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The Tricky Business of Cultural Change

If real, radical cultural change is a goal of the Clinton Global Initiative, then real rich people are part of the problem and fundamental to the solution.

“We start where people are, but don’t accept that culture is ever an excuse.”

That was Mallika Dutt, the founder and director of Breakthrough, an international organization that changes cultural norms through 21st-century public awareness campaigns, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative last week. She was part of a session, titled Influencing Behaviors and Attitudes, along with Tostan’s Molly Melching and Unilever’s Miguel Pestana.

The conversation focused on how to change the harmful cultural norms of poor people. Pestana talked about educating people about germs and the simple intervention of regular hand washing. Dutt talked about Breakthrough’s highly successful Bell Bajao! campaign, which encourages male bystanders to “ring the bell” when they hear domestic violence afoot, ostensibly disrupting it and, in the process, taking responsibility for gender-based violence that they may previously have considered “personal business.” Melching spoke about using on-the-ground organizing coupled with powerbroker persuasion to make FGM (female genital mutilation) history in select African countries.

Audience questions followed about the challenges facing cultural entrepreneurs: How do you measure and communicate your impact? How do you keep things bottom-up, while still scaling out? How do you find the balance between researching and planning, and jumping in and learning?

In the midst of what was otherwise an enlightened conversation about the tricky business of cultural change, a glaring omission occurred. Not once did I hear this room of usual Clinton Global Initiative suspects—heads of state, corporate leaders, celebrities, and NGO leaders—apply these questions to, well, themselves. If real, radical cultural change is the goal, then real rich people are both part of the problem and fundamental to the solution.

Getting back to Dutt’s wise declaration: “Where people are,” in the case of the wealthy and altruistic, is conferences like CGI, TED, and Aspen Ideas—all of which I’ve attended in the last few years. While the fervor for good ideas and effective solutions is palpable at gatherings like these, too often there is an absence of self-scrutiny. I have frequently witnessed wealthy donors ask what others might do differently to make the world a better place—how, for example, can we get poor mothers to cook healthier food for their kids or speak and read more to their babies? But rarely have I witnessed them consider what role they might play beyond their pocketbooks—how, for example, might rich parents be perpetuating inequality by paying high end SAT tutors for their teenagers?

The most enlightened of philanthropists talk about their work with “doers” as relationship building, and yet, real relationships require reciprocal honesty and discomfort and growth. Imagine a panel called “Influencing Behaviors and Attitudes,” where corporate CEOs scrutinized whether the choices they’d made regarding corporate responsibility programs were effective and authentic or empty brand boosters. Imagine high-worth donors getting 360-degree feedback from their grantees about the ways in which their communication style and expectations, for example, hampered transparency in the process. Imagine a frank conversation about all these conferences and the financial and environmental resources that go into creating them.

It’s hard to imagine, I know, but there are wealthy donors who aren’t solely concerned with the behavior and attitudes of poor people, but their own as well. Resource Generation, for example, is an organization built by young wealth inheritors who were hungry for spaces to “come out” about their economic status and examine ways that they might share their wealth. New efforts, like the Slavery Footprint, which President Obama mentioned in his address at CGI, is another; you can answer a series of questions online and find out just how intertwined your consumer behaviors are with the modern slave trade.

Breakthrough’s model has largely been successful because it engages the privileged group in domestic violence—men—to examine their own behavior rather than putting it off on women. Dutt explains: “There is no attitude or behavior change that can lead to the kind of social transformation that we need at a paradigmatic level if it focuses only on the marginalized group, whether it be women, poor communities, people of color, ethnic or religious minorities.”

To be clear, I’m not calling for wealthy people to engage in self-flagellation. I’m calling for self-examination and potentially inconvenient behavior change, rooted not in guilt, but in a hunger for a better world. We need the kind of transparency that feels possible only when you care more about having an impact than you do about protecting your own reputation; when you care enough to be transformed by your work. We need radical humility and courageous, cross-class conversation. That would be a cultural shift worth investing in for all of us.

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