5 Reasons why we need a school for activism now

by Helen van Baal

Photo: Markus Spiske, Unsplash

Over the past couple of years all of our lives have been affected dramatically by the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine. And the ongoing political inertia despite the progressing global warming. And the continuous fight for LGBTQIA+ rights. And many more issues that are worth fighting for or against.

And while historically there has always been something to fight for, we, as humanity, have never been this equipped, this knowledgable, and this connected and at the same time have been facing global issues at this scale as today.

So, what’s going on? And, what can we do?

Here are five thoughts on change making, education and activism that I think are key to enabling the next generation to be better equipped to lead change than we are today:

1. Change Making in the business context just isn’t enough anymore.

Anyone working somewhere in the proximity of innovation, product development, startups, or design have by now probably gone through some kind of design thinking training. And while you might argue that design thinking has failed to create more understanding for design, it certainly succeeded at simplifying (maybe over-simplifying) the design process so that anyone can now go through research, ideation, prototyping and testing and call themselves an innovator. Or change maker. Or designer. And, all irony aside, I think that’s great. It’s great to have a shared toolbox in order to create change together, and we can only create sustainable change if we work together. So I strongly believe that there’s value in these skillsets.

What I struggle with is the exponential use of the term change maker. Because isn’t it a bit hypocritical to call ourselves ‘change makers’ trying to help make automotive companies more money while Bolsonaro is burning rainforests, the US are bringing abortion bans back and Putin is committing war crimes? Change maker has transformed into a completely empty term. It means nothing anymore. While actually, at it’s core, what we really need right now are real change makers. People who are equipped and committed to create and lead sustainable change. But while the word is lost to the corporate world, I believe there’s still hope. So from the business change making innovation theater, let’s think bigger, more systemic. Instead of learning from corporate puppets, let’s learn from real change makers, let’s learn from those who are in the arena every day, let’s learn from real activists.

The good news is that many in the field of innovation are now actually shifting from a “human-centered” approach to a “life-centered” approach. That’s a step into the right direction, but it’s not enough, because, in the end, what matters is not what you call your process, but what you effectively do with it, where you apply it and what you change as a result.

2. We can’t learn how to make a difference by reading books and writing exams.

We now know that there’s no such thing as learning styles. Although it’s an easy to grasp concept, there is no scientific evidence that anybody only learns best in a visual way, or by writing, or listening. Learning always depends on the subject you’re trying to learn. While you might learn some historical facts well by reading a book (maybe with some visualizations) you are likely to learn swimming better by going into the water. As change is complex by nature — it involves working with humans and requires empathy and leadership skills, but it also involves strategic thinking, planning, measuring and evaluating consequences, as well as creative approaches and ideas — we need to adapt the way we learn about change. It’s obvious that we won’t learn to create change in a classroom, but what’s a good way to learn it then?

At Kaospilot, we strongly believe in experiential learning. So, learning not by reading about a topic, but by going out and actually working on that topic. Experiential learning is, of course, nothing new. Yet, you still see shockingly little truly experiential learning in academic curricula.

Apart from learning through practice — and not just some made up project — but real projects with real clients and real users, at Kaospilot we take this idea one step further and allow the students to realize what it is they need or want to learn. So, instead of teaching, say project management, we ask students to do a project, and only “teach” project management once they have understood what it will be useful for. This way, students don’t learn for the sake of learning, not even “for themselves”, but they learn what they feel is needed. And that way, learning is effective. Essentially, and I strongly believe this to be true, we can only really learn if we want to learn.

And lastly, the best way to learn about change is from people who actually create change. Not only because they know best (which they probably do), but also because learning isn’t just about memorizing something, it’s about inspiration and motivation. If we learn from real role models, from people we admire, from people who are passionate and committed to what they do, then we don’t only learn, but we find something even more valuable, we find a vision and a call to learn and to keep learning and to not give up.

So, let’s recap. This is what we’ve found true when it comes to learning about change:

  • We learn best through real world experience.
  • We learn best when we not only understand but feel the need for a specific skill or knowledge.
  • We learn to be change makers from real change makers. We learn about activism from real activists.

3. We need to learn how to not burn out.

One theme that keeps coming up in conversations with activists is that no matter how successful or passionate people are, burn-out is something every activist has either experienced first hand or witnessed through colleagues. And while, on the one hand it sounds counter-intuitive, because activists usually choose their cause and decide to fight for something, nobody forces them to do so. But on the other hand — and anyone who is really passionate about what they do might know this feeling — when you are 100% committed to something, it can be hard to take enough breaks even if that would be the more sustainable choice.

So while the work that activists are doing out there today is vital, burn out is a major cause for many activists to stop the work that they’ve been fighting for. Not because they don’t believe in it anymore, but because they haven’t learned how to approach activism sustainably.

And the only way to do work sustainably over a long period of time, is to make sure that you who is at the heart of that work, stay healthy and have enough energy to continue. For a while you will be able to go on without enough sleep or exercise or healthy nutrition or financial security, but ultimately you will put your hard work at risk by not taking care of yourself.

At the core of this problem is the way we see activism. Activism often stems from an emotional source. We are angry about how women’s rights are not respected, we are frightened about the consequences of current policies on the climate, we are furious at how refugees are being treated. And these feelings are very real and legitimate and it’s absolutely okay that activism is often (not always) born from a genuine emotion about something. However, only because the initial reason is emotional, doesn’t mean we cannot practice our activism in a systemic and strategic way. Humans are emotional as well as strategic. When it comes to activism, we just haven’t learned how to combine the two well. We start with an emotion and that keeps us going until we burn out. But if we were to learn to truly “lead” change, to mobilize the right stakeholders, to think systemically and to use our resources in the smartest way possible, then we can be angry and passionate, and we can, at the same time, be effective and sustainable without burning out.

4. Real change essentially comes down to good leadership.

We know that we cannot continue the way we have been. So, I guess it’s obvious that we need to learn how to create change. And in the previous points I’ve shared the reasons for why I believe we should a) learn from activism and b) learn to practice activism in a sustainable way.

Now, let’s talk about what change actually means. Because when we talk about topics like human rights and climate change, we cannot expect change to happen instantaneous. Radically yes, immediately probably not. But we are also not talking about change in the “let’s create a habit, and then the change will follow” sense that you might apply when trying to loose weight. Instead, we are talking about change that needs to happen systemically and over time. So it’s not enough to create a habit. Before a whole system can create new habits, a whole lot needs to happen first: Understanding, activation, enablement, empowerment, etc.

So, what we are talking about when we are talking about change, is actually leadership. Because the only way to create change at this dimension, with this level of impact and in a systemic and sustainable way, is through outstanding leadership. Because, essentially, if you practice leadership in a way that is inclusive, visionary and holistic at the same time, you will be able to create a movement that is bigger than yourself. And that’s exactly the type of change that we need right now.

So, we need to learn to lead change. And I don’t mean leadership in a hierarchical way, also not in a Che Guevara inspiring personality way. But in a way that inspires people to stand up for their values, that allows all of us to be our best, that allows for faults and vulnerability because it acknowledges the bigger picture and wider system. If enough people are able to really lead change then we might have a chance.

5. Many of us want to make a difference but are lacking the tools to do so.

Finally, and this is what makes me most optimistic: We have been receiving such an overwhelming amount of positive feedback to our Leadership in Systemic Activism Programme that I can confidently say: You are not alone in wanting to make a difference. On the contrary, there are many young — and not so young — people who are passionate and ready to become those who will lead change.

And this readiness to lead change comes in many different ways. Some are loud. There are the ones who are out on the streets protesting, or sharing their opinions on social media. But not all of us are cut out to chain ourselves to trees, many of us are willing to commit our lives to making the world a better place, but have not found the right place or way of doing so. And it’s for both these groups that we need to ask: How can we learn to create real, impactful and sustainable change? What can we do apart from going to a protest every now and then?

What I believe we need is a place where we can learn with and from each other to create and lead change. Where systemic thinking and activism and leadership inspire each other. And, where we learn from real activists and create change together. The Kaospilot+ Berlin Programme is such a place and will start into its first year in the fall of 2022. But it’s only one place. I would love to see a world full of such places. If we could all apply activism and leadership skills to some of the things that are currently going wrong in the world, then we might actually be able to make the world a better place.

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