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Making Change

"How to" for citizens seeking change in their communities
This page and subpages is designed to pull together the "how to's" of collective action. Your comments, questions, and suggestions are welcomed. (see link above)

Part 1: Distributed, directed networking. Huh? What's that?

    If we think about social change at all, most of us imagine that social change happens in one of three ways:

  • A transformational personality and faithful disciples. Think Gandhi or MLK.

  • Experts analyzing and engineering desirable outcomes to be adopted by Congress. Think seat belts and air bags.

  • A mass uprising of the oppressed that often collapses into chaos and despotism. Think the French Revolution or Bolsheviks.

    Now a new form of social change is emerging: distributed, directed networking. This new form seems to be uniquely 21st century in that it depends on digital communications and self-directed activists loosely connected and coordinated. Two recent examples are 350.org and Our revolution, an offshoot of the Bernie Sanders 2018 Presidential campaign. Researchers Tom Liacas and Jason Mogus have looked at this new approach with a critical eye to see how it works. In an article in Stanford Social Innovations Review, Liacas and Mogus identify four principles of distributed, directed networking.

  1. Opening to grassroots power. Leaders rely on their base to generate local action, strategies and tactics.

  2. Building cross-movement networks. Members of one social movement tend to join other social change groups and to share across "boundaries."

  3. Framing a compelling cause. distributed, directed networks spend less time on detailed analysis (a position paper for every contingency) and more time on meaningful slogans or "memes" that capture the interest of the public and the engagement of the activists. "Black Lives Matter" and "Fight for $15" are examples.

  4. Running with focus and discipline. Unlike movement predecessors like Occupy Wallstreet, distributed, directed networks have clear guidance from a set of leaders who can keep the activists moving in the same direction by coaching with suggestions and examples, rather than command and control.

"Campaigns in this group tend to share power and decision-making with their supporters, and spend significant time organizing and aligning their wider networks of allies. At the same time, they’re led by active central command structures that control resource management, framing, and storytelling, while also dedicating significant attention to political moments and media narrative work."  A more recent article in SSIR proposes ways in which distributed, directed networking can be a tool for established issue advocacy organizations.

    Theories of change are pretty dull stuff. Who needs 'm? RHINO suggests that the folks who ask "why don't 'they' do something about the problem" could benefit from a theory of change that doesn't rely on funding or an bureaucratic structure. Here's what we know doesn't work well:

  • Waiting for someone else to make change.

  • Waiting for "we the people" to demand change.

  • Setting an example of virtuous behavior (for example riding a bicycle to work to combat climate change) and hoping others will follow suit.

posted August 7, 2017

Part 2: Making Change takes Action not just compassion.

     Frederick Douglass correctly observed "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Take the example of lead poisoning in Cleveland. After almost three years of heart rending stories in the "Toxic Neglect" series at the Plain Dealer, the city and state have only tinkered around the edges of real change. At a recent League of Women Voters event, Plain Dealer editor Chris Quinn said that lead poisoning was the single worst failure of the Jackson administration, right after endorsing Mayor Jackson for re-election.
    Douglass may have been thinking of Uncle Tom's Cabin which created compassion for slaves, but the abolitionists created change by articulating demands. The story that Abraham Lincoln greeted to Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words: "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!" may be a little misleading. It was Douglass who lobbied the President for an Emancipation Proclamation.
    While charities and news media focus on compassion for individuals the effect is to promote charity, usually in the form of donations. There's even a term for this: poverty porn. This kind of charity perpetuates the systems that make people victims. Since the 1960's, citizens have been accustomed to a world in which a social problem is solved every 30 or 60 minutes.

    Confronted by real world problems, citizens have become viewers who expect public policy solutions like "build that wall" and "lock her up." When real life turns out to be more complex than a sitcom, the media-inebriated become disillusioned with the slow pace of change. Eventually they opt out of citizenship. Today's organizers must avoid media-style "treatments" of real life stories where activists are heros, victims are objects of pity, opponents are evil no good-niks, and campaigns are spectator sports. Striving for relevance, some well meaning "change agents" can turn poverty into a role playing game.

         In this media saturated environment, organizers need to begin with the assumption that prospective members will expect simple short term steps. That means framing issues around clearly stated goals with short term payoffs, but then build their engagement with more complex challenges and opportunities.

'     Organizers call this process the ladder of engagement.

ladder of engagement.jpg


    But before you throw out compassion, consider the ways in which real compassion supports social change work.

1. Getting the attention of potential activists.
2. Providing insight into how victims and opponents view themselves. Objectification of victim/survivors and opponents of change makes them into cartoon characters. Empathy and compassion preserves the humanity of beneficiaries, opponents and spectators. The wisdom to see "the field" as populated by subjects...not objects...is the difference between social change and civil war.
3. Giving activists a moral center to sustain the effort through rough patches.
posted September 17, 2017

 





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