A MAP for When Things Feel Overwhelming

At my birthday party the other night, one of my best friends was talking about the difference between ‘real activism’ and communications-centred campaigning (especially online organising) that doesn’t bring with it the risk of arrest.

The gist of the argument was that only frontline activists who regularly take direct action and get arrested (like my amazing friend Miranda Gibson who is currently sitting up a tree in Tasmania) are making a difference. That they’re braver, that they work harder, that they are the ones history will remember because they’re doing something more important.

I’ve probably simplified the argument, but this false dichotomy between frontline activists and community organisers (online and offline) is something that pops up now and again.  And after the day I’ve had today, I wanted to write a few paragraphs about it.

I used to be very, very involved in the direct action community of student and forest activists. It’s obvious that these activists play an important role in the movement. And yes, it’s bloody hard work  – although I should note that in my experience the community of support is usually strong enough to make it seem less hard and actually fun.

But the people who are acting as a bridge between the issues and the general public through communication strategies and less ‘radical’ community organising are doing JUST as important a job. And trust me, it is JUST as hard work.

Day after day, trying to persuade people to either change their minds on an issue (directly, one-on-one or indirectly through mass media) is discouraging. Getting support from unlikely allies and spokespeople, raising money to run campaigns and projects big enough to reach large numbers of people, and switching people from not caring to caring, or from caring to acting, can be exhausting and dispiriting.

One of my close friends now works primarily on trying to change the way climate science is communicated in the media, and every single day she has to read what the tabloid papers are writing about climate change and the carbon price. And then try to change that situation. For people who ‘get’ the science to see the way it’s distorted in the media every single day is completely depressing. And then just to complete the picture, add a bunch of hate mail and abuse from people who think you’re either funded by the CIA or the greatest threat to western civilization they’ve ever seen.

Please don’t let this put you off activism, if you’re not already involved! I’m being brutally honest about how I’m feeling right now – which is overwhelmed by the scale of not just the book tour project but the task of solving climate change by turning global emissions around before 2015 (if you take the IPCC’s figures) and 2017 (if you take the International Energy Agency figures). And the lack of people willing to give large amounts of money to help make this happen. I’m sure I’ll feel better tomorrow.

Most of the time your days will be better than this. Most of the time you won’t feel this way. And even for the days you do, it’s still worth doing what you’re doing. Because once you understand what’s happening to our planet, the alternative of not doing anything would make you feel even worse.

But what I’m trying to get at is that all parts of our movement face barriers, require courage, and show incredible bravery every day. Whether you’re blockading a coal-fired power station, walking into a room of soft sceptic businesspeople trying to get them to change their ways, or getting up at your school assembly to ask people to come to your environment group meeting even though you’re scared of public speaking – each of these things are valauble. All of these things require guts.

The funny thing is – pretty much everyone involved in social and environmental justice movements understands this. A movement is an ecosystem and diversity of tactics and leadership is essential. It’s often ‘outsiders’ who try to play up these divisions.

So here’s the real point of this post: a refresher course in one of the most important activist tools out there, Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan. It’s something everyone involved in social change should read and understand. It helps us understand the different stages of a social movement, and the various roles that are needed at each time.

My friends James and Sam at The Change Agency were the one who introduced me to Moyer’s work, and they explain it well on their website:

U.S. activist-educator Bill Moyer conceived Movement Action Plan (MAP) to explain and explore the stages and advocacy roles evident in successful social movements. The model’s apparent simplicity may hold the key to its appeal and practical application to activists who seek to analyse, plan and enhance their campaigns. The eight stages and four activist roles provide a language and a framework for discussions and analyses. 

Bill Moyer wrote the Movement Action Plan strategic framework in 1987. Yes, it’s a long time ago, but don’t let that put you off . It’s still very relevant today. Moyer realised, in his own words, that:

“Within a few years after achieving the goals of “take-off”, every major social movement of the past twenty years has undergone a significant collapse, in which activists believed that their movements had failed, the power institutions were too powerful, and their own efforts were futile. This has happened even when movements were actually progressing reasonably well along the normal path taken by past successful movements!”

To counter this, he wrote the movement action plan (MAP). He describes eight stages through which social movements normally progress over a period of years and decades. For each state, MAP describes the role of the public, powerholders, and the movement. It provides organizers with a map of the long road of successful movements, which helps them guide their movement along the way.

Here’s a summary of the eight stages of movements, taken in excerpts from Moyer’s paper. Please read the whole document since I really can’t do it justice in dot points!

Stage One: Normal Times
In this first stage—normal times—there are many conditions that grossly violate widely held, cherished human values such as freedom, democracy, security, and justice, and the best interests of society as a whole. Normal times are politically quiet times. Some past normal times were the violations of Blacks’ civil rights before 1960; the Vietnam War before 1967

Stage Two: Prove the Failure of Institutions
The intensity of public feeling, opinion, and upset required for social movements to occur can happen only when the public realizes that the governmental policies violate widely held beliefs and values. The public’s upset becomes especially intensified when official authorities violate the public trust by using the power of office to deceive the public and govern unfairly and unlawfully. Hannah Arendt wrote that “people are more likely driven to action by the unveiling of hypocrisy than the prevailing conditions.”

Stage Three: Ripening Conditions
The “take-off” of a new social movement requires preconditions that build up over many years. These conditions include broad historic developments, a growing discontented population of victims and allies, and a budding autonomous grassroots opposition, all of which encourage discontent with the present conditions, raise expectations that they can change, and provide the means to do it.

For example, some of the historical forces that made the 1960s ripe for the Black civil rights movement included the emergence of independent Black African countries, the large Northern migration of Blacks who maintained their ties to the segregated South, the rising black college student population, and the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown vs. U.S. decision that provided a legal basis for full civil rights.

Stage Four: Social Movement Take-Off
New social movements surprise and shock everyone when they burst into the public spotlight on the evening TV news and in newspaper headlines. Overnight, a previously unrecognized social problem becomes a social issue that everyone is talking about. It starts with a highly publicized, shocking incident, a “trigger event”, followed by a nonviolent action campaign that includes large rallies and dramatic civil disobedience. Soon these are repeated in local communities around the country.

The trigger event is a shocking incident that dramatically reveals a critical social problem to the general public in a new and vivid way, such as the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to move to the back of a Montgomery bus in 1955 or NATO’s 1979 announcement to deploy American Cruise and Pershing 2 nuclear weapons in Europe. Trigger events can be deliberate acts by individuals, governments, or the opponents, or they can be accidents.

Stage Five: Identify Crisis of Powerlessness
After a year or two, the high hopes of movement take-off seems inevitably to turn into despair. Most activists lose their faith that success is just around the corner and come to believe that it is never going to happen. They perceive that the powerholders are too strong, their movement has failed, and their own efforts have been futile. Most surprising is the fact that this identity crisis of powerlessness and failure happens when the movement is outrageously successful—when the movement has just achieved all of the goals of the take-off stage within two years. This stage of feelings of self-identity crisis and powerlessness occurs simultaneously with Stage Six because the movement as a whole has progressed to the majority stage.

Stage Six: Majority Public Support
The movement must consciouslyundergo a transformation from spontaneous protest, operating in a short-term crisis, to a long-term popular struggle to achieve positive social change. It needs to win over the neutrality, sympathies, opinions, and even support of an increasingly larger majority of the populace and involve many of them in the process of opposition and change.

The central agency of opposition must slowly change from the new wave activists and groups to the great majority of nonpolitical populace, the PPOs, and the mainstream political forces as they are convinced to agree with the movement’s position. The majority stage is a long process of eroding the social, political, and economic supports that enable the powerholders to continue their policies. It is a slow process of social transformation that create a new social and political consensus, reversing those of normal times.

Stage Seven: Success
Stage Seven begins when the long process of building opposition reaches a new plateau in which the new social consensus turns the tide of power against the powerholders and begins an endgame process leading to the movement’s success. The Stage Seven process can take three forms:dramatic showdown, quiet showdown, or attrition.

Stage Eight: Continuining the Struggle
The success achieved in Stage Seven is not the end of the struggle but a basis for continuing that struggle and creating new beginnings.

Over To You…

What are your thoughts on this framework? Where do you think the climate movement is at in Australia? What would it take to move us along to the next stage? Is this kind of thinking useful to your work?

About annastarrrose

Author & environmentalist
This entry was posted in change, learning, life, movements, progressive movement, theory of change and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A MAP for When Things Feel Overwhelming

  1. “A movement is an ecosystem and diversity of tactics and leadership is essential” – now one of my favourite Anna Rose quotes!

    Oh Anna, you will feel better tomorrow, I promise. I completely agree with you, particularly about the demoralisation stuff and maintaining your ‘oomph’. For me I keep a mental list of those moments which I can say to myself: ‘Yes! This is why I’m doing what I’m doing!’. I go back to them during those lows to remember that there are peaks and troughs in activism. We can’t have a high unless we’re starting from somewhere low – that’s what makes the win so awesome and inspiring.

    Marshall Ganz has a similar theory about campaign peaks and troughs and identifies them as being completely necessary to maintain your movement. I think it’s mainly about rather than looking at them with dredge, incorporate them into your plan for R&R so we can move on to the next stage.

  2. ASVincent says:

    I believe one of the toughest elements of campaigning to stop climate change is that it brings a lot of issues together. I’ve heard on numerous occasions that climate change is an umbrella issue, I dislike this because I believe it infers that their is a hierarchy of humanity’s problems and only the very best target the on top… instead I think it’s a step towards recognising the inter-relations amongst issues.

    Global poverty, sustainable economies, waste & consumption reduction, environmental impacts & efficiencies of materials, fossil fuels, localisation, greed, inequality of opportunity, geopolitical tragedy of the commons…. Whilst we may place them under the banner of climate change they are issues in and of themselves that we have left unresolved, and to classify our movement as struggling for acceptance in just one area is to underestimate the cognitive leap that takes place when we recognise our macro environmental systems and the impacts we cause at each and every layer.

    This is not one fight but many, and whilst I too look at the see the change needed in ourselves as daunting, I recognise that being across so many issues allows new relationships to form, new allies to join the movement and a stronger civil society. I have extreme reverence for those that are able to take active duty for years on end, whether it be front lining with direct action, or in the procurement and logistics side (community organisers).

    Anna, your hope, compassion, and stubborn perseverance give me solace even in a time where I am disconnected. Keep dreaming, for soon enough we will all wake to the world you see.

  3. What Anna says above is true. Talking to people on street stalls let you know exactly where the population is. It can be also incredibly depressing however the fact that you are acting and doing something rather than just being depressed is what keeps you going. I think we are at stage 5 at the moment. After Copenhagen and the carbon tax came in I think a lot of people thought we’d been trying hard now for such a long time, now we have a carbon tax, so let’s see what happens. It’s unfortunate that people drop-out of the movement at this time as it is now when we need to keep the pressure on. Big business and people like Martin Ferguson have not gone away. I think we also have to is stop e-mailing each other and start getting out in the street and doing street stalls showing large pictures of CST that it’s already built in other countries. Most sceptics and deniers that I have spoke to support renewable energy. when you speak calmly and rationally about climate change and renewable energy and are prepared to listen to what people have to say you can leave a strong impression on their mind. This is because you don’t fit the picture that they have been told you are mad lefty environmentalist. If you don’t know the answer to a question say I don’t know. Also don’t talk about the extremes of climate change otherwise you are just a scaremonger. we have some solutions to power generation and we need to get into the street and off the e-mail and tell people face-to-face. This will be a long and slow process however it’s faster than e-mailing each other. Don’t get me wrong everybody is important in the movement, everybody has different strengths and everybody is required now is the time to get out there. There’s a new campaign being launched in South Australia today it’s probably our best chance of getting CST up anywhere in Australia. But we need to tell people about it because the mass media is not going to. Hope to See you all at the climate summit at UWS Parramatta campus on the 28th and 29th of April. if you come along I can tell you how to In run a street stall. good luck Terry McBride climate campaigner with ParraCAN.

  4. Julian Grant says:

    Hey there Anna, I was thinking that you were invincible judging by the way you handled Nick during the doco’. Such poise!
    After reading about your tonsillitis and the way you feel above and in previous posts however, I feel compelled to add my support for your efforts.
    Not being particularly good at words and seeing that others have said much in line with what I would like to say, all I have to add are the following random rantings (randlings?):
    You are young, gorgeous, passionate and compassionate. Nick loses on all counts!
    Try to conserve your energy and then speak more about the solutions to the problem, rather than just defining it. People generally understand the gist of issue but are scared and tend to avoid the issue when there is no clear solution.
    Suggest real solutions (as opposed to nonsense like clean coal).
    I would like to see more public explanation of how cost effective renewables are right now. Mr Minchin’s views are based on old data (or are just plain silly).
    Solar PV panels are now <$1 a watt – not $10 as of 5 years ago.
    The CEC, ANZSES and ATA are all proponents of clean power, but they don't get the airtime they deserve. What can be done to improve this?
    Tim Flannery's Cooper Basin geothermal idea is looking even better for base-load these days if only the startup funding was to occur. We just need a NEN (National Electricity Network) to do it.
    I would have thought that mining companies would jump at the idea of just having to drill a few deep holes and let some other mob process the stuff (steam) onsite.
    Does Christine Milne need a technology researcher?

    Now if none of the above makes sense or is helpful to you, at least I can say this: I just ordered a copy of your book!

    Chin up! I have no idea about that chart but seriously, the tide is turning!


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