Insiders, outsiders, and change agents

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 will 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. But it’s also easy to mistake incremental change for systemic change and to get caught up in 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 lobbing grenades from the sidelines rather than engaging the real world.

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 activist whose writings over the last 15 years have been defining what he calls the “radical middle.” Mark went to law school in his 40s, desirous of having more of an impact within the mainstream. (We met when he was a student in my lawyering skills course at NYU.) You can infer some of his 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.

It takes both

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

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. 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.

Above all, however, I have come to value, from a systems analysis perspective, the roles of well-meaning insider and outsider stakeholders 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.

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