Marshall Ganz, an expert on community organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is no stranger to social movements. He came of age with the civil rights movement in Mississippi, and César Chávez and the United Farm Workers in California. He also mentored many of the young activists who became the backbone of the Howard Dean and Barack Obama campaigns. (Ganz is a major character in my book, Herding Donkeys. Nation subscribers should also check out Sasha Abramsky’s profile of Ganz this week).
Last year Ganz spent time in Jordan and Syria training a new generation of community organizers in the Arab world. In Jordan, Ganz hosted a training for civil society groups convened by the mayor of Amman. Over Thanksgiving break, he worked with budding youth leaders in Damascus, under the auspices of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad.
He reflected on his recent work in the region after watching pro-democracy movements in Egypt and Tunisia with great interest. “My experience was a groping toward reform,” Ganz says. “That has been playing out in different ways.”
The protests in Tunisia, Ganz said, “lit a spark of hope” across the Arab world. “Without the anger, there’s no motive,” he says. “Without hope there’s no sense of possibility.”
Ganz’s words conjure the rhetoric used by Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign. Ganz said the young people he met in Amman and Damascus were fascinated by Obama’s election. “They were very interested in how this happened,” he said. “The whole idea of change from the bottom up is a different idea. The whole idea of leadership that isn’t rooted in top-down authority is a different idea. It’s a different idea than models of leadership that are essentially military.”
Regardless of the eventual outcome of the protests in Egypt, it’s now apparent that a new, small-democratic political model is emerging in the region. “From my point of view, encouraging the development of civil society leadership is fundamental to democratic practice,” Ganz says. “There’s a space in which to do some really good leadership development work. But I’m always pinching myself.”