Tradecraft‎ > ‎

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 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 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


Part 3: Starting with one

Today, talking to strangers is harder than back when Trick or Treat was a neighborhood event. Still, knowing how to build relationships is a key task for anyone interested in making social change. Outreach starts with talking to strangers.

Talking to strangers is one of those things that your parents told you to avoid, but it's essential to collective action for a change. A sociological study reported in PhysOrg describes how senior citizens create a real life social network within urban communities. "Through interviews with seniors, and the use of GPS tracking to follow their movements, [the researcher] found older adults are creating our communities through casual social interactions, helping others and taking community action." Want outreach? Find some genial mobile seniors to make outreach a part of their regular routine.

Fresh out of seniors? Anyone can learn the basics of reaching out to strangers. Treehugger offers some cute common sense ideas that seem suited for chats in a controlled setting like a lobby, waiting room or community space. A more sophisticated approach is Sidewalk Talk. It works like it sounds. Sidewalk Talk is "....a community project that aims to dismantle loneliness, a growing public health crisis in American cities. By gathering on the street, they aim to use public spaces to foster meaningful human connections. For two hours, they sat there, eager to lend an ear to anyone with a story to tell." While Sidewalk Talk focuses on relieving loneliness, the same techniques are a part of getting strangers engaged in community activities.  

Outside Cleveland City Council Chambers last Monday a small group from Cleveland Lead Safe Network, just talking among themselves in the lobby, attracted a flock of people who were also waiting for the Council meeting to start. Curious, they wandered over and joined the conversation. One bystander offered her email for a follow up contact.

Once the conversation has started, a good organizer who knows the strengths (and weaknesses) of an individual and will design an opportunity for that person. A powerful speaker may need talking points so she or he can stay on message during a presentation. A passive wallflower may need a nudge to ask a question or a partner for an activity. Most successful groups develop a social leader.

Professional organizers sometimes overlook individual interactions as "social work." The truth is that every member joins and participates because of an individual need or interest. When the organizer or task leader loses touch with the lives of ordinary people, the engine of the organization--participation-- can grind to a halt. RHINO member PatriciaB calls this kind of listening "staying grounded." It's healthy for the organization and healthy for the organizers!

Part 4: Dealing with chaotic systems

Two recent rhino!UP articles looked at how current rental market trends can affect local programs. Today's issue looks at how advocates can use trends to support desirable social changes.

Complex systems are both stable and chaotic.

System scientists call the stability characteristic homeostasis. Folks just call it "coping."

At the same time complex systems are built of relationships that can react unpredictably to pressure. Small changes can have big impacts.

Knowing how systems work can make advocates and practitioners more adept at manipulating social, demographic, or economic forces towards desirable outcomes. Here are some ways to use systems theory to manage change.

1. Basketball legend Jim Chones says "stick to your knitting." Advocates all have missions (core values) that can keep them focused in times of chaotic change. Mission helps advocates choose which issues should be fought and which should be ignored. A key feature of mission is "don't panic."

2. Avoid planning in the rear view mirror. Clinging to "the way we've always done things" is a dead end. In Columbus, the Community Shelter Board is subsidizing expectant and new moms to keep them out of shelters,

3. Understand the megatrends (big changes) that will affect your social system. Demographic, economic and sociological changes are pushing on systems all the time. Bill Bishop gives a book length analysis about how megatrends have shaped the current environment in his book "The Big Sort." Apply his method of trend analysis to understand what trends are pushing now.

4. Megatrends impact systems in different ways. Rent increases are megatrend across the country, but each rental housing market experiences different impacts based on who's in the housing market and what is the supply of "affordable" units. Cleveland has plenty of substandard units that are out of reach, while Columbus is removing affordable units for luxury units. Instead of saying "oh, that isn't happening here,"

5. Develop your own data. Relying on national (aggregate) studies can be misleading. Use Intake information, client/member surveys, and focus groups to guide your advocacy practice. A related approach is to create a two way communication system, where stakeholder citizens can seek and share info and support each other. RHINO's favorite is Slumlord Watch of Columbus.

6. Small changes can have big impacts. Another characteristic of complex systems is that changes to one point in the system can have big impacts throughout the system. For example: keeping Akron in the same Congressional district, instead of split between four districts, could have dramatic changes locally. Activists need to know where find the levers.

7. Making change means understanding the system. There are two myths about social change.

Myth one: Social change is a natural process that follows its own course. Both MLK and Obama perpetuated the comforting myth that "the arc of history bends towards justice." Joe Hill offers "Pie in the Sky."

Myth two: Social change just takes commitment. Margaret Mead is quoted saying "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Both myths leave out the fundamental fact that social change happens when the forces in favor of change overcome the forces of resistance. Knowledgeable change agents can help align the forces of change towards a desired goal.


Vertigo and the Intentional Inhabitant: Leadership in a Connected World

 Notes & Links