Writer Brad Edmondson Weighs in on the Impact of Social Change
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Social reform is the principle that Brad Edmondson, an award-winning writer, speaker, consultant, researcher, freelance journalist, and the author of two books operates upon. His reports and presentations talk about the impact of social change on businesses, communities, and not-for-profit organizations.
Edmondson's work deals with corporate social responsibility, demographic shifts, and environmental preservation. Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry's details the journey of the progressive ice cream company. Edmondson's second book, Postwar Cornell: How the Greatest Generation Transformed a University, explores the years after World War II at Cornell University.
Edmondson says, "My interest in social change goes back to a lifelong interest in history and the history of social movements." He has worked in business journalism at the Ithaca Times and American Demographics. Here, he got his introduction to statistical reporting, consumer behavior, and the importance of demographics. These have all become foundational tenants of his career.
Long-term change fascinates Edmonson, and he emphasizes planning. He says, "It takes decades, sometimes, of activists working in obscurity to produce changes in legislation or values that to most of us seem like they're happening overnight."
Corporate Responsibility, Pt I: Ice Cream Social
A significant theme of Edmondson's work is corporate social responsibility. Ice Cream Social addresses this in depth, diving into Ben and Jerry's progressive business model. The book reveals significant changes in the concept of corporate responsibility over the past 40 years.
Edmondson compares Ben and Jerry's long-term community values with the short-term interests of other corporations. The ice cream company's policies run counter to prominent economists' ideas, like Milton Friedman, at the time of its founding.
Corporations in the 70s and 80s tended to maximize shareholder value and short-term gain. Edmondson explains how this led to unethical cost-cutting, worker mistreatment, and sending manufacturing facilities offshore.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, however, founded their company on progressive principles. They intended to prioritize long-term impact. Edmondson says, "They believed that business drew their strength from the communities in which they operated." Ice Cream Social explores how they invested in surrounding communities, primarily through the Ben and Jerry's Foundation.
Edmondson says, "This foundation emphasizes giving to marginalized and dispossessed people, people who are in poverty, and people who need a break." It has advocated for racial and marriage equality, environmental protection, and more. When Unilever bought the company, Ben Cohen negotiated a deal to preserve its social mission.
As time has passed, Edmondson believes, corporate social responsibility has become more prevalent. However, he says, "I know from being a business journalist for 35 years that the vast majority of people in business are focused on the bottom line and are not like Ben Cohen. They're not activists who found themselves selling ice cream."
Corporate Responsibility, Pt II: Consumer Values
Younger consumers, Edmondson believes, drive the increasing prevalence of progressive corporate models. He notes the importance of college-educated people under 40 years old.
Previous generations tended to separate their values from their work. Younger people flip the script; they tend to care about workplace values, consumers, and employees. Edmondson says, "They're interested in bringing their values to the workplace."
Many large corporations have not embraced progressive business models, and Edmondson thinks legislative measures may be necessary to convince them. However, he sees the social shift as an essential step toward broad reform.
The struggle does not equal failure. Edmondson says, "Social change involves constantly struggling and never being satisfied."
Edmondson's area of expertise is demographics- specifically, how demographic change influences cultural, political, and social trends. He has studied a variety of U.S. demographics and the issues that face them. He's written about mental health in elderly populations; now, he's interested in immigrant communities.
"If I were on the staff of the newspaper right now," Edmondson says, "I would be writing about white supremacy." He explains that most current U.S. population growth derives from immigration, particularly from India, China, and Latin American countries. As the non-Hispanic white population declines, he is both fascinated and perturbed by a right-wing embrace of "white power."
Just as social consciousness is changing corporate ethics, Edmondson thinks it can help mitigate white supremacist mindsets. When people tie self-identification to non-racial factors, he believes it allows for easier connection as younger generations tend to do. Racial identities are essential, but over-emphasis leads to harmful mindsets like white supremacy.
Edmondson says, "America's cities are more racially and ethnically diverse now than they've been at any time since the turn of the 20th century." He believes this is a site for celebration but also a reason for race-based conservative fears.
Edmondson's interest in long-term change extends beyond his demographic writing. He contributes to environmental reform with the same mindset.
Since 1992, he's been involved with the Finger Lakes Land Trust in the Finger Lakes region of central New York. The Trust purchases at-risk natural land for the sake of preserving it. It protects over 25 thousand acres in central New York. Edmondson has served as president, board member, and now advisor for the Trust.
He says, "The Land Trust is making decisions that will yield their full results 100 to 120 years from now." Instead of working on his timeline, he works for the future.
In the future, Edmondson hopes to release more of his work on mental health. He has conducted significant research on psychiatric care in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The vast, abandoned asylums sprawling across New York have inspired such pursuits.
In a modern context, he has studied peer services. This field involves person-to-person assistance between those suffering acute mental illness and those who have learned to manage them better. He says, "These people frequently have a very strong desire to reach back and help people who are in the very early stages of recovery."
He examines peer services as a rising treatment for chronic mental illness. He hopes to conduct more work on the subject in the coming years.
As a journalist, Edmondson studies change and tries to make it through words. Whether exploring corporate responsibility, the social impact of racial demographic shifts, or mental health, he packages it into writing. He believes that reading leads to discussion, which leads to a connection, which leads to broad-scale change for the better.
Modern media forms emphasize, Edmondson says, "very short, heavily crafted soundbites." He encourages people to seek deeper explorations, whether through nuanced text or dialogue with others. Change happens on a scale larger and longer-lasting than an individual's. Community groups, he believes, are what make it happen.
Written by Olivia Cipperman