Where Your Campaign Should Make Its Stand

Contributor: Ned Howey

It’s Black History month in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. And we wanted to take this opportunity to appreciate the profound depth of contributions to our work both within and beyond racial justice that communities of color and more specifically Black communities, have made to the core development of modern people-powered methods which so much of our work draws from. We’ve heard from international organizers at times curious why so much of our work still references the US Civil Rights Movement of the last century. It is important to note that people of color in the US developed these techniques out of necessity and in response to the oppression by white people - as they were systematically denied access to various sources of power and needed to rely on community strength in organizing in their demands for change and justice. In any reference to our great civil rights leaders, including this article, we believe it is important to acknowledge the work of those individuals, organizations, and communities from which we draw knowledge and inspiration in our own fights.

Campaigning for progressive change means demanding that the world change. Perhaps most important in this process is the act of taking a stand - symbolic or literal - against the ways the world is unjust, highlighting to the public exactly where that injustice sits, and calling on them to support change. One perennial struggle we see campaigners face, however, is designing campaign actions bold enough to shine a light on the problem and grab attention, but not overstepping brashly into a territory which might alienate the exact audience we need for a successful campaign. 

If we’re a multi-issue petitions organization, how might we use this to decide which petitions to amplify, which hold the most potential to spark campaigns that make real change to the underlying causes of our injustices? How can environmental organizations demand the big changes needed to take critical actions like fighting companies that pollute, or demanding defunding of carbon emitters while not scaring off groups also concerned with the economic concerns of jobs and cost of goods? How might those fighting for transgender rights bring to light the realities of their lives to people with few trans people in their lives in the current context of counter attacks by TERFs who aim to deny the very existence of trans people? These are questions that permeate every level from simple social posts to planning mass protests. 

This article will dive into this exact issue and draw inspiration from at least one approach that seemed to nail this balance perfectly: Rosa Parks’ famous individual action on a Montgomery bus. 


The Territory of Audience: Thinking Beyond Our Own Thinking

Activists and campaigners for social, economic, and environmental justice by definition of their work are entering into asymmetrical challenges to power and to succeed in winning the change they are demanding through their campaigns must consider many factors: targets to be moved, Theory of Change to be utilized, and where to focus symbolic calls for change. 

This final element is perhaps the most complicated as it requires in our campaign design that we move beyond our own thinking and view of the world and into the “territory of our audience” - those we need to move or convince - to be successful in our call to force change. This can be incredibly hard for campaign teams, to whom the injustice can seem so obvious - but are met with ridicule when brought boldly, loudly, or critically identifying this injustice in the public sphere. (See our review of the movie, “Don’t Look Up” which makes this point brilliantly when a frustrated scientist loses her patience live on air and screams “we are all going to f*cking die!” - only to be memed and generally ridiculed as a result).

Do campaigns that take symbolic stands far bolder than the median societal understanding have any effect? - indeed they can! Particularly when the strategic intention is to rile a base or recruit supporters and members who are already fairly convinced of the worthiness of our cause. While these actions might have a tactical place in our work, one has to seriously question the ability of utilizing only campaigns as such to succeed in actual change. To continually focus on building numbers, donations and other resources that emerge, often doesn’t in the end lead to much change. At some point we must move beyond preaching to the choir. 

‘Winning hearts and minds’, so to speak, must enter into the picture if we are ever to create impact. And that requires going outside of our own seeming clarity of view on the way things are. The thing that movements move - at their core - is people. All successful movement-based campaigns that make change must at a minimum win sufficient societal consensus from a broader audience. In the ideal our work will move them to care, support, and maybe even take action. While small changes can sometimes be found in sympathetic elites (like business owners and media), institutional bodies (UN commissions, the Europe Commission, government committees, etc.), or the courts, so long as democracy is in place, such gains are ephemeral until people themselves have been brought to see the light in the ways of unfairness if our change is to be lasting. This means reaching beyond our base or an occasional institutional sympathetic ear. 


Persuasion and the Art of Communication 

While persuasion campaigning has taken its rightful role in electoral politics, in some more advocacy-focussed campaigning it often takes a back seat. In reality, persuasion of an audience - and particularly an audience that thinks differently than us, has been a core part of modern day organizing since its beginnings. 

In his masterpiece Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky, arguably the “father’ of modern organizing, said it clearly in the opening chapter of the book. Concerned about extreme symbolic protests of flag burning engaged in by some activists in the anti-war movement, he said: 

“Th[e] failure…to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag.”

His point is quite valid: it’s doubtful that burning the US flag achieved anything positive for the movement. 

It’s important to note, here, that this criticism of tactics is often used to justify finger-wagging, scolding, or other attempts to moderate the free actions of some activists - which is equally damaging. This ‘tactical concern’ approach too often comes from those of privileged identities scolding or tutoring people who already lack voice as a way of amplifying the control of those already with power. While warnings like Alinsky’s of considering our audience should inspire our campaign design, they should by no means be a call for us to put all our energies towards criticizing those who don’t.  In a free society, people will claim voice in all kinds of ways - if our efforts are focussed on trying to negate that reality, we’re likely to get bogged down in internal wars that don’t remotely serve our side of the argument. It is better to make clear who does and doesn’t represent our effort, and focus on amplifying our own strategic moves so that our criticism focuses there.  

Within our own efforts in campaigning, the ideal is to get into the thinking of key audiences with whom we most need to persuade to have a role: sympathize, support, or possibly even take action. This, of course, doesn’t mean the entire public: Taking a cue from electoral persuasion, we can also not concern ourselves too much in our efforts and resource dedication to persuade the unpersuadable. But we must make a careful calculus of the numbers we actually do need to persuade to achieve our goals. 

If we’re asking for a big change and 70% are considered immovable, we’re likely not going to change much. Although there are exceptional cases, in such a case, generally we need to recalculate and draw the issue differently so as to bring more individuals over time. (Animal rights activists demanding pure veganism from the population serve as a great example of miscalculation in their demands. With a slight recalculation of demands, they could likely achieve substantial movement towards the reduction of meat, improvement of animal welfare, human health, and better environmental outcomes, while staying connected to those who, even though willing to alter our daily diet, might still indulge in a little brie or cheddar). 


Where We Take Our Stand: Parks’ Protest as a Lesson 

So where exactly do we place the symbolic focus of our campaign actions? For this grand question, I like to draw from what I view as perhaps the ideal of such actions: Rosa Parks’ refusal to cede her bus seat to a white man one afternoon in Montgomery. This event in terms of historical significance is so great it's almost hard to quantify. It was the spark that lit a moment in a movement that truly changed the nation and the world in terms of racial justice. But going beyond its historical significance and diving a bit into some of the oft ignored details of this ultimately successful action, there are also some key lessons here for those designing campaigns today.

As most know, when Ms. Parks took this action in 1955, the South of the US was totally segregated, denying black people access to the same public and private spaces as white individuals. From water fountains to swimming pools, and, in the case of Park’s target, public transportation - all was separated under a legal ruling that segregation was acceptable, because it was “separate but equal”. Despite the legal claim, it was beyond obvious that there was  nothing equal in reality to justify segregation and the institutional practice was nothing short of white supremacy implemented in societal form. 

It’s easy to credit Ms. Park’s action to one tired woman fed up with white supremacy. But in reality, her refusal to give up her seat was planned for several months by the NAACP, where Parks was a member. Like many of those associated with organizations right now seeking change, who, I hope, are reading this, it's likely Park’s immediate group strategized, discussed and carefully designed this action. 

What those who don’t know the details of this action might not know, is that Rosa Parks was not, in fact, sitting in the white section of the bus. When she refused to stand for a white person, she was seated in the front of the “Black section” at the back of the bus. It was practice at the time that once the white section had filled up, Black people in the back section were expected to stand and allow their seat to be taken so a white person could sit. 

Many of our campaigns struggle with exactly this question of where best to make our symbolic stand (maybe better stated in this case as our symbolic ‘sit’). It’s hard to know what would have happened if Parks had chosen instead to sit in the white section of the bus,but morally right though it would also have been, it’s unlikely doing so would have created the same strategic impact. Certainly within the minds of many of the audience needed to generate support around this moment for it to be a success, a bolder move of sitting in the front might, I suspect, have been less impactful - and, in fact, just such an attempt had happened nine months earlier without the desired effect. The key persuadable audience of the mainstream might have easily dismissed this more bold action under the current logic of ‘separate but equal’, from which segregation drew legal justification. Was the segregation of buses wrong to begin with? Of course. Did Parks have the moral right to sit in the front? Absolutely. But we’re speaking here of tactics and strategy to winning change, not of the moral right driving that change. We work within the world we have, not the world that we would like to have. 

What was so particularly brilliant about Parks’ placement of refusal, was that it invited the underlying principle to unveil itself. White supremacy shone through clearly as the true underpinning of the separate but equal claim, so Parks’ action undercut the entire system from that vantage point. 


Demanding It All! Leveraging Our Strategic Stands for Calls to Big Change

The demands of the bus boycott resulted in an end to segregation entirely in the bus system. Making a symbolic stand in an action where it can be heard is not tantamount to arguing for incremental change. Following the arrest of Rosa Parks they did not demand a small claim for Black people to be able to remain seated in the front of their inferior section even when the bus was full. They demanded nothing short of an end to segregation on the bussing system overall and - most importantly - organized a bus boycott to back it up. The action itself was strong enough to reach a base willing to stand together, and clearly they had done enough organizing work to build the power to back this up and launch a successful action that delivered on its demand to desegregate the bus system. The organizers kept in focus the larger goal - one specific to the underlying cause, large enough to dismantle something huge, symbolic enough to serve as an indicator of further necessary and possible change, and real enough to impact people’s lives - while gathering around a symbolic action that did not strategically overstep or alienate. The boycott itself - which saw the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader of the movement, lasted over a year before it won its victory. 

Without a doubt there are other keys to designing a successful place to take our stand. The timing of an action in any context, the very personal role of those who the action is centered around, among others. There are also undoubtedly other examples beyond Parks’ which highlight successful actions with the audience in mind. 

Which examples does your campaign draw inspiration from? What actions have you seen move beyond your base successfully? What did we get wrong here in our observations? Join the conversation on the TON community Slack environment.