I started my first community organizing campaign with a group of friends when I was 14. Involved in formal and informal youth engagement work throughout my teens and early 20s, I got my first job supporting youth involvement and youth activism when I was 24. I haven’t stopped since then. Starting The Freechild Project
when I was 25, I began reading the research
supporting community organizing, activism, and social change insatiably. It’s been 13 years now, and I’ve seen a few things.
Some Observations about Social Change
Following are a few observations about changing the world that I could think of. Let me know what you think of them.
Anyone of any age can change the world.
A person’s depth of understanding about social justice isn’t limited to age. As a young person, I had experience and grew up in a community with a lot of deep experiences with discrimination, alienation, and segregation; lacking the verbiage to express their oppression, they turned to the language of action, creating community in gangs, generating income with drugs, expressing frustration through graffiti. Conversely, I’ve sat in rooms full of adult educators and youth workers and listened to self-proclaimed youth advocates pontificate about “us” and “them,” while they launched into diatribes about the ways young people act, dress, and talk… Ignorance knows no age, either.
Critical reflection is the gateway to social change.
In my experience, the “soundness” of an individual’s understanding about social justice is directly related to the amount of critical reflection they have engaged in. This can be both self- and community-reflection that questions our assumptions, values, and perspectives as we’ve experienced them in our own life. Paulo Freire
, the acclaimed father of popular education, long espoused the necessity for oppressed peoples to critically examine their own actions as well as those of their oppressors. I have shared this experience with several groups of young people in their teens, and have heard about it done with younger people. The results of this may lead in many directions, including the “firm-groundedness” of which you speak. Many educators, including authors Ivan Illich and John Holt
, have cited other outcomes, including broadened questioning of schools, government structures, and other social institutions. Personally, I’ve gained deeper ownership, commitment, and hope for the future through critical reflection.
Assumptions are ignorant.
There is a particular danger in saying, “You wouldn’t understand” to anyone. That gives many people permission to bombard others with righteousness, the type that popular media fills so much of our time with already. I have seen people with incredibly sophisticated, empathetic, and knowledgeable perspectives about social change; and again, I’ve seen others with extremely shallow understandings. Our perceptions shouldn’t be the determining factor for engaging people in social change work; interest and investment should be.
Authenticity means too much.
I think that by focusing on the whether peoples’ engagement is authentic, a lot of people are let “off the hook” because they don’t know how to give others their own space to speak, or how to engage them in collective community space. This is a form of scapegoating that easily reinforces the supposed “enigma” of engaging people. The real questions here may be, “Do we really want to hear the voices of other people?” and “Are we really looking for people who take risks and make decisions, or do we want to reaffirm our assumptions?”
After all, getting our ideas out of other people’s mouths is a ventriloquist’s trick, not a sign of meaningful engagement or autonomy. As a whole, society has so many attitudinal and structural barriers to engaging people that the question of whether or not anyone can or should actually become engaged needs to be answered first.
Don’t think simplistically.
The systems surrounding and encompassing all our lives are complex beasts. Thinking naively about them and trying to over-simplify them does no favors. Why do we think about having people involved in protests and rallies instead of their infusion throughout the “movement” as a whole? Where are people in the planning and decision-making processes that affect them most? It is vital to engaging people to move beyond tokenism and decoration, and their further engage and infuse everyone
as leaders, teachers, and organizers throughout social their lives. When Saul Alinsky wrote, “True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system from within,” this is what he was talking about.
Engaging people in changing the world is often trivialized by well-meaning people who, without conscious effort, often perpetuate discrimination of all kinds by patently denying others the opportunity to become deeply engaged. We must move from engaging people as decorations and start seeing everyone as a potential partners.
Popular assumptions don’t determine ability.
Media, politicians, and others are involved in a plot to turn identity-against-identity throughout American society in an attempt to keep people separate and incapable to work together. That’s made many organizers susceptible to their negative portrayals. However, in many cases the people who were supposedly least capable were the ones to make others aware of injustice. In one particularly poignant example, young people in the Philadelphia Students Union have led their communities in organizing for increased school funding, alternative school curricula, teacher pay raises, and more.
We have to dig into the reason WHY.
The crux of the issue is whether people truly understand why they are changing the world. Similar to many people, social change agents often believe that they are doing something for the “good” of doing it without exploring the meaning or purpose of their actions. This is how missionary-style service work has grown so popular in the U.S. and around the world, despite religious missionary work receding from popularity. Many community-based organizations actually exploit the oppressions of low-income communities and people of color in order to further their “service” work! Many of these same organizations use people as “safe” volunteers who don’t “safe” activities like picking up trash, serving homeless people meals, coloring pictures for grocery stores and politicians to hang in their windows. Is this meaningful social change? No. Is it “safe”? Yes. Are people told that it is valuable? Sure! And these things do have value, since the people who are leading the activities they reinforce their power over others, they are surely valuable to them. To the recipients of the service they exhibit the “proper” place for social change (arbitrary and irrelevant).
Everyone can be engaged in deep, meaningful, and powerful social change, if that’s what we want. If we want something else, we need to consider what that is and why we’re doing it.