Culture Changing

What Went Wrong?: The Rise of Good Intentions and Terrible Results

I know I have many good intentions for my work, but what if I’m wrong?

These conversations I have with friends or with my trusty journal, about ensuring our work remains positive, often make for difficult times; however, the time I put into critically thinking always pays off.

So if you ever have doubts about the work you are doing and then making sure to have challenging reflections, then you are probably going in the right direction.

If you’ve never seriously considered the idea of being wrong (and I mean really thought about it, not just in idle moments), then you probably should be.


When people don’t consider the impacts of their intentions


For those familiar with U.S. politics, it’s not hard to find a time where inflexible world views about what was right and wrong led to terrible results. With so many to choose from, here’s just a few examples:

  • Starting Indian boarding schools: many thought keeping indigenous children in boarding schools would teach students how to “succeed” in the “civilized world.” In what was one of the most heinous of U.S. policies, children were traumatically ripped from their families, not allowed to speak their native language, and forced to demonstrate Western ways and values.
  • Spreading democracy: U.S. officials, along with a significant number of the general public, felt that U.S.-style democracy was the best form of government and thus, the U.S. should “export democracy.” This included supporting military coups against democratically elected leaders (e.g. Allende in Chile), and installing military dictators favorable to U.S. foreign/corporate policy.
  • Eliminating sign language: some felt that sign language created a barrier for the Deaf to “assimilate into U.S. society.” These folks did not/do not recognize the Deaf community as a linguistic minority with the desire for ensuring self-determination.
  • Capturing Joseph Kony: the Kony 2012 campaign advocated for capturing Kony through military intervention, and focused on what outsiders could do to “help.” Teju Cole brilliantly writes how the Kony 2012 campaign fostered a “White Savior” narrative, ignored the solutions promoted by Ugandans, and encouraged militarization of the U.S.-backed dictator Yoweri Museveni.

I could keep on going with this list, but you get the idea.

Our past and present is littered with cases of people doing what they thought was right, only to detrimentally impact those they were trying to “help” (though without even asking if those communities wanted their assistance).”


How to have good intentions AND good results!


Whenever I try to think of the work I’m doing and whether it is having my intended impact on the world, I make sure to take time to listen and carefully reflect. Make sure to consider if what you are doing is right for you AND others or if it is more the former.

Support efforts for self-determination and let the community identify its own needs, don’t say what someone needs without even bothering to really understand.

Always leave open the possibility that you are wrong. It’s easy to find yourself always in the right if you never consider the possibility of being wrong.

Oftentimes, nobody knows the right answer or there are multiple competing ideas. This is where you must research and evaluate the impacts of your work to see if it is having the intended effect.

Accept criticism and be willing to be uncomfortable. I know I sometimes want to push away or not really acknowledge criticism of my work (especially if I have taken time to prepare and considered multiple points of view); however, I never want to get into a place where I am only hearing those who agree with me.

Identify your personal frames and their influence on your proposed solutions. Many times the most intersectional responses require us to move back and see what preconceived notions may impact our analysis.

So when we work for change, good intentions are critical; however, just as critical is a well thought-out understanding of the situation. We don’t need to have all the answers, we just have to remember we don’t always have all the answers 🙂

What to keep up with a reflective community seeking to make positive change while not perpetuating injustice? Then sign up for Organizing Change’s updates where you can find out what organizers are doing to ensure critical analysis and action!

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+