10 Reflections to mark 10 Years in the Social Change Sector (part 2)

This is part 2 of my reflections to mark 10 years in the social change sector. To read part 1, please click here.

6. Right vs. left

I read something a few weeks back about how the binary of ‘right’ and ‘left’ came to exist in terms of politics. The terms originate from the French Revolution, where supporters of the king sat on the right of the general assembly, and supporters of the revolution sat on the left. I’d never considered the origin of these terms before – so deeply engrained they are in political thought – and was struck by how much power they hold, dividing families, communities and even nations. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that some people are just plain nasty, and they can be on either the right or left of the political spectrum, but on the whole, I think individual human beings are nowhere near that simple. We each hold a multitude of ideas, opinions, values and wishes within ourselves – sometimes in complete contradiction. This is what makes us so interesting and capable of so much. However, the lazy and down-right unhelpful rhetoric which I’ve found in many social change spaces of ‘Anti-Tory’ is holding us back from tackling the divisive culture which is proliferating in the UK at the moment. By all means disagree on policies, and stand in solidarity with those who are facing abuses of their human rights, but be reminded that few people change their view because they are repeatedly shouted at.

For a more detailed read, I recommend The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

7.  Small wins don’t add up to a big win

I’m actually going to completely contradict the heading of this reflection and say that of course, massive change often happens incrementally and gradually over time and that it’s hard to see the overarching advance towards equality and justice when you’re standing in one place. However, something organisations need to get much better at is thinking in a longer-term way, not just about the small wins in front of them, but about how they can craft sustained efforts that bring about a greater transformation. Most organisations will have campaigning cycles of 1, 2, possibly 3 years, but how much can plausibly be done to disrupt entire systems in that short space of time? I think a lot of the reluctance around longer-term planning comes down to our fear of uncertainty. How can we possibly know all the variables to be able to plan longer than a few years ahead? But campaigning work is (or at least should be) reactive in part, and so any theory of change needs to be fluid enough to encompass different avenues to impact. I’d love to see organisations commit to longer-term thinking – and funders willing to follow suit.

An incredible project looking at the long-term: The Long Time Project

8. Social justice education is the most underrated thing ever!

For most organisations the bottom line is getting people to take action on a particular issue in order to put pressure on decision makers to change a law, policy or behaviour. However, over the last ten years this process has started to baffle me. These ‘decision-makers’ are also people, who, like everybody else, have homes and families, feel the same range of human emotions, and go through the standard phases of life. Including their education. Sure, because of our unequal education system, they may have experienced a more ‘privileged’ schooling, but they at some point were six years old and learning about right and wrong, fairness and unfairness. We invest an awful lot into getting people to take action, but we rarely go backwards and think about how we could raise a generation of people – some who will go on to walk the corridors of power – with a foundational commitment to compassion, kindness and justice. Now wouldn’t that be long-term work worth investing in?

Small, but mighty: Development In Action

9. More is needed than just good intentions

I’ve been fortunate enough to work alongside some fantastic colleagues who have been committed, fiercely (and sometimes intimidatingly) intelligent and unafraid of the scale of the work that lies ahead. However, even in 2019 there exists in the sector an unbeliably ridiculous assumption that good intentions are all that is needed to make change happen. I wish with all my heart that that were true – we could all just sit down, do a load of good intending and all the world’s problems would be solved. However, we just don’t live in that world. The social and environmental challenges we face don’t exist because of a lack of good will or kindness, but because the world has developed in such a way to prize wealth and success above all else. Of course we need to keep recruiting people who care deeply about the issues we work on, but we also need to ensure they are fully equipped to the best of their ability to tackle them effectively. The sector workforce desperately needs to invest in more training, coaching and mentorship programmes, challenging its staff to thinking critically about how the work could be improved and more impact made.

Killer resources for campaigners: Mobilisation Lab

10. This sector is the only one we have

For all its failings and ‘could-do-betters’, the social change sector is the only one we have. Yes, I want to see it improved, but I also think it should be recognised for the things it has achieved so far. 

At the beginning of this year, I very nearly stepped away from this work entirely. I was tired of the slow, beauractic rate at which progress is made, at the short-sightedness of organisations and their unwillingness to embrace change. But, after looking at PGCE courses for the umpteenth time, I decided that I don’t think I could work on anything else. Stepping into freelance life, I’m hopeful I’ll be able to find and learn from more people who feel similarly about the sector to me and work on ushering in a more ambitious, more future-directed era for social change.

What are your biggest reflections form working in the sector? Any of mine you agree or disagree with? I’d love to hear!