Social Change from the Inside Out
13 December 2013
Early on in my career as an artist agent I saw a play called Not By Bread Alone performed by Nalaga’at Theater, a troupe of deaf-blind actors from Tel Aviv. The play depicted their hopes and dreams: getting married, having children, and walking through town like everyone else. The show’s simple message, that we aren’t alone in our struggles, was incredibly moving. It confronted the problem of being isolated, misunderstood, and often helpless. Theater was the tool Nalaga’at used to unite their group and create their community. It was also the vehicle they employed to share their stories with the rest of the world and change people’s perception of their situation.
When we think of social entrepreneurship we often think of satisfying social needs by providing tangible solutions. We fulfill a community’s need for clean drinking water by installing a pump. We realize the planet’s need for stewardship by planting trees. We meet a child’s need for education by constructing a school.
But we should put equal effort into less tangible, more creative ways of effecting social change. We should get to the core of the problems we’re trying to solve by understanding the way people think and feel about social challenges and work to change their perceptions. By doing this we can still affect social change even when we don’t have hard resources like pumps and trees.
Nalaga’at Theater’s goal was to improve the lives of a group of deaf-blind adults, and they could have done that by building a community center or creating a new piece of technology to help them hear or see. But Nalaga’at chose to serve the deaf-blind community by changing people’s perception of the group. Changing the way others perceive the deaf-blind community and how deaf-blind people perceive themselves boosts morale and increases camaraderie in the short term. This in turn leads to things like community centers and hearing aids in the long term.
What if we changed people’s perception of equal access to clean water? Or their perception of education? This shift in thinking would effect positive change in other realms and would allow empowered individuals, communities and even societies to take more responsibility for an equal social playing field. Big budgets and lots of resources are nice to have, but aren’t necessary to create positive change. Sometimes all it takes is a change in perception.