As fish in water, we sometimes forget not only the culture we’re swimming in but also the larger ecosystem we’re part of: beyond our organizations, there are many campaigns, movements, cultures, communities, and institutions that are trying to make change in their own ways. The dominant culture of isolation and individualism can confuse us into thinking that we are alone at the center, rather than integrally connected to a network of change makers with diverse theories of change. Ecology shows that diversity and mutualism — rather than monoculture and antagonism — are the conditions for strength and survival. If we saw our work ecologically, we would be more supported and more successful.
Movement ecology is useful not only for appreciating different theories of change, but also for explicitly acknowledging our own individual biases toward a specific theory. If people within your organization or movement aren’t in agreement about a theory of change, it is very difficult to come up with a winning strategy and carry it out in a unified way.
We see 3 main theories of change at work within our movement ecology:
This theory of change believes that when we are hurt and suffering, we are more likely to inflict hurt and suffering on the people and projects around us; conversely, when we heal these hurts and take a step toward personal liberation, wellness, or enlightenment, we are more capable of healing and supporting those around us. The site of personal transformation is the individual.
Alternative institutions create change by experimenting with alternative ways of doing and being in the world: time banks, worker cooperatives, communes, monasteries are some examples. All of these push the boundaries of what is possible within our social landscape. Alternative institutions provide the material conditions for us to relate to each other in a way that is aligned with our deepest values, instead of values compromised by the options of the status quo. Part of this theory of change is that successful experiments not only foster the wellbeing of those who participate in them, but in some cases they prove the success of innovations and thereby lead the way toward broader changes in law and policy. That said, alternative institutions are generally private, meaning they tend not to depend on the state (and often occur in spite of it).
Dominant Institutional Change
Structure-based organizers and mass protest activists, alongside policy advocates, lobbyists, and lawyers focused on impact litigation, all subscribe to this theory of change. They believe that by reforming dominant institutions– such as governments and corporations–they can change life more significantly and for more people than by other means.