Book Review: Accompanying

Part history, part call to reflection, Staughton Lynd’s Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change is a compelling but brief argument for a framework of activism that consciously unites activists and people in affected communities as compatriots. After a brief introduction outlining Staughton and his wife Alice’s background as lawyers and activists, the book is divided into sections labeled “Organizing,” covering the relatively top-down, Saul Alinsky-influenced version of organizing that reached dominance in the 1960’s, and “Accompaniment,” detailing an alternative, longer-lasting, more egalitarian method of creating change.

Beautifully, in the introduction Staughton specifically writes that accompaniment is not “pandering” to the desires of the community and that activists shouldn’t unquestioningly move exclusively in the direction indicated by the effected community—rather that accompaniment means recognizing both the outside activist and the person from the community as experts. The beauty of this dynamic is that to move forward both much seek to understand the other. Neither is in control, rather they are moving together and both must be active participants in shaping the future. This is the heart of how accomanying works and how it not only creates lasting, stable change, but builds capacity for the long-term.

The “Accompaniment” section includes chapters on draft counseling during the Vietnam War, working with prisoners to fight solitary confinement, the Occupy movement, and a section on Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador during the 1979 military coup with strong ties to the liberation theology movement. The brief biography of Romero is both heartbreaking and heartbreakingly beautiful. Even already having read some about him and the liberation theology movement, I teared up on the bus while reading it. The rest of the section is hopeful, showing not only that we can create social change in better ways that acknowledge and assert the humanity of all people, but that there are many of us who are already doing it.

Accompanying whetted my appetite. I wish that it included a deeper examination of an accompaniment approach to social change outside of the Western Hemisphere. All of the examples he gives prior to Occupy Wall Street are either explicitly Christian or are areas of social justice work heavily influenced by Friends and Catholic Workers. This begs the question of if accompaniment is the product of specific interpretations of Christianity or if there is even more that we might learn from looking at similar approaches to social justice from other traditions, or at the very least understanding the deep history of the approach within the Friends and left-wing Catholic traditions.

My only dislike of this book is that I want more. There are holes, ideas left incomplete that I am not sure that I would have been able to fill-in adequately without already knowing the history of left-pacifist social justice for the past 50 or so years. I wish that there was a similar book that I could hand someone without the same background that I have. The ideas in this book are absolutely useful and important to all of us who are working for social justice, regardless of how long we’ve been involved or how much we know of the movement outside of our own work. This is not a complete history or guide to accompaniment, this is a beautiful picture of what can be told through six short stories and an excellent reminder of what we should strive for in our work and in our lives.

 

See also:

Smith, Christian. 1991. The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Approachable, in-depth history of both liberation theology and the social movements around it in Latin America.

Ellacuria, Ignacio and Jon Sobruim. 1993. Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books. Seriously meaty English translations of major theological writings of Liberation Theology. Orbis Books is a Catholic press that publishes a lot of amazing books showing how religion can foster reconciliation and peace.

Both are worth reading, though you may want help with Mysterium Liberationis if you don’t have a background in theology.

Kidder, Tracy. 2003. Mountains Beyond Mountains. New York: Random House. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health are specifically mentioned in the introduction and PIH is an excellent example of the philosophy of accompaniment in a large organization have substantial impact world-wide.

Friends of PM Press, February 2013 Edition

Today I got:

  • Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change. By Staughton Lynd.
  • Anarchy Comics: The Complete Collection. Edited by Jay Kinney.
  • Edge City. By Sin Soracco.
  • A History of Pan-African Revolt. By C.L.R. James. Introduction by Robin D. G. Kelley. (Reprint of the 1969 expanded edition with new introduction).

Friends of PM Press is a great way to provide reliable, sustaining support for independent press. I’ve also found it to the perfect kick in the pants to get me to read meaty, engaging political books. At as low as $25 a month, you get a whole bunch of books.