By Tanya Pietrkowski, Founder of TP Strategies, LLC
Photo of Todd Belcore, Executive Director & Co-Founder of Social Change
As a special note, I conducted this interview in early June 2022. I met Todd Belcore, Executive Director of Social Change, years ago in Chicago while working in legal aid. He has an uncanny ability to connect with people in any community across the country and has a passion for social justice. Social Change is a dynamic nonprofit that works across the country to bring people together, ensures equal rights and builds communities.
It is leaders like Todd Belcore at Social Change that will make shared community improvements possible in this time of strife. For instance, Social Change is conducting a community event in Buffalo, NY, on Saturday, July 16th at Makowski Early Childhood Center from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. with several groups.
This is an abridged version of our conversation. Consider becoming involved and supporting the important work of this organization. Social Change has many components, but the focus on improving lives is the central mission.
How did you start the International Social Change Film Festival? And, what have you learned?
Todd Belcore: “I know what it’s like to be poor. I know what it’s like to live in a house with no electricity, no gas. I know what couch-surfing is like. I even know what it’s like to be in jail. None of that is unique to me; millions of people throughout Illinois have endured similar experiences. But, too often, people–who have never experienced the pain and heartbreak of these realities–don’t put themselves in the shoes of those who have. We started the film festival to do something about that.
At the festival, people come for the revelry, the red carpet, and the influencers. But, while there, people also soak-up stories. Stories that often shake them to their core. Stories that help them not just see and hear, but feel, the pain others are feeling. The vulnerability, the inspiration, and the understanding that comes from being shaken in that way provides the spark necessary to transform apathy into action. The International Social Change Film Festival was formed to both create that spark and to make sure that the spark isn’t wasted by providing opportunities to address the issues showcased in the stories told.
Unfortunately, year after year we continued to see more and more heart-wrenching stories about immigration, criminal justice, housing, health and food insecurity—not less. That’s when we realized that showcasing the stories and leaving it to other organizations to create change wasn’t enough. Social Change needed to do more."
What was your response to needing to do more?
“In 2015, we expanded our work. We found that so many organizations are providing direct services on the front line, but they needed help making long-term systemic changes through legislation. So, we began to use our ability to share stories and advocate to change laws that impact our communities and improve lives. That's why we began expanding our work across the country by partnering with organizations and listening to our community stakeholders.”
What are your core operation pillars?
“Storytelling, action and advocacy. It’s all connected. With the work we did in Springfield (IL) in the criminal justice arena, the St. Louis NAACP asked us to partner with them to address police misconduct. We helped pass a whistleblower law that does just that. We bring people together, regardless of beliefs, and we stay patient. At the end of the day, we are bridge builders.”
How do you create the visionary change you seek?
“As an organization, we create the world we want to see internally, so that we can go into every community and serve. To be a credible messenger, you need historical knowledge. We are in Buffalo, NY right now talking with educators, community leaders, religious leaders and politicians to get the lay of the land. We become informed, stay humble and prepare to help the community heal.”
How did you become involved with Buffalo, NY?
“It was through word of mouth actually, based on our work in Baton Rouge, LA, in the areas of food insecurity and violence. Through positivity, we have been embraced and that is how we bring people together. We are using the blueprint of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin and Bob Moses. When you see pain, you use a common moral mandate to make positive change.”
How do people, like funders, respond to your work?
“In some cases, we have been told that we are too ambitious. But, we get things done. It would be great for the granting community to gain a better understanding of what we are doing and how we approach community problems and implement change. It may seem like we cover a lot of different issues, but in fact, they are all connected.
We also invite people to volunteer. We are excited to learn from people. We’ve had policeman join us and All Lives Matter volunteers and they have increased their compassion for other views as a result. The issues at hand today may be daunting, but you can create change. Good work is about execution, beyond ideas on paper.
We’d like to see more funders have conversations with us and to go on the journey. There is a crisis of imagination because people are too far removed from the community problems they are hearing about. That’s where storytelling is so important.”
Where did you get this empathetic ability to organize and lead?
“That’s just Church! Mom is a minister. You see yourself in a story and it gives you stamina to help and empathize with others.”
How hard is it to lead in these times?
“People have so many distractions and 24/7 stimulus. The ability to sit still is diminished. But, direct organizing work is so important and requires real shepherding of people. For instance, we have been going door-to-door to neighbors with the CDC and talking with them about why we have chosen to get vaccinated, instead of talking down to them. You have to invest in each person.”
How did you enter this calling?
“As a kid, I had friends of different backgrounds and they would periodically ask me to resolve disputes. In college, I entered as a pre-med chemistry major, but I got excited about an affirmative action legal case that created visceral reactions. I ended up going to law school.
I have learned to build space for different viewpoints and to build relationships. This polarization of scorching the earth, rather than finding compromise doesn’t work.“
How do you feel about being an activist during these times?
“I feel like the country is more polarized now than any point during my lifetime. It was not always considered a sin to work with people with different ideologies. That is a real shame and makes the work more dangerous. We give space to listen to people, even with views we disagree with, as a way to create incremental change. By understanding the climate, you can lead with love.”