Narrative insurgency | grassroots communications tips pt.3

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.

This approach works with people’s tendency toward confirmation bias, which smartMeme summarizes as “people’s habit of screening information based on their own beliefs. In other words, people are much more likely to believe something that reinforces their existing opinions and values than to accept information that challenges their beliefs.”

To be clear, the term “narrative insurgency” is internal and strictly metaphorical, and it may be a more useful metaphor for some social change groups than others.  I first introduced the framework of narrative insurgency versus narrative attack in Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

If we are to transform cultural meanings, we need to think not in terms of attacking culture from the outside, but rather in terms of homegrown insurgency, indigenous to the culture. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative. [We need to change] the culture from the inside out. (With the term narrative insurgency we are stressing that new meanings must rise up within existing cultural narratives – a nonviolent and thoroughly political process.)

Returning to the original example of climate change denial, the narrative insurgent approach-assuming that it is well executed with a well-crafted message and an orientation to genuinely connect with others-is likely to help in important ways.  First, it helps to find and draw out allies: creationists (or closet evolutionists in the given religious community) who care about the environment.  Second, this approach will make it more difficult for your hardest opposition to win allies for their extreme position – or to demonize advocates of environmental stewardship.  Finally, by repeating and positively reinforcing this message (in the context of ongoing engagement and relationship), the belief that we should care for the earth is strengthened within the given community’s complex collective belief system.  Organizers then have the challenge of helping to give positive collective expression to the emboldened belief.

Again, from Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

Cultural narratives (e.g. America: Beacon of Liberty, Purveyor of Democracy) are characteristically complex, often rife with contradictions, and vary from one person to the next. Narrative insurgents do not reject narratives wholesale, but distinguish between those components that are allied, hostile or neutral to their cause. They embrace as much of a cultural narrative as possible-the allied and neutral components-and encourage the further development of the allied components, using these as the foundations for their organizing efforts in the given community.

It’s important to point out that this approach is not about inherently avoiding direct confrontation with destructive narratives and beliefs.  Rather it is a preference for utilizing positive reinforcement at many points in a long-term social change process.  Ultimately there comes a time when a destructive narrative becomes untenable to a critical mass of people, and when a new polarization will be useful (a revolutionary moment, for example).  The strategy here is for the necessary lead-up work to such a moment: to feed the allied components within a narrative until they are strong enough to burst out of the old framework.  (I will explore this moment of the mass psychic break in a future post.)

Since publication of Building a Successful Antiwar Movement four years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to lead campaign strategy sessions in which participants brainstorm together to list beliefs and stories that are popular among the constituencies they are engaging.  They categorize the beliefs into five categories on a spectrum: strongly supportive, somewhat supportive, neutral, somewhat opposing, and strongly opposing.  A strongly supportive belief would be one that lends itself strongly to the group’s mission and purpose.  This mapping helps the group to identify what kinds of messages are likely to have the strongest resonance in their campaign messaging.

This is only a genuinely grassroots approach if the framework is applied in the context of accountable relationships and with reliable feedback loops.  It’s about connecting with people’s positive values – not tricking them.  Concluding on that note, once again from Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

If change agents do not love the people and communities they are engaging, then narrative insurgency for them will likely be an unsuccessful attempt to manipulate people to further an agenda. It is not enough for that agenda to be human liberation or even love itself – in the abstract. A change agent must love the specific people and communities s/he engages. S/he must value each relationship in its own right. While s/he will often disagree with others’ opinions, s/he still values and even empathizes with their perspectives. S/he is forgiving toward their shortcomings. S/he is always rooting for them, always finding something worthy of praise, even when it seems like finding a needle in a haystack. As such, narrative insurgency begins to come naturally; s/he does not have to feign identification with the allied and neutral components within the narrative, within the culture … A change agent learns the intricacies of cultural narratives not to deceive people, but to communicate common values in a language that holds meaning for them.

This is the third post in a series.

grassroots communications tips (series)

Someone recently asked me to jot down some communications, media and messaging tips for folks engaged in grassroots social justice organizing efforts and campaigns. So, that’s what I’m doing in this series.  I’ll be breaking down some specific techniques and also exploring deeper communications concepts and frameworks.

This is the landing page for this series.  You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.

  1. How to pitch reporters
  2. Hooks & messages
  3. Narrative insurgency
  4. Grassroots organizational branding

“Spontaneity” and social change | reflections on Gramsci pt.1

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of hegemony, and reading Antonio Gramsci.  I’ll be posting a few reflections as I go.

Years ago, I remember growing wary of tendencies (within activist groups I was part of) to exaggerate and glorify supposedly “spontaneous” elements of activism and protest.  Some group members often recounted protests and direct actions as if what transpired had been spontaneous, even when the same individuals had themselves participated in elaborate planning meetings and preparations for the actions.  What bothered me more was when this fiction of spontaneity mutated until it held a central place in some group members’ theory of change.  The “theory” seemed to hold that if a few committed activists were willing to be “militant” enough, their actions might somehow inspire more people to do likewise; change would ultimately occur as a result of a spontaneous mass uprising of this sort.

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander Folk School just before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955.

The myth of spontaneity also seemed present in how the broader society viewed protest and collective action-when it wasn’t ignored entirely-and this bothered me too.  The story of Rosa Parks’ refusal, for example, was popularly told and retold as the story of a woman who was tired, who had had enough, and who spontaneously refused to unfairly give up her seat to a white rider on the bus.  I had learned what really happened: that Rosa Parks was a seasoned community leader; that she had had many strategic discussions with other leaders about this very action beforehand; that she had been part of strategic trainings at the Highlander Folk School, a center that had trained many Civil Rights and labor leaders (including Martin Luther King Jr.).  The story of, “I was tired,” annoyed me because it felt to me that it took political agency out of the equation.  The implied lesson seemed to be, “If you, as an individual, muster the courage to stand up and do what’s right, you may just kick off a whole movement (spontaneously).”  The more accurate and instructive lesson, in my opinion, would have been, “If you plan with others, prepare yourself and others, build strong relationships in your community, develop a strategy for action, and build community buy-in, then you may be able to effectively intervene in the historical process.”

I was surprised then to learn later that Rosa Parks and other Civil Rights leaders had intentionally created and spread this myth of spontaneity.  Sociologist Francesca Polletta discusses this in her book It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics:

For American activists during much of the last century, one of the thorniest challenges was to avoid charges of communist influence.  Representing protest as homegrown and spur-of-the-moment was a way to deflect claims that it was controlled by “outsiders,” which meant Communists.  In the Tallahassee, Florida, sit-in campaign, adult leaders who helped plan the sit-ins denied their own involvement for that very reason.  Rosa Park’s activism before the Montgomery bus boycott included a stint at the Highlander Folk School, a radical education center in Tennessee that was branded a “communist training school” soon after Parks’s visit.  This was reason enough for Montgomery activists to cast her as a political neophyte.  Betty Friedan had also spent time at the Highlander Center.  In addition to fearing redbaiting, she presumably wanted to appeal to women who had not been exposed to radical ideas and settings.  Movement stories, in this view, are strategic bids for public support.

Billboard showing Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School

Knowing the above and understanding the historical context, this intentional construction of a story of spontaneity-to dodge being labeled Communists-struck me as clever.  But it still seemed unfortunate.  As Polletta asks, “Why deny the intentionality that might have served to persuade other people of the ease of mobilization?”

I suppose I figured that this example was particular to the Civil Rights Movement, in a particular historic moment and political culture.  It didn’t occur to me that other strategic leaders in other contexts (including in countries where redbaiting lacked the potency it enjoyed in the United States) might employ this same tactic of making highly planned actions appear spontaneous.  Gramsci suggests that wise leaders should do just that.

In his essay Spontaneity and Conscious Leadership (in his Prison Notebooks), Gramsci clarifies the complicated role of spontaneity in political organizing and collective action.  I connected with his distaste for “political adventurers who argue for it [spontaneity] as a ‘political’ method.”  This language aligns with my negative experiences with activists who believe their ill-conceived “militant” actions-when disconnected from an organizing strategy or a social base of power-might somehow someday magically catalyze a spontaneous mass uprising.

What was new to me, however, is Gramsci’s description of the potential strategic value of leaders and movements intentionally creating an aura of spontaneity around their movements.  Gramsci explains:

The leaders themselves spoke of the “spontaneity” of the movement, and rightly so.  This assertion was a stimulus, a tonic, an element of unification in depth; above all it denied that the movement was arbitrary, a cooked-up venture, and stressed its historical necessity.  It gave masses a “theoretical” consciousness of being creators of historical and institutional values…  This unity between “spontaneity” and “conscious leadership” or “discipline” is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes in so far as this is mass politics and not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses.

I find this nuanced argument clarifying and compelling.  It brings together different things I had experienced and impulses I had felt into a more unified theory.  On the one hand, I had felt that popular myths of “spontaneous movements” (like in the case of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott) had limited many Americans’ understandings of the power and possibilities of organized collective action.  On the other hand, when I had experimented with creating an explicit story about collective action in my organizing work with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice, I had mixed results.  The “story of agency” I told was helpful and instructive for a few highly committed young activists to develop their leadership and self-conception.  But most of the people who participated in LCPJ’s efforts were compelled by the historical moment, and had little interest in the nitty-gritty of organizing.  And I started to notice an unintended effect that sometimes seemed to stem from my stressing of intentionality and debunking of spontaneity; namely too much overt attention to my role as an organizer, and perhaps too little sense of ownership from more peripheral participants.

Building ownership is a critical task of grassroots organizing.  Perhaps propagating a myth of spontaneity-rather than resisting it-could have helped to build more ownership from more people in the case of the LCPJ.  In future organizing work, I would like to experiment more with targeting different mobilizing stories to different “tiers” of participants: a story of intentionality/agency for core leaders, and a story imbued with a sense of spontaneity to peripheral participants and broader audiences.

Building a Successful Antiwar Movement

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:

  1. Three Roles of an Antiwar Core (Intro)
  2. Speak the Truth, Tell a Story (Role 1: Interpretive)
  3. Articulating a Strategy (Role 2: Instructive)
  4. Activating Popular Participation (Role 3: Facilitative)

You can also click here to download the original formatted pamphlet as a PDF.

To inquire about ordering hard copies of the pamphlet, email info[at]beyondthechoir[dot]org — please write “Pamphlet” in the subject line.

Activating Popular Participation | Building a Successful Antiwar Movement (Role3: Facilitation)

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.

The third primary role of an antiwar core that we will discuss in this final essay is to build the movement’s capacity by facilitating the participation of large numbers of people. Change agents must provide more opportunities for everyday people to take meaningful action to end the war. We must set others up to play helpful ongoing roles that they can sustain. We have to accommodate multiple levels of participation. And we must activate existing social networks and institutions to work to end the war, rather than only building the movement one recruit at a time.

This facilitative role–perhaps more than either of the previously discussed roles–requires an antiwar core to conceptualize itself as such and to understand the nature of its relationship to a broader movement.


Antiwar core essentially refers to committed antiwar change agents; those individuals who, through whatever combination of circumstance, experience, effort and choice, find antiwar organizing among their primary commitments. Having a critical number of these folks will be indispensable to a successful antiwar movement. However, a serious impediment to building a bigger movement is the tendency among such uniquely positioned individuals to act as if we alone might somehow end the war. Sure, we can have some impact. But if we are talking about posing a potent challenge to entrenched power structures, then we have to look far past ourselves. To succeed, the antiwar movement needs to effectively tap hundreds of thousands-if not millions-of people who are willing to give something. Many such folks are already out there, but organizers need to attract them and give them some direction. If the antiwar core can’t effectively activate the next tier of potential movement participants, it will certainly fail to engage the broader society. These potential participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to change the direction of US policy. Therefore, the interplay between these tiers of movement participants is of critical importance.

If the kinds of progressive changes we imagine are ever to be realized, it will be through the active participation of large numbers of teachers, nurses, factory workers, barbers, artists, service workers, students, religious communities, civic organizations, unions, allies within the existing power establishment, and, especially, soldiers, veterans and their families.

These participants will come as they are, and as such we must welcome them. They will give what they are willing to give, and we must affirm the smallest contributions. The antiwar movement cannot afford to have a high bar for entry. If we are to build a popular movement, we must accommodate a continuum of levels of involvement, as well as levels of political analysis. There will be problems, challenges and struggles. But there will also be learning, growth and development.

Providing Opportunities

The antiwar movement needs a development plan, a growth trajectory. Growth means getting more people involved in antiwar efforts. So how do we do that? What motivates people to become active in such work?  What makes an activist or change agent?

I had always explained my own activism in terms of my beliefs.1Somehow I had developed a set of beliefs, and then those beliefs demanded action. However, I began to question this assessment as I discovered that many people held similar beliefs that did not translate into activism.

In their essay Collective Identity and Activism: Networks, Choices, and the Life of a Social Movement, Debra Friedman and Doug McAdam cite proximity to movement activity as the single biggest factor for why people become active in grassroots change efforts:

…Structural proximity to a movement, rather than any individual disposition, produces activism. Although individuals differ in their dispositions, the opportunities afforded by structural location relative to a movement determine whether they are in a position to act on these dispositions. Empirical support for these positions is unimpeachable…2

In other words, while many people hold beliefs compatible with the antiwar movement’s goals, a small percentage are taking action; and a primary factor for why some people do become active is simply that they encounter opportunities provided by people close to them who are already active. Proximity to movement activity can activate people’s dormant beliefs. If we want a growth trajectory, then a primary role of antiwar organizers is to provide opportunities that turn others’ favorable dispositions into activism.

For this reason it is essential that antiwar change agents be embedded in common social networks and institutions within their communities. If change agents perpetually cluster in their own separate spaces, if they surround themselves only with each other, how many opportunities can they provide for others to get involved? If activism occurs more from proximity to opportunities to become active than from individual dispositions, then shouldn’t change agents try to get close enough to people to be able to effectively provide them with such opportunities?

Plugging People In

The initial lead-up to the Iraq War provided circumstances that encouraged a lot of people to act on their dispositions to try to stop the war before it started. There was a feeling that perhaps public opinion against an invasion was strong enough to deter the Bush Administration. People who were generally hesitant or disinclined to participate in street protests did so anyway, hoping that a large showing might make a difference. And they certainly did turn out in big numbers. The antiwar demonstrations around the globe on February 15, 2003 marked the largest coordinated protest in world history.

In January of the same year a small group of folks in Lancaster, Pennsylvania advertised for a public meeting to plan local action to stop the impending war. To their surprise this meeting drew more than 200 people, all upset about the prospect of war, but glad to be there together. I was beyond pleased to see so many people come together in this politically conservative area. We decided we should keep meeting. It was clear to me that, while a meeting of 200 people was valuable, we would have to structure the next meeting differently if we were to harness the energy and skills of those in attendance. I volunteered to co-facilitate a follow-up meeting in which we formed working groups to focus on specific tasks and projects. I had prior experience with the working group model, and it seemed a good fit for getting so many people active quickly. The meetings and working groups continued and became the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice (LCPJ), which is still working to end the war today.

So, while it is often challenging to get people to take the first step of getting involved, sometimes circumstances-like the lead-up to the Iraq War-encourage larger numbers of people to take this step all at once. In such circumstances a little bit of effort can go a long way in providing opportunities to new participants, as was the experience of folks in Lancaster. In these situations organizers have to struggle just to keep up. Plugging in new volunteers and getting them to stick around is generally far more challenging than initially attracting them.

In Lancaster we suddenly found ourselves with an abundance of new volunteers. The first wave of leadership in the LCPJ was mostly comprised of such persons who, like most people, already had important responsibilities in their lives. A few individuals in particular had taken on some overwhelming responsibilities. As the LCPJ took on a longer-term existence, many of these people were unable to sustain the level of sacrifice the LCPJ seemed to demand of them. For the most part these folks, while still supportive of the LCPJ, dropped off as active participants.

Conversely, those who took on more manageable (but still meaningful) ongoing tasks are mostly still active, attending to the same roles or tasks that they originally committed to (e.g. our treasurer, archivist and designers).

In their essay Mobilizing Technologies for Collective Action, Pamela E. Oliver and Gerald Marwell explain:

…a lot of the technological knowledge about mobilizing volunteer time is about organizing and dividing labor and structuring events and jobs so that people can be invited to participate in well-defined and limited ways… A technology often used in the charitable sector but only occasionally used in social movements involves creating long-term jobs that involve only a few hours a week such as calling for Jewish charities for three hours every Tuesday night or being on call for the rape crisis center three nights a month. Many people who are unwilling to make the major short-term open-ended commitments that activism entails are quite willing to make a long- term commitment to a well-defined task. They also are aware that failing to keep their commitment will cause a noticeable problem for the event or the organization’s mission.3

By the end of the LCPJ’s first year, recognizing the limits of our all-volunteer organization, we decided to hire a part-time coordinator whose primary job it was to maintain regular contact with point people from our various working groups. When the coordinator position became vacant in January of 2005, I became coordinator and began working to “package” task-sets for volunteers. I invited specific individuals to take point on specific ongoing tasks. I aimed to design roles that would not be too overwhelming, so that people could more easily sustain their involvement. With this set-up new volunteers were able to plug in meaningfully, and there were usually ways for them to take some creative autonomy in the particulars of their roles. While it is important to leave space for people to increase their contribution and take on more leadership if they are so moved, at the same time putting too much on people can set them up to fail. When new volunteers commit to a heavy workload, they often end up flaking on their tasks or burning out and dropping off entirely. I’ve found that transparency helps. I’ve already said to people, “I want you to be sure that you’re not taking on too much. You do a good job and your contribution is important to the coalition. Please make sure it’s sustainable for you.”

At first when people would ask me how to get involved with the LCPJ, I would encourage them to come to a monthly meeting. One day it suddenly struck me as ludicrous that our primary recruitment strategy was “come to a meeting.” I had noticed for some time the low retention rate of folks who took this initial step. Groups inevitably develop some level of internal culture that can be alienating or intimidating to newcomers (though less so when the group makes a conscious effort to be accessible and inviting). So I started taking time to sit down one-on-one with individuals who expressed interest in the LCPJ. I started taking an hour or two with such persons, first inviting them to tell me about themselves-their interests, experiences, talents, etc.-and then I would tell them about some of the LCPJ’s projects. Together we would try to find a good fit for them. I would also identify pieces the coalition was lacking that I thought they might be interested in working on. I encouraged volunteers to find or invent an ongoing role or task that they could sustain.

For every new role someone would fill, we increased our collective capacity. We could accomplish more, thereby increasing our visibility, thereby attracting more participation. And telling this story of the parts working together as a whole to build and exercise grassroots power gave meaning to even mundane tasks by putting them in the context of a collective trajectory.

Stories like this can give people a sense of meaning, purpose and personal agency. These are all important if we want new participants to stay involved. But there is something else that is even more important. If we want to inspire people to stick with the antiwar movement for the long haul, then we absolutely must make them feel valued and appreciated. It’s basic. People like to be around people who are nice to them. If we want to compete with the myriad of often more appealing options for people’s free time, then we have to treat each other well. We have to be very, very good to each other, to take care of each other, to rise above the social elitism that infects our society. This work is about love. Yes, the world is in crisis, and the work is often draining, but if we are to appeal to broader participation, we have got to step out of crisis mode organizing and take the time to love-not only humanity in the abstract, but each other specifically-along the way.

Here again, the concept of an antiwar core is helpful; those change agents who recognize themselves as part of a core have to take additional responsibility for the group culture, to make sure that people feel appreciated.

Engaging Existing Networks and Infrastructure

When local antiwar groups like the LCPJ organize events, the temptation is to expend what limited resources we have on outreaching to constituencies that are more likely to attend, which usually means outreaching to other progressive groups and constituencies. By default, and to some degree necessity, outreach efforts focus on harvesting already existing consciousness rather than planting new seeds. Let’s say a group has a budget to make 300 leaflets for an antiwar event, and has five volunteers to distribute the leaflets, it makes good sense, with a short-term goal of getting good turnout to the particular event, to devote such limited outreach resources to posting flyers at places where likeminded people are likely to see them. However, the short-term goal of using limited resources to get good turnout is in tension with the long-term goal of growing a movement by reaching (and providing opportunities for) new people.

Moreover, if an antiwar group is focusing predominantly on attracting other progressives to attend an event, this is likely to shape the language used to promote it. A flyer written to attract people who are already solidly “with you” may look substantially different than one written to attract a broader audience. Similarly, the character of an event may be drastically different if it is assumed that everyone present is already in agreement.  This is a huge contributing factor in explaining why many social movement groups become insular and isolated; we grow too accustomed to talking to each other – preaching to the choir. The language we use references commonly held meanings within our progressive groups and networks, and is often alienating or even unintelligible to people who do not share those meanings.

The problem is not just about where we place flyers and whom we have in mind when we write them. The outreach limitations groups have are real, and it may not always be feasible to flyer a broader constituency. But flyers don’t usually make the best “seeds” anyway. Seed work requires reaching people where they are, within the spaces and with the references they are accustomed to. For example, getting an event listed in a church bulletin (by finding an ally in the congregation) will likely prove more effective than posting a flyer on the wall. But we need to move beyond promoting our events too. We need to bring the event to cultural spaces that already exist – classrooms, religious centers, neighborhood groups, etc. I can easily spend twenty hours planning and promoting an antiwar event at which I’ll be happy if a few unfamiliar faces turn out – and such events can have their place and value.  But I can also spend just two hours preparing to talk to a classroom of high school students, presenting a more in-depth antiwar critique than many of them will have ever previously encountered. This is critical seed planting work. It requires finding and maintaining allies within existing cultural spaces and institutions (in this case the teacher who invites me to speak).

Often our events-meetings, forums, cultural events or demonstrations-are geared toward us, the change agents, and what we feel comfortable with, rather than toward the people we need to engage, with consideration for what they may be able to relate to. Coming together with likeminded people can feed and sustain us, but we can’t afford to lose interest in attracting broader participation. And we must not neglect to engage already existing cultural spaces. Sometimes we become disinterested in or even hostile toward such spaces because they house the values of the dominant culture. But these spaces also house the people.  We cannot expect people to meet us where we want them to be. We have to meet them where they are, with the language they use, in the spaces they frequent.

Entering existing networks and institutions allows the people within them to consider taking action to end the war without feeling that they would have to lose their identity to do so. They can take action as teachers, or union members, or students, or members of a religious community. They do not have to become an “activist”-a distinct identity that many people are uncomfortable claiming-in order to take action. Instead they can begin to imagine working to end the war as an expression of who they already are, alongside people they already know.

This is one of the biggest lessons from US social movements in the 1960s and 1970s: movements usually grow (in size and capacity) quickly not by building their own separate infrastructure from scratch, but by organizing within existing social networks and institutions until they identify strongly enough with the movement that their already existing infrastructure and resources go to work for movement ends. The Civil Rights Movement spread like wildfire and dramatically increased its capacity when black churches and traditionally black schools came to identify themselves as part of a movement. People didn’t have to leave their social networks to become part of the movement. Rather, membership in these institutions came to imply movement participation. These institutions and networks then used their resources-most significantly people power-to further movement goals.

Building our own separate infrastructure from scratch is resource-intensive. And resources for such infrastructure are harder to come by because of the small pool of invested persons. This is not at all to say that specific movement organizations like (in the Civil Rights Movement) the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) are not important. Movement organizations can be critically important, often playing irreplaceable roles.

However, social movement organizations cannot bring about sweeping changes alone. Organizers and movement organizations are valuable mostly in their role of organizing and mobilizing social sectors, which is to say facilitating broad participation.

Our organizations are invariably to some extent a reflection of our values, but we have to keep this in check. We must not seek such a pure reflection of our values that we become disinterested in effectiveness and lose sight of our purpose of ending the war. When groups and organizations become overly concerned about their purity, they cut themselves off from the people they should be working to organize. If such groups seek to grow at all, their recruitment efforts will be impaired by the fact that they are building a righteous-but alienating-identity more than a viable vehicle for change.

Change agents must not focus exclusively on building their own alternative infrastructure to feed an alternative narrative that distinguishes them from others. Those who maintain this tendency confine themselves to living a story of the righteous few, in which they lack inevitably the ability to affect the changes that they long for. The necessary numbers will elude them and the necessary resources will remain in the hands of others. If, on the other hand, we succeed in connecting with others, then there is no other. The walls between others and us start to come down. Resources become available and doors open, not magically, but through effective organizing that is made possible through relationship.

Returning to Lancaster County, another peace and justice organization was founded in April of 2004 called the Lancaster Interchurch Peace Witness (LIPW). From the start the LIPW has worked collaboratively with the LCPJ, while playing a particular role that the LCPJ is not as equipped for. As a group of local leaders and members of Christian churches, the LIPW is able to work for peace and justice by engaging their own church memberships in ways that no organizer or organization would be able to do were they outside of the Christian faith. The LIPW can serve as an important model for the broader antiwar movement, not because of their particular faith, but because they are a group of conscientious people active in similar social networks and institutions who get together to talk about how to promote peace and justice within those networks and institutions, and how to move them to work for peace and justice in the broader society. Fundamentally they are insiders, genuine and sincere. While some people in their churches may disagree with them, they cannot easily dismiss them.

The antiwar movement does need to build its own organizations, but they have to be organizations that focus outwardly, beyond “the choir.” Some of these organizations may cast a wide net , as does the LCPJ, while others, like the LIPW, may go deeper into specific networks. As they say, different strokes for different folks.4 But all of our organizations-local and national-must learn to see past themselves in order to do their part to grow the antiwar movement.


We have argued in this essay that a primary role of antiwar change agents is to activate and facilitate popular participation in efforts to end the war. We have argued that to achieve the strength required to realize the changes we envision, an antiwar core must activate the next tier of potential movement participants by providing them opportunities to take action, by plugging them into long-term roles, and by nurturing them along the way. Finally, we have argued that in addition to building our own organizations, antiwar change agents must engage existing cultural spaces, social networks and institutions to move whole layers of society into action.

end notes:

  1. First person voice for this essay is Jonathan Matthew Smucker.
  2. Debra Friedman and Doug McAdam. “Collective Identity and Activism: Networks, Choices, and the Life of a Social Movement” in Frontiers of Social Movement Theory, Aldon D. Morris and Carol M. Mueller, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1992.)
  3. Pamela E. Oliver and Gerald Marwell. “Mobilizing Technologies for Collective Action” in Frontiers of Social Movement Theory, Aldon D. Morris and Carol M. Mueller, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1992.)
  4. Or we could say different strokes to reach different folks. It should be noted that as separate vehicles the LIPW and the LCPJ are better positioned to fulfill specific complimentary missions. It should also be noted that the organizations have been able to collaborate very closely, largely because they both value alliance and relationship and are outwardly focused; as such they refrain from the kinds of alienating rhetoric and behavior that often prevent such collaboration.

Click here to download a PDF version of the complete Building a Successful Antiwar Movement pamphlet.

Hooks & messages | grassroots communications tips pt.2

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!

The good news is that this kind of coverage is not inevitable.  Strategic, trained, disciplined activists can positively influence this process.  Here’s how it works.  You want news outlets to cover the issues, but it is generally very difficult to get them to do so (even though this is exactly what the media is supposed to do).  So you use creative tactics, perhaps even including direct action or nonviolent civil disobedience to attract media attention and communicate your message to a broader audience.  Unfortunately, that’s often what it takes to get the media’s attention.  The challenge then is that reporters are typically sent to cover the tactic itself, rather than the issue.  So it’s important to think through how you will use your creative action as a hook to get media attention, but then to bridge away from the tactic to talk about the issue (the message).

In today’s mainstream media environment even well intentioned reporters are usually not very informed about the issues raised by social justice campaigns.  The structure of the contemporary news media makes cost-effective, dumbed-down news production a more valued commodity than in-depth journalism.  Budgets for investigative journalism have withered and died in news companies across the country over the past 20 years.  So most journalists do not have the time to look into the issues they are covering beforehand.  As a result, they tend to ask uninformed questions that are beside the point.  They tend to fixate on obvious tactical considerations (e.g. “How do you go to the bathroom when you’re hanging that banner?”) rather than to ask about your reasons (e.g. “What solution to global warming would you like to see President Obama push for at the G8 summit?”).  While you shouldn’t try to dodge questions that are genuinely about the issues, you certainly don’t have to answer totally irrelevant questions.  Do your best to steer journalists in the direction of issue-oriented questions.  After all, informing the public is supposed to be journalists’ job.

This is what bridging is all about.  Bridging is acknowledging the question, bridging away from it, and communicating your message.  A great example is when a friend of mine locked herself on a “tripod” (a device made up of three metal poles set up like a tipi, tied together at the top, with a platform to sit on near the top)  to stop a proposed nuclear power plant.  A reporter asked her, “How do you go to the bathroom?”  Sure, her unconventional tactic is what got the media there in the first place, but she was not there to talk about her unconventional tactic – and she certainly was not there to talk about going to the bathroom!  Her response (paraphrased) : “The issue isn’t my waste.  We’re here to talk about nuclear waste, how it recklessly threatens our safety, and how we don’t need it.”

There you have it: the hook and the message.

Articulating a Strategy | Building a Successful Antiwar Movement (Role 2: Instructive)

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?

Answering these (and many more) questions will give us a lay of the land that will help to inform our strategies. The more detailed our information the better, as outcomes are determined by the complex interplay of details. The success or failure of a social struggle can ultimately come down to the smallest details. It is therefore to our advantage to rid ourselves of any tendency to oversimplify, over-generalize, monolithize or mystify our circumstances, and to shift to a mentality that appreciates complexity and studies detail. This requires learning to see the world as it is, rather than as we may want it to be.

Failing to attain an intimate knowledge of our particular organizing contexts, we tend to rely on our assumptions, which can be false or at least not fully true in important ways. Sometimes change agents incorrectly assume that we are the only ones who care about an issue; we see “the system” (or even society) as monolithic, preventing us from leveraging important fissures and vulnerabilities, and from finding potentially key allies and defectors.

Strategy is not built upon assumptions, worldviews or projections. It is built upon intimate knowledge of context. Without contextual knowledge, change agents will lack a strategy. And without a strategy we go into battle armed with principles, maxims and truths. As the saying goes, you don’t go into a gunfight armed with truth. You go with a gun. Our struggle is not a gunfight, but it is in part a struggle for power.  While truth and principles are important, we can’t end the war armed only with these; we need strategy.

To be fair, change agents usually go into battle armed with more than truth. We usually go with tactics. Some change agents have developed and honed a large arsenal of tactics. But to be effective we need an overarching strategy to guide and shape our tactical choices.

Issue, Goal, Strategy, Tactic

Indeed, there is a large amount of confusion about the difference between strategy and tactics. A strategy is an overall plan about how to obtain a goal. Tactics are the specific actions and methods used to carry out that plan.

In their campaign strategy workshops for social justice change agents, The Ruckus Society presents a framework that progresses from issue to goal to strategy to tactic. The first step is to define the issue. The goal is what the change agents want to accomplish. Their strategy is their overall plan for how they intend to reach their goal. Finally, their tactics are the specific activities utilized to carry out their plan.

For example, if a group’s issue is a waste incinerator in their neighborhood, their goal may be to close it down. Their strategy may be to organize the neighborhood around the issue and pressure the local political system to close the incinerator. Their tactics may include holding public meetings, circulating a petition, going door to door, and meeting with local politicians. Each tactic should be evaluated for how, specifically, it will further a strategy that moves the group toward achieving its goal. Again, the more specific the group’s contextual knowledge, the better. Which people in office actually have the power to deliver the goods? Who or what influences them? And so on.

When a group is working toward a very large goal, like ending a war-or even changing the very nature of US foreign policy-they have to break it down into a series of steps for how to get there. They need to set interim goals that are both concrete and attainable. The issue / goal / strategy / tactic framework will be most helpful for local antiwar groups when applied to specific interim goals that are winnable within a measurable amount of time.

The antiwar movement’s focal issue is (obviously) the war. Our goal is to end it. Broadly, our strategy could be to mount strong enough pressure to force the political establishment to capitulate to our demands, and more specifically to pressure Congress to de-fund the war. Interim goals may include winning over specific legislators to our position. These interim goals of the larger movement could serve as the primary focus for specific local antiwar groups, according to their specific regions.

To achieve their goals, local antiwar groups’ tactics may include holding public meetings, circulating petitions, door-to-door organizing, lobbying representatives, holding educational events, public vigils and mass demonstrations, writing letters to the editor, and grabbing headlines through creative direct actions such as following their representatives around with super-sized checks from Halliburton. Multiple and complex factors should be considered when choosing or inventing a tactic. First, a tactic should be framed intelligently within a coherent strategy that is projected to move the group closer to achieving an attainable goal. Tactics should be informed by what the group wants, who can give it to them, who can help them (natural allies), who is their audience, what is their message, and much more. The tactic star (below) describes some key factors to consider when determining a tactic.

Tactics carried out without regard for strategy or context may be as effective as shots in the dark. This is not to say that just because a tactic lacks a conscious strategy it therefore has absolutely no strategic value. After all, sometimes shots in the dark do hit targets. Also, in most situations at least some of these factors are considered to some extent, even if informally. But a more formal examination of these factors when considering tactics will increase the likelihood of success. In lieu of a strategy, change agents will often search for the “perfect tactic”, or the “most radical” tactic. Sometimes we experience or hear about a tactic used one place, and then attempt to replicate it somewhere else without appreciation for the changed local context. While it is valuable to continually explore new tactics and expand our toolbox, still context is essential. We have to accurately gauge our local contexts.

Objective and Subjective Conditions

When we speak of winning strategies we are not talking about easy solutions or the “perfect tactic.” Sometimes the search for the perfect or “most radical” tactic causes activists to believe in tactics rather than believing in people. What progressive person hasn’t heard (or thought) some version of the following? “If we could get enough people to engage in Gandhian nonviolence…” or “If we could get enough people to vote for the right candidate…” or “If we could get enough people to observe a boycott…” or “If we could get enough people to take up arms…” and so on. The reality is that probably all of the above tactics have potential to be effective, if indeed we could get enough people to participate. There is no silver bullet tactic. The trick to social change is precisely getting enough people. While choosing (or inventing) the right tactic at the right time can profoundly influence participation levels, tactics are still but a small part of the “getting enough people” equation.

Getting enough people is what organizing is all about. There is no magic tactic that, on its own, will instantly set wildfire to our proverbial prairie. There are moments when the right tactic can act as a spark to set the prairie ablaze, often giving the illusion that the fire was caused solely by the spark (e.g. Rosa Parks). But, to extend the metaphor, you can ignite sparks, light matches, or even use a flamethrower, but if the conditions of the prairie are not ripe, the fire will not spread.

In speaking of conditions, movement strategists commonly refer to objective and subjective conditions. Objective conditions include factors such as poverty level, disparity of wealth, structure of governance, degree of control and repression. Subjective factors pertain to us, the agents of change. How many of us are there? How organized are we? To what extent are we connected to a base? Have we built bridges between different communities? Objective and subjective conditions are not entirely separable, and both are important in determining our likelihood for success in particular contexts.

The fact that a large majority of Americans now oppose the Iraq War should certainly be counted by the antiwar movement as a favorable objective condition.  However, other conditions are limiting what we have been able to accomplish, even having popular opinion significantly aligned with our position on withdrawal. These conditions act as obstacles to building a force strong enough to achieve our goals. Objectively (pertaining to the broad social and political context in the US) these obstacles include a government with little public account- ability, a corporate-owned media, widespread resignation, lack of political agency, a spectator society, fear, consumerism, lack of personal stakes, deep race and class divisions, ignorance, and negative attitudes in the culture about activism, social movements, collective action, etc. Subjectively (pertaining to the current antiwar movement) obstacles include limited resources, a shortage of skilled organizers, lack of an overarching strategy, structural limitations of many progressive organizations, sectarianism, purism and self-isolation.

Popular bitterness about the war will certainly aid antiwar organizing. We should not underestimate its significance. But we should equally not underestimate the importance of overcoming the above-mentioned obstacles. These constraining conditions must inform the antiwar movement’s strategies. We have to be both realistic about the present limitations and visionary about how to push those limits.

While the antiwar movement needs to address all of the above and additional constraints, for the purposes of the remainder of this essay we will focus on two constraints that feed each other: 1) widespread resignation and, 2) negative attitudes about “activism.”

Our Project: Hope

While public opinion about the war is no longer much of a problem for the antiwar movement, public resignation may be our biggest challenge. It is a common error to mistake resignation for apathy. In reality the two feed each other. If you can’t make a difference, why make an effort? Change agents have to convince people that collectively we can make a difference; we can end the war and make the world a better place.1

The antiwar core is in a bit of a Catch-22. To attract more people we have to convince them that we have a winning plan. But our winning plan is reliant on their participation. So, while our primary strategy should be to build a bigger movement with enough power to achieve our goals, to do this we have to get much more specific in the strategies we articulate to the public.

Progressives often talk about how bad things are. We sometimes talk about what a better world might look like. But what we need is a compelling story about how to get from where we are to where we want to be. Without this we will continue to mobilize relatively few people. The previous essay argued that the antiwar movement must interpret events not just for our own understanding, but also to tell a persuasive story to the broader society (especially to the constituencies that we aim to organize). It is the same with broadly articulating a strategy. If our public presentation doesn’t include strategy, then our story has only an oppressive beginning and a wishful fairytale ending – lacking a convincing plot for how to move from the former to the latter. People may suspend their disbelief when listening to stories for entertainment, but not when they are being asked to take action and invest themselves. We have to articulate a viable plan. We have to map the political machinery and explain specifically how we can leverage power to end the war.

And we have to examine the various mechanisms and stories used to inoculate so much of society against the idea of participating in collective change efforts. The antiwar core’s role of articulating a viable strategy for broad-based action to end the war is essentially instructive. To pull off an instructive role, one has to be seen as credible and trustworthy in the eyes of those receiving instruction. The word instructive is not to depict an active movement relating to a passive society – quite the opposite. This is about the recurring historical phenomenon in which everyday people look to a core of change agents for direction. Again, core is not meant to exclude, but to clarify roles so that the core-those who can give a lot of time and energy-may consciously facilitate the participation of people who want to do something but do not have the time, energy or desire to be part of a core.

Today’s antiwar movement has to gain some ground before whole layers of society will look to us for direction. We have to break down negative stereotypes about us. We have to reinvent ourselves as insiders. We have to create new stories and meanings in the culture about collective struggle. But we need to do more than just appear credible. Fundamentally, we have to earn confidence and trust. Being right or righteous will not cut it. We are not entitled to lead by virtue of holding the most correct political line, the most radical tactic, or the highest principles. Yes, we have to prove we will not betray guiding principles, but we also have to demonstrate an ability to make good decisions that result in some interim victories. We have to make headway. We have to project ourselves as winners. Building hope is more than telling a hopeful story; if we are to hold people’s attention, there must be signs (evidence) of hope unfolding throughout the plot.


We have argued in this essay that a primary role of antiwar change agents is to formulate and articulate a strategy for mass action to end the war. We have described how effective strategies are informed by an intimate knowledge of context and a thorough study of objective and subjective conditions. We have argued that strategies should determine tactics. We have named several conditions that presently act to constrain the antiwar movement. We have argued that a pressing project of progressive change agents is to build hope, and suggested that broadcasting a believable strategy with attainable interim goals is a necessary part of this. Finally we have stated that to play an instructive role, change agents must not only become credible; they must gain people’s confidence.

end notes:

  1. When we mistake widespread resignation for apathy, we sometimes take to sustaining ourselves with a story of “the righteous few.” Maybe most people don’t care, but I do. I’m taking a stand. I am a person who is willing to take risks for what I believe. This courage and character is laudable and an asset to any movement. The problem is when we become attached to marginalization, as if we’d be selling out if our ideas were ever to become popular or take hold. The story of the righteous few is self-perpetuating. Lacking a strategy, we can’t get our minds around winning. If you can’t win, the next best thing for a conscientious person is to be righteous. Putting righteousness (our intentions) before effectiveness (our impact) discourages strategic thinking. Thus we lack a strategy. Lacking a strategy, we can’t get our minds around winning… ad infinitum.

Click here for the next essay: Activating Popular Participation