Problematizing the Social Change Model of Leadership Development

The Social Change Model of Leadership Development (SCM) maintains centrality in the work of Student Affairs Professionals, Leadership Educators, and involved college students across the country. We see this model often lauded as the core value of various different leadership programs, the theoretical foundation of leadership offices, and even see courses taught on this subject.

So, what exactly is the Social Change Model?


The Social Change Model of Leadership Development acts as an attempt to reframe the developmental experiences college students are having into three different domains (individual, group, and community) and the seven values associated within the domains that work in tandem to create positive social change (Wagner, 2006).

From a 30,000 foot view, this model highlights and speaks to most wishes of all leadership educators—to help college students create positive change in their communities. However, when we begin to complicate some of the inherent values associated with this model and apply a critical framework, we must begin to ask ourselves, what audience was this written for, does this model actually highlight ways to create change for students of color, and in what ways does this model promulgate hegemonic whiteness?

In my efforts to challenge The Social Change Model in this blog, I hope to illustrate a few ways in which pieces of this model are problematic.

Collaboration…. but, don’t we already do that?

One aspect of the Social Change Model is for students to engage in collaboration. 

Astin (1996) posits that embedded into the group process is the idea that as diverse viewpoints converge, college students (or group members) are able to find unique solutions to problems. This emphasis on group formation and group outcomes has a direct impact on the creation of social change. Where I push back on this idea, is not the fact that collaboration isn’t important; however, is in the idea that collaboration isn’t inherently built into the genealogy of people of color in the United States.

When we examine the cultural orientations of different ethnic groups in the United States, it is understood that among minoritized groups, collectivist paradigms prevail (Coon and Kemmelmeier, 2001). They articulate in “individualist cultures, independent self-construals are more prevalent, leading individuals to emphasize their personal identity as autonomous actors. Conversely, collectivism is associated with interdependent self-construals; that is, people identify themselves as embedded in groups and relationships rather than as separate from others” (p. 349).

When we discuss the need to “collaborate” as a part of the process of creating social change, the originators of the Social Change Model of Leadership Development make vast assumptions that students of color don’t already recognize the importance of group relationships as opposed to white students who focus more often on the individual and the self. The need for students of color to “collaborate” or build community with other students of color is done out of necessity to navigate within the constraints of the oppressive nature of institutions of higher education. Building community is not a result of wanting to create change for students of color; it’s simply a survival tactic.

Controversy with Civility and Respectability Politics 

Another aspect of group values is the need for students to practice controversy with civility. Komives and Wagner (2009) argue that conflict and controversy should be distinguishable; whereas controversy maintains the idea that everyone should be open to  and understand multiple perspectives despite dissent, conflict centers being the victor in an argument. They further illustrate that civility means “learning how to both voice disagreement and to respond to disagreement from others in a way that respects other points of view” (Komives and Wagner, 2009, p. 270).

It is important to also challenge the narrative of conflict being a deterrent to social change seeing as direct and even violent conflict (specifically violence inflicted upon marginalized groups) has occurred within multiple different change movements in the country  through actions such as sit-ins, marches and protests, hunger strikes, etc. These change movements often have marginalized people offering their intellectual labor, mental energy, and physical bodies to create change despite being faced with violent acts. While this model may not advocate conflict on the part of those wanting to create change, it is remiss to obfuscate conflict as an actor in this process. We must ask ourselves how often has the United States seen movements of social change where all parties practiced “controversy with civility”?

What stands out as widely insidious to the success of students of color intimately involved in the Social Change Model can be depicted from this passage about how to have controversy with civility:

“Is it possible to, with all of these strong emotions, to focus on what the other person was communicating? Is it possible to explain the argument or issue was fundamentally about, or be aware of how one’s own response might be interpreted? Chances are that in the ‘heat’ of an argument, people remember little to nothing about such an unpleasant experience.” (Komives, and Wagner, 2009, p. 265).

As Student Affairs practitioners enter the field they must be equipped to challenge the status quo of racial inequality and other forms of systemic marginalization that are maintained within the field in order to live up to the mission of supporting student success.

How can we begin to dismantle the systems that continue to relegate students of color if we are at the same time using a model of leadership development that silences the visceral response students will have to injustice on campus?

How can we tell students of color that their emotions are not palpable  for their white counterparts and thus they need to change their message?

How can we tell our students of colors that they need to engage in controversy with civility despite being barraged with physical violence, racial slurs, and microaggressions as a daily occurrence?


I draw from the work of Valerie Chepp (2015) in her discussion of respectability politics when she positions “respectability” as “the privileging of bourgeois, white, patriarchal, and heteronormative ideals and aspirations, which draw upon Protestant ethics as well as Victorian sexual morals” (p. 209) to articulate that these mechanisms in which we silence students of color in conversations about social change only serves the pervasive and entrenched notion of “the good black person” trope. Tone policing does nothing to support and protect students of color; in fact, tone policing cushions white fragility and emboldens white supremacy.

Leadership as Activism

Student affairs professionals and leadership educators must begin to look at student activism on college campus as the road map to engaging in leadership development and catalyzing social change. From many different college campuses, we have seen activism play a significant role in creating changes at the institutional and even federal level. Most importantly, for the students engaging in this, what is our place to tell marginalized students how to respond to injustice on campus? It is our privilege that allows us to tell students “the right way” to to engage in this process as does The Social Change Model.

As a Leadership Educator and Student Affairs professional who works in an office that sees The Social Change Model of Leadership Developmental as foundational and even teaches a course that centers this leadership framework, I must see myself as culpable and an active perpetrator in contributing to the further marginalization of communities of color. So, I must ask what can we do moving forward to mitigate this?

  1. We must recognize leadership models like The Social Change Model for what they are—centered in a whiteness. We must not use this model as a prescriptive tool for all students when we talk about social change.
  2. As students of color continue to bring in an array of knowledge, experience, and cultural wealth (Yosso 2005) critical leadership pedagogy and praxis necessitates the centering of experiences of students of color as not only good practice, but obligatory.
  3. It is on all leadership educators and student affairs professionals to actively resists the ways in which leadership paradigms engender the privileging of students with dominant identities by providing counternarratives from students of color.

Engaging in social change within the confines of the Social Change Model is an exercise in maintaining white comfort and the politics of respectability; however, by recognizing its limitations, we can be radical in our reimagining of ways to work with marginalized students in exploring leadership for resistance and liberation.

Astin, H. S. (1996). Leadership for social change. About Campus, 1, 4-10.

Chepp, Valerie. 2015. “Black Feminist Theory and the Politics of Irreverence: The Case of Women’s Rap.” Feminist Theory, 16, 207–26.

Coon, H.M., & Kemmelmeier, M. (2001). Cultural orientations in the United States: Re-examining differences among ethnic groups. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 32, 348–364

Komives S., Wagner W. (2009). Leadership for a better world: Understanding the social change model of leadership development (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Yosso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 6991

Wagner, W. (2006). The social change model of leadership: A brief overview. Concepts & Connections, 15 (1), 9.


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