Changing the World, One Student at a Time
September 15, 2016
By Pamela Tom
Nora Silver wins Aspen Institute Faculty Pioneer Award for social change course
During her 12 years of teaching at Berkeley-Haas, Adjunct Professor Nora Silver kept hearing MBA students say that they wanted to create social change—in a big, global way. While some might believe that social change grows and evolves organically, Silver realized she could use lessons from history to identify levers commonly used, and teach students how to frame effective social movement strategies.
In recognition of her course, “Large-Scale Social Change: Social Movements,” Silver will receive The Aspen Institute’s Faculty Pioneer Award in New York City next month for significantly contributing to improving action on the world’s biggest problems. The award honors business school faculty who are teaching “business practices that help corporations confront society’s ‘grand challenges’.” Silver believes the course is “one of a kind.”
“Most of the change in the world happens outside of traditional businesses and institutions, though it affects them substantially. From a business school perspective, I wanted to look at the different levers available to create large scale social change,” says Silver, also faculty director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership.
In the course, students study dozens of social movements around the world and over time. They look at the structure behind the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and how activists utilized the resources of black churches in the South and the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC—networks already strong and in place.
When protesters were planning the Montgomery bus boycott, they didn’t know if people would join them in the boycott,” says Silver. “However they went to the black church pastors who stressed the importance of boycotting during their Sunday sermons and the result was 94% participation.”
The NRA also speaks to the class to show students how its structure so effectively rallies its members to action.
Technology is also included in the syllabus as it plays a mobilizing and communications role in social change. For example, social media drove change in the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter movements.
But social activists used engaging communication to foster change way before the Internet existed. Silver’s course also covers the abolition movement in the UK during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Students learn how abolitionists effectively voiced their opposition to slavery by utilizing the printing press and blanketing communities with a drawing depicting slaves packed into slave ships. Displaying the horror of slavery swayed people’s opinions, says Silver.
Silver also spends time on how communications is an ubiquitous lever for social change movements. The class challenges students to consider how to craft effective “call to action” messages, and to frame their issues based on understanding the audience and their current beliefs.
“Marriage equality is a great example. The original message was that everyone knows somebody who is gay,” says Silver. “Only when the messaging turned to same-sex marriages as an issue of fairness and a civil right did the movement make dramatic strides.”
After the students study six levers for change and dozens of historic social movements, they must complete three assignments: analyze a current social movement, develop strategies for the first three years of a new social movement as a group project, and write a reflection paper on their personal takeaways from the course.
For their group project, students were tasked with selecting a problem that they were truly passionate about and developing a strategy and benchmarks. The student projects included eradicating corruption in Latin America, eliminating private prisons, advancing transgender rights, promoting “death with dignity”, launching long-term, paid parental leave policies, and generating improved food safety programs.
Silver launched the course Spring 2016 and is teaching it again this semester.
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