Common Pitfalls of Social Change
A never ending question I get from volunteers I work with is, what is social change? My answer: much more than community service. Think of it as something huge that is trying to be changed in society that has already been in place for some time. It is not interchangeable with community service, volunteering, etc. it is about making sustainable change. If you are like me, and read a lot of books/articles/journals, etc. on social change and the nonprofit sector, you will see that initiatives that are failing to achieve change are due to a lot of the same reasons. Wagner and Komives summarize it beautifully in their book Leadership for a Better World. They talk about 5 pitfalls of social change that I could not agree with more.
- A deficit-based perspective
- Seeking a magic bullet
- Ignoring cultural differences
It is easy to get caught up in the exciting work you are trying to do and not recognize that you could be causing more harm than good. NGOs, volunteers, social enterprises, you name it, all easily experience these pitfalls, whether they realize it or not. I think about these all the time and have witnessed them happening very frequently. I advocate that people take the time to review these, and plan ahead as to how they can be avoided before trying to engage in any humanitarian work.
Often called the “hero complex”, this is a pitfall that, in my opinion, is the hardest not to do. Paternalism creates unequal relationships between you and the community you are working with. It defines people as the “helpers” and “helped”. Just like my mention of Sirolli in my last post, it is the idea that you are here to “save” someone. In Sirolli’s case, they thought they were coming to Tanzania to show the locals how to farm. The assumption that they had an expertise that Tanzanians did not, was a clear example of how paternalism plays into social change. It is not that the Tanzanians did not know how to grow crops, it was that the land and animal life surrounding them was not conducive to that. A way to prevent this is to not have any ready-made plans coming into a new community. Think about what factors might be preventing that initiative from occurring and figure out what it is that the people need, not what it is you want for the people.
I am sure everyone can identify a time they witnessed or were the cause of trying to impose your own view on someone. I know I am guilty. If it is something you strongly believe and value, of course you would want others to understand it and sometimes adopt that perspective too. When working with a community though, it is something that needs to be approached very gently. Culture, beliefs, values, what is important to you, etc. are not the same for everyone and assuming so will not lead to effective community engagement, it will not allow for productive conversation and collaboration. Your way is not the only right way. Plain and simple.
A Deficit-Based Perspective
Typically service work starts because a “problem” is identified and someone wants to “fix” it. The question is though, what if the people you are trying to serve do not think there is a problem to be fixed? You see, everything goes back to communication. In it’s most simple form, an example might be of a community that you perceive to be poor because they do not have certain goods or resources. They might not feel poor or lacking because their way of life may be completely different, they may not want or long for those things. A more effective approach is focusing on the assets a community has and how those can be built upon.
Seeking a Magic Bullet
Social change is not something that can easily be worked on. It takes time, is complex, and is impossible to achieve without collaboration. Too often in how hurried we all are in our daily lives, we try to take the quickest path or take shortcuts to get to the end. Social change is altering behaviors and systems in a community that already exist and have existed for a long time, so to think that can be changed so quickly is crazy! Slow down and be patient.
Ignoring Cultural Differences
Ignoring the differences that are unique to a culture is so commonly done without knowing it. A group of students in a program I oversee traveled to the the Caribbean to work with a local nonprofit, and felt angry by the lack of work ethic that they felt the locals had. They did not see why they were there to do work that locals could have done if they just worked faster and showed up on time. Conversely, I had a group of students in Central America show up late to meet with their host agency, feeling it was no big deal, and greatly offended them. Neither of them took the time to realize that every culture you enter into has different norms, values, and beliefs. In the case of the first trip, the people they worked with did not feel like everything had to be rushed. They valued their time and believed in a balanced approach to their work. Where as in Central America, punctuality was a sign of mutual respect for the people. Social change is not easy. It is not something just one person can achieve on their own and working towards a change can only come about if a lot of care is put towards making that change positive and sustainable. These pitfalls can be prepared for and prevented if they are reflected upon ahead of time.