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

Sometimes you will change just one person’s mind.

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?

Five Reasons to Lead Change

“Some men have thousands of reasons why they cannot do what they want to, when all they need is one reason why they can.”
– Martha Graham

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There are hundreds of reasons to take an active role in creating a better world. Here are just five of them.

You find yourself complaining a lot.
You find yourself starting too many sentences with phrases such as, “Why doesn’t somebody” or, “When are they going to.” You are that somebody.

Children depend on you.
Everyone can think of an issue where children are adversely affected through no fault of their own. The world needs to be safe for future generations.

You’re smart.
You know more about the issues that you’re passionate about than most people do. You’ve already got a head start on creating a solution.

Nobody should have to live in fear.
Whether it’s fear of the unknown, fear of failing, or fear of what other people think, fear limits our choices, our options, and our opportunities. You have more courage than you know.

You need to eat, drink, and breathe in order to live.
Despite differences in political ideology, everyone has some fundamental common ground when it comes to life’s necessities. Consider starting with issues that touch these commonalities, and find some unlikely allies.

Like I said, there are hundreds more reasons. Those reasons are connected directly to your most closely held values. You care. How can you not act?

 

You Can Deliver Messages that Inspire People to Act

“I’m not the best person at putting words together. I can’t give you the melody. But I might inspire somebody.”
– Meek Mill

(This article is a companion piece to my post “The Role of Storytelling in Leading for Change.” Check it out for more tips on effective storytelling.)

You can inspire people to act by your own actions, by your art, by your numbers, or by your words. Even if you are not the world’s greatest orator, or even an experienced public speaker, your message can be dramatic. Your goals conflict with the status quo; and where there is conflict, there is drama.

Tie your message to a vision of a preferred future. Give an example of the way things are. Then describe the way they could be. Repeat this pattern with one or two more examples. Then talk about how the desired future is achievable, but only with the commitment of people in the room.

Give people real examples, preferably about people you know, or have met. Personal stories about your own experiences can have the greatest impact.

We are inspired by stories of successful collective action. We are reminded that our experiences are not isolated. We are reminded that people have each other’s backs.

We are also inspired by stories of people with empathy for others. Stories about courage inspire us, particularly those about people who have fought, or are fighting oppression.

Inspiring stories do not need to be polished, or well-rehearsed. If they are honest, passionate, and if they move you; they will move another person — or even a thousand other people.

Changing Minds and Preaching to the Converted

Creating change is about shifting people’s perceptions. The opposed and the indifferent will not engage in a 180 degree philosophical turnaround on their own. That’s why we develop strategic communication plans — to bring people to our side by appealing to our shared values.

At times, however, would-be change agents spend inordinate amounts of time seemingly trying to persuade the already persuaded. It’s pretty easy to follow only people with whom you agree on social media, visit only websites that share your worldview, and have conversations only with likeminded people.

I have written previously on themes related to changing people’s minds. Here are links to three of those posts:

Having made the point about the primacy of changing hearts and minds, it is important to recognize that there is still a place for “preaching to the converted.” Political strategists refer to it as energizing the base.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “I believe in preaching to the converted; for I have generally found that the converted do not understand their own religion.” People often know in their gut why something needs to change, but they sometimes lack the words to effectively refute opposing viewpoints.

As author and activist Dan Savage put it, “Preaching to the choir actually arms the choir with arguments and elevates the choir’s discourse. There’s a reason the right does it and does it well and triumphs.”

This doesn’t mean that you give your allies boilerplate responses to every possible question they may run into. When you do that you risk marginalizing critical diversity of voices in your coalition. Instead, give them the frameworks, filters, and value propositions that can counter a variety of objections.

More on this later.