Where's the impact? Five principles for re-imagining social justice (convenings)

In the last month, I attended a handful of faith-based conferences and convenings focused on social change, and they left me puzzling over this question: Why aren't we talking about impact?

I sat through numerous hugely inspiring calls to social justice, full of applause lines for already largely, if not wholly, converted audiences. Such inspiration is, of course, important for those working in the trenches everyday to effect change. We all need encouragement and rallying cries that remind us why we do what we do. And there is always thinking that can challenge and push us even further beyond our comfort zones on systemic issues of racism, sexism, inequality, and more. I am deeply grateful for those who have and use the gifts of moral inspiration and prophetic voice. They have always inspired me along, and kept me committed to, a path of seeking to enable a more just and equitable world.

And it's not enough.

I long to applaud not the calls to justice or even efforts at justice, but rather the evidence that our efforts are actually bringing about change. I've been participating in social justice convenings for twenty years, and while the conversations evolve to some extent based on the cultural moment, we're having the same conversations we had at least twenty years ago about problems like economic inequality. Of course, social change is not a fast process, and complex social issues don't get solved in a generation, and I know some will say "we're called to be faithful, not successful." But if we're not making progress, what are we doing?

Some of the convenings I attended were of networks decades old, yet I heard very little serious conversation about what has been accomplished over those years, what hasn't and why, what has been learned, what solutions are working, where there is new momentum for real change. I always leave wishing that we as faith communities could figure out how to marry our compelling moral imagination and authentic values with some of the rigor of the academic sector and entrepreneurship of the business sector. Why are we so much more comfortable talking injustice than we are talking solutions and impact? Why does it feel like we're more in our element when we're fighting against something than when we're building something?

In collaboration with secular society, faith communities have built a lot throughout history - some of the world's top schools, universities, and hospitals; social welfare systems; transformative social movements; global citizen sector organizations; and more. We are hugely powerful. Maybe we don't feel powerful, maybe we've lost some of that power, maybe we're uncomfortable with that power, I'm not sure. But at least in the progressive faith circles I'm familiar with, the stance is often defensive - we're David to the Goliath of systemic injustice. And maybe we are, but the truth about David is that he saw the problem from a different perspective than others, recognizing that Goliath wasn’t actually so powerful, allowing him to innovate a creative solution to it. Which is exactly what many people and institutions of faith are doing all over the world. But you wouldn't know it when we get together. And from the side conversations I've had at all of these convenings, I don't think I'm alone. I think people are deeply hungry for new ideas, approaches and solutions.

Convenings are a precious opportunity to be in fellowship with others and to spark collaboration. So we should design accordingly. Take the time needed to talk about the problems and inspire moral imagination, but then move quickly to solutions and impact. I am by no means an expert in conference organizing and truly admire those who are, as planning for effective encounter is an essential art in the work of social change. And of course there are many objectives for convening; it isn't always about what impact we're having. But for those of us trying to create change, let me propose these five principles to consider in our social change convening, whether in the form of conferences, other meetings, or just generally how we come together to take action in the world. 

  1. Apply a solutions lens. If we're organizing a convening, let's make at least 60 percent of our presenters people who have a promising new idea or intervention to talk about. Or an old intervention with compelling data and stories to show how it's creating impact.

    If we're leading social change action, let's ask the tough questions as to whether the action is creating impact and getting us closer to solving the problem. Let's also ask whether there are existing solutions somewhere that are working that we can help spread.

  2. Advance collective learning. People coming together creates a fantastic opportunity to aggregate our collective learning. Yet we rarely design for this. When we have a meeting full of practitioners, that's a lot of learning in the room. We can find better ways to surface and aggregate that learning for the benefit of all.

    This also means that when we are taking action in the world, we need to deliberately capture our learning. This will make us better at what we do and make our time with others more effective.

  3. Include other “tribes.” New ideas emerge from diverse viewpoints. If we're always talking in our own echo chamber, we're likely to get stuck. Who are we afraid to invite to our meetings? That's probably who we should invite.

    Who are we afraid to reach out to in our work? That's probably who we should talk to.

  4. Cultivate loads of space for collaborative problem-solving and design. For the love of all things sacred, let's end the tyranny of the plenary. Plenaries play an important role, but they are not where the real work happens. Let's make at least 80 percent of our convenings breakout sessions. And design at least 50 percent of those breakout sessions to be interactive and collaborative, not just panels with ten minutes for questions. And actually design networking spaces that work, not just put people in a room with food where most will gravitate toward those they already know.

    In our own day-to-day work, let's carve out time for relationship-building across faith traditions, organizations, and sectors. And then seek to grow from relationship-building to learning together to designing new ideas and initiatives together. Not much happens without effective collaboration.

  5. Measure impact. How do we know if we're making progress if we don't actually try to measure it? Social impact measurement is a field unto itself, and one with its share of challenges. But we should not shy away from it. We should apply the discipline to our convenings - what are the goals, and how will we know if we've achieved them?

    But even more so, we should apply it to our daily work. And not just counting numbers of people served, but going deeper to understand whether what we're doing is moving the needle on systemic change.

What would you add to this list?

Let's decide that when we gather twenty years from now, we will be having a different conversation. One where we celebrate real progress on achieving justice and equality for all people, identify where we're still falling short, and have an abundance of new ideas to propel us forward in faith, hope, and success.

Author: Danielle Goldstone