Working for social change when social change is complicated

Brainstorm charity

What is “doing good”? It sounds self-explanatory enough, and surely we can all see examples of “good work” in our communities. But is there more to “doing good” than carrying out well-intentioned activities? And what does it mean to do good when doing good is complicated?

In a recent OnBeing article, writer, speaker, and entrepreneur Courtney E. Martin tackles these questions by highlighting the complexity of our work:

We live in a time when there are unintended consequences for just about everything we do. You teach the man to fish, and realize that you’ve left out his wife and instructed him using a fishing line that is destructive to the coral reefs below.

This complexity isn’t new, of course. However, it gets challenging when you want to act on something and realize your actions may have caused more harm. You might find yourself asking, “Why bother?”

Martin’s suggestion to combat this feeling? Let your actions be guided by curiosity.

The alternative is to let your actions be inspired — not by goodness but by curiosity. Be curious about where your food, your clothes, your stuff comes from. Learn more. Ask questions. Become a systems thinker — a far more edifying and interesting identity than a do-gooder…

In the face of a range of impure choices, you can still make the least harmful one and feel some sense of pride in your thoughtfulness. You can continually expand your moral imagination, even in the face of overwhelming choice.

Read the rest of her article here.

How do you make choices about “doing good”? What questions does Courtney E. Martin’s article raise for you? Share your comments below.

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    • Najee
    • November 24, 2014

    This article reminded me of a book called “When Helping Hurts” 🙂

  1. As a former employee of a non-profit that prides itself in “systems” thinking, I must say that worldview can be just as dangerous, to oneself, to the belief that you can make a difference or that you even matter. Doing good and the intention of wanting to help make a difference in even one person’s life is enough. Sure you should learn as much as you can about the issue you are working on or the community you are helping, but the other extreme is belittling or dismissing any work or anyone who does “community service” or “charity”. That changing the “system” or getting to the root causes, is actually the ONLY thing that matters, changing things “at a scale” that is meaningful (ie thousands- at least) is the ONLY thing that is meaningful.

    Not only is changing the systemic problems hard to do, but the motivation ends up about your ego, your importance, and ranking other’s importance based on that worldview can be crushing to the idealism that first inspired you. When you let yourself forget that everyone has intrinsic value, and that being a “do gooder” is not a contemptible offense. That the world would be a better place if there were more of them, that we (working for social justice) should see those “do gooders” as part of the solution. With guidance and education we can bring them to a deeper understanding that empowers the people we are helping to help themselves. It is that moral arrogance that is often confused with “critical thinking” that corrodes movements from within. The “systemic solution” you have been working for never materializes, meanwhile the “do gooders” are feeding someone tonight, or helping a kid with their homework for tomorrow. That matters. We should be as grateful for that as we would be if we were receiving the help ourselves.

    • Niamh Ni Shuilleabhain
    • December 3, 2014

    What a well written piece!

    You are so right when you say that Moral Arrogance disguised as Critical Thinking corrodes and ( erodes) movements from within. ( Paraphrasing your words). The do gooders as you called them think about not only their altruistic beliefs but take action in as you said feeding a homeless person or helping in developmental education though homework clubs etc.

    Stopping to give five minutes of your time to LISTEN to someone is in itself a good thing. To lose your voice is to become invisible in your society and as we are in an age of technology where most people have their heads occupied with earphones or screens, noticing the person on the street or where ever that might benefit from a smile or a hello sounds like such a small gesture but can have a huge impact.
    We have so many opportunities to make a difference everyday if we pay attention to the other humans and not the electrical devices in our hands that has so many people held prisoner. So yes systemic change comes from within and is achieved by actions not thinking alone.

    Well written and critically thought out.

    Niamh in Ireland

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