10 Reflections to mark 10 Years in the Social Change Sector (part 1)

Over the ten years I’ve been active in the social change sector, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great people on some really interesting projects, but I wanted to take the time to reflect on some of the things that I’ve come to puzzle over. Although I think much ground has been made in terms of improving our practice, there still appears to me to be quite some way to go if we want to see change in the world on the scale required. Here are some of my thoughts, thinking back over the last ten years.

1. Let’s talk more about systems and structures

It may not be very glamorous, but I fundamentally believe we need to get better at talking about the underlying systems and structures that produce, sustain and advance the social and environmental injustices that we see. At the moment, they very rarely get the airtime they deserve in relation to their influence. Instead we choose to focus on more easily graspable individual stories of wrongdoing or oppression. Although often very moving, focusing on the individual victim, hero or villain has made invisible the structures that loom in the shadows, permitting these individual cases in the first place. By not emphasising human-made structures, such as patriarchy, colonialism and white supremacy, we only successfully elicit public engagement that tackles immediate problems – not that which is required to truly dismantle the overall systems which keep inequality thriving. This approach simply solves one issue at a time, with others sure to replace it as soon as we think the job is done – like a nightmarish game of social justice whack-a-mole. Members of the public should be engaged to give financially and get involved at both an immediate level and at a structural level.  Replacing mass structures seems impossible, but if we don’t start talking about them how will we ever make any real progress?

Further thinking: this research by the incredible Public Interest Research Centre

2. We need to be more aware of the unintended consequences of our work

The debate about whether the ends justify the means in terms of social change work has been raging for many years. Over the time I’ve spent working in the sector I’ve come to sit very firmly on the side of the ‘how’ is just as important as the ‘for what’. Take the much-argued case of ‘poverty porn’ within international development fundraising, for example. Some people believe that in order to raise as much money as possible, we need to utilise every tool available to us – including tugging at our audiences’ heartstrings and playing on the guilt many feel for the underserved privilege that they enjoy. But, although I obviously want to see people donating to tackle global poverty, I believe that for this to happen successfully in the long-term, this needs to come from a commitment to equality and justice, not pity and guilt.  To me, our sector too often finds itself in the frustrating rhythm of one step forward, two steps back, driven by the urgency of our work and the lack of time to consider any possible long-term effects. A big question that exists for me as I go into my second decade involved in this work is how we can go about securing immediate change, whilst not forfeiting the groundwork for the longer-term transformations needed to usher in a more equal, just and sustainable age.

An organisation I think is doing this well: Health Poverty Action, who stress that poverty is a human-made phenomenon. 

3. We have to let go of power

Having worked for large INGOs I’m familiar with many of the complexities and sensitivities that exist when considering how to relinquish power. Considering there is limited – and depleting – funding available, more and more organisations popping up to add to the growing competition, a very critical media environment, a faltering public trust, and a government willing to scrutinise NGO action given any opportunity, it’s quite understandable why NGOs may be a bit skittish when it comes to opening up, worried and protective over what they’ve built. However, the time of the big giants like Greenpeace, Amnesty and Oxfam is on its way out, and to stay relevant and useful, these organisations need to become more responsive to the connected world in which they operate. Your individual activist wants to do (and are more than capable of doing!) more than just signing a petition. They want to help pick the issue, craft the message, disseminate and react. The era of overwhelmingly white, middle class and graduate-educated staff teams needs to be ushered out, with power handed over to individuals and communities with lived experience able to design the solutions required to shift the problems faced. Lastly, organisations themselves need to step back from their brand and even their individual cause and start recognising that acting in silos is getting us nowhere. We don’t live in a world of neatly compartmentalised challenges that can be ticked off the list one-by-one. We live in one big, but beautiful complicated mess of a world, which requires a very different approach – a movement sustained by a melting-pot of ideas and methods, worthy of the global challenges we face.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Get involved in the Losing Control Network to see this in action.

4. Is anyone ever going to talk about colonialism?

It’s mentioned in hushed tones in the odd meeting. Occasionally it’s brought up when discussing the ethics of development at after-work drinks. A postgrad International Development student is likely going to be asked to debate its continual significance to the practice of humanitarianism today. But when ‘the work’ begins in earnest, for some baffling reason colonialism gets squeezed into the back of a cupboard and promptly ignored by the third sector’s overwhelmingly white workforce. In my mind, learning about our colonial history and the inherently racist structures that continue to exist in our world should be mandatory education for anyone seeking to work in the social change sector, let alone the international development sector. There is no way that migration, development and history can be separated and yet, I agree with Stuart Hall, that we suffer a tremendous ‘amnesia of colonialism’ in British society. If the social change sector is too fearful to discuss it, who else is going to put it on the table for (extremely belated) dissection?

Not afraid to talk about the C-word: Museum of British Colonialism

5. What we want, not just what we don’t want

I truly despise the stereotype of the shouty, whining charity-worker, and absolutely believe that sometimes a whole lot of shouting and whining is what’s needed to shift the needle on social and environmental issues. However, what I really don’t think we utilise enough of in the sector is people’s immense capacity for hope and for believing that humanity can triumph over inhumanity. We all know the fairy tales, the deeply culturally engrained story arcs of ‘and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after’, but when it comes to charity messaging we sometimes seem so desperate to point out all the things that are terrible and need to stop in the world, we forget to paint a picture of the world that’s possible.

For a good dose of hope check out the work of Thomas Coombes

Part 2 to be posted later this week.

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