Have you seen 12 Years a Slave? It’s a harrowing true story of an Afro-Caribbean free man from the northern states of the USA kidnapped and sold to the south in the early 1800’s.
The depiction of the way the the slaves were treated is distressing enough to watch on screen. So, to have been there and witnessed it happening in front of you? Horrid. But, at the time, would you have stood up? It’s not an easy question.
Slavery was (and in some cases still is) a global system of repression and abuse, with local systems to ensure that once people were in it there were few ways out. It’s a powerful example of how often the systems that need fixing are driven by a relative few, with loyal followers, who have created or perhaps inherited a culture of ‘that’s just how things are round here’. In the southern states many atrocities were committed in environments where blacks were in the majority. It’s not a question of numbers. It’s a question of a system that isolates individuals, creates vulnerability and fear, and prevents collective action. Many in the system know it’s not right, but it’s hard to put the finger on where the problem actually is, the implications of change are complicated and uncertain, and the consequences for challenging ‘the norm’ can be severe. So the majority often become participants, driven to take actions and hit targets that at some level they know are creating unwanted consequences.
Our work with catalysts and game-changing organisations show that there can be costs and penalties for standing up and trying to change systems. There is a 5 step model of systemic change that history repeats again and again: that the concepts for the new and better way are first ignored, then ridiculed, then fought, and then if they win, accepted, and finally they become the new unquestionable norms (there’s a danger in any system, or indeed person, that does not continue to question themselves).
We know that many of you are standing for creating real transformation and face being ignored, ridiculed and attacked. It can appear as on-line trolling, workplace bullying, trial by media, betrayal, fear of loss of contracts or upsetting clients who benefit from the status quo, and more.
And beyond ourselves, you may notice cultures where people are afraid to speak in front of colleagues and management, or other members of the community. Whistleblowers face terrible retribution.
So if you are striving to bring more opportunity, health, compassion, sustainability, fairness, safety and well being to enhance the future of your organisation or generally as a gift to the world, and are facing resistance, know this; you are not alone. There are many caring, committed, energised people like you. There are communities and organisations – like this one.
And the difficulty is not because of some personal failing. System shifting is not easy. But it does happen.
12 Years a Slave was supported by tax incentives from the State of Louisiana. Transformation is possible.