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…