Structural Change 101

by Linda Bowen posted 12/9/2015 11:40:40 AM
During the 1960s and 1970s, decades of social justice efforts were catalyzed with policy and legislative victors in the racial justice, women’s rights and anti- war movements. The values lifted, strategies employed and lessons learned in each separate movement propelled and strengthened the efforts of the others. The victories of these movements also prepared a terrain for the struggles of and policy changes in other movements, such as those for gay rights, the homeless and the disabled.

The strident tenor of today’s public debate on social issues echoes the turbulence of the 60s when advances on civil and women’s rights and the anti-war movement were in full swing. Then and now this cacophony provides a signal of upcoming major shifts in the ownership and translation of public values, with many possible outcomes for the move toward increasing social justice.

Our past social justice movements also offer a lesson about the pull toward and the push against sustained change on social issues, as many of their most celebrated policy achievements have been slowly but steadily pushed back. Recent comments by Justice Ginsberg with respect to Roe v. Wade also offer a sense of a Supreme Court that may not issue a sweeping national decision for marriage equality, but leave it up to state by state adjudication.

ICP’s own work and the successes and retrenchment of the racial equality and women’s rights movements point to the need for those seeking social justice to go beyond policy change. Structural change and strong defense of it must be the aim of today’s social justice practitioners and advocates. ICP has spent the past few years understanding what a structure is, how it is formed and how it is changed. Based upon this understanding we are developing a model for structural change that cuts across social issues.

During our partnership with communities for primary prevention of violence over the last two decades, we developed a model that reflects the developmental trajectory of communities as they seek social change. We supported and witnessed successful violence prevention strategies in which values, programs and policies were changed by collaborative bodies in our partner sites and seemingly institutionalized. Violence rates dropped in our communities as they did in other places. The successes of our community partners were heralded by them, their cities and by ICP – but overtime we and they witnessed a strong pushback against their progress – even from former allies.

Initially, we suspected this lost ground might be attributable to lack of funding or waning public attention to the issue of violence prevention, but eventually we realized this pushback was actually a negative reaction to lifting up community power. In response, we began studying what was then known about sustainability, a search which led us to understand that what sustains efforts is not policy change but structural change.

A structure is formed through the simultaneous and mutually reinforcing interaction of three principles: cultural schema (or values and norms), power relations and resource distribution. The formation of a structure attracts and organizes a powerful constituency which in turn promotes its formation and guards it against contestation. Once a structure is formed, and then the longer it stays in place, the more difficult it is to change.

Structural work is not the same as systems or institutional work. This definition and the conceptual model we developed is the “missing link” in current work to ensure and sustain community change over time. It provides the frame for work in social equity and helps to identify the “big lift” that has to be done alongside addressing inequities if we are to sustain progress.

In this blog post, we examine several examples of structural change from current events to elucidate the strengths and weaknesses in these movements.

Gay Marriage


The movement to obtain same-sex marriage rights has made significant progress in the last several years. Four more states recognized same-sex marriage in last November’s election, the first active pro athlete came out publicly and politicians are increasingly announcing their “change of heart” on the issue. Four years ago, this didn’t seem possible when Proposition 8 rescinded the right of gays and lesbians to marry in California.

Nate Silver, the New York Times polling prodigy,
examines the polls over recent years and found that since 2011, those who approve same-sex marriage have overtaken those who oppose it. In 2013, most polls acknowledge a majority of Americans approving same sex marriage (an average of 51%) compared to only about a third of Americans who approved in 1996.

So how was this shift made? The main contributor to success has been lifting the value of equality – LGBT activists have embraced the value that “we are just like you” – with stories of middle-class families, members of the military and other examples of hard-working Americans who ‘Joe six-pack ‘can relate to and sympathize with. This has resulted in cultural change that is pushing policy change, attracting resources, building up a diverse constituency and accelerating this movement’s progress nationwide.

Immigration Reform


Immigration policy is currently in the public eye, with new values being lifted around the role of immigrants in American society. Those advocating a path to citizenship and other reforms are lifting similar values to the gay rights movement – showcasing immigrant families that exemplify American values and the fulfillment of the American dream.

On the other hand, those opposed to immigration reform have worked tirelessly to focus on a reverse “prosperity grid” frame in the face of rising immigration. These messages appeal to people on the basis of fear of the future and preserving self-interest, even though current research shows immigrants contributing more than they take to social safety nets like Medicare. The immigration reform fight is in flux and the possibility of changing the cultural lens to shift the balance of power in this fight is uncertain.

Women’s Health


Simultaneously, women’s health advocates were caught off guard last year in the face of push back against progress made over the last few decades. By lifting restrictive religious values and tacking on to the GOP backlash against Obamacare, lawmakers were able to pass 50 pieces of legislation at the state level in 2012 that decreased women’s self-autonomy and impeded access to reproductive health. These included medically forced ultrasounds before an abortion can be performed, requiring abstinence-only sex education in schools and allowing employers to deny coverage for birth control. Even seemingly progressive companies like Eden Organics recently filed a lawsuit against the Obama Administration in objection to providing contraception for its employees.

This pushback is something ICP has witnessed before in its work in community. Unless policy shifts are aligned with sustained cultural and value shifts, there is the potential for this kind of response to undermine gains previously made by advocates.

ICP’s Work


ICP is working with communities to develop the tools that will strengthen movement efforts to create sustained change that simultaneously lift cultural values and push policy shift. Through collaboration between movements, identification and support of community leaders, and sustained, long-term efforts we can create lasting and significant structural change across a range of issues.
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Blog Archives

Confronting the Structures of Race
by Linda Bowen (12/9/2015)

Framing Inequality
by Linda Bowen (12/9/2015)

Losing Ground
by Linda Bowen (12/9/2015)

UNITED STATES THEATER
by Linda Bowen (12/9/2015)

Structural Change 101
by Linda Bowen (12/9/2015)

The Invisible Net
by Danell Cross (6/18/2014)

It Takes A Village To Make A Self-Made Man
by Billy Buntin (7/26/2012)

Occupy Wall Street and the Future of Collective Action
by Billy Buntin (4/2/2012)

Announcing the Community Peace Bulletin
by ICP Blogger (1/23/2012)

Community Organizing Is Not Compromise
by ICP Blogger (1/17/2012)

Neo-Liberalism and Wisconsin
by ICP Blogger (9/25/2011)

Immigration Reform
by ICP Blogger (9/25/2011)

Outsider Social Service Provision
by ICP Blogger (9/9/2011)

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