Reflection 45: Re-visioning Social Change Work

From my teenage years forward, I have been puzzling over this question: Is there an effective strategy for creating a more decent, just and equitable world that I can be a part of? Preoccupied with this issue I became a lawyer, acquiring – so I thought – the skills needed to effectively participate in such an effort.

In my 25 years as a attorney I was involved in many activities that seemed, at the time, to offer a workable answer to my “big” question: The civil rights movement, political campaigns, single issues advocacy, lawsuits, civic education, volunteer tutoring, domestic and overseas service trips. In the end, however, I felt deeply frustrated. The larger goal of an effective change strategy seemed forever out of reach. None of the activities in which I immersed myself seemed, in a final reckoning, to even remotely alter the indecent trajectory of our culture.

Asking myself why, I arrived at this answer: The tentacles of our system reach much more deeply than is commonly understood; thoroughly infecting the ways in which we think and feel; deeply limiting our ability to be in fruitful relationship with one another. Realizing that change efforts need to grapple with these psychological issues as well, I re-tooled as a psychotherapist – and began to develop Radical Decency as a more comprehensive and, hopefully, more effective strategy for change.


In this Reflection, I offer a critique of our mainstream approaches to change and discuss the ways in which Radical Decency can, potentially, alter them and magnify their impact. I make these arguments with considerable diffidence. The people who devote themselves to conventional change efforts are the best among us and their initiatives do so much good in the world.

But the deeper reality is this: In ways that are subtle, indirect, and chillingly effective, the system diverts and marginalizes reform energy. What happens is that change efforts are condoned and even encouraged – but only up to a point:

  • A new law is passed that moderates some of the system’s worst excesses but leaves its operative mechanisms unchecked.
  • A humanitarian initiative is funded that, while meaningful in its immediate impact, touches only a relative handful of lives.

The problem with this approach is that these visible, accessible but ultimately limited-in-scope projects capture the time and energy of many of the most reform-minded among us. And, consumed by these activities, these natural leaders of, and participants in, larger changes effort never take on the more radical initiatives that could, potentially, fundamentally alter the cultural landscape.

Here’s how the process works.

At a structural level, reform-oriented people are channeled into one of three tracks: “Change within the system” approaches – lawsuits, elections, lobbying for new laws; “service” approaches – tutoring children, work at a homeless shelter, tending to people’s physical and emotional ills; and “save the world” approaches – seeking an end to hunger, war, or disease.

Notice, first of all, how effectively this structure isolates and divides reform energy. One group lobbies for changes in the environmental laws, another organizes tutoring programs, and a third raises money to fight AIDS. But strikingly absent are meaningful efforts to coordinate these efforts, in an attempt to magnify their impact.

Moreover, each of these culturally condoned approaches, viewed individually, is inherently limited. Trying to pass laws or elect more enlightened leaders requires you to compete in a system that has been systematically structured to reward the very values you are trying to overthrow. Outgunned many times over, in terms of lawyers, lobbyists, and campaign contributions, can we reasonably expect these efforts to fundamentally alter our status quo ways of operating?

Service-oriented activities, for their part, are admittedly oriented toward individuals, and not systemic reform. And the idea that millions of individual acts of kindness will magically coalesce into an irresistible force for fundamental change is a comforting, but untenable, illusion. While social movements may sometimes originate in a spontaneous spark – felt by many – they can never take root and grow in the absence of self-conscious organizing and community building.

The self-limiting aspects of “save the world” efforts are subtler but not less real. We mere mortals may decide that ending hunger is an inspiring goal. But what exactly should do we do when we get to our desks? Who do we call? What letter do we write? Faced with the overwhelming enormity of the task, most of us quietly shelf our longing to make a difference and return to the more immediate task of getting by in life. In short, save the world initiatives, more often than not, are invitations to paralysis and avoidance and not to meaningful action.

Note moreover, that these efforts are almost always issue specific: Hunger, or disease, or illiteracy. So even if the “big” issue of choice could be solved – a doubtful outcome – its impact on the culture’s broad sweep of indecency would be tangential at best. Despite their ambitious (and worthy) goals, these “save the world” initiatives are similarly partial and incomplete.


In what ways can Radical Decency support us in escaping these deeply embedded structural impediments to change? By offering an expanded frame of reference that allows people, immersed in activities that now seem disparate and unconnected, to more fully understand the depth of their common interests and goals. Then, building on that understanding, supporting them to forge new, more creative collaborations that will, hopefully, broaden their respective missions and magnify their effects.

The key element, driving this shift, is Radical Decency’s comprehensive perspective.

Our current crisis is not about unjust laws, or rampant incivility, or an epidemic of depression and anxiety, or racism and sexism, or a failed education system. While all of these conditions exist, they are in fact the expectable consequences of a more fundamental malady: A system in which a wildly over emphasized set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – predominates and drives our choices in every area of living, from the most personal and intimate to the most public and political.

The answer, then, is to focus on these dreadfully consequential symptoms – of course – but to do so within the context of the larger value issues at the heart of our failed culture. In other words, fight for better schools or a reformed financial system if that is the issue that moves you. But do so in concert with others who are seeking reform in others areas, with the unifying goal being a progressive shift toward a society in which the new norm is Radical Decency: Decency to self, others, and the world – at all times, in every context, and without exception.

Doing so, “change within the system” types would, for example, notice the unique insights that “service” types have to offer when it comes to applying principles of decency at a more micro, interpersonal level; understanding that their macro, reform work is powerfully vitalized by these new understandings. Thus, their interest in this work – instead of being cursory and superficial, as is now more typically the case – would be intense, hands-on, and thoroughly integrated with other aspects of their mission.

And, needless to say, “service” types would be equally invested in absorbing and incorporating, into their work, the insights and strategies that “work within the system” and “save the world” types have crafted in their struggle to transform our politics.


How, then, might this expanded perspective change (for example) the specific strategies and approaches of a reform-minded, “work within the system” nonprofit?

An important starting place would, of course, be the more intense collaboration with “service” and “change the world” types just described.

In addition, its push for decency, justice and equity would not be directed outward only. Principles of Radical Decency would guide every aspect of its business operations as well, including wages and benefits, purchasing, money management, overall decision-making – even the way in which its meetings were run.

Radical Decency would also powerfully reshape its approach on substantive issues.

In the political arena, the prevailing view – seldom critically examined – is that manipulative, power oriented ways of operating need to be used, as well, by the advocates for greater equity and justice; that the only way to fight fire is with fire.

The problem with this “pick and chose” approach to decency is that it is far too slippery a slope. Adopting the mainstream culture’s business as usual political techniques, otherwise well-intentioned people become unwitting participants in – and, thus, perpetuators of – the very value system that lies of the root of the problems they are seeking to solve: The culture’s self aggrandizing, win at all costs mentality.

Guided by a larger vision of decency, however, these politics-as-usual tactics would be replaced by ways of operating – frequently pioneered by service types and psychotherapists – that, while appropriately aggressive, are honest, respectful, understanding, and empathic. And with this consistency – and clarity – of approach would also come an increased ability to challenge the deeper manifestations of indecency that drives our politics – and so inhibit the ability of our hypothetical “work within the system” nonprofit to realize its goals with respect to its issue of choice:

  • The obsession with winning;
  • The systematic buying and selling of public officials via campaign contributions, contracts, and jobs;
  • The breathtaking absence of meaningful dialogue;
  • A mainstream media that utterly fails to challenge the nonsense politicians spout “because it has to, to maintain access;”
  •  Our willingness to overlook and excuse the self-interested, indecent actions of our allies on “other” issues and in other areas of their life.

With Radical Decency as its reference point, the boundary between decent and indecent – while exquisitely difficult to navigate – would no longer be confused, shifting, and filled with convenient, easy way out exceptions. Either our hypothetical organization would strive to be decent to itself, others, and the world or – in its indifference to decency in one or more areas – it wouldn’t. And, modeling and advocating for this approach in all of its choices, it would be far better able to mount a coherent challenge to the mainstream culture’s pervasive and pernicious attitudes and practices.


Needless to say, this vision of social change would also include an analogous, expanded perspective on the part of “service” and “save the world” types as well.

Working from this expanded vision, all of us – including, importantly, people seeking to infuse their “non-activist” lives and mainstream workplaces with Radical Decency’s principles – would understand the self-evident importance of deeply immersing ourselves in, and supporting, the work of our comrades in arms. Hopefully, then, as our vision expands and our separate and varied initiatives coalesce into a unified, values-based movement, so too would our impact in the world.