Taking account of social change

How does substantive social change happen? There are myriad responses to this question, obviously. For some, meaningful change takes place through policy and in the courts. Others argue that the root of change happens in classrooms. And there are those who suggest that change only comes through on-the-streets activism. Certainly, #IdleNoMore and Occupy remind us that innovative uses of public space – and the claiming of public space – play a significant role in generating action that aims to change hearts, minds, laws, and policies.

To my mind, the answers to this question are not – indeed, cannot be – mutually exclusive. The legwork of social change happens on the streets, in the classroom, online, in the hallowed halls of government, in the less hallowed halls of not-for-profit agencies (NGOs), through the media, and so on. Indeed, having too narrow an imagination for social change strategies is a recipe for disappointment. At the same time, developing an over-reliance on one method or site of social change will inevitably fail to produce the kind of change that its proponents seek (assuming, of course, that proponents are aiming for fundamental social or policy shifts).

This is, perhaps, a less idealistic, more pragmatic view of strategizing for social change. It is one borne of privilege, certainly; being assigned and located within privileges based on certain race, class, and other markers of social position informs my outlook on working outside and inside systems of governance. Equally, this view stems from being/ having been situated in various activist and institutional contexts that approach social change very differently. Although I am currently located in academia, my NGO and policy school days are anything but a distant past: both continue to inform my outlook on social change strategies.

During my former NGO life, I worked in a variety of direct service and management capacities where I learned to balance the immediate needs demanded by service work with the organizational politics associated with NGO survival. This meant, among other things, needing to continuously demonstrate one’s value to funders. In the NGO where I primarily worked in my early 20s, the demand to showcase the worth of any given program functioned as a layer over and above internal strategies for program evaluation. And it involved crafting stories to concisely characterize the outcomes of our programs in a way that was quantifiable and legible to funders. This was no small task given that the mandate of our volunteer-driven programs was to provide supportive resources for women to improve their own lives. How one quantifies the needs met by, say, a coming out support group (to name one example), and does so while remaining accessible (as in, free to users), is tricky. Fee-for-service models or demonstrations of growth as a result of client demand – tactics suggested by funders and supported by some management staff – were not adequate measurements of our program delivery. So, we all did a dance that appears to be commonplace in the NGO sector: a precarious jig that keeps programs afloat in a way that serves the client-population, while somehow providing deliverables that meet the needs of funders.

From the NGO sector, I went to policy school, where I was trained to look at social change differently: although the approach was couched in the language of social change, it focused on deliverables and evaluatable outcomes, and deliverables were defined in part by the ease with which they were evaluated. I struggled with the prevailing logic there, which foregrounded program evaluation and left under-theorized the systemic violence that policies and programs are meant to address. Which is to say that I struggled with the tools that I was being taught to use to facilitate social change. Yet, it was also in policy school where I learned to look with critical eyes at the troublesome investments that we make by expecting institutions to engender widespread social and policy reform. In particular, I have Sally J. Kenney and the texts we read together (Bureaucracy and The Hollow Hope spring to mind) to thank for encouraging a thoughtful interrogation of the (dis)incentives that bureaucrats and institutions have to initiate substantive change.

As an academic, I have a privileged distance to the kind of program development and delivery I conducted as an NGO worker, and an equally privileged distance to the kind of policy development and implementation that many from my policy school cohort pursued. Since I sit on the board of two NGOs, I am not completely removed from grantwriting or program development and evaluation. However, my relationship to the way that social change strategies function within these sectors is qualitatively different now that I am situated as a participant-observer of sorts. Whatever challenges come with being located in the academy (and there are many), this position offers an opportunity to take a wider view: of political-economic context in which the demands for social change emerge; of the intended and unintended effects of social policy and participatory planning; and of the relationship of process to product.

My current academic position also allows me the opportunity to create forums to discuss questions like this one, about the tools we use to generate social change. The first of these forums, a Policy & A Pint event called “Engaging Diverse Communities”, will be held on February 7 at SFU Woodward’s. The panel, which includes a fantastic set of folks representing the City of Vancouver, the City’s Urban Aboriginal Peoples’ Advisory Committee, NGOs (Purple Thistle, PeerNet BC, and LOVE BC), and the Vancouver Foundation, will address how structures like funding streams create opportunities for diverse communities to develop programming and have access to policymakers, while at the same time pose a challenge in the way that they reproduce divisions across a diverse population. My goal will be to facilitate a dialogue – among panellists and with the audience – that will give people a forum to share the successes and constraints of existing social change structures, with the aim of generating some take-away lessons: perhaps a tangible practice that could inform the writing of granting guidelines or program development, or maybe a process-based approach that might influence the City’s ability to engage citizens in ways that reflect an intersectional reading of Vancouver’s diverse population. Or at least the dialogue may provide a starting point toward tangible outcomes.
Eventbrite - Policy & A Pint: Engaging Diverse Communities

The event is free and there will be light snacks and a cash bar. Please join us for what will certainly be a stimulating discussion! Click here to download the poster.

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