Five Principles of Transformational Activism

I started writing this post in the lush green surroundings of Vermont in late spring, and haven’t been able to finish it until now, on a rainy morning six weeks later in the middle of Sydney’s chilly winter. I’m glad I waited, because it’s given me more time to reflect, and to converse with people who’ve helped develop these ideas, especially Lily Spencer (Yay! Congrats on getting married Lily!) and Deepa Gupta, who have been actively thinking about these concepts for a lot longer than I have.

Firstly, a definition: the way I think of transformational activism is activism that (1) looks beyond the short-term and towards the deeper cultural change that’s required for true sustainability and social justice and (2) incorporates wisdom from psychology, health, spirituality and other non-traditional activist areas of life, into our work.

I’ll start with a qualification: we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not arguing for a complete change in the way all nonprofits, organizers, and activists operate. And I’m also not arguing that transformational activism isn’t already happening. Thousands of individuals and groups are already practicing a different kind of activism that is absolutely transformational. My aim is to learn from them and help spread the lessons that are working, not point a finger at organisations and tell them what to do. I also understand how hard it is “in the trenches” of everyday activism to have the time or headspace to think about more than the day’s overwhelmingly long to do list and I recognise my incredible privilege in having been able to take seven weeks off to travel the world and think about things like this whilst on my Churchill fellowship.

With that in mind, and to kick off a discussion, here are five ways that I think we can translate this enormous concept of ‘transformational activism’ into our work.

1. Think a few steps ahead

I’ve never been naturally drawn to the phrase “strategic planning” because I know that in effective advocacy work, we have to be able to respond flexibly to new circumstances and revise our strategy on the run. But what I do think is important is thinking a few steps ahead about the long-term consequences of our work. Will it polarise the country, or will it help bring people together? Are we fighting a short-term battle that needs to be won, but that will have adverse long-term unexpected consequences like alienating a key ally, or framing an issue in a way sets us up to lose in the long term? A good, practical concept to use when making decisions that I learned when studying Law and Social Change at Cornell is to examine the following: intended positive consequences, intended negative consequences, unintended positive consequences and unintended negative consequences.

2. Build Community

Movements that are based on (or have built from scratch) strong relational ties, social relationships, and a strong sense of community are movements that will last. They’re also movements that are stronger and more resilient, and will therefore be more likely to survive attacks, and take actions that require greater courage. I’m not saying there’s no place for movements based on shallow or weak ties – how else can we widen the circle of those involved? Low barrier actions like online petitions have an important place in a movement’s ladder of engagement. So please don’t misinterpret this – I’m not trying to (unlike Malcolm Gladwell) polarise online and offline organising. That debate is based on a false premise. But what is essential is for organisations that want to practice transformational activism – those who’ve taken on the role of holding the deep movement base, to focus on building strong relationships between members, for example through the ‘small circle’ model practiced by Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, or another way. This is much easier in identity-based movements (like youth, women or people of colour) because of the shared identities and natural inclination to want to spend time with “people like you”. However, there are also groups like the Sydney Alliance, Citizens UK and the Chicago Collaborative (all based on Saul Alinksy’s relational community organising model) who have a model of relational organising between diverse communities and diverse leaders.

There are a few reasons that make relational organising and community building transformational. Firstly, being in relationship with one another changes the life of the individuals involved. We rebuild community and we support each other, which makes your activism much more an integrated part of your life than just a “hobby” you do for a few hours a week. In building strong communities that are also movements we change the notion that doing activism is “work” and we begin to re-shape the notion of what it means to be a modern human. We can start to shift people away from being consumers and back to being citizens, especially where we find ways to mix community service work and advocacy as two parts of the same whole.

3. Diagnose and Ripen Issues Wisely

One of our most important tasks as organizers is to be able to diagnose situations and issues. We need to be able to look deeply at a problem and ask, what are the underlying factors causing this? Once we’ve spent time doing diagnosis work, we can develop hypotheses about what kind of interventions we can make that can change the systems creating the problem. Then we test our hypotheses through action – carrying out our intervention. Then we ask ourselves if our hypothesis was correct, or whether we need to try something else. This process is linked to traditional activist tools such as power mapping, cutting the issue and the campaign strategy chart developed by groups like the Midwest Academy and taught in Australia by The Change Agency. It can be seen as technical work, and often involves research. But there’s another factor: ripeness. We need to be able to judge whether an issue is “ripe” to work on, and if not, how we can make it ripe through an initial intervention. It can be hard for many activists to judge whether their issue is ripe, because it’s so close to their own heart that it’s all they think about – but often they deny the reality that it’s not on anyone else’s radars yet.

4. Work with Spaciousness & Neutrality

Once an issue is “ripe” to work on, we need to be able to hold it with a bit of distance at times. In Sydney Leadership we called this “getting off the dance floor and on the balcony”, which gives a nice image of getting our heads above the day-to-day chaos and asking, ‘what’s really going on here?’ In order to be able to do this, though, we need to be able to work with two important concepts: spaciousness, and neutrality. I struggle with both of these! They’re really hard! Spaciousness is being able to hold an issue lightly. We may care passionately about something, and this is both extremely useful at times, and not useful at other times because it can blind us to reality, or to what’s really going on. When we can’t hold an issue with lightness, we get depressed and dull. We lose our sense of humour about our campaigns and start thinking rigidly. The enemy is demonized, our own righteousness unquestionable, and our theory of change set in stone. We stop seeing new possibilities that we may have once seen with fresh eyes. Holding an issue lightly means taking weekends and holidays! We need to renew our sense of joy and wonder and take the weight we feel about all the problems of the world resting on our little shoulders off for a while.

Neutrality is being able to see the issue from many sides. I’m not saying you are wrong to look at it from your perspective – but that being able to hold it spaciously and look at from a “neutral” hat will help you see new possibilities and understand what’s at stake for the other players involved. In all hard issues, like climate change, some parts of the system are facing a loss. Neutrality means being able to acknowledge and understand that loss. It means we can approach the people who fear change with compassion rather than judgment. As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird, “never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes”.

5. Bring your whole self to activism and allowing your supporters to do the same

The New Organizing Institute teaches what they call “engagement organising”, which is basically asking and allowing our supporters to bring their whole selves to their work. We shouldn’t just see them as a wallet, or a potential petition signatory, or a number on a database – they are whole people and they have a variety of skills, experiences and most importantly, networks, that they can bring to a campaign that they feel deeply passionate about, and welcomed in to. This is much easier to do with small, community-based campaigns where a lot of the work is done face-to-face, but the principle of engagement organising can also be applied to larger, even primarily online, campaigns through using a ladder of engagement, which I mentioned earlier. Read Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church, or Make Believe’s summary document “Purpose Driven Campaigning” if you haven’t already done so. In every campaign there should be opportunities for people to go more deeply if they want to. There should be leadership development and leadership opportunities, even if it’s as simple as organising a local event in your own community for a national campaign. Design campaign tactics with this in mind. Let people bring everything they have into a campaign, and encourage them to do so.

This principle – bringing whole selves to activism – applies just as much to how you, the organiser, do your work. Do you feel you have to be a different person with your activist friends as compared to how you are with the people you work with at your day job, and a different person again with your family? If so, you’re not bringing your whole self anywhere. This can be hard for the many, many activists who are forced to, out of financial need, to split their income earning activities from their activism and social change work. My heart goes out to you –and I’d love to hear in the comments field how you manage to do this and stay sane.

For me, activism has been at the core of my life since I was 14, and everything else – housing, where I live, high school studies, University, income earning, friends – mostly had to fit around that. And luckily, that worked out – with a bit of hard work and serendipity. But it was always relatively balanced in the sense that I felt like what I was doing was the most important thing I should be doing. I never felt that I “had” to do activism because it was a job. Rather, solving climate change and advocating for social and environmental justice was my passion. I never had any expectation when I got involved in my first campaign in high school that it would lead to a “career” or “income”. But I couldn’t not do it – even if it meant I’d be working at a café to support myself. It was too important to me. Conversely, though, my activism has always been very linked to the social part of my life. The people I wanted to be friends with were mostly also doing social change work. I met my fiancé through co-founding the AYCC with him and other people who have become my closest friends. I’m probably not doing the best job of describing this, but what I’m trying to get at is that most of the time, my life has felt very integrated. I’m the same person at work as I am at home. I don’t feel like I have to separate and split up aspects of myself for different audiences. This is the kind of activism that leads to deep change, both in ourselves and in the world. Powerful leaders and deep system-changing movements throughout history (like the civil rights movement, suffragettes movement and Indian independence movement) and today (like the DREAM Act campaign in the USA and the activism of front-line communities experiencing climate change) has always been about whole-of-self activism.

If you’re interested in thinking more deeply about your activism, I would highly recommend any of the courses run by Social Leadership Australia. I did the 9- month long Sydney Leadership program last year. There are several 4-day introductory courses coming up, and you can find out more here.

And now, over to you! I wrote this blog because there are upcoming discussions in our movement about the concept of transformational activism, and I want to make sure the wisdom of this blog community can feed into that. Comment away…

About annastarrrose

Author & environmentalist
This entry was posted in climate change, learning, listening, movements, progressive movement, social change, theory of change, transformative activism. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Five Principles of Transformational Activism

  1. Anna, thanks for sharing this with us. As i always say, for me in Ghana, your experiences are really shaping my activism here directly and I must admit that you and the AYCC have been a real inspiration to my work in Ghana on Climate Actvism.

    In Ghana, leadership development for young people in activism is a great challenge and so the balance between leadership and passion to cause change is not level and strong enough, knowing that the fact that one is passionate about social change doesn’t automatic trasfer leadership qualities.

    I wish the 9month long Sydney leadership course was available online. I always look out for your updates and notes online. Anna, you are a real inspiration to this our blackberry totting generation. You are my heroine.

  2. Xander says:

    I think everyone has something to take away from the ideas that you have summarised in your blog, and everyone’s questions and answers will be unique to their perspective and the culture of their organisation.

    It is interesting to hear about the trade off between dedicating yourself wholly to a cause and bringing your whole self to a cause. I think this is a difference between a movement and an organisation, a movement unites people from many interests behind one cause whereas an organisation unites many people to one purpose. Seeing this dynamic change and the culture of the AYCC adapt and grow is interesting and I’m always trying to be aware of this dynamic as possible and the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches.

    The points on building a community are really important, and I there is untapped potential in this area not as much from volunteer organisations as from commercial organisations and internally focused NGOs. Culture compounds change and can make or break a society. I only hope that in the times ahead our Australian culture can embrace the challenges facing us and break from our current timidness.

    On consequences (intended or unintended) it is always hard to find a balance of efforts between winning a battle and winning a war, do we play the media game and hope that it filters through the national debate or do we focus our efforts more so on deviating the course of the main stream? This also filters into the idea of thinking a few steps a head.
    I believe that if you can create an inevitability, or at least an atmosphere of one, then people will gravitate towards it more so than bickering in current cultural conditions. I favour a longer term outlook on campaigns, and building alternative communities but that’s what fits nicely with my theory of change. I’d love to know if Make believe ever goes this deep into their campaigns with clients or on what kind of time scale tactics are judged, it’d be interesting to see how this type of thinking occurs in a transaction dependent environment.

    In my experience it has been the ripening of national issues that has always happened poorly in national campaigns run by organisations or agencies. I think this is because of the natural injustice that past seismic cultural have been ushered in under. Ideas that outgrew their spark and a capitalisation of momentum. I’m yet to read any resource addressing the effectiveness of ripening an issue but would love to hear more from your experiences and travels time willing, as most of my own experience has been through campaign frames and or power relations.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post and I am glad you enjoyed your travels so much.

    • Hi Xander – for a bit more writing on ripening issues, and leadership in general I suggest you read the book “Leadership without Easy Answers”. I think you’ll get a lot out of it!

  3. liz skelton says:

    Hi Anna. Great to read your blogs and hear how your experiences on the churchill fellowship are being integrated. This is really interesting reading, youve pulled together some gems from a range of places which make a lot of sense around activism. I was thinking reading this about also separating self from role, as being distinct from being integrated in your work, but also the need to have understanding about the role that you are taking up and the bandwidth, opportunities and limitations that role has. We often confuse this idea of role with working authentically and in an integrated way and I think you bringing this in to the role of the activist is really important. thanks for this.

    • There are definitely tensions between bringing your whole self to your work on the one hand, and maintaining spaciousness/ sense of self as distinct from role on the other. One friend who is a mother pointed out in an email comment that this was definitely written from the perspective of someone who is young and (relatively) unburdened by family responsibilities, and that adults with other things than activism to juggle can also practice transformative activism without giving up everything else in their lives. I think that’s a really good point. Bringing your whole self to your role may not work for lots of people – it’s all dependent on context!

  4. Bec says:


    The quality of your post is already reflected in the thoughtful analysis in the comments above.

    As always you provoke and inspire, and as I’ve said before I appreciate the way your synthesise existing ideas/debate/research in a new way that embodies the pragmatic idealism (idealistic pragmatism?) we all strive for.

    You know I’m really fascinated by working (and campaigning) at that nexus of identity and community. How can we, as a movement, or individual organisations, support/encourage (require?) members to develop community(membership)-based identity? I agree with you that relational organising and engagement ladders are key, but those models are very challenging to implement, for example, in a multi-issue primarily-online organisation, or riding an electoral cycle. I love the way the Obama Campaign tried to manage the cycle with Organizing for America, and after the next election I am really hopeful there’ll be more critical analysis of their attempts we can all learn from. Can you suggest some examples of encouraging individuals to develop/strengthen the their self-identification with a community/movement in those types of campaigning? Or maybe there are places in the movement for organisations who don’t contribute in that way?

    I also love the challenge for “bringing the whole self” and I know it doesn’t apply in my own life, which I’d love to change, but I’m also curious about how we encourage it in membership based organisations/movements. I think planned/strategic/thoughtful provision of constant opportunities for deeper engagement is essential, obviously, but als that it’s extremely challenging. From the outside I get the impression the AYCC do it very well. Is that true? What lessons can you share?

    I hope you see that I’m asking questions and for detailed examples because I am indeed inspired and provoked. Thanks again for these posts -reading them builds my sense of commitment and my identity as an organiser, and I think that’s quite the gift you give.

    Much love, and kudos.


    • Hi Bec! Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to your wonderful comment. You say: “maybe there are places in the movement for organisations who don’t contribute in that way” and I completely agree with that. This post is on transformative activism- which is one subset of activism – but we will never get the chance to practice activism that is longer-term thinking if there aren’t some groups that are mostly short-term focused, and being successful in winning the day-to-day battles that need to be fought.

      I think AYCC does well at encouraging volunteers to “bring their whole self” partly because it’s an identity-based membership organisation – e.g. we only work with young people, so they are going to want to hang out with other young people anyway. Also we’ve always been very clear about having a movement orientation, as opposed to, say, Greenpeace, which is often more about their staff doing actions that require elite skills (climbing tall stuff) and doesn’t require much involvement from volunteers.

      So much more to say on this – but am quite sick at the moment so will leave it there now. xox Anna

  5. Tim Kenworthy says:

    Anna! I loved this, and I think you nailed a lot of things entirely. Whole-of-self is definitely how I’ve been seeing what we’re on about with our work (even tough it’s not really visible yet). Can definitely identify with spaciousness too. Having just had three actual weekends in a row, and got real distance from everything (the balcony) a lot of new insights, and actually a broader, deeper vision have emerged. So important! Stay awes.

  6. Grace says:

    Dear Anna, Your leadership & passion for a better future are very inspiring. Transformational activism is very relevant to my passion; peace building. And interestingly neutrality is an essential ingredient in building and feeling Peace. I care deeply about nurturing a culture of peace and nonviolence in Australia and beyond. Whilst people can easily enlist in the army or the navy, parallel opportunities to find paid work in the peace arena are currently nonexistent. This frustrates me. I currently dedicate much time to a variety of diverse peace projects and am struggling to find reliable, soul-satisfying work that will pay the bills. Integrating my whole self in all areas of my life can be a challenge. But thanks for the inspiration. By the way, do you have an interest in seeing more youth peace initiatives and groups within Australia emerge and blossom? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic sometime. Best wishes.

  7. Ben McNeil says:

    Hi Anna,
    Nice insights here. I think that like information-overload in a digital age, activism also needs to be selective to avoid good-cause overload. There are simply too many good things that will never get a voice in such a world, so I think the principles should not be all encompassing, but selective, collaborative with others and ultimately transformative.
    Ben McN.

  8. Pingback: Five Principles Of Transformational Activism – Anna Rose « Casper ter Kuile

  9. cterkuile says:

    I bought Rick Warren’s books on amazon this week. My reading material for the singing trip : ) ‘What. Is. In. Your. Hand?’

    I’ve re-posted the blog, hope that’s cool. x

  10. Great post Anna. I was raised on Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and have only recently been able to find the ‘sweet spacious spot’ between the issues I care about and neutrality. Great blog with amazing insight. Keep on keeping on!

  11. Jewel Rainbow says:

    #AWESOMECHICK What an inspiring person u r – glad our paths crossed – and more beautiful than #TheMightyMagestic #SarahHanson-Young


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