A Terrible Week: Moving the Needle on Social ChangeNSRLP
Last week I was fortunate to listen to a speech given in Essex County by Paul Schmitz (Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up, 2011) on the lessons of building community collaborations that “move the needle” on real social change. As well as being practical and concrete, Paul’s ideas resonate with those who believe in leadership by many – and that everyone – not just the “experts” or system insiders – has the potential to contribute to change.
Paul’s message of optimism and community spirit was especially welcome 24 hours after the appalling events in Orlando. Our shared sick feelings about the massacre in the LGBT nightclub in Orlando is a reaction to such a terrible expression of hatred – but the violence in Orlando is also the consequence of failure to move the needle on gun control in the US.
And then on Thursday came the murder of Jo Cox, the British MP, killed as she arrived to hold her regular office hours with constituents. Cox was shot and stabbed by a man who apparently hated immigrants, and therefore Cox’s pro-immigration views (Jo Cox was a lifelong advocate for diversity, immigration and multiculturalism (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/16/jo-cox-obituary). Britain is about to hold a national referendum on remaining part of the European Union, which all sides agree has turned into a referendum on immigration.
The murder of Jo Cox in the midst of a torrent of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the UK, and the slaughter of LGBT people by a man who targeted them (an American Muslim man, thereby igniting yet another trajectory of generalized hate against American Muslims) are desperate reminders of the danger of passively watching the rise of hate – and that accomplishing meaningful social change (on racism, on LGBT rights, on gun control) takes sustained, collaborative, and intentional action by communities.
It’s been a very difficult week. I cannot presume to know what these events mean or how they have affected the diverse readers of this blog. I can only offer my own efforts to make some sense of all this, and what it means for the work we do at NSRLP.
Moving the needle on Access to Justice for the thousands of Canadians who are no longer represented by lawyers appears an easier problem, at least not one that is a matter of life and death. Yet it seems to me to be essentially about the same challenge – how we understand, support, and respond to those who at some point in their lives (because there but for grace go we…) find themselves vulnerable and marginalized.
So how can we give ourselves the very best chance of success in moving the needle on Access to Justice – or any other social change?
- Phase one: begin with public awareness and accurate information about the problem
The events of this week illustrate the critical importance of obtaining accurate information to shape awareness and understanding of the problem. Without the data that the 2013 study (http://tinyurl.com/jq5qmyw) – and since then, others (http://tinyurl.com/hhq4jfy) – have provided, the misconception would persist that the large and growing numbers of individuals coming to court without counsel were “wannabe lawyers” spoiling for a fight. The reality is much simpler – they are people who cannot afford to spend what it would cost to have a lawyer fully represent them.
Accurate information about immigration – and the difference that leaving the EU would make – appears to be missing for a large number of the British public, who apparently believe that EU immigrants are “taking away jobs”, “taking away school places from our children”, and “clogging up the National Health System.” None of these statements are true (in fact, without the skills of immigrants, the NHS would be unable to function – and the immigrants who invoke their greatest fear are from Syria, not the EU, and leaving the EU will make no difference to the UK’s obligations towards Syrian refugees).
- Phase two: identify the result we want, and promote evidence-based solutions
Paul Schmitz says that effective social change begins with identifying the – concrete, measurable – result one wants.
We have pretty good data now showing that the following ideas, among others, would significantly move the needle on our A2J crisis.
- A combination of unbundled, fixed-fee and legal coaching services offered at affordable rates and available also via public assistance
- The regulated expansion of para-professional services
- The rapid and significant expansion of legal information services (supplemented by on-line resources) for SRLs
In 2013 I imagined – in hindsight, perhaps naively – that once the legal profession and government were aware of the extent of the A2J crisis and the actual reasons for it, solutions would follow. The legal profession would unite behind some common values of providing service to as many Canadians as possible. And government would recognize the need for creatively reimagining the structure and delivery of public legal aid, given limited fiscal resources.
Three years later, and with more advanced models and experience to shape solutions, the needle hasn’t budged much.
In 2016, there are a few networks of trailblazing practitioners who are offering affordable (unbundled, fixed-fee, coaching) legal services. In Ontario, para-legals are still prohibited from assisting with family work. Excellent new on-line resources have been created by nonprofits on minimal budgets, and staff in legal information centres are still completely overwhelmed by the numbers coming in the door everyday.
- Phase three: social change requires collaboration among many groups and leaders working in their own spheres of influence
This is the heart of the Paul Schmitz message – collective impact as leaders and groups collaborate.
Three years ago, I believed that as the A2J problem became clearer and the “obvious” solutions began to emerge, the legal profession and the government would take leadership in envisioning and implementing change.
I now realize that those of us who are committed to A2J will need to create our own alliances. This means that we need to plan and work together move the needle in our communities of practice – our law firm, our policy unit, our law school, courthouse, and social agency. We need to identify small collaborative projects that we have some chance of implementing, and that offer some measurable change for A2J in our backyards.
It’s a much slower and less dramatic way to move the needle on A2J than the “coming to Jesus” (sorry) I imagined in 2013. It’s a bit like individual states or even cities implementing gun control within their borders because legislators are unable to shake off their commitment to the gun lobby. As plain as just one family or community group stepping forward to utterly reject the racism underpinning the EU referendum narrative in the UK. It feels like small potatoes, yes.
But it’s the way forward.
Social change and individual empowerment
I shall leave the final word to Paul Schmitz, who reminds us that leadership on social change is not about “helping people”, but about empowering the members of our communities.
Because what matters is whether we can live with genuine respect for our differences – not because we have been “told” to, but because we support inclusion and tolerance.
What matters is whether people can come to believe in the justice system again, because they feel included, and respected.
“To solve our social problems in our communities, the solution must be to build stronger communities not just stronger programs and services. We forget that people live in communities and that families, friends, neighbors, and faith communities have always been the front lines of how communities solve problems.”
This is close to the only thing that helps me to feel optimistic right now. It’s been a terrible week.