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Waveney’s speech at the inaugural Theories of Change conference

What’s your theory on the steps involved in creating a just world where people and nature can flourish?

Recently I was asked to give a 15 minute talk on just that and it certainly got me thinking. The speech was for the Theories of Change Hui held at Auckland University in February. It was a true privilege to be speaking alongside some of New Zealand’s most effective activists, politicians, advocates, grass roots leaders and business people.

We all answered the same four questions:
• What is your background in social change?
• What is your theory of change?
• How do you manifest your theory in your own practice?
• If there was something wrong with your theory, what would it be?

I think I was asked to speak to represent the consumer side of things. Can consumers make a difference? Or do we have to rely on change coming from social institutions or powerful business leaders? I didn’t realise it at the time of writing, but my theory, copied out below, was a little different in terms of the power I placed on the “bumbling individual” as opposed coordinated or best practice approaches suggested by most other speakers.

What is your background in social change?
– Two decades ago, right here at Auckland University I completed a mind opening BA in Sociology.
– From the moment I was out the door all I wanted to do was create a better world. Aside from attending rallies and signing all the petitions I could find, this rather unglamorously worked itself out as me spending my twenties and early thirties in small, poorly insulated NGOs hanging out with unruly disenfranchised youth. Turns out, it wasn’t my calling.
– Then, at the age of 33, I belatedly realised that my consumption was compromising the planet’s continued ability to support life. In response to this, my husband and I almost immediately publically challenged ourselves to live for one year without creating any rubbish. This created more interest than we anticipated, and it was actually quite hard! Luckily we narrowly escaped with our pride intact and lived to tell the tale.
– Since then I have continued to role model and advocate for consumer power.
– I’m currently a Senior Community Advisor at Auckland Council, still working with minimising waste.

What is your theory of change?
My theory of change is not very grand, and I may have been hungry when I developed it. It’s a three-part theory:

  1. Keep nibbling
  2. Nibble the bits you like
  3. Accept people who nibble differently to yourself

Point 1: Keep nibbling.
The system we are trying to change is complex. As Niki,Jeff and others have pointed out, alarmingly, this means we can’t predict certain actions will have certain outcomes. Just let that sink in. Imagine if when I walked up Symonds Street it only sometimes took me to the start of K road. I wouldn’t be sane for long. Also, it can seem that the power doesn’t sit with us. It could be some of the time, or it could be almost all of the time that we feel like our actions make little difference. This is a frustrating situation, so what to do?
Keep nibbling.
– There is hope.
– We have more power than we think.
– We know that complex systems can change.
– And we know that change is not always slow and steady, but that systems can have tipping points, where sudden, dramatic change can happen overnight.
– We also know that if we plant nothing, we grow nothing.
– But if we act, even though we can’t predict the outcome, we know that every action has an outcome.
– I chose the word nibble for a couple of reasons. I have at times felt completely overwhelmed by where to start, and what to do; Nibbling sounds simple. Just pick something and give it nibble. I have also at times actually felt guilty or burnt out from thinking I’m not doing enough. Nibbling sounds doable. We are in this for the long haul. Keep nibbling.

Point 2: Nibble the bits you like
– Even if we could establish that some actions and strategies are more effective than others, my theory of change encourages people to follow their energy and stick with their skills because this is where we are all personally most effective.
– It’s the old adage, if you’re a pear, it’s a waste of your talent trying to be an apple. The best thing is to work hard on being a great pear.
– Maybe you want to invent things, or count things, or sew things, or sell things, or do nothing but compost, perhaps you want to live in the country, or live down town. Be yourself. Just do want you’re good at, find your energy, follow your passion.
– You can be yourself and be effective. In fact, I’m suggesting that this is the most effective thing you can do.

Point 3: Accept people who nibble differently to yourself
– Look around you, we are all in this together, yet we don’t all, always see eye to eye. Some are edgy, some are pragmatic. Some of us would rather walk into a room full of suits and Champagne and others would say give me dreads and ganga any day.
– It’s nice to be accepting of others, but that’s not why we are here. We haven’t come here today to the “theory of nice” hui.
– Diversity is strategy.
– Divided we fall
– I’m not glibly suggesting nibbling away at this huge beast of a problem because I can’t think of anything else to say. I’m not suggesting you nibble at the bits you like just to save you feeling overwhelmed.
– This is strategy.
– This is how to effect change in complex systems.
– Always hold the power of the disassembled crowd in your mind. It doesn’t matter if you are physically sitting here today in this crowed auditorium or if you are alone at your computer. We are always part of the immense power of a crowd, whether we are assembled or not.
– Collectively, we are part of the largest people movement in the history of people. There are not only millions of individuals involved, there are millions and millions of organisations involved (Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest)
– And – when we all act, all in such different ways, – guess what? Its complex.
– Complexity and diversity is the perfect strategy for a complex problem.
– The more nibblers, from the more angles, the better.

How do you manifest your theory in your own practice?
– My theory of change has empowered me to act and given me the confidence to do what I’m good at.
– For me, let me be honest, writing petitions and law reform, and lobbying, bores me to tears. And activism – front line activism – scares me half to death. For the record, I also am crap at making things and running businesses, so I don’t think I’ll be supplying any innovative new green technology to the market any time soon.
– So the question is, is there anything left? What can I do? What am I good at? Do you know what else we need? We need 4.2 million kiwis to change the way they think, and buy stuff.
– Not only does our Rubbish Free lifestyle stop and make people think, it’s provided me with a platform to take the message of sustainability to 100s of 1000s of people.
– I’m nibbling away, tackling the normality of buying cheap, disposable, planet destroying products. And amazingly I’ve found that the people who buy this stuff typically also actually care about the planet. I love that! It’s so ridiculous but it is also so positive. I know it’s complicated but I choose to go from the basis that people are good, but haven’t yet linked their actions to the effects. I love connecting with people from all walks of life and inspiring and supporting people to make changes.

If there was something wrong with your theory, what would it be?
There is an “anything goes” approach that permeates through my theory.
– Firstly it seems to be anti-strategy: in the face of some compelling arguments today, most of which have argued for a particular strategy over others, am I standing here saying: I’ve had this great idea, we should all just do what we want(?) – when clearly some approaches do work better than others. I agree that we need strategists, coordination, and collective action. But I don’t think that means we can’t have anything else. I put forward “nibble the bits you like” – because I don’t believe there is ever a theory, or a box that we can all fit into, – but that we do all have something to offer.
– Secondly, by endorsing navigating your own ‘true north’ is my theory just a reflection of our increasingly me-focused, individualistic society? Well, I hope not, the intent is to celebrate diversity, which frees people to be effective, empowered and impassioned. And in my experience when we embrace diversity, (including our own), we learn more, become more connected and less individualistic.
– Thirdly by encouraging acceptance, if that’s taken to the extreme then does that mean I have to be accepting of violence? Or insincerity? Again, if it were taken that way, then yes that’s an issue, but since when did “accept one another” lead to violence and crime? I hope the theory can encourage tolerance, and increase our acceptance of others even if we don’t agree with everything they say.
– My last critique is that my theory relies on each of us being capable of critical self-reflection and being open to the advice and wisdom of others. If we are not, all sorts of detrimental nonsense could ensue. But, I’ve put the theory forward because I believe the bigger risk is millions of people not realizing that their actions, however small, could make a difference.

Thanks everyone.

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  1. Niki Harre, March 7, 2016:

    I very much agree with your position here Waveney – and it is so clearly articulated. The one thing I would perhaps want to stress more strongly is the role of critical self-reflection – your very last point. Absolutely we should act from the heart, and I also feel that by doing so we are, in fact, “connecting”, as heart-felt action is essentially about the spaces in between us, that sense of being in something together. Diversity and commonality come together at their extremes, like a zen-circle. I want to stress critical self-reflection because I think we must stand back from our actions from time to time and ask ourselves “what is this creating in the world?”. We must also be ready to adapt if it seems to be going awry somehow.