Those of us who have been involved in the justice movement for the past few decades understand all too well the meaning of “staying the course.” I know that we all have endured a year like no other. We may still find ourselves taking stock of what we’ve done over the past several months and what we still need to do, as we look toward the year ahead. With this election past us, we see change in the leadership of the nation, including electing the first Black/Indian woman as Vice-President; and here in Los Angeles County, we have passed Measure J. While these are certainly key victories that should be celebrated, the pandemic is still surging. It’s important that the killings of George Floyd and too many other Black Americans that were such an important focus of attention in the summer are not forgotten, and that we don’t lose sight of the critical need to address racial equality and criminal justice reform.

Yes, we have started this year with a lot of great changes. Now, when it comes to generating change, there are two types of people: those who stay the course and those who don’t! At a simple level, you could say that any change initiative goes through three key steps. You could call them different things, but in essence, they are: Creation, Execution, and Breakthrough.

The first step – Creation – is the easiest and most fun. It’s about imagining a better future state, creating new possibilities, and committing to them. It is about setting the course. If you do it right, you will emerge from this step feeling highly optimistic, energized, hopeful, and eager to achieve a better future. Optimism causes people to feel empowered, bold, and invincible. That’s the stage we have just emerged from in this County and Country. Here in LA County, we now have a mechanism in place through Measure J to fund our Alternatives to Incarceration Initiatives. We also have a bold DA that is attempting to put in place sweeping criminal justice reforms.

The second step – Execution – is the toughest step of any change, both physically and mentally. This is the step we now find ourselves in. st step of any change, both physically and mentally. This is the step we now find ourselves in. The second step – Execution – is the toughest step of any change, both physically and mentally. This is the step we now find ourselves in. In fact, most people and movements fail the test of this step. In more cases than not, it’s because their dreams, and aspirations are abandoned, and change altogether. Step two requires hard physical work. It is the epitome of building the airplane while flying it. You have to start projects in new and untested areas, do things differently, challenge existing thinking, approaches, and systems, and get the skeptical and cynical people on board. All this, while continuing to do the daily work you did before.

Step two requires a tremendous balancing act. You cannot be doubled minded or divided as a team or group. However, the toughest thing is that it requires great faith (that often feels blind) – faith that demands a bold future, new and untested strategies, and within your ability to achieve them. It would be an understatement to describe the experience of step two as pushing a rock up a steep hill.

I have found that a lot of people love the thrill of a new idea, fad, or beginning, especially when it helps them to engage and motivate around a new purpose.  As long as their effort continues to progress with even mild success, and people continue to feel good about the process and engage in its activities, people stay engaged, and they continue to invest their own commitment, energy, time, and resources in the process.

However, the minute things get tough or messy, instead of doubling down and leveraging challenges as opportunities to accelerate change, most people quickly become skeptical, lose their commitment, energy and resolve, and eventually they simply get distracted by other activities, lose interest, disengage and move on to the next new shiny thing.

It is easier to stay engaged and focused at the beginning of significant change initiatives when everyone is at the initial excitement stage. There is increased goodwill all around, and people tend to be on their best behavior in areas such as trust, teamwork, and collaboration.

However, if you take on any Big Hairy Audacious Goal, it is inevitable that at some point in the process, you will have to confront your barriers to change. Marathon runners describe this as hitting the wall. It’s the moment, about halfway through the run, when overwhelming fatigue kicks in and you feel like you may not have what it takes to finish the race. It’s a devastating and discouraging feeling. If you buy into this, it can really hurt your performance. However, if you anticipate this phenomenon, you can be ready for it and get through the tough patches with minimal distractions in focus, commitment, and effectiveness.

It is the same with any change initiative, like Measure J!

The wall often manifests as people feel overwhelmed with keeping up with their existing jobs while pursuing future work, initiatives taking too much time and energy to launch or demonstrate results, and people beginning to disengage because of growing frustrations, skepticism, and doubt. The ones who trust themselves, their vision, and their process push forward and stay the course, no matter what. They are the ones who move on to step three – Breakthrough – and achieve extraordinary results.

Unfortunately, most people are not good at staying the course. Many simply don’t know how to stay focused when they don’t know what to do next. They tend to stall, stop, and eventually give up. Others can’t tolerate things getting worse – before they get better – so they react badly to chaos, messy situations, and unpredicted challenges, which are inevitable in any worthwhile change. This what we must resist. We cannot attack each other, get frustrated with the process or make it personal. We have to stay focused on the prize, if we are to win.

Most people fighting for initiatives fall short or outright fail to achieve their intended change outcomes, not because they are incapable or because they go all-out and fail, but rather because they don’t stay the course; they give up at the most critical time in the process.
And, to add insult to injury, most people don’t take responsibility for their shortcomings. They don’t admit: “We just didn’t stay the course!” Instead, they tend to justify their failure with excuses like: “There is too much going on,” “The change initiative is interfering with our core business or results,” and “People are no longer on-board.”

The cost of not staying the course is not much higher than failing to achieve higher levels of performance and results. It is in the overt and covert sentiments of cynicism and resignation that come in the aftermath of defeat. To any person that wants to generate change in his/her community, I suggest: Staying the course no-matter-what or don’t start at all!