Insiders, outsiders, and change agents

Screenshot from Mark Satin’s Radical Middle Newsletter

It’s an ongoing, never settled debate: To create positive social change, is it better to work from within the established system, or to challenge the status quo from the outside? I think about this often, and here are a few quick thoughts, with a gentle warning that I engage in some abstract, academic-type reflection:

Advantages & disadvantages

The insider role, ideally, allows one to have some concrete say in how things are done. You’re inside the room, so to speak, and you have direct input. Not only do you have easier access to key stakeholders, but also you may be one yourself. In this role, however, it’s also easy to mistake incremental change for systemic change and to get caught up in institutional posturing and conventional perks of power.

The outsider role, ideally, allows one to advocate for change in a more visionary way, unfettered by internal politics. You’re able to say this is how it should be, without apologies. But one also can fall prey to playing the cheaper role of provocateur and making rash proposals, rather than engaging the real world. In addition, it can be frustrating to feel like you’re always looking in from the outside.

At times, individuals have wrestled with both roles. In this context I think often of Mark Satin, a political author, lawyer, and one-time 60s anti-war, left activist whose more recent writings have been defining what he calls the “radical middle.” After years of operating in the activist/writer circles of the left, Mark went to law school in his 40s, desirous of having more of an impact within the mainstream.

Fortuitously, Mark happened to pop up on the class roster of the first-year lawyering skills course I was teaching at NYU Law, where I was an entry-level instructor. While I helped to teach him basic legal research, writing, and advocacy skills, Mark shared with me his many experiences and lessons doing socially relevant journalism and commentary.

You can infer some of Mark’s internal dialogue on the insider vs. outsider question, and see how he came out on it, in this 2002 essay, Professional Schools Are Our Social Change Incubators Now. In another piece that discusses some of my work, Kleiner’s Good Corporate Guys Meet Yamada’s Good Corporate Laws, Mark explored related dimensions of internal organizational change versus legal reform imposed from outside.

It takes both

Both insider and outsider roles are necessary to make positive change. And over the courses of our lives, we may find ourselves alternating between those roles. One day you’re working for a grassroots non-profit organization advocating for policy change, the next you’re moving into the public sector to implement it.

Of course, it’s not always a matter of individual choice. Insider status requires the ability to enter the halls of power. If entrance is blocked, then one’s options boil down. Outsider status can require a bit of access to, lest someone be deemed too outside to have much of an impact.

It’s also worth noting that self-perceptions and perceptions of others may vary greatly. Someone who regards herself as a perennial outsider may be regarded as a consummate insider by others, or vice versa.

A third option?

Over the years I’ve had many conversations about the insider vs. outsider paradigm with Dr. John Bilorusky, a UC-Berkeley Ph.D. whose career in alternative higher education has included long service as co-founder and president of the Western Institute for Social Research, a tiny storefront college in Berkeley dedicated to education and activism for social change. Some of those long chats have centered on the idea of operating at the fault lines between insider and outsider status.

I traditionally have defined myself as an outsider advocating for change. But in recent years I’ve started to understand the wisdom of aiming for those fault lines. Ultimately, I have found myself drawn to the role of “edgewalker.” In her 2006 book, Edgewalkers: People and Organizations That Take Risks, Build Bridges, and Break New Ground, Judi Neal writes that the “Edgewalker is someone who walks between the worlds,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way. I’ve been assisted in tiptoeing the fault lines via my work as a professor at a law school with strong ties to the regional legal and public policy communities, keeping one foot in the world of ideas and the other in the world of practice and application.

Above all, however, I have come to value, from a systems analysis perspective, the importance of both insider and outsider roles in making positive change a reality. Accordingly, my best advice for prospective change agents is simple: Strive to find the role that feels right for you, understand its inherent strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and temptations, and go from there.


This post was revised in October 2021.

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