We all like to listen to stories, versions of the same story, or different types of stories, but what’s important is that the narrative of a story has a powerful effect on us as people. We also like to tell stories, especially about things that happened to us. In fact, this is how we communicate on a daily basis, when we catch up with friends and family, we exchange stories. And the narrative of an event becomes even more important when we experience a negative incident. In narrating that incident, we allow others to empathize with us, but the narration also allows us to better process the facts and the emotional implications.
In a recent study on what we can learn from successful social movements, ‘supporting people speaking up’ is one of the key findings. Civil society has been doing this very efficaciously. It works closely with communities and individuals; it empowers those individuals and it supports them when they are ready to speak up. And what is key here is to support voices who speak about different issues. It is a fact that society is diverse, across age, politics, gender, etc., and each section of society has its own voices. Campaigns such as marriage equality, living wage, etc. have been running at the same time and have been very positive. It has allowed different groups in society to express their problems, and they have been very successful doing it at the same time. The result has not been a dividing of society, but an environment where different people can live together, contributing to social cohesion.
The role of civil society has been very important in mainstreaming the ideas expressed by social movements. Big ideas such as banning single plastics, period poverty and living wage have started on the fringes of society and it was through civil society organizations that these ideas have been taken up by the media, politicians and businesses. Also, civil society offers the space for those ideas to be debated and analyzed, before they gain the support of other stakeholders.
In an article on social movements, Francesca Polletta and Pang Ching Bobby Chen highlighted how society responds better to stories than it does to statistics. In order to obtain change, storytelling has been more effective for activists than the hard, statistical evidence. Therefore, it is important that people can talk about their experiences in public, and that each of them is valued equally.
Looking at a few social movements, we can comprehend the value that people speaking up has had for the success of those social movements and for our society.
On 15 October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano asked women who experienced sexual harassment and assault to reply ‘me too’ to her tweet and Instagram post. Although the phrase was started by Tarana Burke in 2006 to help women of color who experienced sexual violence, it did not go mainstream until Milano’s post in 2017. The stories of so many women, empowered to speak up, had a significant impact on the social relations. Women from many walks of life and across the world have felt empowered to tell their stories of sexual harassment, assault and rape. This has had a direct effect on the public opinion, making it aware of the gravity of the problem. The campaign has also moved the societal barometer of what is acceptable in terms of treatment of women in the workplace.
A journalist reporting on the movement has taken stock of the impact on America in a recent article on Vox: non-disclosure agreements, which were very harmful to victims of sexual misconduct, have been banned by some states for instances of sexual misconduct; self-employed people are enjoying greater legal protection in some states now; funds have been set up to help people in low wage industries who have experienced sexual misconduct at work access legal representation (Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund); some state legislatures are moving towards abolishing the tipped minimum wage in order to better protect restaurant workers; Congress itself has implemented changes to better support victims of sexual misconduct among its staff; monetary awards for sexual misconduct settlements have risen since the start of the #metoo movement, by an average of 50%.
However, one of the biggest effects of the movement was to show how widespread sexual misconduct, assault and other misconduct really are. This has brought a light on the inequality of power distribution, bringing this into everyday conversations. The effects of the movement on the courts, law and everyday conversations is undeniable, and it would not have been possible without people feeling empowered to speak up, share their stories and challenge social attitudes. We need to continue supporting people who speak up, learn from past experiences and make it easier for future generations to challenge unjust practices.
Some studies have identified possible backlash following the movement, but the solution proposed in a Harvard Business Review article is that companies invest in training about sexism and character. From the study, it seems that employees know what constitutes sexual harassment, and that training should be focused on underlining equality between men and women, rather than on learning what constitutes harassment.
Black Lives Matter
It is a bit early to evaluate the more significant effects of the Black Lives Matter movement, considering the latest protests, but immediately there is a promise that change is possible.
In the face of unaccountable deaths at the hands of police, for years, there have been murmurs for defunding the police. However, this summer, those voices have been heard and many police departments in the US are facing reduced funding. This along with other measures are the result of this year’s anti-racism protests.
Along with theorizing the causes and implications of racism, recent books such as ‘White Fragility’ and ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ have also pushed a more nuanced conversation about racism in the mainstream. Following the recent protests, these books have significantly increased their circulation, which shows that the mainstream public wants to better understand the implications of racism.
This shows, yet again, how important it is to speak up and challenge problems of systemic inequality. Although the recent protests are ongoing, their effects can already be seen in how the public and mainstream stakeholders talk about racism.
The Living Wage
The movement started in London in 2001, targeting the increase of wages for cleaners working in finance and health organizations. In 2008, representatives of private, voluntary and public sectors developed the Living Wage Special Initiative, aiming to increase the number of employers signing up for the Living Wage. As a result of the initiative, in 2012, the Living Wage Foundation was created, providing a sustainable basis for the campaign. The Foundation’s method of promoting the living wage is by providing accreditation to employers who sign up for the living wage. At the moment, there are more than 6000 Living Wage employers, which includes 40 per cent of the FTSE 100 companies. The government has also expressed support for the living wage on a number of occasions, which also counts as a great success.
The community approach used in the campaign, where ordinary people were able to make their voices heard on such an important issue as income, can be transferred to other issues. Although it started as a grassroots movement, the trajectory of the campaign shows that the logistics provided by the third sector are necessary for sustainability and success. The number of employers signing up for the living wage increased significantly since 2008, when the Special Initiative was started.
Ice bucket challenge
The challenge has had a significant impact in making the general public aware of motor neuron disease or ALS, as it is known in America. More than 17 million people posted videos on social media of themselves doing the challenge and the attention is estimated to have drawn up to $220m in donations for ALS research. A disability activist, at the time of the challenge, emphasized the spheres of society that ALS awareness reached: “Do you think Anna Wintour, Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham were talking about ALS a few months ago? No, I very much doubt it.”
It was a very positive campaign, cutting across political and class divides. Beside the 17 million, people like George Bush, Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have also done the challenge. Using the power of social media, the campaign was able to reach wide sections of society. Future campaigns could use the same technique to mainstream awareness of other diseases or issues.
For three years, starting in 2015, the Too Much Information campaign was run in order to make the general public more aware about autism. This was in response to autistic people, who felt that increased awareness among the general public will improve the quality of their lives. Through various events, films and promotional materials, the general public have become more aware of sensory overload, barriers to work autistic people face, that autistic people need extra time to process information and the impact that unexpected change has. The campaign was followed by other activities, including Autism Hour and Autistic Awareness Week.
The method used here is somewhat traditional, designating a period of time to mainstream awareness on a particular issue. However, the success of this campaign shows that it is a very useful tool.
What started as a riotous event in June 1969 has turned into a peaceful family event supported by mainstream businesses and organizations. Exasperated by the regular police raids on gay bars in New York, the crowd on the 28 June 1969 fought back against the police all night, with protests continued the following week. The event was marked a year later with people protesting in Central Park against the mistreatment of LGBT+ people. Marches spread to other cities, and the movement became global. Now, Pride takes place in almost every country in the world, and every year more and more cities start their own pride events. In 2017, Kirkcaldy held the first LGBT+ Pride in Fife, and the event has continued ever since.
What was crucial for the success of Pride, was the empowerment felt by millions of LGBT+ people in speaking up and sharing their stories of mistreatment with the wider society. This also contributed to a significantly important event for every LGBT+ person: coming out. Telling your friends and family that you are gay, lesbian, trans, etc. is a milestone, and the increased number of people coming out has contributed to the acceptance that LGBT+ people should have the same rights as everyone else. In Scotland, this culminated with the 2014 legalization of same sex marriage by the Scottish Parliament. Despite the significant problems still facing the LGBT+ community, the success already achieved is inspirational and motivational to continue working for equality.
Fife Centre for Equalities – social changer
It is important to offer the space for different voices to make themselves heard because at times there will be different issues that different groups will highlight. Civil society plays a key role in supporting people speaking up and demanding change. In a recent analysis, The Social Change Project, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation has highlighted four important ways in which civil society contributes to change. The Fife Centre for Equalities is active in all four spheres.
Civil society is “working vertically to connect people with formal power and horizontally to bring people and communities together across common interests – or disputes”. As a third-party reporting center, Fife Centre for Equalities has been able to observe trends and patterns in the community, which it can then further report to public authorities. The insights gained by working with the public, has also allowed the center to make important contributions to legislative consultations.
In the public sphere, civil society, “plays a key role in raising awareness of issues and helping drive attitudinal change”. This approach allows the public to become aware of problems different groups face, thus triggering social change. The Fife Centre for Equalities runs Equality Collective, a project aiming to mainstream equality. Individuals and groups involved are kept up to date with the latest issues in the equality world, participate in events and workshops and have a space where to share their stories and experiences.
In terms of service provision, civil society organizations are enablers, offer support for individuals and communities who seek to transform their lives. They are also social innovators, using new ways to tackle problems. Fife Centre for Equalities provides tailored solutions to equality issues. In another project which aims to mainstream equality in Fife, called Equality Pathfinders, the center assists organizations confronted with equality issues work out suitable solutions.
In terms of community organizing, civil society organizations work with different entities in the community to bring change together. Community organizing allows people to become organized in groups, thus amplifying their voices and providing them with peer support. Following up from a previous project aimed at including women in politics, the Fife Centre for Equalities supported the creation of the Fife Women’s Tent. The group meets regularly, and its purpose is to promote the wellbeing for marginalized women in Fife by encouraging them to be active in local communities.
Based on the campaigns mentioned above and the findings of The Social Change Project, there are some key ideas we can learn from past successful social movements. First, it is important to support people have a voice, and civil society plays a unique role in this. Secondly, we need to support big ideas; people in civil society are early adopters of social change. Living wage, banning single use plastics and period poverty area ideas which have been discussed in civil society groups for many years and have gradually entering the mainstream. Thirdly, governments need civil society to build a case for change, especially if there are risky decisions involved. Fourthly, civil society can create tailored solutions for change by working closely with local communities and individuals. Fifthly, social movements create the spark for change, but they need the resources of civil society organizations to create lasting change.
As a center for excellence in equality, the Fife Centre for Equalities aims to use all of these ideas in order to mainstream equality in the local community. However, it is paramount that it will continue to provide support to empower people to speak up.