Can we create sustainable social change?

We all need to feel that we can make progress, that we can create some kind of lasting change in our lives and communities. Yet developing and maintaining any sense of agency can be difficult and elusive.

It’s easy for people to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of global, social, political and environmental problems or indeed by the deeply personal problems that often loom so large in our lives that we can see no way forward. As practitioners we can easily become exhausted by the constant struggle against a rising tide of social problems and as policy makers we are constantly frustrated by our inability to effect real, lasting change in our communities.

Yet find a way forward we must. I appreciate that life’s relentless march means that doing nothing is not an option and it makes it difficult for any of us to pause and reflect long enough to find more effective solutions. Yet, I can’t help feeling that we are digging ourselves deeper into the same problems.

I know from personal experience that even the best intentioned actions can feel counter productive, raising expectations and throwing light on additional problems they can’t resolve. Indeed, the more effective the intervention, the more obvious this becomes. It seems like the harder we try the more we realise just how much more there is to do and one thing is absolutely clear — there really is only so much any of us can do.

If something is not working — and there is evidence to suggest that even substantial sustained investment does not necessarily bring social change — then it seems foolhardy to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially if there is a danger that they may even make difficult situations worse.

So, are short-term initiatives and sticking-plaster solutions the best we can hope for, or are there more effective ways of creating social change? Is sustainable social change a pipe dream? Or an emerging reality? Can a few small changes make a lasting difference? Or are we overlooking a deeper, more fundamental problem?

From your experience, what do you think makes lasting change so difficult to achieve? Are you currently fulfilling your potential? If not, what is stopping you? What barriers do you face in your life and work? What would make it easier for you to effect change? What features can we bring to our activities to make it more likely they will have a lasting impact?

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