Making History

We must make history to prevent climate change catastrophe.

Don’t believe Margaret Mead’s famous quotation, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Social change is made by wielding the power to overcome those defending the status quo. For most of us, that power comes in the form of people – and more people equals more power. The hard work of building that power is how we make history.

Social change is made from the bottom up. Civil rights pioneer Ella Baker got it right when, speaking of Martin Luther King, she asserted, “Martin didn’t make the movement, the movement made Martin.”

In fact, the seeds of social change are planted decades before they fully bloom. What may seem like spontaneous outbursts of activity are the product of generations of agitation, experimentation, and the germination and spread of ideas. From this cauldron, leaders emerge, strategies take shape, public opinion is transformed, and movements are forged.

Baker would know: She began training civil rights activists in the 1940s, including Rosa Parks, years before her celebrated bus ride.

In fact, the history of social change contains numerous miscalculations, failures, and bold tactics that break ground for the future. For example, the 1960 lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, South Carolina caught fire, inspiring similar demonstrations throughout the South. But previous sit-ins, going back decades, did not.

History is full of setbacks, persistence, and the painstaking work of movement-building. It took many decades for women to win the right to vote in the United States. This struggle was replete with evolving strategies and tactics, bitterly opposed factions, and the slow alignment of forces in favor of women’s suffrage.

History is made by unknown heroes. These are people who clear the path, lay the groundwork, and carry out the day-to-day work. For every prominent leader like King, there were thousands of women and men producing leaflets, canvassing their neighbors, and organizing meetings and demonstrations – people without whom there would have been no Civil Rights Movement.

There’s nothing inevitable about social change. We live within systems – economic, political, cultural – with rules and structures that may appear or feel “natural.”  But these are all social creations, made and maintained by people despite the harm they may do. Too often, we are not conscious of these systems, nor do we recognize the possibility of changing them, or know how to change them.

But sparks of awareness can culminate in the creation of new possibilities. Acts of tolerance, courage, and creativity that inspire and motivate others. The sharing of information and ideas. Making connections, creating relationships, building networks. All of these actions, big and small, help create the conditions and produce the resources necessary for social change.

And when widespread awareness is paired with mass action, possibilities can become new realities. The pain of unfulfilled needs and wants, the demands for fairness and justice, can be stifled no longer. And the tidal wave of power can overwhelm those trying to hold it back.

In recent years, we have experienced immense changes in the United States, including the election of a Black president and the growing legalization of same-sex marriage, all of it the result of years of slow, hard work against forces of resistance.

Unfortunately, the threat of climate change requires us to adopt a new timetable. We do not have decades to bring about rapid societal transformation. External events – albeit, with human causes – such as hurricanes and other weather-related catastrophes may help create the awareness necessary to end our reliance on fossil fuels.

But history has taught us this: Change is not inevitable. We must create the movements, nurture the leaders, sustain the organizations, and build the power necessary to overcome those whose interests are opposed to us. We must make history.

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