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Social change in different contexts

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If you are reading this then you, like me, likely have a desire to “be the change you want to see in the world.” This deceptively simple proposition can be incredibly complex. How can this be done? And how can you know that you are not doing more harm than good?

In November 2013 I was blessed to be able to visit Bangalore, India and tour with Rohan K. Abraham, the founder of PledgeBack. As an early 30s American who has previously lived abroad, traveled fairly extensively, and worked on issues of poverty alleviation and human rights, these types of questions are often on my mind as I reflect on my vocation and purpose in the world.
India is an incredible catalyst for sorting out some of the most challenging aspects of social change. I found India to be just as sensory as I had expected, with a single panorama view or sniff of air bringing together a cacophony of experiences. The slums, the weddings with thousands, the infanticide and femicide, the tradition of Gandhi that changed the course of civil rights in so many countries, democracy intermingled with corruption…India had it all, and I will always be grateful to her for a tremendous education over just a week visit.

In this blog posting I seek to outline a paradigm for creating social change on an individual level that I thought about during my time in India and upon my return. I invite you to join with me in challenging and/or improving this understanding, as together we can be so much stronger than alone.

My paradigm looks at social change in three different contexts: within, around, and above. Due to each of our unique circumstances and gifts we will be called to work in one or more areas, sometimes all at once, and sometimes in different areas over the course of our life.

Within: The systems, policies, and cultural fabric of any country is often wrought with corruption and may have areas that are highly problematic, but working within the realities of systems is certainly one effective way to create social change. One of the most powerful examples I can think of here is a number of Danish nurses I met who regularly visit the Congo to provide medical care. They accept that they must pay bribes to reach their patients, playing into the realities of the system but hopefully bringing much greater good through care and education. I work within systems when I use my racial, national, or socioeconomic privilege to bring about social good, when I support wise infrastructure investments constructed outside the purview of international labor rights norms, and when I cite statistics showing that corporate developments lift people out of poverty while knowing that they also create serious labor rights and environmental externalities.

This method may have easier logistics as well as more acceptance in the country where this work is being done, as it is not outright challenging cultural norms and assumptions. It rarely smacks of paternalism and lithely enables connected people to quickly bring about change.
Sadly, working within systems may afford the externalities to outweigh the good. It may have good people being complicit with evil, and the toll on personal integrity may be too high. It may not be the area with the greatest transformation. However, would the civil rights movement of the United States have had any traction without the many educated whites who joined the blacks on the front lines?

Around: You may be able to pick and choose the systems you work with, sculpting away those you believe are good avenues from the bad paths. Sometimes it is possible to just support what is already present and good, bolstering it to be even stronger. I have seen this happen in my work with fair trade, helping provide a market for goods being made in a way that truly helps people and education for artisan communities. This also happens when large, well-resourced organizations support local organizations through funds, training, or organizational design. I have seen this happen in East Asia, where humanitarians support narratives that highlight the importance of women and girls and omit stories of practices like footbinding.
Working around systems and cultural norms affords wonderful partnership models. It is often in line with international development best practices in the developed world with organizations like the Peace Corps and major NGOs.

However, is working around the bad and simply supporting the good enough? Will the bad be strangled or potentially continue to grow alongside the good and easily take it over? Does this really provide the potential for transformation, as some things in the world are truly evil?

Above: My experiences in Asia have led me to often feel most comfortable working above systems, which is likely the most controversial way to create social change. Here you look to international norms, beliefs, or principles that you think should cover all people, like advancing global human rights or global democracy. Working above systems is an evangelism of sorts, seeking to change attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, practices, and even culture. It happens when countries make sanctions for humanitarian reasons or when legal/advocacy solutions are proposed. Working here may produce the largest net gain for positive impact when you consider the number of people impacted multiplied by the force of that impact. It may be more permanent, and allows those who work in this area to work with the highest ethics/principles.

However, working above often poses the greatest dangers. Just look at colonialism. How can you be sure that you aren’t doing just what the colonists did, disregarding and hoping to supplant local culture and throwing out the good with things that you don’t understand or personally believe in? It’s paternalistic, and often involves those in positions of power (by virtue of education, wealth, or place of birth) telling others what they need. Arguably less authentic, it limits the agency of the locals working on the ground in lieu of lofty goals often developed in a large part elsewhere, by those in positions of privilege.

What is your answer? Do you agree with this paradigm, and think one area is more noble or appropriate than the others? How do you respond to the world’s needs in your community, your country, and throughout the rest of the world? Is there a role for people to bring about social good outside of their own culture or even their country?

These are tough questions. How we answer them is the stuff of life and defines who we are, although our answers may change dramatically over time. I encourage you to expand your horizons as you can, having experiences that enrich and inform about other ways of living and exposing yourself to some of the people and programs that have the greatest impact on solving the greatest needs.

Rebecca Ballard
Ballard Nonprofit Advisory

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About Rebecca Ballard

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  1. A well articulated piece on the dilemma so many of us go through every waking day. I have donned all three hats – within, around and above, continuing to do so as the situation demands. In my experience, it is when we bring in change from within that it lasts, when we work within a culture and gently prod at beliefs that marginalize any entity belonging to it. I say entity and not “human” as it could include the environment, resources, animals. Those we work with imbibe our methods of change making and slowly learn the ropes – eventually becoming change agents themselves.
    Providing support around a system makes it dependent on external support and the necessary steps towards independence get delayed.
    Working from above is what politicians do! It just doesn’t make any sustainable difference at the grass roots other than the “feel good factor” and reams of metrics/ data it generates for reports.

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