Valuing Diversity and Fighting Oppression

op·pres·sion

o-PRESH-un

noun

prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control

We sometimes think about social change movements as people coming together and speaking with one voice to demand action.  Consistent expressions of common values, and a shared vision, however, can and should come in many flavors. We should not let a desire for a strong, homogeneous voice to come at the cost of the knowledge and wisdom found in diverse perspectives and stories of our allies.

Having said that, it is important to recognize that historically, people with the same adversary have often seen their alliances disintegrate due to infighting over what the late writer and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde referred to as “hierarchies of oppression.” Spending time arguing over whose situation is more oppressive only serves to strengthen the position of the oppressor. Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

Lorde’s, “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions,” like Sojourner Truth’s, “Ain’t I a Woman?” decades earlier, reminds us that compartmentalizing people does not necessarily shed light on their situation. We can identify with many groups simultaneously.  Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

It does not minimize my pain to recognize the pain of another. Both of our stories are important, and it is through sharing those stories that we will realize our common values, and goals. Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

 “I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression.” – Audre Lorde, “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions

You Always Have Power

It is New Year’s Day, and my wish for you is to have a powerful 2017.

If you are committed to social change, the most important thing you can do right now is to remember that you are not powerless. The notion that you cannot do anything about the issues that bother you the most, is false. Here are three ideas to help you get rid of a feeling of powerlessness:

Stop relinquishing your power. Don’t give away the fundamental strengths that you possess. You may not have authority, but you always have power — and you don’t need anyone’s permission to use it (Read more about this idea here).

You are not alone. Find even one or two like-minded people. Organize. Your common self-interests will reveal even more power. Map your collective assets, and connect those assets to define actions (more here). Which brings us to one final recommendation . . .

Less talk, more action. Do something today. Once you’ve organized you group of allies, don’t be seduced into thinking that whining and complaining to each other is going to solve anything. Act. Accomplish small things. Those successes will attract more partners, who will bring even more assets to the table. In the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, “It is not enough to be compassionate – you must act.”

You are not powerless. Happy New Year.

What does it mean to be strategic?

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“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

A social change strategy is more than just a plan of action designed to achieve a goal. It cannot be easily diagramed, because successful movements have distributed, as opposed to centralized leadership. Strategy is more than planned activities written in the boxes of a logic model.

This does not imply that you are in a constant state of improvisation. To be strategic is to understand that a wide variety of actions done with an informed perspective, or worldview, can contribute to collective success.

Those actions cannot necessarily be orchestrated by or coordinated from some center of operations. Localized opportunities present themselves, and people take advantage of them. Plans emerge with constantly evolving circumstances.

In this regard, strategy is more of a position, than it is a plan. A commitment to your position provides a lens through which you will know if your actions complement those across a movement.

“You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.”

– Leon Trotsky

Loss Aversion: a Significant Barrier to Social Change

“The ability to scare the hell out of people is much greater than the ability to attract them to equities.”

– Brian Barish

What have you got to lose? It seems like a question that should only be asked of a scared, desperate person, or of someone who is knowingly on the winning side of a rigged game.

What have you got to gain? Now, that is something you ask an optimist or an idealist, right?

These two questions are at the core of leading social change. If the best future that someone can imagine is one where they have simply protected what little they have, then your task becomes exponentially difficult.

There is an idea that economists and marketing professionals talk about called, loss aversion. The basic idea is that people have a tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. This is a concept that apparently transcends mere financial considerations. It can also be thought of in terms of the “losses” being in the form of loss of status, or of access.

Ultimately the loss aversion leads to risk aversion. That is what the privileged and the affluent are banking on. Not only is loss aversion at the center of all negotiation, it is also the enemy of positive change, and innovation.

As I pointed out in a previous post on risk aversion, Risk-taking is the only prescription for overcoming complacency, apprehension, and fear of failure.  At some point risk-aversion becomes an inescapable pessimism. A vision of a different world becomes unimaginable.

Avoiding this hopelessness requires vision, and a belief that the gains you desire are realistically achievable. It also helps to be reminded that your fear arises in part, from the fact that there are people who don’t want things to change, who are doing their best to keep you scared. Don’t let them.

(See more on vision here, and here.)

Revealing the Invisible

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“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

– Ralph Ellison

When it comes to people being invisible, there are a couple of types of invisibility to consider. Both kinds represent significant challenges in the process of trying to effect social change.

First, there are people, or groups of people that are deliberately unrecognized.  They often have few financial resources, are generally of poorer health, have less social capital, and are often considered by much more privileged people, as being less important.

The second group of “invisible” people, or groups of people are deliberately hidden. These are people of wealth and influence, whose activities allow them to rig social and political systems under the radar of most people.

The deliberately unrecognized, the unheard, and the unseen, are often at the heart of changes we are trying to create. It is important to amplify their voices, and to shed light on their realities. Awareness, education, and advocacy are key strategic goals. For example, if your city doesn’t have homeless people on street corners, and in parks, officials may deny that homelessness is something they need to be concerned about. Only by hearing the stories of people who are couch hopping, sleeping under bridges, or in cars, can you reveal the true extent of your community’s lack of affordable housing.

It is important to understand that the “invisible” are not simply needy, or victims. Giving voice to the invisible serves to uncover potential strategic approaches and assets. They are the people who often know the best solutions to overcoming the challenges that they face. Any social change effort should seek to leverage people at the margins; not as sad examples, but as full partners in planning the future.

“The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.”

– Woodrow Wilson

Revealing the invisible may not only expose unfairness and inequality, but it can also uncover something on the other end of the privilege spectrum – the so-called, power behind the throne that is working in opposition to your goals. This influence is usually purchased with large amounts of money.

These influencers are usually very careful to not actually break any laws, despite the fact that their actions may be ethically abhorrent. You may never come close to matching their financial clout, but exposing their role can, however, be beneficial. This is because the money trail points to real self-interests, as opposed to those being touted in your opposition’s misleading rhetoric. In some cases, it may be possible to boycott the source of the influencer’s income, or at least send some bad publicity their way.

Ultimately, it will probably be more effective to spend more time on revealing the realities of the deliberately unrecognized, than on exposing the deliberately hidden. That is where there is more untapped power; and it is the kind of power that money can’t buy.

Leadership and the Dunning–Kruger Effect

“Useful men, who do useful things, don’t mind being treated as useless. But the useless always judge themselves as being important and hide all their incompetence behind authority.” – Paulo Coelho

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In 1999, a couple of psychologists from Cornell University, named Kruger and Dunning, published some research findings* which essentially said that there is a tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability, and a tendency for experts to underestimate their own ability. This incorrect self-assessment of competence became known as the Dunning–Kruger Effect. When organizing to effect change, this tendency creates unique challenges.

Over-Estimators

If someone has assumed a leadership role, the failure to recognize their own lack of skill, as well as the extent of that inadequacy, is a potential recipe for disaster. This is doubly problematic as the researchers also found that over-estimators also fail to accurately gauge skill in others.

I have written previously about emotional intelligence, and how people can develop their capacity for it. Similarly, I believe that people can train themselves to more realistically assess their abilities in a variety of skills. The fact that under-performance is accompanied by tangible evidence in the end, means that there is incentive for people to seek honest, realistic self-assessment.

Under-Estimators

The real tragedy lies with the under-estimators. Undervaluing your own abilities isn’t just sad and unfortunate on a personal level. It has an impact on group morale, commitment, productivity, and ultimately, success.

One strategy to overcome this challenge would be to use appreciative inquiry, or one-to-one conversations, to map the assets of individuals. People sometimes forget about skills and talents that they have, and require others help to uncover those assets.

If you have examples of how an individual’s over-, or under-estimating their own abilities has played out in you work, please share them in the comments below.


*Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

A quick post-election reminder

In the aftermath of the catastrophic U.S. election, I find it necessary to remind myself of an important reality. Institutions cannot stop social change from occurring. Culture creates change. People locking arms with others who share their values, creates change.

If you want your community to be welcoming, safe, free of misogyny, racism, and other forms of oppression, the culture within your community can create that change. We do not need the permission of a government official, to do what is expected of respectful, compassionate human beings.

By all means, keep the necessary pressure on institutions that seek to be barriers to a more egalitarian society. But at the same time, do not forget that politics and policy are but a sliver of life in a free and democratic society.

The Fear of Being Called a Radical

image: public domain via pixabay

image: public domain via pixabay

“Seen from the point of view of a lie, the truth is often touted as radical.”

― Mango Wodzak, Destination Eden

One of the realities of organizing people to create social change, is the fact that there are people who would like to see change, but fear being seen as a “radical” for publicly calling for fundamentally different policies from the status quo. That fear is real, and should not be dismissed as a simple lack of commitment. The courage to act is situational.

The reluctance to be perceived as an agitator comes in part, from the branding by the media of extremism and zealotry, as ‘radical.’ It’s right-wing radicalism, and left-wing radicalism, and radical Islam . . . if somebody wants an idea to wear a black hat, they call it radical.

In reality, however, almost all change seems radical at some point. The American Revolution was instigated by radicals.  A century ago, in the U.S., the idea that woman should be able to vote was considered radical. Civil rights leaders are considered radicals for insisting that we don’t deny basic human rights to people based on arbitrary, human constructs criteria such as race. Transformative change requires certain realities to be radically different.

“RADICALISM, n. The conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day.”

― Ambrose Bierce, The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary

Radicalism and zealotry do not inescapably go hand-in-hand. Some of the zealot’s actions (irrational violence for example) often defy logic, and frequently serve to actually undermine their own stated objectives. Rational radicalism is strategic. It is guided by logic and evidence. As Saul Alinsky said in his book, Rules for Radicals: “Radicals must be resilient, adaptable to shifting political circumstances, and sensitive enough to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing. In short, radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events.”

When we look back at human rights leaders, suffragists, and the participants of great social movements in our history, we find “radical” people advocating for the militant notion that the humane thing, the fair thing, the moral thing, the ethical thing to do, was something for which they were proud to be labeled as “radical.”

Tacit Knowledge and Change Agentry

“We know more than we can tell.”
– Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension

image: public domain via pixabay

image: public domain via pixabay

Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to convey to another person either verbally, or in writing. It can also be critically important in the process of affecting social change.

Common examples of tacit knowledge include things such as emotional intelligence, or how to speak a language that you’ve learned through immersion over a lifetime, or humor (we all laugh at things that we can’t explain why we find them funny). There are some people who argue (I am not one of them) that leadership itself is a skill that primarily leverages tacit knowledge, gained only from experience.

This intelligence that people often refer to as intuition, is more than a mere hunch. It is the result of subconsciously connecting many bits and pieces of knowledge that we’ve collected over a lifetime. Think about a chess player who makes a rapid succession of moves. Despite the pace of the game, the moves are as calculated as they are situational.

Tacit knowledge is not always correct. It is just as likely as explicit knowledge, to get caught in the trap characterized by that Mark Twain quote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The deep roots of superstition, racism, and all sorts of other human failings lie in the faulty assumptions of tacit knowledge.

Take the so-called “golden rule,” for example: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It doesn’t take training to practice. Its inward orientation suggests that it is based on self-constructed, tacit knowledge. Its biblical origins might even suggest to some that it is some sort of universal truth. The problem is that this “truth” has an inherent bias.  The more generous, and effective strategy for human interaction seems to lie in what is known as the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others, as others would have done unto themselves.” In other words, treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated.

Despite its imperfections, tacit knowledge can be crucial to organizing and motivating people to advocate for change. It is expressed in the wisdom of elders. It is the source of the confidence that people place in a community’s opinion leaders, people who have gained the trust of many people, and whose opinion on an issue serves as a sort of seal of approval for like-minded residents.

The transfer of tacit knowledge is so situational, that there is no easy method to measure, or make use of it. This reality is why distributed networks of grassroots activists are more effective than centralized, networks that look like corporate organizational charts.

Capacity inventories and appreciative inquiry interviews, like those that we use in asset-based community development, can go a long way toward uncovering forgotten or hidden assets. It is often, however, easier to discover skills and talents, than it is to discover what people know. Tacit knowledge often reveals itself over the course of the development of personal relationships. Recognizing when uncommon knowledge is being shared is an important skill.

This Versus That

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When I first started this site most of my posts were brief comparisons of concepts or ideas of interest to leaders of social change. Even though I have moved beyond those initial examples, many of them continue to be popular with readers of this site. For those of you who might be new to the site, here are nine of the posts of that type, that people consistently seem to find useful. As always, thank you for visiting this site.

Excellence vs. Perfection

Traditional vs. Creative Leadership

Problem Solving vs. Appreciative Inquiry

Risk-Averse vs. Risk-Taking

Leaders vs. Managers

Authority vs. Power

Quality of Life vs. Standard of Living

Traditional vs. Collaborative Leadership

Working Together: Coordinating, Cooperating, Or Collaborating

Vision is Personal

Creating change is inescapably tied to a shared vision. People can’t keep their eyes on the prize, if they don’t know what the prize is. A common notion of what the future should look like, however, is not enough.

Visionary concepts can be abstract (“We see a world where everybody . . .”). Change is social and shared, but above all else, change is personal. The key to a vision being a motivator for action, is for each individual to see themselves in that future.

One of the reasons why I am an advocate for Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), is that at its core, ABCD mobilizes people based on what they care about the most, and how their personal talents can best contribute to positive change. A group, a community, a movement, is made up of individuals with both broader common interests, and specific self-interest. Don’t just rally around the abstract and the generalized. Ask people to put themselves in the future being created.

The power of “why don’t we?”

I wrote a previous post, “When You’re Ready to Move from Talk to Action.” It focused on troubleshooting the implementation of strategies, campaigns, or projects. There is, of course, a point in time prior to the carrying out of plans, when a conscious decision is made to move from theory to the actual work of creating change.

My primary interest is how to better understand leadership around social change. I do recognize, however, that a considerable amount of the writing on topics in both leadership, and change comes out of the worlds of organizational development and organizational leadership. Some of it is universally useful.

I recently came across an image (below) in a blog post by Simon Terry, a consultant in the field of organizational development and leadership, which reminded me that regardless of the scale of change, organizational, or societal, some underlying questions remain the same. Regardless of the change you seek, the question that is going to get things done is: “why don’t we?”

Image: Simon Terry

Image: Simon Terry

The question of how to make that transformation straddles the planning, and the implementation stages. How implies a plan exists. “Why don’t we . . .” implies that there is action to take.

People who want to maintain the status quo:

  • Why don’t we . . . study this a little further?
  • Why don’t we . . . cover up the fact that this problem exists?
  • Why don’t we . . . just have a cooling off period of an indeterminate time to let complaints and questions blow over?

People who want to create change:

  • Why don’t we start working today to implement our plan for more effective, fair, and sustainable solutions?

Don’t wait for some mythical time when all risk will be mitigated. When you have a plan, work to make it happen.