A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The Parkland students and others are reinventing models for people-powered activism that adapts to today’s rapid pace of change.
It’s hard to think of anything more embarrassing than throwing up in front of millions of people waiting to hear you speak. But that’s exactly what Sam Fuentes did at the March for Our Lives rally she helped to organize in Washington, D.C.
Here’s the kicker: The school shooting survivor didn’t act embarrassed at all. Instead of running off the stage—like most of us would—she took it in stride and went on to give an impassioned speech.
Since 17 of their classmates were gunned down in February, Fuentes and other survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, have turned their trauma into a mass movement against gun violence. They organized a national march without any infrastructure—and in record time. And this summer, they toured the country for a campaign to mobilize the youth vote in the upcoming midterm elections.
But perhaps most significantly, these young people have debunked the assumption that this issue could never be wrested from the hands of powerful and well-funded gun rights forces.
Among the doubtful were older activists and professional campaigners who’d been in the organizing trenches for years—and with the scars to prove it. While thrilled about the new movement’s success, they also had a feeling that something had changed. Is this the dawn of a new kind of organizing and campaigning?
In short, yes. And the March for Our Lives movement is only one example. From the Movement for Black Lives and 350.org to the Women’s March and the tea party, a new wave of people-powered action is flipping the script and in some ways confounding traditional organizations that have been unable to convert into nimble social movements.
What all have in common is what authors Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms are calling “new power”—new models that are organic and grow directly from the people rather than being directed or managed by formal organizations that control what gets done and by whom.
“Old power models ask of us only that we comply (pay your taxes, do your homework) or consume,” they write. “New power models demand and allow for more: that we share ideas, create new content (as on YouTube) or assets (as on Etsy), even shape a community (think of the sprawling digital movements resisting the Trump presidency).”
Today, new movements are working with more established organizations to capitalize on their wide-reaching networks. And they are learning to embrace the kinds of technologically savvy tactics used by the Parkland students. Here are five strategies that are proving valuable.
Seasoned campaigners have long understood that the most effective messengers and organizers are those with the most at stake, or—like the Parkland students—little to lose. Those most directly affected by an issue can speak from the heart, while many campaigners and advocates sound scripted when they cite statistics or the latest study to make their points.
Soon after taking the stage at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., Parkland senior Emma González went silent. After standing wordlessly at the podium for four minutes and 26 seconds, she informed the crowd that her entire speech had lasted the same amount of time as she and her classmates had endured an active shooter.
She captured attention not only by speaking from the heart, but by showing rather than telling. González and her fellow student leaders are compelling to us because they have what Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, says are the three critical elements of good stories: (1) compelling characters, (2) characters who have overcome obstacles, and (3) characters who have achieved a worthy outcome.
We all want to be recognized for the work we’re doing, especially when it comes to issues we’re passionate about. That desire to be front and center can sometimes hurt, rather than advance, a movement or mission.
At the March for Our Lives in Washington, for example, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, a nationally recognized gun violence survivor, stood in the crowd instead of onstage. She had stepped back so students’ voices could be heard. At the same time, she stepped up in other ways such as paying for many students’ travel to Washington.
The bottom line: Transformative social change is going to come from organizations that see people as change agents, not just cheerleaders or foot soldiers carrying out plans designed by those “in charge.”
When Fox News host Laura Ingraham mocked Parkland student organizer and survivor David Hogg for not being accepted into certain colleges, Hogg didn’t spend the next few days convening staff meetings on how to respond.
Instead, he quickly posted a list of Ingraham’s advertisers on Twitter and asked his outraged followers to let those companies know how they felt. As a result, more than a dozen advertisers dropped her show.
The most effective social change organizations understand that as technology moves everything to warp speed, the ability to respond rapidly and nimbly matters more than ever before.
The key to such agility? Agreeing on an overarching vision and message. This provides team members with the autonomy needed to respond quickly and creatively when opportunities arise.
In one of the most viewed TED talks of all time, behavioral researcher and author Simon Sinek uses Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech to explain why a big, bold idea is a key element of movement building and social change.
“He gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, not the ‘I Have a Plan’ speech,” Sinek says. “He spoke for a different world, how to go from here to there. And he so beautifully described what ‘there’ is.”
King’s vision of a positive future mobilized a quarter of a million people to make the trek to Washington, D.C. (long before the internet). The Parkland students inspired over a million to stand up against gun violence in Washington and cities across the U.S. And March for Our Lives inspired an even bigger nationwide school walkout to keep up pressure on politicians and continue building local power.
Could your organization pull off a national march in five weeks? Without any infrastructure or paid staff? With little financial support? And while leaders are still reeling from major trauma?
A lot of people told the Parkland students that what they were attempting was impossible. Luckily, they ignored the concerns because they weren’t fixating on what they didn’t have. Instead, they had a “movement mindset” that allowed them to focus on creatively and efficiently using the resources they did have.
Organizations of all sizes are discovering that they can take a page from social movements and find ways to act before everything is in place or completely figured out. Through participatory planning, rapid audience testing, and real-time ongoing improvements, organizations are developing initiatives that can be successful in rapidly shifting and unpredictable contexts. In short, the perfect is no longer the enemy of the good.
First published in YES! Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission.
Michael Silberman is the global director of Mobilisation Lab, which is transforming social change for the networked age.