Incrementalism: Are We There Yet?

When thinking about big change, we usually focus on the result—the law that passed, the game that was won, the perfected invention that dramatically changed our lives. It’s the same with activism. We celebrate these successes, but we sometimes forget the persistence and time it took to get there.

Overnight success is an almost irresistible fantasy, but real change—the kind of change that sticks— happens in baby steps. In the case of the Renaissance, it took almost three centuries. For the Civil Rights Movement, it took decades (and some might say we’re still inching forward on that one.) We often romanticize the marches, the protests, and the celebrations when the fight is over, but if you ask the folks who spent months mailing daily postcards or waking up at 5am to picket in front of a senator’s office, activism’s not that sexy when you’re in it.

Fighting for progress means playing the long game. It means you have to squint your eyes to see success for way too long before you claim victory. It’s not a marathon, it’s not even a sprint. It’s a relay race that can go for lifetimes.And we’re here to tell you it’s worth it.

But how do we know we’re on the right track? If we can’t see success, how do we know that we aren’t blindly moving forward, pushing and struggling for naught? How do we find the motivation to keep going when it feels like we take 5 steps backward for every step forward? How do we fight our selfish desires to start something new of our own accord when maybe our time is better spent supporting someone else’s incremental progress? Where’s the baton, and how can we carry it forward?

This is the story of incrementalism. We explore these questions by digging into big movements over time and reflecting on how small steps led the way to our biggest, boldest leaps forward.

Want to see incrementalism in real life? Take a trip to the art museum.

You don’t have to know much about art to see the progression of skill back in the 1400s to 1600s that would change life in Europe (and around the world) forever. Despite dealing with everything from the plague to multiple wars, Italian folks saw art making as such an essential part of life that they continued to support, elevate, and push each painter and sculptor beyond the standard set by the one before. Giotto painted frescoes that inspired Donatello, whose techniques informed Michelangelo almost 100 years later. Decade after decade of hard work and training led to new innovations in techniques and tools that gave birth to the ultra-smooth realism the period is known for.

Few of us were around to see the outrage Elvis Presley invoked with a few thrusts of his hips or the parents who banned The Beatles’ albums from their homes. The evolution and acceptance of rock & roll was a hard-fought battle across the world, and it took generations to get to a place where MTV, Michael Jackson, Queen and Nirvana could make it in mainstream culture. We’re grateful now for the artists who played, wrote and sang from the 50’s through the 90’s to build a rock & roll counterculture and transform it into a well-respected genre, but we must recognize that it didn’t happen overnight, and it was no easy feat. Their goals weren’t to change the world or start a revolution—they just wanted to express themselves in ways that resonated with the rest of us and made us feel less alone. But they accomplished so much more because they were willing to make their own marks on the music industry—one guitar lick at a time."

Civil Rights: the mountain we still climb

The Civil Rights movement gave us an opportunity and a platform to start activating around equal rights in America, but what now feels like one or two big turning-point events actually looked more like a 3-decade long struggle, and that struggle was real. People were arrested for protesting. Hundreds of women gathered in churches and kitchens to write thousands of letters. Bus routes were organized. Events and non-violent protests were planned meticulously. Permits were hard-won. Drawn-out court cases were prepped for and heard under the intense division and scrutiny of the nation. The armed forces were desegregated in 1948, but it took 6 years and a Supreme Court case to get public schools to do the same. Even then, notable school-related segregation cases were still happening well into the 1960’s and 70’s. Imagine what it felt like to be an activist then—to protest, to take time away from work and family and life, to show up for sit-ins and write letters to representatives—and having to wait decades to see the change you’ve been fighting for. Some did it for their own safety and identity, some did it out of optimism and hope, and some did it because it was simply the right thing to do. It was dangerous, and hard, and painfully slow, but it was worth it. Like all other issues of equality, we are still fighting for this one. 

If all of this talk of incrementalism seems daunting, take a deep breath. The good news is it’s not all on you (or any one of us) to make change happen. It’s up to all of us to take the baby steps we can, with each and every opportunity we get, to inch forward on our goals.

We don’t crash into evil and defeat it overnight. We chip away at it every day by treating each other with kindness, showing up for each other’s causes, and standing up to hate in our own little ways. It might not feel like it now, but every postcard matters. Every march matters. Every act of kindness matters, and so does every hard conversation with a family member or stranger at a party. So stop keeping score, start where you can, take the baton, and keep going.

The Black Sheep