As a community-driven think tank, our mission is to center the individuals and groups most affected by sociopolitical change and use their recommendations for structural overhaul as the basis of organizational and policy change.
Instead of allowing change to be dictated through a top-down approach, often from the very people in power benefitting the most from existing inequities, our work focuses on implementing new ideas that pull at the roots of systemic issues.
We believe that a radically different future requires unconventional ideas that haven't been tested before. We embrace this uncertainty and discomfort because we know that more iterations of the status quo simply cannot set us free.
Theory of Change
The all-affected principle guides much of how we approach creating new systems-based change. Quite simply, it is the idea that all those affected by a collective decision should be included in the decision, proportionate to how much they will be affected. This is a foundational principle of democracy, and dates back to at least the Roman age; you can read more about it here.
After using the all-affected principle to understand what change is necessary, our theory for sustainably implementing these community-based recommendations is that change happens one conversation, one person, one relationship at a time. This is why social change feels so excruciatingly slow — it is predicated on people learning and adjusting their worldview through individual interactions over time. However, widespread change doesn't require total adoption; according to Professor Damon Centola, large-scale change begins to happen when there is a committed minority of 25% of the total population.
At Studio ATAO, we approach this theoretical 25% framework in three distinct ways:
1. For our community initiatives, we curate small-group spaces where individuals can thoroughly grapple with the complexities of social change. We know that people's perspectives do not change overnight, and that cultivating real commitment to and acceptance of different points of view cannot be done en masse or via moral lecturing. Instead, we emphasize leading with vulnerability in order to form thoughtful interpersonal connections that encourage individuals to learn from one another and to refer to these new perspectives when engaging with the world.
2. For our community think tank, we synthesize recommendations for change from those most affected (and often with the least structural power) and champion their ideas to major stakeholders in order to implement new change initiatives from the ground-up. Read our case study on how we applied this framework to advocate for equitable representation in food media, and more about the specifics of this process below.
3. Our free resources library offers tools and information to learn about social justice and how it is interwoven in our daily lives. This provides the foundation for us to recognize and reflect on how systems of power intersect in our society. We believe that we need to develop the vocabulary to fully and thoroughly name our oppression in order to fight against it; Philosopher Paulo Friere called this process developing critical consciousness. As he writes:
"In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform. This perception is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for liberation; it must become the motivating force for liberating action."
- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Think Tank Process
Phase 1: Research
We start with an internal deep-dive on a topic to understand how we can build upon the existing body of work and analysis on a subject matter. Our goal is to learn where we are best able to add to the industry by championing the needs of those who have historically been ignored or silenced by those in power.
Phase 2: Interviews
The core of our ethos is to center those directly impacted by organizational and policy changes. We invest time to find individuals that come from outside the typical circles and to build genuine relationships with them and their community. We spend countless hours in small-group discussions (our Experimental Salons) and 1:1 conversations to understand the unique experiences of each person and what they recommend for industry-wide change.
Phase 3: Synthesize into Resources
After a first set of Experimental Salons, interviews, and brainstorming workshops, we synthesize the insights from the community into custom toolkits with specific, actionable recommendations. Read our Toolkit for Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenization in Food Media that was built from this framework.
Phase 4: Iterations, Events, Updates
We see all of our resources as living pieces of work to be regularly updated. We continually refine the content of our toolkits with feedback, new or updated examples, and commentary from events such as public Town Hall forums and panel discussions. Watch our Tokenization in Food Media panel event.
Phase 5: Accountability Groups
We recognize that implementation of change takes time and rarely follows the planned or expected course. We work with our main stakeholders across different organizations to create a roadmap of regular meetings where best practices can be shared and the group can collectively brainstorm solutions to common challenges. These group updates also build a system of accountability as each organization develops new initiatives based on the community's recommendations.
Phase 6: Industry White Papers
We see white papers as a tool to present long-term research in a structured way. Our white papers follow the observed change processes at various organizations and policy centers and offer examples of real-life implementation learnings, successes, and challenges, as well as action plans that other industry members can use and implement immediately. Our goal is to break down what exactly needs to occur so other industry members can use and implement these steps immediately. Read our current white papers in the Resources Library.
Acknowledgement of Limitations and Privileges
It is a privilege to be able to do the work we do, and we want to acknowledge the limitations of our process:
We conduct our Salons via Zoom, which requires high-speed internet and is not as accessible as it should be for those with visual and/or auditory disabilities. Whenever possible, we offer accessible features such as closed captions, but realize that certain community members may still find it difficult to join our sessions.
Our interviewing, writing, and editing team is small (typically fewer than 5 individuals for each resource). While our team is generally 100% BIPOC, we know that we cannot fully understand the complete scope of identities and experiences that are impacted by the topics our toolkits address. Even with diligent research and efforts to reach beyond our own networks, we recognize our resources can never be fully comprehensive. We hope that with continued public events like town halls, we will be able to capture more points of view for inclusion in these resources.
We are a third-party think tank without formal authority over the organizations and policy centers we engage with for the Implementation portion of our framework. While we commit to making this process as frictionless and rewarding as possible for our partners, we recognize the limits of our ability to hold these organizations fully accountable for changing in line with the community’s recommendations.
Support our work
We prefer to spend our time interfacing with the community and creating resources for all instead of fundraising. If you also believe in our approach to change, we kindly ask you to consider supporting us by becoming a monthly patron or with a one-time donation. We thank you for your generosity! All contributions are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.
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