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social change books

The Wonder of Social Change

WonderI recently finished the most amazing book. It wasn’t about nonprofit management, or social entrepreneurship, or leadership, or any of the other topics I usually write about here. But I think it is still quite relevant.

I read Wonder by R.J. Palacio at the repeated urging of my 9-year old son who read it voraciously over a couple of days and was desperate to discuss it. Wonder is a young adult novel about an amazing 5th grade boy named Auggie who was born with countless physical challenges but also a deep wisdom and uncanny ability to change the people around him for the better.

While the book is about Auggie’s more difficult than usual transition into the highly charged world of emerging adolescence, it is also, and more importantly, about what makes humans both incredibly imperfect and deeply beautiful.

The book takes place over Auggie’s 5th grade school year when he enters a private school that first struggles to accept him but later fully recognizes his gifts. Along the way we learn a lot about human nature, it’s depths of cruelty and divisiveness, but also it’s soaring ability to change and to love.

What moved me most about this book was the 5th grade graduation speech by the school principal, Mr. Tushman. In looking back over the last year of Auggie’s remarkable presence in his school, Mr. Tushman finds there the opportunity that we all have as humans to be “kinder than necessary.” He helps his audience, and all those who read Wonder, realize that as humans we hold in our hands – in every choice, in every action – the possibility for tremendous good:

In The Little White Bird [J.M. Barrie] writes, ‘Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?’ Here Mr. Tushman looked up at the audience. “Kinder than is necessary,” he repeated. “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed…We carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind but the very choice of kindness…Children, what I want to impart to you today is an understanding of the value of that simple thing called kindness…In the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary…And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”

And it occurs to me that in the work of social change, we as social entrepreneurs are making a conscious choice to be kinder than is necessary. We are choosing to go against the status quo of growing poverty, crumbling educational and political institutions, climate change. We are choosing a different, harder, but better path.

So when the news of the day, or the many problems of the world get me down, I think back to Mr. Tushman’s speech. I think about the power that we all, as single individuals, have to make this world a kinder, better place. And I think of the many social change leaders across the country, across the world who are choosing every day to be kinder than is necessary. And that makes me smile.

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