Four Phrases Change Makers are Tired of Hearing

Image by Willi Heidelbach from Pixabay

Note: I realize that more than half of my readers are not U.S.-based, so I apologize in advance for what is probably a very American-centric bit of writing. If there are similarly frustrating phrases where you live, feel free to comment below.


There are certain phrases that make me cringe. My negative reaction to these frequently repeated expressions is rooted in the ways that they can be obstacles to creating change in the world. Here are four of my least favorite phrases.

“It is what it is.”

Being told to “deal with” a frustrating situation because there is nothing you can do to change it, sounds like an instruction to give up. If a condition is unacceptable, there is nothing the people who benefit from the status quo like to hear more than, “all we can do is accept it and get over it.” When you hear, “it is what it is,” the best response is to come up with strategies to create change despite the situation, not give up because of it.

“No offense, but . . .”

Obviously, when you hear this phrase, you are about to be offended. The reason a person will use this phrase when talking to you is that they think that you need to know that they believe that they are smarter than you are. They don’t, however, simply use this thinly veiled passive-aggressiveness to challenge facts. In my experience, “No offense, but,” is frequently the introduction to any number of logical fallacies. It’s a power play often followed by nonsense. Know your stuff. Hold your ground.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

I understand that many people find comfort in the thought that a supreme being’s providence makes a horrible reality perhaps a bit more tolerable. Other folks like to explain things based on the alignment of the stars and planets. I’m not here to ask you to abandon your belief system.

There are times, however, when changes in human designed policies and practices are at the core of some terrible things in the world. Yes, everything does happen for a reason, and if we take the time to analyze the situation, we can figure out what those reasons are. And if those reasons can be addressed by correcting flawed human constructs, shouldn’t we do what we can to make those changes?

“In these trying/uncertain times.”

I do not disagree that a global pandemic has created disruption and uncertainty in people’s lives. I also know that for poor and marginalized people, life has always been trying and uncertain. I am not interested in simply getting the world back to a pre-COVID state. I want the world to be better than that.

The pandemic has given lip service to “all of us being in this together.” But in reality, this extraordinary event has reinforced the harsh realities of inequality. Poor people got poorer healthcare. People were deemed “essential workers,” yet were often not paid enough to meet their basic needs. As we move toward returning to “normal,” we need to remember to continue to work on reducing the uncertainty in everyone’s lives.

Finding Answers in the Grassroots

“Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Logical, sensible solutions frequently come from the people whose lives are most closely affected by the issues you seek to remedy. Their ideas are usually very insightful and rational, because they have experienced first-hand, the inherent flaws in the current strategies to correct those issues.

Many years ago, I was invited to a meeting around strategies for educating “unbanked” immigrants on the perils related to relying on check cashing businesses and other high interest rate opportunists. The meeting was attended by six or seven well-intentioned, white, gray-haired, male bankers and other business types, myself (an employee of an education-related nonprofit organization younger than the others, but also a white male), and finally a Latina woman who was probably also the youngest person in the room in addition to being the only person of color, and only woman.

I was there just in case there might be a role for my organization to play in any action that might be taken, so I mostly listened. The discussion was primarily about financial literacy curriculum. Banks had developed educational materials, but the materials were all in English. There wasn’t anything in the languages of Latin America, Southeast Asia, or East Africa. There also wasn’t much discussion about any strategies other than translating that traditionally developed and delivered curriculum. That is until the only woman in the room finally spoke.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing, but it was this direct, and this succinct), ‘This is what you have to do. You go to churches, or community centers and talk to parents. You tell them that their kids are going to get ripped off by these places. People want to protect their children so they’ll listen. Of course, it is mostly the parents who are getting taken advantage of by these businesses. You educate the parents, and they will educate their children.’

She knew the culture and how to navigate communicating within it. The best solution did not center on ‘experts’ developing curriculum. Rather, it was rooted in human relationships, and parents wanting to understand something better so that they could protect their children.

I have seen this sort of wisdom emerge over and over throughout the years. I once attended a workshop where a man in my affordable housing discussion group said that the rent on his apartment was higher than a house payment would be for a home that would suit his family’s needs. He just didn’t have the money to make a down payment sufficient for a bank to give him a loan on a house.  He wasn’t an economist, but he knew a solution to increasing his low-income family’s wealth by getting equity in a house.

My introduction to the concept of environmental racism came via the words of a Native American living on a reservation next to a hazardous waste dump. I learned about potential approaches to the multiple transportation, and childcare challenges faced by single mothers, from those women.

People can be experts on the issues related to the challenges they face in their everyday lives. If you need technical expertise seek it out. However, do not underestimate the wisdom of regular folks whose expertise has been gained from experience

The Unexpected Benefits of ABCD

NOTE: This post is a companion piece to the post, “Asset Focused Leadership,” which provides an overview of ABCD fundamentals.

“Happy accidents are real gifts, and they can open the door to a future that didn’t even exist. It’s kind of nice sometimes to set up something to encourage or allow happy accidents to happen.” — David Lynch

An asset-based community development (ABCD) approach to creating change requires a recognition of the fundamental humanity of every member of the community, and allows each person’s gifts, skills, and talents to be shared and celebrated. It should not be surprising that these basic tenets often result in unexpected discoveries of human ingenuity and accomplishment.

Communities use ABCD to uncover, and creatively implement ways to address local issues. Along the way, however, small groups of collaborators, many of whom have only recently met, begin to see their community through a different lens. As people work together to create positive change in their community, social capital, and trusted personal relationships are created.

That trust can be a key to a sense of belonging for people who formerly found themselves on the margins. Being surrounded by gifted, caring people does more than instill confidence that committed people can get things done. It often uncovers a generosity of spirit, and a level of compassion that the community had not previously seen.

The unexpected benefits of taking the time to ask people what they care deeply about, and what their talents are, consistently changes the conversation. People are forced to rethink notions about where wisdom and expertise reside. That gives them confidence to believe that they don’t have to wait around for someone else do something about improving the things that they are passionate about.

Action Plans for Social Change

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Creating change is a multifaceted endeavor. There are deeply rooted issues, diverse groups of stakeholders, and many moving parts. In fact, the thought of wrapping our collective arms around an enormous problem, and replacing it with something good seems too overwhelming for most people. The path to success for too many people appears to be unattainable. That is why it helps to have an action plan.

The popular, “Model for Managing Complex Change” credited to Dr. Mary Lippitt, and popularized by Dr. Timothy Knoster, suggests that there are six elements necessary to effectively create change. Those elements are: vision, consensus, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan. (You can see a good general overview of the model written by Sergio Caredda, here.) All of these elements are discussed to varying degrees elsewhere on this site. Right now, I want to focus on the idea of an action plan.

What is an Action Plan?

An action plan essentially answers the important who, what, when, where, and how questions around coordinated activities that bring you closer to your goals. The plan also addresses questions related to logistics, coordination, communication, and resources. If you’re looking for some pretty good “how to” instructions for community-centered action plans, I’d suggest the action plan section on the Community Tool Box website.

Action plans recognize and target specific problems. They implement strategies that must be informed by the people who are most adversely affected by the status quo, and they help to create the awareness, and the conditions for a readiness and willingness to change.

The most effective plans recognize that minds have to change before policies can change. Some of those minds are opposed to your vision, and some are undecided, or simply ambivalent (See the post, “Change Happens at the Center”). So do your homework because as Neil de Grasse Tyson writes, “How strongly you feel about an issue is not itself a measure of the strength of your argument.”

Scale

Scale is perhaps the most important consideration in planning actions intended to create social change. The smaller the scale, the easier it is to create a more detailed plan. For example, a plan to get a local council to remove discriminatory policies, is easier than creating a single plan to eliminate all institutionalized racism. The latter requires thousands of smaller plans with a shared vision. Social movements are comprised of countless small actions undertaken with a common goal in mind.

Contingency Plans

Good planning also recognizes that things don’t always happen exactly as they are planned. Just because one part of a plan didn’t go as expected, does not mean that all is lost. It is always useful to do some sort of scenario planning to create options where you might encounter unanticipated events. When you are assessing potential “if this, then that” situations, you are weighing the risks and rewards of certain actions. Consider the implications of individual points of breakdown in your plan. Making contingency planning part of your action plan can keep you moving forward.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” -– Abraham Lincoln

False Dilemmas: a Recurring Battle

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Note: This is a companion piece of sorts to a couple of earlier posts: Getting Beyond Either/Or, and Change Happens at the Center. Both of which touch on the importance of seeing opportunities for creating change when you look beyond the only two options you are being presented with.


A False Dilemma (also known as a False Dichotomy) is a logical fallacy that reduces an argument down to only two options despite the fact that many more options may exist. We hear them every day: “America, love it or leave it;” “You’re either with us or you’re against us;” “You either love me or you hate me.”

People in opposition to your goals will use these fallacious arguments in an attempt to force you into an extreme position to create the assumption that there are only two positions. That way they can paint you with broad strokes, and start employing other logical fallacies to misrepresent your positions.

False dilemmas are particularly popular with politicians in ‘us vs. them’ two party systems. People with lines drawn in the sand are not interested in entertaining the idea of reasonable alternatives. To paint the two-options-only picture serves to get potential supporters to forget logic and reason, and to dig in their heels against a one-dimensional villain.

How Do You Counter a False Dilemma?

According to the website, Effectiviology, there are several ways to respond to a false dilemma argument. Here are a just a few of those strategies.

  • Refute the premise of mutual exclusivity by explaining why two options can both be true. Give examples of how ideas be defined as either/or can be described as both/and.
  • Refute the premise of collective exhaustivity by providing counterexamples which show that there are additional options beyond the ones which were presented.
  • Refute the validity of one of the options that it contains. For example, one frequently repeated either/or dilemma is the argument against raising the minimum wage is that raising the minimum wage will put small businesses out of business. However, Researchers say raising the minimum wage doesn’t kill small businesses or reduce job opportunities.
  • Refute with a counter-dilemma using similar premises, but which reaches a different conclusion.

One of my favorite ways to confront a false dilemma is to point out what values both sides have in common. It is the quickest way to show gray areas of this ‘black and white’ argument. Common self-interest is a powerful thing.

The Game is Not Over: Bouncing Back from a Defeat

“Fortitude is the marshal of thought, the armor of the will, and the fort of reason.”

– Francis Bacon

Losing an election, a local council vote, a legal challenge, or failing to remove a barrier to the change you want to see can be discouraging, and emotionally draining.  Rarely, however, does your opposition’s victory eliminate every opportunity for you and your allies to move your cause forward. To use a tennis metaphor, your loss may have been a point, or a game, or even a set, but it wasn’t necessarily the match. Here are a few things to consider once you’ve dusted yourself off and are ready to jump back into the thick of things.

Feeling Bad – Once a setback has occurred, don’t spend more than a few minutes feeling sorry for yourselves (OK, it may take a day or two). It is important to honestly evaluate your missteps and tactical errors. Don’t beat yourselves up for your mistakes. Learn from them.

Accepting Criticism – People may criticize leadership groups or individuals. That’s normal. Admit your own mistakes. Own your failures. Follow that up by reasserting your dedication to your cause and inviting a committed group of people to start planning your next action. You’ll do so with the confidence that you won’t make the same mistakes twice.

Reaffirming Goals – Remind yourselves why your goals are still important. Reaffirm your shared values with all of your allies. Don’t dismiss those who are not yet ready to jump immediately into direct action. Give them space, and let them know that they are valued, and they’ll be back when your cause’s energy builds again.

Cultivating More Leaders – Finally, remember that a leader’s job is not to find followers, but rather it is to create more leaders. Have one-to-one meetings with people who joined you along the way, who may not have been with you during earlier strategy planning. You’ll find more leaders, and more ways to articulate your messages, and make your case for change.

The fight is not over.

Small Victories

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Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

— Howard Zinn

The pursuit of social change is not always about big wins. When you are in it for the long haul . . .

Sometimes you will point out complexities where people saw only black and white.

Sometimes you will sow seeds of uncertainty.

Sometimes you will point out ambiguities.

Sometimes you will remind people to examine their own competing values.

Sometimes you will meet one new, likeminded ally.

Small victories create the underpinnings for the platforms upon which change is built. Leaders of change need to identify these victories, and articulate their value to your allies. Recognizing the small wins serves to remind us that leadership is a distributed activity that takes place at an interpersonal level. Every person engaged in every small action is demonstrating leadership for change.

Contrived Nostalgia as an Enemy of Change

“In every age ‘the good old days’ were a myth. No one ever thought they were good at the time. For every age has consisted of crises that seemed intolerable to the people who lived through them.”

– Brooks Atkinson

Manufactured nostalgia for a golden age, a mostly fictional, idealized “good old days” can be an insidious, deliberate strategy employed by people actively opposed to progressive change.

There are always those who will try to convince people that the way to a better future is to re-create some romanticized, imagined era. It is usually conveniently portrayed as a time that existed before anyone alive today could have lived through. Harkening back to “a simpler time,” however, is often just a thinly disguised way of saying a time before people demanded human rights, inclusion, and equality. This isn’t about nostalgia; it’s about power.

Persistent individual, as well as institutional racism, and sexism have often been rationalized by those who oppose change, with claims of cultural or heritage preservation. You will call for change, and someone will try to call you out for your “cultural relativism.” This argument is a red herring. You have no moral, or ethical duty to be tolerant, or accepting of anyone’s heritage that sought to oppress people by denying them fundamental human rights. No heritage, or culture deserves to be celebrated if it resulted in realities such as human trafficking, discrimination, rape, or even genocide.

People who oppose the change you are trying to create will attempt to define their nostalgic vision as a zero-sum game. This is because the only way their argument works is if you mistakenly believe that extending equal rights to oppressed groups, takes rights away from the dominant group. It does not take away their rights. It takes absolute power away from them, and their power is not a birthright.

If there are elements of a bygone era that have inherent value (cleaner water, and a smaller income inequality gap come to mind), then by all means make that part of your vision for the future. However, can’t we all agree that no ethical person should have fond memories for discrimination, inequality, and the abuse of power?

Community Outreach vs Community Engagement

“The organizer dedicated to changing the life of a particular community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community.”
– Saul Alinsky

community outreach vs community engagement

Here are a few quick thoughts on these differences as they relate to leading social change.

  • There is a role for both outreach, and for engagement when organizing for change.
  • Community engagement should happen early, and often. Its goal is organizing to act in support of achieving your desired change.
  • Community outreach is a function of communicating to engaged partners, or gathering information or data from them.
  • Outreach defines the community (audience) it is intended to reach.
  • Engagement can create self-defined communities (affinity groups).
  • Community engagement is formative. It thrives on both diversity, and inclusion.
Read more about this distinction at buildthefield.org.

Leading by Example

“Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.”
– Albert Einstein

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You don’t have to be in “leadership position” to model the values, and behaviors that build trusting and effective personal and professional relationships. In fact, even if you are not deliberately setting out to lead by example, you’re probably doing it anyway. It’s human nature. We care deeply about what goes on around us. We tend to recognize what works, and what doesn’t.

So knowing that people are watching anyway, here are a few ways you can more effectively lead by example.

Be honest. If you are honest with people, it will encourage them to be honest with you. The trust that is created will help catch future problems earlier, and help to resolve internal conflicts before they reel out of control.

Follow through on promises and commitments. Don’t over-promise.

Lighten up. Take the work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

See assets. Don’t dwell on people’s deficits. Recognize the assets that everyone brings to the table. We often see good things in people that they don’t recognize in themselves. Create a culture of compliments.

Focus. Stay determined, resolute, and purposeful. Stay true to your shared vision for the future, but . . .

Prioritize wellness. Don’t let your untiring commitment burn you out. Take care of your physical and mental health, and remind others to do the same.

Own your mistakes, and come up with strategies to fix them.

Be kind. Say, “please,” and “thank you.” Fundamental human decency can be extremely helpful in getting people through difficult challenges.

More walk, less talk. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.”

Diversity vs Inclusion

“Diversity, or the state of being different, isn’t the same as inclusion. One is a description of what is, while the other describes a style of interaction essential to effective teams and organizations.”
– Bill Crawford

There is an often used phrase that is used to help us remember the difference between diversity, and inclusion. It’s something along the lines of, ‘Diversity is when you count the people. Inclusion is when the people count.’ For marginalized communities, it is the difference between being tolerated, and being wholly accepted and celebrated for your contributions to society.

diversity versus inclusion

Diversity is focused on tracking characteristics and identities. It seeks to invite people who have previously been excluded based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, age or any other characteristics that people are negatively labeled with.

Inclusion is about welcoming and embracing diversity because of the benefits that it brings. It amplifies marginalized voices and ideas. Inclusion exercises diversity. It is is a conversation deepened by diversity.

Diversity + Equal Access = Inclusion

Diversity does not necessarily lead to inclusion. It can only do so when a sincere commitment to equal access to centers of power and authority. That requires that people currently in those centers identify and remove barriers to full and equitable participation. You can help them identify those barriers.

We can’t hope to convince society to embrace inclusion until we do so in our own communities, organizations and personal lives. What are you doing in your personal life to help create a more inclusive world?