There’s some beautiful trouble brewing, and Beyond the Choir has got caught up in it. We’re part of an exciting collaboration called Beautiful Trouble. It’s a collaboratively-written (and collaboratively funded!) guide for trouble makers. Check out the new video about the project:
Beautiful Trouble will be a book & web toolbox that puts the best ideas and tactics of creative action in the hands of the next generation of change-makers, connecting the accumulated wisdom of decades of creative protest to the popular outrage of the current political moment…
Beautiful Trouble will pull together an interlocking set of design principles, best practices, innovative tactics and case studies, that will enable anyone to pull off effective creative actions.
Doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to help publish?
Why haven’t the protests on Wall Street sparked a prairie fire of populist rebellion across the country? Why, when Adbusters called for “reinforcements” did these not magically arrive? Why, if the protesters represent the feelings of “99% of Americans” have so very, very few of those represented bothered to support the initiative in any way at all?
Isn’t just about everyone furious with Wall Street right now?
Yes, but turning latent sentiment into coordinated collective action is never as simple as a mere call to action.
But it’s easy to see how a contingent of radicals could come to believe the delusion that the right call to action at the right moment is how mass rebellions are ignited. This formula for instantaneous revolution ignores quite a few essentials, including context, organizing, and leadership.
The “tactic star” is a tool we developed a few years ago. We wanted to repost it here on the new site. Click here to download it as a worksheet (PDF).
Choosing or inventing a successful tactic often involves some intuition and guesswork — and always risk. But the more we study our contexts, the better we become at judging when to pull which punches. Projecting and measuring success is complex, but we should not let the murkiness of these waters deter us from diving into them. Patterns do emerge. We can learn a great deal from our experiences when we critically analyze them. This tactic star names some key factors that change agents should consider when determining their tactics. The same tool can be used to evaluate actions after they have been carried out.
In this series I explore how evolutionary theory might help to explain the origins and logic of collective action, and how it might inform the thinking and strategies of progressive change agents.
This is the landing page for the series. You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.
Branding, in the advertising world, is imbuing a company or product with positive associations inside the consumer’s mind. Marlboro, for example, has so successfully associated cowboys and the wild frontier with their product (cigarettes), that some of their ads don’t even mention the name “Marlboro.” They don’t need to, because the product comes to mind automatically at the sight of the now-famous cowboy image.
In the late 1990s Rainforest Action Network (RAN) carried out some very effective negative branding campaigns, which many powerful people took notice of. RAN realized that a positive brand is one of the most important assets of a corporation. A tarnished brand can repel consumers and scare away investors, as Home Depot learned the hard way. RAN effectively painted Home Depot as a reckless destroyer of old growth forests and rainforests, until the company committed to discontinue using old growth forests for lumber. (A few other companies followed, like dominoes, just at the threat of a possible RAN campaign against their brand name.)
It was around then that I got to thinking about the brands of the social justice organizations I worked with. A brand is essentially the memories and associations that tend to come to mind in the popular imagination at the mention of your name. In this sense, individuals can even have “brands” (though we usually call this a reputation). What associations were coming to mind at the mention of different social change organizations? What about at the mention of broader labels such as activism, environmentalism, feminism, socialism, the peace movement, etc.? If a tarnished brand hurt a corporation’s ability to move product or attract investors, perhaps our tarnished brands were part of the reason so many social change groups were having such a difficult time attracting more participants.
Progressive change agents often engage in something that I call narrative attack; they make a direct attack on one narrative or worldview from the vantage point-and in the language-of their own opposing narrative or worldview. For example, when some people wrap up their anti-environmental views (e.g. climate change denial) in the rhetoric of their creationist beliefs, it is all too tempting for more scientifically minded people to directly attack the climate change deniers’ whole belief system. That is narrative attack. Once a direct attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible, because people feel that their whole belief system is under siege.
(Clearly conservatives do this as well, but given that the purpose of this post is not to criticize but to offer communications strategy suggestions, I’m just discussing this from the viewpoint of progressives.)
A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative, learning the component parts, looking for “allies” inside the narrative. In the Biblical creation story, for example, God charges humankind to be the caretakers of God’s sacred creation. Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment “home-grown insurgency” inside the belief system against the most problematic beliefs (which, in this case, is indifference to climate change). By stressing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation, that ally belief is singled out for positive reinforcement within a complex belief system.
Four years ago today (January 27, 2007), United for Peace & Justice organized a mass protest in Washington DC to end the Iraq War. In the three weeks leading up to the event we were rushing to get our first publication—Building a Successful Antiwar Movement—to the printer in time to distribute at the rally. Jonathan Matthew Smucker wrote this antiwar organizing primer in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, and we fundraised to be able to distribute about 20,000 copies free of charge to local antiwar groups across the country.
The pamphlet is written for a particular audience at a particular political moment — at the height of the unpopularity of the Iraq occupation, and a week after the new Democratic-controlled Congress had been sworn in. However, the pamphlet provides some “tools and methods for people organizing to end the war” that are still relevant today. And the frameworks can be applied to other social justice issues as well.
The pamphlet is posted here in four parts:
- Three Roles of an Antiwar Core (Intro)
- Speak the Truth, Tell a Story (Role 1: Interpretive)
- Articulating a Strategy (Role 2: Instructive)
- Activating Popular Participation (Role 3: Facilitative)
To inquire about ordering hard copies of the pamphlet, email info[at]beyondthechoir[dot]org — please write “Pamphlet” in the subject line.
This is the fourth and final installment in a series written by Jonathan Matthew Smucker in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, originally published in 2007. Click here to read the previous essay, Articulating a Strategy
Kinetic and Potential
There is a tendency among people active in social movements (like the antiwar movement) to look at ourselves and think that this is it, that we are the whole of the movement, that we know all the players. When we think we know all the players, as well as how to talk to them/ourselves, then we can become lax on communicating with a broader public. This limits efforts to recruit, activate, or make alliances with, additional players. If we think about the antiwar movement only in terms of its kinetic energy (i.e. that which is already in motion) we will look around at the actors currently on the stage and think that it is up to us alone to end the war and prevent future wars of aggression. This would require magic. We can- not realize our vision of peace and justice with only our current numbers mobilized. We must build a far larger movement. We have to activate potential energy.
If you’re reaching out to the news media as part of your grassroots social justice campaign, it’s important to know the difference between your hook and your message. Your news hook is whatever you use to get reporters to show up in the first place (e.g. hanging a banner on Mount Rushmore). A campaign message is what you actually want to communicate to the public, through the filter of the news media (e.g. “America needs real leadership from President Obama on the issue of global warming.”).
Do I see Beyond the Choir co-founder Madeline Gardner up there?
Hooks and messages are rarely the same exact thing, and it is important to know the difference. An attention-grabbing tactic (which is the hook) can all too easily become the entire story, without any reporting about why activists might go to such lengths. More times than not this is what contemporary mainstream news coverage of protests and direct actions looks like. I have helped to plan actions that were only covered as part of the traffic report because the news desks had decided that the only thing relevant to their audience about our action was the potential that we would disrupt the smooth flow of traffic!
This is the third installment in a four-part series written by Jonathan Matthew Smucker in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, originally published in 2007. Click here to read the previous essay, Speak the Truth, Tell a Story
Context is the ground we build on.
The second primary role of an antiwar core that we will discuss is to formulate winning strategies and articulate them in a way that will inspire broad action to end the war.
Taking action with a faith in the possibility that we may somehow end the war is very different from taking action with a strategy about how to do it. The former is a shot in the dark. The latter is a hard target, but one we’re likely to get closer to the more we practice.
Faith in the possibility of affecting change is an important starting point – a prerequisite for social change work. Given the profound level of political disempowerment in our society, such faith should not be undervalued. But good strategy must be informed by much more than faith. The more information we have, the more likely that our strategy will be on target. What kind of information are we looking for? Well, who are the decision-makers? Who or what influences them? What are the decision-making processes? What alliances and tensions exist within “the system”? What are the possible legislative and legal points of intervention? Who are our allies? Who are our potential allies? What related issues are other progressive groups working on? What are the big concerns in our communities, and how are they articulated? How do people get their news and information? What are the cultural narratives that hold meaning to the people around us? What are people’s attitudes toward “activism” or “activists?” What is the history of social change, and how is that history perceived?