Who gets to shape the new normal?

John Burgoyne
Apr 15, 2020 · 5 min read

A chance for change…

Many argue that on the other side of the pain and sadness that has marked this pandemic crisis could be a chance to shape a ‘new normal’ for our societies across the world. What has been described as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to drive badly needed reform and change.

Things that once seemed unrealistic — cancelling student debt, covering paid sick leave, pausing bill collection for those with too much on their plate — are becoming a reality overnight. We must reflect on how we want the world to change and importantly, who has the power to help bring this new world about.

As Arundhati Roy describes:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

But who will be leading the charge?

At a time like this, though, who has the time, resources, and headspace to “imagine their world anew”? My fear is that those who will have the privilege of shaping the new normal will be people who have remained healthy, economically secure, and not burned out from crisis response. To be brutally honest, I fear that new systems, policies, and structures will be shaped — like they have been for so long — by people like me: white, heterosexual men from upper / middle income backgrounds.

I fear that those who will not have that opportunity are the ones who should be leading the charge. The people who represent the reason why the world needs reimagining in the first place. Unfortunately, these are the people disproportionately affected by the crisis — from the racial disparities in cases in the US to the economic hardships rocking those who already earned the least to the frontline workers who are experiencing overwhelming trauma.

Given the horrific strain these groups currently face, how can we create opportunities for them to not only contribute, but indeed lead, the shaping of the new normal?

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Aspiring for equitable outcomes is not enough

Many are calling for a fairer world to emerge out of this crisis. In his recent viral post on how powerful forces will convince us to return to the way things were, Julio Vincent Gambuto implores us to “Marie Kondo the shit out of” our old ways, getting rid of all the bad, and proving “we care deeply about one another”. The New York Times’ editorial board has launched an initiative on inequality, arguing: “it may not feel like it now, but out of this crisis there’s a chance to build a better America.”

If we want a better world, with more equitable outcomes, we need to design a more equitable process to bring that world to life.

Key to the reforms we have seen from previous crises has been the power that has been taken by those driving change. The Black Death helped end serfdom in Europe because serfs finally gained the power to leave lords who did not pay them fairly. World War I, in addition to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, gave women more power as they started taking jobs that men could no longer fill. This economic power in turn led to greater advocacy for women’s rights, such as the right to vote.

If we would like to come out of this crisis stronger, more resilient, and ultimately more equitable, groups that have been historically marginalised and disproportionately impacted by coronavirus must be given the power to shape the new normal. If we want our new normal to work better for everyone, then the change has to be led by those who wouldn’t normally lead it.

How to share power

I would argue that those in positions of power — whether a company, a government, a philanthropic organisation, or even an individual like myself — have the responsibility to enable these groups. We must recognize our outsized influence and privilege, and do all we can to create the conditions where those who have been marginalised feel safe and confident sharing their perspectives and growing their ideas.

If you are someone like me, who has free time, go research how a vulnerable group — people experiencing homeless, victims of domestic abuse, people with disabilities — is being affected by this crisis and put yourself in their shoes. How can you help raise their voices? Who are the nonprofits and organisations working closely with them? What support do they need?

If you have a platform people follow, consider how you can leverage it to shine a light on others’ stories and speak truth to power. For example, the Chicago College & Career Collaborative (C4) brought together leaders from across Chicago’s education sector to listen to first generation college students share the real challenges they were facing and what support they would find most helpful in this virtual community forum. Students shared how they had to abruptly leave campus and quickly find jobs back home, as their parents lost their jobs and they lost their summer internships. Balancing providing for your family with adjusting to virtual classes was no easy feat, and certainly something leaders in Chicago’s education sector could do a better job of supporting.

If you are in a position to provide funding or support, join the growing list of funders who are loosening their requirements. Provide flexible funding for community-led responses in areas most affected. Form advisory committees with the most vulnerable among us to steer your decision making. Listen to what people need and give what you can, without any questions or strings.

What we are doing at CPI

These are just some initial ideas. I am sure they are not exactly right and am keen to hear from others, particularly those who have been marginalised, on how we can create the right conditions and spaces. Drop me a line if you are interested in sharing a story or working together on this.

A few things we at CPI have done and are planning to do:

  • Amplifying stories we are hearing through our coronavirus page
  • Collecting innovative responses via this survey and sharing responses live here
  • Sharing our relevant resources & research, such as our Tackling Challenges Together report on how technology offers us ways to talk and to listen and to deliberate over new approaches, and case studies, such as Estonia’s Citizens’ Assembly
  • Starting a blog series that explores how marginalised groups are experiencing this crisis and in what ways we can support them in leading the charge. If you are interested in being featured or supporting this, let us know

As tragic and terrible as this crisis is, it will inevitably lead to lasting change. To make the most of it, we need to start thinking creatively now about how we can better lift up the voices of those who have been shut out for too long.

We’ve partnered with OPSI to explore innovative approaches to tackle Coronavirus.

Centre for Public Impact

We are a not-for-profit, founded by the Boston Consulting…

Centre for Public Impact

We are a not-for-profit, founded by the Boston Consulting Group, that works with governments, public servants, and other changemakers to reimagine government. We turn ideas into action so that government works for everyone.

John Burgoyne

Written by

Believe in the power of human relationships, working in the open, & learning from failure.

Centre for Public Impact

We are a not-for-profit, founded by the Boston Consulting Group, that works with governments, public servants, and other changemakers to reimagine government. We turn ideas into action so that government works for everyone.

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