In January, we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who debunked the notion that change involving justice and equality must start at the top to take us all to the future.
Perhaps King’s greatest public statement came on Aug. 28, 1963, at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial: his “I Have a Dream.” Deeply rooted in the American dream, King’s speech that day centered on change by extolling fundamental values, cultural tradition and personal conviction.
A testimonial to how change happens, that speech displayed emotion and powerfully depicted the value of moving people to action. For me, it still showcases the profound ability of one person to ignite a revolution through a message that speaks to change, a successful attempt to disrupt history through passion, not naked power.
In reality, though, change remains difficult because it generally sidelines comfort. It creates inconvenience, challenges the status quo, demands setting aside the conventional wisdom.
In The New York Times, U.S. political journalist/commentator Michael Kinsley once observed: “Americans say they want change, but there is room for doubt. Change is scary.” Kinsley found nothing contemptible about reluctance to change; he did, however, affirm that if we want only happy change, we really don’t want change at all.
The 20th-century civil rights movement called for a different kind of change, one that challenges people to rise above wrongs like racism and inequality. King used powerful rhetoric to depict that era and offered an alternative route to the future that people could recognize.
This century demands passion equal to King’s to convey an identical message focused on today’s issues – war, peace, the environment, access to necessities. America needs leadership with the vision to awaken change and create a new hope – the kind of change convincing enough that we can readily become part of it. Change must become more than just a word; it must become a covenant that begins and ends with you, and empowers people to team to ensure it happens.
King stood for change – transformative, compelling, a complete interruption in the thoughts and actions of the time. He sought the sort of change that moves people to a new plane, a synthesis to take this nation from ideas to ideals. Change demands the audacity to question what exists and what doesn’t work. King, in his day, succeeded because so many people saw themselves as enablers of change. Many, of course, had difficulty envisioning King’s change so he did what great leaders do – presented a glimpse of the future with his words.
Still, change embraces no real comfort. In fact, a general absence of comfort makes change so meaningful and rewarding when it’s attained.
As we celebrate King’s legacy, I charge area residents to reflect on the issues that have long divided us – race, crime, justice, education and that ever-elusive thing called trust – and to visualize a future we all want and need. That future will demand compromises, seeing things anew and willingly feeling uncomfortable. It also will demand the selflessness that change requires.
So how do you move people to embrace change? Try these three strategies:
- Appeal to a common purpose.
- Communicate expressively by giving life to the vision so people can see themselves in the future.
- Be sincere and believable through transparency and personal conviction.
It doesn’t matter where you’re trying to mobilize change. Whether at worship, in school, in politics or at work, these three strategies remain essential to manifest change.
The ultimate measure of change, of course, depends on whether America feels more comfortable with the familiar than with the future. Which will it be for you?
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the senior advisor to the chancellor and director of the Africa Initiative at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as former president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics and previously served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.