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

sculpture-2196139_640

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

hands-600497_640

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.

Public Perception and Opinion Leaders

“American public opinion is like an ocean, it cannot be stirred by a teaspoon.”

– Hubert H. Humphrey

Public perception of the issues related to the change you’re trying to make is often not based on evidence and facts. Those facts and that evidence cannot always see the light of day because of countless layers of myths, propaganda, and media coverage.

The cultural barriers to truth and reality are just as influenced by fiction, as they are by “news” coverage. Ask the average person what they know about Native Americans, and they’ll likely recount a view portrayed in a film, TV, and literary genre known as Westerns. Ask them what they know about the Korean War, and you’ll often get what they remember from episodes of the TV series, M*A*S*H.

With all of the powerful forces contradicting the ‘truth,’ is it possible to change public perception without some enormous, well-funded public relations machine? Yes it is.

Word of mouth communication is as powerful a force as it has ever been. We listen to the voices that we trust.  We listen to people who we believe have demonstrated wisdom in their advice or opinion leaderguidance in the past. These trusted people are known as opinion leaders. Their influence is felt in informal conversations, at work meetings, and today it is abundant on social media.

The recognition of opinion leaders is increasingly common in marketing circles, where ‘word of mouth advertising’ has always been important. Social media has made it easier to identify potential opinion leaders. Just look at people whose YouTube channels have many hundreds of thousands, or millions of followers. These internet celebrities are constantly being sent free products in the hopes that they’ll get a testimonial delivered to a captive audience.

It isn’t just internet celebrities who have opinion leaders in social media. Anyone with followers or friends on social platforms can exert influence. That influence can extend to the distributed networks of those followers and friends as well. So who do you know with lots of followers or friends?

Give Authority

Do it! note

When people are involved in something that is organized, they sometimes need permission to act on certain things. Nobody wants a loose canon, right?

Other times people are held back by the idea that they need permission to act on things that do not actually require permission. Maybe it’s an excuse for being afraid. Maybe they are just indecisive. Whatever the reason, we periodically need to give a stamp of approval.

Here’s something to think about the next time you are in a leadership role where someone needs permission. Are you giving them responsibility, or authority?

If I say that I am giving you the responsibility to do something, it sounds like I am giving you a job to do, and I expect you to do it. Responsibility is positional. It moves from the bottom to the top. Responsibility can sound like a burden.

If I say that I am giving you the authority to do something, it sounds like I am validating your power. You are in charge of doing something due to your abilities, and your competence. Authority is a pat on the back.

Give people authority.

Seeing ROI Through a Community Lens

colorful abstract people

“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.”

― Ani DiFranco

Often, when people have conversations about proposed changes in their community, there are two questions that are either explicit, or are just under the surface. These questions speak to return on investment (ROI). People want to know: what’s in it for me; and what is it going to cost?

It’s reasonable to think that someone would want to know what kind of return they might expect on their commitment of time, energy, or money. That expected ROI does not, however, always reflect some sort of purely selfish interest on the part of the person whose support you are seeking. Rational people see their self-interest tied to the common good.

Social change, community building, and placemaking are about improving everyone’s quality of life, and identifying their common self-interest. This is why it is imperative to express your case for support in terms of the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ metaphor, as well as pointing out specific individual benefits.

Most individuals don’t have the ability to create the scale necessary for many of the quality of life measures that they seek. They don’t have the resources to create a park, or a cultural event. They can’t singlehandedly avoid public health issues. They can’t ensure that people will be trained, and make living wages performing the services that they need to care for themselves and their loved ones. Vibrant, healthy communities embrace the idea of the public good.

I have spent a considerable chunk of my career in higher education. For a long time, public investment in higher education was seen by elected officials as a public good. Colleges and universities are economic engines, and incubators of innovation. For some reason, however, public investment in higher education has seen a steady decline over the past couple of decades. One contributing factor to this dwindling support is the fact that college recruitment strategies have focused so heavily on the individual career and income gains that can be realized by obtaining a college degree. Lawmakers took notice and essentially said, ‘if the gains are private, maybe the investment should be private.’

Take some time to look at the issues you are concerned with through a community lens. Even if the issue seems to focus on the challenges individuals or small groups, how does the resolution of those challenges benefit the community as a whole?

The Role of Storytelling in Leading for Change

(image: public domain)

You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.

— Margaret Atwood

Storytelling is important. People have always told stories. The art of storytelling predates written language. It still very much plays a significant role in how we understand the world in which we live. Storytelling is therefore, a very important aspect of bringing about change in the world.

Stories shine light on realities we might otherwise miss. They can also motivate people to act. Sometimes we see ourselves in stories. If our experiences are like those of a character, we may learn the same lesson that they have learned. We can come to the realization that our values and our concerns are shared more widely than we may have believed. Stories can articulate a vision of what we can achieve individually and collectively. They can be both inspirational, and aspirational.

Stories, however, aren’t just about seeing ourselves. Vicariously walking in someone else’s shoes is one of the most appealing aspects of stories. Stories help us feel empathy toward others. They allow us to experience the joy, or the sorrow that others have felt. Stories provoke and educate. They can provide cautionary tales that remind us of what happens when we fail to act in a caring and humane manner.

A Few Tips and Resources

You rarely have enough time to show someone that perfect documentary film.  There isn’t time for metaphor-laden, complex narratives. Your opportunity to touch someone’s heart and mind with a story is more likely to occur in a period of under five minutes. Your story should feature relatable, authentic, characters with clear, demonstrated values.

This may sound obvious, but it is important for a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should start with a compelling statement, and establish the humanity of the subject. The middle develops a clearly defined conflict that explores values, and chooses actions. The ending resolves the conflict in a way that illustrates a position or teaches a lesson. The story should end with a memorable line.

There are lots of people out there who know much more about storytelling than I do. Below are some good resources to help you craft stories that will touch people, and move them to act on behalf of creating the change that you’re working toward. Now go out and tell your story.

You Are Not a Mind Reader

“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

What types of assumptions cloud our judgement? When we are laser-focused on obtaining an outcome, what sort of thinking might cause us to make a strategic misstep?

There are dozens of varieties of cognitive biases that can distort our logic. One of the most common is to have a tendency to think we know what other people are thinking, or what their mental state is. These forms of bias can result from false reasoning, arrogance, ideology, or simply an inability to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

I work in education, where it is not uncommon to witness a bias known as the “curse of knowledge.” You may have had the experience of sitting in a college classroom where the professor falsely assumes that the students have the appropriate background knowledge to understand material that is clearly way over everyone’s head.

Everyone does not know what you know. Even if they have the same information, they may be interpreting it differently than you. Intellectual snobbishness isn’t a great strategy for learning; nor is it a great strategy to gain allies and supporters. Convey facts and evidence in ways that resonate with peoples’ experiences. New information doesn’t become knowledge until we can connect it to something we already know, so try to identify common experience to use as context.

No matter how much time we spend interacting with other people, we are always to a great degree focused on the center of our own personal universe. It isn’t necessarily egocentric. We just notice and think about the things that we ourselves see, without ever really knowing how much others notice and think about those same things. A phenomenon known as the “spotlight effect” suggests that someone may have a tendency to mistakenly think that they are as much at the center of someone else’s world as they are at the center of their own. A good rule for leaders is: get over yourself. Being a change agent is not about you. It is about the individual lives of everyone affected by a misguided current state of affairs.

When engaged in a struggle for social change, the ‘us versus them’ frameworks that we create for ourselves are rooted in the belief that our ideas are better than our opponents’ ideas. If we come to the dangerous conclusion that this is simply because we are smarter than our opponents, then we may also jump to the similarly dangerous conclusion that our knowledge of them is greater than their knowledge of us. What people know, and what they believe are two different things.

There is another problem that comes with believing that we know people better than we actually do. There is something that people who study these things refer to as, “extrinsic incentives bias.” This extends our lack of knowing others to the realm of knowing what motivates them.

Understanding people’s motivations is crucial for creating social change. Extrinsic incentives bias is assuming that people put more value on extrinsic incentives like money, than they do on intrinsic incentives like safety, or happiness. People’s motivations are not always easy to understand, or make assumptions about (See my post “Quality of Life Versus Standard of Living”).

Not surprisingly, the most accurate way to find out what people are thinking, is to ask them. Check your assumptions, regardless of how sure you believe that they are correct. Time spent listening to the people you want to support your cause is always time well spent.