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The idea behind Albany Law School
Professor Ray Brescia's new book,
The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions (Cornell University Press), has been on his mind for years, going back to his days as a public interest lawyer and community organizer. And the ideas are also relevant in the current climate as the world navigates the coronavirus pandemic.
His book unpacks several social-change movements—including those woven in the fabric of American history, from the revolution to civil rights—and the communication tactics that made them possible, such as the printing press and television.
We recently spent a few minutes with Professor Brescia, the Hon. Harold R. Tyler Chair in Law and Technology, to discuss his experience writing the book, his inspiration, and his key takeaways from what he's coined "social innovation moments."
Was there a particular moment when you decided to turn these ideas into a full-length book?
I think the bigger-picture question that I was trying to answer was the relationship between communications technologies, community organizing, and social change. When I started reflecting on the topic, I realized right away that this wasn't something I could cover in an op-ed piece or even a law review article. It deserves a book-length treatment, with the seriousness, commitment, and rigor that entails. The question was big enough. Really in some way, the idea for the book was sparked by an article in the
New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote about
the role of Twitter in the Arab Spring. He tried to ask whether technology can really launch a movement? So, I thought, well, can it? Does it? Could it? As I started to spin those thoughts out, I realized this was a weighty topic.
You dive into many examples that date quite far back in history. Is there something we are doing right now that might become a future example of a social innovation movement?
It's interesting. I go back to the American Revolution and even before to the Stamp Act crisis. At present, there are a lot of areas where technology is impacting social change. I think we're seeing it now with the response to the coronavirus pandemic. People are using social media and digital tools to help respond to the crisis to spread information, to check disinformation, to provide guidance, to coordinate activities. So, I think right now, we're seeing in the background people thinking about the role of money in politics, or developing a more responsive social safety net. But really at the core, right now in the immediate crisis, people are absolutely using technology in creative ways to help respond to the pandemic. I think there are ways that the lessons in the book apply to the present moment.
The book really goes into face-to-face communications and how those influence social change. We've got to think about the extent to which those communications are being really limited now—they have to be. While I talk a lot about the importance of face-to-face communications, I also go into the fact that technology cannot exactly take the place of, but can sometimes substitute for, those communications. We really have to use those technologies now because we can't engage in face-to-face communications.
You frequently place an emphasis on humility in your scholarship and your coursework. How did that come into play when writing the book? What can law students or lawyers take away from this?
When I talk about the role of lawyers in supporting grassroots organizing and social movements, that's where the question of humility comes in. We need to take our guidance from our clients and listen to them very carefully, and listen to people we might not necessarily normally see as allies.
In the book, I recount the story of a campaign in Long Beach, California, where a union and a nonprofit worked together to raise the minimum wage for hotel workers. One of the things they did that was really essential to their effort was they allied with small business owners, homeowner's associations, environmental groups: that is, the types of groups or individuals that you might not naturally think of as being allies in a campaign for hotel workers. It's that kind of humility that lawyers can communicate to their clients to say, "Look, we need to put aside what might be our differences" and bring such potential allies into the fold.
That's one area where humility comes into play. Another is that lawyers need to recognize that their clients are experts when it comes to bringing about social change. Lawyers should take the lead from their clients and not the other way around.
You have sort of a behind-the-scenes style, especially with your history of community organizing. How did your background prepare you to write the book?
One of the goals for me with the book was to try to give guidance to people who are engaged in social-change efforts. I hope to help them learn from the past to advance social change both today and tomorrow.
My interest in serving low-income and marginalized communities as a lawyer, and my interest in helping them in a different way now as an academic and scholar, where I might not necessarily get on the barricades like I used to—I'm perhaps taking some lessons from those experiences and blending them with the tools that I have now to assist them in new ways. While I may not assist them directly anymore, this is giving them a new form of support. It's my affinity with—and my concern for—the communities I served that really motivated me to help out with the tools I have at my disposal now.
What's the main point you hope readers will take away from the book?
The approach I recommend is to leverage technology to create community across differences. Out of that comes the idea that we need to talk to each other as much as we can, in sort of face-to-face settings, and not just with people with whom we agree.
We need to talk with people we disagree with—or people we may not know if we agree with. We need to try to develop trust and relationships with those people, and others with whom we might not normally come in contact with or see as our allies. We need to look for ways where we might agree and come together and have interests that can be shared, things we might not have otherwise seen without that communication and humility.
We find ourselves more and more in silos, talking to people only with whom we agree. The key lessons of the book can be drawn from most successful movements. They almost always reached out to likely and unlikely allies and developed broad coalitions.
If we look for ways that we agree, even if it's just on one thing, maybe tomorrow we can build on something else. We can develop stronger alliances in discrete areas and advance social change in areas we may not have otherwise seen as possible.
More on The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions:
Albany Law School Podcast: Professor Ray Brescia on 'The Future of Change'
• Brescia's New Book Brings Technology's Role in Social Movements to Forefront