If there was ever a time for inspirational leadership with moral courage and conviction about the things that matter, it is now. As the world faces unprecedented challenges we look for inspiration from those who have led and are leading sustained movements for social, economic and environmental justice, often under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
What have we learned from these amazing leaders and the movements they have catalyzed? How do we learn from communities who are taking charge of their own change through collective decision-making? What are the qualities of transformational leadership that funders should seek out, nurture and grow – not just to achieve better short term outcomes but for the long haul to a just and sustainable world? How do we integrate the fundamental prerequisites that lead to transformational leadership and change in to our funding and programmatic strategies, our theories of change, and our measures of success?
In a world driven increasingly by the quest for ‘quick-wins’, short term indicators, sound bites and dashboards, this body of work on transformational change leadership is intended to help funders, practitioners, and students keep our eye on the long game of supporting the social, human and political capital needed to lead, advocate for and sustain better lives, communities and nations, not only for this generation but for the next one.
–Nancy MacPherson, International Development Specialist; Former Managing Director, Evaluation, The Rockefeller Foundation
In the context of ensuring that poor and vulnerable people have greater access to opportunities to improve their lives and advocate for their rights, we have built a resource to understand and demonstrate what it takes to catalyze and scale transformational change. We aim to identify what kind of leadership and leaders inspire optimism, enterprise and common sense over despair in the search for a path out of poverty or oppression and a better future for families, communities, and the world.
We will deepen insight into what it takes to bring about this transformational change, and we will transfer lessons, skills and tools in using transformational change as a means of catalyzing and scaling innovation in and with developing communities, to a new generation of leaders in development, philanthropy, innovation, business and investment. By celebrating those who ‘walk the talk’ and inspire and catalyze positive change for humanity, we will enrich networks of change leaders, educational institutions, and organizations around the world with relevant inspiring and instructive examples of change leaders globally and locally from similar backgrounds in equity, resilience, and rights.
We began this project with a sense of urgency to capture and honor the lessons from those who are leading or have led movements that have made significant and fundamental change at scale in the lives of the poor and vulnerable.
What we think of as the modern aid and development sector is over half a century old, and while it is increasingly under threat and receives (sometimes justified) criticism from various quarters, there are many reasons to learn from it and even celebrate it. he challenge of global political upheaval often has the effect of galvanizing and bringing forward natural leaders who understand how to bring about transformational change. When combined with an examination of rights and movements, and when lifted out of discussions of frames that are largely corporate-driven or techno-determinist, one begins to see the shape of how transformational change has been and can be made. This is not an attempt to document theories of change, though each leader profiled can articulate one. It is rather an effort to document processes of leadership, one that acknowledges that there is no magical formula. While we talk about scale and sustainability, we must acknowledge that communities are first and foremost trying to survive. When these communities begin to look at their own problems, and begin negotiating with those in power in a way that can be understood by all side, the process of transformation begins.
To explore these questions, we defined and named the principles of transformational change leadership, and sought to illustrate these not through data, but through narrative to capture the humanity and complexity of these challenges. We developed a design methodology as follows:
1. Our first step was to convene an advisory board of eminent practitioners with deep knowledge and experience in development, market solutions, and innovation. Through a series of exploratory conversations on the history and current state of the sector, individual interviews with the advisors and group calls, we began to develop the first TCL process framework, including the first shaping of Characteristics and initial story selection, using a lens of resilience, equity, justice, and inclusive economies. Through this inquiry, we started to shape our understanding of leadership as a process (as opposed to something centered in individual “heroes”) that is grounded in a series of collective choices and decisions, community, and political, social, and cultural context.
2. The next step was to work on a landscape scan, conducted by the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, UK. The landscape scan was based on research inquiries we formulated during dialogues with the advisory board. We sought to focus first on key development movements of the last 50 years in advancing health, revaluing ecosystems, securing livelihoods, and social movements for rights; second, on groups or people working within the contexts of aid, development, human rights, social innovation, or social entrepreneurship; and third, to ground the project in local and global change efforts found across regions, movements, and resources.
3. We then examined and discussed the scan with the advisory board and our team of writers, to curate the first set of organizations and leaders to profile, and to hone the definitions of the Transformational Change Leadership process and of our Characteristics. Out of the scan, we chose a cross-section that represented our three priorities stated above, giving priority to those of whom someone on our team or advisory board knows or has worked with directly, or with whom we would be able to have direct communication.
4. We used an iterative design approach that included listening and synthesizing multiple reviews of desk research, interview notes, and story drafts, and feedback from more than 15 external reviewers in the field. After going through a final team editorial process, we selected the initial set of stories and images (and matching those with the Characteristics they most exemplify), movements and innovations, and resources to include on the project website.
We have tried to embrace the political dimensions of these narratives, and to make sure they are grounded in history, elevate local grassroots work, and exist along a continuum of important international development work from the last 50 years. These stories come together to honor the messiness and complexity inherent in transformational change, and the actual impact and evolving models of these leaders.
While this site is about collective or community-led leadership, in telling these stories it is sometimes an individual leader emerges. In such cases it felt important to highlight them over the organization in order to add texture and human dimension to the story. In other cases, some groups don’t have any individual names associated with them at all in instances when the founding and growth of the organization came about through the collective efforts of those involved.
Further, the list of stories selected is by no means exhaustive, nor intended to be representative of a “best of” list by any means. The TCL project is a dynamic work in progress, in which we hope our website offers a unique space for mutual learning and reflection, and one that grows into the future with contribution from the audiences who will use this resource. We have chosen to distribute this resource through a website to make it widely accessible and usable, as well as to have it grow over time.
By: Ashoke Chatterjee
This Foundational Statement is provided primarily to guide readers who are practitioners in the fields of rights, development, and innovation.
This effort began with a goal to capture with urgency the experience of leaders who have made significant and fundamental changes in the lives of the poor and vulnerable. Too often their legacy has been lost or is unavailable as learning or inspiration.
We are reminded almost daily that we live in times of change that is often brutal, and of impatience with transformation understood as the wellbeing of all. For some, the pace and quality of change has brought with it a persistent frustration that lessons from the past can be easily forgotten, and memories lost of those whose struggles may have helped to define the meaning of both change and of progress.
These notions have been debated ever since ‘development’ in a post-War and post-colonial era was understood as reconstruction supported by global systems of assistance. Later, alternative models of development emerged. These reflected increasing concern about the negative impact of ‘infrastructure’ and ‘project’-led approaches on societies, cultures and ecologies. Critiques in the North energized a search for alternative paradigms in the South. Everywhere, interconnections between environment, gender, culture, and rights became apparent.
Against this backdrop, a ferment of social and political movements aimed to deliver a quality of life that ‘development’ had once promised, but now seemed increasingly remote. Alternative paradigms arose, linked primarily to the certainty of state-led frameworks. Grassroots movements found their space, even where power structures were threatened. Charismatic leaders challenged the status quo with ideas that spread across the world through networks beyond the control of those in power. Confrontation was more often over the failure of systems to deliver on promises, rather than on the promises themselves. Partnership with authorities became a norm, its discomforts eased by the profession, at least, of shared values. The marketplace was still at the fringes, tolerated perhaps but seldom acknowledged or invited as an engine of social change.
By the turn of the century, things had changed radically. Market forces now moved to the center, with globalization promoted as the true measure of progress. Transformational values were confronted with fresh notions of economic and political order drawn from corporate systems of choice and accountability. A sense grew at the grassroots that people had lost their claim on state responsibilities that were once non-negotiable. Globalization became the new definition of development, market-driven and market-led.
Within these tumultuous changes and arguments, there has been one striking constant: the voices of conscience from leaders for whom the condition of those last in line has steadfastly endured as the final benchmark of development, understood as the ability of citizens to make choices and perhaps even to achieve the choices they make.
So if movement toward justice and equity is a precondition for progress, is this the worst or the best of times to recall lives lived and often sacrificed in a quest for ‘transformation’ understood as humanity and decency? Is this an era of deaf ears, or of the need to advocate care for each other and for the earth as the final hallmarks of development?
Gandhi once suggested that we should live the change we want to see in the world. Who can doubt that change is more urgently needed today than ever, or that ‘to live the change’ may demand huge resources of courage?
These are compelling reasons to reflect on the lives and movements and organizations documented here. Most were forged and tested in moments of darkness. Each has been lived and undertaken without guarantees, withstanding uncertainty and risk. In each the audacity of hope radiates like a torch, illuminating a path for others. These pathways remind us that we are not alone, that others have shared our aspirations as well as our failures, and that their experience can guide and perhaps ease our own transitions. The heritage offered here is thus a passage between past and future, a bridge of enduring wisdom that can be strengthened by all who use it and who build upon it.
By: Jethro Pettit
This Foundational Statement is provided to guide readers who are in academia, primarily professors, instructors, and students of international studies, international development studies, and the related fields.
The Transformational Change Leadership (TCL) project invites us to think differently about what drives movements for social justice, human rights and the environment. It does this by shining light on an oddly neglected topic in research on social mobilization and change: the role of leadership. TCL’s compelling stories of individual and collective action, and the articulation of seven key characteristics of transformational change leadership, point to practices that defy conventional thinking about what makes movements tick.
Why is change leadership so neglected in social research? What does social research have to say about leadership? What can we learn about leadership from TCL? Asking these three questions can open up and challenge our assumptions about leadership, and inspire some ideas about what we might do differently – not just in the study of change leadership, but in nurturing and practicing it in our own lives.
Why is change leadership so neglected in social research?
The study of social movements, international development and human rights has tended to focus on contextual and historical drivers rather than on what people do to shift power and make change happen. I write as an activist-researcher-practitioner located in the field of international development, with a passionate commitment to social movements. For movement theorists, the long neglect of leadership stems from several academic biases:
Behind all of this there has been a tendency, since the 1960s and 70s, to embrace more depersonalized and structural accounts of history, politics and movements, as well as a view that mass behavior is simply the aggregation of individual expressions of rational choice. Social movement theory has been shaped by interest in the role of political opportunities, structures, constraints and resource mobilization rather than the thoughts and actions of self-determined individuals and groups:
“…dominant models of collective action – including both structurally and culturally-based approaches – downplay agency. Mobilizing processes, protest events, and rhetorical frames often appear in abstract, disembodied forms, without reference to the leaders who invent or improvise these critical strategies” (Nepstad and Clifford 2006: 1)
In my own field of development studies, the various disciplines have been heavily influenced by behaviorist economics and political economy analysis. Collective human endeavor is seen as the sum of individual responses to opportunities, incentives and constraints. Change is induced by tweaking the policy environment, monetizing services and natural resources, and making markets of virtually all spheres of life. There is little expectation of individual and collective thought, vision, initiative or leadership. Marxist and post-modern views of ideology and discourse are often equally deterministic and disparaging of agency.
Development professionals thus tend to see human beings in very generalized and abstract ways, in contrast to “helping professionals” in fields like education, social work, community development, counseling, health care and management – “people who work with people” whose skills of leadership, empathy and reflective practice are valued. Development experts are trained to depersonalize, to reduce people to statistical and demographic subjects who can be “targeted” by the “interventions” of projects, policies and sectors. If leadership is valued, it is usually in the guise of bureaucratic competencies. This is no surprise, as development studies are rooted in the grave of colonial administration.
Thankfully this has started to change, as scholars begin to appreciate the difference that leadership can make in otherwise similar situations, and to accept broader definitions of leadership beyond the “great men” and heroic leaders of organizations. In social movement studies, leadership is now recognized as something of a theoretical “black box” (Barker et al 2001: 1; de Cesare 2013:239) which scholars have started to criticize and unpack. Research in this field has a bit more to say about leadership than development studies does.
What does social research say about leadership?
As interest in leadership has grown, movement scholars have begun to tease out the key characteristics and contributions of leadership and to challenge both the neglect and the rather functional, charismatic and individualist definitions assumed in earlier theory.
Barker, Johnson and Lavalette (2001) take issue with the dominant “Resource Mobilization” explanations of social movements (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001) with their focus on “political opportunity, mobilizing structures and cultural framing” to the detriment of “leadership activities and relationships” (Barker et al 2001: 1). New Social Movement theories also fall short when it comes to conceptualizing leadership. Barker et al also challenge the tendency to heap recognition on individual leaders, usually men in formal positions of authority, and highlight studies which show “movement leadership as something distributed among people at different levels” (1), such as the informal role played by women in the American Civil Rights movement (citing Robnett).
Many key attributes of movement leadership identified by Baker et. al. are in the realm of shaping narratives and “forming collective identities… [which] involves developing shared ideas which define both participants and their allies and opponents; they also narrate how these identities and social structures have emerged” (4). Leadership is both purposive and relational, requiring the ability to understand others and to persuade them, and also requires strong strategic capacities (10).
Marshall Ganz also sees movements as driven to a large degree by “purposeful actors” who articulate values, build new relationships based on these values, and “mobilize political, economic and cultural power to translate values into action” (2010: 1). This allows those who take part in movements to “make moral claims based on renewed personal identities, collective identities and public action” (2010: 1). Leaders shape the conditions for this in various ways, whether “interpersonally, structurally or procedurally” (2010: 1). Ganz also subscribes to the view that movement leadership “goes beyond that of the stereotypical public persona”, and is instead often distributed at all levels, and can be collective as well as individual (2010:2)
Key leadership skills identified by Ganz fall into four categories of motivational, relational, strategic and action. Leaders also need to be able to practice what Walter Breggemann has called “the prophetic imagination” – which involves balancing the tension between “criticality” (articulating the problem and the pain) and “hope” (avoiding both despair and being over-optimistic) (Ganz 2010: 4). On this basis, Ganz proposes four key “Leadership practices”: Building Relationships, Telling the Story, Devising Strategy and Catalysing Action. As we’ll see below, these practices resonate with several of the key characteristics of transformative change leadership identified by TCL.
Nepstad and Clifford bring together a variety of key leadership characteristics under the notion of “leadership capital” (2006: 2). While agreeing that leadership is not necessarily a determining factor, as “social movements are the product of complex historical processes”, they find it “difficult to separate leadership from the larger aspects of a movement” (2006: 2). Movement leadership is highly relational and contextual. Most definitions, they note, stem from Weber’s idea that authority and legitimacy are based on either one’s administrative and bureaucratic position, or on one’s qualities of charisma, vision and belief. The type of change leadership required (from prophetic to administrative) evolves depending on the stage of the movement. Going beyond this binary, Nepstad and Clifford build on Bourdieu’s ideas of economic, symbolic and cultural capital and propose “leadership capital” as a composite of key characteristics (2006: 5).
Testing their concept of “leadership capital” through empirical case studies of four social movements from around the world, Nepstad and Clifford identify significant differences that qualities of leadership can make in otherwise similar conditions. Rather than seeing leaders as “little more than surfers riding irrepressible social waves” of larger structures and forces, they find that leaders “can play key roles in animating those waves, augmenting their popular support, and changing their structure and direction” (2006: 18). In other words, they recognize the power of agency to influence structure.
De Cesare is critical of the way that much social movement scholarship, including Resource Mobilization theory, tends to conflate “organizations” with “movements”, and to focus on formal organizational leaders while ignoring those outside of organizations (2013: 241). Interestingly, this was not always the case, as de Cesare points to leadership studies from the 1950s that held broader definitions of leadership as something embedded in social and cultural values and contexts, not just organizations.
I find a parallel here with the tendency to equate “civil society organizations” with “civil society” in international development and aid. This assumption stems from the dominant Western liberal “associational” view of civil society as the aggregate of certain kinds of non-governmental organizations (from de Tocqueville). In contrast, civil society can be seen as the “public sphere” where ideas, values, beliefs and ideologies are contested and shaped – composing not only of civic organizations but opinion-leaders, educational and religious institutions and leaders, and the media (Lewis 2002, Edwards 2004). This points to a much broader field of change leadership than that located in civil society organizations.
Rather than falling into the trap of focusing on organizational leaders, in de Cesare’s view we need to ask instead “who is perceived as a leader” – as perceived not by scholars but by movement participants, politicians, the media and the general public (2013: 246). Such leaders are not necessarily those who set the movement’s goals, develop strategies, represent organizations or organize participants (2013: 247). They may also “include the informal, the unofficial, unaffiliated – any individual, in short, who is widely thought of as a leader” (2013: 252).
All of these scholars set out, in different ways, to redefine movement leadership and to tease out its key qualities, characteristics and practices. Many of these attributes resonate with the characteristics of change leadership identified in the TCL stories.
What can we learn about leadership from TCL?
TCL is not an academic research project, nor does it intend to contribute to social movement theories and debates. Nonetheless, the stories of change leadership and the way they are framed cast new light on meanings and practices of leadership, so helping to unpack the “black box” in movement scholarship. These stories further illuminate how transformational change leaders often move fluidly across the theoretical boundaries of rights and development.
As in many of the critical perspectives noted above, change leadership is understood as more than high-profile individuals affiliated with formal movements or organizations, even if individuals’ stories are a useful point of entry:
“Transformational change leadership is a process through which an individual, organization, or collective guides large, fundamental, radical transitions from one existing state to a more positive, desired state. This kind of leadership takes a systems approach, employing holistic, comprehensive, collaborative, and multi-disciplinary methods to make effective, demonstrable change that then scales to large groups of people. Those who practice transformational change leadership embody it fully in the way they live their lives, carry out their work, and communicate their philosophies.”
The TCL project identifies seven key characteristics of leadership arising from the stories: Vision, Empathy, Perseverance, Community, Risk, Collaboration, and Mobilization. Several of these characteristics resonate closely with qualities and attributes identified in the scholarship that opens the “black box” on social movement leadership. Four in particular stand out as strong connections:
Vision is seen by TCL as the role of shaping ideas, knowledge, contextual understanding and new ways of thinking. This is similar to the idea of leadership as the capacity to produce new public narratives, framings and rhetoric that can catalyze mobilization and action. For Ganz (2010), leadership is being able to “Tell the Story”, to craft new narratives with affect and emotion, and to articulate both the grievances and hope of “prophetic imagination” (2010: 14). Leadership is about resolving “rhetorical problems” (Herbert Simons, cited by Hitt 2013). The “framing process” (creating compelling narratives about unjust conditions and the route to change) is a key element of social movement theory (McAdam et al 2001). Yet only recently have scholars begun to recognize how “leaders drive the framing process” through their “embeddedness … in institutions and society” (Morris and Staggenborg, 2004: 183-4)
Empathy is defined by TCL as the ability to interact with the reality of other people’s lives. This is another quality emphasized in the movement scholarship. Leadership is seen by many as relational and contextual, requiring sensitivity to what aggrieved people are experiencing and thinking. For Barker et al “Leadership is an activity conducted upon and in response to others. Would-be leaders have to be aware of the ideas, assumptions and moods of those with whom they share a collective purpose” (2001: 10).
Collaboration for TCL is about understanding that power derives from networked resources and collective action, This arises in concepts of leadership as relational and distributed. “Building Relationships” is one of the four key practices of movement leadership identified by Ganz, who sees it as the “interpersonal” exchange of interests and resources among “individuals, networks and organizations.” Nepstad and Clifford also see leadership “in relational terms, as individuals and teams of individuals” and as something that can’t be separated from the larger context of a movement: “movements make leaders as much as they are made by them (2006: 2).
Mobilization is seen by TCL is the process of inspiring and catalyzing others into taking action, in large part through compelling communication and storytelling. As noted above Ganz places particular emphasis on the leadership practice of “Telling the Story”, where the “narrative” process is different from “analysis” because it is affective and connected the self, the collective and the reality of the present moment (2010: 14/15). In addition, one of the four key practices of leadership is “Catalyzing Action” which is about creating shared understanding and norms that can translate into “power with” and “make commitment real” (2010: 28). Failure is embraced as a source of learning.
There is less of an immediate connection between the other three characteristics of change leadership identified by TCL – Perseverance, Community-Centric and Risk Taking – and the findings from the “black box” social movement leadership work. By the same token, there are attributes of leadership in the literature which don’t map onto the TCL characteristics. For example, scholars who focus more on social movement organizations and their leaders tend to place more emphasis on capacities to analyze, strategize, organize and administer. One of Ganz’s four practices is “Devising Strategy”, linked to being able to articulate a viable theory of change and to mobilize the necessary resources to carry it out.
There is clearly no definitive, unified set of characteristics defining change leadership, nor perhaps is this really necessary. What is interesting, and important, is the way that social movement observers including TCL are opening up their thinking about the meaning and role of leadership after a long dearth of interest in the social sciences. Viewed against the rather depersonalized, structural, rational choice and colonial mindsets that prevail in international development, these explorations of the characteristics of change leadership are particularly refreshing. Agency and its many vital attributes such as vision, empathy, perseverance and collaboration is finding its rightful place alongside structural ideas about of human society, history and movement. For social scholars, activists and practitioners of social change, this is a good time for deeper reflection about our roles and potential in the world of change leadership. Fortunately in TCL and its stories of struggle and change we have a wonderful, inspiring resource to guide our practice.
By: Heather Grady
This Foundational Statement is provided primarily to guide readers who are in organizations, foundations, and institutions working in social impact.
Today we too often think of leaders primarily as rainmakers – individuals with power and influence who are able to make deals so that something becomes bigger, higher profile, more financially significant. But what of leaders who have nurtured something less easily measured, less tangible, but more transformational and important to the longer-term well-being of people and our planet? The Transformational Change Leadership project celebrates such leaders of transformational change and the movements of millions of individuals across the world who have made significant differences in their communities and societies. Their contributions can be measured through decades of persistent, visionary, courageous, all-in commitment to the struggles of their fellow human beings.
The stories of these movements and leaders are not heard enough. Their perspectives don’t often light up our social media platforms. Our younger colleagues fighting the fights of today have heard of only the most famous of them, but there are so many examples that can, and must, inspire us. Lina Srivastava tasked a group of us to help bring more light to these examples. A number of us have come together to identify examples that, in the words of the project, inspire optimism, enterprise, and action to transform societies to achieve a better future. We believe that leaders who deserve our greatest respect are those who practice what they preach, and lead with their values in day-to-day interactions, how they carry out their work, and how they communicate their beliefs – so deeply needed today.
In the world of philanthropy, social impact, and social finance, we want to ensure that our resources are making a difference, and having as much impact as possible. Part of that calculation is about efficiency of using resources – and whether the work is deep enough, or broad enough, to warrant the effort. The venture philanthropy approach has emphasized the quality of organizations and enterprises: determining what combination of leader, senior team, urgent problem, and promising opportunities and solutions should be rewarded with our attention and financial capital. Even amongst those intentionally working on shifting complex, adaptive systems, it is often easier to understand and find support for transformation levers that are on the measurable end of things, like policy change, technological innovation, and market interventions.
What is harder to see with our generally short time horizon is how important social movements are to lasting positive change. The Transformational Change Leadership project addresses this. To create large, fundamental, and radical transitions from one state to a more positive desired state, we need to discern roadmaps for leadership built around collective, community-led, and collaborative action.
We wanted to help people learn through examples, to highlight the qualities to seek out and emulate. Leaders who can mobilize in the face of unequal power. Who can act with courage and conviction in the face of insecurity, threats, and even danger. Who can build fellowship and be unerringly attentive to those who most face discrimination and disempowerment. Whose empathy presents first, above care for data or theory. Who have clarity on the path forward even though successful social movements are diverse, non-linear, and maddeningly messy. Who are steadfast, and focus on the long game, despite so many pressures to accomplish the more tangible short game wins.
This project is to remind us of what to look for and what to aspire to. It is to find and share more stories of transformational change so that we – and those in the decades to come – can better recognize it.
by: Lina Srivastava
We are living in extraordinary times. At the best or calmest of times, the work we do in this sector is remarkable. Our work confronts some of the world’s greatest ills – poverty and inequality, conflict, mass migration, climate change, and rights violations. In the midst of all of that there are budgets, staffing constraints, shifting and falling funding options, and lack of access to the tools that enhance our impact.
But in an era of immense change, embodied in our political spheres and in the challenges facing our communities both global and local, we need to rethink what strides need to be taken to overcome conflict, inequality and poverty.
And extraordinary times call for strong leadership. I think we all know lackluster leadership when we see it. But how do we define good leadership?
A few years ago, I was charged with exploring this question: What kind of leadership inspires optimism, enterprise, and action in the efforts to transform societies to achieve a better future for communities?
This project was initiated after the assassination of Perween Rahman, of the Orangi Project in Karachi, Pakistan (profiled on this site). Her work was dedicated to water access and land rights for people in informal settlements, and she was a beloved and effective community leader. At the time of her murder, she was known for her effectiveness but she had not documented her process. Her death sent shock waves through the development community that knew her. Ashoke Chatterjee brought the news of her passing to Nancy MacPherson and Ashvin Dayal of the Rockefeller Foundation. Along with a group of others, Ashoke, Nancy, and Ashvin started thinking through how best to present the work of people like Perween Rahman, so we could all honor it and reflect upon it.
And so this project came to me.
The work that I do goes by many names: social innovation, creative advocacy, culture-based impact. For the past decade and a half, I have worked at the intersection on rights and development in executive director positions and in running my own social enterprise, exploring and building projects using narrative, design process, and creative technologies towards advocacy and community engagement in the realms of refugee and migration issues, gender rights, climate justice, and poverty alleviation. I have had the privilege to work both with frontline organizations and larger agencies, in community and at headquarters, with individual activists and artists, on direct service projects and on strategy. But at the core of my work is story. I dedicate most of my time to understanding and using narrative as a strategy and as a catalyst of change. When I received the grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to explore transformational change leadership, then, I decided to explore the concept through stories from the ground.
What has excited me the most about building the TCL framework using stories is that we get to explore how change is less about formulas and more about confronting global challenges through deep understanding and love for community as an embodied philosophy of living – and that this is both strategic and effective.
The author Junot Diaz, voicing a prevailing and justified sentiment, recently said, “When I think about what is required for all of us to live on this planet, it’s going to be the kinds of solidarities and the kinds of civic imaginaries and the kinds of radical tolerances that we’re not seeing.” But the leaders profiled on the TCL site do, in fact, present us with examples of solidarities and civic imaginaries and radical tolerances. They understand that human beings are not data points (and it feels to me like so much of our social impact sector frames humans as just that), but that we are complex beings who coexist and bump up against each other while carrying entirely complicated, and sometimes contradictory, beliefs and cultures and processes. Each of the leaders profiled understands this about human beings and human systems, and understands therefore that the process of social change is similarly complex and messy. They understand the need for movement in our movements. They carry a sophisticated understanding of power, who holds that power, and how to harness the messy process of change by using collective action and targeted narratives to start shifting power from moneyed interests and unsupportive state actors back to the community level.
In an age when we see a crisis of leadership around the world, these leaders give me hope.