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Beyond bumper stickers

An introduction to working for change

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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PORTSMOUTH, NH -- Every Friday afternoon -- rain or shine -- a small group of peace activists congregate in Portsmouth's town square to protest the U.S. war in Iraq. On a good day, a handful of people gather to display hand-made signs and wave at passing motorists. On a very good day, the anti-war demonstrators are joined by the local Leftist Marching Band. More often, only two or three protestors turn out. If by some miracle the command to bring our troops home is given tomorrow, the same stalwart activists would show up in Market Square next week to raise a ruckus about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur or some other atrocity.

Will the weekly spectacle of a half-dozen middle-aged protesters waging peace on a small-town street corner have a meaningful impact on the behavior of high-level decision-makers? No -- of course not. But you have to give the members of Seacoast Peace Response -- and hundreds of thousands of like-minded local activists around the country -- credit for taking a stand and sticking with it.

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Not everyone has the stamina for activism that downplays the value of measurable results. For mothers in the midst of their active child-bearing and child-rearing years -- who (as we are constantly reminded) are busy, busy people -- the challenge at hand is not only how to squeeze social activism into our overextended lives, but what kind of activism will have a real and lasting impact on improving conditions for women and families. But the question I hear most often from mothers who want to organize for change is: How do we get started?

Working for change involves a spectrum of activities that try to resolve social problems in different ways. Successful action campaigns rely on a combination of approaches, and some strategies are more effective for small-scale grassroots organizing than others. Whatever method is applied to problem-solving, the heart and soul of social activism is making contact with other people who care about the future of the community -- whether the working definition of "the community" is everyone who lives in your neighborhood, or everyone who lives on the planet.

There are several excellent handbooks on organizing for change. These guides to grassroots activism generally target campus and community organizing, but also provide basic outlines of how to plan and implement effective action campaigns. Two books I've found especially helpful for clarifying the different components and processes of social activism are Organizing for Social Change: Midwest Academy Manual for Activists by Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall and Steve Marx (Third Edition: Seven Locks Press, 2001), and The Activist's Handbook by Randy Shaw (University of California Press, 2001). In Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005), Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards recommend a range of DIY alternatives for young feminists put off by the institutional culture of the mainstream social justice movement and address the power and pitfalls of independent activism. While all these resources are useful for thinking about mobilizing mothers for change, there is (as yet) no step-by-step primer on how to organize the fluid, decentralized, virtually-connected constituencies that form the core of the emerging mothers' movement.

Mobilizing vs. organizing

Social movements entail a number of political and developmental processes, but the two we talk about most often in today's mothers' movement are mobilizing and organizing. These terms are used interchangeably, but can also refer to different steps in the process of grassroots movement building. Mobilizing a critical mass of supporters can mean persuading, or "moving," as many people as possible to act or speak out on a specific agenda. Effective mobilizing depends primarily on strategic communication and outreach, including (but not limited to) public awareness campaigns, activist media projects and consciousness raising programs. Mobilizing is the process of getting potential activists on the same page about what the problem is and how to fix it.

Once grassroots supporters are politically engaged, they can be organized to take part in a wide variety of activities, from legislative activism to letter-writing campaigns and mass demonstrations. In addition to strategic communication and outreach, organizing requires strategic planning, information gathering, leadership development, volunteer recruitment and training, a decision-making structure for managing resources and responsibilities, and -- especially for large-scale or long-term projects -- a dependable funding stream. Mobilizing and organizing are closely related and typically overlap, but organizing is the critical step for achieving social progress through collective action. "There is a difference between mobilizing people for a campaign and actually organizing them into an ongoing structure for which they take responsibility," explain the authors of Organizing for Change. "Concrete plans must be made and steps taken to assure that the organization grows…This point is particularly important in light of the growing use of e-mail mobilization."

The response to Michael Moore's 2007 documentary, SiCKO, offers a good example of the difference between mobilizing and organizing. Moore's project expertly conveys the human cost of the meltdown of the for-profit U.S. health care system and shows alternative models in a favorable light. The director wants viewers to be incensed by the inequities of the current system and the unconscionable behavior of special interest groups that benefit from it -- and by all reports, people who've seen the film are shocked and dismayed by what they learn. But even though Moore's web site provides a link for moviegoers who want to express their outrage to members of Congress, the film never implies that citizens can agitate for health care reform by organizing for collective action, nor does Moore's project provide any kind of practical mechanism to build capacity for that process.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that in our fragmented, high-speed society, we've lost touch with what grassroots activism really looks like -- and lost faith in what effective organizing can do. When most people think of collective activism, they think of organized civil disobedience, 1960's-style student demonstrations, and marching on Washington. But the most important work of making change is the work that happens behind the scenes -- and much of that work involves things you already know how to do. Everything else you need to know, you can learn

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