What is the difference between a problem and an issue?
A “social problem” is a condition that negatively affects large numbers of people created as a result of public or private policies, or through practices embedded in social structures. The scale, and complex nature of these problems make them seemingly too big to take on. What can organized groups of people seeking to create change do to address social issues such as, poverty, climate change, or racism? You need to strategically “cut” a realistically manageable and winnable issue out of the problem.
Choosing the Issue
In 1991, Midwest Academy published a very useful field manual titled, Organizing for Social Change. The book’s “Checklist for Choosing an Issue,” provides some helpful guidance for narrowing the focus of a campaign for change. The authors list these sixteen criteria for choosing an issue:
- It must result in a real improvement in people’s lives.
- It must give people a sense of their own power.
- It must alter the relations of power.
- It must be worthwhile.
- It must be winnable.
- It must be widely felt.
- It must be deeply felt.
- It must be easy to understand.
- It must have a clear target.
- It must have a clear time frame that works for you.
- It must be non-divisive.
- It must build leadership.
- It must set your organization up for the next campaign.
- It must have a pocketbook angle.
- It must raise money.
- It must be consistent with your values and vision.
Your issue should have most of these, though it may not always be important to find a pocketbook angle, or to raise money. It is probably also impossible to avoid some internal divisiveness. This is why a leader must develop some basic conflict resolution skills.
Don’t get overwhelmed by the scale of a problem. Identify small, winnable issues that will contribute to a greater goal. Your work will complement that of others doing work on related issues. Build on your successes. No problem is too big to overcome.