Joan Blades on the power of a few to shift culture through conversation

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Listen to the full conversation below:

Joan Blades references ‘The 3.5%’ Rule’ at the end of our conversation.  Political scientist Erika Chenoweth at Harvard found that just this sliver of the population, if effectively mobilized through non-violent means, was enough to impact massive social change.

In America, 3.5% of the population is 11 million people.  Not impossible, certainly, but overwhelming.  How about closer to home? How much is 3.5% of your community? What future might be possible if your neighborhood banded together?

Those are exactly the questions Joan Blades has spent her life asking.  Joan is an activist, serial entrepreneur, attorney, and author. But it was in her unassuming humility that I began to understand her reason for being. Joan is a peace builder.  Her equanimity could disarm the most righteous among us.

In 1998, Joan and her husband were frustrated by Congress’s partisan fighting during Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. They sent an online petition to friends which stated: “Censure President Clinton and Move On to Pressing Issues Facing the Nation.”  Love Clinton or hate him, you could support that position. Quickly, the petition garnered a half a million signatures through word of mouth, going viral before viral was a thing.  Joan became an accidental activist, and was born.

Even though Congress ultimately proceeded with impeachment, the energy ignited through the petition validated Joan’s ethos from her time as an attorney/mediator. “Mediation is about giving others the power to make decisions for themselves,” Joan explains. “When people make their own decisions, everyone’s needs are understood, you’re more likely to follow a decision you’ve shaped, and that you haven’t turned over to a third party ‘expert’ to decide.”

As a pioneering Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Joan sensed early that the connectivity made possible by the tech revolution could fundamentally alter traditional models of power.   Instead of being a tightly guarded dominion of a few, transformative change was now possible by harnessing the wisdom of the collective.

Living Room Conversations, a simple structured way for people who disagree to have a good conversation, is Joan’s latest iteration of new power. The organization provides DIY guides to hold conversations in homes, in coffee shops, even online. No special training required, just neighbors committed to trading judgment for curiosity. These conversations are more than just talk. Joan calls the work “a domestic peace initiative.”

This simple, scalable model makes having conversation across difference so easy and effective, that we jumped at the chance to partner with Living Room Conversations. At the end of video, Joan asks you, our 3-Minute Storyteller community, to join the growing movement. The mission: Gather friends with different perspectives, watch a 3-MS story on your topic of interest, then use the corresponding LRC conversation guide to listen to each other.  These conversations can happen anywhere, and we’ll help you begin. Joan reminds us that to get to 3.5% and create a more compassionate culture, someone must step up. We hope this partnership makes it easy for that someone to be you.

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