By Max Klau
Max Klau served as the Vice President of Leadership Development at City Year prior to his current role as Chief Program Officer at New Politics Leadership Academy. His book, released this week, is a culmination of 20 years of work exploring the intersection between leadership, race, and social change.
We sat down with Max to talk about the evolution of his book and what we can learn from social science.
He also writes about his journey and the key takeaways from the book.
Race and Social Change: A Quest, A Study, A Call to Action describes my own personal quest to understand these issues, and explains how that quest led to the discovery of a provocative educational exercise that became the focus of my doctoral studies at Harvard. The exercise presented an opportunity to study the unfolding of a miniature civil rights movement in a replicable, researchable manner. It was a chance to investigate some of the most divisive and controversial matters in American civic life using the tools of empiricism and social science.
As a part of the research, I came across a hierarchical, segregated system of racial privilege and oppression undergoing a process of dramatic change over time. This offered a perspective that is simultaneously expansive and intimate, and allows us to “zoom out” to view an entire social system undergoing a process of change while also “zooming in” to investigate the experiences of individuals immersed in different parts of that system. Here are just a few key findings that emerged from the research:
-Individuals at the top of these systems—those with the most privilege—often had very limited insight into how these systems worked and how they impacted the lives of those of different races.
-At all levels, dynamics of obedience to authority and conformity with peers played a major role in preserving these systems of over time.
-Change in these systems was non-linear, meaning that seemingly minor actions by individual participants could–and often did–trigger dramatic changes in these complex social systems.
-Individuals immersed in these systems told stories to understand their experiences; some of these stories aligned more closely with the truth of what had happened than others.
-The research illuminates an important question: Once the most egregious structures of privilege and oppression have been transformed….what’s next? Once the separate water fountains have been integrated, the norms of segregated existence challenged and overturned, the blindness to the injustices of the system transformed…what needs to happen then?
One clear answer to this question is that there is a need and an opportunity to deliberately, intentionally bring the diverse members of the system together to work strategically to transform enduring structural inequalities that may be less egregious than segregated water fountains but are more entrenched and more complex to address. In other words, this research makes a strong case for national service as an effective way to continue and perhaps even complete the civil rights movement.
It’s something that we have always believed at City Year, and this book supports the idea of national service in new and surprising ways. Equally important, the book reveals an understanding of matters of race and social change that inform City Year’s approach to leadership development in fundamental ways.
It was an honor and a privilege to have City Year Senior Vice President and Dean Charlie Rose contribute the Foreword for this book, and I am grateful for the opportunity to officially launch the book at an event at City Year HQ on April 13th. It is my deepest hope that this work brings some insight and understanding to our nation at this difficult moment, as well as a new appreciation for the power of City Year and national service to effectively bring about the kind of racial understanding, healing, and equality that are necessary to make the American reality match our noble civic ideals.