For strategic social change

By Taylor O’Connor | www.everydaypeacebuilding.com

Photo by gratisography.com

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” — Henry David Thoreau

Tell me if this is you.

First, this happened. You were very passionate about a particular social issue and wanted to do something about it.

Then this happened. You got involved in some activism, advocacy, work with a non-profit or NGO, or in some activity that you thought would influence some positive change on that issue.

Now, some months or years later, and you’re thinking… “is this actually making a difference?”

Ok, so if this is you. You’re in the right place. First, let me tell you some reasons why you’re feeling this way. Then I’ll share with you some ways to make your efforts more effective.


Why you are not sure if your efforts to build peace are effective

Reason 1. Change takes time. And there are a lot of factors that influence change.

Reason 2. Your efforts may not be strategic enough; your methods not creative enough.

Reason 3. There is a lack of synergy in your team, or more broadly amongst other people and groups seeking similar outcomes.


How to make your efforts to build peace more effective

Strategic social change, unfortunately, does not come naturally to most people. But regardless of your knowledge or experiences, there are simple things you can do to make your efforts more effective.

Using insight gained from experiences collaborating with grassroots peacebuilders throughout the past decade, I’ve developed a list of ten simple ways to make your efforts to build peace more effective. I hope you find them practical and can apply them well.

Disclaimer: these approaches apply regardless of whether you consider your efforts as peacebuilding, working for social justice, or broadly as making social change.

1. Be specific about the problem you want to change.

It is surprising how many people and groups are out there just working for ‘peace’ or ‘against war’ in the general sense, but can’t explain clearly what problem they are trying to address. When real problems afflict people, spending your time to mobilize people to draw pictures about peace or walking around with a sign that says ‘peace’ aren’t really the most practical or relevant things to do.

You must analyze the problem (whether formally or informally), then be specific about what problem you want to change. I’m talking about what laws and policies are creating injustice and inequality, what elements of your culture are promoting discrimination, what forces promote militarism and violence in your society?

Do not bang on your gong of peace and hope that magically something is going to change. Use your brain. Analyze the problem. Isolate the root causes. Then take strategic action.

2. Reverse your planning process.

Once understanding the problem, most people are more than ready to take some random action and hope something is going to change. If this is how you think, prepare to be disappointed.

What you need to do is flip the way you think about this. Once you are clear about what problem you want to change, the next step is to create a vision of what it will look like when this problem is resolved. Then work backward to figure out how you will achieve that vision.

So start with the vision. You may think, “That’s impossible! This situation will never fully change how I might imagine it.” Stop that! We’re not talking about what’s possible or not possible. We’re talking about a vision to work toward. We’ll discuss the ‘how’ in the following steps.

Here is strategic thinking in a nutshell:

First. Clarify your vision. Make it simple, short, and clear. It should outline some major change in the specific problem you have identified. Think of the vision as a more broad social change you want to see in about ten years.

Second. Identify a few medium-term structural and socio-cultural changes you want to see. For structural changes, think what policies or practices need to change, or what institutions need to be transformed. For socio-cultural changes, think about what societal norms or behaviors need to change. If it is helpful, think of these changes as something you would like to see changed in four or five years.

Third. Map several short-term changes that need to happen to contribute to those medium-term changes. Think of what awareness do people need to have, or what knowledge and skills they need to have. Do people need motivation to effect change? Do you seek to change peoples’ attitudes? Also, who are these people? Are we talking about the general public or are we talking specifics like politicians, teachers, parents, business owners, media personalities, etc. etc. etc. Who are we talking about here?

It is helpful to write these things down. And once this is all established, only then can you start to think about ‘how’ you will make these changes and ‘what’ you will do specifically to make these changes. This is the part that everyone does naturally. So come up with your ideas for action and assess how they contribute to making the short and medium-term changes. You may have several activities. See my post on 198 Actions for Peace for ideas.

3. Clarify your core values.

When working for peace or social change, there are a number of internal challenges we encounter as individuals and groups. Some try to solve all the world’s problems and become overextended. Some groups have disagreements on how to proceed. Some group members may not be committed or lack motivation. When facing stressful external challenges, finding the right way forward is an internal process.

As a guiding star, it is essential to clarify your personal values and shared group values. Everyone and every group should reflect on their core values early on in any action for peace, but this type of activity can be done at any time. It can be simple. Just map all the values that you find important as an individual or group, then try to narrow it down to five or six core values.

When you have your values clear, it is easy for you to clarify your priorities, solve internal problems, make decisions, and overcome external challenges. Having clear values in a group unites people towards a cause and ultimately ensures your efforts to build peace are more effective.

4. Care for the wellbeing of your team (and yourself).

No matter your approach to building peace, it is inevitable that you’ll be collaborating with others. And to build peace effectively, you must have strong, united teams. Building peace can be stressful. Neglecting to take concrete efforts to care for the wellbeing of your team is a recipe for disaster. Tensions build. Stress boils to the surface.

In a group, people need to feel valued. They need to feel heard. They need understanding. They need to have fun and relax. And as many of us are engaging with challenging issues (violence, discrimination, etc.), people need support to process their experiences. In groups, don’t expect that this type of support will happen naturally.

You must make a clear effort to care for the wellbeing of your team and yourself. And depending on the size of the group, some form of systems or structures may be needed as well. How this all manifests will be unique to each team, but may include things like weekly meetings, a group retreat, counseling, wellness activities for the group, etc. When you make the effort to care for the wellbeing of your team, people are more creative, motivated, happy, and able to find ways to overcome challenges that come their way.

5. Build diverse coalitions.

Progressive social change requires the coordinated action of a range of persons and groups dedicated to the same cause. Once you are clear about what you are trying to achieve and what actions you will take, you must work to create synergy amongst like-minded persons or groups working towards the same (or similar) outcomes. Coalitions must be broad-based and diverse.

Map diverse stakeholders affected by the problem at hand, build relationships with them, learn about their experiences. Develop unconventional relationships. Hold collaboration sessions. Deepen relationships with coalition members. Connect people within the coalition. Invite diverse membership. Expand the coalition.

6. Take multiple approaches. Transform culture, institutions, and physical spaces.

Structural change and cultural change do not happen in isolation. You must observe the interplay between cultural norms and the structural changes you seek. Develop strategies to address both. Additionally, you can make a deep influence on society by transforming physical spaces.

In creating a strategy, you should have analyzed the problem and mapped different causes of the problem. If you map the problem properly, you will recognize that there are many other pieces to the puzzle, both structural and socio-cultural issues. You alone, or your group, can’t address them all. In working with your coalition, be sure that you take numerous approaches to transform both culture and structures.

Consider how city or community spaces contribute to the problem you hope to change. Which types of culture and historic sites are available to the public? Which are not? Are community spaces available and accessible to everyone? Do community monuments glorify war heroes? What peace heroes do you want to inspire the younger generation? Are these visible in community monuments and art? What approaches can you take to transform community spaces?

Work with your team and with your coalition to create multi-pronged strategies and adapt them to the changing context to push for further, every more progressive change.

7. Strengthen the good.

When working to change a problem, we often spend too much time focusing on the problem. Often we neglect all of the good that is happening around us. In doing so, we miss opportunities to strengthen the good.

This process requires a bit of a shift in the way we are thinking. But here is how it works.

First. Identify your problem. Clearly!

Second. Flip the problem inside out. Describe the inverse. And think of a very specific time, a moment, a place, an example when this was happening. Any small example is good. Describe it and discuss it in detail.

This is where people get confused and start talking in generalizations. So here is an example. If the problem you’re working on is young people getting involved in gang violence, then to flip this, you will think of a time, a moment when young people in your community did not get involved in gangs, or they resisted recruitment into gangs. You should find a specific example of a time a young person resisted joining a gang.

Now, we are not talking in generalizations here. We are not saying, “yea, some kids don’t join gangs, but most kids really do.” Stop that! I need to know about one specific kid. One moment. One time. One event. Something concrete that happened, and why. What was this kid’s name? Where did he live? What was he doing? How did they try to recruit him? What was his response? Why was his response different? How was his life changed as a result? How did it affect his family? Community?

Get specific and discuss your selected example.

Third. Imagine what it would be like it was always like this. What would it look like? How would the community/society be different? How would you like it to be? What would be the best possible outcome?

Fourth. Plan and take action. What do you need to do to make this dream a reality? What actions do you need to take? Who will do them, and when? Make a plan and take action.

8. Create spaces.

Creating spaces for building peace is an often neglected approach that can, in itself, have profound results. Reasons for this vary and depend on the context. Perhaps there are safety concerns, and it is difficult for people to meet. Perhaps there is some division amongst people that needs to be overcome. Perhaps people are busy and just don’t make the time to collaborate with others. Whatever the reason, there is power in creating spaces and bringing people together.

Consider your purpose, and this will tell you who should be involved and what type of space you should create. Are you trying to create spaces to bring together likeminded people and groups to collaborate, coordinate, or find creative solutions? Is there some division amongst specific people or groups that needs to overcome? Are you seeking to facilitate the participation of certain people or groups in something? Are there safety issues that prevent people from meeting? Are you hoping that some people/groups get exposure to new ideas or people? Do you want to change attitudes? Figure out your purpose and proceed accordingly.

9. Embrace the power of music and the arts.

Music and art have the power and potential to transform culture in ways nothing else can. And they often do so with little resistance. As Bob Marley said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.”

Consider ways that you can leverage the power of music and arts in your efforts to build peace. Maybe using music or arts can be integrated into an existing activity, or can be activities in and of themselves. Here is where we’re thinking outside the box. We aren’t just talking about doing a project on music or art. We are talking about creating! We are talking about developing relationships and ongoing collaborations with musicians and artists. We are talking about becoming musicians and artists!

Use music, performance, poetry, comedy, or storytelling to raise awareness of issues or imagine peaceful futures. Dance or craft for a cause. Collaborate with diverse artists or musicians. Amplify peace narratives, social justice issues, or marginalized voices in song. The possibilities of music and art are endless.

10. Create something new.

We spend so much of our energy struggling to change existing problems. When corrupt leaders wage war, we mobilize against war. When unjust laws are made, we struggle to change them. Sometimes we need to shift our focus all together and create something completely new, to create the conditions for peace, not focusing on the problem.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “wow, things would be different if only…..” Well, what is this ‘if only?’ Can you create it?

When we take the initiative in creating new things, the world responds to us. Create new structures or institutions that promote peace or advance a cause you care about. Take the initiative. Imagine something new. Make it happen.


Find ways you can build peace in the world around you. Download my free handout 198 Actions for Peace.

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