Team Spotlight: Interview with Training Team Lead Bob Burnett

At Indivisible Berkeley, we’re very privileged to also have voices with national reach not just working with us in partnership, but amongst our organizational ranks.  For our first blog post, I sat down with Bob Burnett, former Silicon Valley executive and current regular contributor to the Huffington Post, and the leader of Indivisible Berkeley’s Trainings Team, to ask him about his long and illustrious history with nonviolence, organized activism, and what role he envisions the Trainings Team playing in resisting the administration.

Steve: First, do you want to just tell me a little about yourself?

Bob: I’m 76, I’ve led a long, interesting life.  I’m a native Californian, one of the strange things about me is that I’ve had this cartoonish existence.  I was born in Hollywood, I grew up in Newport Beach, I was a surfer, I played football, I went to Stanford, I worked in Silicon Valley.  In the late sixties I got radicalized and involved with the anti-war movement.  I went to an organizational meeting and a Quaker meeting in Pasadena, and I really felt like I belonged there, and that’s how I got involved with the Quakers, and I’ve been involved with the Quakers for more than fifty years.

You know, one of the social tenants of Quakers is basically living your faith, so it’s really important not just to talk, but to get out and do things.  I’ve known a lot of Quakers who have been involved in all sorts of social movements like the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, the movement to end the war in Iraq, and I’ve always tried to do my part. […] Starting around 2000, [my wife and I] became very political, and we decided we needed to work within the California democratic party and work to try and move the whole party in an antiwar and social justice direction.  And so we did a variety of things, but in 2008 there was a conflict in the democratic primary in and around Boulder, Colorado, kind of a break between the establishment Democrats and the younger Obama people, and so I was asked if I could mediate that.  The people in the Democratic Party knew me, and so I mediated that and then just stayed on and worked for three or four months for the Obama campaign in the greater Boulder area.  I did a variety of things there.

Like what kinds of things?

Oh you know, like on Election Day there’s a whole system of poll monitors, so I set that up.  We trained precinct workers; I did a lot of training, that’s one of the reasons I’m involved with training here.

So has your participation in activism over the course of your life gone from more direct to more logistical, then?

That’s a really good question, and I’m going to answer it indirectly.  I have two kinds of leadership training— I have the formal, an MBA, and so I’ve got this approach to leadership that’s kind of about me, it’s egocentric.  But then I have this other kind of leadership that’s all about the group.  Quakers govern by consensus, and so in the movement what I’ve learned is that while every once in a while it’s time to take a stand, it’s more about sensing the group and helping the whole group move.  I’ve learned, as well as anyone can learn this, to submerge my ego and do what I can to move the group along.  And so my involvement with Indivisible Berkeley is all about “what can I do to help.”  At the moment they didn’t have anyone to facilitate training, and so that’s what I did.  So in that sense I’m more group and consensus oriented now than I was fifty years ago.

Do you find that a lot of movements you’ve been a part of had similar situations, where the people the people govern the organization?  Where they find a void and fill it?  Or does it tend to be more top-down in which the leaders create the structure to be filled?

When I was involved with the antiwar movement, there were very strong leaders on the West Coast, mostly men, who were very charismatic, but the important thing I think is to build participation.  I mean there’s no doubt that in the South Martin Luther King galvanized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the struggle against segregation, but I think what’s really important is to build participation, and I think that team building and working by consensus in the long term is the strongest way to build that.  Given where we are now and given where Indivisible really started, if you compare the timeline with other movements it’s exceedingly robust.

And do you think that robustness has to do with the organizational structure or with the hot emotions that are going on right now?

Well there were really hot emotions about the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq, but I think there’s a level of organization that is really pretty remarkable.  I’ve been studying Indivisible in the Central Valley, because that’s where all the swing districts are, and there’s pretty much an Indivisible group in all of those districts. You know, Saul Elinsky, who is really one of the important American activists, said that movements are really determined by people or money, but I think that there’s something to be said about harnessing technology.  There’s a remarkable amount of technology, and it doesn’t quite mesh yet, but given where we are there’s a lot of ways to communicate and a lot of ways to get connected, and I think that’s really helpful in getting people involved.  I think there’s a lot of intrinsic motivation for people in this stressful time to take action and join with others, and I think Indivisible Berkeley is harnessing that.  Our challenge, the facilitators’ challenge, is making sure that everyone has a role, everybody has a way to relate.  When we report an objective, we’ve got to harness all this energy and move towards this objective.

So where do you see the Indivisible Movement going?

In the immediate, we’re to to make sure we can scale.  Right now for example we’ve got eighteen teams, but those teams are all at different levels in terms of the strength of their facilitators and their ability to use technology and so forth, so we’ve got to make sure everybody’s got training and everybody’s talking to everybody else.  In the immediate, there’s three things we need now: We need basic training, people need to understand things like “what is nonviolence?”, "if you’re approached by the press what do you say?", “how do you use the Indivisible Berkeley technology toolset?” stuff like that.  Then there’s training for how to approach members of congress, and then there is training in nonviolent monitors.  A lot of people were concerned with the Black Bloc protests and guarding against that sort of thing in the future, so we’re going to train people specifically to guard against that kind of event.  Historically, I’ve seen various kinds of anarchist manifestations in the Bay Area since the 70s, and typically if it’s a well monitored march, they’re not disruptive, so we’re going to train monitors and take steps to protect Indivisible Berkeley participants in any direct action.

And in the midterm?

In the midterm, beyond reaching to immediate members of congress—you know just in California there’s seven congressional districts where the district voted for Hillary over Trump, nonetheless they elected a Republican representative.  So the nearest one is CD 10, which is Denham’s district, which I think is Modesto, so the practical thing is how we are going to help these people in the Central Valley.  That’s where the action is.  We’re not in that district, so we shouldn’t go to town halls, but that doesn’t mean we can’t raise money for them and that doesn’t mean we can’t help them with technology.  One of the problems in the Central Valley is that there’s not adequate voter files, so a particular thing we could do if we wanted to is help them out with the voter file.  We don’t have to live in the district to do that.

And the long term?

In the long term this is really all about democracy, so one of the people we’re going to have come speak is Arlie Hochschild, who wrote a really great book called Strangers in Their Own Land, and for the five years prior to the election she went down to Louisiana and talked to Tea Party voters on how they saw the US.  One of the things she noted that really jumped out to me is that these voters in Louisiana are maddeningly like us.  A lot of people report that they have someone in their family that’s like a good old boy and they’re funny and they’re a great guy, but they voted for Trump; they don’t want to think about [their family member] like that, and you think you know this person but still don’t get why they voted for Trump.  There’s a lot of interest in in what I would call this topic of communicating with the other.  How do we communicate with Trump voters without alienating them?  That’s not such a problem in Berkeley because we’re surrounded by likeminded people, but if we eventually want to do activism in the Central Valley we need to have a teach-in.

So you’re a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  How do you see your role as a member of written media changing over the next few years as a result of this administration, and what is the duty of the average reader to resist that?

Well you’ve asked a complicated one.  Quakers have a moral code, and one of the aspects of this moral code is telling the truth.  When Hitler came to power there were Quakers in Germany, not a lot, but there were.  After World War One there had been a famine, and Quakers came into Germany with what was the precursor to the American Friend Services Committee to bring food to Germans, and some of them stayed.  But when Hitler came to power, Quakers spoke up about him, but a lot of people didn’t listen.  When Hitler lashed out at Jews, Quakers talked about this, but not a lot of people listened.  So Quakers were the foremost religious group, not the largest but per capita the most active, advocating for getting the Jews out of concentration camps.  The problem is that the press in England and in the US didn’t report was happening to the Jews, so it’s really important to tell the truth, and it’s also important to be realistic that sometimes people aren’t going to listen.  That doesn’t mean you stop telling the truth.