Building a 21st Century social change movement will take learning from what worked and didn’t work in the past and updating those approaches for the future, including by harnessing the power technology for public good.

Living Cities is open sourcing our 2014 annual report, asking folks to respond to the question: “What will it take to achieve dramatically better results for low-income people faster?” This blog is a response to that question. In the coming weeks, we are showcasing a diversity of points of view around this question. Learn more about the event and follow the conversation on social media with #NewUrbanPractice.

Millennials are often criticized for being apathetic and entitled. We lack perspective on history, some say. We are less civically and politically engaged than previous generations, others insist. We are accused of being obsessed with our gadgets but disconnected from reality. We are chastised for failing to take the torch–to pick up where previous generations left off in terms of advancing justice and equity. Certainly, America has seen great progress with regard to racial equity and expanding opportunity to more of our citizens. And, perhaps that created the false perception that social change work is less urgent. The Civil Rights Movement ensured the rapid expansion of rights and liberties for people of color. And, the creation of programs such as food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, head start and work study were woven together to build a safety net that promised to catch those who were still struggling to catch up after generations of discriminatory policies, and those who temporarily stumbled. Yet, we millennials have inherited a world that is being ravaged from the inside out. We are watching the seas rising and the promise of education as the great equalizer—the foundation of economic mobility– eroding. We are witnessing a world at war and an America whose discourse and politics is polarized and divisive. In the wake of an economic crisis that left so many people of our generation without jobs but with plenty of student debt, one thing is sure, whether we agree with the criticism leveled at us or not: The time for us to lead is now. It is our responsibility to claim our present and to imagine and create the future—our own and that of the generations that will come after us.

Personally, I am in the camp that rejects the belief that millennials are less community-focused or predisposed to civic engagement than previous generations. While the progress achieved in previous generations have made injustice and inequity and their sources less manifest, conspicuous, and predictable, we are seeing a great deal of attention being paid to these issues in recent years. Occupy Wall Street, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the waves of people taking to the street from Ferguson to Staten Island underscore that there are millions of people who are impassioned and prepared to boldly take action. The People’s Climate March in September of 2014 similarly showed that a great many of us are not just environmentally conscious, but are also organizing ourselves to effect change. A recent study found that millennials view social justice and environmental sustainability as key considerations in terms of where they choose to work: 88% of millennials choose employers based on strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) values, and 86% would consider leaving if the companies’ CSR values no longer met their expectations.

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On the other hand, what it means to be community-focused and civically engaged in a world where the entire notion of community has been transformed by revolutionary forces such as globalization and the internet is still a question that we are working to answer. And, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues we face and the huge amount of information that flies at us every day. Too often, this leads us to scan for quick sound bytes rather than to strive for deeper understanding of issues in all of their complexity. In the same vein, there is a trend towards ‘quick fixes’ that offer tangible but less than transformational wins. ‘Clicktivism’ is a digital example of that tendency. Liking things on social media, signing online petitions, and producing viral videos can be important awareness-building pieces of a comprehensive strategy, but they should never be viewed as the whole strategy. To build a movement that gets dramatically better results in terms of education reform, job creation, alleviating poverty, disrupting inequality, and saving our planet, we will all need to roll up our sleeves and reach not just for the mouse, but also for the hands of other dreamers and doers towards deeper forms of collaboration. Technology makes it so that we can connect with, learn from, and collaborate with anyone across the globe. We need to harness its power in more meaningful ways. I see two very promising examples of what this looks like:

  • The civic tech movement is advancing in such a way that it could transform how government engages citizens and provides important services.

  • And, there is a movement in the social sector writ large (I think of the ‘social sector’ as all actors, public, private, and philanthropic who do social change work) towards defaulting to open. At Living Cities we call this Open-Sourcing Social Change.

Where these movements become really powerful is where they result in the grand scale changing of behavior of all stakeholders—government, citizens, foundations, nonprofits, and corporations—that fundamentally transforms systems so that they work better for everyone.

Meaningful and lasting change cannot be built entirely on a CMS. It cannot be advanced entirely through hashtags. It cannot be co-created entirely on a Google Hangout. Those are great tools that can be applied to support a more inclusive, more comprehensive, and more equitable social change movement.

The reality is that technology opens up possibilities for better understanding challenges and opportunities, for sharing ideas and calls to action, and for working together in new ways, transcending parochialism and the traditional roles of individuals, institutions, and sectors. But, meaningful and lasting change cannot be built entirely on a CMS. It cannot be advanced entirely through hashtags. It cannot be co-created entirely on a Google Hangout. Those are great tools that can be applied to support a more inclusive, more comprehensive, and more equitable social change movement. This is especially important as we are all increasingly acknowledging that no individual or institution can achieve our vision for a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world on its own. There is no Superman, only a global community of ordinary citizens who together can do extraordinary things. Millennials, as the most diverse generation in US history and the generation that came up in the internet age, are uniquely positioned to drive these tools to work for public good.

Circle of Hands

We must strive for deeper forms of collaboration

So, what will it take to build a 21st Century social change movement? It will take learning from what worked and didn’t work in the past (from the Civil Rights Movement, to the fights for self-determination in Africa and Asia, to the New Deal, and the War on Poverty, for example) and updating those approaches for the future. Can crowdfunding supplement and push the boundaries of traditional grantmaking and impact investing? Can e-learning and blended classrooms help to reimagine our education systems so that they serve all students better? Can civic tech, married with other forms of community engagement, reinvigorate our democracy? I think they can. But, it will take intergenerational, cross-sector, and cross-cultural collaboration. It will take all of us. And, millennials have a vital role to play.

What do you think are the most promising examples of how technology is or can be harnessed for public good? Add your thoughts 

Recently, I got together (virtually and in person) with a group of other millennials who make up the Millennial Advisory Committee of the Andrew Goodman Foundation to talk about what that role can look like. The result of our brainstorm was a ‘Manifesto’ that doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but proposes some strategies and tactics that we believe that everyone, millennials and those born before and after us, can begin to apply in their lives. I offer this Manifesto as a contribution to the conversation about what it will take to build a New Urban Practice that achieves dramatically better results for low-income people, and I, along with my colleagues who collaborated on it, invite others to share your thoughts using the hashtag #MACMANIFESTO. And, we hope that you will organize your own brainstorms, strategy sessions, and hackathons. I look forward to hearing your ideas!