Identify--and Scale Up--Your Areas of Influence

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

June, 2020

In September of 2018  we posted a video in the Frontiers Seminar with this same title as this post that discussed how one can identify how one can "make a difference" and how one can "scale up" individual actions to have a greater effect.  That video is still very much relevant now, but I thought a few notes about how it relates to current times would be helpful.



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


The video starts out by saying "When you're concerned or upset about something, don't just scream and complain, although that sometimes feels good. Do something constructive!" 

This advice seems particularly relevant now.  Many people are just screaming—literally or figurately—protesting, pulling down statues, posting statements of anger on social media. But many have little concern, it seems, about how those actions will translate into real change.  I remember reading an editorial recently (that sadly, I cannot find now) that said that "rage is not a theory of change."  That is true.  A theory of change is a notion about how changes happens.  If I do X, Y will happen. Do people really think that be marching in the street, racism will end?  Do they think it will end if they get rid of the police? If so, through what chain of events do they think that it will happen? Is that chain of events realistic? If it isn't, we need to try harder to imagine and then follow a more promising "theory of change." 

Nonviolent direct action has been shown in many instances (think, for instance, of Martin Luther King and Gandhi) to have a powerful effect.  And so it appears that might be true again now.  The protests after the George Floyd killings were massive—and after the first few days of chaos, mostly nonviolent.  And they appear, perhaps, to be having an effect.  Quite a few cities are looking harder at their police departments' training, deployment, tactics, and policy.  Businesses are promising to be more attuned to (and to fix) structural racism.  So protesting—particularly with LOTS and LOTS of other people can be constructive and can create enormous pressure for positive change.  The big question Is whether it produces sustainable effective change or whether it just causes people to go through the motions of making changes until things "cool down," after which time they just "go back to normal."

But I would argue that we need to do more than protest and pull down statues.  I agree with NYTimes columnist David Brooks who wrote on June 25, 2020

"Corporations are happy to adopt some woke symbols and hold a few consciousness-raising seminars and go on their merry way.

How exactly is all this cultural agitation going to lead to legislation that will decrease income disparities, create better housing policies or tackle our other big problems?


Worse, this method has no theory of politics. ... How exactly is all this cultural agitation going to lead to legislation that will decrease income disparities, create better housing policies or tackle the big challenges that I listed above?   That part is never spelled out. In fact, the Sturm und Drang [Brooks' reference to the "call out culture"] makes political work harder. You can’t purify your way to a governing majority. (David Brooks, "America Is Facing 5 Epic Crises All at Once: This is not the time to obsess about symbolism" New York Times, June 25, 2020)

I would add to Brooks' argument that the problem with the protests—and the responses to the protests—are that they are still oversimplifying the problem.

The problem with the protests—and the responses to the protests—are that they are still oversimplifying the problem.  The problem is much bigger than racist police.

They are defining the problem as "racist police" and the solution most often heard is "defund the police!" We are getting a preview of what that might look like in Minneapolis right now (the site of the George Floyd killing) which has again descended into disturbing levels of violence.  Some observers quoted in the Washington Post article assert that the police have "stepped back from their job."  While the police deny doing so, one could understand why they might be tempted to do so, when their very existence has been so attacked, and when many people say that they would refuse to call the police anyway when lawlessness occured.  

The problem, of course, is much bigger than the police.  It is the social and the political structures that the police work in.  It is the structural racism that has led to the despair and hopelessness that has fueled gangs, drugs, and the school-to-prison pipeline. It is the continual barrage of hate, fear, and anger that has been exploding on social media—leading many to act on that hate, fear, and anger in their families and on the streets. Chants to "defund the police" address none of that. As Brooks suggested, they actually make the job of addressing those issues much harder—look at what is happening in Minneapolis now. 

So when we go out and march, we should be thinking of what we are really marching about.  What message do we want to send? What solutions do we want to advocate?

To answer such questions, we need to think about the complexities of what is going on, perhaps even by trying some conflict mapping, as is illustrated in the "Areas of Influence" video, and then think about what you can do beyond marching to real have an impact on some of those areas that are "ripe for change."

We need to think about the complexities of what is going on, where our areas of influence are, and how we can scale up our influence to reach (and go over) the tipping point.

Another idea in the "Areas of Influence" video is that of a "tipping point."  We might, indeed, be at or close to a "tipping point" now, when society is actually ready for significant change.  We were hoping this was true when it came to our response to COVID-19.  That, indeed, was the point of the first few posts in this blog when we and several others said that we were "at a crossroads."  A crossroads is, in a sense, a tipping point. We can tip in a positive direction and walk downhill toward a more desirable future. Or, we can tip the other way and find ourselves falling back into the same old destructive habits. Sadly, so far, it looks as if we have backed away from the tipping point, and are going back down our divisive, polarized road when it comes to COVID-19 response.

Might the response to the George Floyd killing and aftermath be different?  Is this a positive tipping point?  Time will tell, but in the meantime, figuring out how to act politically in the most effective possible ways—taking actions that get you closer to where you want to be instead of farther away—is essential.