Joan Blades is an “accidental activist” at the forefront of movements that have shaped American culture and politics. A deep believer in the value of grassroots engagement, Blades through her various endeavors has experientially acted upon an insight about the power of ordinary people driving change – an insight that later was articulated as the 3.5% Rule by Harvard political scientist Erika Chenoweth: 3.5% of the population actively participating in social movements can impact serious political change.
Blades in her latest endeavor, Living Room Conversations, seeks to help rebuild respectful civil discourse across ideological, cultural and party lines in a grassroots way – in ordinary living rooms. An open source effort, Living Room Conversations offers an intimate structured conversation format to citizens as a powerful tool to rebuild respectful relationships and identify common ground. Living Room Conversations can take place in person or online with six simple, self-facilitated hosting best practices. “This is a deep listening practice; it's never a debate,” Joan said in a 2017 TED talk. “And that's incredibly powerful. These conversations in our own living rooms with people who have different viewpoints are an incredible adventure. We rediscover that we can respect and even love people that are different from us.”
Joan has had a prolonged look at the dysfunction of partisan behaviors, as well as at the good will, intelligence and power of ordinary citizens. After growing up in Berkeley, CA, during the civil rights era and being active in the women’s rights movement, Blades pursued law and became an expert mediator – helping women to mediate their own divorces rather than litigating – and then achieved entrepreneurial success with her husband as a co-founder of Berkeley Systems, a tech company best known for the Flying Toaster screen saver "After Dark" and the game "You Don't Know Jack."
But in 1998, her life took an unexpected twist. She and her husband grew weary of the political gridlock surrounding the impeachment hearings of President Bill Clinton. So they created a simple online petition: “Censure President Clinton and move on to pressing issues facing the nation.” Within days, this homegrown petition sent to friends had amassed hundreds of thousands of signatures from across the political divide. This was the first time in history that an online petition helped transform the national conversation. And cyberspace mobilization was officially born, with Joan dubbed its “mother” as she was named 2003 Woman of the Year by Ms Magazine. MoveOn.org, which Joan then co-founded, has since grown to 3.3M+ members participating in progressive grassroots advocacy.
After MoveOn.org, on Mother’s Day 2006, Blades co-founded MomsRising, a virtual organization advocating for the needs of mothers and families from environmental pollutants to healthcare to wages. Because everyone has a mother, the organization sees its work as lifting up entire families through this critical point of entry and focus.
Blades is the co-author of two award-winning books, The Motherhood Manifesto and The Custom-Fit Workplace. She is currently launching a new initiative called MisMatch, a program to convene middle and high school students across the country for powerful conversations.
“When we care about each other,” says Blades, “we find ways to meet each other’s core needs regardless of our beliefs.”
Please join Aryae Coopersmith and Janessa Gans Wilder in a timely conversation with this optimistic change- and peace-maker, a true believer in the power of citizens to transform our national civic discourse.
Conversations and connections with people in which I discover new things about myself and them.
The original MoveOn petition in 1998 flung me into politics.
The story of how a 40 year friendship started was all about a small act of kindness in a dance setting.
Shift our culture toward a new normal of respect and kindness. (What I'm obsessed with in my work.)
Be kind and curious.