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Uncomfortable Essay #11: Making the "Challenge of Change" into "Change we can believe in".

MARCH 9, 2009

(Uncomfortable Essays #1-10 can be accessed beginning at http://www.mapm.org/presidentsmemo/2008/09/ You can easily sign up for RSS feed of this occasional blog (usually about once a month or so. Instructions at right on this page.)

Change is inevitable, but growth is optional.” Michael Fullan

January 9, 2009, I clicked “publish” on Essay #10 in this series. Eleven days later, President Barack Obama was sworn into office, bringing a promise of “Change we can believe in.” Six weeks after Inauguration Day polls show that the American public is united (almost 3-1) with the President on his plans to attack the daunting menu of dilemmas which greeted him on his first day in office. The opposition with its more than ample megaphone is attempting to stymie his efforts, or at minimum, to make all efforts appear like failures, and to replace hope with fear of change.

Some of the people who helped elect President Obama are already disappointed that he seems not to be addressing their particular issue, or not addressing it aggressively enough. “He’s selling us out”, some already suggest.

Welcome to the most powerful, daunting and thankless job in the world: President of the United States.

What gives me hope? As long as your hope is committed in action, then hope is alive in the world.”
Julia Butterfly Hill

What’s past has always helped give me context. Back in the 1990s, I attended a stimulating series of annual conferences put on by a major national organization for which I was then a staff member.

The conferences were titled “Challenge of Change”, and staff people and leaders came from around the country to participate. We were in a pleasant resort setting. There were stellar speakers and workshops, all built around the theme of Change. The Conference was in March, too cool to golf, and sometimes snowy (perhaps the better to keep our focus on the reason we were at the Resort Center in the first place.)

After the conference, we went home to our respective states, all charged up. It wasn’t long, though, when the dreaded status quo took hold, perhaps even before we’d cleared the hotel checkout. Even the well intentioned found a back home crowd who hadn’t been there, and may even have resented their colleagues ‘junket’.

The Challenge of Change is an immense one, whether talking about an individual project to, for example, lose weight; or helping bring deep and meaningful change to an organization, regardless how large or small that organization might happen to be.

And now we have a new President elected and inaugurated and committed to change a system of over 300,000,000 people, organized into many states, part of a large and complex world.
Barack Obama needs our help, one action at a time, here, now. This goes as well for our Senators, Congresspeople and other lawmakers who share all or some of our values. If we could mentally divide the huge population pie called the United States into a manageable slice, say helping two more people get engaged, and encouraging them to do the same for two more, we could “get ‘er done”. But will we?

Jermitt Krage, who spent an entire career as an organizer, and continues to be a leader in retirement says this: “Sustaining engagement is critical. Support from others is a strong, necessary motivator.” Be critical, yes, but back the criticism with very affirmative supportive action. People who represent you need to know they’re not alone.


There are books written about change, and consultants who make very large fees consulting about change. For whatever it is worth, here are a few thoughts I had around the “turn of the century” in 2001 on why change is so difficult to effect. (The article, with graphic, is accessible at January, 2002, http://www.outsidethewalls.org/outside_archive1.html.)

The reality is simple: CHANGE is TOUGH and SLOW, and consequently, most often AVOIDED. FEAR is a factor (as in "cold sweat").

Almost always, in change, things seem to - and often do - get worse before they get better. You know why this is, from personal changes you've wished to make in your own life. Indeed, the challenge of change seems parallel to the famous Stages of Grief identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. First, there is DENIAL AND ISOLATION ("we're okay"); then ANGER ("kill the messenger who carries the bad news"); then BARGAINING, DEPRESSION, and finally, ACCEPTANCE.

A reasonable schematic about the dilemma of the process of change is illustrated [at the above website]. The [straight] red line indicates the status quo – [the steady state], the comfort zone for most of us in most of our lives. We stay with the familiar, whether that is good or bad. The green [ascending] line symbolizes something better if we change; but the inevitable[initial] dip, symbolized in yellow, often sabotages our best efforts - and we quit before the good change can kick in.”

Unfortunate but true, almost always there is an “inevitable dip” as change begins that is the killer in most change efforts. Ask anyone who’s trying to replace a bad habit with a better one. Before it gets better, it gets worse…the temptation is to quit: end of effort, back to the less desirable status quo.

Unfortunately, also, ACCEPTANCE is often a last minute acknowledgement after all else has failed, and there is truly no remaining hope. In this case, we get around to accepting our own responsibility to be cause in the matter of change when it is too late. Losing hope could happen to Obama himself. Another long-time organizer, Bob Barkley, says “this factor may well happen to Obama himself as well as to the rest of us.” We need to change our own attitudes, acting early and constantly towards the possibility of positive change, and in the process raise up the President in his administrations efforts.

Again, as Michael Fullan said “Change is inevitable, but growth is optional.” According to Barkley, “the point is that change is going to happen in spite of us, but if it happens because of us, it would be nice if it could be called progress.”


The question becomes, what are we going to do to make “Change we can believe in” meaningful? It is impossible, after all, for a single person, the President, to effect the change. He can make change possible, but our “boots on the ground” are what will make the difference.

A big temptation will be to revert to old behaviors: “I’ll start tomorrow…or next week”; “I need to read one more book, go to one more speech – then I’ll know enough”…. We all have our favorite dodge. As one who’s “been there, done that”, there are no excuses. None of us have to leave town or impact on thousands to make Change real. We just need to have the will to do so with a few.

We need to be up to the task. Without us, positive change won’t happen.


Leaving an inspirational talk by Green Economy leader Van Jones on March 5, we were each given a business card sized piece of paper on which three quotations were printed. These quotations seem to be a fitting call to action for us all, to make positive change happen in our families, communities, states, nations and world. The first, from Julia Butterfly Hill is near the beginning of this essay.

The others:

I think the most hopeful thing that I can point out to you is look to your left and look to your right. Look at the beautiful people who are around you right now…We don’t need any hero on a white horse. We are the people we’ve been waiting for. You already have within you enough love to save the planet.”
Van Jones

Every single one of us can do something to make a difference. You can. You can. You can. I can. God bless you.”
Bishop Desmond Tutu

The change curve applies to every one of us who, in one way or another, supported then-candidate Obama’s “Change we can believe in.”

Let’s disprove Pogo’s famous quotation “We have met the enemy…and he is us”. http://www.igopogo.com/we_have_met.htm

Go forth.

Among an endless array of resources, check these: http://www.vanjones.net; http://www.greenforall.org; http://www.earthcouncils.org


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 9, 2009 9:15 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Thoughts following the Inauguration, January 20, 2009.

The next post in this blog is Uncomfortable Essay #12: Revisiting the "Proles" and George Orwell's 1984.

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