Who creates change?

Watching the US election numbers turn over peacefully and, as President Elect Joe Biden said at one point, ‘numbingly’, I am as always inspired by the power of people’s movements. Democracy is surely one of its best expressions – formalised, organised and at its best when entrenched and protected in the life of a nation.

In other places, and under different systems, people power takes on other forms to create change, whether on the small or larger scale. Online-driven social change being a case in point.

I have spent decades living inside democracies and taking part in creating change – at times spanning one election cycle but more often over many. Pursuing reconciliation; social justice reform; addressing systemic racism and disadvantage take many cycles.

It takes at least a decade for long term change to enter the public consciousness, to even begin to take hold. I know for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and you need to prepare for backlash. I know that to sustain a change in social attitudes you must first aim for 15% support within the population and then focus on the next 10%. It is not until you gain over 30% support that long term momentum can be sustained.

I also know that you need collaborators in every sector – a wide network of support – not just within your own sphere. In May 2000, close to one million people walked across bridges in Australia in support of Aboriginal reconciliation. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was full for hours, Australians walking for change, and with the Indigenous Australian flags flying high above, it was an amazing sight. The momentum had been building for decades. It accelerated with the concerted ten year effort in the 1990s to bring all sectors and every part of society on board. Everyone was asked to take responsibility for action wherever they were – at work, at home and in the community. The energy hasn’t stopped but it does need to be reignited. Entrenched disadvantage and systemic racism remains in Australia and it must be called out.

I also have a memory of significant justice reform occurring in Victoria when there was the right people in the right places at the same time. They were all committed to change: the Premier; Attorney-General; Police Commissioner; the Justice Department Head and a number of senior Court Justices. This doesn’t always happen but when it does, the synergy is powerful.

What creates change? Patience and impatience possibly in equal measure. And who creates change? People, lots of them – all of them well informed and committed. Anything else? A system that is open and free, one that embraces and protects the very process of change. Our community, our world, our future deserve nothing less.

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