Ash Center: If Not Now, When?

June 3, 2013
Ash Center: If Not Now, When?
Kanoko Kamata with classmates from Professor Ganz's ”Organize People, Power, and Change” course

How I Learned that Small Changes Can Lead to Big Differences with HKS Professor Marshall Ganz
By Kanoko Kamata, 2012 MPA, HKS
Reprinted from Japan Business Press, December 25, 2012

At Harvard Kennedy School, I was privileged to take Professor Marshall Ganz’s popular course “Organize People, Power, and Change.” Professor Ganz left Harvard College before graduation and became a prominent civil rights activist in Mississippi. He devoted his life to activism to make social change by ordinary citizens possible. Thirty years after he left Harvard, he returned to complete both master’s and doctoral degrees. He now teaches students how to change society and was a well-known advisor for President Obama’s grassroots 2008 field campaign.

“You don’t read a ‘bicycology’ book to practice riding a bike,” said Ganz in introducing the course’s main assignment. “You fall again and again, and you can finally ride. Grassroots activities are just same. So, you have to do yourself, NOW.”

As part of the class, we had to launch our own grassroots campaign. In the past, I had been involved in business and volunteer activities on developing a sustainable society, so I thought about designing a campaign to collect Boston citizens’ opinions on sustainability and delivering the results to the UN Earth Summit. Yet, after working with my teaching assistant, I realized my idea lacked a clear campaign strategy.

I returned to the drawing board and came up with a campaign to change plates and cutlery to recyclable options in the Kennedy School cafeteria. At the Kennedy School there is no space to install a dishwasher, so we used disposable items which were not recyclable. And this adds up—in a 2011 HKS waste audit, nearly 40 percent of recyclable items were found in the trash.
Throughout the semester, Professor Ganz urged us again and again that “grassroots campaigns have to have a tangible and achievable goal. The campaigns should be structured with the accumulation of lots of small successes. Celebrate small successes greatly so that people can keep their motivation to continue their work.” I realized with his guidance that even my small step in changing the cutlery could make big strides toward social sustainability.

“Who has the power?”
Once I decided on the theme of my campaign, I had to work on recruiting people. I realized I could not accomplish anything big with only my own resources, a fact that was reinforced throughout the class.

First, I had to make a leadership team to lead my campaign. Fortunately, I was able to form a team of other Kennedy School students passionate about making the Kennedy School more environmentally responsible. Despite the fact that life at the Kennedy School was far busier than my professional work in Japan, I was amazed that more people than expected committed to my leadership team.

Professor Ganz told us again and again when we launched a leadership team “you have to identify and develop leadership in people, which means create a lot of leaders. You need to foster snowflake leadership which has many interdependent leaders.”

Grassroots activities can be much more powerful with a snowflake leadership. With lots of leaders on my team, they in turn brought in more people and developed leaders among themselves—a sequence that further reinforced my grassroots campaign.

Also, because grassroot activities are generally on a voluntary basis, I needed to bring in many leaders to maximize their potential and form an organization where we could be resilient even if some participants could not always be there.

Once my leadership team was formed, I learned that I had to think of a strategy to make changes. Cafeteria operations at the Kennedy School are outsourced to an external company which determines the type of plates and cutlery. So, as a team, we decided to collect petitions from students to urge them to stop using non-recyclable plates and cutlery and change over to recyclable versions.

Then, I met again with the teaching assistant and told her my strategy. I believed that the cafeteria operating company would change if we could show that many students were concerned with the issues, so I explained my strategy with confidence. But she questioned my petition strategy as really the best way to bring about change.

I was disappointed, but returned to the team, and we carefully reviewed the history of the cafeteria operations. While there had never been a petition in the past, many students had independently communicated directly to the company about their concerns. Because the change to recyclables incurred higher costs to the operating company, they had ignored the student requests.

We thought about who could influence the company. The facility division had the authority to sign the contract with the company. The dean of students could advise the facility division about the environmental issues that students cared about at the Kennedy School, and student government could also alert the company and school about students’ concerns. We thought that it would be effective if we could set up a meeting together with the operating company, the facility division, the dean of students, student government, and the student representatives to talk about our goal. My team and I were just about to schedule a meeting when the operating company approached us. They had found recyclable plates and cutlery and would change to it soon.

To create changes, you have to analyze the power balance—who has the power, how can we draw that power to us, or how can we weaken that power—and make a strategy based on it.

At the end of our class, we had a party to celebrate the 80 grassroots campaigns created by 80 students. The students who had no previous grassroots experience designed campaigns ranging from rebuilding a deteriorated neighboring street and fundraising for disadvantaged kids to improving immigrant rights. Each student found the issues they cared about, built a team, recruited people, and took action.

Professor Ganz told us “grassroots activities are not only to make changes, but should also serve to build a foundation to lead a next bigger success.” Some classmates have continued to work on their campaigns which they started through the class. Fortunately, my campaign team also continues to work at the Kennedy School to reduce waste on campus.

On the first day of class, Professor Ganz shared an inspiring question that stays with me to this day: “If I am not for myself, who am I? When I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

From now, let’s make a small change in our own communities! Our small successes will multiply to make the world a better place.

Kanoko Kamata is an Ash Center research associate and a fellow with the Center for Popular Democracy, a national nonprofit that provides policy, organizing, and technical support to community-based organizations engaged in city and state-level policy campaigns. She is a MPA 2012 graduate of Harvard Kennedy School and a 2011-2012 Roy and Lila Ash Fellow in Democracy.