We Must Be Strategic To Win Social Change
Protest. Petition. Call your senators. Nothing changes, right? No matter how large our demonstrations get, no matter how many millions of people write and petition politicians, no matter how many people get arrested in front of the White House or at our state capitols, it seems that our (supposedly) elected officials keep turning a blind eye and deaf ear to our cries for change.
In fact, there’s even a study out that shows that in 20 years on 2,000 different bills, we, the People, got our bills through Congress a whopping 0.0 percent of the time. (Yes, you read that correctly. Zero point zero. In other words, “never-ever-not-once”.) Only businesses and rich people managed to get legislation passed. And sure, it looked like we had a few victories, so long as one of those other groups were aligned with us. But when we wanted something they didn’t, nope. Nada. No way. Congress just wasn’t listening.
You’d think we’d learn from 20 years of experience, but to judge from the emails I’m getting as an engaged and caring conscious citizen, we haven’t. I’m supposed to give my reps and senators a ring 40 times a day on as many issues. I’ve been invited to enough DC mass demonstrations and marches this year to take up residence there. And I have to confess to a hefty dose of skepticism that voting this batch of politicians out of office in two to four years is the only way to advance social justice causes. In that timeframe, hundreds of school children could be murdered in mass shootings in schools, hundreds (and probably close to a thousand) black people could be shot dead by police, and dozens of aquifers will be contaminated with fracking toxins and oil spills – to name just a few of the problems that will rack up casualties in the next couple years.
I’m rarely happy to be lied to, but in this case the truth holds more hope that my email list organizations are letting on. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be thrilled to know that we have literally dozens more options for pushing for change than we’re generally told. Getting foot-dragging corporate and oligarch controlled politicians to pass legislation is not our only option. (Thank goodness.)
So what can we do? For one thing, talk to your favorite nonprofits, organizations, and campaigns for change. Ask them to do a thorough strategic analysis of the problem you’re working on. Look for the all the power holders, not just the political ones. Your power holders on the issue may be investors, financiers, technicians, researchers, academics, social trend-setters, police chiefs, school administrators, CEOs and shareholders, and many other types of groups. Analyze the problem carefully before you assume that politicians are the only ones with the power to change the equation. There are many books and online tools to help you with this work.
Do a Pillars of Support analysis to find your leverage points in the equation. Every injustice arises in a system. Find the points of intervention and cut off the flow of labor, money, resources, information, and/or functionality until your demand for change is met. Your best point of intervention may not be on the political front. For example, when Earth Quaker Action Team wanted to stop mountain top removal, they didn’t stop at calling their senators – they shut down the big bank that was financing the coal companies.
If you’re looking for ways to change a complex problem, one with many potential solutions that could be implemented at several levels, see if you can work for change on many fronts, building cumulative campaigns (even simultaneous cumulative campaigns if you want to get really fancy) to implement several sets of changes. For example, when peacebuilders in Gainesville, FL wanted to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, they worked to address the many layers of the problem, helping to start a restorative justice program in both the schools and the juvenile justice system, initiating police-youth dialogues, and working to resource kids and families to meet underlying needs, among other approaches.
Consider doing a Spectrum of Allies to identify your allies. You might be surprised at who/what you discover. Do you need the telecoms giants to back off from Net Neutrality? Net Neutrality supporters include some behemoths like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. If you pointed your campaign at shifting them from fairly passive allies to active allies (say, shutting down all search engine and advertisement traffic to the telecom giants), you’ll have mobilized some powerful allies. Other times, your allies pop up in less powerful groups that are, nonetheless, in powerful positions to serve as pivots of change, One example might be coders, who also advocate for Net Neutrality. Imagine an industry-wide coders’ strike for Net Neutrality . . . it might be a fairly rapid and swift way to shift the equation on this issue.
We have more power than we think. But we’ve got to go beyond the “protest-petition-call officials-vote” routine. Think outside that box, and you’ll find a world of creative solutions and strategies to tap into. I’d like to issue a challenge to all of our nonprofits and organizing groups to at least employ a one-for-one strategy. If you’re going to ask people to call public officials or join a large protest, add a second strategy that uses an organized, sustained, and strategic act of noncooperation and/or intervention targeted at a second group of power holders. The time has come to double down on strategy and make great strides toward change.
Author/Activist Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection, The Roots of Resistance, and many other books, including a study guide to making change with nonviolent action. She is the cohost of Love (and Revolution) Radio, and a trainer in strategy for nonviolent movements.