Transformation happens one step at a time

As we discuss the importance of focusing on transformation, we need to remember that it happens one step at a time.

I was reminded of this listening to the Fundraising is Beautiful podcast. Jeff Brook and Steven Screen remind listeners to do one thing at a time.

They point out that many fundraising efforts fail when they try to accomplish too much at once. They try to educate, inspire grassroots lobbying, show impact, fundraise, raise awareness and more all in one communication. Jeff and Steven point out that when you try to do all that at once, you usually fail at everything.

Instead, they recommend doing one thing at a time. If it’s a fundraising letter, focus the letter on raising funds. Then you can follow up with showing impact or educating in the newsletter.

A key part of their argument is that you have a relationship with your members, so over time you can work on your laundry list of goals, but it has to happen one action at a time.

So while I’m championing the importance of transformation, likewise transformation happens one step at a time.

You can’t transform someone from a passive bystander to an uber-activist in one step; and you’ll probably scare them away if you try.

So plan each action with an eye toward transformation and recognize you’ll get there one step at a time.

Thoreau on the importance of seeking transformation.

Here’s one more plug for why it’s important to be rigorous in pursuing social transformation.

“For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.”
-Henry David Thoreau

Stories of Transformation: The Congregation

"torture is wrong" banner at First Baptist of Ann ArborJennifer Mills‘ story is a poignant example of personal transformation. Working for an interfaith organization, I also see transformation within religious communities.

Let me give you two examples from the Banners Across America anti-torture effort.

In this campaign, some congregations signed on that we knew would support it. For example, the local Quaker meeting and ministry partnership of Northside Presbyterian and St. Aidan’s Episcopal have strong histories of speaking out on social justice issues.

It was easy to convince them to put up banners.

But not every congregation was as easy.

One of our board members attends a local congregation that has a history of being more moderate. They tend to avoid social issues. So when he brought the banner idea to the Church Council, he faced a harder sell.

Is it too political? Will it alienate members?

After an hour of debate, the vote came in: a unanimous vote for hanging the banner.

It was a transformation for this church from not talking much about these issues to actively engaging with them. Furthermore, it was a transformation from discussing the issue within the church walls to visibly taking a stand in public.

The pastor has told me that he thinks that years from now the congregation will look back at this decision and see it as the turning point when the congregation decided to go “the Jesus way” of speaking out on moral issues like torture.

That’s transformation!

Another board member had a similar challenge when she brought the banner to her church. In the end, her congregation decided they didn’t have enough unity to hang a banner; but they did agree to host forums to discuss the issue within the congregation.

This too is transformation. This is engaging a congregation that hasn’t been very involved and reaching out to people who don’t yet agree with this position. It’s reaching new audiences. And I’m as satisfied by this “engaged no” as I am with the easy yes from the Quaker meeting.

Stories of Transformation: The Individual

I’m pushing transformation hard right now for two reasons.

First, it’s why we’re here. If we’re not going to be serious about work for social transformation, we might as well go home.

Second, transformation is possible. Here’s one example of individual transformation and helping someone grow from inactive to being an amazing organizer.

Every fall at the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ) we organize a delegation to the School of the Americas Watch rally and vigil in Ft. Benning, GA.

Three years ago Jennifer Mills was a first-year student at the University of Michigan. She had planned on going down to Georgia on the bus organized by the Adrian Dominican Sisters, but her test schedule didn’t allow that.

So she road with us.

I’ll be honest, we didn’t give her the most comfortable of trips; especially after other folks locked her out of the room we had booked for her.

Maybe it was because of her experience sleeping in the car that the next year she came to me and said, “we should bring our own bus.”

I was skeptical; busses are expensive. But I supported Jennifer, and I’m glad she did.

She worked hard to fill the bus. She created a partnership with the UAW to fill the seats. She found campus funding to help cover costs.

Thanks to her, for the last two years we’ve taken a bus to Ft. Benning.

Before she came down on that first trip, Jennifer was not an activist. Today, Jennifer is on the ICPJ Board, she’s received a peacemakers award from Pax Christi of Michigan, and she’s looking to follow Dr. Paul Farmer’s example of ensuring that the world’s poorest have access to quality healthcare.

Now ICPJ can’t take credit for all the hard work Jennifer has done, but by giving her a structure and support to grow as an activist ICPJ has been part of her personal growth and transformation as an activist.

Transformation is possible, and Jennifer is an excellent example of it.

What transformation means for me

I wrote earlier about the importance of seeking social transformation.

I intentionally never defined that term; it will be different for different contexts.

For me and for my context as an interfaith peace and justice organizer, here is what transformation means to me:

  • Transformation of individuals: Changing the way a person relates to a concern, especially what they do about it. Maybe it transforms them from being actively proclaiming that global warming is a hoax to just being quiet about the issue. Or, it could mean that they grow from taking individual action for peace in Iraq to organizing their neighborhood to take action together.
  • Transformation of congregations: Just like individual transformation, congregational transformation happens along a continuum. It can mean getting a congregation that is hostile to faith-rooted concern for the peace to give it a fair hearing; or it could mean moving discussion of social justice concerns from the social hour to the pulpit. Or, in the case of the Banners Across America anti-torture banner campaign, it could mean moving the discussion from inside to outside the congregation walls.
  • Transformation of society is changing policies or structures to make a more just and peaceful world, which can be anything from increasing funding for food stamps, improving public transformation, getting peace education in the schools, or a whole lot more.

There are many ways to envision transformation, but we won’t create it unless we know what we’re trying to create.

What does transformation mean to you?

Let’s get serious about transformation

 I'm looking through you by Morti RiuuallonWhat if we only did things that we knew would contribute to social transformation?

What if we agreed to never again do a half-hearted speaking event or a ten-person rally?

Sometimes as organizers we set our goals too low. We’re content with vague ideas of “raising awareness” or “speaking out” without really seeing how it will really make a difference.

I challenge all of you in social change work to set the bar high for program you do, so that whatever you do truly promotes transformation.

Transformation can take many forms; I’m not going to dictate what it should mean for you and your organization. In another post I’ll share what it means for me.

I am going to insist, though, that you relentlessly pursue social transformation. Cut away everything that does not vigorously promote transformation.

Otherwise we’re just going through the motions.