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Beyond bumper stickers

An introduction to working for change

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

August 2007

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 (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 aim to resolve social problems through collective action. Successful action campaigns rely on a combination of strategies, and some methods are more effective for small-scale grassroots organizing than others. Whatever approach is applied to problem-solving, the heart and soul of social activism is making connections 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 for 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), co-authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards recommend a range of do-it-yourself 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.


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. The 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 range of activities, from legislative activism to letter-writing campaigns or 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 blockbuster documentary, SiCKO (2007), provides 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 see. 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 achieve. 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.


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.

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.


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 for 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 wouldn't 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 for 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

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the Mothers Movement Online.

Organizing guides & tools

Created and maintained by the Work Group on Health Promotion and Community Development at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, The Community Tool Box web site is designed to promote the "health and development of communities" through community organizing. The CTB includes over 7,000 pages of resources on skill building, leadership, organizing basics, strategic planning, grant writing, cultural competency, developing and implementing advocacy campaigns, media relations, and influencing public policy -- plus step-by-step outlines on effective goal setting, coalition building, and other essential organizing practices. Sections are clearly organized and text is direct and concise. Whatever you need to know about organizing for change at the community level and beyond, you can probably find it here.


A project of the Massachusetts-based Public Policy Institute, Real Clout is a how-to manual for community activists "who, for one reason or another, need to figure out how their state or county government really works." Although PPI generally works on healthcare-related campaigns, Real Clout is an excellent general guide on organizing to change public policy. Resources include a textbook and workbooks for grassroots volunteer leaders and professional advocates. The text is written for individuals with some previous experience with advocacy activism or community organizing, but is still informative for those who want to learn about the nuts and bolts of state-level legislative activism. All publications are free and may be downloaded from the Real Clout web site.


The Advocacy Center at the Institute for Sustainable Communities provides a wealth of information on community organizing, including suggestions for building effective leadership teams, strategic planning, building and empowering coalitions, designing effective outreach strategies, and preventing activist burn-out. It's all online, and it's all free. Find it at


The Center for Community Change provides a set of Organizational Development Tools for community-based grassroots organizing, including guides on fundraising, forming a non-profit organization, organizational evaluation, facilitating successful meetings, and working with a Board of Directors. CCC also offers How To Tell and Sell Your Story, a guide to developing a strong communication plan, including how to keep on message and write press releases and op-eds (66 pages, in .pdf).


Women's Action for New Directions (WAND) provides helpful, high-quality fact-sheets on getting the attention of your members of Congress, understanding the federal budget process, and working with the media:

It's Your Federal Government
4 pages, in .pdf

Guide to the Media
6 pages , in .pdf

All Our Dollars:
Guide to the Soap-Opera Saga of the Federal Budget Process

6 pages, in .pdf


Did you know that tofu is a class issue? Class Matters offers guidance on cross-class organizing. The information on the web site is directed primarily to progressive, professional-class activists. According to Betsy Leondar-Wright, class stereotypes -- even positive and heroic stereotypes -- can impair effective organizing, because "our efforts to persuade people will be based on inaccurate understandings of what motivates them. …Every class includes people whose relationship to injustice is passive acceptance, enthusiastic collusion, individual gut resistance, and collective organizing." The Class Matters web site is an must resource for those interested in organizing mothers and caregivers for change.

Links to additional resources found in the original article are not included in the print version.
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