, I have fitness goals (it would be great to lose the noticable beer belly I’ve had for the last 5 years or so), but I’ve got other goals as well, as mentioned above. Many of these not-fitness goals, especially writing about politics and culture, are essentially social (I want to change society), even if the mechanism (writing) is a solitary activity. So I find it kind of ironic that I am currently, in essence, pursuing my personal goals in a social manner, while I think of the work to pursue my social goals as something that I just need to “find more time for” in my personal life. (To be fair, this is probably exacerbated by the fact that my spouse and I are both doing essentially social and political work at our jobs for 8-10 hours per day; it’s just the “extracurricular” social goals, as it were, the ones I don’t get paid for, that I’m talking about here).

I don’t think this is totally uncommon. We know (from opinion polls, surveys, our own door-to-door work) that people want the world to be a better place. Yet even our most popular actions are dwarfed by the number of people who turn out for 5Ks every weekend. Our job, as a movement, is to help more people — if we want to succeed, millions of people — feel supported and accountable in being part of changing the world, in ways that are effective and also doable. To grow to scale, we can’t just “organize” people as we currently understand it — getting them to participate in social-change organizations through repeated reminders and turn-out calls and so forth, and if we’re lucky recruiting a few more volunteers to help us with the turn-out calls — we need to bring people to a place where “showing up” for justice (in whatever way) becomes part of their default practice.

I think part of the appeal of the fitness world is precisely the kind of casual camraderie of racing or taking a class together, or being part of an online fitness community. It is precisely that kind of community that capitalism has hollowed out, especially in recent decades as the massive disruption of globalization has forced people to move and the casualization of work has made it difficult to even maintain regular social practice within families, let alone the (generally) less intense social interactions of friendships, reading groups, bowling leagues, etc.

In this environment, most of us struggle to maintain two really intense relationships: one with our job (or jobs), and another with our partner and/or immediate family (or spending energy trying to find or establish one). These relationships, even when not fraught with oppressive power dynamics, are extremely high-stakes, and thus I think are actually particularly ill-suited places to think about changing our practice. In these intense and high-stakes 1:1 relationships which structure the vast majority of our waking hours, we dig more deeply into our default practices, and we’re also less likely to hold the other person/institution accountable, even in the smallest of ways.

And, the problem with so much movement organizing is that we expect people’s relationships to our organizations to mirror the same kind of intense relationships we have with our employers (especially if we, ourselves, are professional organizers or staff of social-justice organizations) and our families. Perhaps not consciously, but subconsciously — we always talk about wanting to provide “easy asks,” low-intensity ways for people to participate (such as signing petitions), but at some level we’re just scanning the petition signers for potential “leaders,” people who could be brought to having the same intense commitment to the organization as we do. We rarely think seriously about how people could particpate in and be accountable to the organization in the way that they are part of and accountable to their spin class.

So, I have a couple of questions I think we should be thinking about (and I welcome thoughts in the comments):

First, how do we (not just people who currently identify as movement organizers, but anyone who wants to see a better world), provide ourselves and others with a structure that allows us to pursue our social-change goals with a similar flexibility, accountability and scalability as, say, the world of running (while recognizing that it’s much harder to do something when it’s (a) not generating profit and (b) actually threatening people with power).

Second, since I sort of work in the intersection of technology and social change, are there existing platforms, apps, etc. that include similar social-accountability mechanisms as the fitness-based ones yet are flexible enough to be used for social-change goals? Is there something already developed for social-change purposes that organizations could use and experiment with? If not, is there a need for one?

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