Being Proximate to Achieve Transformative Social Change


A word that has been resonant for me lately is proximity.

Bryan Stevenson talks about proximity as getting close to the people and places that experience exclusion and suffering. Getting close to people and places extends beyond spatial proximity. Proximity is about building intentional relationships with others, engaging in deep listening, increasing understanding, building trust, and grappling together.

However, proximity is fraught with complexity. Policies, mindsets, and narratives that displace, marginalize, and “other” based on identity have created fertile ground for racial, ethnic, class, and political divides. In this context, how is coming together to achieve transformative social change that ameliorates exclusion and suffering possible?

The philanthropic sector is increasingly recognizing the importance of proximity. Many foundations are adopting philanthropic practices that focus on community assets, community power, and community-identified solutions, while also questioning the role of philanthropy in perpetuating divides and imbalances of power.

If philanthropy has a role in perpetuating divides, how then can philanthropy be a catalyst for bringing people together to achieve transformative social change?

The Collective Impact Forum recently hosted the discussion “Collaborating in Polarized Times that featured four influential leaders who focus their work on collaborating across differences. Joining the discussion and sharing what they have learned from bridging divides were:

From what they shared, several considerations emerged that can support bringing people together and how influential forces, including philanthropy, can show up as good partners in the process:

1. Bringing people together to recognize shared humanity and work across divides is possible and necessary, but takes concentrated effort.

When bringing people together, conversation spaces should first and foremost be designed to build relational trust and connections. Only then can people be challenged to complexify their thinking and understanding and to change beliefs and narratives that cause divides.

Individuals should feel welcomed to show up in good faith with all of the lived experiences that shape their worldview. Being proximate to each other increases empathy, mitigates future entrenchment when beliefs and values are interrogated and can help to depolarize views. However, there should be safeguards against allowing the motivations of bad actors to detract from the purpose of coming together.

Philanthropy can support local leaders and organizations that are leading change  with the resources necessary to plan, coordinate, collaborate, facilitate and implement bringing people together.  Coming together is a foundational step towards working together to achieve transformative change.

For philanthropy, supporting leaders to bring people together could mean interrogating whether current impact measurement frameworks align with how relational change happens. In hypersegmented communities, the act of coming together to build relationships that change mindsets is an outcome in and of itself.

2. Valuing where there are similarities and differences within and between individuals and groups is crucial.

Solely focusing on finding commonalities without acknowledging differences in identity, power and lived experiences with inequity can minimize the impact of inequities on those that have been marginalized. Systemic, individual, intra-, and intergroup power dynamics must be examined by all involved, including philanthropy. Recognizing differentials in power and outcomes can be an impetus for communities to take action towards achieving equity.

3. Working across divides does not require that everyone agree but rather that shared humanity be recognized and common ground be found.

By coming together to find common ground, groups can increase solidarity, allyship, identify shared values, map out a shared vision and destiny, and find collective solutions to complex problems.

Philanthropy should trust communities to create a shared vision and be the architects of their solutions. Strategizing together, identifying solutions, testing innovations, and achieving impact takes time. Communities need a long term commitment of resources, freedom and flexibility to create, innovate, and iterate.

When there are deep cracks in common ground, proximity and working across differences can help mend what seems irreparable.

Philanthropy has a role in supporting the work of weavers, builders, connectors, and custodians of community.  But first and foremost, philanthropy must engage in deep listening, recognize and honor the power and self-determination of communities, and show up as trusted partners.

More to Explore:

Watch the full discussion Collaboration in Polarized Times below, read a transcript of the discussion, or listen to the discussion in an audio podcast.


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