In Support of Healthy Epidemics

I don’t go to a lot of conferences, but when I do, what I like most about the experience is meeting new people and being surprised by new information. More often than not I come away with a couple of new ideas to try or some great new contacts. Sometimes I even have an “aha” experience that raises my awareness about bigger-picture issues. That happened to me recently at a national nonprofit conference.

I don’t go to a lot of conferences, but when I do, what I like most about the experience is meeting new people and being surprised by new information. More often than not I come away with a couple of new ideas to try or some great new contacts. Sometimes I even have an “aha” experience that raises my awareness about bigger-picture issues. That happened to me recently at a national nonprofit conference.

During a break from the workshop schedule, I began chatting with another hotel guest, a sales representative whose wife was attending the conference. He was gregarious and well-spoken, and we talked easily about many things.

Towards the end of our chat, the conversation turned to current events, including terrorism. My companion casually informed me, with utter conviction, that there’s irrefutable evidence, cataloged on a website, that the real story of 9/11 has been covered up.

According to my break companion, there are eyewitnesses who saw planes with windows blacked out going into the Twin Towers, etc., etc. Neither the well-documented facts to the contrary nor the fact that I know 3 people whose close relatives were on those planes made any difference to him.

Combating ‘Don't Confuse Me with Facts’ Thinking

This exchange, so out of the blue, shook me. Over the next few days, my mind kept returning to it, trying to make sense of it. How could such an obviously intelligent person believe such a scenario? And then I saw a news story which reported that in many countries, belief in conspiracy theories about 9/11 has actually increased sharply during the past couple of years.

This all got me thinking about The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant book on “social epidemics” and how they spread. The book helps to explain how “don’t confuse me with the facts” can so easily become a snowballing, dominant way of thinking.

Reframing Our View

What does this mean for those of us doing social change work or supporting such efforts? It means that we can’t assume that if we just tell our stories enough times to enough people, they will be compelled to embrace our version of The Truth. As the Democratic Party has learned, that’s not a good enough strategy. There is no guarantee that our way of seeing the world will prevail and that everyone, seeing things our way, will join – or fund – us.

Especially because our sector has limited resources, if we want to make positive social change happen we need to be wiser and more focused in the way we go about our work. As Gladwell says, “The theory of Tipping Points requires that we reframe the way we think about the world.”

He makes a compelling case that by concentrating even modest resources on a few key areas and “by finding and reaching those few special people who hold so much social power, we can shape the course of social epidemics …”

The Power of ‘Intelligent Action’

For example, in 1992 several non-profit organizations and individuals came together after a year of discussion to formalize the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which calls for an international ban on the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel landmines, for increased international resources for humanitarian mine clearance, and increased international resources for mine victim assistance programs. Since those championing the issue received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, 154 countries have signed on as signatories/accessions to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

On the local level, much closer to home, the non-profit organization Direct Actions for Rights and Equality, DARE, organized high school students in the multicultural city of Providence, R.I., to design a curriculum in 1995 that recognized and celebrated the area’s rich diversity. After a long, involved campaign, DARE and the high school students in its ALL Youth program successfully advocated for the Providence School Board to implement E=MC2, Education Equals Multicultural Core Curriculum, in the city’s secondary schools.

As Gladwell tells us, “Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action.”

So let’s start some healthy social epidemics of our own.


In the ED Forum, TSNE’s Executive Director Jonathan Spack reflects on issues facing non-profit organizations in and around the Boston area and across the nation. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanSpack.


 

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