What Does Success Look Like?

Image of a beach with sea foam rising, almost touching a starfish on the sand.

Image from Pixabay.com

Recently, someone asked me an interesting question in relation to the DEIA and Social Justice work that I engage in.  They asked, “What does success look like to you? How will you know when you have arrived?” I answered as best as I could in the moment, but I have been thinking about this ever since and I would like to take this opportunity to answer the question more thoughtfully here.   

At first pass, my higher education training and experience kicks in and I resort to the familiar ground of strategic planning.  As a part of the strategic planning process, I have learned to view success as engagement with the organizational mission to realize (or at least aspire to) the organizational vision.  With that in mind, a thoughtfully and carefully crafted vision statement can be a good articulation of what success looks like. I think this is a fine answer, however…

My instinct and my experience tells me that this is not the reality when the work being considered is social justice work, which is exactly what my friend was asking about.  So I think more deeply. With this reflection, I realize that I have two answers. I can consider social justice success in the short term and in the long term.

In the short term, I recall an old story about a beach full of starfish.  I’ve heard this story in many different contexts and being told in many different ways so it is difficult to know who to give credit to.  To the best of my research, the story has been adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley.  An abbreviated version of the story goes like this;

One morning after a terrible storm, two people find themselves walking along the same stretch of beach.  They both see that the beach is covered with hundreds, even thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore during the storm.  The first person is picking up starfish and tossing them back into the ocean as they walk along. The second person points out that there are so many starfish on the beach that the effort can’t possibly make a difference.  As the first person tossed another starfish back into the ocean, they say “It made a difference for that one”. This is my short term answer to what successful social justice looks like. It makes a difference for one person at a time.  

My long term answer is simply to recognize that social justice work is a journey, not a destination, so the premise of the question cannot apply to this degree.  Long term success of social justice work is seen in continuous improvement. Continuously improving organizational culture and climate, continuously lessening the influence of bias in processes and structures, continuously improving equitable access to resources, continuously enhancing the diversity of voices and perspectives at decision making tables.  As Maya Angelou wrote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better”. As we continue on the journey of social justice work, we strive to know better then do better and we strive to make a difference for one person at a time but there will be no final destination. So, success must be measured by the quality of the journey, not based on a fictitious ending of that journey.