You are with an NGO that wants to change the world – does what you call yourself matter? Do you need to call yourself an –ist to work on an –ism? And, how permanent are those –isms anyway?
The growth of the social change sector from the 70’s onwards involved a sort of division of labour between feminists, environmentalists, pacifists, anti-poverty activists, international development activists, and more. We specialized and hung out shingles that said so.
The model lent itself well to the times. We saw ourselves as children of the Enlightenment, where the truth would set us free and would shape policy. Ideas seemed to matter to politicians too (to varying degrees), and some things got done. We made progress.
But, times change. Politics itself has hardened as power tactics have trumped ideas, relegating the latter to hooks into specific constituencies needed at election time. Power beats truth, making good policy much harder to come by.
The issues themselves have become more complicated, transcending our –isms, with climate change staring us in the face as the greatest challenge our species has ever faced, so far resisting a response that even remotely measures up.
And perhaps due to a combination these reasons and others, young people inclined to get involved in social change don’t seem to identify with our old labels, perhaps sensing that they no longer adequately capture our current reality, or the need to change it.
Times change – so do we change with them?
In part we are already. There is now a proliferation of social change groups with more malleable and less issue-specific brands, from MoveOn to LeadNow, from SomeOfUs to the Dogwood Initiative. Many of these groups are growing fast, and attracting the energy of younger activists.
In part, though, we still have a long way to go to adapt to new realities, and in particular with regards to being relevant to decision-makers in a much more competitive political environment.
It is no longer enough to have the right ideas without the right support. Can we tangibly demonstrate that the public is supportive of a change we are promoting? Put another way, can we turn out enough voters on the right side of the issue in the right places when it matters most?
A more malleable brand can help in this equation, since geographic critical mass matters. Frankly, a thousand supporters in one political district is more useful to advancing an issue than ten thousand supporters nationwide, and the chances of cultivating a thousand supporters in once place goes up when your brand is less specialized. Odds are, most of our potential supporters don’t see themselves as an –ist, and maybe never will, even if they support the same things as us.
A risk, though, is shallowness. To win today, it is not that we need to give up issue expertise in favour of sheer numbers of supporters everywhere, but rather that we need to complement issue expertise with enough supporters active in the right places.
That means that focus still matters, perhaps more than ever, just in different ways.