The Bottom-Up Revolution: Rob Kall’s New Book for Activist Teachers – and the Rest of Us

Rob Kall, the editor-in-chief of OpEdNews, has just published the book all social justice activists and progressive teachers need to facilitate their work. In fact, it’s a book I wish I had when I was teaching in the Peace and Social Justice program at Berea College in Kentucky. But more than that, Kall’s Bottom-Up Revolution: Mastering the Emerging World of Connectivity is a perfect text for secondary and post-secondary courses in history, sociology, political science, critical thinking, writing, and even economics.

What makes the book so attractive for such venues is its accessibility. As such, The Bottom-Up Revolution represents a highly practical guide that every student needs to make sense of and navigate social contexts increasingly connected by computer technology and social media. If you want to help your students translate their inherent computer savvy into a force for social change, Rob’s book is for you. It will literally teach them to blog and use Facebook, Twitter and other social media to transform the world.

However, The Bottom-Up Revolution is far more than a how-to manual for students. In simple terms everyone can understand, Rob explains why his paradigm shift from top-down to bottom-up thinking and organizing is absolutely necessary for anyone concerned with social justice. And Kall illustrates each point with insights garnered from the high-profile thought-leaders he has interviewed over the years on his popular Bottom-Up radio program.

Among others, those referenced at length include David Korten, Medea Benjamin, Fritjov Capra, Daniel Ellsberg, Henry Giroux, Glen Greenwald, Richard Wolff, and Howard Zinn. Calling on such experts, Kall’s chapters address the revisioning of journalism, media, arts, entertainment, government, politics, diplomacy, activism, capitalism, banking, marketing, and even happiness relative to success, health, spirituality and community. Many of his points are illustrated with smart allusions to popular films and with other cultural reference points guaranteed to resonate with his readers.

Central to Rob’s argument is the paradigm shift our times require in order save our political system, our planet, and our very lives. It’s a shift from the top-down approaches we’ve all been taught by the patriarchy in charge of our families, educational systems, media, and churches. The values sustained in all those contexts favor hierarchies that are big, centralized, and competitive. By contrast, bottom-up values move towards the beauty of smallness, towards localization and cooperation.

And there’s abundant reason for moving towards a bottom-up approach. It’s because, Rob suggests, those at the bottom of our inherited social hierarchy possess perspectives that tend to be fuller, more informed, and more insightful than those at the top.

Think about that for a moment. Those of us who are rich and/or comfortable – those who typically “lead” our dominant institutions – actually have very limited experience and awareness.  They live in communities that are pretty much siloed and gated. As a result, they lack consciousness of the way the world really works for most people in the world.

Wall Street executives, with their top-down approach to economy, can function quite well while ignoring society’s marginalized. The poor, after all, are located in other parts of town. Most even in the middle class never enter their homes or schools. The comfortable have no immediate experience of hunger, coping with rats, imminent street crime, living on minimum wage, or cashing in Food Stamps. Even if they notice the poor occasionally, the comfortable can quickly dismiss them from their minds. If they never considered the poor again, the rich and middle class would continue their lives without much change. To repeat, they have very little idea of the lived experience of the world’s majority.

That becomes more evident still by thinking of the poor outside the confines of the developed world who live on two dollars a day or less. Most in the industrialized West know nothing of such people’s languages, cultures, history, or living conditions, whose numbers include designated “enemies” living in Syria, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen.  Even though our governments drop bombs on the latter every day, they can remain mere abstractions. None of us knows what it really means to live under threat of Hellfire missiles, phosphorous bombs or drones. Similarly, we know little of the actual motives for “their terrorism.” Syria could drop off the map tomorrow and nothing for most of us would change.

None of this can be said for the poor and the victims of bombing. They have to be aware not only of their own life’s circumstances, but of the mostly white people who employ them, shape their lives, or drop bombs on their homes. The poor serve the rich in restaurants. They clean their homes. They cut their lawns. They beg from them on the streets. The police arrest, beat, torture and murder their children.

If the U.S., for example, dropped off the planet tomorrow, the lives of the poor would be drastically altered – mostly for the better. In other words, the poor and oppressed must have dual awareness. For survival’s sake, they must know what the rich minority values, how it thinks and operates. They must know more about the world than the rich and/or comfortable.

Even in practical spheres of daily living, those at the bottom of the social ladder know more. They typically can grow their own food, repair their machines, take care of animals, and just “make do” and survive in ways that would soon become apparent to all of us if the electricity stopped working for a few days.

That’s why when the bottom-dwellers develop “critical consciousness,” their analysis is typically more comprehensive, inclusive, credible, and full. They have vivid awareness not only of life circumstances that “make no difference” to their comfortable counterparts; they also have lived experience of life on the other side of the tracks.

For Rob Kall, benefitting from the perspective of the world’s conscientized majority, and reading their philosophers, theologians, activists, and social analysts can turn perspectives upside-down. It can change understandings of history, economics, politics – and even of theology and God-talk.

Such upside-down vision forms the heart of The Bottom-Up Revolution. Its down-to-earth explanations and practical, encyclopedic guidelines make it an indispensable source for teachers of critical thinking and their students as well as for activists and community organizers.

With its emphasis on such perspectives, Rob’s book will inspire students and others to form and change the top-down paradigms with which “normal” educational patterns have indoctrinated us about specifics relative to the following categories and more:

 * Economics: Older, top-down models present economic responses to crises in terms of government bail-outs of huge banks and too-big-to-fail enterprises. The bottom-up approach helps students think locally to realize, for example, that 98% of jobs come from small businesses. Imagine, Rob suggests, what would have happened had President Obama channeled his $ trillion-plus rescue plan into local communities rather than into the coffers of the huge banks criminally responsible for the 2008 Great Recession.

* Globalization: Bottom-up thinking recognizes that globalization’s present forms have actually recolonized the world rather than empowering citizens at the local grassroots level. For instance, micro-loans in Bangladesh (as small as $ 27) have changed poor women’s lives far more than corporate investments in the country’s economy. (And 99% of the loans have been repaid on time!)

* Power: Here the bottom-up approach is not about “power-over” enforced by guns and tanks, but “power-with” based on attraction and persuasion. Bottom-up power recognizes that today’s technology has thankfully diminished the influence of government and its media allies while empowering people’s organizations and crowdsourced information. The process in question actually resets existing power balances and directly impacts government and social activism.

* Diplomacy: In contrast to the top-down approach, emerging forms of diplomacy are no longer confined to exchanges and agreements between government officials, corporate representatives and lawyers separated from ordinary citizens. Instead the bottom-up strategy is inclusive. It realizes, for instance, that all sectors of society have stakes in trade deals. Accordingly, workers, mothers, fathers, children, the indigenous, environmentalists, and the unemployed and homeless all need voice and vote at the negotiating table.

* Revolution: All of the above means that the Kall’s bottom-up approach is entirely revolutionary. It’s about replacing whole systems rather than merely reforming existing structures. True, it sets David against Goliath. But our author’s point is that the Davids are winning. They are more versatile, dynamic, and adaptable than their relatively immobile and unresponsive behemoth opponents.

* Activism: To my mind, Kall’s pièce de résistance comes with Medea Benjamin ‘s contribution about activism. As a founding member of Code Pink, she explains how she has made it her policy to regularly interrupt powerful people as they hawk top-down thinking and policies. In fact, Benjamin has made it her policy to do so about once a month – including on one occasion President Obama. Under Rob’s prompting, Benjamin explains her method step-by-step, from how to get into a meeting, where to sit, what to say, how to react during arrest, and how to get bailed out, It’s all quite remarkable.

So is Rob Kall’s entire book. As I said at the outset, it’s a source I wish I had at my disposal when I was teaching peace and social justice studies. Secondary and post-secondary teachers should adopt it for the fall semester, 2019.