I was at a little league game a few weeks ago. It was a bucolic scene, the baseball diamond situated right on the shores of the Hudson River. Squads of ten year old boys prepared to play against one another, so earnest in the almost impossible task of solidly hitting a moving round ball with a moving round bat. A batter was up, cleats dug into the batters box and eyes intently focused on the pitcher. A grounder was hit to second base and the batter took off towards first. Flying down the base path I noticed something different, two pigtails flying behind the batting helmet and cheers for the batter, Audrey, as she made it safely to first.
I didn’t know Audrey was on my son’s team, which was good news, and I didn’t care except to feel a bit of pride as she successfully navigated around the diamond and scored a run. When did this happen, I wondered? When did we stop noticing Audrey, and other little girls like her? When does radical, disruptive change become blase?
At the same time I was also noticing what I think is the loose usage of the term “social change.” Sign a petition for social change. Buy this yogurt for social change. Bang a nail into a house for social change. You get the idea. I’m not usually a stickler for precision in language. For instance, I made up the word “miniphany” a few years ago, meaning a mini epiphany, and happily use it often. I’m also just as happy as the next Fellow to throw around words like innovation and synergy, I’ve even been known to use “algorithm” with only the vaguest idea of what it means. But social change is different. It’s too important to be watered down and mischaracterized to confuse a donation from a food company with the struggle that women and girls overcame to make Audrey’s hit so unremarkable. What does “social change” really mean, I wondered.
I asked my networks on Twitter and LinkedIn for help in defining the phrase. To spice it up a bit, I also asked if it was like pornography, we’d know it when we see it like I did with Audrey. The responses were very helpful.
Lisa Colton said she thinks of it as greater than changing one element. Though that is one aspect of social change.
Debra Askanase said it is a movement of people trying to change a part of society from unjust to just.
Matt Scharpnick wrote, “The way I studied it, we drew a distinction between soc. service & soc. change, (band-aid vs root causes).”
Ahhh, now we’re really getting somewhere. There is an important distinction between doing something and solving something. It’s the difference between treating problems and solving them. I love the fact that young people are drawn to volunteering; they are idealistic and caring and good people. But these are largely acts of loving kindness. We feed, cloth, shelter people. We visit people so they are less lonely, we provide gifts to children in the hospital. We do these things because empathy is in our DNA and because we hope others will treat us this way when our time to be taken care of comes.
But these efforts don’t change systems, and they rarely change believes or attitudes or solve fundamental problems. That’s why Leslie and Heather found in Forces for Good that the most effective nonprofits all had advocacy arms. Advocacy is the primary vehicle for social change and organizations are not the only vehicles for change. When Elizabeth Taylor stood arm in arm with Rock Hudson when he had AIDs, our attitudes towards people with the disease began to change. Alaaa abd el Fattah, an Egyptian blogger and Facebooker, was a key free agent activist who helped to catalyze the Egyptian revolution this past spring.
Cindy Wong wrote on LinkedIn that she found this definition from the social science dictionary: “social change = alteration in social structures or culture over time.”
I think that’s close, but I don’t think it’s just structural change. When a girl playing baseball is unnoticed that means attitudes and beliefs have changed. It is where gay marriage is headed, someday soon it will go unnoticed. How to get to unnoticeable is the great challenge for social change makers.