At a school assembly a few months back, I squirmed in my seat as the first-graders in my son’s school sang, “I can change the world with my own two hands.”

The myth that social change hinges upon the actions of one valiant individual is dangerous. A big reason why so many of our efforts at movement-building fall flat is because we expect ourselves to change the world single-handedly. Instead, what we need is more humility.

Savior Complex

The myth of the lone change-maker feeds right into White Savior Complex. Let’s look at my story, for instance. Starting when I was a baby activist in my teens, I longed to play a role that no one else could play. Craving recognition, I’d secretly try to pinpoint how campaigns would have fallen flat if it hadn’t been for my efforts. While I’m embarrassed to admit it, I still catch myself doing this at times.

When we’re completely honest with ourselves, most of us long to be special. Although self-love is important, the shadow side of specialness is superiority. When we attach our identities to our activism and try to be the world’s savior in shining armor, we discredit and disempower people who have equally and often more important roles to play, and it gets harder to collaborate and co-create change.

Disengagement

Have you ever found yourself saying something like—What difference can I make? I’m just a drop in the bucket.
While the myth of the savior who changes the world gives some of us an ego trip, it leads others to drop out of movements because they don’t see how their actions matter. A better symbol of social change is the straw that broke the donkey’s back (sorry, donkey!). When we understand the power in one piece of straw, we’re more likely to stay engaged for the long haul.

Understanding Movement-Building

The myth of the change-maker in shining armor doesn’t reflect the reality of movement-building. While leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Linda Sarsour are important, they only have an impact because of the hundreds of thousands of people that are part of the same movements. The problem is, American history books and movies don’t usually tell the smaller stories and don’t give an accurate view of how change happens.

Cultivating Humility

For us to more effectively co-create social change, we need to let go of the story of change arising from the efforts of one gallant individual. As people committed to social change—especially those of us who are White—we need to cultivate humility.

I don’t define humility as thinking less of yourself or putting yourself down. Instead, humility is knowing that you’re not better than anyone else and not even aspiring to be better than anyone else. It’s having an accurate understanding of your strengths and your weaknesses, and being committed to always learning more. The more that humble leaders and teachers learn, the more they realize how little they know.

In the next article—Steps Towards Humility—’ll share with you steps to cultivating humility that I’ve been practicing recently.

I invite you to check out our professional coaching programs and then to apply for a discovery session when you’re ready to talk. All the best to you!

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