I have spent more than twenty years working in the world of social change, with roles in grassroots organizing, government, philanthropy, and consulting.
I am taking a leap in my practice, from recognizing and participating in a paradox, to reinventing what I believe is possible. The contradiction is this: how does the beautifully compelling and powerful struggle for social change reside in a structure that is so incongruent with the very values social change aspires to pursue?
Allow me to indulge with a metaphor.
The status quo for social change-making, what I call the “money-for-social-change transaction,” resides in The Frosted Cake.
All of us involved in social change - people, organizations, academics, consultants, government, philanthropists - interact in The Cake. This is where the resourcing of social change happens. Regardless of our role, we are either acquiring or allocating money in order to advance social change. The tools at our disposal (for this money-for-social-change transaction) include plans, applications, proposals, research, evaluations, reports, and so on.
Our place in The Cake is stratified by layers - indicating our proximity or distance to money. Those with greatest access to money are positioned at the top layer of The Cake and those with the least are positioned at the bottom layer. In spite of our pursuit of social change, we are uncomfortably situated in a hierarchical power structure that defines our relative positions of authority and submission (based on access to money). Baked into The Cake, therefore, is an unequal distribution of power.
Covering The Cake is a thick frosting. It's sticky composition holds The Cake together (and hides what lies beneath). The frosting depicts seemingly insurmountable yet detrimental norms that govern The Cake.
Allow me to offer a taste by describing the frosting of deficiency, exclusion, and compliance.
Deficiency (of time and money, and relatedly, capacity) is a pernicious mindset frosted onto The Cake. Dreams are discarded or greatly reduced in the name of scarcity. Planning and actions are designed and enacted within frames of limitation and inadequacy. Nonstop freneticism is justified - emitting particular hypocrisy given the rhetoric of restorative practices, such as, “self care” and “resilience.”
The frosting of exclusion is a perilous remedy for the deficiency problem. Good intentions are declared yet pushed aside along with hopeful claims for a more inclusive future. Complex, messy, and slow participatory approaches are deemed prohibitive. Legitimization of community wisdom and lived experience descends into extractive practices. Insular decision making and damaging power dynamics are inadvertently perpetuated (directly contradicting our social change values).
Compliance is the insidious frosting of control that permits The Cake to remain intact (despite its incoherence). Illogical and ineffectual procedures and practices permeate The Cake. Unrealistic (and sometimes inhumane) timelines and expectations prevail. An endless array of confusing (and even harm-producing) terminologies are thrown about. An underlying sense of imposition, burden, and obligation impedes the potential for any real critical reflection and learning. Such dichotomous adherence to norms that lack utility, relevance, and alignment with social change values is puzzling (and infuriating). It seems The Cake is perceived and treated as an impermeable structure, with no clear “baker,” and without a sprinkling of humanity.
The Cake’s rigidity to change, exemplified by its square shape, is perplexingly paradoxical. Despite proven failures and blatant incongruence with social change values, The Cake appears to be unchangeable. Maybe there is general resignation that an alternative model is impossible. Maybe the power imbalance is too entrenched. Or maybe there are just higher priorities to focus on. Whatever the reason, our collective complicity stabilizes The Cake. In exchange for a place in The Cake, a forfeiture of our values is exacted.
There may be a glimmer of hope as efforts are made to integrate crucial issues, such as “decolonization” and “equity,” into The Cake. I fear this may only translate into more frosting atop an already inedible and toxic cake. Instead, a full dismantling of The Cake is long overdue. Something tasty (rather than gag-producing) could take its place, and could mirror the compellingly beautiful and powerful struggle for social change.
What if we stop frosting The Cake? What if we leap out… and into The Glazed Doughnut!
Permit me to briefly entice you into The Glazed Doughnut.
The Doughnut is horizontal (rather than vertically layered) to solidify everyone’s place alongside each other. The Doughnut is circular (rather than square) to emphasize interconnected, long-term, and continuous processes. The Doughnut is empty in the middle (rather than solid) to appreciate and encourage imagination into the unknown. The Doughnut is transparently glazed (rather than opaquely frosted) to elicit pride in guiding values that reflect social change.