Successful Social Change

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

Will the buds of social improvement flower? There are promising signs. People are speaking out for respectful behavior in workplaces. Others are adamant about equal treatment under the law. Some desire better attention to mental health and addiction; still others are sensitive to food and product safety. To turn these and other initial bursts of interest into meaningful social change means avoiding pseudo-change; those activities that feel like social change but only approximate genuine politics.

Discussion groups, for example, are not change agents. Consciousness-raising is not politics. Oh yes, our society benefits from book clubs. Roundtable discussion groups that meet over drinks and a topic are important. These and other modes of intellectual sharing assist those who advance the common good.
It sometimes happens, however, that participants in a discussion group assume that they are thereby tackling a social problem. A parish group, for example, forms around shared concern over opioid addiction. They read and discuss Dreamland, a terrific book by Sam Quinones (Bloomsbury, 2016). They subsequently invite the entire congregation to a couple of presentations, including a well-attended one with the local sheriff. The parish group accumulates a referral list for families dealing with addiction. All of this is good, noble and necessary. It is not yet social change. An opening must be found into the pain treatment industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the nursing home industry, the criminal justice system, the social service bureaucracy and the like.
The parish group itself does not have to be a change agent; in fact, it probably should not be. But the group can perhaps find ways that its members can get inside the problem from within their workplace, their college, their professional association or their union. Plus, the small parish group can perhaps coalesce with other church groups in their denomination or across denominational and religious lines and then join even bigger circles of influence.

A key to social change behavior is the understanding that outsiders must get to the inside. This journey requires sophistication and some tradeoffs, including serious attention to core principles.
Here is one example of outsiders getting to the inside. Globalization has many unfortunate side-effects. But globalization by definition is huge and seemingly amorphous. Sweatshops in Bangladesh are a bi-product of globalization. But there’s nothing one can do about them. But wait. Some students have found a clever way to break into the seemingly impenetrable harshness of the global economy. First students at one school and then students at the next school went, as insiders, to their college bookstore. They asked the store manager to name the factory that produces the school’s sweaters, shirts, jackets and the like. They simultaneously pushed the college administrators to require that bookstore vendors have humane labor codes. The students, who communicate with those at other schools through United Students Against Sweatshops (, got their school to sign-on with an apparel monitoring organization, Worker Rights Consortium ( Guess what? Some major apparel retailers and clothing brands met with student representatives. The companies now expect their overseas sub-contractors to observe humane working conditions.

Is the problem of sweatshops solved? Not yet. Some apparel lines want to do their own monitoring of the overseas suppliers; the student groups want independent monitoring. So, the students have to get further inside some apparel companies. In doing so, the students have to find an ally (maybe a college trustee) who is connected to the apparel industry. The students also must consider their principles: Is half a loaf acceptable or do we push for three-quarters of a loaf? Is the credibility of the students enough or would a celebrity endorser help? Maybe a bigger presence on social media is the answer? What else is involved in social change? To be continued…

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