Guest Post: The Moral Arc of the Universe is Long: Creating UnSectored Change Takes Time

Mar 22, 2013 8:45 AM ET

By Kathy Chamberlain

We are all impatient about the pace of social change. Some recent UnSectored posts have referred to the idea of building movements for change, whether indirectly or directly, and these posts have alluded to the long and difficult process of creating the change we wish to see in society. Despite what progress may have been made, we always want these changes to happen faster. But during these times of waiting and frustration, we need to remind ourselves that creating real and lasting social change can take decades, if not centuries.

I recently attended a talk given by historian Eric Foner on social movements and political change. He began by referencing the movie, Lincoln, stating that while it was a generally accurate depiction of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, one of the main things the movie got wrong was not portraying the fuller historical context. There was no sense of the role that grassroots social movements played in moving the slavery issue forward politically, specifically the role of the Abolitionists in agitating an end to slavery. For Foner, the work of the Abolitionists is a useful template for later American social movements, from women’s rights to labor rights to civil rights. We can learn valuable lessons about the long arc of change by looking at their example.

An important strategy within this framework is to constantly challenge the framing of what were previously accepted ideas, and by doing so change the public discourse. Foner stated that “the way to change things is to change public sentiment . . . and that happens by putting forth new and radical ideas” relentlessly and through multiple methods. The Abolitionists did everything they could to get their ideas into the public discourse using multiple outlets, which pushed the conversation into more liberal territory, thereby allowing Lincoln to appear more moderate.

While the character of political leaders is important, another strategy of successful social movements is to not tie themselves to political leaders or parties. While the Abolitionists worked with various political figures, they did not become part of any political establishment. (Think of them as the original cross-sector collaborators!) By standing apart from the system and fighting in the realm of ideas, eventually their ideas moved from the fringes to the center. In our own context, think of what was conventional wisdom 30 years ago regarding the roles of women, of people of color and of those in the LGBTQ community in our society, and how radical groups have pushed us to re-consider our norms.

Most importantly, Abolitionists taught us that groups within movements should link up with other groups that may not have obvious connections to realize a broader idea of what is necessary to achieve success. Sometimes members of a coalition can be strange bedfellows who would not even speak to each other otherwise, but as long as each group sees an interest in reaching the agreed upon goal, and are willing to put in the work to achieve that goal, victories can happen. Facilitating these interactions is a primary goal for UnSectored and we hope to be a place where those connections can be made amongst disparate individuals.

In taking lessons from social movements, we see that the key to the future is being willing and patient to “play the long game.” We are the ones who have the power to create the future we want to see, in our organizations, in our communities and in our systems. Being “unsectored” means creating the spaces to bring interested people together to make meaning of the new ideas that are becoming a larger part of public conversations, and discuss how those ideas are changing the terms of the public debates. We are creating and continuing the conversations that are necessary to make change real, relevant and lasting. Creating change requires a sustained effort and we should not feel daunted when we encounter many day-to-day barriers and failures.

In President Obama’s second inaugural address, he stated “We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall . . .” Think of how long it took for each of those social movements to gain momentum and create a lasting impact. Think of the grassroots organizing required to involve all levels of society in agitating for change. When looking at the movements you currently are involved in or the change you are trying to create, are you actively breaking down silos and bringing more people into the fold? Are you spreading your ideas beyond your comfort zones to new populations that might not have been exposed to or fully understand your ideas? Keep your eyes on the long-term prize, because the change you seek may not happen in your lifetime but instead that of your children, or your children’s children.

Kathy Chamberlain has extensive experience working for corporations, trade associations and nonprofits, and is currently a consultant to nonprofits and other social enterprises. She is passionate about the potential for community-based organizations to create lasting, positive social change.
This post originally appeared on UnSectored's Blog. Posted with permission of the author.