Social change means…uh…umm….well…

It seems as though I was just here at the airport last week. Oh wait I was. This time I’m heading off to the West Bank and Gaza for a week, trying to find out how UNRWA schools are integrating human rights in their curriculum. UNRWA is the UN agency for Palestine refugees. Last week it was a visit to Jordan and Lebanon, and now the West Bank and Gaza. The only other area where UNRWA operates is Syria, and it’s safe to say I will not be travelling there anytime soon. 

I spent the morning at my old college, John Abbott, over in the western part of Montreal today. My organization Equitas is hosting about 100 human rights defenders for a three-week program. We’ve been doing it for 32 years now, and this will be my tenth and final International Human Rights Training Program. 

I went into one of the classrooms to discuss what “social change” means, and I’m glad I did. Social change is becoming one of those catchy development terms that loads of people are using without bothering to think what it actually means. This bugs me. “Capacity building” also gets my goat, as does “empower” when overused. Anyway, I think that if you can’t explain what you mean by social change, don’t go saying your work is about social change. So we took the time to define it. I thank my friend Bonnie for helping me clarify my own thinking in her post.

The approach was one in which small groups of participants sat down together and brainstormed what social change meant. Four groups came up with plenty to write about in ten minutes. Common terms were surfacing: democracy, personal change, governments changing, equality between men and women, change of values and beliefs, transformation, and so on. So far so good.

What we did next was to examine more specifically some realistic changes that could take place in two different target sectors, namely family and governments. The participants in the other six groups looked at INGOs, civil society, educational institutions, media, the general public, and businesses. Each group identified changes that could take place within 1) individuals and 2) their organizations or groups. For example, the government group looked at changes among civil servants and their institutions.

A lot of rich discussion ensued, and participants got the opportunity to provide feedback to each other by posting their results on an online community. I won’t share everything that was developed by the groups, but here are a couple of examples of changes they identified:

  • Among government institutions: Awareness and understanding on human rights and equality in the institution. ensuring the integration of human rights in the institution policies and implementation of human rights in practice and the legal consequences.
  • Among individual family members: – Equal participation in decision making i.e. share information, women and children have voices in discussions and decision making.
The activity was a first step at deconstructing our understanding of “social change.” Examining changes among different sectors is only the beginning. Participants mapped out individual and organizational/group changes, but this begs further questions: how do individuals transfer knowledge, skills, practices, beliefs, attitudes, and values among each other? When is there enough “critical mass” of individual changes to realize that these changes become organizational or belonging to a group? And what of the interconnectedness between the various sectors? And what are the roles that human rights defenders play in ensuring that true, measurable, definable, realistic, positive social change takes place?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s