We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World Book Poster Image
Inspirational must-read about the power of nonviolence.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Chronicles five activists whose movements for change were rooted in nonviolent protest. A section at the back has brief descriptions of "Other Notable Nonviolent Movements of the Last One Hundred Years": Denmarks' resistance against the Nazis in World War II; ACT UP, which helped force government action on AIDS; the campaigns to overturn apartheid in South Africa; the young activists of Otpor, which returned Serbia to democracy; Occupy Wall Street; and the Liberian women who ended their country's civil war.

Positive Messages

In nonviolent activism, every person's voice (no matter how young they are) counts. By joining together, the weak and the oppressed can become an unstoppable force for change.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The most powerful young role models in the book are the thousands of students (from age 6 to seniors in high school) who bravely marched in the "Children's Crusade" in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. They were attacked by police dogs and assaulted by fire hoses so strong they could rip the bark off trees 100 feet away. National news coverage of their bravery helped change forever how Americans viewed the civil rights struggle in the South.

Violence

Violence is a constant throughout the book, but nothing is really graphic other than describing the brutal force-feeding women prisoners on hunger strikes. Those women are also threatened with being sent to insane asylums and beaten and choked by guards. Police grab suffragettes by the throat and throw them to the ground. The homes of civil rights leaders in the South are bombed. News photos in the book show young marchers being attacked by police dogs and assaulted with fire hoses. The police allow KKK members (with bats, iron pipes, and chains) to beat Freedom Riders. Four young girls are killed when a church is bombed. Striking farm workers are beaten, attacked by dogs, and sprayed with pesticide.

Sex
Language

In one instance, a person on the phone calls Martin Luther King Jr. the "N" word.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Todd Hasak-Lowy's We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World profiles five leaders of nonviolent resistance movements. While some may be familiar names (Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and teen climate activist Greta Thunberg), the stories of others (suffragette Alice Paul; Cesar Chavez, who organized American farmworkers; and Vaclav Havel, the playwright and dissident who led Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution") may be new to many readers. Not simply short biographies or quick overviews of a movement's history, the book looks deeply at the reasons each of them came to embrace nonviolence. The nonviolent demonstrators in the book are constantly met with a brutal response from law enforcement and local residents. Homes and churches are bombed. Adults and even children are beaten, attacked by police dogs, sprayed with pesticide, and assaulted with fire hoses. 

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What's the story?

WE ARE POWER begins with Gandhi, whose philosophy of nonviolence is a thread that runs throughout the book and influenced all the other activists who are profiled. His story starts in South Africa, where Gandhi's belief in the power of nonviolence evolves against the backdrop of the government's racist laws against Asians living in the country. Returning to his native India, Gandhi leads the now-famous campaigns of civil disobedience that result in Indian independence. Suffragette Alice Paul took the campaign for a woman's right to vote directly to the home of President Woodrow Wilson. In 1917, Paul organized the Silent Sentinels, women who would picket outside the White House for 18 months. As hundreds of women were arrested and jailed, new volunteers would take their place. Paul and her Sentinels became one of the keys to Wilson's eventual support for suffrage and the passage of the 19th Amendment. The chapter on Martin Luther King Jr. focuses on his belief in "the power of love," his adoption of Gandhi's nonviolent methods, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the violent response by police and citizens to the marches and Children's Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama. Caesar Chavez left school in seventh grade to begin working in the cantaloupe fields of California for eight cents an hours. A fierce advocate for the rights and fair wages of farm workers, he organized the largest most successful boycott in U.S. history (against California-grown grapes) and co-founded what would become the United Farm Workers union. Vaclav Havel, a Czech playwright and dissent, was a leader of the 1989 "Velvet Revolution," the nonviolent transition of power that ended 40 years of communist rule and saw Havel become President of a democratic Czechoslovakia. The chapter on Greta Thunberg is the briefest in the book and tells how she became inspired by young gun-control activists in the U.S., her proud declaration of being a climate activist on the autism spectrum, and the 2019 school strike in which she was joined by 1.4 million students, making it the biggest single day of climate activism in history.

Is it any good?

For many readers, this chronicle of nonviolent protest will turn their view of history upside down, as it details history in which the seemingly weak and powerless are the victors. We Are Power never talks down to readers, even when explaining something as challenging as satyagraha (translated from Sanskrit as "truth force or soul force"), the term Gandhi used to describe his form of nonviolent resistance. Archival black and white photos (although very few in number) illustrate some of the pivotal moments in the book: the Silent Sentinels outside the White House, children being assaulted by fire hoses in Birmingham, a farm workers protest march, a massive crowd of strikers in Czechoslovakia, Gandhi illegally making salt, and Greta Thunberg marching for climate change.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the success of the nonviolence movements in We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World. Did reading this book change your ideas about the most effective way to overcome injustice and inequality in the world -- whether force or nonviolence is ultimately the most powerful?

  • What difference would it would have made if Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi had the social media tools available to Greta Thurnberg?

  • How could the lessons you've learned about nonviolence be used by students in your school or activists in your community?

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