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An introduction to working for change
by Judith Stadtman Tucker


Getting active

Before you try to organize an action from scratch, it's a good idea to find out whether any established groups are actively working on your target issue, or might be convinced to take it on (see the resources list at the end of this article for tips on how to locate compatible organizations). Different kinds of organizations do different things -- look for a group that matches your values and goals, and one that has the infrastructure to support the kind of change work you want to do. (The following summary is adapted from "Organizing for Social Change.")

Direct Service
Direct service involves mobilizing volunteers and material resources to provide services and support to communities with urgent or unmet needs. Examples are operating a soup kitchen or emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence; donating time, money or goods to organizations coordinating assistance to disaster victims; and participating in private micro-financing networks. Direct service is crucial to improving the quality of life of marginalized and underserved families and their surrounding communities, but is better classified as "good work" rather than "social activism" -- organizing to provide or expand direct services does not eliminate the underlying conditions that contribute to the social exclusion and vulnerability of underserved and at-risk populations.

People with a shared problem or interest can pool private resources to address common needs. An example might be creating a baby-sitting co-op or cooperative preschool -- it helps those who participate obtain affordable, high-quality child care, but doesn't substantially improve child care quality or options for other families in the community.

Do-it-yourself and lifestyle activism
People who crave social change often express their political values through private actions. Examples might be choosing cloth over disposable diapers, owning a fuel-efficient hybrid car rather than a gas-guzzling SUV, or refusing to buy shoes and clothing made by manufacturers with exploitive labor practices. There's nothing wrong with living your values -- or encouraging others to share your values (as long as you're not annoyingly self-righteous about it). But it's problematic to categorize lifestyle and consumer behavior as social activism. The belief that the world would be a better and healthier place if more people made politically-conscious choices -- or that corporations can be pressured to change harmful and unfair practices if enough conscientious consumers withhold their purchasing power -- assumes that most Americans hold similar values and have identical consumer and lifestyle options, which is not the case. Here's my story: I don't like to shop at WalMart, because I find their corporate strategy and anti-woman, anti-worker employment practices appalling. But I'm not idealistic enough to think that my refusal to shop will change the way the company treats its employees. I'm also aware that some people want to shop at WalMart, and some people need to shop at WalMart because that's the only way they can get the products they need for their families at prices they can afford. So by all means, live your convictions! But be realistic about the effect of isolated, private actions on systemic social problems. Or to quote the sage advice of the citizen action organizers at Mainstreet Moms, "Don't make your own life your big project. Look for impact."

Education as activism can work around a core problem -- for example, organizing seminars for women on how to negotiate for better pay or job flexibility -- or can explain, confront and present potential solutions to a problem, such as organizing a public presentation and discussion on the persistence of the gender wage gap and the need for stronger regulation and enforcement. Helping individuals improve personal outcomes without examining the role of social forces in unequal access to resources and opportunity falls under the category of "self-help." Helping people understand the influence of existing laws, customary practices, cultural biases, and socioeconomic factors on individual opportunities and life outcomes -- and arguing for public solutions rather than teaching people how to adjust to the way things are -- is more accurately defined as consciousness raising or advocacy.

Advocacy is the active promotion of a cause or principle, and advocacy organizations work toward achieving broad goals (examples would be "ending child poverty," "improving the lives of mothers," or "making America more family-friendly"). In general, advocacy activism is a strategic response to the belief that existing conditions, regulations, and allocation of public resources are harmful or unfair to members of a particular community. Advocates may be directly affected by the social conditions they seek to correct, or may be motivated to take action solely on the basis of a moral position. Advocacy can address a single issue or a constellation of related issues, and can supplement or support other forms of direct and indirect activism. Typically, advocacy initiatives involve communicating with elected officials, lawmakers, and the public about why change is necessary and the best way to achieve it. Advocacy can also involve attending public events to show support for a cause, providing personal testimony in favor of (or opposed to) a particular ruling or piece of legislation, and organizing others to do the same. While the boundary between organized advocacy and "lobbying" is somewhat blurry, lobbying generally refers to activities of professional advocates who are paid to represent the special interests of a specific group. As a private citizen, you always have the right to contact your elected officials to voice your general concerns or express support or opposition to a specific piece of legislation, or to support the political party or candidate of your choice. As the representative of an advocacy organization, your options may be limited by the organization's agenda and the types of political activities non-profit organizations can legally engage in.

Public Interest Groups
Rather than dedicating resources to ground-up organizing, public interest groups take an institutional approach to working for change. Since the 1970s, public interest groups, along with labor organizations, have played an increasingly important role in legislative activism to support working families at the state and federal level. The primary activity of the public interest sector is documenting the need for social change through research and analysis, outlining effective policy solutions, distributing reports to policy makers and the media, and securing a stream of funding to continue the work. Public interest groups also engage in high-level advocacy -- sometimes described as "grasstops organizing" -- such as building strategic coalitions with other organizations, advising and influencing policy makers, providing expert testimony at Congressional hearings, holding press conferences, and drafting public policy. Examples of progressive public interest groups engaged in work-life policy issues include the National Partnership for Women & Families, the Center for WorkLife Law, the Institute for Women's Policy Research, the National Women's Law Center, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and the Economic Policy Institute. In general, public interest groups do not invest resources in building grassroots capacity, although some support direct action by providing technical advice and support to advocacy groups and local organizers.

Election Campaigns and GOTV
Citizen activists can support change by volunteering to work for political candidates who share their values and approach to policy solutions. A second option is participating in voter registration and "Get Out The Vote" (GOTV) drives, which can change the outcome of close elections. There are many ways to support your candidate of choice, from hosting house parties to door-to-door canvassing and delivering lawn signs. Advocacy organizations may also distribute voter guides and organize voter registration drives, although by law most non-profit advocacy groups cannot endorse political candidates. If you're strongly inclined toward civic engagement and feel confident about your leadership ability, you might consider running for public office or serving on a local or state citizen committee or public task force.

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