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Believing in the power of social movements

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (a crowd of marchers), 1963; public domain

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (a crowd of marchers), 1963; public domain


Did you know that social movements can play a role in corporate change management? They can, and while this approach will never replace a solid business strategy, it can be used to build culture, increase engagement and adoption of the change plan, and empower employees to manage their own personal role in change.  But what can we do if morale and engagement starts to drop despite initial evidence of success? The answer is, don't give up:


 Hope, which lay at the bottom of the box, remained.

Enlightment has it’s virtues, so much so that I’d say it sits high on a pedistal above feel-goodism. I pulled the above quote from the story of Pandora’s Box, in which all the evils of the world fly away before the box can be closed, leaving Hope shut inside. Different philosophers have their own interpretations of what that means. Nietzsche, for example, viewed Hope as “the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” 

I like to think of it this way: Wo/man has been given the opportunity to be disciplined enough to keep the lid closed—to bring Hope out for when it will serve a productive purpose, and only then.

In the title of this piece I reference Belief, which in turn stems forth from and at times can also push us in the direction of Hope. In my view, Belief and Hope are inextricably linked. And in order to be an effective agent of social change, one needs to open Pandora’s Box and utilize Hope from time-to-time. Ironically, the correct time to use Hope is exactly when things are beginning to work out for a movement. And even more ironically, it is our unrealistic beliefs that keep Hope at bay during these times when we need it most. I’ll explain below.

But first, in Doing Democracy Bill Moyer, JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley and Steven Soifer give us the MAP Model for organizing social movements. I think of this book as the activist’s bible because it lays out both a theory and a working model for understanding and analyzing social movements, and then helps readers to navigate through what it takes to ensure that they are successful in the long term.

Here is how the authors introduce social movements:

Throughout much of human history, people have organized to change social conditions. Some collective efforts have had dramatic success, while others have failed miserably. Nonetheless, the advancement of human society has largely been achieved through citizen-based actions. In the United States, the recognition of basic human rights—the abolition of slavery, the right of labor to organize, child labor laws, the right for African Americans and women to vote—came about through the efforts of engaged citizens. In recent years, activists around the world have ousted dictators in Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and Haiti and ended apartheid in South Africa. Nonviolent social movements, based in grassroots “people power,” are a means for ordinary people to act on their deepest values and successfully challenge unjust social conditions and policies, despite the determined resistance of entrenched private and public power.

There comes a point in every successful social movement where morale takes a nose dive and deceptively this often happens when the movement is poised to experience success—and when I talk about social movements I’m not just talking about the movements of hard-hitting climate activists and those like them, activism and social movements can also rather ironically be used to ease along change management programs in corporations. 

Human nature dictates that even though grassroots activists and their social movements have been powerful and often successful throughout history, most activists still fall into the trap of believing they are powerless. They may prematurely feel that their movement is ineffective and failing—a dangerous trap because those feelings can become self-fulfilling prophecies that create a chain reaction of hopelessness, low energy, depression, burnout, dropout, declining numbers of new participants, and disastrous strategies and tactics, born out of desperation that ensure the movement’s decline.

This is the time to pull Hope out of the box and use it to move Belief into a more positive place. Activists must believe in their own power, and recognize, accept and celebrate the progress and victories of their social movement as it moves through the bumpy spots on the long road to success.

The MAP model lists nine reasons why activists generally begin to believe that their movement is failing, and then solutions to remedy them, which I love, before tackling how to overcome a “culture of failure" or collective assumptions about reality that are not useful.

The bottom line is that we might be more powerful than we know, and any social movement we may be involved with or part of might well be succeeding. So it’s important to be open to the possibility that we are powerful and our movement is on the path of success. Powerlessness has it’s advantages, so it’s easy to cling to. Here are a few ways activists can let go of the “advantages” of powerlessness in order to free themselves:

Make yourself accountable and responsible for your actions. If you’re going to be effective, you can’t just do what you like and expect it to not make a difference.

Remove any fear of being co-opted and becoming like the establishment you dislike.

Stop viewing yourself as an underdog. Seeing yourself as an underdog brings on useless feelings of moral superiority and self-righteousness.

Let go of the avoidance to change yourself or your team or organization. Don’t hang on to old identities and psychological comfort that keeps you from reaching for new successes.

Move from taking a perennial rebel role to the role of a change agent, or even a reformer.

Accept the responsibilty that comes with being powerful.

Be willing to overcome the fear of success and strive for political maturity.

The last one is the most important. Allowing yourself and your movement to be successful requires personal and political maturity—it’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have. Making the change from acting on an unrealistic model of failure to a realistic model of success requires a major emotional and cultural leap. Redefining your view of yourself and your social movement takes place at many levels, including mental, emotional, spiritual, and cultural.

No one can truly answer this question but I’m going to end by posing it anyway:

What is the purpose of life?

I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately. And my answer is perhaps much too simple—that the point of life is growth. Basically, enlightment. And we do that through making numerous mistakes and being self-actualized enough to learn from them. The more mistakes we make the more we learn, the more we learn the more enlightened we become, and the more enlightened we become the more we grow. 

Now, you can get into all sorts of philosophical and spiritual gordian knots around this concept. Does life and growth end when we die? Based on theories of reincarnarion, can we continue our growth from life to life, or does it begin anew? Etc. And if we’re asking ourselves these kinds of questions it means we’re already open to growth.

This is the kind of thinking that will help activists along the journey to seeing a social movement through to success. In the end it’s a growth journey—you stand to learn more about yourself and about life than you’ve ever imagined, and develop into a more mature and enlightened version of yourself.

Alyssa YeagerComment