It’s often said that those in social change work are “trying to change the status quo.” It’s why we do the work. We live in a country in which the vast majority of the population lives paycheck to paycheck, if a paycheck even exists. And so, as we build our organizations, whether engaging in direct service, advocacy, or some combination of the two, we try to slowly, but surely, create a more just system.
As I interact more as an Executive Director in the “social change” space, and jet from fancy conference to fundraising galas, I’ve realized that a large percentage of change-agents actually benefit enormously from the status quo. Thus, the process becomes about creating a slightly different system, but not a radically different one. The implicit question seems to ask how we can make life better for others without sacrificing our own material lot. And often, this question is asked from the snowy resort slopes of Aspen or Davos.
My own story actually helps to make this point. While the first year founding Generation Citizen put me through the proverbial trenches, with little money, no support structures, and too much stress, I now live in a nice apartment in Brooklyn, eat at fancy restaurants every once in a while, and go to a “bougie” gym. While I could probably make more money in other sectors, I make much more than the average New Yorker. And so, even as I engage in work trying to improve the lives of others, I am doing fine. As GC has improved, so has my lot.
The common rebuttal to that situation is that it is possible to both “do good and do well.” Problematically, is that it seems that the majority of the people uttering that phrase are people already doing well financially. I should note that my position as Executive Director makes this argument more pertinent. Many of GC’s employees do not get paid what they should, and, saddled with college debt and expensive costs of living, do not have it easy. But being a leader of a social change organization, I think, makes this argument even more relevant.
This notion is becoming more top-of-mind as Generation Citizen engages in an intensive strategic planning process, figuring out our priorities and direction for the next three years. At the heart of many of our conversations is figuring out how to scale our direct service program while simultaneously effecting systemic change.
When we have scale conversations, inevitably, the notion of our target populations emerges. Should we focus on impacting the students we work with, or the college volunteers (Democracy Coaches) that are helping to implement the program? Many feel that focusing on the Coaches can lead to real scale. These college students, the “next leaders of America”, may see GC as a transformative program that alters their career trajectory. And importantly, as they enter positions of power, they might reflect on their experience working with students on action civics to promote the broader principles of localized community engagement.
The problem is that this approach bypasses the actual people being affected by the inequalities in our democracy- our students. Teach for America (TFA) offers a classic example of this framework. TFA’s theory of change explicitly states that they want to create leaders who care about educational inequity and use their two years with TFA to influence their future thinking. And, regardless of one’s opinion of TFA, they’ve been fairly successful in fulfilling this specific mindset- many TFA alumni are in positions of power, ranging from state legislatures to State Commissioners of Education. But this argument implicitly presumes that students will not be the ones to change the unfair educational systems- Corps Members will.
While one could argue that government, rather than social change agents, should focus on shifting the status quo, unsurprisingly, this argument suffers on both sides of the aisle. Generalizing ever so slightly, conservatives argue that we want equal opportunity, not pure equality. Thus, I should be totally fine with my nice house and good salary because I earned it. The problem is that, especially in recent years, the opportunity gap has increased, and this argument doesn’t hold. To increase opportunity, someone needs to sacrifice- a premise that conservatives seem to reject.
On the other side, progressives often vow to tackle inequality, but do not offer a willingness to sacrifice their own well being. New York City offers a case study of this contradiction. Mayor de Blasio has asked for an increased tax on the top 1% of city earners to pay for universal pre-kindergarten, which he asserts will help level the playing field. But in doing so, folks like me (middle-class) don’t actually have to sacrifice anything, which actually might be necessary to full-on address economic inequality (and the additional tax on the top 1% isn’t that much either).
In the social sector, too many non-profit leaders come from upper-middle class backgrounds. To really change the status quo, we need people who have actually suffered from the existing structures leading the social change movement. They “get” it more than I could ever pretend to.
So what’s the answer? I don’t think it’s a singular one. While we ultimately want to get those currently not in power into positions of influence, this will not happen overnight. Thus, changing perspectives of future leaders is important. While criticizing TFA has basically become a spectator sport, the reality is that almost all my friends that have spent two years getting their butts kicked teaching in low-income classrooms have a better sense of the harsh reality of poor America than many, and will use this experience for the rest of their lives.
Ultimately though, we need to create a country in which those currently not in power have a bigger stake at the table. And that’s why GC’s theory of change must focus on our secondary school students. In order to really change this country, I can’t be the one in charge of a social change organization. They must be. It’ll be a long road. But it’s completely necessary.
-Scott Warren, Executive Director
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.