Dance around the edges (of social change)

Decided to transcribe University of Waterloo Larry Smith’s Greenhouse talk ‘So you want to change the world?’ perhaps as a feeble attempt to let his words soak in more, or really think about his words. Did it work? I don’t know. Full transcription here. The following are selected lines.

I hope you are not here for me to tell you that social entrepreneurship is good.
you don’t need me to say that

let us confront some awkward questions.

when I say change the world I don’t mean make a difference

I hope you are making a difference

Change the world implies a degree a scale.

India - polio free let us celebrate it.


2014 polio free - why did it take so long.

Do we celebrate ?

Yes we do.

also to be lamented.

Intellectual dilemma: how much do we celebrate and how much do we lament?

warm feeling of self-righteous congratulations.

what a goofy thing to be anti

I am asking we have a realistic view of this world and its challenges.

Why has it taken so long ?

one saved kid

one saved family.

all of that is true.

How much longer shall it take?

What are the chances we will have “the right policies”?

How much do we celebrate and how much do we lament?

How can we do it faster?

Lets exclude the idiots

Gates makes no reference to - the state of our environment or more precisely climate change.


Don’t look at me : I am going to die and escape this problem

(awkward laughter)

There’s a big difference to what you have done and what you could have done.

I am here to challenge you to maximize your impact.

– asking awkward questions

– not ignoring the big problems

and painfully slowly we vaccinate the children in africa and we don’t ask people the real questions about africa

So what could you do, bill ? [reference to Bill Gates re: Annual 2014 letter]

I like talking to him in person sometimes. he’s hasn’t responded yet though

So bill, wanna help all those children in Africa? fine.

There are at least 12 governments that need to be replaced. they are autocratic, so there’s no moral problem that they are democratic; they are not even slightly democratic; they are incompetent, corrupt, and racist.


[Example of current world event: the result of the violent attacks in Central African Republic is “a Muslim exodus of historic proportions”]

So bill, you really want to do it quickly?
they are the greatest obstacles.

So bill, why don’t you just buy them all off? put them on pension.

and we dance around the edges of contentious problems
and incompetent, grotesquely dangerous governments
but we do not like to speak of that because that is awkward.
lots of awkward difficult issues

not one more restaurant phone app

please not one more

I want to share with you a blog posting from one of my former students [Sheldon Fernandez]

the voracity of his words cannot be challenged

it would be unimaginable for him to exaggerate.

Accompanying us is Melvin, a boy I have taught for the past 6 weeks in the slums of Nairobi … “Be good,” I say to him. “Faith will help you” …“You’re a good brother,” I say to Melvin.

Why have i read that to you?

Am i intending to shamelessly manipulate your emotions?

Why would i read that to you?

I read that to you because that in my mind reflects the urgency of the situation
we face

These extraordinary challenges, these high obstacles

We have to take action

We have to do things faster

We have to do things that may seem contentious

We have to do things that are experimental.

talk about Africa - you know perfectly well we could go to some aboriginal communities where the conditions would not be much different, we could go to some inner city (and find the same thing)

This is not about Africa - this is about the social distress of many communities in many places.

We need to talk about that. we need to challenge those communities

The outsider can’t just come in.

Do you notice: we start getting into dangerous territory

We get near something powerful that may not like our questions whether they are about climate change, or tobacco use, or substance abuse, the list goes on

how will you change the world? and everyone will like you?

not happening not happening not happening in this universe.

We tried the anger, it doesn’t work

We tried the empty slogan-eering, it doesn’t work either.

I don’t mind if you are genuinely angry but you have to focus that into something meaningful, like your brain. you have to think carefully - think how can i do it faster?

Don’t be self-satisfied that you have an idea that works.

So are you ready to ask those awkward questions ?

Am i too self-satisfied?

Am I being as creative as i can?


First ask yourself.

Do i have the courage to challenge the status quo ?

Do I have the courage to challenge conventional wisdom?

Do i have the courage to conduct an experiment?

and live by its results.

Those are the questions you have to ask yourselves L&G

only you can answer them.

I can make no comment about where you find courage

But if you are planning to change the world, really change it – courage is what you need.

Melvin’s waiting to be rescued. This trip took place in 2008. Means Melvin’s 15, assuming he’s still alive. And his youngest brother is 9.

They are waiting;

and millions of other people around the world in at least as difficult circumstances are waiting;

and they can’t wait forever.

so L&G so go really change the world.

Thank you.

Q&A period.


Now read this

Rio+20: Global Conversation without Political Action

Article written for Iron Warrior ; posted July 04, 2012 I cannot disagree with the general consensus that multilateralism has failed and the outcome document from the Rio+20 conference was not binding but rather a political declaration.... Continue →