After Californians in 2008 approved a voter referendum banning same-sex marriage, proponents of the effort to promote marriage equality knew they had to change their message and the means of delivering it, both on the West Coast and throughout the nation.
Instead of using terms such as “gay marriage,” they started using phrases like “marriage equality;” instead of advancing a legalistic argument that stressed insurance benefits and inheritance rights, they shifted to a humanistic argument focusing on human dignity, fairness and equality. They also changed the delivery of the message, using door-to-door conversations, phone calls and other means to not only raise “awareness,” but to engage people. Within one national election cycle, opinions shifted, dramatically.
In a new book, Professor Ray Brescia identifies a pattern of “social innovation moments” in which communication technologies play an integral role in efforts to bring about social change. He concludes that developments in how we communicate shape social movements, and social movements change those technologies. The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions (Cornell University Press) explores what Brescia describes as the “social change matrix”—his term for the relationship between technology, grassroots networks and messaging that explains how social change occurs in the U.S.
“I hope to start a conversation about how we can advance social change in the current media environment and adapt to changes in that environment as they unfold in the future. The book tries to examine how those who want to bring about social change can leverage technology to recreate the grassroots networks that have proven so valuable over American history in building trust, mobilizing supporters, and changing the world,” said Brescia, the Hon. Harold R. Tyler Chair in Law and Technology.
Eight years in the making, The Future of Change identifies what at first seems an unlikely catalyst for modern political communication: The American Legion.
In lobbying for the GI Bill after World War II, the Legion leveraged a wide variety of communication methods designed to engage the citizenry and effect major social change. But they did so by mobilizing their 12,000 chapters to engage with their members to advocate with local leaders and elected officials to build a national movement. Brescia says this pattern is traced throughout American history, as grassroots networks, from the Sons of Liberty, the Abolitionists, and the Suffragettes, to the groups that made up the Civil Rights Movement, all leveraged the best available communications technologies of their time to create networks of supporters that met face-to-face in local settings but were linked to larger, national organizations.
Brescia, a public interest lawyer and community organizer before he joined the Albany Law School faculty in 2007, had been thinking of the connection between social change and communications technology well before he got the itch to write a book. He noticed “that some of the most successful social movements in American history really sprung up just as innovations in communications technology were also taking hold, whether it was the steam printing press and the Abolitionists or the Civil Rights Movement and the television.”
In The Future of Change, Brescia assesses successful social movements that emerged at the same time as advances in communications technology and identifies three essential elements of social change in such moments—the deft use of such innovative communications technology, the development of trans-local networks, and the incorporation of an optimistic and inclusive message. This pattern can be traced to the emergence of the printing press in the 18th century straight through to the wide adoption of the television in the 20th.
“An effective means of communication is essential to any social movement because it is through coordinated community action that any social movement takes hold and makes change; that coordination is facilitated and made possible by the means of communication a social movement uses and has at its disposal,” Brescia wrote. But such technology is not an end in itself; it must be used to build community networks across distance and difference, embracing areas where people can find common ground and work collaboratively.
Brescia, a onetime law clerk to Judge Constance Baker Motley, an icon of the civil rights movement and former Legal Defense Fund litigator, said the takeaway for lawyers looking to promote social change is that they can utilize the playbook of past successful social movements to work effectively with grassroots organizations to effect lasting change. But he cautions that lawyers should avoid “getting out in front of their clients” and inadvertently setting movements back. For instance, he noted that some lawyers were eager to take a marriage equality case to the Supreme Court in the 2000s, where they likely would have lost and set the effort back a generation.
“In all of my classes, I try to ensure that I am being a realist about social change and how it comes about,” said Brescia, who teaches federal civil procedure, nonprofit law, social innovation, and legal ethics and leads the Semester in Practice internship program. “It shouldn’t be and rarely is lawyer driven. I try to teach a professional humility to my students. They want to make the world a better place, and I try to teach them to bring professional humility to their identity while serving the community, so the lawyer doesn’t overstep his or her bounds.”
More on The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions:
• Albany Law School Podcast on 'The Future of Change'
• Q&A with Author Ray Brescia