“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” Paulo Freire

By Maryann Kerr

I’ve thought a lot about the work of Paulo Freire and Saul Alinsky in the context of the many conflicts we see play out in the public realm and through social media. The concept of power has changed immeasurably since Freire wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972) and The Politics of Education (1985) and Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals (1971). Social media has democratized discourse. It has shifted the perception of power. It is also brutally reductive.

Perhaps it is time for new rules of engagement given social media’s ability to easily draw battle lines and deepen polarization. Perhaps we can lean into the systems thinking theory of equifinality and agree that there is more than one right answer. Perhaps, instead of insistent demands for an apology, delivered exactly as those harmed expect it to be delivered, we can make space for grace and humanity. Perhaps we can avoid taking up the tools of the oppressor.

The alleged perpetrator of the harm is, in true Alinsky form, targeted, focused upon, publicly named and shamed and battle lines drawn. With many public conflicts, the approach is exactly as Alinsky suggested. Though we have issues with our institutions and systems, it is far more effective to target an individual.

Rule 11: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame. According to Alinsky, the main job of the organizer is to bait an opponent into reacting. “The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength.”1

Those who are publicly maligned are accused of being fragile or manipulative should they show their tears. They will be accused of centering themselves and lacking humility. Their very human response to a difficult situation is weaponized.

As we watch these stories unfold, the vast majority of people either don’t have a clue what is going on, or they feel they know enough to choose a battle stance, or they stay by the sidelines afraid to step into the arena. Some of us, who have been in the arena long enough to have read Alinsky and Freire before many of the current players were born, are battle weary.

Nuance, complexity, humanity, plurality — all of these are missing in the way we relate with one another these days. The discourse is mean-spirited. Accusations are cruel. So too the racism, homophobia, ableism, hetero and neuronormative biases — among others.

Recently, in one of the several naming and shaming posts of which I’ve been the subject, several well-known sector leaders suggested it is time I move over and make space for the voices of Black leaders. I’ve been told that my voice is no longer appreciated. I’d suggest that made me sad but will refrain and refer you to the paragraph above on fragility and being self-centred.

The thing about ‘space’ is that it is not finite. Not really. Not in the way we use it in this context. Even in the context of the Star Wars version of space there is no definitive answer. Some scientists say it is finite others say it is not.2 I want to live and work in spaces that believe there is room for my voice as well as the voices of everyone else who chooses to lead. That said, I will make space for another voice, by retiring the Thinking Out Loud column. To those who will cheer — I’m sorry this is what brings you joy.

As I leave this writing gig, I find myself in a place of wonder. I wonder if we need greater perspective and more love.

Do we need perspective like astronauts3 gained by looking at the earth from the international space station. They call it the ‘overview effect.’ If you have twenty minutes, there is much to be gained by watching the 2012 documentary of the same name. These astronauts had profound realizations: that human beings are nothing more than stardust, that we are one species with one destiny, that we require a cognitive shift to our basic worldview that sets aside our differences for a common goal.4

We need love of the kind shared by Indigenous author Robin Wall Kimmerer in her 2003 book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, she writes:

“In indigenous ways of knowing, it is understood that each living being has a particular role to play. Every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story. Our stories tell us that the Creator gave these to us, as original instructions. The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well.”5

I hope that someone will take up the call to write in this space. I hope they will use their gift to share their own flawed thoughts and humanity. It has been one of the great privileges of my career to be able to think out loud with each of you. Wishing you lives filled with peace, love and purpose.


Maryann Kerr is Chief Happiness Officer, CEO and principal consultant with the Medalist Group. Maryann is a governance, leadership and culture specialist, has worked in the social profit sector for 34 years and helped raise over $110M. She is an associate consultant with Global Philanthropic Canada. Maryann is a sector leader with a passion for her social justice, feminism, and continuous learning. Maryann’s first book was published by Civil Sector Press in 2021: Tarnished: Let’s rethink, reimagine and co-create a new social impact sector. Maryann earned her CFRE in 1997 and her master’s in organizational leadership in 2016. She is currently exploring opportunities for a Ph.D. or perhaps a second book. She writes this column exclusively for each issue of Foundation Magazine.

1 Rules for Radicals – Saul Alinsky (
2 Is space infinite? We asked 5 experts (
3 The OVERVIEW Effect | A short Documentary Film – YouTube
4 Ibid

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