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An introduction to working for change
by Judith Stadtman Tucker


In the last decade, internet communication and online mobilizing has evolved into an essential tool for effective change work. Some observers credit the rise of the progressive blogoshpere and the ascendancy of organizations such as MoveOn with shifting the power dynamic in partisan politics. Web-based organizations and high-traffic political blogs do certain things very well, including mass dissemination of information and calls to action at little or no cost, rapid response to breaking issues, mobilizing very large constituencies to sign online petitions and call or email legislators, targeting email alerts to supporters living in specific states and regions, facilitating online discussions and debates, and raising substantial amounts of money for candidates and other projects by collecting hundreds of thousands of small, individual donations. Recently, MoveOn expanded its operations to include field organizing to sway election outcomes in key states. Netroots organizing is not without drawbacks, however -- for example, internet dependency assures a concentration of supporters who are young, white, relatively affluent, well-educated, and living in non-rural communities. While netroots organizations are often leaderless and issue-driven, member-supporters have little say in setting action priorities or organizing strategies, and open channels for two-way communication between members and decision-makers are few. Moreover, it's unclear whether netroots meet ups and house parties contribute to building effective grassroots action networks at the local level. Rather than empowering many people at the bottom with organizing skills and leadership opportunities, netroots organizing empowers a few people at the top to act as the de facto representatives of hundreds of thousands (or in some cases, millions) of anonymous virtual supporters.

Direct Action
Direct action initiatives are typically organized and implemented by members of the affected community and attempt to win real, immediate, concrete improvements in people's lives. Ideally, direct action organizing empowers individual activists by imparting practical skills and modeling inclusive organizational structures and practices. Direct action usually targets conditions in the social environment which can be improved by changing legislation, regulations, budget priorities, and public systems (i.e., infrastructure, education, transportation, courts, environmental standards/enforcement, etc). There are excellent online and print guides describing the process and techniques of direct action organizing -- see the list at the end of this article for more information.

A word about direct action projects: Although all direct action initiatives seek to win "real, immediate, concrete improvements in people's lives," the meaningful ripple-effect of any direct action win depends on the size of the population whose lives are improved by it, and whether a successful action promotes public health and safety and/or social inclusion, or results in improvements to consumer access and quality of life for some -- but not necessarily all -- people in a community. For example, a popular project among advocates concerned with improving the lives of mothers is pressuring local merchants to install diaper-changing decks in customer restrooms. There's no question that having diaper decks available will improve the quality of life for parents of infants and toddlers who patronize those businesses. But the population served is relatively small: people with very young children who frequent commercial establishments with customer restrooms (usually restaurants, cafes, and entertainment venues). By comparison, a citizen action campaign to replace deteriorating play structures in public parks with equipment that is safe and accessible for children of different ages and abilities can improve public safety and social inclusion -- as well as the quality of life -- for many members of the community. If participating in change work that promotes the common good is important to you, consider dedicating your time and efforts to actions that will improve the social environment for a broad cross-section of the community.

A framework for personal activism

Engaging in social activism is both personal and political. Working for change can transform society, but it can also alter your sense of self, your intimate relationships, and your worldview. It's possible that working for change will add a new layer of meaning to your life. It can also help you develop new strengths, new skills, and new connections with people in your community.

But let's be frank -- it's not all good. Activism can be time consuming, and it's quite possible that some of the people you'll work with will be pompous asses or jerks. Even if you adore the people you organize with, you will occasionally have disagreements about the best way to get things done. You may spend weeks organizing a public event and have a low turn out. You may attend planning meetings where only one other person shows up. The opposing side may accuse you of intellectual and moral shortcomings -- and even when you recognize the slurs are nothing more than a political tactic, the words still sting. People in power may dismiss your grievances as fatuous and self-serving. The media may ignore your cause. You may get hate mail from people you've never met. You may work hard and do everything right, and still not get what you want.

If that doesn't faze you, keep reading.

In my perpetually confused youth, I worked with a helping professional (and I use that term loosely) who liked to reel off a flaky new-age formula for achieving "an authentic life." (He also altered the wording to suit his masculinist sensibilities, but that's another story). The first rule, he'd say, is show up, and be fully present. The second rule is pay attention to what has meaning, the third is speak your own truth without blame or judgment, and rule number four is be open, rather than attached, to the outcome.

The so-called "Four Fold Way" is a fairly lame prescription for navigating personal life, given that power dynamics in intimate relationship are complicated by gender bias and other social realities, not to mention that when relational things go awry it's usually because the people involved disagree about whose feelings and needs are more meaningful. But as it turns out, the practice of showing up, paying attention, speaking your truth and listening to others without judgment, and being flexible about the outcome is a pretty good way to think about the personal process of social activism.

You may already have a clear picture of the problem you want to solve and how you want to solve it. (If not, check out some of the resources on defining issues and goal-setting in the University of Kansas Community Tool Box). If you know what you'd like to accomplish, you might begin your life as an activist by asking the question: How can I show up to help get the job done? Start talking to other people in your community to find out where and how they are showing up for social change. A good way to begin that conversation is to ask: What do you think is working in our community/society/world? What would you like to change, and how would you like to change it? You may meet people who invite you to join them. You may meet people who want to join you and start something new. You will almost certainly meet people can share important knowledge with you. Pay attention.

I don't want to make organizing for change sound like child's play, or dismiss the very real barriers to blending social activism into an already full life. I do want to assure you, dear reader, that if you don't like the way things are going for women, workers and families in America today, there are plenty of other folks who agree with you and will support you in trying to do something about it. There are resources available to help you get started and assess your progress along the way. There are groups already working on workplace rights and family issues that will welcome your participation. So, go ahead -- take a stand. And if you can, stick with it.

Mmo : august 2007


When I wrote this article in the summer of 2007, I was at the starting point of my trajectory as volunteer leader with the Obama ’08 campaign -- first as a volunteer during the New Hampshire Presidential Primary, then as the lead organizer for a grassroots network of local supporters looking for ways to stay actively involved in the campaign, and finally as a full-time volunteer and team coordinator during the general election. Like many supporters who joined Barack Obama’s Campaign for Change, it was my first real opportunity to experience what good, ground-level organizing looks and feels like -- and in the process, I learned critical lessons about the interpersonal and practical dimensions of working for change.

In revisiting the text of “Beyond Bumper Stickers," I would not change much of what’s written here -- it’s as concise and user-friendly an overview of the essential principles and techniques of organizing for change as you’ll find anywhere, and I returned to this knowledge constantly in the course of organizing for the campaign. One thing I will add, however, is that I greatly underestimated the value of the skills and leadership experience I gained through working with local chapters and steering committees of various mothers’ organizations over the last ten years. Although the participatory model of chapter-based voluntary organizations is collapsing under current economic pressures and the society-wide trend toward civic disengagement, the inescapable fact is that effective change work hinges on building face-to-face relationships with others who share your concerns and values, and are willing to join together to advance a common purpose. Even in groups that are not overtly political, local chapters of mothers’ organization and similar membership groups can be a fertile training ground for future activists.

I would also add that in the big picture, working for change is more than a moral exercise -- it demands a personal and collective investment in methods and activities that actually achieve the desired results (or at least get us much closer to rectifying the problems we hope to solve). If you believe (as I do) that it’s wrong to waste other people’s time, then we cannot, in good conscience, incite a social movement simply for the sake of wanting one, or attempt to harness the people power that social movements mobilize to lend credibility to one organizational brand or a particular candidate’s policy agenda. Effective, inclusive social movements support many kinds of work, but it has to be purposeful work that empowers individuals with durable skills and knowledge. Projects that primarily serve to enhance the authority (or celebrity) of leaders and groups claiming to represent a broad constituency can suck the life out of a movement by hoarding resources, or cultivate inertia by overemphasizing the value of professional expertise and intentionally restricting avenues for grassroots engagement. My experience with organizing volunteers during the election did nothing to alter my impression that the mass-membership, netroots approach to social movement organizing -- at least as it is currently practiced by groups like MoveOn and MomsRising -- does not automatically promote strong ties to a collective cause, or encourage the level of communication and connection necessary for community-directed action that gets results.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
January 2009

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