A Toolbox for Changing the World

Cardus, the think tank that publishes Comment, shares a few tips on renewing social architecture and influencing culture.
April 7 th 2016

Now What?

That Christians are called to faithful presence in all corners of the culture might still be news to some, but if you've been in the Kuyperian fold for a while you've already bought in to this vision. So it's likely you want more than the Christianity and Culture 101 conversations you've heard dozens of times already. Yes, "every square inch" of the cosmos matters. Now what? You've got the why; you're ready for the how.

This is where things can get frustrating. You're busy working within the sphere of your vocation, but a sinking unease attends you. Despite your best intentions, you still feel powerless in the face of larger cultural movements; seismic cultural shifts continue to move the very ground underneath what you believe to be a flourishing society. You wonder: is my "faithful presence" just polishing silverware on a sinking ship? What can I really do? And what's often most disconcerting is how few resources there are in helping Christians think through, let alone implement, a much broader strategy for cultural change and influence.

Yes, "every square inch" of the cosmos matters. Now what? You've got the why; you're ready for the how.

It would be prideful, and perhaps foolish, to dismiss the possibility that our carefully planned strategies are ephemeral, but there are ways Christians can work toward more durable types of cultural transformation.

That, in fact, is precisely the work of Cardus, the think tank that publishes Comment. So in this article we sketch the theory of cultural influence that animates our work, with the hope not only that it will give Comment readers insight into Cardus but also that it might be instructive for other organizations who seek to make a dent on cultural institutions, policies, and habits. The resources for this endeavour include (but are not limited to) Andy Crouch's Culture Making, our own editor-in-chief's work on cultural liturgies, and James Davison Hunter's To Change the World. Each of these writers talks about cultural involvement in ways that move beyond the culture-war paradigm. Fighting the culture war can trap us in an echo chamber that gives the comforting illusion of influence, but at Cardus we believe that it's in the tricky work of faithful compromise where real change can take place.

So allow us to take you on a tour of Cardus—a backstage pass to Comment if you will—so that we might think together about influencing culture, not so much with a feeling of helpless angst, but with an eager hopefulness, ready to get to the work that awaits us.

Navigating Public Change

One of the weaknesses with Christian attempts to influence culture is an overreliance on bottom-up change. In fact, Cardus's education research bears this out: Many graduates of Christian private schools are strongly committed to church, family, and community life, but relatively few go on to positions of leadership within leading cultural institutions. Despite mission statements endeavouring to cultivate graduates who will renew culture, most Christian schools actually cultivate graduates who lack the social and intellectual capital such renewal demands.

Culture change, as Hunter's work makes most apparent, occurs predominantly through the work of cultural elites, or change agents, who are leaders of civil society with a disproportionate amount of authority and influence over others. And it's often only our naïveté or ignorance that keeps us from looking squarely at this very pragmatic truth about how the world changes, for better or for worse, and employing it for our ends.

It's in the tricky work of faithful compromise where real change can take place.

The other side of the coin is top-down change. Here too we can get it wrong, and numerous think tanks do. Most almost singularly target government leaders and politicians. It's been said that if you give a child a hammer, the world becomes a nail. Applied to most research organizations, this becomes: "Give them the ear of the legislature, and the solution to the world's problems becomes a series of policy proposals." Underlying this popular approach to influence is the assumption that cultural problems are best dealt with by the hammer of the state.

For Cardus, however, this is a much too narrow view of what top-down change looks like. Cardus maintains that targeting change agents is strategically more important than shaping a policy—as good as that is—because governments exist downstream of the culture. If you can change the culture, Ottawa and Washington will follow.

Ultimately, the problems that beset culture are diverse, and a host of tools are needed to deal with them. These tools are often found at local and regional and institutional levels, and are much more nimble and efficient than the unwieldy hammer of the state we so often rely on. So if we're going to get busy renewing the culture, we don't simply need a hammer, we need an entire toolbox, and with it, the wisdom to know which tool to use when and in what way.

The Public Change Process

To discern the answers to such questions, it's helpful to understand exactly what the process for public change looks like. At Cardus, we develop each project within our research programs—whether in education, social cities, work and economics, family, or health—by thinking through a five-part process.

  1. Addressing a Problem
  2. It's impossible to develop a strategy if you haven't clearly articulated the problem that needs to be addressed. In our recent past, some of the problems that Cardus has addressed include the adverse effects of payday lending institutions on individuals and communities, the monopoly of public education over alternatives in Canada, and the lack of awareness about the vital role religious communities play in urban centres.

    To better understand how the whole process works from start to finish, though, we'll look at one of our most recent projects concerning health care in Canada. While the problem we sought to address on this file was made obvious by a Supreme Court decision that made physician-assisted suicide a possibility in Canada, we recognized that a broader public dialogue was needed. Someone needed to address aging and the provision of health-care needs for those with a terminal prognosis so that their dignity of human life would be respected and so that all Canadians would be provided with the well-rounded care they require leading up to their passage from life.

    If we're going to get busy renewing the culture, we don't simply need a hammer, we need an entire toolbox, and with it, the wisdom to know which tool to use when and in what way.

    After articulating the problem, we then asked two follow-up questions: Who cares? Why does this matter? The fact that death will come for all means that everyone, to some degree, cares. But those who care most immediately included seniors, their natural communities of family and friends, health-care providers and professionals, numerous stakeholders at the community level who provide alternative models of care, and policy makers.

    The reason this problem matters, we concluded, is that no matter your party affiliation or your take on euthanasia laws, a changing demographic demands a changing system of end-of-life care to adequately cope. This is an issue that will affect ones we love and, eventually, ourselves; therefore, since change takes years—often decades—it's time to start thinking through some better solutions.

  3. Scanning the Environment
  4. Once the problem is clearly understood and potential stakeholders are identified, it's important to scan the landscape and find out who else cares, why the current status quo exists, and what obstacles are in the way to improvements. You're not working in a vacuum. Problems are rarely new, and public discourse is likely already taking place around the issue you hope to address, and has been for some time. Only then do you know who your allies are and how to best go about attempting to bring about particular changes.

    With our health-care research, we quickly found that improving end-of-life care in Canada was an increasingly important topic of public discourse. The attention actually reached a peak with a large policy-proposal document made by MPs from three of Canada's leading political parties. Conducting the environmental scan brought us to the work of numerous research institutes, academics, and community-care providers and helped us find allies working across the political spectrum. (It also identified those groups that were most unlikely to be allies, which is also necessary to understand.) This research also helped us to realize how our fragmented health system, inadequate understanding and support of natural caregivers, gaps in professional education and public awareness, and an inability to plan in advance for end-of-life care were serious obstacles to overcoming the current status quo.

  5. Finding Alternative Solutions
  6. All of this groundwork allowed us to move into the third phase of finding viable solutions. We realized we were not alone, that there was a strong foundation of current research, and that the public discourse was open to new ideas. This allowed Cardus to "reframe" the discussion and, as we mentioned before, go beyond a simple government solution and identify end-of-life care as an issue of healthy social architecture.

    Our alternative solutions were based on three main foundational pillars, each of which sought not just to advocate a specific policy, but to change the way Canadians think about end-of-life care. These three pillars are as follows: First, death is natural, and people want to die of natural causes surrounded by their natural communities and caregivers in a natural (familiar) setting. But this is not what usually happens. Second, end-of-life care is therefore not a health-care issue but a social architecture issue. Health is connected to educational institutions, families, religious and community care groups, and other nongovernment organizations operating at local levels. Third, a continuum of care ideally allows individuals to move easily between the ranges of options, and new policies could help such a continuum flourish.

    If we are committed to the long game of cultural influence, we must learn the countercultural goodness of having the fruits of our labour enjoyed by generations yet unknown to us.

  7. Locating the Window for Action
  8. While the first three phases of the public change process continue in a cyclical fashion indefinitely, there are two more phases that exist outside this process. The churn of policy reports, media stories, advocacy proposals, and even political debate are fodder for the news cycle but do not necessarily lead to real change. Meaningful change almost always requires that it be in the self-interest of decision-makers to initiate change (most of these changes involving factors that have little to do with the policy matter in question).

    Locating a window for action requires you to identify the change agents you need to implement the solutions you're proposing and what's in it for them if they do. This requires a careful search for potential allies and potential opponents. If you are trying to change health policies at a federal or provincial (state) level, what MPs or governors can you enlist? Who are the community care providers who can offer viable models that can be translated into new contexts in other regions? What role do developers of health education need to play in bringing end-of-life care more predominantly into the curriculum of current and future students?

    Change involves not only decision but also action on the part of various stakeholders in order for a difference to be made. Is an adequate array of stakeholders aligned both to champion and to advocate for the decision, but also to act in a way that translates a decision into a frontline difference? Policy windows are usually narrow, and it is the advance work done in the first three steps that will determine whether your changes successfully make it through the open window.

  9. Implementing the Solution
  10. Once the window for action is open and we've made our moves, we often assume that's the end of it. It isn't. There has to be a way to measure success and to mitigate both intended and unintended consequences. Success involves embedding a change in public language and thinking about the issue. In the case of end-of-life care, change will only come when Canadians' preparation for end-of-life care realities are part of the rhythms of life in a way similar their preparation for retirement income. They plan for it long before it becomes a present reality for them.

    Also, with change, a new status quo eventually comes about. This in turn requires a look at the consequences—both intended and unintended—of the changes. For health (although it is too early to see any changes in status quo just yet), what does it look like if end-of-life care is transferred away from public institutions and toward smaller-scale, private ones? Will public funding for formerly private care have negative effects on care? Will increasing Compassionate Care benefits prove troublesome down the road? Is the system appropriately flexible to deal with the varied natural caregiving relationships that a multicultural and socially diverse society inevitably will include? How will the diverse community institutions relate to each other? Will new competitive or bureaucratic obstacles be created, replacing some of the present health-system challenges that currently exist?

Playing the Long Game

Even if we're convinced of the Kuyperian project to renew all of culture, we need to make room for those still hashing out the Christian's role in culture or even for those less concerned about a long-term strategy. Sure, we can be cynical of the hobbit-like Christians enjoying a peaceful shire while the powers move, but there is always an invaluable significance in those going about their work in carpentry, education, health, finance, parenthood with an eye to doing it faithfully and well. Any top-down approach that doesn't look with gratitude on a robust base of good individuals will ultimately fail.

But if we're convinced that being faithfully present within our sphere of influence should also be coupled with a more comprehensive strategy of working together with change agents to renew the culture, then we must also remember that such work requires, above all, patience and charity. So we research, write papers, host conferences, network people from various perspectives, publish op-eds, and even get Comment into the hands of today's and tomorrow's thought leaders with a hopeful sense that we are building something durable for the North American culture of tomorrow. In fact, Comment's special issue "Health Beyond the Hospital" (Fall 2015) was an attempt to broaden the conversation as a resource for Cardus as an institution to think out loud about what it means to value health without resorting to "healthism." While patience and charity are increasingly difficult to muster in our culture of "me" and "now," if we are committed to the long game of cultural influence, we must learn the countercultural goodness of having the fruits of our labour enjoyed by generations yet unknown to us. Remember, this work is not futile, even if you don't live to reap the dividends and see the change. Think of it in terms of building: we're not setting up a tent to quickly protect ourselves, we're erecting a cathedral for our children's children, so that they might live in a world with more beauty, truth, and goodness.

 

Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.

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Doug Sikkema is a Senior Researcher for Cardus and the Managing Editor of Comment. Doug is also currently working toward a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Waterloo.

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