How Do We Create Change? A Lesson in Shifting Social Consciousness
If you’re in the business of trying (or just hoping) to change the world around you, you undoubtedly find yourself wondering how.
How do we create change? We know that those in power will only do what the people demand, so how do we get people to support dismantling the only institutions they know?
The first time I heard of abolition, I was a junior in college, preparing to write my thesis. It was titled Colored Bodies Matter: The Relationship between our Bodies & Power, which I mention only to demonstrate that I wasn’t someone who needed convincing that the criminal system was wrought with deliberate, systemic racial injustice. Yet still, when my thesis advisor Dr. Kathleen Sullivan first mentioned abolition, I remember recoiling at what sounded so outrageous to my ears, “you mean like abolishing prisons?!” I asked with alarm. She gave me Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? to read. That was the beginning of something.
I didn’t become an abolitionist right then and there. Nor could I tell you when I became one, how long it took, or what final piece of information pushed me over the edge. But I remember sitting down to read that book and hearing the proverbial glass shatter in my mind when it was brought to my attention that we didn’t always have or rely on prisons. That, combined with the realization that there are other countries that do not invest in punitive prison systems, and instead invest in genuinely care-based, community-based rehabilitative models, immediately shifted my world.
Just learning that it was possible to have a society without prisons instantly diminished how radical the mere suggestion had seemed to me just prior to reading that. Up until that point, I’d never noticed that because I was born into a society with prisons, I thought they were as natural to Earth as dirt, water, and air. Rather than the manmade institutions that they are.
If you want to change someone’s mind about something, the first thing you need to understand—what I believe my professor understood when she referred me to Angela Davis instead of engaging my alarm or trying to beat me over the head with fruitless debate—is that nobody ever abandons their entire world view the first time it’s challenged. It doesn’t matter how many facts, stats, case studies, compelling narratives, or undeniable evidence you have on your side, people simply do not rip the foundation out from under themselves at the first indication that there may be cracks.
People believe what they’re taught and rarely on their own do they have occasion to question what was presented to them as fundamental truths. The sky is blue, grass is green, cops good, robbers bad, “justice is served” when someone goes to jail.
Calling the legal system, the “Criminal Justice System” is the first of many intentional ways we’re quietly indoctrinated in plain sight. Just by calling it that, the system becomes synonymous with our understanding of justice. As a result, we not only lend it our faith and credibility it didn’t earn and doesn’t deserve, it never even occurs to us that there are alternative (and more productive) ways of addressing harm.
Justice comes to mean arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and punishment. It comes to mean legally legitimized vengeance. Completely divorced from any possibility that wrongs could be made right another way, or that the system itself had anything to do with producing or maintaining the injustice it pretends to be addressing and condemning.
Most people are not abolitionists. Most haven’t even been presented with the concept. Even most people who do recognize that horribly unjust and racist things happen in the criminal system, are not intimately aware of the system or its mechanics and tend to give it the benefit of the doubt. They believe that those unjust racist happenings are far more insidious and sparse than they are.
That’s why even when you tell people that over 20 people have died in Rikers in the last year, and that the same thing is happening at other pre-trial detention centers all over the country, they still insist it’s an accidental outcome that can be corrected by reform. Rather than the deliberate, known, and routine consequence of a system that’s purpose is to maintain social, racial, and economic inequality—because how could the justice system be a vehicle for injustice?
How could they easily digest that police, prosecutors, judges, legislators—the people they’ve been taught hold in high esteem as champions of “justice”— are intentionally bringing about these horror stories?
If you’re approaching shifting social consciousness with the goal in mind that there’s any particular information that once armed with, people will be forced, in one debate, in one twitter interaction, in one dinner argument, to immediately denounce their entire worldview, things will feel hopeless because that’s just not realistic.
This is gradual work. We change our minds over time. We come to adopt radically new world views and schools of thought over time, often without even realizing it. The more information we’re confronted with, the more that’s revealed to us to contradict our old ways of thinking, over time, it begins to erode at that foundation until eventually something new grows in its place.
We must make the idea of a world where we don’t rely on police and prisons sound just as unalarming as our reality, that we live in a country that has almost 2 million people locked behind bars, unfortunately sounds to too many of us. We do that by regularly exposing people to the idea.
We must challenge what we’ve been taught to believe about the criminal system openly and often enough that questioning it becomes intuitive.
We must present people with new information, new ideas, new ways of thinking and resources. Then allow them to absorb it, process, learn, and change at their own pace, on their own. Share the information and leave them to it.
We must expect resistance, even anger, from people who feel like someone’s trying to rip the foundation out from under them. Expect it, and continue to share the information and ideas anyway. We don’t need to debate them, argue them down, or get entangled in their internal struggle with having their foundations challenged.
So how do we get people to support dismantling the only institutions they know to create the change we want?
By informing people they have other options. By planting seeds and watching them take root and grow.