What Today’s Social Movements Look Like

Posted by on February 14, 2013 in charity, CSR, Entrepreneurship, Non-Profit

March on WashingtonAs a teenager, I was obsessed with the 60s. It started with the music—first classic rock like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, but I quickly moved on to the protest songs of the day—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Crosby Still Nash and Young, Pete Seeger. From there, it was only a small jump to focus my attention to people like Martin Luther King and groups like the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers.

I think I was so focused on these people because they were a part of something bigger than themselves. They were a part of a movement that would be remembered forever. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, but I didn’t know what that could be.

I didn’t see those same things happening among my generation—no Marches on Washington, no sit ins. My generation’s idea of dissent was watching Jon Stewart each night. I thought I’d never be able to be a part of something as historic as the social movements of the 1960s. I would pose these silly hypothetical questions to my friends and myself: “If you were alive in the 60s, would you have gone to Woodstock?” “Would you have gone to the Chicago riots in ’68?”  “Would you have been a hippie, would you have burned your draft card?”

Really, I think I asked these questions because the one I really wanted to ask was: Why don’t we have a social movement on the scale of the 1960s?

But then I went to college and studied the work of Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank, read the writings of development economists Jeff Sachs and Bill Easterly, and became involved in various campus groups—from divestment campaigns to environmental justice organizations to a local soup kitchen. It was there I realized I had been asking myself the wrong questions, focusing on the wrong things.

By focusing on comparing my generation to that of the 60s, I missed out on all the different components of change happening around me, around the country, around the world, each day. I graduated and began work in the nonprofit sector, where I realized there were so many different approaches, programs and even products to help make the world a better place. Each sector, and each organization had a role in what I like to call the “social change ecosystem.”

Our movement didn’t look like marches on Washington, or people taking to the streets. Our movement is expressed in growing volunteer rates, consumers wanting businesses to give back to society, and a young generation more committed to social impact through their professional careers. No matter the sector, no matter the organization, there is a movement of people working to make a difference. The daily stream of content on Social Earth that highlights positive and innovative developments around the world is but one manifestation of this movement.

Food Pantry

However, there is an interesting paradox here: The people who work in the different components of the social change ecosystem don’t really get along. People in business are distrustful of government and don’t have much respect for those in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit employees harbor a lot of vitriol for the business sector, and get frustrated when working with government. Government agencies, trying to satisfy the needs of all their constituents, don’t have time for the demands of specific organizations.  (Obviously, these are generalizations, but if you have ever tried to work across sectors, there is truth to these observations.)

When I discovered this paradox, needless to say, I was frustrated. Here we were, all working as a part of this great social movement, but no one wanted to talk to each other!  Out of this frustration, I started a site, UnSectored, to explore the notion that the best way to create change is together. The site posits that social change is the responsibility of all individuals, organizations, and sectors, and that we must work together to get it right.

So far, we have come up with more questions than answers. But one thing is sure: This “unsectored” idea resonates with people. They understand that the main goal of any organization or group of organizations should be to leave society better off—not to make money, not to develop more small and innovative electronics, not to maximize shareholder value.

People understand that no one sector has all the answers and that we must work together to accomplish our goals. As I have quickly found in my short career in the nonprofit and social enterprise sectors, on a whole, organizations have decided not to collaborate to pursue that goal we all want: To make the world a better place. Instead, they resort to activities focused on single organization goals and short-term time horizons beholden to their bottom lines.

There are exceptions, of course. The Obama administration has created a White House Office of Social Innovation that has given birth to things like the Social Innovation Fund, which combines public and private funds to scale up community solutions. Social Impact Bonds, first developed in the UK, is an innovative financial model where the government ensures financial returns for private investors if a nonprofit can achieve outcomes in a certain time period.

There is hope. But the reality is our institutions do not reflect our true nature. Humans are naturally social—we want to work together. But our organizations remain sectored. We sacrifice the potential for more effective results—greater change—by following our usual way of doing business.

Whenever I think about this issue, I’m reminded of a quote that is way too overused. Recognizing that, I’m going to use it here:

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

However, I’d like for you to think about this quote in a slightly different way. Typically, it’s interpreted, “change has to start with you.” I agree with that interpretation, but I think the meaning goes deeper than that. I think it’s saying: “Create a world that reflects our true nature.”

It is our nature to work together. It is our nature to want to make a difference. Now we must implement that not only in our individual lives, but in the extension of those lives: Our families, our careers, our institutions. How do we build a world where we all work together to make a difference?

Unfortunately, this is just another question in my journey. I don’t know the answer, but I do know we can find it. Together. Please continue this conversation with me, either here or on UnSectored.

Photo credits: ccstbp, archives.gov

Jeff Raderstrong

Jeff Raderstrong is a community engagement consultant who helps organizations engage with audiences to collectively define goals. He is also the Founder and Editor of UnSectored and the Co-Founder of the Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell (SEG). He enjoys biking, vinyl records, and critical thinking.

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