Are we aiming for the wrong goal? Culture change and social justice

One of the blogs I really enjoy, even though it’s very challenging, is White Courtesy Telephone. A post from their archives, which I recently found, has me thinking about cultural change efforts as essential to social and policy change, and what that understanding–that, to change the policies that impact our lives, we have to change how people feel, not just about those policies, but about the people we serve–would mean for the kind of advocacy campaigns I help organizations design and execute.

Do we need to make cultural change our goal, rather than policy change?

What kinds of strategies and inputs do we need to pull that off? And how well positioned are we to embark on that work, today?

This tension (not always that tense, but certainly there are currents there) is playing out today in the immigration policy world, where I still spend a fair amount of my time.

There are those who focus most of their efforts on promoting greater communication and mutual understanding between immigrants and others in the U.S. I have a ton of respect for their work and, indeed, I think that it can promote systems change (in schools, workplaces, local governments) directly connected to how immigrants experience social policies and, ultimately, to the quality of their lives.

And then there are those of us more explicitly focused on legislative change, in our state legislatures, where we’re mostly playing defense, and in Congress, where the ongoing battle for comprehensive immigration reform challenges our capacity.

And, really, it shouldn’t be ‘either/or’, of course.

We need better policies, yesterday.

And, to get there, we need to change the conversations about the issues we care about, and to engage and activate latent supporters by cultivating a culture of solidarity and a climate of urgency.


But, as the blog post points out, in a context of limited resources, this is often framed as a trade-off, with organizations and causes forced to choose between long-term changes in how people view their issues and more immediate (although still, often, long-term) gains in the structures that govern our lives.

Where I come down, then, isn’t so much that we should be doing one and not the other.

We need marriage equality, in law, and we also need to celebrate cultures of inclusion and equity. We need strong childcare supports for working mothers, and we also need new cultural agreements about the role of women in society. We need well-funded public schools and a commitment to the public sphere. We need workable gun laws and a culture of nonviolence.

Yes, and yes, and yes.

I think the bigger question is where we should be intentionally focusing our energies, which comes down to what we see as the causal chain.

Do we view policy change as creating the conditions in which culture change is more likely to happen–desegregation leads to greater racial understanding, stricter DUI laws lead to new social norms about drinking and driving?

Or do we believe that we have to change how people think before we can expect to win changes in the law?

Where’s our target, and, then, how do we craft our strategies accordingly?

What’s going to get us there, most surely, given our shoestring capacities and the odds we face?

What’s the right goal and the right metric to go along with it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s