Fifty Years of Social Change

By Brilliant, Larry | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Fifty Years of Social Change


Brilliant, Larry, Stanford Social Innovation Review


IVe been "doing" social change for 50 years. The tools and tactics have changed- from marching in the street to reaching out with social media- but the basic principles persist Winning hearts and minds takes vision, leadership, clear goals powerfully communicated, innovative programs, and lots of people.

On November 5, 1962, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. visited the University of Michigan. It was a dramatic time. The world teetered on the brink of nuclear madness in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Federal troops were on patrol after the first black student was admitted to Ole Miss. And Bob Dylan was singin' "A Hard Rain's a- Gonna Fall."

I was a solipsistic sophomore, locked in my own selfish bubble. But when the Rev. King spoke so powerfully that day of a life of service to social justice, a small group of us sat around him for hours, mesmerized. We all signed up for the cause. We marched in Selma, Ala. and Mississippi and Washington, D.C., for freedom, social change, and civil rights. We marched against secret wars in Southeast Asia.

At the time, social change, "the movement," was defined by protest. We had sit-ins and teach-ins. We joined an alphabet soup of civil rights organizations: CORE, SNCC, and NAACR We learned to sit-in at the lunch counter at Woolworth's and absorb body blows without hitting back. In medical school, I joined the Medical Committee for Human Rights and was arrested marching with the Rev. King.

We won some and lost some, but we stopped the Vietnam War and passed the Voting and Civil Rights Acts. Few of us had the vision to perceive the global drama unfolding around the world in the same way that the Rev. King did when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." We tilled our corner of the global garden.

Overtime, however, social change organizations began to evolve. They were better run, best practices were shared, communities of excellence arose, and leadership was recognized. The most innovative leaders were christened "social entrepreneurs." People like Klaus and Hilde Schwab of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, Bill Drayton of Ashoka, and Sally Osberg, who led our sister organization the Skoll Foundation, pioneered the field of social entrepreneurship.

Social entrepreneurs aren't traditional activists. They don't often drive millions of people to the streets, but they do seek to create social change that can scale up. Scale is what separates good from great, the well-intended from the truly transformative. I tasted the raw power of scale in marches in the 1960s, but working on the smallpox program in South Asia in the 1970s taught me the power of combining scale and focus. To eradicate smallpox, we had to find and contain every outbreak in the world, search every home for hidden disease. In India, we made more than 1 billion "house calls," with an army of 150,000 public health workers and volunteers. We didn't march against smallpox, but we put feet on the street to conquer this horrible disease.

In 1979, 1 co-founded the Seva Foundation to restore sight to poor blindpeople. Seva was social entrepreneurial before the term was widely known. …

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