Creating a 21st Century Social Change Organization

Times are changing rapidly and so must our organizational forms.  This is why we are doing things differently at Cognitive Policy Works.  We recognize the need to collaborate on a massive scale, which is why our organization is growing as a network that intersects with social businesses, government agencies, and non-profits through a disperse set of channels.

This can be difficult to wrap your head around.  It may be helpful to have some context.  This is our story.

Humble Beginnings

Cognitive Policy Works (CPW) started out like so many things do, as a conversation among friends both old and new.  Some of us had met at the now-defunct Rockridge Institute where we came together with the lofty goal of empowering progressives to communicate deeply and powerfully through an understanding of political frames.  When Rockridge fell away in April of 2009, we grieved our loss and pondered how to continue doing the important work that was left undone.

During the summer of the same year, we began reaching out to others who were clearly new-friends-in-the-making.  We came together in a series of conference calls about filling the void where Rockridge had once been and taking our respective works to the next level through a strategic partnership.  We talked about the need to bring psychologists together with media experts; the challenges associated with incorporating insights about the political mind into organizational settings; and our shared vision of a world inhabited by people capable of applying deep insights into themselves to successfully manage the Great Transition that is the 21st Century.

These conference calls culminated in the design of a new organization that (we hope!) will result in a new professional class of highly-trained expert practitioners who understand the workings of the political mind and can skillfully apply their knowledge “in the trenches” where our current political culture is unable to function properly.

Cultivating New Practices

We were quick to distinguish the product emphasis of other organizations in our domain that focus their energy on producing articles and reports from the process emphasis that we embody through a focus on the implementation of new organizational practices and learning environments that make professional change agents more effective in their daily work.

Right away we set out to design new tools for practitioners to use.  We applied for and received a grant from the Arthur W. Page Center to partner with Tom Crompton at the World Wildlife Fund, UK and create an Identity Campaigning Framework that combines insights from social psychology with the deep frames discovered through George Lakoff’s work on the political mind.  Our framework is nearly complete and going through a design-to-implementation phase with several international NGO’s in the UK.  (More on this in the coming months!)

Alongside this “big picture” project, we also started offering workshops on political frames and values-based communication.  Topics covered so far include accountability in education, building a sustainable economy, and advocating for universal health care. Techniques that have emerged through this process include:

  • Frame Breaking to jam problematic frames;
  • Frame Shifting to draw the discourse back to your point of view;
  • Values-Based Communication for authentically expressing your views in order to build trust with an audience;
  • Polarity Management for recognizing different points of view and building relationships in the midst of potential conflict.

As we went about the difficult work of figuring out how to teach these key concepts and techniques, it became clear that people could benefit from having practical examples and ongoing opportunities to practice what they were learning.  This is why we are now developing our first framing workbook on universal health care to distill what we’ve learned so far into teachable practices and techniques.  Our first workbook is almost finished and will be made available soon.  Alongside its release, we will also unveil a series of online discussion forums and virtual “workplaces” where our students can work in groups to practice applying these techniques to real-world political and social challenges.

Building A Network, Building A Movement

Recognizing the limitations of traditional non-profits and businesses, we have worked to build a strong network of partners who share our vision of a better world.  One organization cannot bring about the scale of change that is needed on its own.  This is why we are forging partnerships – like the one mentioned above with WWF-UK – where visions are deeply aligned.

The most exciting example is Seattle Innovators, a project to catalyze the creative scene in Seattle and build a multi-decade campaign around the vision of becoming a carbon neutral city.  (Read the full story here)  This project is leading to a massive coalition among non-profits, social businesses, government agencies, and research institutions.

CPW is growing as a network hub for a global movement.  It won’t be the central piece, but neither will any other organization.  Yet it can be an important point of intersection for bringing people together around shared themes.  To get a sense of how this works, consider an example:

Finding Common Ground in a Mine Field

We are currently in conversations with six other organizations (Re-Vision Labs is a noteworthy co-creator in the process) around a framework that takes George Lakoff’s discovery of “biconceptualism” and creates a communication/outreach/community-building strategy for engaging communities with a history of conflict.  This framework is being developed with representatives of three key client bases – advocates for local food systems; social service professionals seeking to bring the marginalized into local political processes; and public relations firms encouraging local businesses to invest in transparent relationships with the communities they impact.

Such a framework could not come into being contained within the walls of a single organization.  It will take considerable amounts of trust and open sharing among service providers and potential clients to ensure that the framework is useful and effective by the time it is field tested in an advocacy campaign.

This is but one example of the kinds of collaborations we are setting in motion as a core tenet of our business paradigm.

Where We Are Now

Even though it’s been more than one and a half years since we began this journey, CPW is still in its start-up phase and is only now becoming operational (with its first newsletter and a coherent set of procedures for doing its work).  The systems we are building take a considerable amount of time to get up and running, so things may seem slow from the outside.

Hopefully by now it is clear that we are actually moving quite quickly.  It’s just that our vision is so big that our strides may seem small in the flurry of change happening in the larger world.

CPW working with many groups and growing a powerful network for bringing about social change.  In addition to the activities mentioned so far, we are also:

There’s a lot going on!

In Closing

I hope this story starts to bring clarity to our work at CPW.  We have been extremely busy these last few months and look forward to working with you in the days ahead.  We have now launched our monthly newsletter (if you haven’t done so, sign up here) and will be sharing more tools and techniques, educational resources, and new frameworks for social change in the days ahead.

In Solidarity

Joe Brewer
Founder and Director, Cognitive Policy Works


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Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.