(Hope you're in it for the long run)
In this information-savvy age, handing someone an inconvenient truth is not enough in and of itself. The inconvenience outweighs the truth and so people continue to buy unethically sourced products, do their business with corporate tax evaders, maintain the same diet, and throw all their garbage in the same bin. The list goes on, accompanied with half-brewed excuses, 'what, me?' shrugs, and cherry-picked statistics that float their "The World's Not Actually Ending" boat.
I used to think that one day I'd craft the social activist documentary that told the public what it needed to hear and if it wasn't me then some other DSLR-toter with a leftist chip on their shoulder would. But that was back when I thought Greenpeace's messages were only a share away from widespread acceptance and shortening my showers was a sure-fire route to global preservation. More frequently now I roll my eyes at the bulleted Take Action lists on cinematic splash pages. All these digitally signed petitions, fired-up tweets, and newsletter subscriptions later, how do I know change is there if it isn't tangible? You learn to take joy in the indirect victories or tiny milestones but when evaluating your success based on visible change, it takes the momentum right out of you. Where's the proof that you're doing anything at all?
Duncan Green’s “How Change Happens” has recently been a huge spirit-lifter in this regard, strengthening my resolve and even rewiring my framework for self-evaluation as an activist. First off, he explains what we are responsible for, intellectually, as activists:
But where does that connect to battling the industry giants standing in our way?
Even if markets start off with a 'level playing field', they self-organize into complex structures that reward winners and punish losers… In the absence of countervailing forces such as state regulation or trade unions, the powerful can use their political and economic clout to get even richer--survival of the fattest, rather than the fittest--and so create growing polarization and unfairness, leading to monopoly and stagnation.
Operating from this perspective, Green explains that if we maintain those four intellectual responsibilities as activists, then the campaigning, research, and networking usually overcome not through one right move but an alignment of opportunities; luck favoring the prepared. Expertly crafted campaigns and winning over the right people can sometimes be the card that makes the winning hand but Green emphasizes that large scale change usually needs large scale coordination, which requires an understanding of the power system and learning to “dance” with it. Once you understand that power system, you realize you’re one small cog in the machine and that your job as an activist is not to function as all the other parts at once. There’s our first break. Other than building trust with the key people who have the power to enact change, we can only “develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable”. And it’s a beautiful thing when it does. That’s our second break.
Waiting around for that window of opportunity, or “critical juncture” as Green calls it isn’t easy. Where most of us have been programmed to expect interval rewards in the workplace, activism is a marathon of sorts that asks for long-term efforts in exchange for fewer fruits of labor. Many sign up to be changemakers only to find out that the role calls for incubators; all of the tedium with almost none of the glory. You see, change doesn’t happen in proportion to the efforts expended. It’s based on the evolution of the political and social environment. These stretches of breath-holding are more easily viewed as “seasons for sowing” and preparation than as change long overdue to your organization or individual efforts.