(Photo by Flickr user Tony Fischer, used under a Creative Commons license)
If it feels like social fabric of the United States is being pried apart thread by thread by a volatile political and racial climate teetering on the edge of disaster, that’s because it is.
The national conversation on race has rippled through mainstream culture in recent months, touching every public-facing industry from Hollywood to professional sports and beyond. Mantras like “social change” and “social justice” are permanent fixtures on the minds, lips and social media feeds of socially-concerned Americans.
But what the hell do those phrases actually mean? What are we really talking about here?
The more we use high-minded, loaded language, the faster we forget what the language actually means, said First Degree Consulting founder Erica Atwood. In the case of social change, the welfare of human beings are at stake. The road to equality for people of color needs to be a clear one.
"Good deeds are important, but there needs to be a larger dismantling of systems of oppression in our country."
“We run the risk of it just becoming so commonplace that we think anything we do is really change, and it’s not,” said Atwood.
Social change has to mean something more than just doing a good deed.
“Good deeds are important, but there needs to be a larger dismantling of systems of oppression in our country,” she said. “I think we’re hearing symptoms when we talk about social justice in our language as a current catchphrase, but we’re not talking about truly creating equity and changing the systems and policies that create disparities.”
Slow or stagnant progress can make change agents thirst for a systemic overhaul. Some, like GreenLight Fund Philadelphia Executive Director Omar Woodard, are frustrated with the toll the status quo has taken on their communities. Others, like Sustainable Business Network lobbyist Saleem Chapman, are OK with incremental change, as long as there’s momentum moving it forward.
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“I think a lot of folks want immediate gratification to see the work they do,” said Atwood. “But those who want to make real change have to be OK with not seeing what happens in a four-year term or three-year funding cycle.”
“Real change,” though, is another nebulous phrase. Despite endless attempts made by academia to define “social change,” all definitions boil down to any shift made to social norms, be it a major political revolution, a minor tweak to local public policy — even the defunding of vital services like those offered by Planned Parenthood. All, no matter how progressive or regressive, are changes to the status quo.
And therein lies the rub.
Right now, the status quo is pretty comfortable for people of privilege. It’s a living hellscape for urban communities of color, often plagued by institutional racism, generational poverty, unemployment, low-quality school systems, crime, mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, blight, food deserts, poor healthcare — the causes and effects are hauntingly cyclical and create environments that are neigh-on inescapable.
"Our social fabric is far too interwoven for singular activism."
Tackling multiple fronts is a daunting task. Social change must be “wholesale, not piecemeal,” said Chapman.
“If we believe in environmental equality, can we stay silent on economic inequality? If we believe in economic equality, can we stay silent on educational inequality? And if we believe in educational inequality, can we stay silent on racial and gender inequality?” he wrote in an email. “Our social fabric is far too interwoven for singular activism. Being selective in the causes we show up for promotes the same divisiveness we seek to overcome. Social change requires a unification of effort and a broad stimulation of endeavor.”
That unification needs to exist with all parties acknowledging the lingering legacy of racism in the United States. For people of color, the long-held feeling of living under the thumb of an oppressive system is becoming increasingly validated with hard data.
No longer is institutional racism “boy crying wolf,” said Center for Employment Opportunities Philadelphia Director Ceciley Bradford-Jones.
“It’s such a systematic problem. This country has not changed a lot in the past hundred years,” she said. “It begs the question — what is the system built on? Without burning it down, will you be able to change it?”
"What is the system built on? Without burning it down, will you be able to change it?"
Temple University political science professor Nyron Crawford thinks so. The political psychologist prefers to frame social change as “a practice of intentional and repeated interventions” that are meaningful, measurable and deliberately move society toward equality.
“The practice has to be intentional because the problems that exist are complex, stubborn even, and require unique treatment. It has to be a repeated practice because the effects that we’re most interested in are often a function of learning over time,” wrote Crawford in an email. “I think that this reframing can help to release change-agents from the view that only large-scale impact counts as change. It can also encourage us to take greater stock in how even marginal change can move us closer to a fairer, more egalitarian society, which benefits the whole.”
“The whole” means people of color, White people, the impoverished and the wealthy. But what does an egalitarian society look like for people of privilege enjoying the power they possess in the current status quo? Why should they want to support progress toward an equitable America?
Entrepreneur Tayyib Smith told us last month that those who have always benefitted from privilege often feel that equality equals “oppression” — “That fear is manifesting itself in exclusionary policies in an attempt to maintain the status quo,” he said.
That fear of change is only human, said Atwood. But if we’re going to “do social justice right” by “creating spaces of equity for all,” then everybody, regardless of race or economic class, will need to get over that fear.
“That change is going to be really new and different for those who have been living with privilege for centuries,” said Atwood. “But they’ve got to know that from growing pains come growth, and growth can beautiful.”
"We have to radically rethink how government and philanthropy do work."
And those “spaces of equity” can only be formed with collaboration, she said. Organizations working toward equality must be representative of those they’re trying to affect. If they aren’t, they’re a part of the problem, not the solution. It’s a prominent and recurring line of reasoning: Don’t try to make a difference in a community without involving the community first.
That means people at the top level need to hand people in poverty “the keys to the car,” said Woodard.
“We have to radically rethink how government and philanthropy do work. We need to focus on how we can push more decisions down to the local level,” he said. “They know what the problems are, and they also have some ideas on what the solutions should be. You get better solutions when you bring the decision-making much closer to them.”
It’s easy to tweet about injustice. It’s easy to demand it at a protest. But what are we actually talking about when we talk about social change?
Woodard said it’s about giving people the power to “shape their own destiny.” Atwood said it’s giving people the ability to “chart their own course to liberation.”
But none of that will happen until people of color are given seats at tables where decisions are made on policies and practices that affect them most. If you want to know how to make real social change, that’s a great place to start.-30-
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