The social sector invests heavily in the tools of social change. But tools don’t build or fix things. People do. Specifically, it’s social change leaders with vision — shaped by love and intellect — that wield tools effectively (see parts #1 and #2 of this series). We must invest in developing highly effective social change leaders to create a more just and equitable society.
But, this leaves us with a very important question:
How do we develop social change leaders of this caliber?
Origins of Social Change Leaders
Great social change leaders like those mentioned in previous posts (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Yunus) are treated like charismatic super heroes. It’s assumed their exceptional vision is a supernatural power.
The truth is, they are humans who lived and learned. Their experiences, studies, and personal reflection developed their capacities for love and intellect. Their love was agape love, which requires empathy for all, even those who oppress. It also requires faith in everyone’s capacity for that same love. Their intellect was couched in honesty, humility, and determination to pursue truth to empower all. Their love and intellect continually shaped the vision with which they wielded the tools of social change effectively. They were not born with these exceptional capabilities.
When we founded Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB), we believed these capabilities could be developed.
Teaching Love and Intellect
TBB seeks students with aspirations of social change leadership. During a critical period of their development, we provide them carefully structured learning opportunities that challenge and support them as they shape their capacities for love and intellect. The entire process happens as each student creates a vision for how she’ll address critical global issues.
Students participating in our programs are 17-19 years old: a critical developmental period as they shape their adult identity. They’re thinking critically about the values they grew up with. Their brains are developing the ability for meta-cognition — seeing the “big picture,” the players involved, and the dynamic ways they relate to one another. They’re shaping a vision for who they want to be and what they want to accomplish. They’re ready to be challenged, and they need to be supported.
Challenging and supporting students requires a carefully structured learning environment. During TBB’s Global Gap Year, for example, students study HIV/AIDS and public health in South Africa. They live in a wealthy White community while doing fieldwork in surrounding townships. As students develop relationships with their host families, the health care workers they shadow, and patients in the townships, they examine the varying perspectives of the many players in a complex system.
Agape love is developed through social, cultural, and emotional learning. TBB students naturally feel empathy for the patients as they fight for health with virtually no resources. But, those same students often struggle to find empathy for their more privileged host families. The host families pose a problem: they show love to the student despite being virtual strangers, but often fail to show the same love to members of their local community. This creates cognitive dissonance for the students. Through structured analysis, students are pushed beyond seeing oppression in South Africa as the result of the malevolence of wealthy White citizens. Rather, the TBB program and curriculum challenges students to look for factors within the cultural, political, and social systems that prevent agape love from creating greater equity and justice.
Developing an intellect rooted in honesty, humility, and a determination to pursue truth to empower all means unraveling how we learn. The readings and seminars of the TBB curriculum add to the dynamic reality students encounter each day in the host community. The students explore the roles of drug makers and intellectual property law. They explore policies that have slowed and sped the spread of HIV. They explore the roles of foundations that have to make decisions about which diseases to treat and what to research. Through the examination of the myriad of related issues, students see the dynamic and complex nature of public health. By juxtaposing the perspectives of authors with those of patients and care workers in the host communities, students learn to treat every perspective as valid. Learning in this way builds a sense of humility; students are taught to value questions that lead to dynamic understanding rather than simple answers.
The TBB curriculum challenges students to question their assumptions about themselves and the world. As they do, they find core values and beliefs that conflict, resulting in cognitive dissonance. In South Africa, many TBB students confront their assumptions regarding the ability of the West to solve the problems faced on the continent of Africa. As they come to know brilliant and committed local people and the incredible complexity of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, it seems ludicrous that they ever believed they could be uniquely qualified to address such issues as Westerners. Through seminars and discussions, the students examine the origins of those assumptions, and how “Western culture” has shaped their world view. Analyzing these points of cognitive dissonance pushes students toward intellectual honesty.
This learning process is neither easy, nor linear. Each student encounters a wide range of thoughts and emotions. Their understanding of the world, its issues, and their individual capacity to create change evolves. The end result is a belief in agape love and a well-honed intellect that work together to create a vision of a more just and equitable world, and an understanding of how that individual student can lead most effectively.
Developing this love and intellect doesn’t happen simply by sending students abroad. It takes fieldwork partners and host families who are willing to take emotional and intellectual risks. It takes teachers with exceptional skill in creating a challenging and supportive learning environment. It takes a curriculum that teaches how to think, not what to think. It takes time and faith that each student will reshape their learning. It takes a major investment to help each student develop the capacities of love and intellect that will make them exceptional social change leaders.
This can be done. Thinking Beyond Borders’ gap year programs serve as one example of the possibilities for creating social change leaders.
The tools of social change are important. Improving them and teaching about them is key to equipping social change leaders. But, without a highly developed vision for social change leadership — based on a conscientious development of love and intellect — those who go into the world wielding powerful tools like social innovation run the risk of creating more harm than good.