By Bob Woods
Photo by Drake Sorey

Throughout history, social movements have risen and fallen, resulting in either enduring change or short-lived surges. The Renaissance altered the course of culture and learning worldwide. Conversely, about a century ago, America’s temperance movement faded after little more than a decade of Prohibition.

The rise and fall of today’s social movements is the focus of Leslie Crutchfield’s latest book, How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t. More broadly, as executive director of the Global Social Enterprise Initiative (GSEI) at Georgetown McDonough, where she also is an adjunct professor teaching corporate social responsibility in the MBA program, Crutchfield explores the elements that bring about social and environmental change.

She oversees a GSEI team whose work falls into three buckets: academics, research, and external partnerships. The latter includes corporations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Indeed, the fellowship she was awarded while writing How Change Happens was funded by Bank of America, GSEI’s founding partner.

Crutchfield’s book dissects significant social changes that have occurred during the 21st century, although the movements behind them stretch back to the 1990s. “My research looked at how those movements came together to accomplish changes,” she says.

“Successful social movements tap into our mutual self-interest, our better angels, in creative ways.”
—Leslie Crutchfield, Executive Director, Global Social Enterprise Initiative

The book dovetails with Crutchfield’s ongoing work at GSEI, as well as her previous studies focusing on the vital role the corporate world plays in fostering change. Her prime examples include the sharp decline in smoking, the Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage, and the expansion of gun rights.

Influence of Grassroots

Beyond the corporate influence in each of those cases, Crutchfield identifies six other practices of successful movements (see “Roots of Change,” below). Topping the list are grassroots efforts. “Movements need to build from that level and not just from grass tops,” she says.

There is no better illustration in the book than the gun rights movement, especially when contrasted against gun control activism. Gun owners started rallying around the Second Amendment in the 1990s, and since then, laws favoring gun ownership and rights have proliferated. By 2012, the NRA’s membership had risen to nearly 5 million. The largest gun control group at that point, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, claimed around 400,000 members.

That disparity was magnified when, in reaction to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that same year, a majority of Americans and many in Congress demanded tougher gun control laws. Yet once legislation in the Senate finally came up for a vote in 2013, it was defeated.

The tables may be starting to turn, Crutchfield notes, a shift that further demonstrates grassroots influence. The spark was Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, formed the day after Sandy Hook, and Everytown for Gun Safety, founded in 2014.

“By 2017, Everytown had approximately 4 million members,” she says. After the mass murder last February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that number topped 5 million. “This is the first time in modern history that the gun control movement is operating with equal, grassroots velocity and volume to the gun rights movement,” she says.

Though proposed changes in federal gun laws have still not passed, there is a chance things could be different after Parkland and the Never Again student-led organization it spawned, Crutchfield says. That is one of the ongoing social movements she’s now researching, along with #MeToo, the grassroots movement founded in 2006 that burst into the mainstream after sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein were made public.

“Sexual harassment is already illegal,” she says, “but cultural attitudes have not caught up.” So whereas strengthening those laws may not necessarily change behaviors, perhaps the public outrage fueling the #MeToo movement will.

“Society checks itself,” Crutchfield contends. “Successful social movements tap into our mutual self-interest, our better angels, in creative ways.”

Roots of Change

How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t identifies six practices of successful social movements:

  1. Initiate grassroots activism
  2. Build a groundswell of momentum
  3. Change hearts, minds, opinions, attitudes, and behaviors
  4. Find common ground among disparate groups
  5. Give businesses a seat at the table
  6. Establish a leader who gets all sides involved

 

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2018