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Artist activists, policy lobbyists, early childhood educators: The great diversities in making a difference

August 28, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


This guest post was cowritten by Eric Hartman, executive director of the Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, and Stephanie Keene, the program manager for Ethical Global Learning at the same center.


Correction: Corrected HIAS to HIAS PA. (9/5/2019 at 4:01 p.m.)
Within the last month, folks who care about the rights and dignity of all persons have shared water with strangers crossing the US-Mexico borderlands, dedicated a new 3,000 square foot mural in Philadelphia, and advocated for the United States to lean into its capacities for hospitality and renewal through refugee acceptance.

Through extraordinarily diverse efforts, social change advocates collectively re-imagine and re-make the world.

But what does policy advocacy have to do with art and emergency water aid? Everything. For many folks — even fellow activists — it’s easier to say what’s wrong with other paths than it is to step forward in one’s own journey with social change work. In our decades working with activists, educators, and students we’ve noticed the ways that different paths reinforce and strengthen one another, providing a thicker web for transformational change.

In this piece, we lay out the five types of justice work we’ve identified through research and practice, and through our shared work at the intersection of campus and community — at the Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. We’ll follow this post with pieces that profile Philly-region folks who take up these types of work on specific issues: from decarceration work to efforts to advance sustainable, bike and family-friendly infrastructure.

We draw on three types of change work identified in the writing of Providence College professor Keith Morton, but we integrate those insights with our own experiences and activist adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. The five types of social change work all have strengths and weaknesses; they engage different understandings of time and different relationships with the need for immediate results. They are: charity, project, policy change, be the change, and visionary futurism.

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Charity work is sometimes absolutely necessary. When people are in need of water in a desert, acts of charity may save their lives. But that only relieves an immediate need. It doesn’t change a system. And frequently, because of the way in which it is perceived as a response to emergency need, the person who is the recipient has little voice in what they receive. This has led to a long history of good intentions gone bad with excessive donations or mismatch between aid recipients’ real needs and donors’ imaginations of what doing good looks like.


Project work addresses some of these challenges, though it gives up some of the immediacy of charity efforts. Project work is characterized by efforts over defined periods of time, designed to address a particular challenge or gap. Educators who are making schools more inclusive for migrant children or working to ensure those children are more aware of their own rights and self-advocacy strategies are engaging in project work, one cohort at a time. One of the challenges faced by project work is that it generally does not change the structural conditions that create a challenge.

Policy change

Policy change — and restructuring of our society and its entrenched inequities — is often necessary to get at the root of social challenges. But policy change takes many years, and project work often drags out over months or even years. Individuals and even organizations act upon specific parts of this puzzle, even as friends and colleagues simultaneously take up different but deeply related work. Over time, many of the same people and organizations are critiquing and reimagining charity, project, and policy work as they and their networks grow as continuous learners and reflective allies who shift strategy together. Collectively, these diverse actors can web transformational change together.

Committed social change workers and organizations are often involved in multiple types of change work, for different reasons at different times. These types need not be disconnected; they can support continuous learning and adaptive strategizing. (Chart by Eric Hartman)

Excellent policy change advocacy frequently emerges from those individuals and organizations closest to the people who are most affected by policy. Drawing on insight earned through 137 years of inclusion and acceptance work, HIAS PA is advancing a campaign asking our congressional representatives “to do everything in their power to ensure that President Trump sets the refugee ceiling at 95,000 for fiscal year 2020.” That request calls for support of the Guaranteed Refugee Ceiling Enhancement Act (GRACE Act) and is based on the fact that “95,000… has been the average annual refugee ceiling since 1980.

HIAS PA positions this advocacy as a direct response to the current administration’s “zero-tolerance policies on illegal border crossings resulting in family separation” and “attacks against asylum in tandem with cuts to the refugee program.” But, of course — humane migrant and refugee policy seems to be a stretch for this administration, so individuals, organizations, campuses, and cities are responding by being the change we need right now.

Being the change

Being the change involves living alternatively to dominant narratives and policy frameworks. (Folks fonder of fancy phrasing than us have called this “prefigurative politics”). When individuals build radically inclusive homes and communities, they are resisting the Office of the President’s efforts to make the United States more restrictive, less open, and less diverse. Sometimes this happens at the level of a personal interaction, but it also happens at the level of families, homes, and civil society organizations.

Rev. Adán Mairena (at mic), pastor of West Kensington Ministry in Norris Square, addresses the crowd Nov. 18, 2014, when Angela Navarro (fourth from right) entered into sanctuary at the church. (Photo by Sabrina Vourvoulias)

In sanctuary at Arch St. Methodist 2016.

Here in Philadelphia, churches provide sanctuary for more than a dozen undocumented individuals: building on a long tradition of churches as places of resistance to over-reaching government authority. Like many other institutions, in recent years our campus has clarified its position that “we will not voluntarily cooperate with any federal effort to identify and extrude members of our community on the basis of their religion or country of origin.” Churches and college campuses demonstrate the extent to which organizations may go in resisting federal policy, and Philadelphia has also taken up this effort as a city.

One important feature of sanctuary cities like Philadelphia is that they represent actually existing government diversity. Too often, sloppy discourse can drop into framing “the government,” “the system” and “the man,” but what we see in sanctuary cities are city governments reconstituting themselves and their policies to work to embody the America they and their citizens wish existed – in conflict with other governmental authorities. The system is in conflict with itself. Cities are being the change – and that often dips them into policy advocacy work too, as they get into extended court conflicts with the Federal Government.

There are two final things we’d like to point out about Philly as a sanctuary city. First, our city has an honored history as a place of sanctuary, detailed here by Penn professor Domenic Vitiello. Second, thinking about sanctuary city status re-emphasizes our earlier point that organizations, individuals, or networks may engage in more than one of these social change types at once. Being the change as a city of sanctuary frequently means that churches and civil society organizations are raising donations while lawyers are doing courts-level policy battle, all while others may be planning sanctuary-supporting projects for the long-haul effort. But where could this take us?

Visionary futurism

Artist Michelle Angela Ortiz at Philadelphia City Hall with her October 2017 art installation “Libertad” (Freedom), advocating for the release of detained families at Berks Residential Center. (Photo by Sabrina Vourvoulias)

Again in the Philadelphia region, Michelle Angela Ortiz’s artist activism has embodied what brown calls visionary futurism — work that disrupts the status quo with the hope of shaping the future. Ortiz’s murals and films have included installations on the steps of and all around the State Capitol in Harrisburg, calling attention to the plight of mothers and children detained at nearby Berks County Family Detention Center. Her work is clearer on recommendations and closer in time to tangible policy advocacy than some other visionary futurism (such as Utopian works in which borders do not exist, for instance). But it differs from policy advocacy in that it is less concerned with incremental change within the existing legislative process and more concerned with disruption and a radical shift. In this case, that shift would be shutting down Berks County Family Detention Center.

Strengths, weaknesses, and understanding of time across five types of social change. For more on the first three categories, see Morton, 1995. For more on the final category, see brown, 2017. (Chart by Eric Hartman)

Our purpose in reviewing these five approaches to social change is two-fold. First, we wanted to hold up just a few of the organizations and networks making our country and region more inclusive, as we prepare for a series on human movement and inclusivity in our region.

Second, on campuses and in activist networks we frequently find excessive energy going toward the notion of some single form of social change, policy advocacy, or radical solution. What we see when we take a step back, is that people come together in diverse ways to advance values of importance.

For advocates for human inclusion and migrant rights, that has meant everything from creative art installations to leaving water bottles to calling congresspeople.

No one among us can do it all, but everyone who believes in more inclusive community can and must find a spot to ensure that Philadelphia and its surrounding region continues to grow in inclusion and acceptance.

We’ll be back to share more on how these approaches work across diverse issues, throughout our region.

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