One of the key things I’m researching while I’m overseas doing my Churchill fellowship is movement growth. What does it take for a movement, especially a grassroots “real world” movement to grow, sustain growth, and continue to engage mass numbers of people? What infrastructure, systems, attitudes and practices do we need to adopt? What can we learn from past mass movements (civil rights, suffragettes) and current mass movements (US immigrant rights movement, youth climate movement, UK student movement & Uncut movement) that can help us do things differently to build bigger, stronger, more effective movements?
The background to this is the situation that the Australian Youth Climate Coalition is in at the moment: we’ve grown rapidly over the past few years to the point where we now have over 61,000 members. We’re good at reaching out to all of them online, but it’s much harder to get involved on the ground due to sheer capacity constraints – there are only six full-time staff and that limits the amount of active volunteers that can be managed, at least through the National Office.
There are very active and effective local and state groups, who are doing a great job at building state-based AYCC communities, but again there are capacity constraints: once a group reaches a certain size it’s hard for it keep growing and maintaining meaningful connections with every member of the group. Yet to fulfill AYCC’s mission and build a generation-wide movement to solve climate change, we need to be reaching out to, and involving, tens of thousands more youth on the ground.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing against online organizing. I think that overall, the “clicktivism and slacktivism” critiques of organizations like GetUp, Avaaz and MoveOn ignore (sometimes deliberately) the robust and integrated campaign strategies that are the reality of the campaign work they do. Whilst you see the email in your inbox, you don’t see the on-ground grassroots work that’s often taking up most staff time (rallies, vigils, forums, research, media) you don’t see the negotiations and meetings in Parliament House; you don’t see the incredibly effective way that those online signatures or actions are translated into real-world impact. Online organising is absolutely essential for both remaining connected with a large membership, and for creating short-term political impact.
But the reason I’m doing this research is that, ultimately, given the scale of the crises our society faces, we need to figure out how to grow the climate movement to mass numbers of people willing to take strong and courageous action on the ground. So a few things have been bubbling in my head and today, whilst taking a day of reflection in the tiny village of Norwich, Vermont – and I’m ready to start writing some of it out.
When I was in San Francisco I read an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about evaluating advocacy. In it, the authors made a point I wholeheartedly agree with: it’s impossible to clearly evaluate advocacy campaigns because (unlike in service projects) the outcomes of a campaign to create political or legislative change depend on much, much more than the role of one particular organization, coalition or even movement as a whole. Most times organisers put in so much effort and throw everything they have into a campaign for decades and still lose; other times the conditions are ripe for an “easy win” on a different issue without requiring a huge amount of movement time and effort.
The authors correctly state that “Building advocacy projects that cover a range of political institutions and processes means that massive amounts of effort will seem wasted, because most will be unconnected to the final outcome. This waste, however, is unavoidable, because neither funders nor the organizations they support can know which strategy will be effective ahead of time.”
The article argues that, “the key is not strategy so much as strategic capacity: the ability to read the shifting environment of politics for subtle signals of change, to understand the opposition, and to adapt deftly.” For years I’ve known both intuitively and empirically that newer, smaller, more flexible organizations like AYCC and GetUp achieve much, much more than the older, bureaucratic NGOs with lots of staff. The smaller, newer groups have a high amount of strategic capacity.
To a large extent, effectiveness and influence in political campaigning is determined by how nimbly and creatively an organization can react to unanticipated challenges or opportunities. Having a large amount of staff and even financial resources can weigh you down, both in your ability to respond to external events, and also in your internal culture. Another quote from the article: “A good organization has a coherent and inspiring internal culture, the ability to consistently identify and motivate talented people, acquire and process intelligence, and effectively coordinate its actions.”
This then led me to think more deeply about the concept of strategic capacity. Last year I undertook the Benevolent Society’s 9-month long Social Leadership course, which was a very intense learning journey focused on building the participants’ capacity to diagnose situations and exercise leadership, on both personal and system-wide levels. I’ve also seen the enormous value of trainings and retreats to social movements: giving people space to reflect and new tools and skills to use in their work enhances their strategic capacity enormously. This results in stronger organizations and movements and ultimately, a better chance of winning our campaigns.
So where does strategic capacity come from? Partly it’s experience: the maturity and lessons that come from our journeys in life and activism. Partly it’s being hungry to seek lessons from other peoples’ experiences: reading voraciously about past struggles, being aware of academic and layperson analyses of campaigns throughout history and those happening now, seeking out international experiences and connections to learn from organizations in different contexts. And partly it’s listening to our own inner wisdom as we tune into and trust our intuition.
This train of thought has been further amplified over the past few days after a serendipitous visit to the Movement Strategy Centre in Oakland (I saw their name on the door and knew I had to walk in). After speaking with Maryam, I downloaded and read a report they’ve recently released called ‘Out of the Spiritual Closet: Organizers Transforming the Practice of Social Justice’. This report, and conversations I’d had before I left with my colleague Lilian McCombs, made me think a lot more about the broad meaning of “strategic capacity” or even just “capacity” to make change.
It’s much more than just technical skills (which can be learnt in trainings) and good political judgment (which can be learnt by watching Sky News, Insiders & Lateline). It’s also the ability to feel issues deeply (like deep ecology teaches us to do), see into the heart of the matter (diagnose what’s really going on, often through feeling and sensing), being able to vision the kind of future we’re trying to create, and nurture our abilities to build strong relationships, connections and community. This is what “transformative activism” is about.
So already, exactly one week into my fellowship, I’ve had a few deep realizations.
- I already knew from empirical data and my own experience that people get involved in on the ground movement organizing due to (1) making a difference, (2) personal connections and relationships and (3) learning new skills/ developing as a person
- To be truly making a difference in activism, you must be involved in an organization that has strategic capacity. That’s one of the reasons why so few people want to volunteer for the “big NGOs”; not just because they don’t have the systems and structures set up to absorb volunteers, but also because they don’t have the ability to use them effectively because of a lack of organizational strategic capacity.
- Strategic capacity comes from formal and informal learning but also trusting our inner wisdom and expanding our spiritual awareness and capacity. Amazingly, this not only enhances strategic capacity but also fulfils the second and third reasons volunteers stay involved in organizing – personal connections/ friendships and personal growth & development!
- Revisiting my question of “what does it take to grow mass movements” suggests that it’s not just systems and infrastructure to absorb and mobilize large numbers of volunteers that I need to look at, but also strategic capacity. Transformative practices in movements are an important part of strategic capacity that has mostly been overlooked in the “mainstream” NGO world in Australia.
This is stretching areas of my brain that haven’t been stretched in a while – so I’d really love to hear your idea on this. I promise I’ll keep writing my insights and experiences on this research trip; and in return I’d absolutely love it if people reading this let me know what your reactions and thoughts are. Let’s learn together!