With the start of 2015 and being just a few days now into the new year, I have been thinking a lot about change, growth, and progress. I have been thinking about evolution. The word "evolution" came to mind recently out of the blue, and for some reason, it lingered in my mind for many days. To evolve means to "develop gradually" or to "develop by a process to a different adaptive state or condition". I started thinking about what it means to evolve socially, about ways in which societies around the world have evolved over time to really leave behind practices, habits and beliefs that were harmful, and to move on from them in such a way where what was once considered common, normal or good in some way is now considered abnormal, undesirable and wrong. Take racism, for example. If we look at racism around the world, we can see that we are far from eradicating it completely. Despite this frustrating reality, different societies have in fact evolved over time to the point where racist beliefs, actions and behaviours are now more commonly looked upon with distaste or disgust at the very least, to downright social outrage and active protest at the other end of the spectrum. Racist attitudes and actions that would have been expected, encouraged and even celebrated 50 years ago are now more widely and openly attacked, denounced and deconstructed in a manner that is helping societies to evolve.
When I was in South Africa in 2011 conducting field research for my thesis, I attended a conference for African women leaders looking at how to get more women into positions of political leadership and put "women's issues" more prominently on the table. One panel discussion still stands out in my mind, and one particular moment within that discussion is a moment that I come back to over and over again, despite how much time has passed since that day. A South African woman from the Commission for Gender Equality asked the crowded room "Will we be here next year still discussing the same issues? I don't want to be here next year or in five years still talking about the same problems, the same battles, and just talking and talking, as we've done all these years before. We need to change the way we look at all of these issues, and how we approach them. For instance, why do we expect women in politics to look out for women and support women, more so than what we expect from male politicians? Why is it that we don't ask for more from men in politics, that we don't hold them to a higher standard to support women and look out for women, instead of putting most of the pressure on women politicians, to not only get ahead in politics but to prioritize women?"
I really couldn't agree more.
The question begs to be asked: are we just revolving, when what we really want is to be evolving?
To revolve is "to proceed or occur in a round or cycle; to come around again in the process of time; to recur". Year after year, at so many gender conferences, panel discussions and workshops, I hear the same jargon and the same "shoulds" and "coulds" being passed back and forth over and over again, and sadly, I don't see enough innovation or evolution. Many colleagues of mine seem to have had the same experience.
The choices we make every day, the time and money we invest in them, and how we approach important issues of social justice are what decide for us whether we will continually revolve around the same issues in the same way year after year, or whether we evolve, to the point where we can look back over our shoulders and feel confident knowing we have, in a major and remarkable way, largely left behind harmful norms and planted real seeds of change. It takes time for social problems like racism or gender inequality to be fully and completely eliminated, but evolution is a process that occurs over time, and at some point within that process there is a noticeable shift in mindsets and beliefs about the issue at hand. Personally, I am seeking evolution, but when it comes to gender justice globally, I sometimes fear that we are still mostly revolving.
UN Women recently put together a timeline, "Gender Equality: 2014 in Review", looking at the gains we've made around the world for women's rights and freedoms over the last year, and while it is encouraging, for me it is still not enough. Social change takes time and commitment and a heck of a lot of work, and we still have a long way to go before we can say that racism or racist tendencies are truly eliminated from every heart and mind around the world, and every structure and institution. The same goes for gender inequality. But the reason that Paper Crown came into existence in the first place is because I have admittedly become obsessed with the concept of social evolution, have seen first hand how community engagement can lead to evolution, and in my experience, the only way to get there is to start from the grassroots and work your way up. Talk, share, discuss, educate, debate, and permanently change mindsets and behaviours for the better. Or in other words: learn, act, evolve.