Changing the Conversation by Making it Safe to Have the Conversation

March 19, 2010

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedOne of the foundational challenges of any social movement is “changing the conversation.” That is, transforming an existing paradigm (say, some people are less than human and can be enslaved) to a new paradigm (all people have an inherent right to liberty).

That kind of transformation isn’t driven by logical argument alone. Sometimes, changing the conversation also involves an important precursor: “making it safe to have the conversation.” And, as we know, feeling safe sometimes has very little to do with logic, and a whole lot to do with emotion, trust, relationships,…and stories.

Case in point: AIDS. The facts about AIDS emerged in the early years of the epidemic (albeit more slowly than they should have). But the social and political will to deal effectively with the crises arrived much later, in part because many, including some of those who suffered the most, felt uncomfortable discussing AIDS openly and productively. One of the things that changed the conversation was the AIDS Quilt Project , which put a human face on a public health issue. The AIDS Quilt Project reframed the issue in human (and humane) terms through loving, moving tributes to those claimed by the disease. The AIDS Quilt told a different story—one of families and relationships torn apart. It moved the conversation from the coasts to the heartland, from a few individuals to families and communities across the nation (and eventually, the world).

The AIDS Quilt Project made it safe to have the conversation about AIDS, even as a variety of thought leaders, politicians, advocates, families, faith leaders, and constituencies worked to change the conversation in politics, media, culture, etc. The combination of these two elements—a secure environment for discussing difficult topics, and leaders and organizations broaching a topic effectively—created a supportive context for local, deeper dialogues and actions…and enduring change.

So, where can we turn for help in changing conversations, building community, and reimagining deeply embedded stories about the interrelated energy, environmental, and economic crises? Post Carbon Institute already has deep ties with the Transition Movement and Transition US, which complements PCI’s ideas and resources with community- and relationship-building–a rich source of action and reflection.

Recently, we’ve been talking with Common Security Clubs: local, faith-based groups who come together to face the economic crisis in community. We asked Andrée Zaleska, the Coordinator of the Common Security Club network, to share her thoughts on how faith-based organizations can help guide the conversation. She delivered a provacative article in which she writes: “The threat to our growth-based economy, and the materialistic lifestyle it has afforded us, has brought strong moral questions to the fore. Can we, in good conscience, continue to live in a way that threatens the well being of our planet, our poorer neighbors, and the generations to come? This question, and its answer, falls squarely into the realm of religion.”

In response, the Common Security Clubs “create an intimate environment in which people are honest about their finances, their troubles, and their fears about the future. Slowly and cautiously, a space is formed in which people can face the reality that we are not going back to a growth economy, that our earth is truly imperiled, and that we must create the new world now….”

The CSCs are all about relationship-building (one CSC minister calls the community: “the unit of survival going forward”) and story-telling (as another CSC minister points out: “All of the old stories are failing us, and we need new stories. Religion…creates new stories, and a new theology.”).

As Zaleska notes: “The crisis we face is too big for us to hold alone. It’s imperative that we find communities in which to share our grief, pledge our support, and receive the aid and generosity of others.”

That’s a direct challenge, and a worthy one. Can we–scientists and theologians, economists and mystics, analysts and Anabaptists–find common cause? In all of the successful social movements of the last couple of centuries, we have. Not that it’s always been easy, of course.

When it comes to social change, we can choose our cause or we can choose our allies. We can’t choose both. So then, the classic question: Whose side are you on?



Check out "Church in Our Times: Spirit and Security in the Face of Reality" by Andrée Zaleska at

Ken White

Ken has devoted much of his career to enhancing opportunities for people and communities. A graduate of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government's mid-career program, he has worked with nonprofits for nearly two decades. From 2009 to January 2016 Ken was Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute. Previously, Ken was the coordinating director of the Chaordic Commons, Inc., a group created by Dee Hock, the founding director of VISA. He was the executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a citizen-led organization working for truly representative government. Prior to that, he directed communications for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and Coalition of Essential Schools, and held similar posts with Oxfam America and the Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies. Ken has also been a consultant to numerous nonprofits, and was a journalist not so long ago.

Tags: Building Community, Culture & Behavior, Media & Communications