Moving From Outrage to Real Change

Welcome to the movement. Many have been here before, and many, many more are here now, aware and active. It is wonderful to have so many involved now who demand change, and who now see the problem as their problem. What we all need to remember is that this is going to take far more than a protest to make real change happen. Let’s prepare ourselves and our new allies (and those who are not yet) for the road ahead. It will take persistence and absolute intolerance of a partial victory.

The last week in May saw the event that sparked outrage–George Floyd’s murder. That outrage sparked protests that reignited a movement. That movement has now sparked, for this generation, a change in how we see ourselves, our communities, and our country. That awareness has given rise to an initial set of massive reactions. The challenge is how to create the real change we are going after, and avoid the pitfalls of prior efforts in the 1960s and 1990s. How do we make sure our kids are not here, again, trying to make sense of this, again, and explaining to their kids why things are no different, again, in ten or twenty years?

I am privileged on many levels and fronts. I cannot comment legitimately or credibly about what it feels like to be a person of color– any color–despite living in a house with my wife and my children who can. One of the many things my privilege has afforded me is the ability to study, practice, and teach leadership and change for 30 years. While I don’t know the experience of racism, I do know what it will take to change culture on both small and large scale. My hope is that this contributes to collective and coordinated actions that will lead to real cultural, systemic, sustainable change, and the creation of the new normal aspired to, discussed, promised, and then denied for generations in America. 

The movement we are witnessing is powerful. Advocates my age say, “It just feels different this time.” It needs to be persistent, relentless, and unapologetic. We are energized, and we are facing hundreds of years of overt and covert, unconscious and conscious, decisions, policies, rules, laws, protections, and precedents that have created an interlocking, overlapping, reinforcing and self-sustaining system of inequality. This is what we are up against. It will not fall easily. It will bend, and then refuse to break, and try to snap back into position – unless we keep going at it again and again and again.  

What concerns me right now is whether the young people, of all races and backgrounds who have taken up this fight as their own, have the stamina, focus, and determination to stay with the fight long enough, and not get distracted or placated with easy symbolic wins. The determining factor as to whether this moment will be different is whether they will tolerate the “this too shall pass” attitude that has served the powerful few for a very long time. Because, if history is an indicator, this will be the strategy they employ to diffuse, distract, and then dismiss this effort yet again. So, if you are in, let’s go. 

Here are the key ingredients for leading real, systemic, sustainable, societal change to dismantle the edifice of racism brick-by-brick, policy-by-policy, law-by-law, decision-by-decision, and person-by-person: 

  1. Focus the Outrage 
  2. Model the right behavior 
  3. Expose the bad actors 
  4. Push for action 
  5. Replace the symbols 
  6. Acknowledge the early wins 
  7. Expect the backlash
  8. Keep expanding the circle 
  9. Change the rules 
  10. Don’t Let Up

While the ingredients are listed above, below is the recipe for creating the cultural change we are looking for. It is not a flash-in-the-pan approach. That approach lights up on the outside, but leaves the core cold. This is a sear-then-slow cook approach. One that captures the flash, and that makes sure we bring heat to the core. 

  1. Focus the OutrageOutrage is a powerful motivator. All great change efforts have their origin in an outrage for how things are in that moment and an unwillingness to continue tolerating the status quo. The key is to focus that outrage on the real things that matter. The Boston Tea Party that sparked the American Revolution was not just about the symptom that showed up in the price of tea, it was about taxation without representation. Black Lives Matter is not just about the symptom of police brutality. It is outrage at the larger institutional factors that let it, and all other unequal treatment, happen again and again and again.
  2. Model the right behavior – Outrage can get away from us. This is where poise and calm become weapons for change. Those that have no interest in change want to see their opponents as unhinged and out of control. That lets them focus on the behavior of the individuals instead of the changes in the system. It lets them make an enemy of the scary opponent. Stay calm. Stay poised. Don’t lose your cool. Anger and fear change the dynamic of engagement. Start modeling new rules of engagement in every interaction.
  3. Expose the bad actors – While we role model the right behaviors, we have to continue to show those who demonstrate the bad behaviors. This is not just to shame them in the moment, but to educate others as to the behaviors we will not tolerate and that we demand to change. This way we are working both sides of the coin–what to do and what not to do. Showing both makes the contrast much clearer on both sides. 
  4. Push for action – Actions are greater than words. While we are pushing for macro-level, systemic, transformational change, we also recognize that we need smaller, near-term actions along the way, never losing sight of the larger goal. Don’t settle for a seat at the table. Don’t be placated by the right words in front of the cameras. Ask people what they are going to do, not what they think or believe. Challenge people to act and call them out when they look at their calendars when the rest of us are looking at our watches. Push for changes to protocols, practices, and policies. While those may take time, push for the near-term action of simply stopping the worst behavior while we work to instill the best behavior.     

    Replace the symbols – Symbols show what matters. They signify belief, history, and accomplishment. They show what the culture values and whose values matter most. We are seeing symbols, like statues of Confederate Generals, come down. What we replace those symbols with matters. Statues are one symbol. Commendations, awards, certificates, and medals are all symbols of what matters and each officer that wears each medal on their dress uniform knows what each of those medals mean. We need to replace those that no longer align to the things that matter any longer and put in place those that do. Perhaps we need police medals for de-escalation and commendations for calling mental healthcare professionals or for turning in other officers who lie on a police reports.

  6. Acknowledge the early wins – When we do see progress, we have to make it public and show that we are making progress. Even those things that are not in our direct control that help us get where we want to go, need to be acknowledged and recognized. The injunction against using tear gas on peaceful protestors is progress (as horrifying as it is to write that sentence in 2020 in the USA). Short-term changes in response tactics and policies are progress. We need to recognize that as change and progress. We need to acknowledge that it is a change and it is in the right direction. If we don’t acknowledge it, then we break the reinforcement loop. We don’t let up but we don’t ignore that change has occurred. We need to see, feel, and experience progress to maintain momentum to larger, systemic change.
  7. Expect the backlash – Backlash will come in many forms. Initially we will see it overtly in the form of increased aggression, fear-mongering, and alleged innocence through guilt comparisons. We’ve already seen this from police unions in NYC. We will also see the cooler backlash in the form of stalling, delaying, analysis paralysis, conflating multiple issues, and rationalizing. That simply slows things down, diffuses the focus, and takes momentum away. It is the placebo effect of words, meetings, and activity without action. There will also be covert undermining that happens with policy changes made in conference rooms where no one is watching. It is the quiet repeal of protections. It is the unwinding of any progress made early on. Once we know to expect it, then we can spot it happening before it has a chance to be successful.
  8. Keep expanding the circle – Movements have a tipping point–the time when it goes from the few to the few more to enough to start real change. As we continue making progress, we need to expand the size of the group that believes what we believe and will help us achieve our shared goals. If we only talk to the already converted, then we will run out of steam. By inviting others to join us, to engage them in the effort as contributors, we build bench strength and reinforcements. What makes those later-comers join us will be different than what motivated the early leaders. Early on, people may be drawn to the movement by outrage, others may join out of guilt, others may come later from peer pressure, or through mandated educational programs in the workplace. It does not matter what moved them, only that they are moved.
  9. Change the rules – If you want real change, then change the rules. Changing the rules changes the expectations about what is acceptable and what is not. Changing the default from “No” to “Yes” is a very small act, but it makes a huge difference. For example, organ donorship in the US is less than 15% despite all the advertising. In countries that default people into organ donation and make them opt out of it, the participation rate is greater than 85%. Change the default, you change the expectations. Change the rules, you change the behavior. We need to focus on changing the rules and expectations. We need to look at the institutionalized elements that drive our behavior.
  10. Don’t Let Up – Outrage, momentum, and early wins start a movement. If that was all that was needed for systemic change we would have a much higher success rate than we do (two-thirds of all change efforts fail to achieve their desired results). We would also be thinner, healthier, more active, and look forward to our New Year’s Resolutions with more optimism. Research shows us that change requires sustained motivation, attention, resilience, and effort. Can we keep the protests in the streets going? Not sure. But that is not where this change will happen in real life. The rallies are a critical part of the effort. The negotiating table, the legislatures, the city council meetings, the board rooms, the HR policy setting committees, and the healthcare protocol review panels are some of the rooms where systemic change will happen. The Federal Government can impose standards and requirements–when it is functioning. This change will require local voices, local commitment, and local actions. We cannot be placated by the slogans, the press releases, and the obvious forced reforms of egregious acts of violence (not using chemical weapons on our own people peacefully exercising their First Amendment right, not using chokeholds in subduing suspects, not shooting fleeing suspects, etc.). We are pushing for law enforcement reform as one element. We are also fighting for equality, equity and justice in every other front from employment, to banking, to education, to healthcare… to everything.

Our institutions–government, healthcare, banking, corporations, and media–are not known for their abilities to change quickly. That is why we cannot stop at the first “no.” The “first no” is the reflex of almost any institution to almost any change. It is the first invitation to find a way to overcome it. Starting at the top is easiest. Get access to (or better yet, be in) that group, and you can move faster than trying to push the people from the bottom up. Any way you go about overcoming the barriers, just know, institutions are set up to inherently have barriers to change.   

“At first, you work hard to change the people. If that doesn’t work, then you change the people.” This is where voting is critical. We are seeing the importance of local leadership including city councils, mayors, police chiefs, governors, public health officials, producers, and casting agents in response to Black Lives Matter and in Coronavirus response. This is also true for legislative change. So much of that happens at the local levels. Who is leading locally matters. Vote. Spend your money with purpose. Empower people who take a stand for change by supporting them, their products, their services, and their efforts. Remove the ones who don’t. Election after election, purchase after purchase.

We want to seize this moment to make things happen. We also want to realize that the types of changes we are looking for are not quick, easy, or without resistance. Racism doesn’t go away, it just gets quiet. It has taken 400 years to get us to where we are. The apparatus, infrastructure, policies, practices, and prejudices will not fall quickly, easily, or without resistance. It is up to us, this time, to make sure we do the hard work, the sustained work, the detailed work, to course-correct the systems, protections, and institutionalized biases that have persisted for generations. 

We have momentum. We have the spark of absolute intolerance for how things are. We have the urgency of the many to move quickly. We have so much momentum right now. Things are different this time. Neutral is no longer OK. Let’s keep the pressure on, keep the cameras rolling, keep overcoming the backlash, keep working on all the vestiges of the old thinking that no longer serve us. 

There are so many more good people in our country. It is the invisible infrastructure, policies, algorithmic proxies (e.g., zipcode vs. race used in loan decisions), fears, and stereotypes that we are going after. It will take a lot of good people doing a lot of good work, in a lot of important fields to make this all happen as quickly as we can make it.  

Now that you know what to expect. Let’s keep after it.

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