Evidence alone won't bring about social change

4th Apr 2014

JRF and JRHT's Chief Executive Julia Unwin gave a lecture at York St. John University where she outlined her take on the ingredients needed to bring about social change.

When it comes to social change, we have a wealth of inspiring evidence. But, says Claire Ainsley, there are other ingredients needed to get the recipe right.

Last night, JRF and JRHT's Chief Executive Julia Unwin gave a lecture at York St. John University where she outlined her take on the ingredients needed to bring about social change.

Using examples spanning the last century, Julia charted the complex relationship between evidence, solutions, agency, events and change: the public outrage about rising obesity that sparked improved food labelling and attention to child nutrition; the turnaround in perceptions of homeless people caused by their increased visibility; the angry movement that used evidence and targeted lobbying to win a dramatic change in the law and attitudes to homosexuality.

Clearly there is a long way to go. But acknowledging the relatively recent nature of some transformational changes gives hope that there can be progress on seemingly intractable social problems. And unpacking how those changes occurred gives us the opportunity to learn from them.

So what's needed to effect social change? Julia detailed the ingredients of her recipe: a vision; evidence of social detriment; a sense of crisis (Julia called it a 'burning platform'); a shared narrative; emotion; vocal supporters; proven solutions; surprising friends; movements of people, often now mobilised by social media; and public acceptance. She was asked about the role of figureheads and said she did not major on it: leadership can be found everywhere amongst people and communities.

JRF and JRHT exist to bring about positive and lasting social change. We do this by contributing evidence of social detriment and providing tested solutions. We run services that strive to demonstrate how positive change can be realised. We do not seek to lead movements of people, but we do aim to influence policy and practice change so we work alongside alliances to bring about positive change. We take our inspiration from Joseph Rowntree who actively brought about social progress in this country, and whose son Seebohm's chronicle of poverty in York was the catalyst for change in Victorian Britain.

But the routes to inspiring social change are changing and multiplying. Digital and social media are transforming relationships between individuals and between those who hold power and those who have none. It is easy to be superior about digital activism, but those appalled by the increased use of food banks do not have to march from Jarrow to Westminster to make their voices heard. Narratives compete in the public domain for traction, and therefore contributing to the shape of public discourse becomes ever more important.

Evidence, particularly the charting and tracking of the changing nature of poverty, is at the core of what JRF does. But as Julia said, evidence alone is not enough. At the start of her lecture, she told us her favourite quote, which is by William Blake: “That which is now evident was once only imagined.” A vision of what positive social change could look like, combined with proven solutions, is a powerful contribution to the complex and changing pattern of social change.