At The Change Collective
  • Last week we convened our first workshop in Cape Town, at the invitation of the The Change Collective Cape Town, a gathering of individuals from a range of sectors and disciplines who come together to share ideas and experiences about how to best approach social change in Southern Africa.

    It was definitely one of the more engaging workshops we’ve ever done. It seemed to get under people’s skin- both positively and negatively- in more of an immediate way than we have previously experienced.

    An unusually large percentage of the room spoke passionately about the ways they are already practicing expressive change in their organizations. And one of the small break-out groups even started bringing an expressive approach to how they were participating in the workshop itself.

    At the same time, there was also a stronger than normal critical reaction, that we were not expecting. Several people challenged the idea that an expressive approach to social change is appropriate for the South African context, highlighting the many barriers they face on a daily basis that make it feel unmanageable- from limited resources, to rigid funder expectations, to activist burnout, to the unusually high levels of poverty and institutional racism that they face.

    This is a common and very understandable reaction- one that we seem to get where ever we go and that we’re not sure how to engage with exactly. In our experience taking an expressive approach actually lessens many of these barriers in the long-term, as opposed to amplifying them. It deepens relationships with funders, feeds organizational engagement, and helps to tackle issues of poverty and other deeply embedded institutional patterns in more effective ways. And it doesn’t require time-consuming organizational development processes or special retreats. Rather it is developed through the work that is already being done. It means bringing an experiential mind-set into your next staff meeting, your next conversation with a funder, your next program planning process.

    That said, we know from personal experience that this is easier said than done, and that it requires a sustained intention to grow it inside our organizations. So for those who are feeling completely overwhelmed by the idea, our suggestion is to start off by trying it in very small ways that feel manageable. Expressive change isn’t about being the change you seek, it’s about becoming the change you seek; it is an on-going journey and any movement in that direction is better than no movement at all.

    We look forward to digging into these notions in more depth at our next event, hosted by Bertha Centre for Social Innovation at University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. Warren will be giving a short talk, followed by a discussion and snacks. If you’re in Cape Town, we hope you’ll be able to join us:


    Social Innovation from the Inside Out

    April 11th, 2012  /  17:00-18:30

    Lecture Theatre 4, University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business

    Breakwater Campus, Portswood Rd.

    Free, but seating is limited so please register in advance



    Photo by Lauren Hermanus

    March 28th, 2012 | Warren Nilsson & Tana Paddock | 2 Comments

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Warren Nilsson & Tana Paddock

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2 Responses and Counting...

  • Simone 03.28.2012

    Hello dear friends,

    What you write there sounds so familiar. How often have I heard this excuse: “great what you offer, but it wouldn’t work in our context”. And yet what I observed in my work is that it doesn’t depend so much on the context, but on the people willing change their practice, willing to question their very assumptions and start BEING in a different way.

    Last year for example when I co-hosted a workshop on the Art of Participatory Leadership with a group of Zimbabwean NGOs we heard the exact same things you share above. We encountered so much disbelief that things can change and actually fear. Which is on one hand understandable in a place like Zim. But I think it also has to do with education and how people have learned to learn, which is often less about experimenting and observing and more about repeating. And there also seems to be a blind spot about ‘me as the starting point’. Others need to change, but me… no. And on that point I made two realisations, one is that people are ready to change when they are ready and I am not wasting my time with people who are not ready. I can have compassion for them, but I am ready to waste my time trying to convince anyone about anything. AND I have seen that in longer processes (3 day workshops, retreats, several month action learning processes) people open up more likely than in 1 day workshops. That’s why we have art of hosting workshops for no less than 3 days. And what I noticed for myself as the best way to be with the doubters and cynics is to simply hold space for them. Make it ok to question and to be doubtful. As long as there is respect. And not to offer answers to everything but to just practice the practice, let them experience it for themselves and find their own answers.

    And yes shifting the practice of an entire organisation takes time and it takes critical mass. Depending on how big and stuck the organisation is it might take more time and more people to practice and be in a different way, but it is not impossible.

    Take for example the European Commission which over the past 4 years has trained over 1000 people in the Art of Hosting meaningful conversations, action learning and other approaches that might fall in your category of ‘expressive’ . And things are moving slowly but there are so many good stories, ones where teams have developed a new culture of working together that is complementary to the strict hierarchy of the institution. And ones where grant guidelines have been changed, stakeholder conferences have been held in entirely different ways etc.

    I have also been working with an environmental NGO in the UK which is running some great social change projects, but the organisation is not interested in changing its practice. So the people who are leading the projects have learned to carve out enough space for themselves by being creative and proactive, so they could do what they love and find meaningful.

    Missing you guys! All the best for your talk Rennie!

  • Great comment, Simone, thanks. People definitely need to sort through things in their own time and in their ways. And we all have so much resistance in us toward healthier more connected ways of interacting. Would love to hear more about the European Commission example. Want to doa a blog post? 😉

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