Affecting Social Change

Carol A. Hand

Recently I have been wondering how an introvert like me ever had the courage to walk into a strange community to conduct a research study about tribal child welfare. Actually, I think of it more as intrusiveness. I don’t like to intrude into other people’s lives. Yet I walked into a tribal community and hung out for a while, observing, participating in events (most often only when invited), and interviewing people about private and painful times in their lives. I did have a purpose. This morning, I remembered the first time I discovered my passion for macro practice systems’ change.

It was a pivotal class that made me realize that I should never aspire to work as a counselor. It was a class called Affecting Change in Social Agencies taught by Ann Minahan. I don’t expect many people to recognize the name. It was a long time ago when she and Alan Pincus developed a transformative approach for working toward organizational change.

“Anne Minahan’s 1973 text book entitled Social Work Practice: Model and Method, co-authored with Allen Pincus, revolutionized the way in which students and practitioners came to view social work practice. The “Pincus and Minahan” book, which was based primarily on teaching notes, utilized the ideas of systems theory to specify a generalist model of practice as a system of change agents, client system, target system and action system. Every social worker graduating from schools of social work in the 1970s and 1980s learned how to form an action system and exercise influence based on this text. “
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Everyone in the class was expected to apply what we read about in an organizational setting – in the real world. I needed to find an agency that would allow me to essentially evaluate their performance in order to suggest improvements. The agency that agreed operated a shelter and crisis helpline for domestic violence survivors. I was required to go through 40 hours of training and agree to serve as a volunteer for a year in exchange for access to key decision makers who were actually interested in figuring out how well the program was operating. They felt the program needed improvements.

It was a daunting prospect, but I learned so much during my time there. The relevant lesson for this post involves the insights I gained on the crisis helpline. I remember the anxiety I felt when the training covered the range of issues we might have to deal with, not only for domestic violence situations, but for all community crises. The two that were most frightening for me invovled responding appropriately for women and children in life threatening situations, and helping those who were threatening to commit suicide. We were assured these calls were rare during the evening shift when I would be working. It was before computerized emergency resources. These were kept in notebooks and a rolodex (a collection of alphabetized names and phone numbers in case this ancient history has been forgotten). We were assured these resources were always easily accessible in the room where we answered calls.

Most of the calls were from community residents who just seemed lonely. I didn’t mind listening. In fact, I was grateful for something to do. I have always loved to hear people’s stories. Two months into the volunteer work, though, one of the frequent callers was becoming increasingly more depressed. As she listed all of the challenges she was facing, my tears began to flow. Opps. Something that professionals are NEVER supposed to do. (Fortunately, she couldn’t see my tears.) I consulted my resource lists – she had already tried them all with no success. But she kept calling anyway. Finally, she called and said she was done with it all. I was the only volunteer there at the time, and all of the staff had gone home for the day. And the rolodex and notebooks were nowhere in sight.*

I spent hours on the phone with her before she gave me permission to call the police and EMTs to come help her. I remember the thoughts that were going through my mind as the tears flowed and my heart pounded. “I don’t know how she has been able to live like this. If I were her, I would have given up a long time ago.” All of the agencies and services that were supposed to help people before they came to this point had failed her. Of course her suffering broke my heart, but the fact that she was in this situation really pissed me off. The fact that her life depended on a ditsy volunteer with no back up, no resource lists and no emergency numbers pissed me off.

Maybe I did save her life that time, but I was far more interested in addressing the issues that placed her in that situation in the first place. During that class and volunteer experience I learned that I was really good at affecting systems’ change even if I couldn’t work with individuals without tears falling. The empathy I felt made me a fierce and tenacious advocate. I knew people’s lives hung in the balance.


Image: Marxist theories of development – posted by Steve Bassett on YouTube

I know that the lives and futures of children hang in the balance today. Knowing that children were suffering in the past gave me the courage to be intrusive – to walk into a strange community to conduct my research. Now, it’s providing me with the determination to do more to share what I learned.

Learning about people’s suffering still makes me cry, and it still makes me angry about the conditions that cause suffering and the failures to alleviate it. But it takes more than tears and anger to change things. Change efforts are learning opportunities. Intentions and processes matter. Effective change efforts, in my experience, need to be based on compassion for members of the all of the relevant systems. It requires patience, a shared and mobilizing vision of what could be, and partnerships among diverse stakeholders.


Image: Community

The first step? Raising awareness about issues and the need for action in a way that allows people to care deeply and motivates them to want to help.

*I later found out that the program director had locked the rolodex and notebooks in her office and forgot to bring them out before she left for the day.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

16 thoughts on “Affecting Social Change

    1. You have more courage than I, for sure, Natalie. It was easier for me to face a class of more than 100 college students than even a small class of elementary or high school students. (In part it’s because I’m near-sighted and faces blur at a distance. 🙂 )

      Humor aside, I appreciate learning more about your background. Thank you for sharing this and your kindness as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. A beautiful article, Carol. I think compassion and understanding are the starting points, but agree that they are not enough to bring about systemic change.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember my counseling mentor explaining that a shared emotion was sooo valuable, so long as it didn’t mean the client had to look after us instead. But I think your story harnesses the true root of social change or transformation, which I see as the empathy or motivation to use our own agency to create change. It awakens what Rudolph Steiner calls ‘intuitive morality’. And enables us to respond.

    Whenever I work with groups, people always start by saying the structure or system is too strong. And my AoC mentor James recently reminded me that in 2010 I’d believed it too. But we shape the system too, with every choice, option or new narrative we include. If imagination created the world as we see it, then we have the power to re-imagine. As long as people only know the stories or pictures they’ve seen, that’s all they have to work with. But new voices bring change. And empathy is our motivation to create it.

    Such a lovely article.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for sharing such important thoughts and insights, Nicci. You are a gifted scholar who can interweave inter-disciplinary perspectives together in clear, innovative, yet practical ways. Re-imagining – going beyond taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs (stories) – is crucial. Helping people see the possibilities this unlocks is not always easy, though, as you point out. It does require patience, empathy, and courage …


  3. Carol, I cry with clients and know many therapists who do. Sometimes that is all one can do. I believe crying is a bridge to building hope. There are other bridges as well, spirituality and the arts to name two. Building hope seems crucial for addressing challenging issues, most of which are not the creation of the people who sit with me. Hope creates the possibility of change, and is, therefore, dangerous. Let’s make more of it!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I appreciate your skill as a counselor, Michael. The art of “accompaniment” is a special gift. Although I can listen empathically, I always feel compelled to focus on the external forces that cause people’s suffering if I can. I know we can all make choices about how we deal with oppression, but for some, the magnitude is just too overwhelming, as it seemed to be for the crisis line caller. Focusing on macro change is how I’ve learned to deal with my otherwise immobilizing anger and sorrow. Sometimes, I’ve turned to science fiction for ideas to find hope, as I did when I was dealing with Indian child welfare issues… I agree with you – hope is dangerous to those who wield the power of conformity.


  4. We need people like you! And by we, I mean all of humanity!

    I also agree with the comment above. I was in counseling, and the stoic nature of the two people I went to made me leery of ever opening up to them. It was a lesson in futility.

    It is one thing to go to pieces, and thus be of no value, it is another to exhibit concern and sorrow, to let the person know you are not only listening but sensing their pain as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think the main thing that caused me to become disenchanted with psychiatry was the hopelessness of trying to end suffering one patient at a time. After a few years, it became clear that the only way I could really help the clients who came to me was to fight for social justice and equality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This makes a great deal of sense to me, Stuart. I had a similar realization when I was working with tribal communities. The repeating wounds of ongoing discrimination, added on top of the brutality of past colonial treatment that left a universally shared legacy of historical trauma, can only be effectively healed on a community level.


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