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”


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 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. There is lots of great writing calling for organizers to use this moment to enact change, but little on how to actually approach that work. This framework is intended as 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 but, 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. Or to view this article as a formatted table, click here.


Quick Refresher: What’s a Paradigm Shift? 

In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn used the concept of a paradigm to describe "universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners, i.e., what is to be observed and scrutinized."

I’ve been a geek for Kuhn’s work since a teacher forced me to learn about him during my senior year of high school. Kuhn was interested in shifting paradigms – how a community’s canon of gathered concepts can evolve over time – which sounds a hell of a lot like the work of an organizer or structural change agent.

In organizing, Erik Peterson has helped me to see paradigms as what we typically call “narratives” or “worldview.” You can see our conversation on narrative shift here.

The evolution of worldview happens slowly, but it happens as an effect of the changing beliefs of individuals. After the 2016 election, it felt as if the paradigm shift was skewing toward a more hostile and insular world. The question is: How does today’s period of crisis represent an opportunity to change that trajectory?

For readers who want to spend a bit more time here before moving on:


Ok, So How Do Paradigms Shift?

Paradigm shifts can occur at four levels (which are also the levels referenced in Race Forward's levels of racism):

  • Individual

  • Interpersonal

  • Organizational

  • Societal/Cultural

At some level, a societal paradigm shift is the alchemy of these four levels shifting in concert. (You can see examples of this in the great writing on the civil rights movement.) 

Our hypothesis here is that we can use community organizing and political advocacy tools to move individual paradigm shifts that affect larger change.

Let’s start by better understanding how an individual’s paradigm shifts. Individuals build a worldview largely as toddlers, before developing long-term memory. Other paradigms are then layered on top of those initial beliefs, but very early in life individuals are grounded by concepts of morality, power, and more, which ends up driving most of what they do for the rest of their lives – until they experience a paradigm shift.

As adults, our beliefs are underpinned by paradigms operating at the preconscious or subconscious level, that is before conscious awareness. These are the beliefs that coalesce in larger society to create organizational and cultural paradigms. As you read this, 80 to 85 percent of your brain will be working at a subconscious level; that’s your ‘fast brain.’ A part of our brain manages higher-level functions like thinking – the ‘slow brain’ – while another part of our brain processes information before our conscious mind is aware of it. That’s the fast or ‘lizard’ brain. The fast brain manages about 80 to 90 percent of our daily activities, and thank goodness it does! We are typically not aware of everything the fast brain is driving us towards: These can include paradigms of bias, triggers, and negative desires, as well as beliefs about power and the way the world works that drive our political choices.

There is something to the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” The human brain tends to solidify between the ages of 20 and 25. That’s when neural processes begin to hit an equilibrium. After that time, changing behaviors and processing information tends to be a bit different than when we were kids. As early as age 40, we begin to see cognitive decline due to aging, trauma, or other factors. Our brain’s sensitivity or resistance to change is evolving throughout our whole lives. And yet, there are plenty of ways to change adult patterns with the right mix of strong motivation and deep focus.

To shift these deeply-held habits of thinking and belief, i.e. paradigms, we need to bring individuals through an adult learning cycle:

  • Awareness. Bring subconscious paradigms to conscious reflection.  

    • Use tools of clear-eyed reflection to understand what is happening in yourself, your communities, and the world.

    • Become more aware of your sensations in this context and the meaning you take from them. This includes feelings, assumptions, and decisions.

  • Analysis. Actively reflect, with the slow brain, on what those paradigms mean in your life.

    • Use tools for strategic thinking to explore why certain dynamics are occurring.

    • What are the root causes and core drivers behind what you are observing?

    • What are the opportunities and needs of this moment?

  • Action. Move energy into the world around you.

    • Build a POP (purpose, outcome, process) for the shifts you want to make in  your paradigms.

    • Practice, hypothesize, test, and experiment.

      • What do you need to learn or do differently to bring this action plan to life?

  • Accountability. Take responsibility for the outcomes of your actions, seek evaluation of your activities, and integrate that feedback into another cycle of learning.

    • This step is often not listed in cycles of adult learning, but we believe it is critical. We include it here, inspired by Dr. Barbara Love’s work on Critical Liberation Theory.

The question is: How do we help adults move through this cycle of shifting their paradigms at the individual, interpersonal, organizational, and societal levels for the long-term wins they seek?

Want to learn more about paradigm shifts through the lens of adult learning? Check out Up With Community’s manifesto on adult learning here. 


Framework: Strategy Questions for Paradigm Shifts in an Age of Crises

Applying awareness, analysis, action, accountability in a series of strategy questions for your planning team

We’ve constructed a FIVE-STEP strategic thinking map to walk your team through planning in a paradigm shift. You may have completed some of these steps already, or you may want to do one step several times with different audiences before moving to the next step.

Step One - AWARENESS of Your Pre-Crises Assumptions: Become aware of your assumptions in each of these areas. What has been your definition of the status quo in each? This is not just what you’ve said; uncover the unnamed assumptions that have driven your logic.

  • Power: The definition of power

    • What has your definition of power been? (Examples: MLK Jr., “Power…. is the ability to achieve purpose”; three faces of power)

    • What sources of power have you typically sought or worked with?

  • Values: The values of what is right and wrong

    • What has been society’s definition of right or wrong that has been most relevant to your project? (Example: On a prison abolition campaign, prisoners are bad and should be in prison.)

  • Rules of Engagement: The understanding of how your economy, judicial system, and cultural norms work

    • What are the rules your campaign has to work with: (1) the economy, (2) political system, (3) judicial system, and (4) cultural norms?

  • Base: A description of your base

    • Who have you typically seen as your base? WHY?

  • Stakeholders: A description of your opposition and allies

    • Who has typically seemed like your opposition? WHY? 

    • Who has typically seemed like your allies? WHY?

  • Decision-makers: Who gets to decide and what you know about what they care about

    • Who has typically been the decision-maker on the issues you care about? What/who has typically influenced them?

  • Resources: What are they? Who has them? Why?

    • How have resources typically been allocated in the system you hope to change? Based on what criteria?

Step Two - ANALYSIS of the Crises: Understand the world around you.

  • Power: Is this moment offering new or different sources of power?

    • Are traditional sources of power being lost or transformed?

  • Values Is this moment offering shifts in your understanding of morality or with certain populations? What shifts can you map/monitor that would be most relevant to your campaign?

  • Rules: Where do you see those rules shifting or being challenged within: (1) the economy, (2) political system, (3) judicial system and (4) cultural norms?

  • Base: What shifts in worldview/values might your base be experiencing?

  • Opposition and Allies

    • Opposition: What paradigm shifts do you see them going through or do you anticipate they might go through given this crisis?

      • How could their opposition to your campaign shift?

    • Allies: What paradigm shifts do you see them going through or do you anticipate they might go through as this crisis plays out?

      • How might their support for your campaign grow or lessen?

  • Decision-Makers: What new experiences or information might they be having that would change their perspective/understanding of your issue?

    • Are you noticing any changes in their public stands? Can you anticipate any paradigm shifts they may be going through now?

  • Resources: How is resource allocation shifting? How are criteria for resource allocation shifting?

    • Are the values of different resources shifting? Money, relationships, time, connections?

Step Three - ANALYSIS of Your Project Priorities: Understand Your Position and Opportunities in this Moment.

Now is a chance for collective storytelling and meaning making:

  • What has been your individual/organizational role in the previous paradigm? 

  • Where have you or your campaign colluded (intentionally or unintentionally) with the status quo of the previous paradigm?

  • What may need to be your new role?

Your team can use these stories to begin mapping your priorities:

  • What is essential to preserve (what do you KEEP) from how you do things now that will serve you moving forward? Are there relationships, values, or ways of operating that you want to maintain?

  • What will you need to give up, STOP doing, or change in order to get to the new paradigm? For example, where has your definition of power limited you?

  • What do you need to CREATE that is new? For example, what are the competing values that society has been struggling with? What values can you amplify for change?

TOOL: See page 3 of this doc for a useful tool for this step from Frederick Nickols.

Step Four - Putting Your Reflections into ACTION: What are immediate, mid-term and long-term shifts you can make in your work plans, projects, and strategic directions to bring about the world you want?

Using your priorities from step 3:

  • Audience: Which stakeholders do you want to engage in paradigm-shifting work? In different elements of your project? In the project as a whole?

  • Outcomes: Where do you hope to move people through this process?

  • Plans:

  • Awareness: What awareness do you want each target audience to explore?

    • How have you learned they can best engage in building that awareness?

  • Analysis: What activities can you engage target audiences in that will allow them to make meaning of their awareness and integrate it into their view of the world?

  • Actions: What actions can you engage target audiences in that will solidify their emerging awareness/analysis and help them iterate new learning?

  • Accountability: How can your team build structures and habits to mark your progress and stay responsible to the vision you are pursuing?

Step Five - Building ACCOUNTABILITY: Don’t let this great thinking sit on a shelf.

  • How has your team previously tracked tasks, goals, outcomes, and progress towards your mission?

    • Which of these systems will benefit you in tracking this new work?

    • What systems might you need to coordinate individual tasks and team progress? How can you have a regular (quarterly?) sense of your progress?

  • If you need to build new tracking systems, now is the time! And the systems won’t work if you don’t address the underlying habits that kept you from this type of work before.

    • What behaviors need to shift in order to help you maintain the systems you need to implement your plans and achieve your purpose? (Calendaring? Having more manageable work plans? Not being afraid of imperfection?)

  • How will you internally and externally communicate your plans and your progress with staff, community members, and stakeholders?

  • Visit Up With Community’s map for Strategic Thinking in a Long-Term Crisis for more insights on implementation of these plans during crises.

This framework is a living tool we will continue to edit here. If you have feedback or learning from implementing this tool with your team, please share with us nicola[at]upwithcommunity.org. 

We can walk through this portal lighter and ready to build the world all of our communities deserve.

Thank you to everyone who helped craft and refine this piece: Ben Chin, Brian Kettenring, Cathy Kidman, Max Mogenson, Erik Peterson, Trish Adobea Tchume, Daniel Michaud Weinstock.

To view this article as a formatted table, click here.




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