|Source: Peter Pikous, Creative Commons
The answers to that question are no doubt well beyond the bounds of this blogsite. The answers may even be beyond the purview of any of us. However, we all have our thoughts and ideas about what should be incorporated into those answers.
I recently asked just such questions of a small group of colleagues and got back some fairly open-ended answers.
Part of the difficulty in attempting to answer these questions is the curly problem of defining “the system”. One of the world’s foremost systems analysts, Donella Meadows, warns that
"there is no single, legitimate boundary to draw around a system. We have to invent boundaries for clarity and sanity; and boundaries can produce problems when we forget that we’ve artificially created them”.1Where have I chosen to artificially create boundaries? Working inside the system was loosely defined as including working in governmental bureaucracies (local and national), working for political parties represented in parliament and working for quasi-governmental agencies.
The problems that Meadows warns of arise in this case when we think of working for social justice which entails changing the system. No longer is the system bounded by the definition of the previous paragraph. The system that we are seeking justice within is much greater than the system that I defined loosely in the previous paragraph.
So, given this caveat, can we make any realistic attempt to suggest the effectiveness of working for social justice inside or outside the system? Here are some thoughts, you’ll have to make up your own mind.
Almost all the respondents to my short survey suggested that working inside the system was at least “partially effective”. The same suggestion was made of working outside the system: most said that it was “partially effective” or “highly effective”. Both spheres of working were effective to some degree or other.
Comments from those working outside the system suggested that having allies inside the system was of great value. Many of the respondents suggested that the roles of working inside and outside the system were complimentary. The effectiveness of working for social change required both working inside and working outside the system. Having said that, one respondent did say that they thought that working inside the system was “highly ineffective”.
What is the lesson from this? First, I suggest, is that we must each find our own niche, role or sphere to work in. There is no right or wrong. Where we work is likely to be based on our feelings of what we are comfortable with and our expertise and experience rather than some notion of what is right and proper. Second is that we must recognise the value of each of us and seek to build relationships of trust and respect, whether we work for a government bureaucracy, a voluntary community organisation or in some other capacity.
Finally, the following chart summarises the thoughts of the past three postings looking at the pros and cons of working inside and outside “the system” and the effectiveness of doing so.
|Inside The System
|Outside The System
|Understanding the system
Like minded colleagues
Access to resources
Ability to make helpful decisions
Ability to mobilise quickly
Able to obtain support from others (e.g. pro bono work)
Fewer compromises to make
Answerable to yourself
Can become identified as “the enemy”
Susceptible to corruption of power
|Lack of resources
Lack of access to decision-makers
Lack of credibility
Demands of funding
Prey to factionalism
|The effectiveness of working for social justice and change has less to do with working inside or outside the system. The keys to effectiveness are the building of relationships based on trust, respect and mutual understandings of others roles, values and ways of working.
These three postings have not attempted to be any sort of comprehensive or definitive analysis of the pros and cons of working inside or outside the system. I do hope though, that the postings have given some leads on thoughts to pursue when it comes to the work that each of us does in our pursuit of social justice.
1. Meadows, Donella H. Thinking in Systems, 2008, p 97