Crowd vs. Individual – where does change happen?

I was asked to give a talk to the African Impact team about The Underdog Project and our Charity Ride held in 2012. I spoke about the impact the individuals can have on our communities, touching on clicktivism, slacktivism and riding for the Underdog.

So without further ado…

Two years ago in April, I asked a question that would change the course of my life quite significantly.

I was chatting with a friend and animal behaviourist, Gill. She’d just finished assessing my sister’s new rescue puppy to advise on his resource guarding and separation anxiety. An idea has been swirling in my head for a couple of days, and I needed to let it out for some air.

Can we help troubled teens by teaching them to train shelter dogs? I asked.

In the informal and by no means momentous conversation that followed, The Underdog Project was born. It took me 4 months to assemble a small team and plan and implement a project that had up until then never been run in South Africa: an animal assisted therapy course that uses dog training to bring together and help troubled teens and shelter dogs.

The Underdog Project works with at-risk high school learners who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have been identified by teachers or counselors as struggling socially, emotionally or academically.

We use a combination of dog training activities and life skills workshops, to engage with and motivate teens – and to help find shelter dogs homes. So the formula benefits two sets of underdogs.

Underdog harnesses the therapeutic power of animals and tackles social and emotional problems in an experiential and indirect way. This is called non-invasive therapy.

Up to this point, where I’m standing here speaking to you, has not been without challenges. Sometimes the best intentions can be lost in a quagmire of administrative duties related to running an above-board Non-profit Organisation, the politics of social welfare, an absence of funding and the extreme disadvantage of our poorer communities and schools.

Yet here I am today, to tell you a story that will hopefully inspire you to take risks, and empower you to become agents of change. I’m going to tell you a story about an individual who was compelled to step into the limelight and help our small organization. I’m going to tell you the story of a real-life champion of underdogs.

The Preface

Over the last few years there’s been a lot of talk about the power of crowds. From crowdfunding and crowd sourcing to flash mobs, the crowd has muscled its way into the spotlight.

Pair mobile technology with social networks like facebook and twitter, and the crowd is transformed into a magnificent engine of change.

Whether funding innovative new inventions and small private enterprises, like Kickstarter or Indiegogo are doing, or crowdfunding alternative technologies such as what Sunfunder is doing in Africa, crowds are being pooled together to help inspired ideas or ideals take shape.

Organisations like Avaaz and Change.org are driving social change online, using the collective power of mass votes to fuel social action.

The term clicktivism has mainstreamed.

Clicktivism is the harnessing of digital media, including social media and other online media, to facilitate social change and activism.

But this is where I find it gets really interesting. For the most part, clicktivism is a singularly individual activity. You and I are the owners of this hand that clicks our support, financial or emotional, of various campaigns.

We sit behind a desk, isolated from the very crowd that we are clicking to join.

Tech writer and theorist Evgeny Morozom calls it “Slacktivism”  he says it is: “the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation: why bother with sit-ins and the risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture” he writes “if one can be as loud campaigning in the virtual space?”

So in this tech-dominated world of ours we have two kinds of change makers:

On the one hand we have the crowd and its potential to pool collective ideals and globalize change.

The crowd is made up of clicktivists who each have the power to be a change maker, yet are quite disconnected from the actual mechanics of change and social interventions.  To the point that a term like slacktivism has attached itself to the body of online activism like a suckerfish to a shark.

And on the other hand you have the individual. It’s this other hand that really interests me. This is where you and I operate – the individuals, the mavericks, the underdogs. With all the attention shifted to the crowd, one runs the risk of forgetting the individuals actively involved on ground level.

Carl Jung writes that “The essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately springs as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals.”

From my experience individuals can be the unassuming, unexpected incubators of change. And this is where my story starts.

Charity Ride story

On the 13th of August last year, I received an email from a man called Leon Crous.

“Dear Jenna and the Underdog Team,” he wrote, “I’m in the planning stages of a motorcycle trip to raise awareness for a charity organisation.”

The trip Leon explained, would be “a gesture of uniting the Western Cape Province for a cause.” Leon invited the Underdog Project to be the charity beneficiary of the campaign.

Leon’s email came at a difficult time. With no funding to employ any staff, and very few volunteers, by August last year, Underdog Project was stretched to capacity.

I was responsible for every aspect of the organization, from running its bookkeeping, marketing and PR, project management, volunteer coordination, fundraising and facilitation of each course. Our trainers and therapists came when they could, and the rest relied on volunteers who were also juggling their precious time to help us out.

So I had reservations. If I accepted Leon’s invitation to be a part of this bike ride, what would it entail? What did he want from us? How much more time and how much more money would I have to give? These are questions one learns to ask as an NPO.

I invited Leon to meet with me at DARG, the shelter out of which we were operating. He happened to arrive on our most difficult day – to meet the  youngest Underdogs we’d ever accepted onto the course. Abused and neglected children in the care of SA Children’s Home ranging from 6 to 10 years old. Not being familiar with this age group, we gave each of them a dog to handle. For the record, I am proud to say that it was remarkably less chaotic than it should have been. But no training was happening and no troubled teens were present.

I wondered what Leon would make of our motley crew rounding up dogs and children with attention spans of 30 seconds and less.

I pictured a leather-clad motorcyclist with a big beard and a big personality, overbearing and extroverted. Leon was the complete opposite. Apart from lacking in beard, he was quiet and stoic.  We hovered in the passageway of the kennels, our conversation drowned out by barking dogs around us.

But there was something about Leon that struck me: he’d made a decision. He’d stepped out from his everyday life and planted himself midstream. He was going to change the current and nothing was going to stop him. I was sold.

Perhaps this is the measure of a change-maker. The inner workings: courage, determination and the confidence to follow through.

Which is exactly what he did.

In November last year, motorcycle enthusiast and passionate animal lover, Leon, hit the roads of the Western Cape, riding for The Underdog Project.

Both Leon and I believed that by encouraging animal shelters to work together and learn from each other our organisations could be powerful vehicles of change and transformation in our communities.

The Underdog Charity Ride was a way of sharing this message. Over 6 days and some 3000 kilometers, Leon visited 20 animal shelters highlighting their needs, and raising funds and awareness for them and The Underdog Project.

Together we marketed the campaign and promoted it on our social networks. The idea was to “sell” kilometres, to get businesses on board to sponsor different parts of the bike and then to get other sponsors to donate goods to shelters along the way. It was an ambitious goal, but Leon never gave up, and I never once doubted he could do it.

Leon raised close to R40,000 from just one ride. But more importantly he forged connections with other shelters and fosters, and inspired them to look at their dogs not only as victims, but as four-legged therapists with the power to really change lives for the better.

Underdog seeds have been sown. And already we are seeing some shoots emerge. Oudtshoorn SPCA is actively setting up an Underdog Project. We’ve had requests from Kayamandi in Stellenbosch to help set up a programme there.

And all it took was one man, with a sense of adventure and a social conscience.

Just one person.

George Eliot (or Mary Anne Evans as she was in real life) wrote that “The progress of the world can certainly never come at all save by the modified action of the individual beings who compose the world.”

I asked Leon what his message would be to people wanting to make a difference and this is what he said:

“If you have that hunger to do something to make a difference somewhere in the world, you don’t have to have all the facts at first, nor does it matter how small your contribution will be, you have to act on it and find a cause that speaks to your heart. Trust your instincts and go for it!”

My challenge to you today is to carry on with your amazing work – go out there and inspire individuals to use their ingenuity and make change happen.

Show them that with
♣    Trust
♣    Determination and
♣    Optimism

Anything can be achieved.

Your power to change the world around you rests in your self-belief, your ability to set goals and work towards them, and your belief in other people

Your belief in the Underdogs.

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