There’s A Change A-Comin’, or Is There

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source : Possibilitator, March 5, 2017

One of the surprise results of the November election has been the stimulation of previously docile citizens to engage with the political and policy gears of our nation. I have attended many organizational meeting of groups I’ve been active with for some time, where attendance has doubled or more, seemingly overnight. The newcomers say something like, “I’ve been sitting quietly for too long and I now need to become active.”

With this onslaught of participation organizations, as well as the newly engaged citizens, seek to focus their energies to make a difference. Even for seeming veterans of grassroots, civil society efforts that call for making a difference has been re-energized. But a fundamental question is “How Change Happens”.  This happens to be the title of a new book by Duncan Green, published late last year by Oxford University Press and Oxfam. Green has been active in global development work for decades, most recently with Oxfam. He is a student and practitioner trying to understand what really works! This is written for both citizens and scholars of development in a very readable but well referenced work.

Cover for 

How Change Happens

What he has learned and shared in this insightful book is what he calls a “power and systems approach” (PSA). This is an approach that doesn’t put all of its eggs in a single basket or look for the one sure-fire linear approach to success. It assumes a deeper level of complexity in the systems one is trying to change and therefore the need for curiosity, humility, and reflexivity.

My own experience, not nearly as deeply rooted as Green’s, has been increasingly recognizing that reality. At its base is a recognition that we cannot control all the elements of a system, nor predict them all with any certainty. Green gives example after example of how the unexpected arrives and either thwarts or expedites the desired change of the best laid plans.

Green encourages curiosity, study, reflection, and willingness for trial and error at small enough scales that one doesn’t become trapped with a singular approach. He encourages the effort to understand the system. Where does the power lie? How does one learn to ‘dance with the system’, a recognition of the work of the late systems theorist Donella Meadows. He also looks at the importance of addressing social norms, the role and nature of good leadership, the opportunities and constraints of working through political parties and electoral politics, the concept of positive deviance,and the power of advocacy. Some very brief hints of his thoughts are excerpted below.

  •       Tone and language matter too. I find that a combination of tactical self-deprecation and humor can disarm critics expecting a bout of self-righteous NGO finger-wagging. (p.218)
  •      A power analysis disaggregates power, exploring the role of ‘power within’ (empowering individuals to become more active), ‘power with’ (collective organization), or ‘power to’ (action of individuals and organizations). That helps move the focus to those people who are often excluded from decision making (women, poor communities, indigenous groups, those living with disabilities) and whose empowerment often lies at the heart of long-term change. (p.243)
  •       Since no amount of upfront analysis will enable us to predict the erratic behavior of a complex system, a PSA interweaves thought and action, learning and adapting as we go. (p.245)

How Change Happens won’t give veteran or rookie citizen activist a silver bullet approach to follow. But the analysis he shares should help situate one’s expectations for success in a more realistic mode. This is the kind of necessary reflection and analysis that is important for long-term change to occur. It provides an equal dose of long-term nourishment for activists to remain in the struggle for a better world for the long haul.


Those interested in following Green’s thinking along this and other issues of human social development can read his blog, From Poverty to Power at Oxfam’s blog site. Or visit the website created around this book with access to parts of the book and links to other resources.



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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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