Working for Structural Change


There are currently many conflicts, tragedies and issues that warrant attention and response. There are conflicts in Iraq, Israel and Gaza, Iran, Syria, Ukraine, several African nations, and shootings in our own neighborhoods. There are severe economic problems abroad and domestically, serious social issues on our borders, and any number of urgent environmental catastrophires everywhere.

Most of these crises genuinely deserve our reaction and response. We cannot be quiet, passive, disinterested or uninvolved.

There is, however, sometimes a tendency among the socially concerned to respond and react to virtually every problem — to be hyper reactive and overly responsive.

I can’t emphasize enough that this is not a call to not respond and react. Sorry for the double negative.

It’s rather an invitation to be mindful of our actions – for our own personal physical and mental well being as well as the cause of fundamental social change for justice and peace.

To react and respond means we cannot be proactive and initiating. We are operating under someone else’s agenda. It is they who are steering our thinking and actions. They are defining our reality.

Worse, it means we are not able in those moments to promote or build, or create or nurture. By being on the defensive, we are not able to assertively address and work on behalf of systemic, institutional or structural causes of many of the immediate crises we are responding or reacting to.

Of course, immediate crises can be opportunities, teachable moments in fact, to show links between immediate problems and to more core causes.  They can also be places and spaces to tap anger, disgust and/or compassion to encourage mobilization at a deeper level.

While these possibilities can happen, more often that not they don’t occur if the immediate atrocity, problem, harm, and hurt is right in front of us and needs to be addressed.  If a house is on fire, there is no time to ponder how the fire started, whether by accident or intention.

From a social change perspective, the problem is there are fires everywhere. They are becoming more prevalent in more places. And many more of them seem to be sparked, or at least inflamed, by intent than by accident.

This is especially troubling if there is a belief, if not reality, that the arsonists are starting or flaming fires to distract, deceive or distort — which:
–    Keeps us separated by responding and reacting to every individual problem,
–    Prevents us from examining connections between problems,
–    Delays advocating for fundamental public policy or constitutional changes and,
–    Inhibits creating on the ground, inclusive, alternatives where we are.

There is no simple answer, no exact science. Social change is as much based on feel and assessing the moment than following a pre-determined script or five-year plan. Refusing to give up one’s seat on a bus based on one’s race can be a spark to a full fledged social movement that leads to systematic change.

Social change agents must wisely think and act – especially those who are not personally in the middle of a crisis where the only appropriate action is direct response and reaction. Those of us privileged or lucky enough not to be engulfed in crisis have a unique responsibility. To the degree we can authentically advocate for real change while protesting wrongs, then by all means we should.  Nevertheless, we must understand and respect the “rhythm” and stages of social movements.

When those we work with are ready to focus on more structural issues, diverting energy toward an immediate crisis that does not aid in the understanding or contribute toward advocating or creating alternatives is a step backwards.

Once again, this is not a call for inaction to immediate crises or “fires.” It is, instead, a respectful invitation to do strategic thinking. We simply can’t squander limited time, energy and resources. The fundamental top-down systems of our world – political, economic and social – are all in various stages of disintegration. The natural world is also collapsing.

The many crises we face are a symptom of these deteriorating systems. There will be many more crises to come. They will happen more rapidly on top of each other. If all we do in response is respond to immediate problems, then we miss the tremendous opportunities that will be inevitable to be change agents in shaping a more just, peaceful and sustainable reality. We will squander the opportunity – leaving a power vacuum open to others – including some of the very same elites responsible for our current problems who will redefine, remold and recast themselves which the public should blindly follow.

It’s up to us to keep our eye on the prize – fundamental justice and fundamental peace. It’s up to us to be mindful that we must balance the need to put out fires with actively preventing them.

Simply responding and reacting should not impede our responsibility to be fundamental change agents


1 thought on “Working for Structural Change

  1. Thank you, Greg, for this focus on strategic thinking. Your work always comes down to fundamental justice and fundamental peace. At the Detroit water protest on July 18, the call and response was “What do we want? WATER! When do we want it? NOW!” Without a bullhorn, but with your strong voice, you (and I) tried to change it to “What do we want? DEMOCRACY! When do we want it? NOW!”

    Everybody gets the water issue. Right or wrong, everybody in this country takes it for granted that they will have potable water, as much as they want or need, every moment of every day. Now, everybody may not think that POOR people should have clean, potable water. Americans tend to hate and fear poor people, and may even believe that poor Americans are not entitled to clean, running water. But certainly THEY — the ones living outside inner city Detroit and not subject to water shut-offs — THEY are entitled to water, as much as they want, given maybe mild restrictions on watering their lawns during a severe drought. But guess what? Even poor Americans do not believe that they live in a 3rd world country, and know they are entitled to water, too.

    Democracy? Well, we’ve never really had it, what we have is a sham, if your family income is less than $60,000 a year (which is 70-80% of us at least), then you know damned well you don’t have it. But you have water.

    So people understand that. It is fundamental TO THEM. Democracy is abstract. Water is essential.

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