“There is nothing wrong with power if used correctly… What we need to realize is that power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a campaign facilitator, I see groups constantly faced with nuances in strategy – those fuzzy lines around the “ends vs. the means” dance that seems to need constant re-assessment, if power is truly the aim of the group. By “power”, I mean actual impact on policy decisions. But for many social change activists, after years of battling against the status quo, “power” is synonymous with “abuse”. It doesn’t have to be that way. But what is the ethical, right, smart way to deal with power? What lies at the core? How do we find that sweet spot where power comes from a place of integrity and generosity?
For me, ultimately, underneath all the strategy, tactics and analysis, love is what drives positive power. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote continues to inspire me. And despite the reputation activists often have of being perennially angry, I believe love is actually what drives many – maybe most – social change folks. Yes, some are driven by anger, and woundedness, and a desire to lash out at authority of any kind. In those cases, our job, as facilitators and coaches, is to help them connect with that deeper positive force within them – the force that will help them sustain their energies over time and build connection with others; that will enroll, rather than repel, the ‘persuadables’ that are so key to any movement if it to grow beyond the converted.
Thanks to my American colleague Kevin for reminding me of MLK’s beautiful quote.
How does social change “happen”? And what can social change leaders and groups do to help it happen? Before getting into the philosophy or techniques for movement-building, or for ‘accelerating’ or influencing social change, I’ve found it helpful to unpack the basics. So I’ll start with what, to me, is the seminal and still-useful model for how social change takes place.
Back in the early 1960s, Everett Roger and his academic pals developed the “Social Diffusion Theory”, outlined in the book Diffusion of Innovations. Picture a basic bell-curve: The model describes the trajectory of new idea or technology as it spreads through a community. First, the idea is taken up by “innovators” – a small group educated risk-takers. From there it spreads to a larger group of popular, socially influential “early adapters,” followed by the socially-connected “early majority”. The idea continues to spread through the community, through to the more skeptical, traditional low-income “late majority”, and finally to the cautious and less-connected are “laggards”. Awareness has a role – but “just give the people the info” doesn’t do it on its own.
At the personal level, Rogers’s theory outlines five steps: Knowledge (just becoming aware of the issue); Persuasion (‘coming to judgment,’ as Daniel Yankelovich would describe it), Decision, Implementation, and finally Confirmation. Other factors are interest, evaluation, trial and finally, adoption. These last five stages more or less correspond to the seven-staged model outlined by the “dean” of public engagement, Daniel Yankelovich, in his seminal book Coming to Judgment. When about 15% of the community’s population has taken up the idea, then it has reached its so-called “tipping point, ” as Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book of the same name. Continue reading “The Trajectory of Social Change”