From chaos to ecosystem: A tool for social change
Originally published at https://thickpress.medium.com on October 14, 2021.
Threats to democracy, a pandemic that highlights the need for better-distributed resources, police brutality, “racial reckoning,” violence against immigrants, fires & floods & heat domes. . .this is a moment of great intensity. For some, it’s been a time of “waking up.” For those who “woke up” a long time ago, it’s been a time of overwhelm or even burnout coupled with hope that social transformation is on the horizon. We at Thick Press, an experimental publishing practice organized around care, believe that important conversations about the real work of social transformation often get overshadowed by all the noise related to hashtag activism, cancel culture, purity politics, and anti-anti-racism. So we focus instead on questions like: What is going on right now in various social change ecosystems? And: How can we harness and sustain the energy of the newly woke — and keep supporting existing social change efforts? Those are the themes driving this conversation between Erin Segal, our publisher, and our newest collaborator, Deepa Iyer, a writer and lawyer who has worked in nonprofit and movement spaces for over 20 years and who recently created the Social Change Ecosystem framework.
ERIN: Let’s start with the story behind your framework. What is it and how does it relate to the challenges of this particular moment?
DEEPA: The framework is a resource for anyone who wants to do their social change work more effectively, in ways that are aligned with their core values and in service to their broader communities and ecosystems. It identifies ten roles that people often show up in (such as weaver, builder, and storyteller) when they are responding to crises, participating in social change movements, or organizing collectively to advance a campaign or a cause. I have been thinking about it for some time now, and it has evolved into its current iteration over the course of five years. When I left an executive director job after 10 years, I felt quite lost and didn’t know where or how I could continue my social change work without a specific job title. This began the journey of understanding that I should reconnect with my core values, and identify how I could support the ecosystems I cared about in a more intentional manner. Then, during the early years of the Trump Administration, I found myself on a seesaw of numbness and outrage in response to the barrage of attacks on immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and queer/trans community members. That’s when I began to identify the roles that people and organizations played in responding to the many crises since the 2016 election. During those years, as well as during the uprisings of 2020 and the pandemic, the framework has become a tool to center and anchor people in their values, roles, and ecosystems when responding to moments of crisis and opportunity.
ERIN: Can you talk a little bit about how the framework has resonated with people who, like you, have been responding to moments of crisis and opportunity for many years?
DEEPA: While people who are new to social change find the resource to be useful, so do those who have been part of movements for a long time. That’s because seasoned activists also feel lost and confused at times, or might experience burnout as a result of direct or vicarious trauma, or might want to reach for a different role than one they have played consistently. In these instances, the framework can help us assess the impact of the roles we play on our psyches, bodies and spirits, and identify different strategies and paths that can sustain our activism for the long run.
Erin: One of the things I’ve noticed in recent books about liberation work — for example, from Mariame Kaba and Dean Spade — is the idea of a decentered self who is part of a larger, longer struggle. Like, it’s not about you. Julie [Cho, Thick Press creative director] and I have talked a lot about how much this idea appeals to us, yet how difficult it is for us to truly embrace it because, like everyone, we are self-centered! How does your framework relate to both the need to decenter the self, and the challenges involved in doing so?
DEEPA: While it’s important not to center ourselves as part of larger campaigns and causes, it’s important to come into spaces with a clearer sense of how we are showing up and why. That is, we can get curious about our motivations, intentions, skills, areas for growth, and reasons for engagement. We could ask ourselves: how can I be of service to a campaign or cause that I care about? How can I utilize my strengths and skills to advance the broader vision of the community I’m part of? Who am I accountable to? Am I taking time to reflect on how I show up and how I’m being perceived?
ERIN: As a social worker, I’ve been frustrated by the divide between those who work in the context of traditional nonprofit organizations and those (mutual aid organizers, people in liberation movements) whose work is more anti-establishment. I wish the social transformation tent could be bigger. Is this something you see, too? Does your framework offer any new modes for collaboration?
DEEPA: The framework offers possibilities for various types of ecosystems to collaborate, rather than to be in competition with one another. It invites us to think about social change through the lens of solidarity. We are often forced into silos when we do social change work — and that really is the antithesis of collective impact.
For example, in response to the pandemic, we saw how mutual aid groups played the roles of a frontline responder and builder to address community needs. At the same time, we saw nonprofit organizations led by people of color play the role of a disrupter to push government agencies to create translated services and information about the pandemic. We saw people play the role of a storyteller to document the effects of the pandemic on vulnerable communities, and the role of a healer to hold space for the impact on our mental health.
ERIN: Similar to the last question, when it comes to social change, there are so many different ideologies floating around, so many different definitions of “social justice.” In your work, how do you create a big tent, without risking co-optation?
DEEPA: I really do believe that when we are in right relationship with our values, when we are connected to like-minded ecosystems of people and groups, and when we are confident about the roles we can play, there is less of a chance that we come up against co-optation, competition, and destructive forms of conflict.
ERIN: Can you say more about what it means to be in “right relationship” with your values? And how to get there?
DEEPA: First, on values: we all use certain concepts as shorthand to describe our enduring values, like equity, solidarity, or justice. But what do these concepts really mean in the work before us, in the face of a community crisis? Why do we hold certain values as core and central to who we are and how we approach the world? The framework invites us to get clearer about what we mean by our core values — as people or organizations or movements.
Second, on being in “right relationship”: this is a way that indigenous communities have long described that feeling of alignment you get when your actions, words, and what’s in your heart all line up. The framework asks us to ponder whether the role we are playing is in right relationship with our values — for example, if we believe in liberation, then how does our role reflect that value? Are we sharing stories about liberation? Are we disrupting systems that oppose liberation? Are we bringing others along to believe in our vision of liberation? In my own experience, this is an iterative process, a constant journey of trying, assessing, and redirecting.
ERIN: What about people who care about social justice, but spend the bulk of their time on other work? What can they do right now beyond reading consciousness-raising nonfiction books? Does the framework have something to offer them?
DEEPA: We are all on a learning journey but at some point, we need people to take action too! And that’s where the framework could be helpful. I’ve worked with many people who have been catalyzed by the 2020 uprisings and the pandemic, people who feel like they are ready to become more involved even if they have other full-time jobs. For some people, like a young woman at a global tech company who reached out to me, this means figuring out how a particular role can be integrated into their day-to-day work. For example, this person decided to utilize the role of a weaver and storyteller to bring people of color at the company together to have conversations and take action steps around racial equity.
The framework won’t necessarily tell you what to do because that depends on context, but it will give you the on-ramp to social activism.
ERIN: I’ve come to feel pretty skeptical about the concept of allyship. It often feels so performative and hypocritical. I like how you use the concept of being a co-conspirator. Can you say more about this? Any other thoughts you might have about solidarity based on your discussions about social justice roles?
DEEPA: Part of my work at the Building Movement Project is to provide tools and resources around how we build up our solidarity practices as individuals and organizations. We use the term co-conspirator, which is utilized in Black liberation struggles, to describe someone who is deeply and personally invested in a broader cause to the point that they are also ready to utilize their power, positions and privileges as needed. For example: if you are interested in supporting a group of undocumented students on campus but you have citizenship privilege, you might think about the following ways of being a co-conspirator. First, what’s in it for you and your community when the undocumented students organize for full benefits on campus? Simply caring about the issue because you’ve read about it, or you’re progressive, or you go to rallies makes you a good ally. But to be a co-conspirator, you also know why it’s important to you, a citizen. You know that your life will be better as well when people aren’t forced to drive without licenses or to work for subpar pay. Once that clicks into place, what would be an action step? For an ally, it might be to show up at a campus rally. For a co-conspirator, it would mean building a relationship with the student group and offering to use your privilege and access to advance their goals — perhaps by organizing a meeting with high-level school administrators and then getting out of the way.
ERIN: Julie and I are both interested in the idea of utopian freedom dreams as a way to fuel imagination and nurture those who struggle for liberation. In working with your framework, has this come up at all?
DEEPA: Perhaps it has but not in that language. People often say that the framework frees them to think beyond the silos and confines of their job titles and their organizational hierarchies. Young people say that the framework enables them to think about being visionaries when often, we reserve that role for elders. People who have been called to play a certain role over and over say that the framework invites them to consider what more they have to offer. In these ways, the framework can be a liberating experience for many of us, and when we ourselves are connected to that sense of freedom, it spurs us to create that same experience collectively.