In this article, we explain that there are many ways of fighting for change. It is important to choose a campaign strategy for your movement that helps you achieve your goals.
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There is a wide variety of strategies. Choosing a strategy is not an easy task. First, you need to determine what you want to achieve. Based on that, you need to develop a strategy that helps you get there.
The goal of Activist Handbook is not to promote one particular strategy. Instead, we aim to discuss each of them critically, to help you develop your own.
However, we are not completely impartial either. Based on the research of our contributors and the principles of Activist Handbook we do make certain recommendations.
We encourage you to edit and improve this page to add new perspectives!
Which strategy works?
What strategy helps you achieve your vision and goals? The honest answer: we do not know.
There is likely not one strategy that is the best. We need people doing lots of different things. Some people should go into politics, other people should be out on the streets. The combination is what makes us strong. It is like baking a cake: nobody would argue sugar is the best ingredient, so we should only use sugar.
We also need activists trying out new things and innovate. Just look outside: the world is on fire and we are massively failing. Even though many activists before us have tried their very best to make the world better, it is not good enough. And that is fine. We are still making progress. Sometimes we will not make a difference at all, and sometimes big change happens all at once. In many cases, we are making progress, but we just cannot see it. As long as we keep trying, we will keep getting better at making a positive impact.
Luckily, there have been many activists before you who have fought hard for justice. They have learned many hard lessons, and Activist Handbook is all about sharing those. You do not need to reinvent the wheel.
Activists have tried to develop various models for categorising types of strategies (for a comparison of various categorisations, read chapter 3 of Civil Resistance in the 21st Century by ICNC).
Each of these models focusses on questions that their respective authors found especially important. We have included a few of those questions below. The answers to these questions are not binary: often, your choice will be somewhere in between.
Once you start answering some questions, you will notice that answers to other questions will logically follow. For example, if you would have moderate goals and choose to use constructive actions, it would not make sense to start doing civil disobedience.
Individual or collective?
To kick things off, we start we start with a very opiniated recommendation. As an individual, you can try to change your own behaviour to make a positive impact. But the impact you can make grows significantly if you decide to act together. The more people who join your campaign, the bigger of a dent you can make. Given the fucked up state of the world we think it is important to do as much good as fast as possible. For that reason, all guides on Activist Handbook are about collective action, not individual action. Read more about this in our guide: what is activism?
From a strategic perspective, it is important to design scalable campaigns. Scalable campaigns are not about you telling lots of people what to do. They are about building structures that empower as many people as possible.
Moderate or radical goals?
Based on your vision, you know where you want to go. But it is a strategic choice for your campaign to either aim for small incremental change or for big change that addresses problems at their roots. In Rules for Revolutionaries (Rule 1), Bond and Exley argue that movements need big goals that match the scale of our challenges.
Constructive or disruptive actions?
Do you want to bring about change through disruption, or through constructive actions (such as persuasion and innovation). Carrot or stick? How disruptive do you want to be? Do you disrupt by not doing something (noncooperation) or by doing something?
Some degree of conflict is inherrent to activism. If it is in the interest of those in power to change something for the better, they will (given that there are no technical obstacles). Since activism is all about empowering marginalised people, whose interests are often different than those with power, you are bound to clash. Constructive forms of activism play an important contribution to the ecosystem of all different types change-makers, but do not confuse being constructive with avoiding conflict.
Also make sure to show solidarity with other forms of activism: 'radical' activists are clearing the way for moderate activists, shifting the Overton window. Disruptive activists are fighting on the frontlines and are hit first by state repression. Do not stand by as they are being criminalised, because you will be next.
Legal or civil disobedience?
In some countries, breaking the law can be a conscious choice for activists to draw attention to their cause. There, it can also be a choice to obey the law not to deter the general public.
In other countries, however, all or many forms of activism are criminalised. In those cases, to stay within the boundaries of the law is not a decision that activists have the privilege to make.
Direct or indirect action?
Direct actions are things you can do that immediately create the change you want to see. Indirect actions are things that help to create the conditions necessary for success. Read the chapter 'Tactics and Targets' from the Deep Green Resistance book to learn more about direct and indirect forms of action.
Target the system or culture?
Do you decide to target aspects of the system, such as political institutions, or do you want to change social norms?
Reform society or build alternatives?
Do you try to change society from within, or do you build alternatives that allow people to step out of society into a new one? An example of the former: organise a protest to pressure the local municipality to build a community garden. An example of the latter: get some people from your neighbourhood together and turn an empty plot into a community garden yourself.
Decide top-down or bottom-up?
Who decides your vision and demands? Who determines what tactics your group uses? Do you choose to develop a strategy with a small group of experienced campaigners, or do you empower new activists to develop their own strategy?
United or diverse?
Do you have one single demand? And a very strict set of tactics you use? Or do you allow members to come up with their own tactics, as long as they stay within certain boundaries?
What are your principles and values as a group? Which things can individuals decide for themselves, and which things do all members need to adhere to?
Local, national or global?
What is the scale of your campaign? Do you want to bring about change within your local community, or do build an infrastructure that scales globally? Do you replicate the same thing everywhere, or do you adapt to local contexts?
Aboveground or underground?
Do you act in full transparency, or do you do things secretly? Do invest energy into staying anonymous? Do you hide your plans from the public and the police? Check out Deep Green Resistance to learn more about the difference between aboveground and underground groups.
Violent or non-violent?
Defensive or offensive? Against things (sabotage) or people? Verbal or physical? Or not at all? And why? Because of strategic (does it work?) or moral reasons (should we do it?).
Examples: Black Panthers / EZLN
Please note, there is an ongoing discussion on Activist Handbook of whether violence as a strategic activist approach or tactic should be considered, or just acknowledged / discussed as a historic reality. To contribute to this discussion please use the comments section on this page.
Frameworks for Winning Change by Holly Hammond
Engaging in Elections and Building Community Power by Community Organising Fellowship
Deciding Whether to do Electoral Organizing by Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos
The Social Change Grid: A Framework for Understanding Social Change by Sheila McKechnie Foundation
Book: From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp
Lobbying and Advocacy: Start Here by Commons Library
What Makes a Brilliant Advocacy Strategy by Mobilization Lab
Naming an Advocacy Campaign by Tim Norton