How to Develop Social Change Programs that Stand the Test of Time

By Richard C. Close

BOX. Imagine a champion football team that is highly trained and ready. The coach gets them psyched up in the locker room. As they run out onto the field, they hear 50,000 people cheering. However, when they arrive on the field, there are no goals. Unthinkable in sports and yet we build many social change programs and country education systems like this all the time.

Academia claims it wants to transform poverty; however it must transform core principles in how it views experiential learning and evaluates what success means to the student.

What must really change? Negative culture values as well as bad corporate ethics run deep into individual characters and institutions. In addition, hate, abuse and institutional racism or classism sometimes infects us in subtler forms such as: favoritism, better grades or exclusive opportunities. A tall good looking white female or very handsome African will have an easier time opening doors for sales or climbing corporate ladders. No matter what the driving value system, favoritism or addictions are deep visceral values that are not only hard to change but manage the world around us.

Box: STEM testing of a country’s students only provides data about how well the curriculum was designed and how the children were drilled. It does not provide a measure for how they will succeed in life or if they can even find a job.  Our current forms of measurement are nothing more than the self-justification of a publisher’s curriculums and authoritarian academic fads. Academia is tap dancing around the real issues of why we seek an education, quality of life and employment.

How to raise a child for quality of life? Change starts to happen when we experience something in our core when we know something is wrong or should be improved. For years, education theory has arrogantly viewed youth and adults like empty buckets. Obviously these theorists have not taught kindergarten or in the hood. In addition, behaviorists believe the environment makes us who we are. Yet new research from Yale’s Baby Lab clearly demonstrates that an infant at the age of three months has a clear idea of right and wrong. Google “60 Minute Yale Baby Lab.” It turns out that babies also understand how to reward positive bunny behavior they observed. This means that right and wrong are intrinsic to the human experience; they are not relative religious concepts.

Values have Value: There is an argument that it is dangerous to teach values because this is religious thought. My experience is that whenever any learning is taking place, what always takes place is that the learning environment imprints the values of the teacher and institution with the lesson’s knowledge. We learn and are taught values no matter what we do, because everything is in context with something else.  Selfishness, atheism or even apathy are all values contained in a learning experience. The only question is, what are the values being adopted during the lesson. Think of the variances of teacher attitudes and their impact as you went through school.

In order to build a program that requires individuals or institutions to change behavioral values systems, several things must take place in sequence. First, they must witness that something is wrong and perceive it as wrong. Second, they must see that the right behavior is better for them personally. Third, they must adopt the training personally.  Fourth, they must enter into a social environment that supports the positive change. This last point is the tricky one, and the one most avoided by school and NGO analytics. Corporate training fails when someone is blocked from using the newly trained methods. A weekend retreat may train employees to trust and be creative yet when they return to work they must deal with an arrogant VP with a Napoleonic complex. In another case, someone may convert to a religion that mandates to love one another and then return to a community of hate. A woman certified in Microsoft is force to marry a husband in a mud home. These are all real scenarios that conveniently evade Measurement and Assessment analysis. The real goal post for K-12 analytics is if once they graduated, they found a nice job and found meaning in life.

BOX: Transformational Learning is experiential. Developing programs for social change requires four kinds of experiences for deep change to take place. First, to have a disruptive experience that shows that the current behavior is wrong. Second is to acquire the skills and values of the right behavior. Third is to adopt the new knowledge as part of them. Fourth is also the hard part. The changed person must experience that their new positive skills will be a support to them and they can survive in an environment that may be hostile.

Academia’s current religion of “relativeness” states that values are relative. There are few concepts that are further from the reality, but this is the new Harvard education fad. When human values drift, or are snuffed out, personal and global atrocities are soon to follow. All great leaders of Peace: Rev. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Rev. Desmond Tutu are those of deep spiritual values, not to mention America’s founding fathers. The paradigms of greed vs. love are not relative by any means. The values of men who bring peace and those who bring oppression are very different.

Programs such as Nancy Regan’s “Just say no” simply do not work. Bad habits come from social/personal conditioning and transformation needs to also come from a deep and reinforcing social experience. Destructive traits need to be extracted the same way they were integrated into the person. A compliance course on sexual harassment, billboard or poster is unlikely to do the trick. Real social change needs both the personal internal framework to change and the collective of human collaboration to bring it about. When programs are asking for the reversal of entrenched generational value systems in a few hours or the same in a 28 second commercial, they may spark something, but not start the fire of transformation.

For those of us in the training and transformation business, media programs such as, “Youth for Human Rights,” and the movie, “Freedom Writers,” are excellent in presenting the first phase of shock that something is wrong. Yet just showing this material to youth and educators will not bring about change. Youth must adopt knowledge by understanding what to do when rights are violated. NGOs such as develop curriculum around these films. Youth must experience through bold and piercing experiences that there is a way out of the old negative patterns and that way will be rewarded. In the true story of Freedom Writers, South LA gang member students are taken into the Holocaust Museum to experience the ultimate gang, the Nazis. Then they get to meet actual victims of Auschwitz and the women that protected Ann Frank.  Yet even as powerful as this movie is, faculty that see it, and are deeply moved, know that when they walk into the school on Monday morning, their hands and mouths are tied by current administration and curriculum.

In many ways, the struggle of Christianity over the years is evidence of this process. Jewish traditions (2000 year ago) that were based on many strict laws institutionalized the hate of the Samaritans and the marginalization of women. These teachings collided with the Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ challenge as an educator was that His core twelve teachers were of the Jewish Religion at the time. Jesus used two methods of training. First, parables that set up a mental framework of right and wrong based on the primary value, “Love one another.” Second, He repeatedly demonstrated and broke unjust laws: touching lepers, dealing with money changers, the hypocrite’s displays of false prayer, embracing tax collectors, working on Sunday and of course the forgiveness of the adulterous women shattered the judgmental framework of the Jewish traditions within His teachers. Jesus also favored the poor over the rich, another dangerous radical idea. (Note: modern day Judaism does not represent the oppressive social version at that time.) Third, the apostles needed to adopt His teachings and follow them against dire consequences by severing people of need the same way Jesus did. Fourth, they had to witness the building of the Christian culture and that the teaching to love one another was possible.

I’ve pointed out change to right behavior must have fertile ground to grow in and be supported. Christians met in small groups at that time, the same way they do in China today. Small secret groups support one another while learning how to love one another. This is what academics call collaborative constructionism.  How ironic it is that the behavior of Christian groups has moved onto Twitter and Facebook. Jesus created the modern day collaborative training model for sustainable global change.

Without social reinforcement the training dies. What is interesting about using Christianity as a case for global social change is how many churches lost the radical teachings of Jesus. Politics, fear, arrogance and money took them over leaving physical shells of the original teachings.  Without the first two parts of change: to witness what is wrong and to have the skills to fix it, the church under Rome’s culture, went on for thousands of years embracing judgment, power, oppression and cultural separation. No matter how scholarly the lecture is from the pulpit, a church that does not provide the experience to “love one anther” is empty and dead to the original teachings of Jesus. If the fourth phase of change is not reinforced by positive values once learned, that supportive, loving behavior dies and thereby stops the positive behavior. The result can twist an instruction to the point of Nazi flags in churches or church massacres in Rwanda.

The take away with social change models is that we often underestimate that when someone acquire new knowledge and has the skills to evoke social change, they must also have the outlet to evoke that change and obtain social support for change to be integrated into life.  Educational programs that boast of high graduation rates yet ignore job placement, have left the US with over one trillion dollars of student debt and a stunning 50% underemployment rate. In Africa and throughout the world, we crank out STEM and Common Core students with no place to work on a regular basis claiming success in our measurement documents. These are staggering numbers that are ignored by student testing analytics.

In this picture, a young Kenyan girl finds a girl orphaned by the death of her parents. She picks her up and goes to the chief to report that she will take care of the child. From there, the woman brings the child into the orphanage where her mother works and she learns the skills to take care of a baby.

Like the rescue of this baby, we need social change programs that are complete solutions. In “Freedom Writers,” we not only need to illustrate what is wrong, we must provide youth with the skills (including values) and an avenue for the individual to find purpose and meaning in their life with these new beliefs. Schools and government curriculum must be held accountable for unemployment, crime rates and our growing poverty. Only when we connect these dots will real positive social change through Measurement and Evaluation take place.

Dr. Joni Schwartz, who developed the Downtown Learning Center with 700 adult learners and 200 plus volunteers, once told me, “Young men of color do not drop out of New York City schools. They are called ‘Push Outs’.” In research, over 90% of young men of color, when asked if they wanted to drop out said, “No.” The hostile environment of the hood and a grading system of punishment pushes them out. When we use the words “Push Outs” the result of the research changes into hard truths, because the burden of success falls back on the government.

While developing a life skills curriculum for a US women’s homeless center, all of the classes were in groups. The curriculum was simple outlines of deep questions about how they deal with the real world once they get out of the mission. We saw great transformation, such as diet changes and dealing with families, but it was not from either the information presented or personal reflection. It was the power of collaborative group support that ranged from sobbing regret into cheers. In every class was the element of surprise that was not in the curriculum; it was with the profound life experiences of the women. In one class, an elderly woman abused and addicted since early child hood said she could not write and no one was interested in what she had to say. One of the women saw she was holding a piece of crumpled paper and they all cajoled her to read it. Only until one of the women said, “You are among friends who love you. None of us are perfect. Please share.” Nervously she read her poem, struggling to read her own words. We were all blown away by this brilliant poem and brought to tears with half of the group leaping onto her couch to hold her. Even now I cry thinking about it. Life can be unfair, mean, selfish and hard; we need experiences of opposing good to transform people. In another case, a woman left a program early to return to drinking with friends in high society. She honestly thought she was strong enough, yet within a few months, she took her life.

Trauma from social injustice is just like a hurt child; she must find safe human arms to run into to be healed. Without safe loving environments to heal (and grow) in, life can leave scars that never heal.  Poverty is a state of trauma for both children and adults, we must deal with these values concurrently with state mandated curriculums. The healing of Rwanda, Germany and Japan are all evidence that we must bring reconciliation and peace to traumatized people to help them believe and integrate hope into their lives. Real honest social change programs take time, lots of time.

America is the symbol of equality and yet it is still healing from its civil war and slavery. We had a slaughter in a North Carolina church, yet it was met with the entire town uniting in protest declaring, “This is not who we are.” We are stunned when we see race riots in Baltimore, but then we also see a human barrier of people walking between the angry youth and a violent police force shutting down these riots.  All of this is evidence that there is hope in the collaborative experiences of life. Perhaps we still are the Yale babies who know right from wrong.

If you are developing a program for social change, keep in your heart that “learning is a social experience.” The campaigns may start a media spark of change, but it will only reach its objectives by being supported with the experience of a collaborative loving people. We cannot just train. We must prove that our program works.

Richard C. Close, IDTMS has over 25 years in the corporate, education and NGO learning industries. He is developer of the Global Learning Framework and CEO-Servant of the Chrysalis Campaign, Inc. that provides transformation learning programs. Authored several book on transformation of the poor. His work can be seen at


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