Working with the Status Quo not Against It

Sooner or later you will have to stop challenging the status quo and start working with it.

Why? Because at best challenging the status quo only pries the door open. Then comes the much more difficult work. Which is walking through the door and sitting down with representatives of the status quo.

By status quo I mean those habits, attitudes, traditions, policies and values that comprise the way things are. The status quo is a codification of the current state of affairs most visible in political, corporate and social institutions.

Even if you change a law, create a new fund or have massive success with a social media campaign the status quo seldom changes. The status quo has the capacity to isolate your innovation, prevent it from going anywhere and round off its sharp edges. If you let it, it also has the capacity to infuse your beliefs and values into popular culture.

Working with the status quo instead of against it requires a change in mindset. Yours in particular. It could mean swallowing your pride and simplifying a complex concept for the sake of making it more accessible. Or using the vernacular, the language of the people. Or skillfully blending the old and the new. Or relying on mainstream cultural vehicles to make your point.

That’s what Leonard Cohen did when he decided to expand beyond the discipline of poetry and become a pop singer. There is no denying that his wisdom reached a broader audience as a result.

That’s what George R.R. Martin is doing in The Game of Thrones by including a significant number of complex major characters who happen to be disabled. He is flipping disability stereotypes on their head.

That’s what former US VP Joe Biden meant when he said that the tv show Will and Grace, “probably did more to educate the American public on LGBTQ issues than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.”

And that’s what the poet Octavio Paz was referring to in this quote from his Nobel Lecture: “Between tradition and modernity, there is a bridge. When they are mutually isolated, tradition stagnates and modernity vaporizes; when in conjunction, modernity breathes life into tradition, while the latter replies with depth and gravity.”

Working with the status quo is not the usual practice of fervent advocates, community organizers and social innovators. Perhaps because it is outside your comfort zone. Or you risk criticism from your peers. However, the status quo is not outside us but within us. Once you recognize that reality you will breathe new life into your advancement of social, economic and environmental justice.


Nothing in the universe ever grew from the outside in. (Richard Wagamese)

Musical selection this post is something old and new – throat singing on the Eiffel Tower. The song they chose is Love Song written and performed by Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merrit, an Inuk-Cape Breton Singer from Rankin Inlet. Purchase her music. And marvel at her ability to modernize traditions.


Artists Aren’t Ahead of Their Times, the Rest of us are Behind

Caring is the Common Ground of Democracy

Artist in Residence

Tender Loving Rage

The Hidden Geniuses Who Always Figure Things Out

Simply Irresistible 

Take a Leap – Take a Bold Leap

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  1. April Doner

    Fantastic post. As someone who got “radicalized” in my teenage years and involved in various activist scenes, I’ve found myself having to unlearn a lot of the “holier than thou” tendencies which often accompany the process of “waking up” to seeing various injustices or patterns or paths for change in our world. I’m learning that exactly what you have explained so well here is either just as or more important than our analytical and impassioned critiques and proposals for new systems or ways of thinking and acting is our capacity for dialogue, deep and reflective listening, and above all respect and an attitude of being able to learn something new from each person (no matter how ignorant, old-school, bigoted, etc. they seem. In neighborhood and community building work, it’s all the more essential…

    Thanks for getting me to ramble! I always enjoy your blogs, they inspire me to write more as well.

    • Al Etmanski

      thanks for your comments April. There is still a vital role for advocacy but at some point I’ve discovered a door has opened. And that walking through will further the issues I have been working on. And yes it’s about dialogue. It’s also about working with cultural vehicles to reach a wider audience. This is outside my experience and expertise but I am willing to learn and engage. I expect to be changed by the experience.

  2. Maureen Fitzgerald PhD

    Yikes. I love your work Ed but I think you mean working WITHIN the status quo. I see two differing and equally important groups. Internals….including Whistle blowers and. Creative types who live in and are supported by the system and Externals who can say things without risking their job. It’s important to NOT suggest that somehow we ALL need to tolerate the status quo when we each have different roles that lead to change. The bra burners made a big difference.

    • Al Etmanski

      thanks for this distinction Maureen. I hadn’t thought about it in the way you suggest. You are right. I don’t think we should tolerate a status quo which impinges on human rights and perpetuates injustice. And yes, we need whistleblowers and resistors and disruptors.
      My point is that after whistleblowing, after tough advocacy etc. there will come an opportunity to work with status quo forces. It’s fraught with both danger and profound opportunity. The opportunity to spread solutions and perspectives and values into the wider culture of society and its institutions. It’s a risk worth taking. I encounter a number of groups who rather than walk through that door reinvent the conflict rather than engage with cultural forces.

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