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Creating the Room Where It Happens: on Being an Organizational Agent for Change

Written By Nick Bachan | Jan 25, 2017

Employees want to feel like they are making a difference, not just as responsible members of an organization but as conscious citizens. The compartmentalization we typically associate with a healthy work/life balance is going out of style, and this has only been accelerated by our current political climate.

Simply existing as a woman, a person of color, a member of the Islamic faith, or any other marginalized group has become a publicly political act. It is impossible to divorce one’s identity from one’s day-to-day professional life. People feel energized to work toward change because there is a palpable urgency to advocate for our complexities in all settings.

To empower those who wish (or need) to be active, we must do away with the notion of exclusive rooms where only a few people make important decisions. Spaces that fuel change must expand to include and empower all advocates for progress. The good news is that this is more achievable than ever before.

“When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game / But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game”

This Hamilton lyric (from “The Room Where It Happens”) arrives at a confrontational moment in the show for Aaron Burr and the titular character played by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Alexander Hamilton has just made a secret deal resulting in, among other things, the relocation of the nation’s capital from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. Burr, on the other hand, has been completely excluded from the conversation. He finds this turn of events unfair since he actively participated in founding the United States. How is Burr supposed to make a real impact if there are secret rooms in which such monumental actions are executed?

Hamilton boasts about having “skin in the game,” but the means of acquiring that leverage are not always congruent with the cautiousness and responsible instincts of someone like Aaron Burr. While Hamilton is a creative work that plays with our perception of history, the conflict Burr feels when realizing he isn’t “in the room” is relatable to many people. He is doing what seems right by following the rules, but he feels betrayed by his own instincts when he realizes he doesn’t have a voice.

Just like Burr was blindsided by Hamilton’s secret decision, many Americans felt like they lost their grip on reality on November 8th. This Saturday Night Live sketch humorously depicts the shock they experienced that night. The election was vicious, disheartening, and threatening for so many people. The characters in the SNL sketch are progressives trying to remain hopeful that things will finally turn around once the election is over, but their worst fears are quickly realized as they watch the more divisive side win. They feel powerless compared to the formal and informal machinations that produced their new reality.

Since the election, there have been numerous conversations about who gets to make decisions and who simply has to deal with them. We are in uncharted territory because the new president of the United States talks about foreign relations in terms of “deals” and is averse to interacting with the press unless it seems to flatter him. Millions of citizens are searching for ways to make a real difference before potentially destructive actions are taken, but it can be difficult to feel included and empowered.

The popularity and resonance of the post-inauguration Women’s March on January 21, 2017 demonstrated exactly how many people are searching for constructive forms of political action during this uncertain time. Twitter threads like this Congressional staffer’s instructions on contacting your local representatives are going viral daily. Daily resistance action alerts are being distributed via text.

Individuals of all kinds are organizing to create their own “rooms” and to be both leaders and active contributors in those spaces. The key ingredient that sustains these spaces is a sense of community, something that transcends four walls and is rapidly expanding thanks to technology.

In his presidential farewell speech, Barack Obama said that “Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.” This statement highlights some basic truths about impactful communities, and there are several ways in which socially and politically conscious professionals can foster them. They include:

  • Aligning with meaningful organizational identities
  • Contributing personal resources to entities working on change
  • Fostering community participation using workplace relationships
  • Using technology responsibly
  • Embracing true diversity

Organizational Identity

In the broadest sense, an organization is a community governed by a mission statement and chosen values. These things do not inherently govern behavior, but they form the foundation of an organization’s identity. Employees should strongly consider aligning themselves with identities that make sense for them.

These days, it’s trendy and profitable for organizations to be socially and environmentally conscious, which is ultimately a good thing. This represents an acknowledgment of consumers’ increasing tendency to “put their money where their heart is,” as highlighted by this Nielsen article. Several brands are even selling goodness in their names, such as Honest Tea, Green Chef , and charity:water. These three examples emphasize conscientious production practices, health, and getting clean water to those in need, respectively. Companies like these are baking world-conscious values into their identities.

Since most companies will want to publicly align themselves with socially responsible practices, it’s important to figure out whether their messaging is substantial, resonant, and poised to create a personal feeling of empowerment. The charity:water mission statement is a great example of messaging that is simple and powerful: We’re a nonprofit organization bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries. This indicates a clear purpose and dedication to a particular area that requires a lot of work.

Of course, most companies–especially for-profit ones–do not have such an obvious connection to making positive change in society. Individuals should adopt a healthy curiosity about what they personally represent by association with a company’s brand, or as a member of an organization.

Contributing Personal Resources

If nothing else, jobs provide employees with an income. Ideally, that income translates to peace of mind and flexibility in how an employee creates or maintains a certain lifestyle. If a company seems soulless and averse to the idea of contributing to society, people can still donate a percentage of their earnings to organizations that are doing the difficult, often thankless work of improving the world. We vote with our dollars, and money gets wheels turning that we sometimes cannot budge as individuals.

Here is a list of organizations that will use your money wisely.

Creating a “room where it happens” and getting to stand at the head of that room is both a privilege and a burden. The people running the organizations listed behind that link above are doing tremendous work that requires a consistently engaged community.

It can be demoralizing and exhausting to sit in a cubicle doing work for a corporation that seems stagnant in the promotion of positive change. It’s also difficult for a majority of employees to find leadership roles within their actual line of work–not everyone is a director, a VP, or a project manager. Not everyone wants to lead in that way, either. More importantly, conventional leadership structures have almost nothing to do with adopting an active mentality regarding change. What’s important to remember is that a 9-5 job can simply be a means to an end–even when all you can offer outside of work is time spent listening, learning, and attending events.

There may not always be a formal way to make a positive impact in a professional setting, but our lives consist of more than just the hours we spend at work. If we approach decisions surrounding our time and money with intention, there are many avenues through which good work can be done.

Fostering Community Participation

Employees feel more fulfilled when their organizations prioritize giving back to society in some way. In fact, companies that prioritize things like volunteering and positive social change outperform those that don’t, because their workforces are more motivated, philanthropic, and innovative.

Sometimes entire cities develop a philanthropic spirit that serves as a hub for several organizations. In Austin, Texas, for example, there are resources like I Live Here, I Give Here which collectively promote and raise funds for a large group of nonprofits. There are also skill-based communities like Taproot that enable pro bono volunteers to contribute specific talents to nonprofits and social change organizations.

Individuals can become organizational ambassadors for almost any cause simply by volunteering to do so. The people at parks, food banks, hospitals, animal shelters, etc. that need help will often have strategies in mind to meet the enthusiasm of those who reach out. There is a Google of sorts for nonprofits called GuideStar which is a great starting point for committed groups actively looking for things they can do to help.

Long-term engagement can translate philanthropic efforts into sustainable communities. A truly engaged group can be a formidable resource when participating in less conventional but very relevant actions geared toward change (like attending forums on local policing and combating legislation that compromises women’s healthcare).

Obviously, work is not a place where political discussions should take priority, but our structured work communities are where we invest a lot of time and energy. Communicating with open-minded coworkers to form meaningful communities around political causes outside of work may be better than sending out some reactionary tweets after a long day and staying quiet otherwise. We are all next to each other, caring silently but perhaps not harnessing our collective potential via structured communication and empathy.

Using Technology Responsibly

The 2016 election season has prompted much discussion regarding the “bubbles” into which we retreat. We can selectively surround ourselves with virtual company that reinforces our existing viewpoints. Over a very short period of time (Twitter has only been around since 2007, for example), these bubbles have bred a divisiveness that seems, at times, insurmountable.

During an episode of the podcast On Being, tech blogger and humane technology designer Anil Dash discusses how society has yet to factor ethics into the creation of technology. He believes we are due for a “moral reckoning” in how we have designed our technological spheres. We assume tech platforms are neutral because they have become extensions of our minds and bodies. Consequently, there are only surface-level considerations with regard to things like diversity and responsible design in the rooms where tech creation happens. This is a huge part of why we who use tech for everyday activities have arranged ourselves into these “bubbles” of common thinking. People who think both progressive and regressive things can find their homes online and never leave them. We may not even have the tools to recognize when we are in a self-validating environment that is allergic to debate. Community is hard to create when healthy argument, reason, and a baseline of facts doesn’t exist among all participants.

We are virtually hindered by these structures, the selective verification of information, and the fact that we have a certain technology-induced amnesia with regard to what a functional community looks like. It’s important to remember that humans ultimately drive where tech is headed. There can be a #hashtag where it happens, too (as we have seen with movements like #BlackLivesMatter). Tech creates walls, but it can also help bring them down when we apply intention, inclusion, and openness to different perspectives.

For employees who work in tech, there are many opportunities in our current landscape to reflect on how apps spread, how news is consumed and how polls are conducted. Those are just a few areas in which fixed ways of thinking have yielded a particularly hostile environment. For employees outside of tech, behavioral patterns must be observed and questioned regularly. Whether we want to admit it or not, our tech habits ARE our work habits because we are using technology to work every day.

Embracing True Diversity

Mission statements can either be hollow selling points or true reflections of an organization’s values. Similarly, diversity can be either a surface-level caricature of representation or a genuine embrace of varied ideas, backgrounds, and situational perspectives. The idea of the “diversity hire”–by which demographic quotas are met in a performative manner–is outdated and simplistic. The presence of meaningful diversity greatly increases a community’s value and adaptability.

Currently, leadership buy-in at most organizations hinges on convincing a few people with extremely similar perspectives that certain causes and issues are valid. This is the case even when the world at large seems to demand that specific things like climate change and equal pay be addressed. In the case of climate change, people who value science and reason must be present in a leadership capacity. In the case of equal pay, gender representation in leadership circles should reflect the makeup of society.

The lack of representation among the abstract leadership class puts too many people in the awkward position of justifying their complex existences. There are many employees who don’t feel like their workplaces embrace their whole identities. This is precisely why feelings of independent empowerment and agency must be consistently established and nurtured. If more people are valued and included, rooms in which decisions are made will naturally feel more accessible and productive.

The connection points between companies’ resources and positive change are easier to see when employees highlight existing inequities in meaningful ways. This might be an idealistic goal, but it will only become more realistic if employees across all levels of an organization actively work toward inclusiveness.

“Oh, you get love for it, you get hate for it / You get nothin’ if you wait for it, wait for it, wait!”

This lyric immediately follows Hamilton’s line about having skin in the game. Burr is being taunted and criticized for “waiting” because it has left him on the outside of a huge decision. Throughout the play, Burr’s overall reluctance to act passionately and impulsively is framed by Hamilton as a weakness. Hamilton ends up paying dearly for his eagerness to jump into the fray and protect his ego, however.

As we enter this tumultuous political period and begin to angle our routines toward having a real impact on society, the balance we need to strike falls somewhere between Hamilton’s strategy and Burr’s. We must be conscious and informed, but swift when it counts.

The problems people are feeling anxious to solve are within our power to constructively address. There is a lot of work to be done, but we can create conditions in which those with the ideas, perseverance, and inspirational energy to make positive change can thrive.

Nick Bachan is a copywriter, illustrator, and seasoned TV watcher living in Austin, Texas.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.