fresh voices from the front lines of change







You say you want a revolution? Well, there is a recipe.

It's 2020, and I am hoping for changes bigger and more transformational than a new president. If you are like me, you also fear for friends, family and neighbors in the rise of white supremacy and fascism in the United States and across the globe. You may be asking yourself where to put your energy in this very important year.

Image credit: Billie Kirkton for People's Action

For answers, let’s listen in on a conversation across centuries between organizers and people’s movements that have worked to achieve transformational change. If we are wise, we will heed their advice.

The Populist Moment

Almost 150 years ago, the Farmers Alliance organized two million people in the United States by rallying an army of unpaid lecturers — 40,000 of them — and starting 1,000 newspapers.

Let’s sit with this for a moment. With communications methods we would now call “antiquated” or limited, the Farmers Alliance organized more than 3 percent of the U.S. population. Lawrence Goodwyn tells this story and more in The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (1978).

In this way, The Farmers Alliance, and the Populist Movement more broadly, came really close to the critical threshold 3.5 percent of the population that Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found to presage transformational change in their landmark study of the efficacy of nonviolent and violent resistance in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (2011). Their research has been foundational to groups like Extinction Rebellion.

Chenoweth and Stephan seek to explain

…two related phenomena: why nonviolent resistance often succeeds relative to violent resistance, and under what conditions, nonviolent resistance succeeds or fails…we analyze 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006…The most striking finding is that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.

Building on these findings, Mark and Paul Engler’s This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (2016) explores momentum-driven movements that stretch from the Salt March to the Birmingham Children’s Crusade and from Otpor to Occupy.

We round out this chorus of voices with adrienne marie brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017), a personal reflection on a life in activism that crystallizes several of the most challenging questions at the heart of transformational change.

What do these authors say definitely does not work? Let’s start with Goodwyn:

Unfortunately, history does not support the notion that mass protest movements develop because of hard times. Depressed economies or exploitive arrangements of power and privilege may produce lean years or even lean lifetimes for millions of people, but the historical evidence is conclusive that they do not produce mass political insurgency. The simple fact of the matter is that, in ways that affect mind and body, times have been “hard” for most humans throughout human history and for most of that period people have not been in rebellion.

That’s our Lesson Number One: civil resistance doesn’t happen just because times are hard.

Chenoweth and Stephan, meanwhile, assert that

…nonviolent campaigns fail to achieve their objectives when they are unable to overcome the challenge of participation, when they fail to recruit a robust, diverse, and broad-based membership that can erode the power base of the adversary and maintain resilience in the face of repression.

That’s Lesson Number Two: the quality of mass participation can be more important than the quantity.

And now, the Englers:

A gulf has emerged that separates established organizations dedicated to slowly winning social change over the long haul from explosive mass mobilizations that use disruptive power to shake the status quo. Often, the divide has resulted in tension, acrimony, and confusion. In recent years, civil resistance has presented a compelling possibility: that this gap, which has often seemed insurmountable, might yet be bridged, and that the fortunes of grassroots organizing might be transformed as a result.

There is so much that the Englers get right in this book, but creating false dichotomies between “structure-based organizing” and “mass protest” is not one of them.

Making straw men out of Saul Alinsky and Ed Chambers, and using the Industrial Areas Foundation as the representative pole of “structure-based organizing” disregards the powerful community organizing history of women like Heather Booth, Gale Cincotta, Jackie Kendall, Bertha Lewis and many others with roots in the peace, labor, student, women’s, civil rights, LGBTQ+ and other liberation movements of the past half century.

As a counterpoint, we have adrienne marie brown. “Uprisings and resistance and mass movement require a tolerance of messiness, a tolerance of many, many paths being walked on at once,” she says.

This, then, is our Lesson Number Three: we should try to take down “the man,” not straw men.

What Does Work

Now, let’s dig into what these authors say does work to create lasting transformational change, so we are all better prepared for 2020 and beyond.

The Englers pose this urgency best:

What if periods of mass, spontaneous uprising are neither as spontaneous nor as unbridled as they might at first appear? What if the fits of social change that burst into our headlines like flash storms can actually be forecast? What if one can read the clouds and understand their signs? Or what if, in fact, it is possible to influence the weather?…Can versions of civil resistance be used to confront the challenges of climate change, runaway economic inequality, racial injustice, and the corporate hijacking of government?

Now that is an intriguing question.

The Populist revolt’s four stages of democratic movement-building resonate across the historical examples shared by Chenoweth and Stephan — Burma, Iran, the Philippines, and the Palestinian Territories — as well as the stories from India, Serbia and the United States shared by the Englers.

Goodwyn breaks down these stages for us:

(1) the creation of an autonomous institution where new interpretations can materialize that run counter to those of prevailing authority — a development which, for the sake of simplicity, we may describe as “the movement forming”;

(2) the creation of a tactical means to attract masses of people — ”the movement recruiting”;

(3) the achievement of a heretofore culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis — ”the movement educating”; and

(4) the creation of an institutional means whereby the new ideas, shared now by the rank and file of the mass movement, can be expressed in an autonomous political way — ”the movement politicized.”

These four movement stages have some preconditions, according to Goodwyn: individual self-respect, collective self-confidence, and an agenda. Together these form the foundational building block for transformational change: a movement culture.

Goodwyn described it as “a spirit of egalitarian hope, expressed in the actions of two million beings — not in the prose of a platform, however creative, and not, ultimately, even in the third party, but in a self-generated culture of collective dignity and individual longing.”

We will explore the elements of movement culture that these authors uncover in their historical analyses and personal experiences, then attempt to draw them together into a unified theory of transformational change that ends with a challenge to would-be changemakers.

The Englers draw our focus to how “Gandhi struggled throughout his life with creating a hybrid” that generated a movement culture built from this mix of economic cooperatives, bold platforms, and political education. They elaborate:

He (Gandhi) was famous for his campaigns of widespread civil disobedience, or satyagraha. But he combined these with an ongoing “constructive program,” through which local communities could build autonomy, as well as with efforts to build the grassroots reach of the Indian National Congress, which became the country’s leading independence organization.

A strikingly similar mix was created by the Populists in their summer encampments, wagon trains, and suballiance (smaller than a county) meetings, which Goodwyn describes as “unsteepled places of worship.”

Movement culture was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s too, when nightly mass meetings in Black churches created a beating heart for the Birmingham movement and its many reverberations.

Movement culture can also generate innovation in strategy and tactics when campaigns have strong diversity and breadth of participants. “Because tactical innovation occurs on the fringes of a movement,” Chenoweth and Stephan contend, “campaigns with larger numbers of participants, and consequently wider margins, are more likely to produce tactical innovations.” They are careful to say that participation can take the form of concentrated and dispersed (stay-aways, sit-ins, occupations, economic boycotts) civil resistance.

They continue,

Higher levels of participation contribute to a number of mechanisms necessary for success, including enhanced resilience, higher probabilities of tactical innovation, expanded civic disruption (thereby raising the costs to the regime of maintaining the status quo), and loyalty shifts involving the opponent’s erstwhile supporters, including members of the security forces.

If participants are the body, then training and political education are the lifeblood of movement culture. “The influx of new participants presented a challenge for Otpor,” explain the Englers, describing the rise of the civil society movement that played a critical role in Serbia’s return to democracy.

How would it immerse large numbers of people in its organizational culture and have them understand the guidelines that allowed its decentralized teams to be effective? The organization’s answer was mass training….In a very short amount of time, people could go from being total outsiders to becoming team leaders in their towns. And the training process was exponential. New chapters were outfitted with manuals and toolkits enabling them to host their own trainings.

I agree with these authors that the transmission of movement culture is, above all else, relational. It is cultivated in the collective experience of nonviolent direct action, economic cooperation against the grain of capitalism, political education and training.

A Unified Theory of Transformational Change

Goodwyn describes how the Populists organized two million people through a distributed organizing program of “lecturers” and “lecturing schools” to propagate political education and cooperative economics. He describes in detail how the Populist Alliance created a movement culture in over 40,000 suballiances across rural America in the course of building its structure of economic cooperation.

That idea — at the very heart of the movement culture — was a profoundly simple one: the Populists believed they could work together to be free individually. In their institutions of self-help, Populists developed and acted upon a crucial democratic insight: to be encouraged to surmount rigid cultural inheritances and to act with autonomy and self-confidence, individual people need the psychological support of other people. The people need to “see themselves” experimenting in new democratic forms.

The Englers identify this same strange and combustive alchemy of movement culture elements in the momentum-driven mobilizations they studied. “Time and again, in uprisings that steal the spotlight and illuminate injustices that are otherwise ignored, we see three elements — disruption, sacrifice, and escalation — combining in forceful ways.”

Movement culture is created when people need each other to win their own freedom, and they are willing to engage in collective sacrifice and actions that reinforce their solidarity. Brown has another word for this: “emergent strategy: strategy for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions, is to me — the potential scale of transformation that could come from movements intentionally practicing this adaptive, relational way of being, on our own and with others.”

Movement culture is the force that holds together a unified theory of transformational change — the long-term agenda framework.

To achieve transformational change, first we need to change the landscape upon which we operate. This is the work of both the civil resistance campaigns that Chenoweth and Stephan describe, as well as the Englers’ momentum-driven mobilizations.

Since we are fighting on terrain defined by the corporate-conservative Radical Right, we need to first change this landscape through movement moments, electoral shifts, and shifting the dominant narrative. This requires escalating amounts of power in the form of organized people, money and ideas.

Power is the meeting place between mass protest and people’s organizations, between changing the landscape and making structural transformations of economies and societies.

To win lasting, transformational change that can shift power from corporations and the wealthy to people and the public starts with what can feel like incremental change but only if you are not paying close enough attention. In reality, these are stepping stones toward increasingly structural reforms.

We’re not alone here. The Right is trying to win its own form of transformational change, just like we are. Incremental changes — often imperceptible stepping stones — have proven tremendously effective to advancing the rightwing agenda. This is how the Radical Right took over the United States over the last three decades, and how they are now working to undermine democracies around the world.

It makes sense the Right would take aim at democracy, as open societies have built-in mechanisms for reform, according to Chenoweth and Stephan. And in many parts of the world, the Right is winning, and democracy is beating a retreat.

When we win increasingly structural victories we institutionalize the change we seek. There is a dynamic relationship between changing the landscape, winning structural reforms and building power: all three must combine to create lasting, structural transformations.

The climax of struggle is not the end of the mobilization or civil resistance campaign — it is the structural transfer of power that can institutionalize new democratic and economic relationships.

Goodwyn gets this spot on, when he asks:

If the central task of democratic reform involves finding a way to oppose the received hierarchical culture with a newly created democratic culture, and if, as the Alliance experience reveals, progress toward this culminating climax necessarily must build upon prior stages of political and organizational evolution that have the effect of altering the political perspectives of millions of people, then democratic movements, to be successful, clearly require a high order of sequential achievement.

I don’t think it’s helpful to think of a sharp division of labor between the movements and organizations that struggle to change the weather, and those trying to institutionalize structural reforms. They may follow different “rules for radicals” to achieve varied goals, but effective movement organizations can — and have — as demonstrated by the historical examples shared by these authors — do both. The Englers lift up movement organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Otpor as “hybrid organizations” with the ability to code switch as they respond to the needs of the political moment.

The Path Forward

In the United States, this brings us to the big challenge in front of us in 2020: facing race in order to win transformational change. Otherwise, we can kiss our dreams goodbye.

Goodwyn zeroes in on this:

…the American tradition of white supremacy cast a forbidding shadow over the prospect of uniting black and white tenants, sharecroppers, and smallholders into an enduring political force across the South… In an era of transcendent white racism, the curbing of “vicious corporate monopoly” did not carry for black farmers the ring of salvation it had for white agrarians. It was the whiteness of corporate monopoly — and the whiteness of those who wanted to trim the power of the monopolists — that worried Negroes. Both sets of white antagonists lived by the values of the American caste system…Before the black man could worry about economic injustice, he had to worry about survival.

The Englers, in contrast, do little to illuminate the workings of race in movement ecosystems in their comparisons of structure-based organizations and momentum-driven movements. They miss that the ways in which people organize in America are moulded by the contours of race, and how peoples organizations institutionalize the leadership of women, people of color, trans people and others facing oppression.

Goodwyn captures both the success and failures of Populist multiracial movements:

Black lecturers who ranged over the South organizing state and local Alliances did not enter Southern towns behind fluttering flags and brass bands. They attempted to organize slowly and patiently, seeking out the natural leaders in rural black communities and building from there… Nevertheless, white supremacy hung over the organization with a brooding presence that ultimately proved suffocating. The reason was simple: white supremacy prevented black farmers from performing the kinds of collective public acts essential to the creation of an authentic movement culture.

In Emergent Strategy, brown reflects on fractals in nature as a way to propose how we can move forward in 2020 for transformational change. She says, evoking the way these natural patterns unfold, that “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.”

If we, as organizers, are intentional about building multiracial, urban-rural and intersectional movements, then this should show up in all of the relationships and spaces where we are present.

She continues in this aspirational vein: “I would call our work to change the world “science fictional behavior” — being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations.”

Goodwyn, while looking at the past, lands in a similar place. He describes how “in their struggle to build their cooperative commonwealth, in their ‘joint notes of the brotherhood,’ in their mass encampments, their rallies, their wagon trains, their meals for thousands, the people of Populism saw themselves… In the world they created, they fulfilled the democratic promise in the only way it can be fulfilled — by people acting in democratic ways in their daily lives.”

These voices from the past are calling us to greatness. Let’s get to it.

James Mumm is campaigns director for Greenpeace USA. He was formerly the chief innovation officer for People’s Action, a national network of grassroots groups dedicated to putting people and planet first.

Books discussed:

Engler, M., & Engler, P. (2016). This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. New York: Bold Type Books.

brown, adrienne m. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. (2017). Chico, CA: AK Press.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Abridged 1976 ed. (1978). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria J. Stephan. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. (2011). New York: Columbia University Press.

First published in Social Policy Magazine, Winter 2019, Volume 49, Number 4.

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