Setting agendas for positive social change

In considering how to create positive change in our society, a simple framework offered by author and entrepreneur Seth Godin continues to profoundly shape my thinking. Here’s what I wrote back in 2010:

In his 2008 book Tribes, Seth Godin identifies three things that organizations and individuals do: React, respond, and initiate.

Reacting to external events is ”the easiest thing.”  It is “intuitive and instinctive and usually dangerous.”  Too many politicians and managers merely react to developments thrust upon them, and often badly.

Responding is “the second easiest thing.”  Responding to “external stimuli with thoughtful action” is “a much better alternative” to simply reacting. A response requires deliberation and planning.

Initiating is by far the most challenging of the three, but it is “what leaders do.”  They see a void or need and act upon it, thereby causing “events that others have to react to.”  They seize and create the agenda. They are the true change agents.

Godin’s framework has been vividly brought to life for me in a cluster of personally important subject areas. Here are a few thoughts on each:

Workplace bullying

When I first contacted Drs. Gary & Ruth Namie about their brand-new Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (now the Workplace Bullying Institute) in 1998, I had little idea that the fledgling initiative would have such a significant and still growing impact on employee relations in the United States and beyond. Now I can look back and see the influence of their body of work, which includes public education, research and analysis, assistance to bullying targets, media outreach, law reform advocacy, and organizational advising.

Today, workplace bullying is a topic of increasing attention at professional and academic conferences, in legislatures and courtrooms, and in corporate meeting rooms, organizational coaching programs and union halls. The messages vary, and at times raise honest points of disagreement, but they unite on this: Workplace bullying is destructive to individuals and organizations alike, and we have to take it more seriously.

Those early conversations with the Namies led to my offer to research the legal aspects of workplace bullying, which culminated a 200o law review article that set the stage for my later drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill, currently under consideration in state legislatures across the country. Earlier this week, I saw the degree to which workplace bullying has entered the mainstream of our discussions about employee relations when I joined many others at the Massachusetts State House in testifying in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In sum, a phrase that was virtually unknown in the U.S. some 15 years ago is now the centerpiece of a growing, cross-disciplinary, and multi-faceted grassroots movement to affirm employee dignity and to make our workplaces healthier and more productive. To me this captures the heart of Godin’s framework: If you see a problem or obstacle, initiate change rather than merely react or respond to it.

Human dignity perspectives on law, politics, and society

For many years my own scholarship was shaped by liberal-leaning, reform-minded thinking that was more implicit than explicit in my actual writings. Though on the political scale I’m clearly more left than right, I’ve tended to resist rigid theories or ideologies, believing that they often serve to constrict our views rather than enlighten them. However, two entities have overcome that resistance by their very flexibility and insight. Together they are helping to advance a societal perspective that embraces and advances human dignity through informed, respectful, and spirited inquiry and thoughtful action.

Therapeutic jurisprudence

Some five years ago I started looking more closely at a school of legal thought known as therapeutic jurisprudence. TJ, as it is commonly referenced, examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law, legal practice, and legal education. I discovered the TJ community as a result of my work on workplace bullying and employment law & policy generally, and I have found it to be a welcoming home for my legal scholarship.

TJ’s adherents do not claim that it should be sole lens through which we view law and public policy. However, it serves as an important complement to prevailing tendencies to view law from the perspectives of either economics (leaning right) or rights (leaning left). I would characterize my TJ worldview this way: How can our laws and legal systems best advance individual and societal well-being?

Toward that end, I’ve expressly incorporated TJ perspectives in recent law review articles on employee dignity, employment law and practice, and the culture of legal scholarship. Here also is a brief report on a TJ workshop I participated in last year.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network

It’s no coincidence that around the time I discovered therapeutic jurisprudence, I also became part of a wide-ranging, global assemblage scholars, practitioners, and activists who form the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network. Here’s how HumanDHS describes its mission:

We are a global transdisciplinary network and fellowship of concerned academics and practitioners. We wish to stimulate systemic change, globally and locally, to open space for dignity and mutual respect and esteem to take root and grow, thus ending humiliating practices and breaking cycles of humiliation throughout the world.

We suggest that a frame of cooperation and shared humility is necessary – not a mindset of humiliation – if we wish to build a better world, a world of equal dignity for all.

I’ve written about HumanDHS on several occasions. Here, for example, is my brief report on its 2011 annual workshop in New York City, including a video link to a conversation between Human DHS founder Evelin Lindner and director Linda Hartling.

Unpaid internships

Back in 2002, I wrote a law review article positing that the widespread practice of unpaid internships not only was exploitative and exclusionary, but also likely violating minimum wage laws and denying interns protections under employment discrimination laws. The article didn’t get much attention inside or outside of academe until Ross Perlin referenced it in his important book, Intern Nation (2011), the first to comprehensively examine the social, economic, and legal dynamics of the “intern economy.” Soon afterward, Eric Glatt, a one-time unpaid intern for Fox Searchlight Pictures, used the article to inform his decision to file a pathbreaking lawsuit under federal and state minimum wage laws that, just two weeks ago, led to favorable ruling by a federal district court.

During the past two years, groups of (mostly) younger writers, activists, and students have coalesced to form a genuine social and legal movement against unpaid internships. My role in this has been mainly behind-the-scenes, participating in various social media discussions, passing on whatever information and insights I can offer, and serving as sort of a cheerleader and rooting section. From that perch, I have seen these folks make this movement their own.

They, too, have gone beyond reacting and responding. They are now initiating and defining the agenda. A simple message — Pay Your Interns — is buttressed by a conviction that unpaid internships exploit the interns, violate the law, and deny opportunities to those who cannot afford to work for free.

The takeaway point

Societal problems both big and small can seem insurmountable at times, and I won’t pretend to be a beacon of optimism about the way our world is going right now. Nevertheless, in tackling today’s challenges we need to get beyond that exasperating, sometimes crazy-making cycle of reacting and responding. Instead, we need to do our best to initiate and nurture agendas for positive change. Doing so does not guarantee success, but it’s really the only viable way to achieve it.


Related posts

10 ways to make a difference: Advice for change agents (May 2013)

Intellectual Activism (April 2013)


This post draws from a good half dozen pieces that I’ve written over the years, reflecting an ongoing process of integrating my ideas about social change. To long time readers, I beg your indulgence if some of this sounds a bit repetitive!

One response

  1. Thank you for your sustained efforts and for representing those being crushed by the system. It must be a great feeling to know that you have had such a positive impact. Congratulation on your successes.

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