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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Elements of Change

Want to change the world?  Or the nation?  Or just your city or neighborhood or your school or business or whatever?

Change of course begins with dissatisfaction with the way things are perhaps because they are painful or maybe because you see so much more possibility.  Change, therefore, also begins with hope.  Why bother with change if you are OK with the way things are or if you think you can't do anything about them?  The organizer knows this and in her dealings with people personally and collectively "rubs raw the sores of discontent" and helps people envision a more beautiful, just, and meaningful situation.

Change has many elements: 1) personal values and attitudes; 2) symbolic systems or paradigms; 3) activities, processes or projects; 4) social structures or institutions. 

My conclusion is that, while all these are integral elements of change, it is the 4th that is most important for substantive and sustainable change.  Structures of behavior or institutions, or what I like to call collective addictions, need to be the focus and outcome of change.  Indeed, "transformation" means altering forms or structures.

I find that there are many excellent business, labor, and non-profit organizations and their leaders who do the first three, but don't go to the 4th.  They advocate for projects or for a group of people or for their organizations, which is fine.  But it is not transformation. 

1)  Many change advocates are evangelists trying to save souls, get individuals to change their ways, go through therapy, become whole.  This approach focuses on personal values and attitudes.

2) It was the great philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn who demonstrated that the scientific revolution (and really any great transformation) is a matter of paradigms or the symbolic systems within which formulations and formulas take on meaning.  Change artists often focus on the operative vision and the symbols.  Einstein was very clear that imagination was the driver of science and that transformation was a matter of new imagination.

3) It is the experiments and strategies, the actual trial and error and learning on the ground, that make a difference.  As Marx said: "philosophers have only interpreted the world.  The point is to change it."  That means getting down and dirty, hoeing, seeding, planting, weeding, harvesting, and starting all over again.  It also means letting your values and neat diagrams and interpretations flow with actual experience.

4) But in the end it is the "form" in transformation, the structures in our society, the patterns of our behavior, the institutions, the social and material infrastructure that must change for change to be enduring, meaningful, substantial.  And the change agent must keep her eyes on this aspect of change when she is talking values or symbols or projects.

Personal behavior, interpretations, strategies are totally shaped by the structures in which they occur: policies, laws, rules, geography, patterns of incentives and disincentives,

Want to change the political polarization in California?  Focus on the districts and how created.  Change the counterproductive initiative system.  Build local systems of accountability.

Want to promote investment and jobs in Valley communities, focus on regional governance and industry structures.

Want to promote health, foster education, diminish poverty, avoid recidivism?  Focus on the structures (including housing, employment, neighborhood, classroom, health systems) of equality.   Look at our patterns of land use, transportation, and income.

I think transformation is a combination of policy-making and community organizing.  Policy-making includes values, visions, and projects; community organizing includes leadership development, constituency building, and action to make policy happen.


Yes, personal leadership, new imagination, and hard experimentation are needed, but if the focus is not on social structures, the institutionalization of our collective behavior, there will be no transformation.  Maybe some saved souls, some bright ideas, and some good projects, but no transformation.

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