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?