Three ingredients for social change that every advocate should know

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Recently I was reminded of a quote from William Jennings Bryan: At the turn of the 20th century, he told the country, "Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved."

That is what advocacy is all about — committing to take control of our collective destiny. And it's something I am reflecting on now as I begin new research on the developmental origins of health and disease. Working with colleagues at Oregon Health and Science University, Portland State University and a range of community partners, I will be exploring how social and biological differences in a child's very early development can influence health and opportunity throughout life. A baby's zip code should not be his or her destiny but, unfortunately, for many, this is reality.

Our team has no less a goal than changing the world by improving the starting point for the next generation. Impossible? Sure, but as one of my professors said to me years ago when I questioned some lofty endeavor, "Larry, if it wasn't impossible, somebody would have already done it."

As I begin this new challenge, I am trying to skillfully balance three things that are necessary ingredients for change and may be of value to public health advocates as we work to achieve what are typically overwhelming odds: aspiration, collaboration, and agitation. Advocacy is at its best when it involves dreaming big, working alongside others who share your dream, and persevering in the face of great odds to make it happen.

Nothing happens unless first a dream

Recently I heard someone say, "If you are working on an idea that you can get done in your lifetime, then you're not thinking big enough." Aspiration is a powerful force that drives us. It is a combination of a big idea, a big heart, and a dogged determination to succeed. Though we may have organizations to run, jobs to do, daily tasks to accomplish, deep down advocates all have a desire to make a difference that is bigger than any of what we do. And, for many of us, our heroes are those who produce such change.

One of my heroes is Muhammad Yunus, who believes that poverty does not reside in people but in the systems that we have built. If we fix these systems, then we can fix poverty. His aspiration is that for the next generation to see poverty, they will have to go to a "poverty museum." Yunus has dedicated his life to creating systems that support people for success and challenging systems that are rigged and cause large populations of people to fail for the benefit of the few. In 1976, he was a professor of economics at a university in Bangladesh. In the midst of a horrible famine and economic chaos, he used his own money to lend $42 to 27 women. That was the beginning of micro finance.

Today, the Grameen Bank that he created has 8.5 million borrowers and lends $11 billion; 97% of the borrowers are women, and the bank's customers own the bank. Dr. Yunus has received the Nobel Prize for Economics, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and scores of other honors for his work on microfinance and social business. Today, microfinance providers reach about 200 million people globally, and millions have moved out of poverty because of these loans and related programs.

Here is the most amazing thing: Yunus created his banking system by learning how banks did business and doing the opposite of what the banks did: Banks did not lend to the poor, so he only lent to the poor; banks required collateral, so he did not; banks did not lend to women, so he lent almost exclusively to women, and on and on. He changed the world by asking a different question. He said, "The question is, 'Are banks people-worthy?' not, 'Are people credit-worthy?'"

Where did Yunus get the vision to see the possibilities that no one else could? He would tell you that he simply sees problems and wants to solve them. But he would also tell you that much science has followed science fiction because it inspired people. People thought about going to the moon when the science to get there did not exist. Yunus encourages people to think and write "social fiction" where "all the impossible things of today's world are routine." So, when advocates are setting goals and imagining aspirations, we should think about writing some social fiction as a way to get started. Fill that blank page with a new vision of a better world.

Together, we can do more than any of us can do alone

Remember the phrase "YES WE CAN"? That was inspirational, but the difficult task facing advocates as we work to create real change is "HOW WE WILL." Public policy is struggling to shift to a "We're all in this together" mode, and collaboration must be at the core of this. Collaboration not only values different perspectives but enhances the quality and durability of solutions by incorporating diverse views.

Of course, collaboration is difficult. Often we don't really want to hear quite so much from others, or seek out more and more views, or deal with ever increasing layers of participation. Sometimes this can exhaust us, rather than propel us.

But collaborating with others can also increase our joy, as well as our ultimate effectiveness. A study at Emory University used magnetic resonance imaging to monitor brain activity during an experiment in which one could choose between cooperating or not. The finding, according to The New York Times: "[T]he small brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy."

The research found that when engaging in mutual aid, the brain lit up the most in areas "known to respond to desserts, pictures of pretty faces, money ... and any number of licit or illicit delights." Collaboration is as good as chocolate, has zero calories, and advocates can practice it daily.

Agitation and persistence, not new facts, will win the day

So, big aspirations need many collaborators to be realized. And we know that any big idea that advocates significant social change will generate substantial resistance. The major arguments we have in our society over core issues like equity and social justice won't turn on any new specific facts, but on the existing, deep values that we apply to understand and interpret those facts. If the world were based on facts generated from research, it would look a lot different and be a lot better than it is. Facts are important, but they don't drive the world — values do. This inevitably generates conflict, and we need to anticipate, understand, and work constructively with what is often intense disagreement.

That means being persistent. We cannot simply cede an issue because the opposition is aggressive and willing to be forceful. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, said, "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

This is a reminder that we really do need to show up, stand up, and speak out for what we want to accomplish. Advocates are good at being engaged, but sometimes we need to be constructively and creatively outraged as well.

And when we feel discouraged at the thought of tackling a challenge that seems too big, we should keep in mind the advice of Thích Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and past nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize: "The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not. ... If I lose my direction I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction."

Think about it like this. We need:

  • a continuing belief that there is a north star, and there is a greater promise to be realized,
  • the self-awareness to understand the idea of the north star within yourself, ourselves,
  • the vision to locate the north star in our world,
  • the professional knowledge to make that north star real and chart a course toward it,
  • the wisdom and leadership ability to inspire others and bring them along on the journey, and,
  • the dedication and commitment to mark the road clearly so that future generations can more easily follow.

Lawrence Wallack, a BMSG co-founder, is a now senior fellow at BMSG. He is on sabbatical after completing nine years as Dean, College of Urban & Public Affairs at Portland State University. His focus is on framing knowledge on the developmental origins of health and disease and its policy implications.

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