Leading for change


Collective leadership, strategic thinking, and self-care are key tactics to leading change in difficult circumstances and divided societies.

This was the advice of an international panel of changemakers who addressed a global discussion hosted by SCI.  Over 100 activists and funders from more than 15 countries participated in the online call.

The event, which focused on the challenges of leading change, drew on the rich of experience of:

  • Ambika Satkunanathan, a Human Rights lawyer, chair of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust and former Commissioner with the Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka
  • Eric Ward, Executive Vice President with Race Forward in the United States and a leading authority on the proliferation of hate crimes and political violence by authoritarian and extremist movements.
  • Bernadette McAliskey, a lifelong human rights and social justice campaigner whose activities have ranged from neighbourhood organising, to national protest movement and parliamentary representation.
  • Phumeza Mlungwana, a South African activist and Head of Strategy with the International Budget Partnership.

They each spoke of how experiences of injustice and inequality at a young age had inspired them to become activists pressing for positive change.

But reflecting on the impact such experiences had on their roles as leaders, Eric Ward warned that “it is much too easy to lean into the rage of inequality”.

The experience of racism and white supremacist violence in the United States often fuelled anger, but Eric advised that it was important to instead find common case within communities around shared values such as equality and fairness.

He added: “You don't allow the other side to force you to dehumanise them.”

Ambika spoke of working in a society where minorities faced violence and injustice, noting that securing change in such circumstances required the leadership of strong independent institutions with a deep commitment to human rights.

She said vulnerable groups had to know that they had someone to turn to, adding: "What we need is strong relationships with communities."

But Ambika told the webinar: “I always say we must check our privilege. Your positionality really changes how you view even a simple thing like an application form. Is it accessible? What kind of language is it in?”

Ambika said prejudice emerged as a personal barrier to her efforts to deliver change: “Being a Tamil, I was subject to many personal slander campaigns. There were challenges that went beyond the structures and systems to social values, perceptions, prejudices, which is why I always say you cannot bring about social change through legal reform or institutional reform. That is just part of it. It’s about interrogating the root causes and addressing those root causes.”

Phumeza reflected on the experience of corruption in post-Apartheid South Africa and how it affected the efforts to lead change.

 “How do we make it better?” she asked. “While we have the right policies and right institutions – knowing that they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing – it is our responsibility and our leadership role to say that others are able to hold us to account. If I go into government, there must be somebody to hold me to account.”

The panellists were asked how they sustained themselves.

Bernadette spoke of the scale of the challenge. History and the legacy of colonialism and violence presented obstacles that individuals could not overcome.

She and her fellow panellists spoke of the need for self-care. This could be found in collective leadership and solidarity. That same collective approach was the best path to leading change.

After decades of activism, Bernadette said she was inspired today by the battles being fought against racism in Northern Ireland where minority communities were at the forefront of leading the demands for justice and equality.

She said: “What inspires me is when I look, in the community in which I work, in the developing asylum seeker community and I see with my own eyes the emerging leadership.”

Addressing the big challenges facing those who seek to lead change, Bernadette added: “All I can say is, does the road wind uphill all the way? Yes. Will you meet the best human beings in the world on your way? Yes you will. And if we stand together for the values of human dignity and equality, if we stand for the principles of democracy and equality, will we get there? Yes, we will.”

Watch the discussion in full here: