Shift the Spectrum of Allies (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 8)

In sum: Movements seldom win by overpowering the opposition; they win by shifting the support out from under them. Determine the social blocs at play on a given issue, and work to shift them closer to your position.
Activists are often good at analyzing systemic social problems, but less good at thinking systemically about organizing.
Activism is about using your power and voice to make change. Organizing is about that, too, but it’s also about activating and empowering others. It helps to think in terms of groups. Successful movement-building hinges on being able to see a society in terms of specific blocs or networks, some of which are institutions (unions, churches, schools), others of which are less visible or cohesive, like youth subcultures or demographic groupings.
 
Analyzing your spectrum of allies can help you to identify and mobilize the networks around you. A spectrum-of-allies analysis can be used to map out a local campaign or to strategize for a whole social movement.
 
 
Here’s how a spectrum-of-allies analysis works: in each wedge you can place different individuals (be specific: name them!), groups, or institutions. Moving from left to right, identify your active allies: people who agree with you and are fighting alongside you; your passive allies: folks who agree with you but aren’t doing anything about it; neutrals: fence-sitters, the unengaged; passive opposition: people who disagree with you but aren’t trying to stop you; and finally your active opposition.
Some activist groups only speak or work with  those in the first wedge (active allies), building insular, self-referential, marginal subcultures that are incomprehensible to everyone else. Others behave as if everyone is in the last wedge (active opposition), playing out the “story of the righteous few,” acting as if the whole world is against them. Both of these approaches virtually guarantee failure. Movements win not by overpowering their active opposition, but by shifting the support out from under them.
 
For example, in 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a major driver of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South, conducted a “spectrum-of-allies style” analysis. They determined that they had a lot of passive allies who were students in the North: these students were sympathetic, but had no entry point into the movement. They didn’t need to be “educated” or convinced, they needed an invitation to enter.
 
To shift these allies from “passive” to “active,” SNCC sent buses north to bring folks down to participate in the struggle under the banner “Freedom Summer.” Students came in droves, and many were deeply radicalized in the process, witnessing lynching, violent police abuse, and angry white mobs, all simply as a result of black people trying to vote.
 
 
Many wrote letters home to their parents, who suddenly had a personal connection to the struggle. This triggered another shift: their families became passive allies, often bringing their workplaces and social networks with them. The students, meanwhile, went back to school in the fall and proceeded to organize their campuses. More shifts. The result: a profound transformation of the political landscape of the U.S. This cascading shift of support, it’s important to emphasize, wasn’t spontaneous; it was part of a deliberate movement strategy that, to this day, carries profound lessons for other movements.
 
Further insights:
  • Explanation of the “Spectrum of Allies” from NewTactics
  • Strategy tool for “Spectrum of Allies,” from Training for Change
  • Douglas McAdam, Freedom Summer. Oxford Univ. Press, 1988.
 
 
 
This is one of several pieces by Joshua Kahn Russell published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here! 

The Political Identity Paradox (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 7)

This is an adapted version of an earlier, longer article by the same title, which was part of series on evolutionary logics of collective action.

Any serious social movement needs 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. Strong group identity, however, is 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 society. This is the political identity paradox.

The political identity paradox suggests that while political groups require a strong internal identity to foster the commitment needed for effective political struggle, this same cohesion tends to isolate the group. Isolated groups are hard-pressed to achieve political goals.

This is true of all groups, but tends to have particular consequences for a group involved in political struggle, which has not only to foster a strong internal identity: it also has to win allies.

The tendency toward isolation can escalate very quickly in political groups, as oppositional struggle can foster an oppositional psychology. Activists who 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 are fully oriented to the task, let alone when they are unprepared, which is often the case.  

Take, for example, Students for a Democratic Society (the original SDS that fell apart in dramatic fashion in 1969). At the center of the epic implosion of this massive student organization &#151 beneath the rational arguments that leaders were slinging at each other &#151 was the political identity paradox. Key leaders had become encapsulated in their oppositional identity and grown more and more out of touch. They lost the ability and inclination to relate to their broader membership &#151 a huge number of students at the moment of the implosion &#151 let 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 forge broad alliances.

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 is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

Floating Signifier (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 6)

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Andrew Boyd, and Dave Oswald Mitchell

The American flag inspires extreme passions . . . but what exactly does it stand for? To different people it means freedom, justice, imperialism and terror &#151 its meaning shifts wildly depending on context and observer. This emptiness, into which observers can pour almost any meaning or desire, is a large part of the symbol’s power.

For activists, a well-crafted floating signifier can be a powerful tool for catalyzing broad-based action. Subcommandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, for example, deployed the concept of the floating signifier masterfully. Marcos described the masks the Zapatistas wore as a mirror in which all who struggle for a better world can see themselves. The Zapatistas’ iconic black balaclava was not just a necessity for personal security, but became a powerful statement of unity and universality. “Behind our black mask,” they declared, “we are you.”

In 2008, presidential candi-date Barack Obama also made masterful use of floating signifiers. His poetic rhetoric of “hope” and “change we can believe in” inspired a population weary from eight years of misrule. He became whatever his supporters wanted him to be. Obama explicitly acknowledged this phenomenon in the prologue to his campaign screed, The Audacity of Hope: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  

Finding the right floating signifier can make or break a social movement or campaign. When a challenger social movement hits upon such a catalyzing symbol, it’s like striking gold. One might even argue that broad social movements are constituted in the act of finding their floating signifier. Hitherto disparate groups suddenly congeal into a powerful aligned force. Momentum is on their side, and things that seemed impossible only yesterday become visible on the horizon.

Indeed, the power of a good floating signifier was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the overnight growth of Occupy Wall Street. Far eclipsing the literal physical occupation in Zucotti Park, OWS resonated so far and wide because it served as a symbol about standing up to powerful elites on their own doorstep. To many people, the “occupy” in “Occupy Wall Street” essentially stands in for the F word. Millions of Americans were waiting for someone or something to stand up to Wall Street, the big banks, the mega-corporations, and the political elite. Then one day, a relatively small crew of audacious and persistent New Yorkers became that someone or something &#151 became the catalyzing symbol of defiance we’d been waiting for. And by having an open process, and not fixing its meaning early with a ten-point program or the like, the symbol was able to continue “floating.”

It’s not that the symbol is empty of meaning. Both “occupy” and “the 99%” carry content that strategically frames public thinking and pulls the political discourse in a clear direction. But a degree of ambiguity is absolutely necessary if such a symbol is to catalyze a broad alignment. If the symbol’s meaning becomes too particular &#151 too associated with any one current or group within the alignment &#151 it risks losing its powerfully broad appeal. This is why the forces defending the status quo try to nail it down. Their hope is that by fixing it to particular meanings, associating it with particular “kinds of people” and to narrower frameworks, it will no longer function as a popular symbol.

Float on, beautiful signifier. Float on.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

Expressive & Instrumental Actions (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 5)

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Joshua Kahn Russell, and Zack Malitz

Sometimes activists will take an action without much thought to how others receive it, or what precisely the action will achieve. Many people participate in actions because it’s meaningful to them, or simply because it feels good to do the right thing. We call this the expressive part of an action. Expressive actions come from the heart and the gut &#151 whether or not our “heads” calculate the specific outcome.

“Taking the street” during a march is a perfect example. Sure, it feels good to march un-permitted in the street. You and your comrades bravely disobey police orders and, all together, walk out into traffic. You can practically smell the group cohesion in the air. It’s intoxicating. It’s also usually inconsequentialin terms of broader social movement objectives. Still, how many times have you heard someone say a march was “bad” simply because it stayed on the sidewalk? When someone says this, it may be because their goals are primarily expressive; affecting social change is of secondary importance.

Most trained organizers think on another level: regardless of the self-expressive value for those involved, we ask “what is this action actually achieving for our issue, cause, movement, or campaign?” We call this the instrumental value of an action.

Both aspects are important, and though a well designed action can deliver on both simultaneously, expressive and instrumental often get pitted against one another. Many hard-nosed organizers focus exclusively on tangible impacts, forgetting that the self-expressive dimension of an action plays a critical role in affirming values and building group identity. On the other hand, many groups can carry out a whole string of expressive actions without ever winning anything. The danger here is clear: groups that don’t evaluate the success of their tactics in terms of their instrumental goals risk becoming narcissistic and self-referential. They can spiral into irrelevance because they aren’t tuned into how their action effects anyone outside of the group.

While instrumental actions are often focused on an “external” outcome, say, some measurable kind of pressure you can exert on the bad guy your campaign is targeting, they can also have an “internal” focus. Consider a mass teach-in that is designed to build your organization’s capacity, or increase the skills of participants, or shift the thinking in your movement. Here, the expressive value of the action is being directly translated into an instrumental outcome. Expressive and instrumental are therefore not mutually exclusive categories, but rather dynamics to which we need to pay attention.

Instrumental actions can be further subdivided into “communicative” and “concrete”. Communicative actions are designed to sway opinion, express an idea, or contribute to public discourse, while concrete actions are designed to have a tangible impact on a target. These are two separate ways of measuring an instrumental outcome.

While self-expression is a necessary part of the social change process, it is not sufficient. Through our rituals of self-expression, we affirm our values and visions and build the kind of group identity and cohesion without which we’d be too weak and disorganized to change the world. That said, expressing values is not the same as engaging society and affecting systemic change. If we really want to change the world, we must know the difference between &#151 and artfully balance &#151 our instrumental goals with our desire for self-expression.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

Seek Common Ground (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 4)

When disagreeing with someone else’s ideas, it can be tempting to engage in narrative attack; to make a direct attack on one narrative from the vantage point, and in the language, of your opposing narrative. For example, when someone wraps climate change-denial views in the rhetoric of creationist beliefs, it is tempting to directly attack the climate change denier’s whole belief system. Once a narrative attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible because the attacked person feels that their whole belief system is under siege. Change becomes impossible.

A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative framework, learning the component parts and looking for points of connection. Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, for instance, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment home-grown insurgency against the most problematic beliefs by identifying ally beliefs and seeking to reinforce them. When speaking to creationists about environmental issues, for example, emphasizing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation can be an effective point of entry.

If we are to transform the political culture, we need to think not in terms of attacking opponents’ views head-on, but rather in terms of fomenting homegrown insurgency. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative, transforming that culture from the inside out.  

The narrative insurgent’s approach, well executed, can be very effective for identifying and drawing out allies: in this case, creationists who care about the environment and are uneasy seeing it ravaged for the sake of private profit. By repeating and positively reinforcing this message in the context of ongoing engagement, the belief that we should care for the earth can be strengthened within the given community’s complex collective belief system.

Narrative insurgents do not reject problematic 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 &#151 the allied and neutral components &#151 and encourage the further development of the allied components, using these as the foundations for their organizing efforts with and within the given community.

This approach doesn’t mean always avoiding direct confrontation with harmful narratives and beliefs. It’s more like a preference for finding common ground and utilizing positive reinforcement whenever possible. 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 (e.g. during a revolutionary moment). The strategy here is to lay the groundwork that necessarily precedes such a moment: to feed the allied components within a narrative until they are strong enough to burst out of the old framework.

Narrative insurgency only works if applied in the context of accountable relationships with reliable feedback loops. 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 large numbers of people. While she may often disagree with others, she still values and even empathizes with their perspectives. She is forgiving toward shortcomings, always rooting for people, always finding something worthy of praise. Over time, narrative insurgency becomes second nature: we don’t feign identification with the allied and neutral components within another community’s narrative or culture, because our orientation is to connect with people wherever and whenever possible.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

We are all leaders (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 3)

What is the difference between saying “none of us is a leader” and saying “we are all leaders”? At first glance these two phrases may seem like two ways of saying the same thing, which is essentially, “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, and not all involve the creation of hierarchies. Taking leadership can mean taking initiative on moving a project or task forward, or taking responsibility for recognizing what is needed, and stepping up individually or collectively to do that thing.

It is important, in other words, to distinguish between horizontal organization and disorganization, and to foster models of dispersed leadership that promote responsibility, accountability and effectiveness.

This is not just a matter of semantics. If we are part of a group that boasts of having no leaders, participants may be overly hesitant about stepping up to take initiative for fear of being seen as a “leader,” which would be a bad thing. If we really want to change the world, we need more people stepping up to take initiative, not less. The more initiative we each take in our work together, the greater our collective capacity will be. Building 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. This means stepping up in ways that 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 to and learning from others. It can mean taking time to recognize and value many different forms of leadership in the group. And it can mean looking for and nurturing leadership potential in others, who may not feel entitled to step forward uninvited or unsupported.

A culture that values healthy leadership is one that also prizes accountability, in which we are responsible for and accountable to one another. But this focus on accountability must go hand-in-hand with a group culture that values leadership. Otherwise we may develop a “circular firing squad” mentality in which we waste our energy cutting each other down for taking initiative.

We need a movement where we are constantly encouraging each other to step into our full potential and shine as a collective of leaders working together for a better world. Let’s all be leaders. Let’s be leaderful, not leaderless.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

Welcome New Folks (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 2)

Bringing in new participants is essential to any activist group that wants to grow in size and capacity &#151 but recruiting is only the first step. Integrating people into an established group can be a much bigger challenge, and it helps to be intentional about it. Getting good at involving people requires some deliberate attention and probably the establishment of some basic procedures to make new folks welcome.

For starters, when someone says they’re interested in finding out more or getting involved in your group, don’t just invite them to come to your next meeting and leave it at that. 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 member retention rates, schedule one-on-one intake interviews with new folks before they come to a group meeting. Get to know the person. Find out what attracted them to the group, what kinds of tasks they enjoy or are good at, and how much time they have. Then tell them more about the group and discuss what their involvement could look like. While this level of orientation requires more time up front, it saves time in the long run: people tend to plug into the work faster and stick around longer. It may make sense for one or two members of your group to take on this responsibility as an ongoing role.

Secondly, if you want to inspire people to stay involved, you need to make them feel valued and appreciated. People like to be around people who treat them well. Most of us have no shortage of things we can do with a finite amount of free time: if you expect people to prioritize your group over aikido classes, contra dancing or advanced origami, you gotta treat ’em right. 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.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!