My friend Kevin Fong, who is a healer and weaver, once shared a story with me about Grace Lee Boggs, the Detroit-based Asian American activist and scholar. At the start of community meetings, Grace would begin with a question: “What time is it on the clock of the world?” When I reflect on that question, I often have the palpable and sometimes urgent feeling that the time is ripe, the time is now, the time is immediate for social change.
We are living through a time that demands our attention and requires our consistent action. People around the world are confronting wars, climate disasters, and economic inequity at unprecedented levels. Here in the United States, we face an almost daily barrage of attacks and restrictions on the rights, bodies, and livelihoods of people. The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in 2021 came on the heels of a polarizing presidential election that followed four years of bans, walls, and raids against communities. The global pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of public systems and institutions that we have long relied upon, from education to housing to public health. The visible presence of white nationalist groups is spurring fear. Transgender youth feel unsafe in schools and on streets. Climate change is a continual threat to everyone on the planet.
As I finalized Social Change Now: A Guide for Reflection and Connection, we were in the midst of a six-week period that included the massacre of Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed young children and teachers, an economic crisis leaving many people unable to pay their monthly bills, a mounting crisis of homelessness and mental illness related to the pandemic, and the evisceration by the U.S. Supreme Court of the right of people to make reproductive choices.
All of these overlapping crises stem from similar root causes: anti-Black racism, imperialism and colonialism, extractive capitalist models, and histories of oppressive treatment toward communities. People over generations have been addressing and eliminating many of these root causes, and there is still much more work to be done. I am often reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about “the urgency of now,” a phrase that is in conversation with Grace Lee Boggs’s question about the time on the clock of the world. In his famous 1967 speech on Vietnam, Dr. King said: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.”
In workshops and trainings that I conduct with people of diverse ages and backgrounds, I often ask people to reflect on their state of readiness to engage with the issues facing society today. The responses are very similar and usually include the following:
- We feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused.
- We find ourselves on a seesaw, lurching between numbness and outrage.
- The ways that we have always responded are no longer sufficient or effective.
- We are not sure what to say or how to step in.
- We expect more from our organizations and community leaders but feel disappointed and heartbroken at times.
Social Change Now: A Guide for Reflection and Connection is a humble contribution to the vast landscape of existing books, frameworks, and ideas about social change movements and leadership. It provides a roadmap for people and organizations in various stages of engagement with social change efforts. Take a look at the phases of involvement in social change below, and see where you might be, keeping in mind that perhaps you are in between phases, or you occupy multiple ones depending on the situation.
You recognize that we are living in extremely challenging times with rolling and overlapping societal, political, and institutional crises. You acknowledge the generational effect of systemic and intersectional oppression. You’re outraged by injustice and inequity. You know that you cannot assume the role of a bystander to injustice. You are more conscious of your own privileges and biases, and ready to be accountable for your actions. You’re eager to transform your values into practical and effective steps.
You’re exhausted from confronting, bearing witness, and absorbing the impact of rolling and overlapping societal, political, and institutional crises. While you remain outraged and committed, you’re often on a seesaw that teeters from numbness to outrage, from clarity to overwhelm. Maybe you’re also experiencing burnout, direct and vicarious trauma, and a sense of hopelessness. You’re eager for a reset in order to evaluate, repair, and prepare yourself to return to your ecosystems or to locate new ones.
You’ve been learning and unlearning through various experiences and perspectives. You’re eager to synthesize lessons learned in order to situate yourself solidly and comfortably in the ecosystems you are building. You have the resources and readiness to level up.
Regardless of which stage you are in now, this guide could be helpful in taking your social change commitments to the next step. For those new to social change, this guide provides starting points that can help you figure out how to hone your skills and contribute to efforts and causes with determination, urgency, and humility. For more seasoned journeyers, you could find ways to reset, rejuvenate, and renew your commitments with a different mindset. For organizations, this guide provides resources and strategies on how to identify gaps and maximize assets, and how to strengthen ecosystems
Our belief in the promise of social change through connections with one another is why we keep trying after feeling disappointment, why we keep returning after grieving, why we keep fighting after resting. It’s why we keep building after systems fail, why we keep on loving even when we are experiencing heartbreak. It’s why we take actions that embody solidarity, resistance, and hope. It’s why we infuse our efforts with joy, passion, affirmation, and healing. We intuitively know that something better is blooming, growing, emerging—and we want to be part of that momentum, that stream, that journey.
This edited excerpt from Social Change Now: A Guide for Reflection and Connection by Deepa Iyer (Thick Press, 2022) appears with permission of the author. The book is available at Thick Press or Small Press Distribution. More information at The Social Change Map.
Deepa Iyer leads projects on solidarity and social movements at the Building Movement Project, a national nonprofit organization that catalyzes social change through research, relationships, and resources. Previously, she served as executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), and also held positions at Race Forward, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, and the Asian American Justice Center.Deepa’s first book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (The New Press, 2015), received a 2016 American Book Award.