What is the best way to create change in a society? Is it best accomplished by creating new laws or by trying to change the hearts and minds of individuals?

Antanas Mockus, who became the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, in 1995, tried to answer that question in a creative way. Before Mockus was elected mayor, Bogotá, a city of 8 million people, was beset by widespread poverty, drug abuse, stifling air pollution, and automobile traffic so bad it was difficult to move about the city and dangerous to be a pedestrian. In the early 1990s, according to one Colombian politician, Bogotá was “hated by its inhabitants, who felt powerless and felt that in the future things would only get worse.”1

Before running for mayor, Mockus was the president of the National University of Colombia; he was the son of an artist and a former professor of philosophy who was known for innovative and irreverent methods in his classroom. After becoming mayor, he used the art of theater to try to convince the citizens of Bogotá, considered one of the most dangerous cities in South America, to help create a different society.

. . . People were desperate for a change, for a moral leader of some sort. The eccentric Mockus, who communicates through symbols, humor, and metaphors, filled the role. When many hated the disordered and disorderly city of Bogotá, he wore a Superman costume and acted as a superhero called "Supercitizen." People laughed at Mockus' antics, but the laughter began to break the ice of their extreme skepticism. . . .

When there was a water shortage, Mockus appeared on TV programs taking a shower and turning off the water as he soaped, asking his fellow citizens to do the same. In just two months people were using 14 percent less water, a savings that increased when people realized how much money they were also saving because of economic incentives approved by Mockus; water use is now 40 percent less than before the shortage.

"The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task," Mockus said. "Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change."

Mockus taught vivid lessons with these tools. One time, he asked citizens to put their power to use with 350,000 "thumbs-up" and "thumbs-down" cards that his office distributed to the populace. The cards were meant to approve or disapprove of other citizens' behavior; it was a device that many people actively—and peacefully—used in the streets.

He also asked people to pay 10 percent extra in voluntary taxes. To the surprise of many, 63,000 people voluntarily paid the extra taxes. A dramatic indicator of the shift in the attitude of "Bogotanos" during Mockus' tenure is that, in 2002, the city collected more than three times the revenues it had garnered in 1990.

Another Mockus inspiration was to ask people to call his office if they found a kind and honest taxi driver; 150 people called and the mayor organized a meeting with all those good taxi drivers, who advised him about how to improve the behavior of mean taxi drivers. The good taxi drivers were named "Knights of the Zebra," a club supported by the mayor's office.

Yet Mockus doesn't like to be called a leader. "There is a tendency to be dependent on individual leaders," he said. "To me, it is important to develop collective leadership. I don't like to get credit for all that we achieved. Millions of people contributed to the results that we achieved . . . I like more egalitarian relationships. I especially like to orient people to learn."

Still, there were times when Mockus felt he needed to impose his will, such as when he launched the "Carrot Law," demanding that every bar and entertainment place close at 1 a.m. with the goal of diminishing drinking and violence.

Most important to Mockus was his campaign about the importance and sacredness of life. "In a society where human life has lost value," he said, "there cannot be another priority than re-establishing respect for life as the main right and duty of citizens." Mockus sees the reduction of homicides from 80 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1993 to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003 as a major achievement, noting also that traffic fatalities dropped by more than half in the same time period, from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600. Contributing to this success was the mayor's inspired decision to paint stars on the spots where pedestrians (1,500 of them) had been killed in traffic accidents. . . .

There is almost always a civics lesson behind Mockus' antics. Florence Thomas, a feminist and a professor at Colombian National University, pointed out to Mockus that in Bogotá women were afraid to go out at night. "At that time, we were also looking for what would be the best image of a safe city, and I realized that if you see streets with many women you feel safer," Mockus explained.

So he asked men to stay home and suggested that both sexes should take advantage of the "Night for Women" to reflect on women's role in society. About 700,000 women went out, flocking to free, open-air concerts. They flooded into bars that offered women-only drink specials and strolled down a central boulevard that had been converted into a pedestrian zone.

To avoid legal challenges, the mayor stated that the men's curfew was strictly voluntary. Men who simply couldn't bear to stay indoors during the six-hour restriction were asked to carry self-styled "safe conduct" passes. About 200,000 men went out that night, some of them angrily calling Mockus a "clown" in TV interviews.

But most men graciously embraced Mockus' campaign. In the lower-middle-class neighborhood of San Cristobal, women marched through the streets to celebrate their night. When they saw a man staying at home, carrying a baby, or taking care of children, the women stopped and applauded. 

That night the police commander was a woman, and 1,500 women police were in charge of Bogotá's security.

Another innovative idea was to use mimes to improve both traffic and citizens' behavior. Initially 20 professional mimes shadowed pedestrians who didn't follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. The program was so popular that another 400 people were trained as mimes. "It was a pacifist counterweight," Mockus said. "With neither words nor weapons, the mimes were doubly unarmed. My goal was to show the importance of cultural regulations." . . .2

During his time as mayor, Mockus continued to take risks and find creative ways to communicate ideas about civic engagement, safety, and community with his constituents. According to humanities professor Doris Sommer, Mockus had tackled apparently intractable conditions by thinking creatively: “‘What would an artist do?’ was his motto. If that one failed, a humanist motto came to the rescue: ‘When you are stuck, reinterpret.’”3

Citations

  • 1 : Lisa Jones, "The improbable story of how Bogota, Colombia, became somewhere you might actually want to live," Grist, last modified April 4, 2002, accessed July 27, 2016.
  • 2 : María Cristina Caballero, "Academic turns city into social experiment," Harvard Gazette, March 11, 2004, accessed July 15, 2016. Reproduced by permission from Harvard Gazette.
  • 3 : Doris Sommer, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities (Duke University Press, 2013), 2.
  • 4 : Quoted in Doris Sommer, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities (Duke University Press, 2013), 18.

Connection Questions

  1. How did Antanas Mockus try to create change in Bogotá as mayor? What tactics did he use? Why do you think they worked?
  2. What common aspects of people’s thoughts and behavior do you think helped Mockus achieve change?
  3. Friedrich Schiller, a German poet, philosopher, and playwright, wrote, “In order that obedience to reason may become an object of inclination [something people want to do], it must represent for us the principle of pleasure, for pleasure and pain are the only springs which set the instincts in motion.”4 How did Mockus use pleasure to convince people to change their behavior (or adopt his reforms)? How is this different from using punishment? When might it not be enough?
  4. Which do you think is a more effective way to change a society: through laws or by influencing people’s attitudes and beliefs? How might the two strategies work together? 

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