An ode to small change

Posted on April 20, 2017

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I’m sitting in my office in Washington, DC, following the Tweets from the annual Museums and the Web conference. The keynote speaker is Tim Phillips from Beyond Conflict, who’s tackling the topic, Building More Inclusive Communities: Lessons From 25 Years On The Front Lines Of Peace

There is some great discussion surrounding this keynote, including a wonderful thread on institutional transformation. This Tweet stood out to me.

This is so important. When we talk about holistic systematic overall, radical change, or completely rethinking our institutions, the size and complexity of the problem is, honestly, beyond comprehension. Institutions are incredibly complex, built upon tradition and legacies, filled with people of competing perspectives, and deeply enmeshed within other systems and institutions. All of this means that the kind of systematic overhaul that sees them change completely (and quickly) is unlikely without true revolution (which is, itself, highly destructive).

We can all make change and impact that helps address systemic issues, and build in deep and ongoing shifts in our institutions. As nikhil suggests, the personal is an important starting point. Much of the time, those changes will be small and hyperlocal, rather than the dramatic overhaul that we might impatiently demand. Yet if everyone who wants to see museums that are, say, more inclusive and equitable makes small, persistent changes in every aspect of their work that they can impact, the effects will be real. This might mean changing the recruiting structures and processes for a program or position you’re involved with (or looking for someone with different qualities, skills, and experiences from what you’ve looked for in the past). It could mean ensuring that your organisation’s job applications work well on mobile. It could involve instituting a training program for junior staff (especially your guards, cleaners, and visitor services staff), to better grow their knowledge and professional skills, and intentionally creating an internal pipeline for those staff into other roles. Invite someone to a meeting who wouldn’t normally be included. Borrow a wheelchair and test out each of your exhibitions to see how and where the experience is less rewarding for those visitors in a wheelchair, and then act on that knowledge to make change. Use your budget differently.

These ideas might be simplistic, but they’re also concrete, and they shift the domain of accountability from the nebulousness of “we”, to the specificity of “me”. The rhetoric, demands, and expectations of revolutionary, transformational change can be self-defeating, and overwhelming. To argue for small change feels counter-intuitive, as though I’m abandoning the cause. But what a call for small, persistent change makes possible is accountability. We can all be accountable (to ourselves, to our peers) for small change in ways that is close to impossible at an institutional level. We can all ask ourselves, at the end of a week or year, what did I do that made things better?

What do you think? Could this approach help you reimagine how to make an impact and make change? What have you achieved this year that you feel proud of for its positive impact on the way your institution or community works? What positive change have your helped bring into existence?