Skip to content
The Russell Family Foundation Search

Historical Awareness

Balancing the unknown with our past.

In my ongoing quest to think about how TRFF can break the mold and do more effective work, I have been thinking lately about collective impact theory’s promise to change the way we think about driving social change. It is an inspiring theory. In a novel departure from traditional, responsive grantmaking, it encourages grantmakers to quit treating the symptoms of societal problems and instead focus on changing the unjust systems that cause those problems.

For me, the theory rings true. Maybe more importantly, it rings new. If TRFF is able to realize a collective impact approach in the Puyallup watershed, I feel it will have achieved a groundbreaking feat of inclusive environmentalism that abandons the old enviro mode of antagonism for a socially dynamic ecosystem that makes the place livable for all. I’m invigorated by the potential for doing something unheard of, something brand new, something on the cutting edge of social change.

Imagine my surprise, then, as I read of Jane Addams in Linda Lawrence Hunt’s interesting book Bold Spirit. Unlike most American women in the 1880s, Addams graduated college. Afterward, despite her vigorous intellect, she hit the glass ceiling squarely. The life of idle leisure expected of privileged women at the time repulsed her. Traveling Europe, shopping and learning foreign languages could not alleviate her boredom and dissatisfaction at not being able to take a role in society no roles existing where she could effectively use her considerable talents. So she chose to move to Chicago with a friend and open Hull House, an establishment seeking to alleviate the difficulties of inner-city life for impoverished immigrants. In opening a daycare, an employment bureau, libraries, classrooms and art galleries, it sought to give Italian, Polish, Greek, Russian and Bohemian immigrants the opportunities that Chicago’s industrial system so often denied them.

As Hunt writes of Addams, “As she saw the wretched living and working conditions of her neighbors, she wrote and spoke persuasively for more humane and just conditions. She also befriended influential clergymen who taught that Christians needed to help change the unjust structures that brutalized the vulnerable, not just provide individual charity after the fact.”

Over a century before collective impact was coined as a term, Jane Addams came to the same conclusion as the theory. Charitable efforts must be focused on changing systems, not treating symptoms. The women’s movement in America, in which Jane Addams would become highly involved, is a great example of how that process plays out over time.

My purpose in writing this, however, is not to pick apart theories of social change. I am more interested in the mixture of enthusiasm and disappointment I felt when reading about Jane Addams. My enthusiasm should be understandable. Here was a woman who got it, who could not restrict herself just to helping the destitute. Her primary mission was to change the system that produced the destitute. That is right in line with collective impact and TRFF’s vision for the Puyallup watershed.

The undercurrent of disappointment I felt, however, is harder to explain. Suddenly I got the sense that what TRFF was attempting in the watershed was not so new after all, that our excitement at being trailblazers was merely a byproduct of our ignorance of philanthropic history. The pioneering life of Jane Addams made TRFF’s process feel much less cutting edge than I had made it out in my mind to be.

I suspect this desire to be out on the cutting edge, to do work that has never been done before, is not confined to those as philanthropically inexperienced as me. I could be wrong.

What is this thirst for newness? Why does our desire to step into uncharted territory generally sit deeper than our faith in the lessons learned by those who went before?

Humans have an exploratory spirit nothing motivates us more than the feeling that we are doing something never before attempted, something that could change the social paradigm. The unknown fires our impulse to go forward. On the other hand, the crucial power of history is in its applicability to our plans for the future, in reminding us of the interplay between personal limitations and forces that are larger than us.

Throw caution to the wind and pay the consequences. Analyze too closely and lose your motivation. How to balance the enthralling unknown with the cautionary effect of historical awareness?

I cannot claim to have any answers. Right now I am thinking about the uniqueness of localities, the impossibility of predicting the future, the evolutionary nature of communities, blueprints as untrustworthy documents and how any principle must be adapted to fit unique circumstances.

What do you think? What’s new?