• Matteo De Vos

The Changemaker label makes me cringe

Trying to ‘become’ a change-maker misses the point. Instead, we should focus on nurturing and building environments, spaces and places in which 'change-making' can take place between individuals. Rather than trying to claim ownership of the term or assign the term as a label to select individuals, let's study and learn from the exchanges between individuals; that is what ultimately creates lasting and meaningful change.

Me me me me me!

The Changemaker term is as idealised as it is paralysing. No one should still be under any illusion that the challenges we face are systemic; they are global in nature and unsolvable by any one individual alone. Yet we continue to focus overwhelmingly on individuals; idolising a select few that have, against all odds, changed the world

We all love a good hero.

Heroes can undoubtedly inspire millions to make positive changes. But by labelling oneself — or others — as 'changemakers', we are too often shifting collective responsibility on to the shoulders of a select few. Naturally, we can't all be Changemakers; that would make the term redundant. Our focus on individuals puts the onus and emphasis on me or you — rather than the more collective we — to be the driving force for change. That's a lot of responsibility.

Have you ever heard of Michele Besso? Neither had I. He was a Swiss/Italian Engineer. He was also someone who Albert Einstein once called 'the best sounding board in Europe'. He also introduced Einstein to the works of Ernst Mach, which greatly influenced Einstein's theory of relativity. 

How about Bayard Rustin? No idea? Bayard was the chief strategist of the 1963 march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. An openly gay man (in the 1960s!), he was instrumental in convincing King to adopt pacifism and non-violence as the official strategy of the civil rights movement. 

Winnie Mandela? The name gives it away, but former late wife of Nelson Mandela was vital in the anti-Apartheid movement. Acting as Nelson's public representative during his 27-year imprisonment, Winnie was at times herself subjected to imprisonment and torture. The presence of phenomenal women behind famous men is of course endless: Coretta Scott King, Jackie Kennedy, Alma Hitchcock, Kasturba Gandhi, Fatima Jinnah, Sofia Tolstoy, Margaret Douglas (Adam Smith's mother!), etc. 

My point here isn't to undermine the achievements of popular historical figures, or to suggest that their achievements can be explained if only by extending further credit to a restricted list of unsung heroes working behind-the-scenes. I'm actually more fascinated by the undocumented, unheard conversations, inter-relationships and bonds formed by millions of individuals working side-by-side toward the common goals spearheaded by these popular figures. 


We need terms that focus on the interactions and relationships between people. We should nurture and encourage environments. Let us highlight the moments in time and space where individuals come together and spark meaningful and lasting change.

Let's strive for those moments of change-making or 'happenings' where conversations and ideas spark into a collective energy and drive. 

Doing so can also help manage expectations, avoid burnout, and help us accept inevitable setbacks and disappointments. The pace of change can differ between contexts and fluctuate over time. In other words, change-making is about embracing patience and nurturing perseverance. Old habits die hard. Persuasion is an art. Motivation ebbs and flows.

Being a changemaker to many sounds heroic and romantic. To me, it sounds lonely, daunting and exhausting.

Being humble about what you can personally realistically achieve over a given space of time may sound pessimistic and defeatist. But it doesn’t have to be. Learning to trust yourself and your abilities builds the strength and resilience to endure the inevitable internal doubts and likely external social pressures you will face.


The romantic notions we’ve constructed of ‘one man/woman against all’, David versus Goliath, swimming against the tide, are illusions. Systemic change only really happens when tipping points are reached; when enough of us, the collective we, are on board. 

Reaching those tipping points requires deep conversation and interpersonal reflection, political organising, and embracing and leveraging the social bonds we form along the way. 

This is what it means to be human. 

This is what it takes to bring about meaningful, lasting, concrete change.