Never doubt a small group of committed individuals can change the world

July 4, 2018

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By Steve Wyler, Carnegie Associate, Carnegie UK Trust

The Better Way Network is a group of social activists, from the voluntary sector and beyond that shares ideas, knowledge and inspiration about how to improve services and build stronger communities When we started the Better Way network, we did so because we believed that there were a great many people who shared our wish to improve services and strengthen communities. They’re already doing great things in their different ways and want to do more. But often it’s a real struggle – we all find ourselves constantly working against the grain of institutional behaviour and it can be a hard and lonely road. Perhaps we could be stronger together?

So we brought together a small group of people who we believed would find each other stimulating, and who were all in their different ways social activists. We invited them to imagine the changes they would like to see, in how services are designed and delivered. And to imagine what good communities might look like. We certainly didn’t agree on everything. We came from across the political spectrum, and our debates were lively. But we found that we had a surprising amount in common and a set of core ideas soon emerged which are now the propositions included in our book: Insights for a Better Way.

‘We wanted to stimulate enquiry, exchange, debate, and challenge and learn from others’

These are propositions, not prescriptions, or rules, or even principles, because we knew that telling people what to do would at best produce lip service and there is already plenty of that about. We wanted to connect to a deeper and more fundamental shift in mind-set and behaviour. We wanted to stimulate enquiry, exchange, debate, and challenge and learn from others. In other words, to involve people as actors and contributors in the Better Way project, not as passive recipients.

There is an old Chinese saying: ‘Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand.’ We hoped that if we could involve people in the Better Way thinking, not tell them, perhaps mutual understanding and change might flow from that involvement.

We remembered Margaret Mead’s famous words: ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’  We had already begun with a small group, and that way of working felt productive and invigorating. So we started to build up a wider network made up of small groups of people.

‘There are surprisingly few opportunities for people pursuing social change to come together in a reflective and invigorating space’

We realised very quickly that conviviality helps. There are more than enough meetings as it is. But there are surprisingly few opportunities for people pursuing social change to step back from immediate pressures and come together in a reflective and invigorating space, outside of the usual office environment. Meeting at regular intervals over a meal, with everyone paying their own way, seemed to work well.

We called the Better Way groups ‘cells’. They are like guerrilla cells, said someone, because our intention is radical and revolutionary. But they are also like biological cells, said another: the DNA of the Better Way propositions runs through every cell, even though they may take different forms, and over time the cells will replicate and grow a much bigger connected organism with a life of its own. Whichever metaphors we prefer it is exciting to see how people are organising themselves in different ways around the country, and how more and more cross-cell activities are taking place.

There are inevitably temptations to build a formal organisation, with its own institutional life. We want to resist that, and have tried to keep the whole operation as light touch as possible. We have two convenors, Caroline Slocock and myself, and the initiative is hosted by Civil Exchange, the organisation Caroline runs. We have attracted modest amounts of funding, from Carnegie UK Trust and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, to contribute towards our time and expenses, as well as to provide a small fund to help with member activities, and the Carnegie UK Trust has provided administrative, research and communications support too.

Can a network be a catalyst for change and create a shift in favour of Better Way thinking and practice? Based on experience so far, we think it can give people inspiration and ideas and it also helps to know that there are others travelling the same road. We hope we are creating a growing momentum for change.

Robert Louis Stevenson said ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’ and the very act of travelling hopefully together, but also purposefully, is more likely to bring about the kinds of change we want to see.

Steve Wyler is an independent consultant and writer in the social sector is the co-convenor of A Better Way. From 2000 to 2014 Steve was Chief Executive of Locality (previously the Development Trusts Association), bringing together local organisations dedicated to community enterprise, community ownership, and social change.

The Carnegie UK Trust is supporting A Better Way Network to share knowledge and insights about to improve services and build stronger communities. Steve’s essay is one of 40 published today in Insights for a Better Way. You can access the full book online and find out more about the Better Way Network here: