Surviving the ups and downs of social movements

We tend to talk about activist burnout as an individualised experience – but Bill Moyer saw patterns in widespread discouragement in social movements. His model for understanding social change, the Movement Action Plan, factored in perception of failure, providing insights and hope for navigating the downs in movement life. Mark and Paul Engler explain. 

 

Those who get involved in social movements share a common experience: Sometimes, when an issue captures the public eye or an unexpected event triggers a wave of mass protest, there can be periods of intense activity, when new members rush to join the cause and movement energy swells. But these extraordinary times are often followed by long, fallow stretches when activists’ numbers dwindle and advocates struggle to draw any attention at all.

During these lulls, those who have tasted the euphoria of a peak moment feel discouraged and pessimistic. The ups and downs of social movements can be hard to take.

Certainly, activists fighting around issues of inequality and economic justice have seen this pattern in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. Many working to combat climate change have encountered their own periods of dejection after large protests in recent years. And even members of movements that have been very successful — such as the immigrant students who compelled the Obama administration to implement a de facto version of the Dream Act — have gone through periods of deflation despite making great advances. Further back in history, a sense of failure and frustration could be seen among civil rights activists following the landmark 1964 Freedom Summer campaign.

After intensive uprisings have cooled, many participants simply give up and move on to other pursuits. Even those committed to ongoing activism wonder how they can keep more people involved over the long haul.

Unfortunately, the fluctuating cycles of popular movements cannot be avoided. Unlike community organizing, which focuses on the slow and steady building of organizational structures, a boom-and-bust pattern is inherent in mass protest movements. Wide-scale uprisings can make a major impact on public consciousness, but they can never be sustained for long. The fact that they fade from view does not mean they lack value — the civil rights movement, for one, scored many of its biggest wins as a result of mass mobilization and the innovative use of nonviolent direct action. But it does present a challenge: Without an understanding of movement cycles, it is difficult to combat despondency.

So how, then, do we know when movements have died — and when are they primed to revive? And how do activists translate periods of peak activity into substantive and enduring social change?

For Bill Moyer, a trainer and strategist who experienced first hand some of the landmark movement cycles of the 1960s and ’70s, grappling with these questions became a life’s work. Moyer’s legacy is an eight-stage model for how movements can overcome despair and marginality to change society — a framework known as the Movement Action Plan, or MAP. Nearly three decades after it was first developed, the MAP continues to offer insights into problems that, while new to fresh generations of activists, in fact have a long lineage.

Bill-Moyer-portraitThe Moyer map

Moyer was born in 1933 and grew up as the son of a TV repairman in northeast Philadelphia. As a child, he aspired to one day become a Presbyterian missionary in Africa. But a trouble-making spirit would ultimately get in the way. As he told it, “In March 1959 I was voted out of the Presbyterian Church because I invited a Catholic and a Jew to talk to the youth group.”

The expulsion led him into the arms of the Quakers. At the time, Moyer was just three years out of PennState, working as a management systems engineer and searching for more “meaning.” Through Philadelphia’s active Quaker meetinghouse, Moyer came in contact with a vibrant circle of socially engaged peers, and an elder couple tutored him in theories of nonviolence. These encounters forever altered his life. “I had no idea that it was the start of ‘the sixties,’” Moyer later wrote, “and never suspected that I was beginning my new profession as a full-time activist.”

In the 1960s, Moyer would take a job with the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago, helping to convince Martin Luther King to launch an open housing campaign in the city. Moyer then worked on King’s last drive, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. In the decade that followed, he spent his energies protesting the Vietnam War, supporting American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee, and promoting the newly emerging movement against nuclear power.

As he increasing began training other activists, Moyer saw a gap. “How-to-do-it models and manuals provide step-by-step guidelines for most human activity,” he wrote in 1987, “from baking a cake and playing tennis to having a relationship and winning a war.” Within the world of activism, however, such material was harder to come by.

Saul Alinsky and his followers had created training manuals for their specific brand of community organizing. Likewise, materials drawing from Gandhi and King were available for instructing people in how to create individual nonviolent confrontations. But Moyer believed that there was a lack of models that looked at the long arc of protest movements, materials that accounted for the highs and lows experienced by participants. The result, he contended, was that activists became stuck in their thinking, always repeating the past tactics and failing to strategize for how to effectively move their campaigns forward.

Moyer’s MAP aimed to address this need. It was initially printed in 1986 in the movement journal Dandelion, with 12,000 newsprint copies distributed through grassroots channels. Subsequently, it became an underground hit. The plan would continue to be circulated by hand, translated into other languages, and shared at trainings for well over a decade, before taking its final form in the 2002 book Doing Democracy, published shortly before Moyer’s death.

DoingDemocracy‘Every good movement’

Of course, creating social change is a lot trickier than baking a cake. And Moyer was not the only person to propose that movements progress in stages.

Within the academic field of social movement theory, which experienced significant growth in the 1970s and ’80s, scholars were increasingly appreciating how social change happens through what sociologist Sidney Tarrow calls “cycles of contention.” Drawing on the work of theorists including Herbert Blumer and Charles Tilly, the standard academic account holds that movements pass through four stages: emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline. The last stage is not necessarily negative: movements sometimes are defeated or repressed, but other times they fade away because they have won their key demands.

Outside of academia, a variety of activists have offered thoughts of their own. In the March 9, 1921 edition of Young India, Mohandas Gandhi wrote, “Every good movement passes through five stages: indifference, ridicule, abuse, repression, and respect.” Because Gandhi’s take highlights the likelihood that resistance will be met with a crackdown by authorities, the prospect of progressing through his stages seems less inviting than riding out the academics’ model. But Gandhi believed that dissidents are strengthened by the trials they endure. “Every movement that survives repression, mild or severe, invariably commands respect,” he contended, “which is another name for success.”

In recent years British author and activist Tim Gee has gone so far to propose a four-stage model based on a popular maxim that mirrors Gandhi’s sentiment (and is often misattributed to him). This version states, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

All of these different models have some value, but they also present problems. One problem, which Gee notes, is that various proposals for sequential stages for movements carry a sense of “implied inevitability.” The academic theories, in particular, suggest a sort of linear progression that does not reflect the experience of those living through boom-and-bust movement cycles. As removed instruments of analysis, they can leave real-world participants feeling cold. As Moyer puts it, “While there is much useful information in social movement theories, most do not help us under the ebb and flow of living, breathing social movements as they grow and change over time.”

Moyer’s MAP model is a different animal. It, too, proposes a progression through which successful movements pass: Over the course of his eight stages, activists raise initial awareness of a grievance, then become more organized in their efforts, engage in confrontation, and finally work to consolidate their gains. However, Moyer is much more attuned to the psychology of those who must struggle to push a cause forward. The MAP captures of the exhilaration of times when — following a dramatic “trigger event” — protests explode and “overnight, a previously unrecognized social problem becomes a social issue that everyone is talking about.” (The Occupy encampments stand out as a prominent recent trigger, just as the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle fit the bill for the global justice movement.) And the model grapples in detail with the often-challenging aftermath of such peak moments.

Rooted in hard-won experience, Moyer’s work is attentive to the different roles and personalities that can help or hinder an effort at any given stage in its development, and it is careful to warn of the common pitfalls that keep some movements from ever realizing their goals. These factors helped earn the MAP its cult popularity. Moyer was proud when trainers using his materials reported that participants would nearly gasp in recognition when his model explained patterns which they had thought were unique to their own experience. Moyer called these “Aha!” moments, and his goal was to create as many of them as possible.

Next: Part 2 explores perception of failure, part of every social movement change cycle. 

This article originally appeared on Waging Nonviolence, September 3 2014. For a summary of different frameworks, including MAP and Tim Gee’s Counterpower model, see Frameworks for Winning Change on Plan to Win.

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