Letting Go of Myths, Embracing Truths
By first transforming and reimagining ourselves, we all have an opportunity before us to truly transform our organizations and reimagine our work.
I’ve been involved in efforts to improve our society for most of my life.
In college, I participated in the anti-apartheid movement to end U.S. investments in South Africa. Since that time, I’ve created organizations, led institutions, and worked with hundreds of community leaders around the country. I now sit on the board of directors for a California-based foundation focused on social and health justice. While the lessons I’ve learned about social change are important, I have come to realize that the narratives behind why or how we need to create that change are incomplete.
For most of my career, I was taught that social change occurs from mobilization, collective action, and deep community engagement. The challenge with this view of change is that it doesn’t require reflection on one’s own individual trauma. So instead of taking time for ourselves when we’re exhausted, many of us hide our trauma, bury our exhaustion, and push our worries beneath a thin veneer of optimism. This leads to burnout and ineffective leadership.
No one told me that rest was revolutionary, that reflection was liberation, or that cultivating transformative relationships was the only way to true change. Over time, I’ve learned that the most important aspect of social change is healing—both on an individual and collective level. Somewhere along the way, we all have bought into myths about how to create social change. Below, I’ll share a few of those myths and the four pivots I’ve identified in my latest book, The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Ourselves, that move us toward more transformative change.
Myths We All Have About Social Change
Myth No. 1: We can fight our way to justice. I was taught that social change required fighting for justice, resisting oppression, and confronting power. The problem with terms like fight, resist, struggle, confront, or defend is that we become satisfied with strategies that may address problems yet fail to create what we really want. We simply don’t believe we have the permission to dream, imagine, invent, visualize, and play as fundamental actions necessary to achieve social change.
Myth No. 2: The more power we have, the more change we can create. I’ve been taught to think about power as a collective action attained from withholding labor, boycotting, or raising awareness about an issue in order to force some desired change. But, as I point out in The Four Pivots, there’s one problem with this form of power-building folks often overlook: It rarely addresses our collective trauma or our individual healing. Power is also an “inside job,” or inner work that comes from our personal passions and our collective convictions that we discover when we imagine together and heal our own insecurities and fears.
Myth No. 3: Us versus them. Although it can be easy to see the world in terms of “us versus them,” it’s an unhelpful framing that breeds othering. The process of labeling groups of people with negative attributes and identifying with the positive attributes of your own group separates us at a time when we need to come together and unite with each other. This process ultimately draws thick, hard boundaries about who is human and who is not. Us versus them is a deeply colonized way of thinking; it’s the root of white supremacy, which created the conditions for the dehumanization of so many people.
Four Pivots to Reimagining Justice and Reimagining Ourselves
So how do we let go of these myths about social change and embrace a set of truths that can center joy in our work and cultivate healing in our lives? What does it take to heal ourselves and an inequitable, unjust society? The solutions to these challenges require a deeper shift in our values to enable us to heal from the wounds of racism, sexism, capitalism, and homophobia. The bottom line? When we let go of these myths, we begin to embrace a healing-centered form of leadership. Healing-centered leadership is based on our ability to make four pivots in our lives and in our work.
The first is a pivot from lens to mirror. Instead of only thinking that social change is about analyzing problems, changing laws, and building power, we must also understand that change involves deep reflection. When we step in front of a mirror, we are forced to come face-to-face with our fears, insecurities, and dreams and to consider how we might contribute to the world we wish to create.
The second is a pivot from transactional to transformative relationships. This means cultivating a deep, transformative relationship with yourself first. Transformative relationships in our professional and personal lives cultivate deeper human connection through vulnerability, empathy, and listening.
The third is a pivot from problem fixing to possibility creating. I know, it’s really hard to dream when we are fighting for justice. The issues we care about are all urgent, life-threatening, and entrenched. The myth of problem fixing, as I write in my book, is that knowledge of the problem is all we need to solve it. By dreaming and imagining, we can move beyond simply problem fixing and see the world we want to create rather than issues we need to eliminate.
The last is a pivot from hustle to flow—transforming our addiction to frenzy, a toxic result of our capitalist culture, to the calm awareness of how we create quality time for things that matter most.
There is another way.
We all have an opportunity before us to transform our organizations and reimagine our work for social change by first transforming and reimagining ourselves and our place in the work that we do toward justice and equity. Our society sits directly between trauma and transformation, an old world and a new one. Our goal, as leaders who have dedicated our lives to improve our society, is to move boldly into a new world, leaving the trauma from the old world behind. But to do this, we will need new tools, new ways of thinking and relating to one another so that we may all heal.