What not to do: 100 things to avoid when trying to build a movement for radical change

DO NOT:

  1. forget to say please and thank you
  2. neglect to welcome newcomers
  3. be overly protective about ideas you hope to spread
  4. pretend you can make big changes without building broad alliances
  5. give the finger to your allies
  6. heckle Civil Rights leaders
  7. tell a black person that voting doesn’t matter
  8. tell anyone that voting doesn’t matter
  9. insist on a “diversity of tactics” at the expense of a diversity of participants
  10. ignore patriarchy
  11. assume you are the most radical person in the room
  12. assume that people who look more normal than you are less radical than you
  13. confuse poor personal hygiene with radicalism
  14. confuse the political philosophy of anarchism with weird haircuts and monochromatic wardrobes
  15. forget that most of your revolutionary heroes often wore suits
  16. look like a protester
  17. make a religion out of your decision-making process
  18. meet more than you work
  19. over-saturate working group email lists
  20. mic-check in a space where talking would suffice
  21. get too attached to your tactics
  22. assume that something that worked once will work again
  23. be disinterested in the details of your particular context
  24. fetishize occupying outdoor space
  25. dismiss the value of occupying outdoor space
  26. forget to eat
  27. forget to sleep
  28. act like a jerk because you forgot to eat and sleep
  29. reckon you don’t need to prep before a press interview
  30. fail to get a second opinion
  31. stop using a phrase because it becomes popular
  32. need to be the most radical kid on the block
  33. mistake utopianism for social change strategy
  34. say that “things will have to get worse before they get better”
  35. abhor reforms that would meaningfully improve real people’s lives
  36. fetishize revolutionary violence
  37. confuse a revolutionary moment with an actual revolution
  38. believe a mass movement will ignite spontaneously
  39. fail to map the terrain
  40. gravitate uncritically toward the most hardcore idea
  41. fancy that “autonomy” means you can do whatever the hell you want without consideration for how it might impact others
  42. drink the subcultural Kool-Aid
  43. fall into groupthink
  44. spout jargon that doesn’t mean anything to most people
  45. be fooled into thinking the word “neoliberal” is somehow precise
  46. disdain experience and expertise
  47. have more answers than questions
  48. believe we don’t have leaders
  49. believe that we don’t need leaders
  50. believe that we don’t need organization
  51. be self-righteous about your lack of organization
  52. start a totally redundant working group
  53. make a habit of knocking down people who step up
  54. act like every problem is a crisis
  55. mock people whose political analyses are less developed than yours
  56. fail to consider how outsiders might perceive you
  57. mistake 400 strangers mic-checking in a park for functional decision-making
  58. conclude that hyper-transparency inherently means inclusiveness
  59. over-generalize
  60. lump all your enemies together
  61. choose esoteric targets
  62. mistake the phrase “fuck the corporate media” for a communications strategy
  63. assume bad intentions
  64. assume something is getting done just because it was said in a meeting
  65. lump all your allies together
  66. yell at Kanye when he shows up at the park
  67. slam Miley Cyrus on Twitter for her music video that supports you
  68. think you have to agree with everything an organization has ever done in order to align with them on some things
  69. impose a purity test
  70. set a high bar for entry
  71. neglect to build on-ramps
  72. use “security culture” as cover for your clique
  73. become a “cool kid”
  74. suppose you can build a mass movement from scratch
  75. undervalue resources
  76. flake on important things people are counting on you for
  77. taunt cops
  78. be sectarian
  79. be a narcissist
  80. bang on drums at 2AM
  81. dismiss the complaints of supportive neighbors
  82. burn bridges faster than you can build them
  83. steal things from churches
  84. steal sacred items from churches
  85. piss where you sleep
  86. piss where other people sleep
  87. piss where other people hang out
  88. piss (or shit) on neighbors’ doorsteps
  89. accommodate destructive people
  90. let “damage control” take up most of your time and energy
  91. be an asshole
  92. yell at your comrades
  93. forget to tell your friends that you appreciate them
  94. fail to be cordial toward people who aren’t your friends
  95. be petty
  96. neglect to make good and legible signs
  97. forget to drink water
  98. forget to exercise
  99. forget to brush your teeth
  100. introduce yourself as a condiment

How to pitch news outlets to cover your action

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To pitch a reporter or assignment editor about an action or event you’re planning is to call them up&#151typically after sending them a news release&#151and attempt to persuade them that they should come out (or send a reporter) and cover what you’re doing. A good pitch call is at least as important as sending a good news release. With a call, unlike a news release, you are creating a memory of a human-to-human interaction. It’s your opportunity to make a strong impression so that when the reporter or editor goes into their morning or afternoon meeting&#151where they’re deciding which stories to cover&#151they are more likely to advocate for covering your event.

Reporters and editors are busy people. They often sound as if they are unhappy that you reached them by phone, and sometimes you’ll be lucky to get a full minute of their time. An effective pitch call makes a strong impression within the first five seconds, and makes at least the start of a compelling case within ten seconds.

For comparison, here’s an example of an ineffective pitch call:

Hi. My name is [name]. I’m calling about an event that we’re organizing. The event will be here in Manhattan. We’ll be having a march. It’s part of Occupy Wall Street. Veterans will be joining the protest today.

The caller would be lucky to get to the veteran part&#151which is the news hook&#151without the reporter or editor yawning or interrupting. Now, here’s an example of an effective pitch call:

Hi, I’m [name], calling on behalf of ‘Veterans of the 99%’. Tomorrow, military veterans dressed in uniform will march in-step from the Vietnam Memorial in lower Manhattan to the Stock Exchange. Then they’ll join Occupy Wall Street &#151 where they’ll use a “people’s mic” to talk about why, as veterans, they are participants in the 99% movement. Did you receive our press release?

While the second pitch is actually slightly longer than the first, it is packed with words that command attention and stimulate the imagination. Everything in the pitch floods the mind with powerfully vivid images. The first example, on the other hand, is bland. There’s no indication of what the caller is even talking about until a few sentences in.

The effective example ends with a question: “Did you receive our press release?” The reporter or editor has to respond, and will typically do so in one of three ways: 1) Yes, 2) No, 3) Maybe/I don’t know. You can respond to their answers in the following ways:

  • Yes: Great. Will you be sending someone to cover it?
  • No or Maybe: I’ll resend it right away. What email or fax number shall I send it to?

No matter how they answer, you should close the call by making another brief, compelling pitch. You may want to try a pitch that speaks explicitly to production considerations, such as:

Veterans in uniform standing at attention in front of the Stock Exchange will be a powerful visual &#151 you’ll definitely want to send a photographer [if print media]. Will you be sending someone?

If the reporter or editor is non-committal, ask them if there is any additional information you can provide that would help them decide.



‘Veterans of the 99%’ in front of the New York Stock Exchange. 11/2/2011

Writing an effective news release has some things in common with making an effective pitch call. It’s important to stack the most exciting stuff at the top: the most exciting language possible to describe the most compelling people and to spotlight the most captivating visuals. In a news release though, it is also important to weave the issue more substantially into the story. The modern media tends to be disturbingly lazy, and sometimes they simply quote from&#151or even print whole sections of&#151news releases, rather than send a reporter. A good news release starts with the strongest news hooks (the stuff that really catches reporters’ or editors’ attention) but weaves in the campaign message (what you want to communicate about your issue), so that, ideally, any one sentence could stand strongly on its own if that were the only sentence a news outlet chose to print. Be sure to keep copies of releases about upcoming events onhand for journalists at your occupation’s info or press table.

A few more tips:

  • When to call: early and often. Send your first advisory to get your action on editors’ radar screens (and calendars) as early as possible. Make a first round of calls to accompany the advisory. Send it again a few days before and then again the morning of your action. Whenever possible, send the release and make follow-up calls first thing in the morning (7-8am) &#151 to hit morning meetings where assignments are often determined. Additionally, if you are organizing an event where you want a lot of people, then find out if your local papers, weeklies, etc. have a public community calendar where you can list your event to help build turnout.
  • Who to call: If you don’t already have a press list, see if you can “borrow” one from another local grassroots organization that does. If you can’t borrow a list, don’t worry, just look up all your local media outlets online or in the phone book, and start calling. The default is to call and ask for the assignment editor. However, pitching specific reporters can be more effective. So, it pays to familiarize yourself with the reporters from your local news outlets. Notice who covers what “beats” and start calling the reporters who you think will be interested in your story. If a reporter covers you once, call them next time around. Be sure to add to your list any reporters who visit your occupation site. Think of your press list as a dynamic document. Keep good notes, including links to past coverage.
  • Who should call: Ideally the folks who are doing the pitching are folks who can speak compellingly about the issue. Callers should be prepared to do an interview on the spot, should the opportunity arise. When possible, it’s good for the pitch caller to have a level of authority on the issue. In the example above, veterans participating in the event would be ideal folks to do the calling. However, someone making pitch calls is better than no one making pitch calls. And it’s important to train new people too. One thing you can do is assign calls to news outlets that are “lower stake” (typically smaller readership or audience) to new folks, so that they have the opportunity to make their first pitch calls without so much pressure. It’s always a good idea to practice role playing a few pitch calls &#151 to build confidence and to refine your pitch.

#OWS: We are ALL leaders!

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What is the difference between saying none of us is a leader and saying all of us are leaders?

At first glance these two phrases may seem like two ways of saying essentially the same thing. We believe in organizing in a way that is more horizontal than vertical. We believe in equalizing participation and resisting social hierarchies.

But the word leadership can mean a lot of things. There are things we associate with leadership that have nothing to do with hierarchy. Taking leadership can mean taking initiative on moving a project or task forward. It can mean looking for what is needed in a group, and stepping up to do that thing.

These positive group-serving associations with leadership are the reason why there’s an important difference between the idea of “no leaders” and the idea of “all leaders”.

If we are part of a group that talks about having no leaders, this phrase can inadvertently make us overly hesitant about stepping up to take initiative. It can create a group culture where as individuals we become reluctant to be seen as moving something forward &#151 because our peers might see us as a “leader”, which would be a bad thing.

But if we really want to change the world, we will need a lot more people stepping up to take initiative. The more initiative we each take in our work together &#151 the more skills we learn and hone &#151 the greater our collective capacity will be. Building our capacity means increasing what we are capable of achieving together. It means building our collective power. And building up our collective power is one of the most important challenges of grassroots organizing.

We need to build a culture where we’re all invited to step up. That means stepping up in ways that also make space for others to step up &#151 where others feel invited to step up and take initiative too. Stepping up can mean actively listening and learning from others. Stepping up can mean taking time to reflect on how different people can be socialized differently around leadership. For reasons that often have something to do with socialization around our genders, “race”, age, economic class, or other aspects of our identities, some of us are predisposed to speak confidently and to take on more visible leadership roles. While others are often predisposed to speak less in the group, or to take on less visible roles. So, stepping up can also mean recognizing and valuing many different forms of leadership in the group. And it can mean looking for leadership potential &#151 for strengths within the group that are latent, waiting for the opportunity to become active.

If we’re all leaders, we can also take leadership by stepping up to support each other and hold each other accountable in our work together.

But if we stay in the framework of thinking we should have no leaders, why would we be inclined to seek to develop more leadership in our movement? If all leadership is viewed negatively, we may develop a “circular firing squad” group culture, where we tend to cut each other down and we hold back because we’re afraid to stick our heads up.

We need a movement where we are constantly encouraging each other to step into our full potential and to shine as individual leaders who are working together collectively for a better world.

So, let’s all be leaders. Let’s step up and do this.

#OccupyWallStreet & the Political Identity Paradox

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Strong group identity is essential for social movements. There can be no serious social movement&#151the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged&#151without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. This kind of group identity is clearly emerging right now among core participants in occupations across the country and around the world, and that’s a good thing.

However, strong group identity is also something of a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from the broader society.

The Political Identity Paradox states that while social change groups require a strong internal identity in order to foster the level of commitment needed for protracted struggle, this same cohesion tends over time to isolate the group; and isolated groups are hard-pressed to build the kind of broad-based power needed to achieve the big changes they imagine.  

Strong bonding within a group tends to create distinctions between groups &#151 that’s true to an extent for all kinds of groups. However, it tends to have particular consequences for groups involved in political struggle. Consider a sports team that defines its group identity partly in distinction from rival teams. The team is likely to play all the harder against rivals as a result of the distinction. No problem there. A group engaged in challenging entrenched power, on the other hand&#151as the occupy movement is doing&#151has not only to foster a strong internal identity; it also has to win allies beyond the bounds of that identity, if it is to build the collective power it needs to accomplish its goals.

And, because of the nature of oppositional struggle, the tendency toward isolation can escalate very quickly in politicized groups. Oppositional struggle triggers an oppositional psychology, which can do a real number on a group.  Movements that meet the kind of brutal resistance that the Civil Rights movement endured, for example, have a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, participants need to turn to each other more than ever for strength and support. They feel a compelling cohesiveness to their group identity in these moments of escalated conflict. On the other hand, they need to keep outwardly oriented, to stay connected to a broad and growing base. This is difficult to do even when leaders (we are all leaders) are fully oriented to the task, let alone when they are unprepared, which is so often the case.

Take, for example, Students for a Democratic Society (the original SDS that fell apart in dramatic fashion in 1969, not the contemporary SDS). At the center of the epic implosion of this massive student organization&#151underneath the rational arguments and accusations that leaders were slinging at each other&#151there was the political identity paradox. Key leaders had become encapsulated in their oppositional identity (or, rather, a few factionalizing identities) and they became more and more out of touch. They lost the ability and even the inclination to relate to their broader membership&#151a huge number of students at the moment of the implosion&#151let alone to broader society. Some of the most committed would-be leaders of that generation came to see more value in holing up with a few comrades to make bombs than in organizing masses of students to take coordinated action. This is the tendency toward isolation taken to the extreme. Dedicated radicals cut themselves off, like lone guerrilla fighters in enemy territory. It might have felt glorious, but it was a suicide mission.

The political identity paradox speaks to the need for political groups to develop both strong bonding and strong bridging. Without strong within-group bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggles. But without strong beyond-group bridging, the group will become too insular and isolated to be able to forge the broad alliances that are even more necessary for achieving big changes.

Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong sense of identity within their groups and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group. This balancing act will be more and more critical as the occupy movement grows, as the core develops its own culture, and as our opponents attempt to drive wedges between the movement’s most active participants and the broader society.

#OWS: Welcome Visitors & Plug In New Participants

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Three Tips for Plugging People In

Bringing in new participants and volunteers is essential to an occupation-or any group or organization-that wants to grow in size and capacity.  The momentum of the Occupy Wall Street movement has quickly attracted a lot of people to occupations across the United States and around the world. But attracting or recruiting new people to your occupation or group is only the first step.  Getting them to stick around is a much bigger challenge.

The good news is that there are tried-and-true methods you can use to plug new participants and volunteers into tasks and roles that will build their investment and leadership in the collective effort, and will increase what you all are capable of achieving together.

1. Greet and get to know newcomers.

When someone shows up at your occupation, march, rally, or action, they are indicating an interest. Greet them!  Find out about them!  And don’t just invite them to come to your next meeting.  Even the most welcoming and inclusive groups tend to develop their own meeting culture that can unintentionally make new folks feel like outsiders.  To increase your new participant retention rates, take a few minutes to stop and talk with new folks.  Get to know the person.  Find out about what attracted them to your effort.  You might ask about what kinds of tasks they enjoy doing, what they are good at, etc.  If that goes well, you might ask them how much time they have.  You can tell them more about what’s going on with the effort – and discuss with them what their involvement could look like.  While this level of orientation requires some time in the short-term, it saves you time in the long-term – because more people will plug into the work faster, and stick around longer. It may make sense a working group to take on the ongoing task of greeting, welcoming, and orienting new folks.

2. Accommodate multiple levels of participation.

In short, some people can give a lot of time, and some can give a little. Organizers with more time on their hands should avoid projecting their own availability as an expectation onto others. A foolproof way to drive new folks away from your occupation or group is to consistently ask them to give more time than they are able to give. Instead learn what kind of time commitment is realistic and sustainable for them. Help them plug into tasks and roles that suit their availability. Check in with them about how it’s going. Are they feeling overextended, or would they like to take on more? Take responsibility for helping new folks avoid over-commitment and burnout.

3. Make people feel valued and appreciated.

If you want to inspire people to stick with this burgeoning movement for the long haul, make them feel valued and appreciated. It’s basic. People like to be around people who respect them, and who are nice! 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 and take care of each other. Notice and acknowledge new folks’ contributions, however small. Make time to check in with them outside of meetings. Ask their opinions often: What did they think about the meeting? the event? the action? Bounce your ideas off of them and ask for their feedback.

Occupy Tactic Star

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Occupation of a space is itself a tactic. It is an action intended to help us build momentum and to move us a step closer toward our goals. And it’s been wildly successful so far!

But an ongoing occupation of space is also more than a tactic. An occupation serves as a base camp from which we launch many different tactics. Right now occupation movement participants are deploying different actions and making complex tactical decisions every day.

Choosing or inventing a successful tactic typically involves some intuition and guesswork – and always risk. But the more we think critically about our particular contexts, the better we can become at judging how to act strategically. Projecting and measuring our success is complex, but we shouldn’t let the murkiness of these waters deter us from diving in. Patterns do emerge. We can learn a great deal from our experiences when we critically analyze them. This tactic star (see PDF) names some key factors that change agents can consider when determining tactics. The same tool can be used to evaluate actions together after they have been carried out.

Strategy: How will the tactic move us toward achieving our long-term and short-term goals?

Message: What message will the tactic communicate? How are our actions likely to be interpreted? How will we use the tactic to connect with people’s values? How will the tactic carry a persuasive story?

Tone: Will the action be solemn, jubilant, angry, or calm? Will the energy attract or repel the people we want to engage? How?

Timing: Can we leverage unfolding events and new developments as opportunities? What potentials does the political moment hold for us? How are our opponents vulnerable right now?

Audience: Who do we want to reach with our tactic? What response do we want our action to inspire in them?

Allies: How will the tactic affect our allies or potential allies? How will they receive it? Will it strengthen our relationship with allies or jeopardize it?

Resources: Is the action worth our limited time, energy and money? Can we get more out of it than we put in? Do we have the capacity to pull it off effectively?

Target: Do we want to influence particular decision-makers? Who? For what end? What message will the tactic send to those we’re targeting? Will it pressure them to capitulate to our goals, or will it enable them to dismiss us, retaliate, or turn public sentiment against us?

The Tactic Star (a tool for planning and evaluating tactics)

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 &#151 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.

Strategy: How will the tactic move us toward achieving our goal?

Message: What will the tactic communicate? What will it mean to others? How will it carry a persuasive story?

Tone: Will the action be solemn, jubilant, angry, or calm? Will the energy attract or repel the people we want to engage?

Timing: Can we leverage unfolding events and new developments as opportunities? Does the political moment hold potential for us, or vulnerability for our opponents?

Audience: Who do we want to reach with our tactic? What response do we want our action to inspire in them?

Allies: How will the tactic affect our allies or potential allies? How will they receive it? Will it strengthen the relationship or jeopardize it?

Resources: Is the action worth our limited time, energy and money? Can we get more out of it than we put in? Do we have the capacity to pull it off effectively?

Target: What message will the tactic send to the people who have the power to meet our demands? Will it pressure them to capitulate, or enable them to dismiss us or retaliate?

Click here to download the tactic star worksheet (PDF).