Culture Changing

42 Errors Changemakers and Humanitarians Make


Photo: GDAMS - Global Day of Action on Military Spending via Flickr (Used with permission from Heath Mitchell)
Photo: GDAMS – Global Day of Action on Military Spending via Flickr (Used with permission from Heath Mitchell)

This article is cross-posted on the incredible Heath Mitchell’s Advance Humanities Fellow blog.

For many people the world over, today is the holiest day of the year. According to the Jewish calendar, today is Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement.

This holiday is observed through a day-long fast and a great deal of praying and repenting. Including most notably, a confessional prayer called Al Chet. Jews pray today, the culminating day of the ten days of awe, that their names will be sealed in the book of life for the coming year.

On this Yom Kippur in the Hebrew year of 5774, my dear friend Drew Serres of Organizing Change and I decided to refocus the community of congregants. Instead of Jews focusing on sins outlined in the Bible. What kind of list might we generate for our audience of people who are united not by religion but rather a drive to create change beauty and justice in the world?

The Jewish confession is less about what you personally did wrong over the past year and more focused on what the Jewish people as a collective have done. It’s communal.

If you choose to adopt a more Universalist outlook, as I do, this repentance demands that believers be not only accountable for their own actions, but the actions of well, really, humankind.

Consider the following a list of human failings that we commit in acting for social change and humanitarian efforts.

Photo: Eugene Peretzz via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Eugene Peretzz via Flickr (Creative Commons)

1. Seeking to support others, without thinking about ourselves, and “burning out” instead of building a resilient social change culture.

2. Focusing on a single issue (e.g. climate change and health care reform) as opposed to working for intersectional, and cross-issue campaigns/projects.

3. Engaging in campaigns that are sexy rather than campaigns that are more impactful but garner less limelight.

4. Expecting our reason and facts should be enough to convince people we are right (i.e. talking at someone), rather than just talking to individuals like you would to “A Friend in a Bar” (i.e. talking with someone).

5. Looking down on activists whose passions we do not share (“How can someone care so much about animal treatment when people are dying in _____?!”).

6. Getting angry at people who aren’t active agents of change or advocates for social justice (i.e. people we may call apathetic).

7. Believing good intentions are enough to make positive change, even though we know these good intentions can lead to negative results when not tied to clear analysis.

8. Congratulating ourselves too much for our lofty ideals.

9. Ignoring our own creative energy and needs, without considering ways we can instil it within our own activist life and organizations.

10. Fostering a negative mentality/isolating ourselves when something doesn’t go as planned (e.g. low-attendance at an event or unsuccessful lobbying for a particular piece of legislation), instead of learning/seeking our supportive community.

11. Attaching our own self worth to a project’s success or failure.

12. Mistaking self-defeating talk for humility.

13. Comparing ourselves to people who do less/more to make ourselves feel better/worse rather than being inspired to emulate/lead.

14. Thinking that any given problem can be solved with a single “silver bullet” solution instead of needing multiple impactful approaches.

15. Getting discouraged by the enormity and entrenched nature of the status quo.

16. Focussing too much on what is broken rather than using appreciative inquiry to bolster that which is already working well and could work better still.

17. Ignoring the big picture or ignoring the details.

18. Getting pulled into a professionalized nonprofit world that doesn’t allow for accountability to the grassroots movement and limits us to social services, rather than addressing root issues.

19. Letting the importance of data/research get in the way of listening to and acting on people’s stories and calls to action.

20. Falling into the logic that good ideas need money to work or thinking that money alone can solve a problem.

21. Separating “work” and “life” as opposed to building a supportive community of activists.

22. Remaining neutral when injustice is occurring because it’s “not my issue/expertise” or it’s “too political” instead of speaking out or actively supporting the actions of those who do organize against injustice.

23. Thinking that change can only come from the top or that no change can come from the top.

24. Using “its just the culture” as an excuse for why change cannot happen.

25.  Stooping to degrading or oppressive imagery or marketing slogans to raise funds (e.g. “Poverty Porn”).

26. Publicly promoting accomplishments, without taking significant time to internally reflect and celebrate as a team within our groups.

27. Over-selling the amount of change an idea can produce.

28. Sharing our successes and hiding our failures, when others could learn valuable lessons from both.

29. Putting in time for short-term victories, instead of also putting in the effort for sustained long-term movements.

30. Waiting for someone else to give us a vision for how the world can be, instead of outlining our own world vision as a way to inspire action.

31. Equating ideology with being inflexible and dogmatic, instead of as a values-based framework that explicitly shows what you believe.

32. Using online media and mobilizing as if they were the same as on-the-ground or face-to-face organizing (e.g. go to meet someone or pick up the phone rather than sending that email!).

33. Perpetuating the “[white, male, etc.] Savior Industrial Complex,” and focusing on what we want for people as opposed to listening to and following the people most impacted by oppression.

34. Adopting polemic stances of the oppressed and the oppressor wherein change is pitted against groups or institutions (environmentalism= nature versus corporations, feminism= women versus men, racial equality= minorities versus whites, etc).

35. Thinking empowerment is about instilling new ideas/skills in someone, rather than as a way to give personal and leadership development opportunities to someone.

36. Edging out others less experienced from taking leadership opportunities because we think we can get the job done more efficiently.

37. Putting a completely balanced amount of effort into everything you do, when really it is more about juggling (i.e. the amount of time you put into your priorities can fluctuate [e.g. maybe this week I spend more time with family/friends and next week I focus on the campaign]).

38. Only looking at institutions of oppression outside our organization, as opposed to also looking at what we can change within our own groups.

39. Being serious all the time, even though it can really improve our personal AND organizational life by just having a little humor in our activist work.

40. Lowering expectations for both ourselves and others by accepting adequate/OK results, rather than always pushing for excellence.

41. Continually seeking to create something new and original, when we should be learning the fundamentals from those who organized before us.

42. Separating out spirituality/religion from our activist work, instead of incorporating spirituality/religion into our organizing.

We asked in the intro what kind of list we might generate by realigning the audience on this holiest of holy days. While I hope you’ve found it illuminating, one larger question still persists;


What do we do with this list?


If this list has only weighed you down with the collective failings of those trying hardest to do good in the world then you have missed the point. Nor was this merely an exercise to humble those who take pride in doing good things.

The point is to strive.  We are human, we have failings, and we also have the capacity to overcome them. But we cannot overcome a failing until we have identified it.

So what we at Organizing Change and Advance Humanity would encourage you to do right now is reflect on this list and remember one or two errors that resonated with you personally and make a conscious effort to change that behavior in this new year. In Hebrew this final step of repentance is called Teshuvah.

After all, the very word Chet in Hebrew while commonly translated to sin actually means “to miss the mark”. So take this year, and give it another shot.

As discussed earlier this repentance is at once both individual and communal, so if you feel so moved, we encourage you to share this post with our ever-growing congregation of change agents, do-gooders and everyday humanitarians.

We would love to hear your own ideas for other common ways in which we miss the mark in our efforts to make change and foster the promise of a better world in the comments section or on Facebook.


By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+