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In Conversation: Jeremy Heimans

15 May 2018 at 8:33 am
Wendy Williams
Jeremy Heimans is the co-founder and CEO of Purpose, co-founder of GetUp! and co-author of New Power, which reveals how the ability to harness the energy of the connected crowd is reshaping politics, business and society.

Wendy Williams | 15 May 2018 at 8:33 am


In Conversation: Jeremy Heimans
15 May 2018 at 8:33 am

Jeremy Heimans is the co-founder and CEO of Purpose, co-founder of GetUp! and co-author of New Power, which reveals how the ability to harness the energy of the connected crowd is reshaping politics, business and society.

Heimans has been building movements since the age of eight.

As a child activist he ran media campaigns and lobbied leaders on issues like children’s rights and nuclear non-proliferation.

By 2004, he had dropped out of Oxford to co-found a campaign group in the US presidential elections that used crowdfunding to help a group of women, whose loved ones were in Iraq, hire a private jet to follow vice-president Dick Cheney on his campaign stops, in what became known as the “Chasing Cheney” tour.

The following year he co-founded GetUp, which has since become an internationally recognised social movement phenomenon and has more members than all of Australia’s political parties combined.

In the last decade Heimans has received the Ford Foundation’s 75th Anniversary Visionary Award for his work as a movement pioneer, the World Economic Forum named him a Young Global Leader, Fast Company ranked him 11th on their annual list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business and the Guardian named him one of the 10 most influential voices on sustainability in the US.

Heimans, who is originally from Sydney but who now lives in New York, is also the man behind Purpose, which was launched in 2009 as a home for building 21st century movements and ventures that use the power of participation to change the world.

It harnesses what Heimans calls “new power” to work with leading organisations, activists, businesses and philanthropies to put purpose and participation at their core.

Heimans’ thinking on “new power” was featured as the Big Idea in Harvard Business Review, as one of 2014’s top TED talks with more than 1.25 million views, and by CNN as one of the Top Ten Ideas to Change the World in 2015.

He is now back in Australia to attend the Sydney Writers Festival and promote his new book, New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World – and How to Make It Work for You, co-written with #givingtuesday founder Henry Timms.

Heimans has also announced a Sydney office of Purpose.

Here he talks to Pro Bono News about what drives him, a new framework for understanding power in the 21st century and why we’ve got to get good at the new tools before the extremists and the haters do.

You’ve been an activist pretty much all of your life, starting from very young. Where does your drive to change the world come from?

Jeremy Heimans.

Well, it helps to be the child of immigrants. So both my parents were immigrants to Australia and I think that always meant that I had a global perspective, and I think also their stories shaped mine, as with all kids their stories are shaped by their parents.

My dad was born in hiding from the Nazis, he spent the first 18 months of his life in an attic. So a lot of the stories of my childhood were stories of injustice and how to overcome that. So I think I had a kind of desire to change the world that was sort of imprinted on me by my parents

I was also always fascinated by politics and politics as means of making change, so I was sort of captivated by the ways that people tried to change the world and I think that was a part of it as well.

You are now back in Australia to announce you are opening a Sydney branch to Purpose, what led to that decision?

In many ways, it was very natural given the fact that we started GetUp! here a number of years ago and it’s my home country and really over the years many of the best of our team have really, even out of Australia, have been Australian. So Purpose has always attracted Australians and I think it’s a great moment for Purpose to be coming back home.

We do so much work that I think would benefit from both an Australian perspective but also where Australia could benefit. So we work on issues like climate change, refugees, debates around immigration, human rights issues – these are all issues that are very present in the Australian public debate right now. And so I think we can bring quite a bit to that and I also think the background we have as an organisation, purely focused on social impact, certainly among agencies I think is quite unique. There’s some great folks already in Australia, but I think we can add depth of experience on that. And I’m excited to do that.

I’m also really excited about the possibilities within the philanthropic space in Australia. So I think there’s a real opportunity to get philanthropists being bolder in funding movement building, funding public mobilisation, funding things that really help grow power from the bottom up. And I think Purpose can play a role in making the case for that to foundations and philanthropists in Australia, in the same way that we’ve done I think in the US and in Europe.

What’s the driving motivation for Purpose?

Well really, we exist to use our powers which I think are mobilising people in new ways and telling stories that really shift the public narrative about issues. We exist to do that on any issue that helps to build a more open, a more just and a more habitable world and obviously we’re in a big fight right now globally for that world. It’s not like everybody supports those values. And so in the age of Trump, in the age of Brexit, in the age of climate change denialism we have our work cut out for us. And so our work at Purpose is really to advance those values using the tools in our toolkit which are really about how you build movements, mobilise the public and shift public narratives.

What’s the importance of storytelling when you’re bringing people together?

It’s central. I think one of the challenges of our age is that people who support science and reason and proof tend to think that that is enough. It’s enough to be right. And it just isn’t. If you’re a climate scientist up against a denier, you need more than trees. You need to be able to prosecute an argument in the ways that arguments get prosecuted in the early 21st century. If you are a doctor up against anti-vaxxers in the same way.

I think stories really help bridge that gap. And we’ve seen on so many issues we’ve worked on, whether it’s Syria, whether it’s refugees, even on climate change, that when you can break things down into stories, not just stories, you can connect those stories to action and that’s the key thing, you can really break through.

When you look at the work Purpose does, and the same with GetUp!, it has people at the heart of it and public mobilisation, which speaks to what your book, New Power, is about. At what point did you realise that public mobilisation was the key to new power?

I guess I’ve been spending my life thinking about mobilising the public in new ways. You know I was a child activist and I was trying to organise people to send faxes to politicians. Obviously not hugely effective. But you know it was an expression of that. Public mobilisation has always been an important part of social change. I think that what is different now is we all have our hands on the means to mobilise each other.

It used to be that you had to be in a position already of some power in order to really effectively play that mobilisation role and that’s no longer the case. So that creates these incredible new opportunities, like we have got the kids in Florida fighting on the gun violence issue right now. These kids are not waiting around for any institution or waiting around their parents. And they’re making an unbelievable deep impact, aren’t they? I think that’s the difference now.

Talking from a new power perspective, the possibilities of this new age are vast. But it’s a constantly shifting space. Because the technology’s changing all the time and the kind of tools are changing. And so our work at Purpose is partly about constantly experimenting with these new tools in order to stay ahead, especially in the context of a world in which some of the bad guys, as we might think of them, are also using these tools. We’ve got to get really good at this stuff before the extremists and the haters do.

You have said before that “whoever is mobilising is going to win”, but public mobilisation can be used for both good and bad. Beyond trying to keep ahead of the game is there another way that we can be protecting ourselves against the “bad guys” mobilising?

Well, I mean there’s nothing we can do to stop them unless we’re in societies where we’ve closed up. But we can create a better framework. So for example I think the platforms in our lives, the Facebooks etc have a lot of work to do to find ways of addressing the extremism that often presents on their platform, and frankly that their business model fuels. Because their businesses benefit from all of those clicks. So a reckoning about things like that, and we talk about this in the book, we talk about the alternatives to some of these platforms and some ways to reimagine their power, that I think can contribute to reducing some of the extremism. But I don’t think that that extremism is going away, I think that’s going to be a feature of our age unfortunately and so that makes it all the more important that people who do want to build a better world mobilise around that with energy and with passion, and I think with new power.

How can we harness that new power to effect change and have an impact on global social issues?

I think there’s some inspiring examples all around us. I think that I mentioned on Q&A the Australian example of the #IllRideWithYou movement which came up after the Sydney seige where people started to organise this movement around riding with Muslim Australians who felt their safety was under threat after all the hostility that was unleashed toward them after the Sydney siege.

There are so many inspiring examples out there and some of those examples are one offs like that, others are much more developed movements or institutions really that emerge off the back of some of this new power energy. So I think there’s a lot we can point to, and the stakes are definitely high.

You know, the Parkland kids are another great example right now. I think Black Lives Matter which we talk about a lot in the book, there is a lot we can learn from them in how they think about leadership.

Our argument in the book by the way, is not new power is good and old power is bad, it’s not even new power is the only thing you need, it is actually that you need to blend the two, that old and new power blended together is likely to be the thing that gets you to the outcomes that you want. On the issue of guns for example in the US, we’ve seen that the NRA has been very effective at blending old and new power which is part of the reason that we need to do the same on the other side.

How does Purpose as an organisation use new and old power?

I think the example of the guns issue, we helped to start an organisation in the US called Everytown. And Everytown is about bringing ordinary people into that fight against gun violence including a group of mothers who are organising around America on the issue, who have such moral authority, who were doing great local organising. I think in many ways Everytown brought old and new power together. So it’s a well-funded organisation that does lobbying inside the halls of power. But it also has millions of ordinary supporters who can be deployed at these key moments. So that’s the sort of thing that will close, what we call the intensity gap, with the NRA. And that’s an example of Purpose’s work in action.

For younger generations who have grown up with social media, does new power come more naturally to them?

Definitely, I think you already see that, there’s a sort of intuitive understanding of new power with those kids in Florida, they really get it. They just have an understanding of how to conjure the crowd, how to mobilise people, how to spread their ideas, how to deal this new form of storytelling and it is a different set of skills.

The old power set of skills were, you knew the right people, you could navigate the bureaucracy, the hierarchy. There are all still very important skills in the world, no doubt. But in parallel there’s this new set of skills, mobilising crowds, spreading your ideas sideways, leading in a world in which you can’t just rely on your formal authority but you’ve got a much larger amorphous crowd to manage and that’s really what the book sets out.

And a lot of what Purpose does is really about creating new power models which require at the moment a lot of tactical innovation because the space is rapidly changing. That’s what Purpose does and we work with philanthropies on that, we work with nonprofits on that and we develop our own initiatives including labs that we have created on climate change and the voting rights and other issues.

Do you think we can keep up with the issues by using all of these tools?

Well certainly that is the goal. That’s why groups like Purpose exist to figure out what those new models are, to experiment with new ways to engage people because the technology is going to change. It’s not really about whatever the fashionable tool is of the day, it’s more about power and changing people’s sense of ownership over the institutions in their lives. And that requires more than just mastering technology and new tools, it requires actually taking people more seriously which is a big argument that we make in the book.

Are you generally optimistic about the direction the world is heading in?

I wouldn’t say that I’m uniformly optimistic but we wrote the book because we think this is a critical moment and that the fight needs to engaged at this moment. I fundamentally believe that there’s more good in the world than bad. And I think there’s lots of evidence for that. And it’s just a question of harnessing that energy and also being I think less distracted by some of the platforms that sometimes take us away from more productive opportunities to change the world, because we’re so busy socialising and churning out cat videos and while that’s fun and gratifying, we need to remember that these platforms are also a critical arena for democracy and that there’s more that we can do.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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