Martin Luther King Jr said it best. ““Tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
This is one of many quotes MLK has about the lie of incremental change. And yet today, more than 50 years later, I still hear the words in every government office, in boardrooms and staff meetings, in the halls of academia and the apologetic coffee shop cliques – ‘You can’t make big changes. We are making a difference, little by little’.
The evidence suggests otherwise. We are today living in a world where the gap between rich and poor makes 1963 seem like a dream of equity; where police violence against the citizenry is at an all time high; where for profit prisons churn out checks for big corporations while robbing generations of poor children of their fathers. How’s that incremental change working out?
The truth of the matter is that we CAN make big changes, but we can’t make them and expect those currently reaping the rewards of hegemonic patriarchy to be happy about it. We cannot make them and keep everyone comfortable. We cannot make them POLITIC. But we can make them. Making big changes necessitates being prepared to think deeply and with bravery about what it means to really believe in something. Like equity, or environmental justice.
We make big changes by having big ideas, and by having difficult conversations. When we approach change as the necessary precursor to achieving those things we most idealize, and then commit to the hard work of CHANGING OURSELVES and challenging our own perceptions of what is and what is not possible, we begin to tread a path towards a better world.
It will not be easy. Social and economic systems, like all systems, are full of reinforcing feedback loops that stymie attempts to radically alter the shape and flow of information and power. Success to the successful is perhaps the most powerful: those persons and classes of persons who have traditionally held political and social power tend to shape policies and rules that further entrench their own wealth and status. A young white man born in the Hamptons, for instance, is astronomically more likely to achieve societal ‘success’ than a Latina woman born in South Central Los Angeles. Not because he is smarter, or in any way intrinsically more capable, but because he will be the recipient of the best schools, adequate nutrition, and opportunities that our Latina simply will never see.
Within our organizations, the systems traps are the same. Those who play politic, who do not rock the boat, and who understand the unstated social hierarchies will tend to rise in position, because the WAY they work is understood and accepted by those above them. People who come in and are brimming with radical new ideas, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, often do not ‘play the game’ correctly. Fresh ideas, and differing perspectives, are lost because these people rarely benefit from the social workplace norms that come naturally to those accustomed to the dominant paradigm.
So how to we make big, systemic changes? By knowingly bringing new perspectives into the rooms where decisions are made, by respecting dissent, and by fostering organizational culture that is open to conflict and growth. We get to this place by being more mindful of the unspoken norms which turn away difference and change, and by being intentional in our workplace relationships. Changes in hiring practices, org structures, performance metrics, and management methodologies are all in order – and all come directly from our choices in honoring difference and working together.
Through compassionate, mindful workplaces, we can change the world. TODAY. Before it’s too late.