Submitted by Allison Fine, publisher of A. Fine Blog
Lucy pointed me to this great post on Change.org about Tori Hogan’s video series called Beyond Good Intentions. Tori takes a hard look at conventional wisdom in activism. Her latest video questions the efficacy of microfinance, a sacred cow in social change and philanthropic sectors. Here is how Tori explains her trepidation about stepping into taking on the iconography of microfinance as the unquestioned antidote to poverty worldwide:
I was a little bit nervous for Episode 9 (and this blog entry) to come out because I am well-aware that I am questioning a beloved organization and a highly popular development initiative. However, I feel that I need to be honest about what I witnessed in the field and, most importantly, I need to encourage a meaningful dialogue about the realities of micro-lending. After witnessing micro-lending programs on three different continents, I came to the conclusion that in most cases the poor don’t need loans, they need jobs. From what I saw, micro-lending isn’t pulling the poorest of the poor out of poverty.
Sacred cows exist everywhere. Until recently General Motors is sustainable and newspapers aren’t dying. Sacred cows become ossified truths, untouchable, unapproachable, and unpopular to unmask. As Clay Shirky wrote, “When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry.”
Unthinkable things aren’t talked about, it’s just too scary or radical to question issues and subjects that have become sacrosanct. Unapproachable, off limits issues can’t be changed because we refuse to talk about it. It will be interesting to see what kind of reception Tori’s doubt’s about microfinance has; will it be ignored and ridiculed as naive and superficial (the easiest way to dismiss dissent) or will people open and honestly engage her in discussions about where and how microfinance works and where and how it doesn’t.
I’ve been thinking about conversation lately. Making it a noun, like the way that search became a noun a few years ago. Conversation is the natural, driving force of social change. In order for change to happen, people need to talk about it first. In safe places, with their girlfriends and daughters and co-workers. And social media makes this easier. You can plug into conversations on lots of different platforms and channels; on Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and, of course, by email. Social media speeds up the conversations and allows more people to participate and shape them. These conversations are how we learn to embrace unthinkable things.
But, too often, we think of the unthinkable in only tragic terms; as people or industries dying. Let’s flip it over to a more positive place; after all, a black man is president and gay people can get married in Iowa!
What if we thought the unthinkable about the Supreme Court. In a country where the majority of law school graduates are women, why not a court that is majority female?
What if we thought the unthinkable about education and had the collective courage to believe that critical thinking is more important to children’s and the country’s future than test scores? And what would happen if we built a world-class education system around that idea?
What if we thought the unthinkable about program evaluation and had the courage to say that social science constructs are simply a bad fit for managing social change organizations? That the outcomes evaluation push of the last decade has been a dismal failure, is undoable and has had no effect on the efforts of social change organization? What if we had a conversation about a more natural, intuitive way of learning in real-time for activists instead? (More on this to come soon.)
Who would be willing to have these conversations? Unless and until we are, the problems they represent won’t change.
What are you afraid to think about? How would you work and your world be different if you could bring yourself to think about it?
This article was originally posted on A. Fine Blog at http://afine2.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/the-unthinkable-power-of-conversation/ by Allison Fine:
Allison is an award-winning author and activist. She is writing a book with Beth Kanter to be published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley & Sons in 2010.