Its the System Stupid!

When thinking about change for communities, it’s easy to place the blame for lack of interest, energy or will at the feet of the community members themselves. As we explored last week, it can seem to boil down to a lack of hope. The community just needs to recognise its need for the change you are pushing so hard and the resistance will just melt away. The other party often blamed for lack of progress, direction or purpose is the organiser themselves. If only I had done things quicker / harder / better, the community would have seen the light and taken on board change with enthusiasm and persistence. However today I want to explore a third player in the mix – the environment!

Common Sense in the Household by joshandlucinda CC FlickrLooking beyond the immediate

Whatever change you are working toward, however community-led and bottom-up the direction, the setting for the change is a critical factor. There are many factors that make a community ready to take the plunge and many that make it quite impossible for citizens to move one finger in the ‘right’ direction. Paying attention to the environment is a critical part of every change exercise but many organisers forget more than the most obvious barriers to change.

Most powerful of all factors is of course ‘common sense’. When organisers explore real change-making – change that threatens interests and shifts power – we always come up against ‘the way things are done round here’ or ‘what makes sense’. Technically called hegemony, this is the world of legitimised attitudes and norms serving the elite’s agenda and holding the rest of us subordinate and powerless. When hegemony is working, whole communities consent freely to their own exclusion and oppression, believing the ‘truths’ presented by the mainstream media, the state and the financial-commercial world.

Twister! What a Game! by absolut xman CC FlickrCountering hegemony in groups

Of course a key role for any community organiser is to build the hope of their group that change is possible and the status quo can be overcome. If you act together, it is natural to feel les fear than if you are acting alone. People take courage and understanding from each other creating a ‘counter-hegemony’. People are essentially social and our whole social reality is made up of active groups, teams, organisations, gangs, associations and parties. One of the great hegemonic lies is that we are customers and consumers alone; in fact any significant change is brought into being by groups of active citizens acting in concert.

Participation creates joy. And confidence. And commitment. And accountability. And optimism. Working together in groups increases people’s resilience, their ability to bounce back from the challenges and set backs that litter the road to community empowerment. The ‘buffering effect of groups’ means that faced with similar problems individuals who are part of a group have a more positive outlook on their performance than others with out such support to their ego. With half decent leadership, group members can feel respected, safe and cared for – and deliver change much more effectively.

Recycle - get this by practicalowl CC FlickrMaking it Fit

But the environment can also make change easier in other ways. Some change is hard going, inconvenient and tiresome – like recycling used to be. But by making the change simple, undemanding and most important a good fit with your lifestyle, you are more likely to make the change and sustain it long-term. By accepting mixed recycling, offering weekly pick-ups and delivering large bins to every door, recycling has become significantly easier. Fewer steps and less decision-making leads to easier adoption of any change. As organisers, we learn the detail of community members’ lives and so can help to shape change that fits the rhythms and routines of these specific lives, rather than some general overall system.

Some changes are desirable on many fronts but just too expensive for most people (the early and late majorities) to adopt. And expense can be in terms of money yes but also in time, effort or levels of control. Reducing the cost can make a tangible difference when the support of the majority is at stake rather than just the early adopters. Thinking through the real costs to a young family or an elderly carer of adopting your change will help you to see where the costs are weighted and how you might reinvent it to make its adoption less costly.

Make it harder not to adopt

The opposite is also the case. In some sense, making the ‘negative’ behaviour more expensive or more complex, more humiliating or more time-consuming lowers the cost of the ‘positive’ behaviour in a different way. The ‘price elasticity of demand’ is well studied in economics but essentially all human behaviour is open to being decreased if it costs more. However human action is also always seeking to defend our freedoms to choose and hence resistance occurs when costs rise inordinately.

CCTV camera by Mike_fleming CC FlickrIn London, there are generally assumed to be over 500,000 CCTV cameras installed in public places. This level of surveillance has a significant impact on every human being but especially on those who aim to act illegally and those who are acting legally against the elite who control many London CCTV cameras. Such efforts at widespread citizen monitoring seek to thwart ‘bad’ behaviour, making it more difficult to commit crime or express dissent. In a similar way, handing out vouchers to asylum seekers only redeemable for food at certain shops meant that resistance to the scheme was much intensified as it left innocent and vulnerable people humiliated and even further controlled.

Testing your ideas about change

Much effort is put into changing people’s behaviour and often we focus on the effort put in or the reception in the community. I have tried to show here that the context of the change is at least as important as the way the change is framed and the readiness of the audience. In thinking through the way in which the environment can be adjusted to help the change to be adopted more easily or to resist the negative alternatives, we have begun to touch on the need for what is grandly called a ‘Theory of Change’. Such a theory is a hypothesis that links together the steps or actions into a chain of related ‘if-then’s’. It lays out in simple terms how the group believes it can bring about the change it aims to achieve, and allows each step on the road to be scrutinised and later tested.

Livestock and Fish value chain outcomes in a theory of change group product by ILRI CC FlickrIf we are not clear ourselves about the route we are on, then we can so easily take a wrong path and end up somewhere other than we intended. Thinking through how you expect things to go and how each action you take will lead to the next stage is hard work but worthwhile for any process of change. Taking into account the wider context as well as your own efforts and those of your friends and enemies all means you are better prepared for challenge on the way. And when things work out differently, you can return to your theory of change to amend it for the next time.

Next time: Reinventing the change allows it to become better for different audiences in your community. Sticky solutions need you to be ever reinventing!


Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.

Margaret Ledwith (2011) Community development: a critical approach (2nd edition) Policy Press This foundational text book offers an excellent introduction to Gramsci’s work and especially his concept of hegemony in Chapter 6: The Power of Ideas

Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in your Community (2007) is a practical guide to organising built on the
author’s experience in New York

Roman Krznaric (2007) How Change Happens: Interdisciplinary Perspectives for Human Development Oxfam Download from Oxfam Policy and Practice – fascinating account of the theories of change in different fields of human enquiry – highly recommended

Catherine Crystal Foster and Justin Louie (2010) Evaluating Community Organizing Centre for Evaluation Innovation Download from

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