What is Our Role in Creating Change?

by Aerin Dunford January 4, 2009

by Margaret Wheatley, 2008

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Proceed until apprehended!
— Diana Vander Woude

Several years ago, I read of a Buddhist teacher who encouraged people filled with despair over the state of the world.  His advice was simple and wise: “It’s our turn to help the world.” I love this statement because it reminds us of other times and other people who stepped forward to help create the changes that were necessary.  We do live in an era that is unique in at least two ways.  For the first time, humans have altered the earth’s ecology and created consequences that are just beginning to materialize in frightening ways.  And we are aware immediately of tragedies and horrors everywhere in the world, no matter where they occur.

But for all of human existence, no matter how terrible the time, there always have been people willing to step forward to do whatever they could to create positive change.  Some succeeded, some did not.  As we struggle with our own time, it’s good to remember that we are standing on very strong shoulders that stretch far back in history.

In working with many people in very different cultures, I’ve learned to define leadership differently than most.  A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation.  It might be a parent who intervenes in her child’s school; or a rural village that works to get clean water; or a worker who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in his workplace; or a citizen who rallies her neighbors to stop local polluters.  Everywhere in the world, no matter the economic or social circumstances, people step forward to try and make a small difference.

Because a leader is anyone willing to help, we can celebrate the fact that the world is abundantly rich in leaders.  Some people ask, “Where have all the leaders gone?”  But if we worry that there’s a shortage of leaders, we’re just looking in the wrong place, usually at the top of some hierarchy.  Instead, we need to look around us, to look locally.  And we need to look at ourselves.  When have we moved into action for an issue or concern that we cared about?  When have we stepped forward to help and thereby become a leader?

The process that creates change in the world is quite straightforward.  We notice something that needs to be changed.  We keep noticing it.  The problem keeps getting our attention, even though most people don’t notice that there’s even a problem.  We start to act, we try something.  If that doesn’t work, we try a different approach. We learn as we go. We become very engaged with the issue, spending more and more time on it.  We become exhausted by our efforts, but still we keep going.  The issue keeps calling to us.  Any time we succeed, no matter how small the success, we gain new energy and resolve.  We become smarter as we learn more about the issue and understand it better.  We become more skillful at tactics and strategies.  As we persevere, and if we are successful, more people join us.  Sometimes we remain as just a small group, sometimes we give birth to a movement that involves tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

This is how the world always changes. Even great and famous change initiatives begin this way, with the actions of just a few people, when “some friends and I started talking.”  Including those efforts that win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2004, Wangari Maatai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in organizing The Greenbelt Movement which had planted over thirty million trees in Kenya and east Africa.  Wangari was a biology professor at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.  In a meeting with other Kenyan women, she learned that the fertile and forested land of her youth had been devastated.  All the trees had been cut down for coffee and tea plantations.  Local women now had to walk miles for firewood, and the water had become polluted with chemicals and run-offs from the plantations.

The Six or Seven Axioms of Social Change: Margaret Mead’s Gift

by Alexis Schroeder July 1, 2005

By Zaid Hassan, July 2005

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The anthropologist Margaret Mead gave us the gift of what can be called Mead’s Axiom, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” While I have heard this quote being used hundreds, if not thousands of times, I personally haven’t had much of an understanding of how it happens to be true. It seems to be an article of faith, at least amongst social activists, hence an axiom in the technical sense. My intention here is to corroborate it with my personal understanding of mass social change.

On good days my work involves enthusiastically trying to form and catalyze such groups. On bad days I curse and wonder where these small groups of thoughtful, committed people are and what they’re waiting for. Regardless of what day it is, I feel that Mead’s Axiom provides us with a compelling vision for mass social change. It deserves attention. This essay is animated by a burning desire to understand what could be thought of as the mother of all axioms, at least when it comes to mass social change. I propose a series of lesser axioms, all drawn from trying to understand how Mead’s Axiom operates in the world.

Despite the tidiness of Mead’s Axiom, mass social change is not usually a nice linear process. There are, of course, situations where social innovation follows a linear path, for example with the take-up of an innovation (See Chapter 9 of “Believing Cassandra” by Worldchanging contributor Alan AtKisson). But these situations are rare when it comes to social systems which are complex and stuck. My colleague, Adam Kahane, in his book “Solving Tough Problems,” explains:

“Problems are tough because they are complex in three ways. They are dynamically complex, which means that cause and effect are far apart in space and time, and so are hard to grasp from firsthand experience. They are generatively complex, which means that they are unfolding in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways. And they are socially complex, which means that the people involved see things very differently, and so the problems become polarized and stuck.”

When studying mass social change as a phenomenon there is always a temptation to order events as they happened, in a timeline. Then by implication we assume that one thing follows another and one thing neatly causes another. A very real danger for those wishing to learn from historical social change is the trap of seeing social change linearly. This is a trap is because we know (for example from research on complex systems) that social change, that is changing a complex system, is less about planning and more about creating the conditions for change. To mangle an old adage, no plan survives contact with reality. Mass social change is messy, unpredictable and often ugly.

Modern institutions are not well suited to the work of catalyzing social change because they suffer from a touching need for linear and predictable processes. Such processes in turn demand that risk be minimized and a plan be proposed, which is often used as a script rather than a point of departure. If we’re being honest with ourselves, then we’d recognize when the function of a plan is purely psychological comfort in the face of unpredictable and frightening change.

Some appetite for risk is, however, a key capacity required of anyone with a commitment to sustained social change in such turbulent times. If this appetite does not come naturally then it must be built slowly over time, like an immunity. As James P. Carse, in Finite and Infinite Games puts it, “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained, to be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”

Risk therefore should not be confused with recklessness or blindness. Risk can be understood, embraced and internalized as an intrinsic quality of the systems that we’re dealing with. It cannot be banished and any attempt to do so should be treated with the same sympathy that any other pathological condition demands.