What Change Looks Like

Topos Partnership
6 min readJun 15, 2020


Adding solutions to the protest narrative

credit: Reclaim the Block

This time the momentum feels real and change seems possible. For the uprising to result in significant change, it is critical that the narrative continue the conversation on the breadth and depth of the problem, while adding concrete solutions.

Sadly, the murder of George Floyd was not unique — it is part of a long history of unequal, often brutal or deadly treatment of black people by law enforcement in the United States.

What is unique about the current moment is that the country is listening — listening to the pain and anger of people whose stories have been ignored for too long — and listening for solutions, and possibilities for positive change. The horror, anger and injustice of multiple killings of innocent black people in quick succession has gotten public attention and increased public understanding of the racism and brutality of policing in America, and the depth of racism throughout our society. Now, many who had paid little attention before are hungry to learn what to do about it.

We are seeing a genuine conversation about the breadth and depth of racism in American society, and those who had been dismissive or ignorant of systemic racism, are beginning to understand. Multi-racial crowds of protesters are demanding, and winning change.

2020 can be remembered as the year we took a meaningful step forward toward racial justice — especially if communicators are ready to talk about both the sweeping scope of the issues, as well as inspire a vision for the future.

Discussing the vision also helps people better understand the problem. Our research consistently demonstrates that when we provide a specific vision that incorporates concrete solutions, public support intensifies and people become clearer about the important role of systems and structures in shaping how our society operates.

What happens if we don’t incorporate a vision and specific solutions? A narrow, individual narrative (police as “bad apples,” protesters and police locked in struggle, etc.), will obscure the systemic challenges, limiting the actual wins. The right wing media is already characterizing the protesters’ demand as “abolishing all police departments” which belittles and dismisses the issue agenda as foolish and unrealistic.

Sympathetic Americans are listening and are truly curious about what to do. We have an opportunity to win their support in demanding lasting, significant change.

Incorporating Solutions

Some communicators are already providing great leadership in communicating this balance.

Danielle Allen offers a vision for a new social compact:

We seek reforms to policing. Congress is taking action. But something even deeper, more foundational needs repair. We need a new social compact….

The massive, multiracial coalitions that have taken to the streets to raise their voices against police brutality are replenishing springs of solidarity, nourishing the roots of a future social compact that we must now all get on with the business of making. We will do that most effectively with a common purpose in mind.

A common purpose is not some airy-fairy thing. It is a practical tool that allows people to achieve something together. It is a map marked with a destination, a guide that permits collaborative navigation. A common purpose is perhaps the most powerful tool in the democratic tool kit, particularly in a crisis, because it can yield the solidarity that induces people to do hard things voluntarily rather than through authoritarian compulsion. “We seek reforms to policing. But something even deeper needs repair.” By Danielle Allen, Washington Post, June 11, 2020

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor provides a deep, insightful analysis of history and wide-ranging barriers to reform, and makes a powerful case for redeploying resources:

Police continue to absorb absurd portions of local operating budgets — even in departments that are sources of embarrassment and abuse lawsuits. In Los Angeles, with its homelessness crisis and out-of-control rents, the police absorb an astounding fifty-three percent of the city’s general fund. Chicago, a city with a notoriously corrupt and abusive police force, spent thirty-nine percent of its budget on police. Philadelphia’s operating budget needed to be recalibrated because of the collapse of tax collections due to the coronavirus pandemic; the only agency that will not suffer any budget cuts is the police department. While public schools, affordable housing, violence-prevention programming, and the police-oversight board prepare for three hundred and seventy million dollars in budget cuts, the Philadelphia Police Department, which already garners sixteen percent of the city’s funds, is slated to receive a twenty-three-million-dollar increase….

We cannot insist on “real change” in the United States by continuing to use the same methods, arguments, and failed political strategies that have brought us to this moment. We cannot allow the current momentum to be stalled by a narrow discussion about reforming the police. How do we change America” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, The New Yorker, June 8, 2020

Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris make the vision concrete, with specific examples of how communities will be strengthened by relying on teams other than police, and incorporate examples of where this is already happening:

The solution to ending police violence and cultivating a safer country lies in reducing the power of the police and their contact with the public. We can do that by reinvesting the $100 billion spent on policing nationwide in alternative emergency response programs, as protesters in Minneapolis have called for. City, state and federal grants can also fund these programs.

Municipalities can begin by changing policies or statutes so police officers never respond to certain kinds of emergencies, including ones that involve substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness or mental health. Instead, health care workers or emergency response teams would handle these incidents. So if someone calls 911 to report a drug overdose, health care teams rush to the scene; the police wouldn’t get involved. If a person calls 911 to complain about people who are homeless, rapid response social workers would provide them with housing support and other resources. Conflict interrupters and restorative justice teams could mediate situations where no one’s safety is being threatened. Community organizers, rather than police officers, would help manage responses to the pandemic. Ideally, people would have the option to call a different number — say 727 — to access various trained response teams.

The good news is, this is already happening. “No More Money for the Police,” by Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris, NY Times, May 30, 3030

How to change is a far more engaging conversation than whether to change.

Building on Wins

And as we work to effect change, it is also essential to lift up successes, to remind audiences of their power and that change is possible. To stay motivated, it is important to share the movement’s wins, large and small.

For those who are less knowledgeable about what “defunding the police” means, examples like Camden NJ — where the force was completely dismantled and rebuilt — are critically helpful. After telling the story of change and the redirection of resources, Tod Perry concludes:

Overall, this new approach to community building and policing has had a tremendously positive impact on the city. Data shows that over the past seven years, violent crimes have dropped 42% in the city, and the crime rate has dropped from 79 per 1,000 to 44 per 1,000. “America’s ‘most dangerous city’ defunded its police department 7 years ago. It’s been a stunning success.” By Tod Perry, Upworthy, June 10, 2020

Even “small” wins can keep people motivated. For example, Black Lives Seattle shared “today’s wins.”


Every day there are more stories of wins that can keep people inspired and motivated, as the country works towards aspirational reforms going far beyond policing.



Topos Partnership

Founded in 2007, our mission is to explore the landscape of public understanding where social issues play out.