Tensions in Intentional Social Change

Reflections of “A Delicate Activism” by Davidoff & Kaplan

Dear reader, I want to flag, now — before you start scratching your head in confusion — that some of these ideas may take awhile to sink in. I’m an amateur at the practices suggested herein, and I’m certain I have much more to grasp… and I’ve been dwelling on the essay “A Delicate Activism” for a whole year now, at the same time immersing myself in similar lineages of thought: Octavia Butler ¹, adrienne maree brown ², Kahneman ³, Grace Lee Boggs ⁴… That said, I invite you to review this critically, and I look forward to any dialogue or comments (:

Reading “A Delicate Activism” by The Proteus Initiative’s Sue Davidoff & Allan Kaplan played a large role in changing the way I approach my work in community. It presents a way of working where communities are supported in improving their capacity to adapt to complexity and the rapid, massive changes to our political, economic, and environmental realities. The publication was recommended to me by my mentors and friends, Phillip Barker & Glen Lauder (Cultivate Partners). I am grateful to be supporting them in an initiative they’ve cofounded — convening a collective of folks working in land and water conservation in New Zealand. It’s been an invaluable experience for me, in part, because it has further teased out the wisdom articulated in “A Delicate Activism.” I want to name two aspects of Phillip & Glen’s project that I think embody that wisdom:

  • the collaboration is designed with, rather than designed for, the participants, resulting in better relationships, processes, and outcomes
  • it provides substantial value to every person, despite the group’s diversity (e.g., collaborators are comprised of those who work nationally, regionally, or quite locally as farmers)

My hope in reflecting on “A Delicate Activism” is to examine the paradoxes and tensions in social change work and to encourage a more holistic and refined approach to how we do work for social and ecological good. I’ve aimed to capture its essence, but surely will have missed much. If you enjoy this, and don’t mind an academic reading, I highly recommend you look for the full publication, here, or message me @coopchange. You may also enjoy my notes & quotes sheet.

Tension of Generalization

It’s probably easy to understand the value of naming and sharing what we learn from personal successes or failures, or the insights gained by noticing patterns across a number of experiences. Seeing role models, be they people or projects — or, conversely, cautionary tales — can reduce time wasted in re-inventing the wheel or running into common pitfalls, and accelerate our learning and growth. The stories passed down to us over generations, such as Aesop’s Fables and other such tales, can be recognized as generalizations of our learning and wisdom.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, are an example in which generalization can do more harm than good (the popular film Hidden Figures depicts a low-intensity example), but there are less obvious ways in which we shortchange ourselves and our communities. By “generalization”, I mean abstracting, i.e., removing context. Generalization is undesirable when used on individual, social, and cultural phenomena that can only be usefully accurate when understood within the context of the circumstances in which they arose.

Two examples

Where I live, Indianapolis, we’ve felt the harsh consequences of generalization more than a couple of times within the scope of city or community development, a.k.a.gentrification” when it is done harmfully or when it displaces people or culture (e.g., traditions). I live in a neighborhood that many call a “food desert”, so you can imagine my surprise when I woke up to find that, where there used to be a grocery store a brewery has moved in, with the ironic name, Happy Brewing Co. Just what we needed! NOT! Unfortunately, this event isn’t as surprising as you might think. My neighborhood is also a target for massive capital investment and development, because a new rapid transit line will make it prime real estate. That’s to say, gentrification is likely on the way, and we’re already feeling the cookie-cutter-approach chafing as it disregards the local context and impact upon the local community.

There’s a pattern of development that seems to accompany gentrification in several Indianapolis neighborhoods where I’ve seen it occur. Craft breweries have been like the pawns in a chess game, they’re the first move in almost any gentrifying neighborhood in Indianapolis I can think of. Perhaps on average they’ve been economically viable where gentrification has succeeded across town, but — in this case — they’ve caused a tremendous amount of community ill will towards themselves by not even taking the time to come to any local meetings. The local food purchasing co-op meets not even five blocks from their location! It’s not that a brewery was the wrong choice, rather it’s that there was no exploration of how this brewery could connect with local initiatives to address current community needs.

I don’t think their neglecting to connect was just a case of greed. Building social capital, cultivating and sustaining positive relationships, can — in a place like Indianapolis — make or break a business; it has economic value. The small grocery chain that closed down and left this neighborhood without any nearby, healthy food options failed, in part, because they never fully built trust with the neighborhood. There’s a dozen ways that Happy Brewing Co could have created synergy with local initiatives and institutions and thereby changed the story being told about them. This reductionist and over-generalizing approach to economic development denies us a tremendous amount of opportunities that would otherwise be available if we only reflected on — and acted upon — the recognition that every situation and context is complexly unique.

The second story can be heard by checking out the above podcast from The Lit Review. Twelve minutes in you’ll hear how Quinn Rallins, who flew in to re-build homes after Hurricane Katrina, was blown away when a woman comes up to him as he’s working and says she doesn’t plan on living there anymore — there were so many other challenges in her life that she was planning to leave, and it totally shocked Rallins’ assumptions about the best way to support Katrina survivors.

Three levels of sensing

To further understand how generalization might go awry, Davidoff & Kaplan include this great explanation of what likely amounts to a cognitive bias where we get muddled up by what we’re actually perceiving and what meaning we make of it:

  1. Most immediately, we perceive with neither thinking/cognizing nor recognition nor meaning… we just receive the signals
  2. We bring cognition to bear and we make meaning of it and/or recognize what we perceived
  3. We explain, seeking to understand — in context — that which we’ve recognized or perceived, through metaphor, etc.

Levels (1.) and (2.) are very often conflated as they happen almost simultaneously. Levels (2.) and (3.) are often difficult to distinguish. Thus, we confuse (3.) with (1.), now suggesting the metaphor in our head is objective.

For example, Davidoff & Kaplan relate how they’ve met folks who described the human memory as a database. This metaphor can lead one to think that memories are discrete entities within the brain, which is completely misleading (though it does support the notion that, like in Harry Potter, we could preserve our favorite memories in our favorite bowl or crockpot).

With the urgency of climate change, economic inequality, and political instability, I am eager to see us take advantage of our collective intelligence and information communication technologies, but at the same time I feel strongly that sometimes you have to think slow³ in order to move fast, otherwise we might make some assumptions that will lead us hurdling off the cliff… and perhaps you can think of some ways in which we have already made some damaging assumptions (cough cough ‘we’re individuals and not connected’… ‘profit as maximizer of human benefit’… ‘ecosystems perceived as nothing more than material resources’… cough cough).

Tension of Confidence and Certainty

It’s important to move courageously from a strong stance in your belief system (or theory of change, or principles, etc.), but it’s also essential to be vulnerable, to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty, and to be open to examining your mental models and assumptions—and how you apply them — and changing as your understanding grows. Davidoff & Kaplan highlight the importance of this,

“A radical path, pushed to its limits with unquestioning certainty, arrives at fundamentalism”

This paradox is especially fun (and tricky) because it invites you to challenge everything, including everything I’ve written here. Davidoff and Kaplan write about the tension between having “deep intentions”, while also being open to these intentions changing. “By this logic, shouldn’t I also be open to changing my intention to balance the tension of generalization?” While my answer would be a “YES!, do please critically question all that you read”, I personally find it daunting to confidently move forward while embracing uncertainty or ambiguity. By my understanding, to balance this tension well and mitigate the harm that can be done by unchecked assumptions, I have to critically question all my assumptions. I even have to question my belief that the current mode of neoliberal capitalism is fundamentally flawed.

However, I’m not suggesting you wallow in self-doubt. On the contrary, stepping into your agency, or your self-determination, is essential to this type of work. These are “tensions” because they’re not rules; they only provide us useful questions, or tools, to hone our craft. As with any tool, especially mental models or systems — they’re are only “true” in so far as they’re useful to you and your people. While I can attest that it’s hard to keep these tensions in mind, let alone to practically implement themI have found that I’ve improved my own processes (and outcomes) by doing so. A small success I can attribute to questioning my deeper assumptions: in the last year I’ve connected with a higher number of people who I know to have views that differ from mine; these connections grow my social capital and, thus, my productive capacity.

“The only lasting truth is Change…” — Octavia Butler ¹

I think Davidoff and Kaplan are also suggesting that we would each benefit from an iterative (e.g., Agile) approach to forming intentions, reviewing and revising them regularly as we learn through experience. I’m not saying principles aren’t useful. They can act as signposts to help us find the others, as shared values for collective decision-making, and as heuristics (i.e., learning or decision-making shortcuts) to guide us in moments where we must choose under pressure. However, if we never question these principles, or apply critical reasoning to the values that we or our communities proclaim, then we may become rigid and fragile through dogmatic ideology. Moreover, we may blind ourselves to seeing a deeper truth that could better move us forward.

I wish I could say “here’s the type of situation in which you take pause to question your assumptions, and here’s the situation in which your assumptions are good enough to try and it’s best to take action”. However, even if I could say that I was especially talented at distinguishing this in my own work, your line in the sand will be unique to you. Writing this article is part of my efforts to better learn how to implement reflection in action.

Grappling with personal Theories of Change

Sometimes, for ease of reference, I call my vocation “community organizing”. In practice, to me, this takes the form of building relationships with the deep intention to ‘disrupt collusion with systems of oppressive power’ (this amazing definition of organizing came from Allied Media Conference in ’17, I wish I could credit it’s lineage!). This explicit purpose reinforces my belief that I should work from the bottom-up, which is to say that I prioritize efforts that support those who are most negatively impacted by any given issue. This way of working also reflects my assumption that a relational way of working will get the goods. By acknowledging the tension between certainty and confidence, I have to question these assumptions, while still moving the work forward. This year, I’ve been regarding my commitment to efforts that directly support those most impacted, and at the same time exploring a contradicting hypothesis that I should “meet myself where I’m at” and “organize my people” in my own place.

In working to disrupt collusion with systems of oppressive power, I also have to have critical dialogue with myself and others — regularly — around why, how, and where oppression occurs, what it looks like when it shows up, and how to proactively subvert the dynamics at its roots. These questions may seem like additional work that would slow you down, but you can also think of them as growing your productive capacity; taking time to “sharpen the saw” ⁵ can save you time and effort in the long haul.

Embracing ambiguity and acknowledging uncertainty may be critical for dealing with the complexity of interdependence, of being utterly entangled with and connected to our environments and each other, socially, culturally, physically, politically, etc. “All that you touch / you Change. All that you Change / Changes you.”¹ says Octavia Butler. Grace Lee Boggs acknowledges a similar, reciprocal relationship as she advocates that we must change society and change our selves³, simultaneously. If I change, my ecosystem has changed; if my ecosystem changes, so will I… this is why it’s important to balance the tension of certainty and confidence.

Inquiry-based versus Solution-based

Another way to talk about this tension was named in part by a friend and colleague, Chelsea Robinson. Orienting social projects around a question, rather than around a predetermined solution, has been championed by many in the last decades, from the 15+ years of folks developing and implementing Social Labs and Innovation Labs frameworks, to the 20+ years of Asset-Based Community Development practitioners asking “what is possible with what we have now?” While inquiry-based methods are common for scientific or educational endeavors, I expect we’ll see more and more social enterprises leaning into this approach, especially as Participatory Action Research, Cooperative Inquiry, Design Thinking (even experimental co-design in grant-funding/ the nonprofit industrial complex), Citizen Science, and the practices I’ve mentioned above appear to be growing in popularity.

For an expanded view of the above tensions and some others not included here, watch my introduction to the learning resource I produced, A Delicate Organizing - The tensions of transformative change:

Paradox of Attention

As we try to move past harmful paradigms, where we put our attention matters. Focusing on the issues, the injustices, the problems — or our struggle against the ills of the human experience — can backfire. Focussing on deficits may regenerate or strengthen the challenges, especially wicked problems, we want to solve.

“What you pay attention to grows” — Deepak Chopra

I still feel that it’s useful, at times, to name problems or issues. The irony, though, is the way in which this focus on the deficit or problem can reinforce or perpetuate that issue. I do think there are moments when naming issues can help us to consciously divert our attention from them, to avoid giving them power by unconsciously dwelling upon them. One example that sheds light on this phenomenon is the open source movement. By naming projects open source (or Free Libre Open Source Software, FLOSS), you can bring more attention to the practice of releasing code, designs, or content under open source licenses, encouraging others to do the same, and increasing the value that the movement brings to society. (Maybe you’d like to open source some photos so I’ll have more visual options for my next blog? ;))

More than a few well-regarded thinkers have articulated how opposition to something can strengthen, solidify, or make more real the very thing that’s being opposed. I’ve heard it said that rioters create (or strengthen, or perpetuate) riot police. While this may be problematic and may overly simplify some of the complexity involved, you’ll hopefully also see its logic. If there were no rioters, there would be no riot police. Another metaphor for this dynamic can be seen in our simplest physics, Newton’s second law, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. The Paradoxical Theory of Change a classic of Gestalt therapy—and mentioned in “A Delicate Activism”— suggests that, “the more one attempts to be who one is not, the more one remains the same.” ⁶

Medicine includes many examples, including the well-cited placebo effect. One study that surprised me was conducted by one of the highest regarded scientists in the subject of mindfulness, Ellen Langer. In her words, “I took old men to a timeless retreat that had been retrofitted to 20 years earlier and had them live there as if it was the present, speaking in the present tense and so on”, as if they were 20 years younger. “The results were phenomenal… their hearing improved, their vision improved, their memory improved, their strength improved. At the end of this, they were evaluated by people who knew nothing about the study as looking significantly younger” ⁷.

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb provides many more examples in the areas of medicine, ideas, and evolutionary biology. There is plentiful evidence that putting stress on our bones increases their strength over time. Sharing another example, he writes, “many claim that restricting the caloric intake of lab animals will increase their life expectancy… it looks like such restriction makes humans healthier”. All press is good press, goes the saying, and there’s countless examples of negative attention to writers and public figures increasing the spread of their ideas, to the extent that some authors even pay people to ‘troll’ their work.⁸ We develop increasingly complex strategies to combat viruses and bacteria, using vaccines and medicine, to find that we create super-resistant agents of contagion. The idea of “antifragility” is that there are many phenomena that benefit from stressors, energy, or attention that — to more fragile entities — we would call attacks or negative impacts.

The paradox around attention and growth also provides a path to understanding one of the foundations of “A Delicate Activism”, and to the phenomenological method, the idea that how we observe the world changes the world, as we are reciprocally changed by that which we see in the world. The phrase, “A Delicate Activism” comes from “a delicate empiricism”, a concept of the holistic scientist, Goethe. A delicate empiricism emphasizes the delicate relationship between what we observe and the meaning we make of it. It then follows that if I change the way I look at someone, they themselves have changed. If I can get you to suspend your doubt or confusion for one more story, I can elaborate.

To paraphrase a story from William Isaacs (a long-time consultant for business people), there was a young executive who came to Isaacs and told him how he was having great difficulty with a much more senior executive. The older exec generally would not cede control nor validate the proposals of the younger exec. Isaacs suggested to the younger exec, “next time you spend some time with him, rather than see him as a micro-manager refusing to let go, try to see him as a guardian of your company’s cultural legacy” [paraphrased]. Sure enough, when Isaacs next chats with the young exec, this reframe had profoundly changed the dynamics of their interaction.⁹

Image from near to Cape Flats Nature: Harmony Flats Nature Reserve [Photo credit: Abu Shawka]

The case study/ testimonials included in “A Delicate Activism”, the story of Cape Flats Nature, gives even more nuance and fullness to these tensions. For a taste, here’s a passage that sheds another light on the role of our attention.

The folks of Cape Flats Nature noticed that, with more and more people and groupings actively observing, paying attention to themselves and to the other, the quality of adversarial boundedness that had characterised relationships before, fell away... This was revelatory… as they expressed it, “for the person who is really paying attention there are no adversaries!


The way we go about our work — how we hold ourselves as we navigate complex, emergent change — can dramatically affect our outcomes. In turn, how we see the world, and how we process what we see, plays a big role in how we act. As in George Mead’s “living present”, the glasses we choose today, based on the future we desire, colors the way we see the past and the present. The way we see the past and present changes what we desire for the future, and therefore affects the glasses that we choose next (…and next… and next… recursively). For Davidoff & Kaplan, “a truly radical activism will recognize conversation [and staying woke] as its most critical activities… living into the reciprocal relationship between self and the world provides the foundation for wakefulness”. I hope that — by balancing the tensions of generalization and certainty, and being mindful with our attention and how we observe the world — we can develop self-mastery and collective-mastery in conversation and wakefulness. My current hypothesis is that these skills will support our journey towards a flourishing world, ecosystem, and beloved community.

Here’s some other skills that Davidoff & Kaplan mention might support us:

  • really pay attention, which means pay attention to the whole
  • see simultaneity rather than cause and effect
  • look for meaning, interconnectedness, and relationships
  • look at the dynamics of belonging and separateness that lie between things as the activity or flow that unites them
  • lean away from explicit (especially conceptual or abstract) explanations or causes
  • be present — reflection, self-reflection, can help

Rigorous discernment of what can be generalized and what is only true for its context, consistent questioning of our fundamental assumptions, and diligent adaptiveness in how we use our attention. I don’t think it will be easy to fully integrate these into practice. However, support exists. In my experience, more and more people are incorporating similar strategies and methods. My colleagues at Cultivate Partners, Enspiral, and the Kheprw Institute are all developing capacity along these lines, and there are many incorporating lessons that people like David Bohm have unfolded by applying quantum physics, the Observability Principle, and complex adaptive systems science to human dynamics and social practice. You’ll find a bunch more bread crumb trails (references etc.) for this kind of thinking in my Delicate Organizing mental map.

Pa’lante. Travailler pour vivre. Onwards. And share the love (:

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or directly @coopchange.


  1. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
  2. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown
  3. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  4. The Next American Revolution, and other work, by Grace Lee Boggs
  5. 7 Habits for Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  6. Gestalt therapy, Wikipedia article
  7. “Ellen Langer [interview]: The Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness” with Krista Tippett on Onbeing
  8. I Helped Create the Milo Trolling Playbook. You Should Stop Playing Right Into It” by Ryan Holiday
  9. Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs

Thanks to Glen Lauder, Phillip Barker, and the Kheprw Institute for direct contributions to the ideas herein, and to Sukie Conley, Susan Basterfield, and Adam Waterhouse for their sharp eyes for clarity and grammar.