Making Our Humanity Visible and Our Voices Heard: How Individuals Drive Systemic Change Every Day

Jul 21, 2020

In this three-part blog series, Natalye Paquin, Points of Light’s president & CEO, explores how the impacts of a global pandemic and social unrest bring to light the vulnerabilities in our society, and how we can take action to make change. This is the third blog in the series; read the first blog and second blog.

This Friday was scheduled to be the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games – Tokyo 2020. Many of us would have gathered around our screens with friends and family to watch the opening and closing ceremonies. At Points of Light, we would have been elevating the work of our Global Network affiliate Hands On Tokyo, and sending a congratulatory note to Mrs. Abe, First Lady of Tokyo, who is a strong advocate for volunteerism.

Together, we would have celebrated the awe of the moment. The parade and pageantry of athletes from all over the world, carrying the flags of their countries, with bright smiles, and exuberance of being there. The lighting of a torch in celebration of humanity united with a single purpose.

The Olympics provide an opportunity for the world to shine a light on our collective will to come together and celebrate what we deem good.

But when Tokyo won the Olympic 2020 bid back in 2013, no one could have imagined a year like this. A global pandemic, a volatile stock market, record unemployment and social unrest in the United States and countries around the world. Instead of turning our attention to world class sports, now a stadium-like spotlight is shining on the disparities and inequities in our society. A light so bright, that you can’t help but be awakened and recognize what you see. Our challenges are exposed and on full display.

But so are our opportunities.

Everywhere we look, there are articles, blogs, statements, pledges, and resolutions committing to root out and eliminate systemic racism where ever it stands. Around the United States, we are questioning whether and how to redesign systems of healthcare, education, housing, policing and the judicial system, hiring and promotions in the workplace, and systems that negatively impact our environment or contribute to poverty – this is just the beginning.

Focusing on eliminating systemic inequities is tough work. To some, the aspiration feels daunting.

And the systemic problems we seek to address won’t go away with a statement or pledge, unless met with action. Systems are not created with a snap of a finger. They’re created by people. One decision and collective action over time.

Knowingly or unknowingly, individuals host biases. These biases, which may be viewed as preferences, can become prejudices that lead to decisions that have a ripple effect toward systemic injustice.

We often look to institutions to lead. And there is need and a place for institutional leadership. Indeed, there are many examples of pressure placed on one sector by another that catalyzes action. However, we must examine our own individual biases first, and seek change where needed.

Let’s remember that nonprofits, corporations, small businesses, government, faith-based organizations, advocacy groups, neighborhood community groups, and others are simply collections of people. Groups of individuals, making decisions that impact or influence policy and systems every day.

At Points of Light, we believe in the power of people, that every action matters, and that no act is too small. To solve our greatest challenges and build a more just and equitable future we must engage a wide range of people in small decisions every day, that lead to collective action.

The year 2020 may be different from what we planned or expected, but it still holds promise for us every day.

Perhaps there is a lesson from the Olympic athletes who would have been competing over the next two weeks. We, as a collective group, have our own opportunity to break barriers and change history. There’s another story to write. It’s of the power of people, working together, toward the collective good, and like the Olympics, one that remembers and celebrates our shared humanity.

Natalye Paquin, President & CEO, Points of Light

Natalye Paquin was the president and chief executive officer of Points of Light from 2017–2022. She is a visionary and results-oriented leader, with more than 20 years of experience providing strategic, operations and fiscal leadership in the nonprofit and public sectors.

Natalye Paquin