Emerging Paths to Transformation

Building transformation
on new institutions and practices

One of the articles in Creating A Future We Can Live With (IC#40)
Originally published in Spring 1995 on page 32
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

There are two hallmarks of today’s quiet and unrelenting transformative movement. One is the emergence of a new generation of institutions. The other is a new wave of practices that creatively trigger needed changes, especially in times of paralysis or pessimism.

Regenerative Institutions

A new spectrum of institutions have proliferated in the last decade that together form the infrastructure for sustained, systemic change.

Unlike "alternative institutions" of the 1970s and 1980s, these institutions do not seek to establish separate social utopias or parallel sovereignty on the margins of society. Instead, they aim to replace or eliminate the need for the institutions that comprise the old order and to institutionalize new arrangements.

These regenerative institutions (RIs) mark a profound shift in the direction and maturity of the movement for a just and sustainable future. RIs do not recognize the claim of the old order as sole authority in decision-making over public issues, nor do they accept old definitions of what is feasible. Rather they upstage archaic practices with positive variations or new pathways in fields as far reaching as women’s health, solid waste management, food and energy production, transportation, and "green" manufacturing.

Regenerative institutions’ broad grassroots support, their track record in addressing problems and broadening participation, and their symbolic importance as agents of a just and sustainable society, give them the legitimacy they need to face down the old guard’s Berlin Walls and the prevailing cynicism of our age. RIs are a signal that genuine cultural change is not only possible, but a fact.

A prime example of a regenerative institution comes from Los Angeles’ ethnic neighborhoods. In the wake of the 1992 civil unrest, L.A. tourist and marketing chiefs were in a furor over how to protect L.A.’s positive media image.

Realizing that tourism had to be built in a new way, workers and activists pulled together and founded a new agency, the Tourism Industry Development Council (TIDC) in late 1993. TIDC’s purpose is to promote the real Los Angeles, celebrating the city’s rich diversity and making tourism an engine of economic development for the whole city, including its working-class neighborhoods. Perhaps most striking is TIDC’s upbeat posture. Rather than going on the warpath against tourism-as-usual, TIDC simply announced that ethnic neighborhoods are the centerpiece of L.A.’s "new tourism." Anyone wishing to capture the benefits of the new tourism is welcome.

Preparing for Breakthroughs

If RIs provide the structure of the new order, breakthrough practices (BPs) provide the processes. BPs are actions that forge new options and seize unnoticed solutions. They offer a way out of deadlocked situations and foster an environment of working together, unlocking creativity, and focusing action to achieve desired outcomes.

While RIs help institutionalize the new order, BPs introduce new ways of acting and thinking. These practices spearhead change amid strained relationships, outmoded procedures, and failing programs.

The recent rise of peace-making and nonviolent conflict resolution in our cities is a leading example. The key to this BP, as Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, says, is to "find common ground by moving to higher ground."

BPs can also transform old-guard institutions that happen to be ripe for change. They do this by "burrowing" within old structures and pointing them in directions that serve a just and sustainable agenda. In such cases, these practices aim to turn stick-in-the-mud organizations into regenerative institutions.

BPs may have their most dramatic impact in a dying organization that is willing to do radical things to salvage itself. A bankrupt business or a public agency on the chopping block may be ripe to accept new leadership and move in whole new directions. Such opportunities for cascading change are rare. But the new order will be built on these opportunities and others through the timely, apt use of BPs. We never know when such opportunities will surface. We should be prepared for them when they happen.

Rob Young is head of American Soils, Inc., an organic soils production company in New Jersey. Grant Power is co-director of the West Angeles Community Development Corporation.

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