I’ve been thinking for a while now about change. As someone who’s lived decades—yeah, I’m old—I’ve seen a few big social justice issues foster change in our society. And I’m (happily) living through more. The thing is, there seems to be a clear pattern in how change happens in our society. Whether it’s women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, black lives matter, rape culture—any major, social issue—there’s a certain path that change takes. It looks something like this:
Birth of a social justice protest
It starts as an outcry, a baby protest amongst a small group of people—the minority, whatever that is. While I say “minority,” in some cases it could be a majority of people (women aren’t a minority), but it’s a group of underprivileged in some way.
This minority protests the social justice problem. If the protest lasts, it’s in part because they protest LOUDLY. If they are bold enough and loud enough, they get heard and the movement grows. If not, it dies as a baby.
Just as a baby’s cry demands attention, at this stage being loud and obnoxious gets attention.
Now, the movement gets bigger, though still mostly within the minority community. More and more people in that community are talking, and their voices are getting louder. Community news sites and publications write about the protest. Then, word begins to spread even outside the minority community. Some of the people who are privileged begin to hear about the protest and lurk and listen. What do I mean by “privileged?” It depends upon the movement. It might mean white people, straight people, men, etc.
Congratulations! This marks a milestone, as the “protest” becomes a full-blown social justice Issue. People talk about the “issue of xyz.” Awareness spreads well beyond the minority community where the protest was born. Significantly, privileged people begin to join the movement, add their voices, and talk with other privileged people about the Issue. And, the mainstream media even starts doing reports on it.
This is a hard stage. Sometimes, the minority can feel like their issue is being coopted. If only we didn’t need the privileged groups to help champion our Issue—after all, it’s OUR Issue. And we’ve been fighting the good fight for a long time while you privileged people have been oblivious. It can be painful, just like the teen years. But the truth is that an Issue won’t lead to change unless the mainstream, the majority, the privileged—who, unfortunately, exert so much control—get on board. So, it’s a necessary step if we’re going to get real change.
The teen years are painful for an issue, just like they are for real teens. Movements often have to compromise to keep growing.
By the time the Issue hits the college phase, the mainstream media has picked it up. We’re all talking about it and the Issue has now become officially a Problem. Which is good, because people want to solve problems.
At this point, influential privileged people are on board with the movement in larger and larger numbers. Eventually this leads to a majority of privileged people agreeing that, yes indeed, this is a Problem.
Congratulations, again! That baby protest is all grown up and now the problem is on the way to being fixed. The bad news? The grown up phase is the longest phase of life. It may take a long time for real change to manifest. As awareness spreads, attitudes change. Sometimes that happens quickly, but sometimes it takes years or decades. Eventually, though, attitudes do change and, in particular, attitudes change in the majority of the privileged group.
As attitudes change, so does policy. It usually starts at the local level in groups and areas where beliefs shifted early. You may see schools adopt new policies or towns and counties. Then, entire states. In this country, most often the states on the coast shift first, and then change moves inward toward the center of the country. Eventually, change happens at the national level and we see policies implemented by the federal government, institutionalizing change.
As attitudes shift, it gets easier and easier for new people to get on board and help create a wave of change.
Societal change is a cycle. We make one big change, but that spawns new, children issues. We got the women’s vote, then we sought the right to work, then equal pay. Now, we’re looking at issues of rape and rape culture. We got anti-discrimination laws for gays, then gay marriage, now the “gay” issue has expanded to encompass a wide variety of gender issues. We ended slavery, then fought for basic civil rights, and now we’re looking at the more subtle but just as important issues of the black lives matter movement and white privilege.
Knowing the path to change
And this is where understanding the path helps. When you’re still in the baby, kid, or even teen phase of a path to change, like rape culture or white privilege, you can really feel discouraged. It feels like progress is so slow and the problem is overwhelming.
If you’re feeling that way, take a look at the path, know where your movement is at, and remember that it’s a journey. It helps to look at what begat your issue. It’s almost certainly the child of another issue that successfully walked the path of change. We may have a long way to go on rape culture or the black lives matter movement, but we’ve also come a long way. We wouldn’t be talking about rape culture if we hadn’t first won in the feminist movement. We wouldn’t be talking about black lives matter if we hadn’t first won in the civil rights movement.
We’re on the path and we’ll get there. I remember telling my children six years ago that they would see gay marriage in their lifetimes–I never thought it would happen before they became adults. Change does happen. In the meantime, I’m proud to be on the journey with so many you!