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People power

Definition and guide for activists
4 min read
Last update: Dec 11, 2023
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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.

Introduction

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, also known as popular power or power of the people, is a political term referring to the collective potential of citizens exerting their influence directly or indirectly in order to effect social and political change.

This can be exercised through means such as voting, protests, strikes, non-cooperation, civil disobedience, and other forms of direct action. People power is often utilized to challenge and alter the status quo, and plays a crucial role in advancing social movements and democratic societies.

The potential of people power

People power 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.

Q&A

What is the role of technology in people power?

Technology can play a significant role in mobilizing and organizing people power. Social media platforms can be used to connect and coordinate activists, while online petitions and crowdfunding can raise awareness and support for causes.

How does social media and digital platforms assist in mobilizing people power?

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

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

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How does community-building and people power strengthen each-other?

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Common challenges

What are the common challenges faced when mobilizing people power?

Leadership

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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