Tag Archives: social change

Let’s not be turtles

I do yoga.

I sometimes even curl up on the couch and read. Yes, it’s usually a book about human rights or climate change or sociology, but, still.

I understand the need to turn off our compassion and to console ourselves.

But we cannot retreat, not really, from the horrors of tragedy and the mundane suffering.

We cannot.

We cannot lull ourselves into thinking that caring for ourselves requires hiding from the world, or that we are somehow entitled to ‘peace’, if peace is purchased at the price of tremendous injustice and pain.

In One Nation Under Stress, this idea of ‘stressism’, of stress as a mentality and a sort of collective infatuation, is related to our self-talk that tries to convince ourselves that what we need (and deserve) is solitude and release and ‘free time’, when what we really need is improvement in the conditions that prompt this stress response in the first place.

Because there are two ways to respond to the unimaginable and the predictably wrong: to resolve to respond with all energy and passion or to draw into our shells and hope that things will somehow go away.

Our desire to flee the discomfort of stress leads us to retreat, when what the world craves–and what, in the end, is the only thing that can bring real relief–is concerted action to address the factors that contribute to our stresses.

We cannot be turtles, withdrawing in timidity, when our age demands tigers.

We cannot.

A movement is a movement is a movement

Yesterday, my reflections on Generation Roe centered on three ‘takeaways’ that I believe apply to other advocacy and social change efforts.

Today is really a continuation of that theme, with more insights into just how universal some of the core ‘movement tasks’ are…and how much involvement in one movement, then, can prime activists to be effective operatives in another. In some cases, these points bring to mind specific issues/campaigns where I see them as particularly relevant; in others, it’s really hard to think of any current social change movement that does not evoke these tensions.

In no particular order:

  • It’s hard to be appropriately nuanced, even authentically so, when under attack (p. 21). Like, it’s hard to find a place to talk about the ways in which welfare policy can sometimes work against supporting employment, when we’re afraid of falling into the ‘dependency’ trap. It’s hard to start conversations about the level of immigration that make sense for sending as well as receiving nations, when we are fighting to claim moral ground for immigration as a human rights issue. We don’t help anyone, least of all our cause, when we narrowly assert only one dimension of it, but it’s understandable that we feel less than comfortable with transparency when under siege.
  • There is a very real divide, in many movements, between those for whom today’s context is a dramatic improvement over prior injustices, and those who take the current landscape as a given backdrop (p. 164). For the most part, this is a generational gap, but I see it, too, in the immigrant rights struggle, between those without immigration status and those who have secured this protection (or been given it!), and in other campaigns on lines of class, too. Fundamentally, the inability to bridge this gap reflects insufficient imagination and empathy, which bode poorly for the movement’s progress, even beyond the immediate divides.
  • Organizations have to get beyond insisting that only one person be the spokesperson, no matter how nervous they are with ‘free agents’ (p. 215). It really baffles me, truly, when organizations think that they can control what people say about and for them, as though muzzling your advocates was EVER a good idea. In some ways, I guess, it makes me feel better to see really well-established advocacy organizations make this same mistake. But, then, not, because it’s super alarming and quite destructive.
  • The line between pragmatic compromise and opportunism that erodes fundamental rights is not nearly as hard and fast as we like to pretend (p. 209). There is real risk that we cross it, every day, and national advocacy organizations, particularly those based in DC, are perhaps particularly vulnerable to this temptation, as they try to ‘be players’ in policy debates. We must not give away the farm. We must not accept Pyrrhic victories.
  • The strategy most likely to lead to (relatively) quick victory is not always the best bet. It sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but just as pursuing legal action may not be the best use of resources (p. 143), as compared to grassroots action, so, too, must movements evaluate their options with an eye not just towards most immediate payoff, but also the movement building that, after all, is all that will help them survive to fight another day, on another front.
  • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: every movement needs to triangulate (p. 226), developing and actively encouraging a radical left flank that can create some space for more moderate organizations to maneuver. If we’re all on the ‘same page’ when we start to push and negotiate, we have essentially ensured that what we’ll end up with will be somewhere between what we all agreed to and what someone else is willing to give us. That’s not a recipe for strength. Someone needs to ask for the moon and stars. So maybe we can get refundable tax credits.

Review Week: Generation Roe

I reviewed the book Generation Roe last fall, and there were several places where I found parallels to other struggles, in other contexts and other issues.

That has made me think more about the interconnections between causes and campaigns, what silos we need to break down in order to optimally learn from each other, and how our parochial concerns can lead to thinking that no issue is as challenging as ours and, thus, that no one can offer us anything of value.

So, in the interest of helping us get beyond our own, more narrow, ways of seeing our advocacy work, this week I have some reflections on the reproductive rights battle. My focus is not on the substance, here, nearly as much as the process, and the insights to be gleaned from these seemingly divergent issues.

Today: authentically rooting your issue in clients’ lived experiences

One of the emphases in Generation Roe was about the importance of systems thinking, and the problems that arise from practitioners and advocates looking at a client’s–or a larger group of women’s–abortion decision decision in isolation, rather than examining the interlocking systems that work to shape perceived choices…and constrains options.

I think this same tendency plays out in other arenas, too, such as in the evolving understanding about the role of trauma in shaping later well-being, and in the practice to refer clients to different systems when they need other types of help, rather than surrounding them with all of the supports they need. We know, in our own lives, that we can’t neatly compartmentalize our challenges–our worries about our ailing parents spill over into our decision about accepting the promotion we’ve been working towards, or our anxieties about our marriage keep us from scheduling that long-delayed doctor’s appointment–but we often expect clients to focus on whatever is the priority for our ‘slice’ of work with them, sometimes in willful ignorance of the messiness that is reality.

Many of the providers interviewed in Generation Roe talked about the difficulty of being face-to-face with desperation. It is harrowing, is it not, to really accompany someone through tremendous pain. So we build walls to protect ourselves from a visceral reaction, not because we don’t care, but because we do…so much.

The tragedy, here, is that this reaction neither protects our hearts nor aids our analysis. Instead, we can more easily become bitter and hopeless, cutting ourselves off from the human connections–painful though they often are–that were, for most of us, our motivation for entering social work in the first place.

And, finally, the most poignant passage for me was about questioning our right and responsibility to urge our clients to speak out, even when they might prefer to be silent, if such visibility and vocalization are the only ways that we can humanize the issues on which we are working (p. 174).

This evokes, for me, a lot of reflection about the immigrant rights movement, particularly the organizing of undocumented youth, and the way in which their ‘coming out’ has galvanized a generation of immigrants and their allies, even though many of us were hesitant to see them play this public role. What about when the tables are turned, and clients may not want to self-identify? Clearly we have an obligation to preserve their privacy, but do we have a role to play in encouraging them to drop those barriers on their own? If so, where is the line?

Where do you see yourself turning to campaigns and movements, even far afield of your own work, for inspiration or caution? What makes it hard to generalize from these seemingly parallel efforts? How can we bridge the gaps for greater collective force? How can we be better students of movements?

Storytelling, advocacy, and social change

In my advocacy capacity building work with nonprofit direct service agencies, the tasks we tackle together are intentionally individualized.

Each organization gets to direct the work, based on its own assessment of the types of capacity most needed.

So the process ends up looking quite different, depending on the leadership and the landscape.

But nearly universal is an emphasis on storytelling, a sort of global recognition that nonprofit advocates need to get better at telling our own stories–about why this work resonates with us–and at identifying and deploying stories about the need and the impact (especially about the need and the impact, side-by-side).

So I end up doing a lot of storytelling workshops, helping nonprofit staff and clients ‘unpack’ their own stories and get more comfortable inserting them into the collective narrative about these issues and why they matter.

And, so, I’m always looking for new resources to help with that.

Recently, I found this Storytelling and Social Change guide, available for free download.

It’s part compilation, part how-to guide, part inspiration, and part theoretical foundation–bringing together how and why storytelling works, the different forms it can take (case studies, video testimonials, storybanks, theater, individual narratives), the purposes it can serve (learn, organize, educate, advocate), and the motivation we may need to prioritize story compilation and story deployment as part of our communications approaches.

It’s written primarily for grantmakers, but there is valuable content for nonprofit organizations, too, as well as the important advantage that comes from thinking about how your funders think.

The profiles included also reference the funder that supports them, which is a practice I wish more nonprofit publications would employ, as it helps to demystify the ‘advocacy funding’ world for nonprofits trying to break into it, as well as break down the power divide that separates foundation from grantee.

And it has examples of storytelling for social change today and throughout social movement history, in very brief snapshots, which may help reluctant Board members, employees, clients, or partners recognize how their own stories can be valuable.

It has already informed some of my storytelling training, particularly in brainstorming other story modalities and thinking about how I frame the ‘why’ of storytelling. I’d love to hear from anyone else who has reviewed or is using the guide, about what you find valuable, what you think is missing, and what role stories play in your advocacy.

We all have a story to tell, and we can all get better at telling it.

Increasingly, I am coming to believe that, if we want to change the world, then we must.

Scaling for Impact

Hello, there.

Still me, somewhat obsessed with scaling and nonprofit impact.

There are two new resources I want to share about scaling: a piece from the Social Impact Exchange about how collaborations can scale impact, and the video and proceedings from the annual conference on scale (see, it’s not just me–there’s a whole scale conference!).

But, first, some reflections on why I think scale is so important.

Often, when I’m sitting around a conference room talking with nonprofit leaders (usually, the CEO/Executive Director, the Vice-Presidents or equivalent, and maybe some program director-types), the conversation quickly turns to how tired they are and how overworked and how stressed.

There’s a lot of gallows humor like that, among social workers, and some of it, I know, is the product of unhealthy organizational cultures and attitudes that equate ‘busy’ with ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ or ‘noble’.

The quotation marks hopefully convey my skepticism about that calculus.

But a lot of it is real.

There are many nonprofit employees who make tremendous sacrifices, rarely seeing their own families, neglecting their health, giving up friendships and hobbies, because they care so deeply about the people they’re serving and the organizations they’re running.

I respect them and appreciate them and value them. I try to support them.

But I also think we have to be honest about the perennial elephant in the room:

We’re doing all of this for relatively little impact.

That’s not at all to say that our efforts don’t matter. That’s not the kind of impact I’m talking about.

Of course, every child whose life is improved from child abuse prevention services, every adult with a mental illness who gains a new measure of health, every person who finds a good job, every light bulb that goes off in the mind of a struggling youth, every policy win advanced by a health advocate, every program developed to fight homelessness…

it all matters.

But, measured against the scale of the problems against which we are arrayed, the size of our impact can often pale.

And that’s not an imbalance that can be corrected by working harder–or even smarter–within our organizations. If it was, we would already have done it, right?

No, what we need are new structures, scaled to be capable of delivering the impact that the urgency of our problems demands.

We need collective commitment to well-defined problems. We need data that can point us in the right direction. We need collaborations across sectors to get us out of our silos.

We need scale.

It won’t make us get home in time for every after-school activity. It might not make us fit in our 30 minutes of exercise every day. It certainly won’t take away the stresses that come from navigating the messy realities of human lives.

But it can make all of those efforts echo more loudly, and stretch further, and last longer.

And that matters, I think.

Link Love–Happy Valentine’s Day!

So I totally stole the title of this post (the ‘link love’ part), and I can’t even remember from where I stole it, which means that I can’t even give proper credit.

Not very Valentine’s Day-ish of me, hunh?

But there’s a lot to love here, and I want to share it, so the name seems appropriate.

Have a great Valentine’s Day, reading about poverty and policy and technology for social change.

That’s what I’ll be doing. Super romantic, trust me.

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers!

Love for everyone!

Borrowing from the kids: More Inspiration!

sarah

It’s still Inspiration Week here, before we turn our eyes to the serious challenges awaiting us in 2014 (and, yes, that’s coming–I’ve been working on posts for next week about inequality).

But, today, even though it’s not Thanksgiving and it’s not even Sarah Hale’s birthday, I’m writing about my favorite children’s book: Thank You, Sarah.

Because, see, I think we can all use some reminding in this new year, that these are not the first hard times. Instead, Sarah Hale did her advocacy during the period leading up to and during the Civil War–unarguably even more divisive than today’s budget battles.

And we are not the first to feel overburdened by life and inconvenienced by the need to advocate for our most cherished ideals. She had five children and no dishwasher, for crying out loud.

What she had was her ‘secret weapon’, a pen.

And being ‘bold and brave and stubborn and smart’, which I’m really, really hoping someone will put on my tombstone.

I love the pictures of Sarah writing letters by candlelight while her kids sleep.

And the part where my daughter always cheers, when “Lincoln said yes! Lincoln said yes!” (to making Thanksgiving a national holiday)

And how the book shows the waiting that is part of the advocacy process, too, an important reminder that we are not the first to struggle against our impatience, either.

If you need inspiration to face 2014’s problems, maybe it can be this: “never underestimate dainty little ladies”, with pens, and conviction.

Thank you, Sarah. We know we’re going to need it.