October 2007

Barbara J. King


A Million Different Voices: Getting to Maybe

Bruce Springsteen rocks October with his new album, crashing open with chords of connection. In the first song "Radio Nowhere," he’s driving through the American night, and he seeks a thousand guitars, pounding drums, a million voices speaking in tongues -- he’s just tryin’ to make  a connection with you. As the song evolves, he shifts from I just want to hear some rhythm to I just want to feel your rhythm, and grabs hold of what we all want, to live and breathe the rhythm of another person held close. 

Getting to Maybe tackles this very same process on a bigger scale: how to connect with the ongoing processes underlying a complex social problem in order to shift from seeing them to feeling them and finally to changing them. How do you catalyze a million different voices, or even just ten or twenty or a hundred, to bring about serious social change? How do you make a tipping point happen, so as to make real inroads against poverty, street crime, the AIDS epidemic?

Getting to Maybe authors Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton use systems thinking to unleash a power for change as amp’ed up as any Springsteen song -- keen praise from a Jersey girl, a three-time Rising tour groupie, a loyal rocker who’s countin’ the days till the Radio Nowhere tour blazes through the States (yes, I scored tickets, for one of the DC shows). 

Getting to Maybe grabbed me by the throat and sent me to the land of hope and dreams. Its language of systems science is my language -- phase transitions, strange attractors, scalar invariance -- embedded in crystal-clear exploration of how understanding systems concepts can help social innovators. “This book does not promise success if you follow seven proven steps,” write Westley, Zimmerman, and Patton. “Instead, we’re about tipping the scales in favour of successful social innovations in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. Getting to maybe -- as our title suggests.”

Best of all, this trio shows how complex problems can be seen as opportunities rather than occasions for despair: “Times of great complexity,” they write, “offer the possibility of transformation.” Why? Because of emergence: when elements in a system (including people) interact, small actions can have cascading consequences; totally new and unpredictable processes may emerge; and change may begin to flow. 

Take the example of the economist Muhammad Yunus. Born in Bangladesh, Yunus attended college in the U.S., then returned home in 1972 when his country became independent. Within two years, many Bangladeshi were suffering not only from poverty but also from a great famine. Emerging from the cloistered university, Yunus began applied work on farming and irrigation, and to visit poor people. He met a woman, a maker of stools who earned two cents a day and could never hope to save any money, who revolutionized his perspective. Yunus created a micro-credit initiative that loaned small amounts of money to the poor, those who lives could be changed immeasurably by those small amounts.

Eventually, this project became the Grameen Bank, which, according to Getting to Maybe, provides small loans today to millions of people around the world. It works because it depends on local lending circles: the borrower’s local group acts as the insurance or back-up. As Westley et al. put it, “Part of the brilliance of the micro-credit movement was its recognition of normally invisible resources -- the social relationships in the borrowers’ communities.”

The stories in Getting to Maybe are gripping. We meet Canadian Mary Gordon, whose program Roots of Empathy combats the practice of bullying in the schools. As many parents of elementary- and middle-school-age kids come to know, bullies can bring relentless physical and emotional misery to a child’s days. Gordon’s ideas were novel: Bring babies in the classroom; allow kids who tend to bully to interact with them; stand back and watch what happens. According to Getting to Maybe, “For Gordon, this was all about power and changing the flow of power through changing relationships… Give children a chance to care for those weaker than themselves, and this will feed them, making them less starved for power and less in need of aggression and bullying.” Doesn’t this sound like a project well-intentioned but likely a) to go badly wrong with a baby caught in the middle, or b) to do not harm but no real good either? Think again. The data, both anecdotal and quantitative, show that “babies against bullies” (my phrase, not Gordon’s) reduces children’s aggressive behavior, including bullying, and even gives kids more insight into their own and others’ emotions.

In short, Gordon shifted a system. Sometimes it takes a collective to do that, in a kind of self-organizing process. The most compelling example here is Brazil’s grassroots movement to combat HIV/AIDS. As Getting to Maybe tells it, the World Bank had figured it out: only AIDS prevention, not treatment of those already infected, had to be the focus in Brazil, given the reality of wage income versus costs of medicine. Brazilians resisted, joined together, and shifted the system. They resisted the World Bank’s certainty, and found another way. They “used a controversial clause of the World Trade Organization charter that allows countries to violate patent laws in cases of national emergency,” and “insisted on the right to produce generic anti-retrovirals.” The country’s infection rate dropped dramatically. Getting to Maybe takes us through how the changes match up with principles of systems thinking: the self-organization, the emergence, and so on.
Getting to Maybe speaks plainly to those of us keen to make social change happen: connect, confront, collaborate. Connect with others who share our passion; confront those in power who may resist change; and collaborate with those whose established structures or process we want to shift towards transformation.

Counter-intuitive, that last one, no? But that’s what’s exciting about Westley et al.’s take on the tough challenges. Sure, it’s hard to look at some person or some group who disagrees with your whole approach, who may block your way, whom you may be inclined to call “the enemy.” Yet it’s imperative to master the urge to flee or to demonize or both, and to seek the common humanity that’s there. The process of doing this is really about confronting one’s self: “Whether you have power or you don’t, chances are that you need to confront your own fanatic heart -- your suspicions of and anger with the other. To release new energy, your own or that of others, you need to empathize with the other (and your own potential for otherness) and reclaim their sentiments as your own.”

I found two bottom-line, take-home messages in Getting to Maybe. First, for granting agencies and philanthropy organizations, that is, those with the big bucks to seed change: Let loose a little bit from the whole accountability craze. Don’t insist on “outcome” evaluation right away, or even soon. Let people think, create, experiment, even fail. Step back a little, and enable the emergents to emerge and the flow to flow. This isn’t New-Age woo-woo; it’s smart.

Second, for individual change-seekers: tolerate, even cherish, a lack of order (“social innovation is as much about letting go as it is about taking control”); realize that knowledge and action aren’t always perfectly matched (“...action sometimes precedes knowledge. Getting comfortable with acting in the face of uncertainty is part of being an explorer”).

Getting to Maybe will make my holiday shopping easier this year; its message is a gift to spread. I’m no disinterested reader on Getting to Maybe’s topic, because I join others in  campaigns for change. For one thing, the scientists I ally with write for change and act for change in how our world protects, educates, and studies children. 

For another, I agitate for animals, ranging from ape populations that careen towards extinction to cats who are homeless. Here at William & Mary, an energized environmental movement is finding its way to success on issues ranging from greening the campus to working for animal conservation; every day, the students inspire me (hey, Hannah Dodd, that includes you).

All of us, global and local, a million different voices, band together in concert, to speak, write, and act for change. Together, we’re on a road to somewhere, and we’ll see you along the way.

-- Barbara awaits the Magic of Bruce and Little Steven on guitar and vocals, Max on pounding drums, Clarence on incomparable sax….