Paradigm Shifts in an Age of Crises

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.
This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic Is a Portal”
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

In campaigns for structural change, we consistently ask ourselves questions about power and how the economic or political landscape is shifting in ways that might revise our plans.  To answer these questions, really, to do any planning, we rely on our assumptions about the world: our understanding of the status quo.

We build project plans within a given paradigm, our current societal beliefs about:

  • Power: The definition of power
  • Values: The values of what is right/wrong and the stories we use to reinforce those values
  • Rules of Engagement: The understanding of how our economy, judicial system, and cultural norms work
  • Base: A description of our base
  • Stakeholders: A description of our opposition and allies
  • Decision-makers: Who gets to decide and what we know about what they care about
  • Resources: What are they? Who has them? And why?

In our current period of multiple crises, organizations are seeking ways to influence the outcomes of rapid response decisions in their communities, while building for the long-term wins they have been fighting for decades.

Last month, we shared a framework for how to think and act strategically in long-term crises. As folks began implementing this tool, we heard numerous requests for resources on how to shift paradigms. We found lots of great writing calling for people to use this moment for change, but few approaches to how to approach that work. This framework is an opening and invitation to a series of questions that can help your team build strategy for paradigm shifts now and into the future.

In order to influence paradigm shifts in a crisis, we need an additional set of questions to help us:

  • accurately view the world around us, 
  • challenge long-held assumptions in each of the areas listed above and 
  • maintain a focus on the larger goal of changing worldviews.

This is not a new way of thinking for organizers and, in this period of crises and rapid change, we are offering a synthesized framework for moving through this type of thinking. Our hypothesis is that we can use community organizing and political advocacy tools to move individual and collective paradigm shifts that affect larger change.

If you feel you already have a strong understanding of paradigm shifts, skip the next two sections and jump down to the framework. For a printable version of this framework email


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