Plumia Talks

Birgitta Jonsdottir: How to be an accidental politician

From WikiLeaks to the Icelandic parliament, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, knows how to make change
Birgitta Jonsdottir: How to be an accidental politician
In: Plumia Talks

Birgitta Jónsdóttir knows how to launch a political movement.

Twice elected to the Icelandic parliament and an early team member of Wikileaks with Julian Assange, Jónsdóttir has played significant roles in multiple protests, campaigns, and working groups fighting for more transparency and human rights.

In a Plumia alks live interview, Jónsdóttir explained a bit more about her background and what she views as the necessary ingredients for success in social and political movements.

The accidental politician

Jónsdóttir began her political career by accident. A poet and activist, she spent a lot of time online in the early 2000s, meeting people in Iceland and abroad who wanted to discuss the internet’s potential. Then came the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Iceland particularly hard.

A seasoned activist who had attended or organized multiple protests in the “good years” before the crisis, many organizers came to her for advice on protesting what looked like Iceland bailing out banks at the expense of the taxpayer.

She joined in the movements and soon people began talking about what a “new Iceland” could look like. Jónsdóttir initially took a background role, working hard to help build a movement.

Then she noticed a huge issue – women weren’t running for government. So she decided to put her hat in the ring and stand for parliament. She won and remained in parliament until 2017.

How to succeed in political and social movements

From Jónsdóttir’s perspective, political and social movements need a few key elements to be successful.

Firstly, successful political movements are driven by one person with a singular vision. However, that person can’t want leadership for the sake of power. They are in charge to get things done, not necessarily to be known as a leader or as a powerful person.

Decision makers who can handle tough circumstances: When forks in the road arise—as they always do—leaders need to make tough decisions. Usually, these make the leader unpopular (in Jónsdóttir’s case, one decision made her “hated” by her team for a short period of time), but they get work done in the end.

For Jónsdóttir, it’s not about ego, just progress. She says if you want social change, you have to check your ego at the door. She used the example of a dirty floor in parliament. If the floor needs to be mopped, even if you’re an important MP, do it. You’re not above doing the work that needs to be done.

Jónsdóttir adds  that no one should suggest ideas they are not willing to execute. If they need help, that’s one thing, but members need to be willing to put in extra work for their ideas (and the ideas of others that they agree with).

Within any movement, there are different paths. This often leads to endless discussions or debates. For Jónsdóttir, however, impossible deadlines solve that problem. They force you to get the core tasks done, knowing it will never be perfect.

Even in “dead serious stuff,” Jónsdóttir says it’s important to still have fun. One example she shares is a protest at the Chinese embassy in Iceland around the Beijing Olympics. The protest was about how China treated the people of Tibet, yet they tried to make it a fun time. Jónsdóttir found out a few native Tibetans lived in Iceland and she invited them to the event, bringing some much-needed levity and friendship.

Jónsdóttir says the most important thing for any political movement is to get things going from the inside. Had she not stood for parliament, she would not have been able to drive the wedge that led to many of her achievements.

But once you get in, you need to start building something new that doesn’t resemble the old. If you don’t, you’ll end up dealing with the same challenges that drove you to desire change in the first place.

“You cannot create the same structure you are trying to change,” Jónsdóttir says.

Written by
Stefan Palios
Stefan works with entrepreneurs, enterprises, and governments to tell their story, educate their community, and build movements. He is author of the business book The 50 Laws of Freelancing.
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