Culture Change: A Breakthrough Perspective

In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, human rights begin “in small places close to home” with individuals in their homes and neighborhoods, schools or colleges, or places of work. For “without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Culture change is essential to crafting a new world order in which all people are valued equally, enjoy their rights, and live with dignity. And each one of us, right now, has the power to create this new world. It begins with YOU.

What is culture?

Culture is the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional features of a society. It determines our value systems, beliefs, and practices. It comprises of our stories, our humor, our collective experiences, and the narratives through which we understand our world. A society’s culture dictates the rules that govern the people within it, and determines what behavior is considered acceptable, how such behaviors are rewarded, and which ones are condemned. This in turn gives rise to the systems of governance, institutions, and policies that then serve to reinforce those cultural norms.

None of us inhabit just one culture: we swim in a soup of our religious culture, our urban/suburban culture, our school or workplace culture, and the culture(s) of our hobbies and interests: cooking, cricket, Comic Con. We also use culture to refer to national or regional practices and traditions, or even the behaviors and habits of specific generations.

Culture can represent the best of ourselves, as expressed in art, traditions of love and connectedness, language, cuisine, architecture, even customs or laws that help realize human rights. At the same time, culture can perpetuate violence, discrimination, and other harms to ourselves, others, and the planet.

And yet, culture is not static. It is constantly evolving. We don’t just passively consume it. We create it. So we also have the power to change it. Culture drives the way we treat each other: it defines what’s “normal,” what’s acceptable. And sometimes we need to change that. That change can happen gradually over time, or it can be accelerated through intentional action. We can begin this culture change at home, and in our communities. And when we do, we can build homes, families, communities, and institutions where dignity, equality, and justice — the core values of human rights — carry the day.

Culture embodies systems of power

The current world order is structured on a “zero-sum” power paradigm. In this paradigm, one group sits on top, with others below. Inequality is inherent to this paradigm, creating and reinforcing hierarchies of human value. Gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, class, immigration status, ability, ethnicity, age, and intersections among them determine where people sit on the hierarchy.

This power paradigm shapes everything from our values and belief systems to our institutions, structures, policies, and practices. It also influences our interpersonal and individual behaviors. At the same time, imbalances of power reinforce polarization among groups and uphold notions of “us versus them.” This leads to dehumanization and objectification of the “other,” perpetuating cycles of fear and hate.

As a result, culture often perpetuates harm.

Culture and Violence

Cultural norms set standards of collective behavior. These norms dictate what society considers acceptable or unacceptable, and what is rewarded or discouraged.  

When the dominant group maintains greater power and privilege, and other groups are perceived to have less value, those lower on the hierarchy are dehumanized and become vulnerable to discrimination and violence. Cultural norms support this hierarchy, making discrimination and violence against marginalized groups more acceptable.

For example, the dominant power paradigm around the world generally privileges men over women. As a result, culture becomes a vehicle for indicating that men are entitled to control women and their bodies. Women are often perceived, portrayed, and represented as having less value than men, and as a result, many women experience sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating or intimate partner violence, discrimination in the workplace, and more.

1 in 3 women will experience violence in their lifetime, while only a tiny fraction of those who chose to perpetrate violence are held accountable. In a system that privileges some over others, systems of accountability are weak for the dominant group. This is why impunity for those who commit discrimination and violence is high, as are practices of delegitimizing violence and blaming the victim.

Transforming systems of power: Using culture to change culture (and power!)

To create a new world order that moves us beyond inequality, polarization, and violence we need to re-envision power paradigms. We need paradigms that emphasize horizontal power structures rather than vertical. Culture is not fixed, and hierarchical “zero-sum” power paradigms are not inevitable. Recognizing the current power paradigm and the reproduction of norms that uphold it is the first step toward changing culture and building a new world in which all of us can thrive.

From there, changing culture requires interventions that challenge existing norms and replace them with new ones. Since culture is vast and deep and exists at various levels, culture change interventions can take place at any/all of these levels; individual + interpersonal (eg. home, family, school, relationships); community (eg. sports teams, campus groups, sororities, workplaces, Facebook groups, gaming culture); society (campus life, religious traditions, national culture); institutional  (educational systems, governments). And for true culture change to take place on an issue like gender-based violence, intervention must take place at all levels of the ecosystem.

Culture is created, reinforced, and conveyed by various means, from statements that people hear from their parents, teachers, and friends in the formative years of their lives, to the messages sent to us by our religious institutions, educational systems, and governments. Perhaps the strongest cultural messages we receive are from the art, literature, film, and popular culture that we consume. These cultural products that saturate our lives through media and technology often reinforce norms that support existing power paradigms. However, because of their power, scale, and inherent creativity, these same products are also best suited for intervention. In Breakthrough’s experience, culture change strategies are most successful when they use cultural mechanisms to change culture, and meet people where they already are—where they are already consuming and creating culture.

How is Breakthrough’s view on culture change distinct from other organizations?

The culture change field is still emerging. Currently, many organizations working on culture change are focused on intervening in cultural narratives as they exist in popular culture and media productions (film, television, digital). These also take the form of campaigns that reshape public narratives and shift representations of people at scale, with the goal of breaking norms and stereotypes, creating empathy, and humanizing us all.

Breakthrough fully embraces this approach. Focussing on interventions that lead to narrative shifts on a large scale is a crucial and powerful facet of culture change strategy. However, our experience has shown us that in addition to intervening in cultural narratives as they are embodied in media, popular culture, and technology, powerful culture change happens when intervention also takes place at the individual, interpersonal, and community levels. We strongly believe in the power of individuals – through their actions – to reshape value systems, behaviors and practices within their own communities and peer networks, whether inside or outside the mass media space. This happens when individuals are mobilized and supported in using their unique voice and identity to challenge and transform cultural norms within their spheres of influence.

Effective strategies to transform harmful cultural norms

Breakthrough has 17 years of experience doing culture change work in the world’s two largest democracies, giving us time to reflect and share learnings. Our knowledge base is grounded in our work on racial justice, immigrant rights, and gender equality – from local, to transnational, to global. Here are some essential steps to enacting culture change:

  • Recognize harmful cultural norms and practices. A fish is the last to recognize that it lives in water. Cultural norms saturate our lives, often making us blind to them. Recognizing the them, acknowledging that they are constructed and not fixed, and bringing public attention to them is a critical first step.
  • Shift the public narrative. Public narratives shape our perceptions of the world. Shifting the narrative frame and the way we represent people is fundamental to changing culture. While they seem difficult to shift, a combination of smart strategy, moving messaging, and powerful influencers (eg. corporates, media companies, celebrities) can result in narrative shifts. For example, representations of people in the LGBTQIA community in the U.S. have dramatically shifted over the past three decades – from being characterized as a marginalized “other” with very little/negative cultural power, the LGBTQIA community has become more integrated into the mainstream, with holistic representations and a lot more cultural capital. This shift in narrative laid the groundwork for marriage equality in the U.S.
  • Use your social influence Those with social capital in their communities are often best positioned to influence the values, beliefs, and behaviors of others. These community influencers could be religious leaders, government officials, parents, student leaders, celebrated athletes, media icons, artists, or just people who are respected in their community. We believe that interpersonal relationships – especially among peers of similar identities where there is mutual respect – can be leveraged by individuals to challenge harmful narratives, stereotypes, or practices among their peer group.
  • Create new role models Instead of shining the spotlight on those people who are most commonly the superheroes of society (traditionally those who already have privilege within the power paradigms), we should celebrate and uplift the people who are challenging norms and embodying the change we want to see. We can amplify the voices of new leaders who model new ways of being.
  • Win hearts and minds by sharing stories. Fear of the “other” often leads to the objectification and dehumanization of those people we feel are different to us. A well-told story has the power to humanize the subject, address multiple layers of identity, create empathy, and make visible our shared humanity, helping audiences move beyond fear.  
  • Encourage intergenerational dialogue. It is important that new activists act with a knowledge of past social justice movements. Movements can benefit from cross-generational, and global collaboration that ensures that social change and innovation is informed by the lessons of the past – which tactics and strategies worked and which ones didn’t.
  • Go Beyond “Us vs Them.” What if there was no “us vs them,” but just “us”? Recognizing our shared humanity is central to transforming power and creating conditions for people to perceive one another as equal. Avoid othering, objectifying, or stereotyping people based on overt differences. Make an effort to find common ground and shared values – this could help create a new narrative.
  • Build non-traditional partnerships. Break out of the echo chamber and engage with those you might not naturally consider your partners and allies. In doing so you may forge powerful partnerships that are innovative, that work as strategic levers and help reach new audiences. To create a tipping point for change, we need a critical mass of people, and this can come from the unlikeliest of places.
  • Create a Personal Stake for Everyone. While a dominant group may not see discrimination and violence against another group as “their issue,” they can become more invested once they’re given a nuanced sense of how they may be touched by it, even tangentially. For example, some men may perceive that violence against women is not “their issue.” By changing the approach and sparking discussion on how gender norms around masculinity and the pressure to conform to hypermasculine standards indeed have affected them, they will feel greater levels of empathy and understanding for the norms that impact women, and feel more invested in challenging gender-based violence.
  • Don’t play the blame game. Behavioral science shows that people are more likely to change behavior when they see a personal benefit and feel a deep incentive to challenge existing norms. Guilt and shame have not been seen to produce these results, and are not usually successful tactics for long-term behavior change. Offer ways for people to be a part of the solution and use positive-framing to ensure maximum buy-in.

How do we know culture is shifting

Culture change takes time. However, we know that culture is shifting when we start to feel it in those “small places close to home” – in our schools and places of work, in our homes and on our televisions. It will be visible in public dialogue and media representation, in our daily interactions and treatment of others, and in the form of new policies and cultural products. When culture change happens, it will be an equilibrium change at all levels of the ecosystem, from institutional policies and practices down to individual and interpersonal beliefs and behaviors. These cultural shifts will be evident through the emergence of new priorities and practices and through structural change that reflect deep shifts in collective community values.

Culture Change Starts with You

Culture change can happen at any/all levels of our society, and is especially powerful when it takes place through interpersonal action. This is an empowering concept as it means that all individuals are potential catalysts for change-making. Through recognizing your own sites of privilege and power you can identify what is at stake for you, and leverage your talents, skills, influence, and experience to shift narratives, disrupting harmful language and practices, and raising the bar for what behavior is considered acceptable. Whether you create change by taking small steps close to home through practicing compassion and inclusion among your immediate circle of friends and family, or through larger-scale campaigns for behavior change, it all counts toward tipping the scale in favor of a more just, equitable, and compassionate society.

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