In this blog, Rachel Krengel, Senior Consultant at the Social Change Agency, reflects on learning from Comic Relief’s Change Makers programme. NPC and the Social Change Agency have been providing funder plus support to the organisations that have received funding from the programme.
Comic Relief’s Change Makers programme is funding 20 new initiatives, involving 45 organisations, over the next five years. The cohort are all change makers— people who seek to create lasting social change in the areas that they work in. This work is not simply aiming to offer individual solutions (though many of them do that too), but to create innovative solutions to the problems affecting marginalised groups across the UK. Changing the system that causes those problems in the first place. Work like this is exciting, and fascinating but it’s also slow, complex, and messy.
I spent many years as an activist of one type or another, working as part of community and activist networks to try and make change. I’ve seen social change work done extraordinarily well over the years and I’ve also seen it done not quite so well. I’ve worked for the Social Change Agency for over three years, supporting all kinds of changemakers to build movements, understand systems, and do this work in a way that is sustainable, collaborative, and healthy. This year I’ve had the immense privilege of getting to know some of Change Maker projects and provided coaching, training, and facilitation support to help them with their work. Working with the Change Maker cohort has reminded me of my favourite quote about social change:
You keep plugging away – that’s the way social change takes place. That’s the way every social change in history has taken place: by a lot of people, who nobody ever heard of, doing work.
Many of the Change Maker cohort have been funded to start a new project alongside their existing work. Often the projects are being pushed forward by one or two team members who, with the most supportive team in the world, can struggle with isolation. This is a common problem with social change work. However, it can be mitigated through providing coaching and mentorship, supportive, intentional line management and supervision, or simply finding ways to involve the wider team in the project. The emphasis here is on senior staff and managers to approach the working environment of the solo change makers with openness, empathy, and care. This will allow them to really benefit from the agility that is offered by a small team and grow as individual change makers, without completely losing the benefit of other perspectives, ideas, and experiences. The work of change makers can move quickly, being pushed forward by those best placed to do so, but still bringing the wider organisation with them.
Another major challenge of these types of projects is how deeply grounded they are in relationships. A lot of this work is aims to bring stakeholders together in very different ways, finding audiences in new communities and bringing different sectors together to create something new. Coalition working is central to creating lasting change, but it’s hard. People who make change for a living do it because they care about things. When you’re motivated by passion, your work and your personal values become deeply intertwined. If you’re lucky, you find a place to work that matches those values closely enough to be comfortable and uncompromising, and that can make working with a different organisation very challenging. Coalitions should be difficult; the value comes from meeting with organisations with different strengths, methodologies, and cultures, to try to meet in the middle. If you’re not tearing your hair out occasionally, your coalition probably isn’t broad enough. If you get it right, it can be transformative. A coalition will be able to bring resources, relationships, and knowledge to the issue it’s working on without requiring smaller organisations to replicate effort.
Working in social change is a privilege many don’t get, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. Most people are underpaid and overworked, somehow simultaneously isolated and torn between twenty different people’s opinions and agendas. Every change in direction and every time something wasn’t done a month ago can leave you feeling as if you’ve failed. Not just yourself, but a whole movement. It’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re changing the world. This Change Maker cohort are trying to make changes that need to be made. Their work is unbelievably important to the members of the communities directly affected, but it benefits everyone. A world with fewer structural barriers in the way of housing, health, education, and safety can only make us all richer. Having gotten to know some of these brilliant people, I’m optimistic for that world. Noam Chomsky was right, it’s not hero activists or watershed events that make lasting change. Every battle that has ever been won in the name of liberation, justice, or care has been accomplished by people quietly plugging away and doing the work until one day, together, they win.