What does it take to be a ‘changemaker’?

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Hon. Henry De Sio, Jr., former presidential campaign chief operating officer of Barack Obama and global chair for framework change of Ashoka, the largest network of social innovators in the world, talks about changemaking and playing in the ‘new game.’ Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — During the presidential campaign of 2008, Barack Obama, between cheers and roars, gave a speech in front of a crowd in Chicago on Super Tuesday, the presidential primary elections in February, with a message that was clear and simple: “We are the change we seek.”

Obama, known to be a fierce orator (what with his baritone voice and command on stage), can hit phrases like “Yes, we can!” with an accuracy akin to a jazz pianist hitting a chord. Obama’s philosophy of ‘change’ that we heard throughout his administration, and even during his last speech as U.S. president (“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”), was more than words from sheets of paper.

In an interview with CNN Philippines Life, Hon. Henry De Sio, Jr., the former chief operating officer during Obama’s campaign, says that the whole machinery of the campaign thrived because everyone in the organization stepped into their bigness. While the campaign did start with the management following the hierarchical, repetitive system where one leads, and everyone else follows, they’ve seen that this didn’t suit a new, shifting environment that was taking place in America.  

“We had to open up and let everyone in the organization lead. We then shifted from one leader at a time to everyone a leader,” he says. “In that discovery, what I realized is that, in this environment where people have agency, they have tools to act on their agency and there's this democratization of leadership, the changemaker effect really is an axiom.”

De Sio discovered that people formed teams to tackle a challenge or pursue new opportunities. It wasn’t about their functional labels; it was about their capacities, talents, and passions.

 

As the campaign unfurled with this new system, he discovered that people formed teams to tackle a challenge or pursue new opportunities. It wasn’t about their functional labels; it was about their capacities, talents, and passions. People were encouraged to collaborate with each other, no matter how different their functions may seem on the surface.

When De Sio left the White House, he saw that the world looked a lot like his Obama 2.0 than his Obama 1.0. He saw that the changemaker effect was in play in the world; that it wasn’t just a campaign discovery.

“[There] are basically citizen impact leaders; citizens who make change in their own way. What I've found is that the same principles [of the Obama campaign] apply for them,” he says. De Sio has also found these in the social entrepreneurs he works with in Ashoka, the largest network of social innovators across the globe, where he is currently chair of framework change.

“[These people] tear down walls, bring two sides together that wouldn't otherwise connect, and that's when innovation happens. And we're seeing that now happening in our society all the time,” he adds.

The changemakers, he says, are the ones who can see this ‘new game,’ the shifting environment that they have seen during the campaign, and one that he continuously sees up to now. The world has already experienced the age of repetition (industrialism, the assembly line), and now the world is seeing and will keep seeing an age of rising individual agency (a world where a person can self-publish a book or use YouTube to be broadcaster).

IMG_3653.JPG When Henry De Sio, Jr. left the White House, he saw that the changemaker effect was in play in the world; that it wasn’t just a campaign discovery. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Changemakers, he adds, are those with an innovative mind, service heart, entrepreneurial spirit, and collaborative outlook. He found this in the American electorate in 2007 and 2008, and he still witnesses this in various people across the globe, whether in a class of second graders in Spain or a group of social entrepreneurs here in Manila.

In the Philippines, we’ve heard of various community organizers who have used their own resources to better their respective situations: anarchists giving out free food, thespians using the stage as protest, young Filipinos using technology for social good, campaigners empowering typhoon victims through photography workshops.

With the rise of technology coupled with people’s initiatives to bring about change, De Sio is certain that people today are more active in the realm of civic action. “We got the tools that help us act on our agency and we have the democratization of leadership,” he says.

However, when talking about democratization of leadership, it may seem challenging given the context of the Philippines, a country that is led by President Duterte, who has been described to be a strongman, a trait that may be hard to associate with a ‘democratized leadership.’ Sio says that the world of changemaking is hard to correlate with politics. “Our politics just don't reflect that, I think, right now,” he says.

“Let's play for the new game. It's exciting and it's gonna be better for the world.”

What he does want to focus on is how changemakers, the ones who want to create an impact within their communities, can be supported. He has observed that changemakers throughout history — Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, for instance — have mastered empathy in an early age.

He also says that approaches to changemaking are done in the people’s respective contexts. “How my children learn and master empathy might be different from how a child might learn and master empathy here in Manila, or in a different neighborhood from where we are. But the question is: Are adults actually focused on how to help that young person build that empathy muscle?”

De Sio says that, across the globe, there are many people who want to be changemakers but are held back by institutions built for repetition. The old rules do not work in the new game that is happening, and so he believes that business leaders, parents, teachers, civic society actors, students, private and public individuals should be in on this new game.

“Let's play for the new game. It's exciting and it's gonna be better for the world.”