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People power

Definition of people power: a guide for change-makers
8 min read
Last update: Apr 25, 2024

In this guide, we explain what people power is, and how it can help you to take back control over your life. We help you get started building people power through inclusive decision-making and strategic campaigning. Finally, we discuss a few common challenges.

Guide quality: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (4/5)

This guide is about the concept of "people power" - the strength in collective action. It is not about the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986.


In this guide, we show you the potential of people power: when people work together, they can make lasting change that even goes beyond their own local areas.

Example of people power: An excellent real-world example from the Global South is the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement, particularly the United Democratic Front (UDF). The UDF was a coalition of about 400 organizations led by social activists, trade unions, church groups and students who were in opposition to apartheid.

The UDF exemplified people power in how they made their decisions. They adopted a consultative approach where everyone had a say in decision-making processes, often engaging in long, serious debates in a democratic manner. This created a sense of unity and common purpose within the membership and the Black community in general.

This unity was used to directly challenge the government, using non-violent resistance, such as strikes, boycotts, protests, and civil disobedience. The power they built could not be ignored. This culminated in dramatic political change and the end of apartheid. This mirrors the activist role in challenging existing power structures and making substantial reforms. Through their collective actions, the UDF showed that people power can enact significant change, and they still serve as a source of inspiration for activists globally.

What is people power?

People power is the ability of grassroots communities to (1) collective and deliberatively determine the change they want to see, and (2) to make the desired change reality. People power allows individuals to take control over their lives by acting together with many other individuals. It gives strength to groups of people to challenge oppression. It is also known as popular power or power of the people.

An important part of people power is collective action: doing something together with as many other people as possible. For example, people may come together for a protest to challenge an injustice. Organizing your own public assembly to make decisions together is another example. Or you can participate in community gardening to become independent from the agricultural industry.

People power can start with a very small group of people, even two or three individuals. However, the bigger the group becomes, the more power it holds. That is why scalable forms of collective action hold more potential for big social change.

Who are the 'people' in people power?

The 'people' in people power refers to all humans on this planet. Importantly, it includes everyone: inclusivity is an inherent part of people power. A mass movement that builds power at the cost of marginalised communities can never claim to build people power.

The principle of inclusivity can be stretched out even further: one might argue that although animals other than human are not people, they too deserve to be included. Latest research says animals on this planet have a sense of awareness more often than not. Even though they may not always be able to represent themselves, they too ought to be given power.

What is 'power' in people power?

Power is often defined as the ability to direct or influence the behaviour of people and the course of events. It is about being in control. Power often has a negative connotation: you might think of oppressing people, authoritarian leaders, and manipulation. We see power as a two sided coin. If it is in the hands of a few, it will be abused. If power is in the hands of all, it empowers us to collectively be in control over our own lives.

Importantly, 'the people' are not automatically one cohesive group. Every individual has a will of their own. So when you put together a random group of people, the chance is low people will automatically agree on what change they want to see, or what tactics to use to bring about that change. In order to build people power, you need to build cohesion through dialogue.

However, there are also other ways to build cohesion that do not create people power. For example, an authoritarian leader may manipulate large groups of people into thinking the same way through propaganda or manipulation. Even though these people all want to see the same change and are able to bring it about, the people do not actually have any power. Why? Well, because it is the politician who holds all the power: he (lets be honest, its always a he) is able to decide what change he wants to see, and he can realise it by manipulating others into thinking it is in their own interest.

We chose the example of authoritarian leader because it is extreme and thus makes the difference between real and fake people power really easy to see. However, this also applies to political parties, large nonprofits and other campaigning organisations.

Have a think if the following applies to your organisation or movement: a small group of people decides what to campaign on. You mobilise large groups of people to participate in your campaign, but these people do not have much of a say about what you are campaigning for or what tactics you use to get there. If this applies to your organisation, you are not building true people power. You are giving power to the small group of people who make all the decisions, by mobilising others to realise the will of this small group of people.

Of course, you could argue that people do have a say: they can decide not to participate in your campaign. However, this assumes that there are infinite campaigns out there that individuals can freely choose from. If you are a large nonprofit with a significant advertising budget, you immediately have an advantage over another campaign that might alight better with someone's values. And again: dialogue is super important to create a collective will. It allows individuals to change their individual will based on conversations they have with people around them. As long as there is no dialogue, no collective will is being built, and thus no people power.

The potential of people power

People power is a potential that exists in unorganised groups of individuals. People who do not have power right now, can get power by strategically acting together.

It can be a powerful force for change. Throughout history, people have used their collective power to overthrow oppressive governments, win equal rights for marginalized groups, and bring about other significant societal changes.

The concept of people power offers a radical way of regaining control of our lives through collective might. Rather than depending on external factors (for example, politicians doing their job well), it allows us to determine what our future looks like ourselves by acting together.

How to build people power?

People power works in two ways:

  • Making decisions together: People power can happen in your living room. It is about learning how to make decisions together. When you turn an unproductive fight into a valuable dialogue, congratulations, you just built people power! Because if your community can make good decisions together, taking into account the needs of all your members, you have managed to upgrade democracy and made existing power structures irrelevant. When we act in unison, we question the necessity of intermediaries to make decisions on our behalf.

  • Directly challenging existing power structures: People power also happens on the streets. Smart campaign strategies can help you build power that challenges the status quo. Effective campaign plans allow you to draw a pathway from being a collection of weak individuals to a strong collective that cannot be ignored.

People power thrives on practices like collective decision-making and campaign-based strategising. Collective decision-making means that every voice counts; that we listen, negotiate, and decide together. Campaign-based strategizing involves deciding as a group the best courses of action to achieve our shared goals.

This guide discusses people power from a more theoretical view. For practical step-to-step guides on how to build people power, check out the rest of Activist Handbook!


What is the role of technology in people power?

Technology can play a significant role in mobilizing and organizing people power. For example, social media platforms can be used to mobilise people for a protest, petitions can be used to collect contact details of potential supporters, and crowdfunding tools can help movements stay financially independent.

However, technology is a tool, never a goal in itself. Likes and followers are worth nothing. They are merely bits and bytes stored on computers. People power is about building meaningful relationships between people. If social media, chat apps, websites etc can help you to build those relationships, awesome! But people power is about bringing about change in the real world, and that only happens if you take collective action in the real world.

What role does leadership play in organizing and directing people power?

There are many different ways of organizing grassroots communities. For example, some groups prefer to elect representatives who make decisions on your behalf, other groups use consensus-based decision making.

Different decision making models fit different kinds of groups: there is no one-fits-all solution. However, leadership plays an important role within all impactful forms of activism (learn more about leaderful organizing, and what it means to be a leader).

What influence does people power have on politics and policy making?

People power can overthrow entire political systems, it can bring about change within those systems, and everything in between. The less organised individuals in a society are, the less influence these individuals have over policies that affect them. People power is not a given, it must be built.

How does community-building strengthen people power?

People power is about taking action together. Strong communities can act together more easily than individuals with weak relationships. Thus, community building creates the conditions necessary for people power.

However, the presence of a strong community does automatically result in people power. The community must engage in collective political acts to exercise their power.

How do care, social resilience and people power relate?

Big and sudden happenings such as mass protests are the most visible part of people power. However, these moments only last a short time. The most impactful social movements build sustainable communities that stay healthy for many years. Fights against injustice are rarely won after one action or without any pushbacks. Smart activists implement regenerative care practices to avoid burnout. Staying healthy as a social movement also means building social resilience to cope with (police) repression and other threats.

Common challenges

What are the common challenges faced when mobilizing people power?


Many movements struggle with issues around leadership. Sometimes, there can be clashes over who should be making key decisions or shaping the campaign’s direction.

Astroturfing or co-optation

Astroturfing refers to the practice of creating an image of widespread grassroots support for a cause, where little such support exists. It's often employed by corporations or interest groups to push their own narratives. This can create confusion and mistrust among the real activists.

There is also a risk of movements getting co-opted, which means powerful actors might manipulate the cause to serve their own agenda, changing the original goals of the movement.

Donor dependence

Fundraising is critical for driving a movement. Relying heavily on few or just one source of funding can limit the scope of action if the source decides to withdraw their financial support.

Resistance from established power structures

The people in power or established institutions might resist movements that pose a threat to their status or operations. This resistance can take various forms, such as legal action, repression, or propaganda.

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