Strategic Nonviolent Conflict

What is the Role of Strategic Nonviolent Conflict Today?

Photo: delayed gratification via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: delayed gratification via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I feel like so many people, myself included, sometimes equate “nonviolence” with the act of “protesting.” Protesting may be “nonviolent,” but that doesn’t mean it’s strategic.

Protesting is a tactic. It should part of a larger strategy. Also, must of us carry out protests as “symbolic acts,” meaning we are just trying to share our voices and aren’t disrupting anything.

Strategic Nonviolent Conflict is a very specific term that the Metta Center for Nonviolence refers to as “the kind of commitment that regards nonviolence as a strategy, to be adopted because it is thought to be more likely to ‘work’ than violence or because violence is not a practical possibility” (Metta Center for Nonviolence).

This is contrasted with “Nonviolence” which the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict describes a set of religious or moral principles and beliefs.

At a training recently we talked about the Nashville Lunch Counter Sit-Ins and how their strategy was based in influencing economics. Their strategy can be summarized as “If we mobilize enough people to disrupt downtown businesses, then the Mayor will change the law to desegregate.”

Think about it this way, if people had just stood outside of stores and protested segregation, do you think as much would have changed?

It only recently clicked for me that I really only had passing knowledge of Strategic Nonviolence. Now I’m starting to think about the ways we can be using the experience of past struggles for justice to support our efforts today.

Here are a few of the lessons I learned about Strategic Nonviolent Conflict


The Purpose of a Strategic Nonviolent Activist


As activists implementing Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, we need to:

1. Resist

Strategic Nonviolent Conflict is NOT the same as being passive (i.e. You resist, just not physically), it is about resisting in order to bring about justice.

We have to take a stand, and cannot be neutral when injustice is present.

2. Have “spiritual dedication to truth and honesty in human relations” – Gandhi

Gandhi described his efforts as “Satyagraha.” The Metta Center for Nonviolence writes the “ultimate aim of Satyagraha is always to bring parties closer together, and so in ‘clinging to truth’ one prefers persuasion to coercion wherever possible.”

You should be trying to “win your opponent over” to your side.

It’s easy to show hate when faced with violence. It takes courage to be able to respond compassionately to any opponent.

3. Remove obedience/consent for an unjust system

Occasionally we need to challenge the legitimacy of a terrible system (e.g. segregation or mass incarceration). We can do this by removing our consent (e.g. sit-ins in “Whites only” counters or other forms of civil disobedience) for unjust laws/policies (e.g. segregation or “zero tolerance” policies).

The idea is to exert enough pressure on the existing unjust system, so the cost of maintaining that system goes up. At the same time as the cost increases, the legitimacy in the system goes down.

Through Strategic Nonviolent Conflict you often literally make it more expensive to keep up the status quo (e.g. economically + stress on the system’s social status).

4. Implement a carefully constructed strategy for the long-term

We cannot just act nonviolently and hope that is enough. We have to take the time to really plan out as much as we can.

The first step for nonviolence is to choose a target/issue to focus on (e.g. protesting the Salt Tax in India), then after that you can tailor your strategy to address that target/issue over many years/decades.

5. Demonstrate “fierce discipline and training”

Rev. Jim Lawson, who trained many on how to use Strategic Nonviolence, said these words because so noticed so many people just taking to the streets without a clear plan or who to leverage their capacity to make change.

Rev. Jim Lawson said it is essential for any who wish to implement a campaign of nonviolence to have this “fierce discipline and training” in order to build a movement.

I believe this purpose of Strategic Nonviolent Conflict is an important tool for us to learn about and better understand, since I know for myself it can be easy to rely on a few tactics all the time and not take the time to build capacity with my fellow activists.

Our movements still have much to gain from using Strategic Nonviolence, let’s make sure to use it!


Strategy creation

Why We Need To Connect Electoral and Issue Organizing

Photo: Mycatkins via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Mycatkins via Flickr (Creative Commons)

When I think of electoral campaigns supporting a particular candidate, I think of all the energy used to outreach to the community, fundraise, and communicate values/vision.

Then I wonder what happens to all that energy after the election?

In most cases that energy disappears and those involved in the campaign don’t apply their skills to pushing ahead issues they care about. The people the campaign outreaches to in the community cast their vote and then that ends their expression of “making their voice heard.” The newly elected leaders then tend to wait until the next election cycle before exerting the same level of energy.

Shouldn’t the time after the election be when the real struggle begins?

I believe the issues we care about would have moved farther ahead of we had kept activating and building momentum.

On the other side, how many of us focused on issue organizing ignore electoral campaigns?

We spend all this energy trying to get new policies implemented and working with elected politicians, but where are we when the election is going on? We allow people to keep getting elected year after year, even though they resist the most basic issues for justice. We often avoid putting in the effort necessary to support those truly working for justice.

Shouldn’t the time during the election also be a moment for us to contribute our energy?

If we had also made sure to get strong candidates elected who are responsive to issues, then we would have had much more success in making change.


What tying together electoral and issue organizing would look like


So if you’re like me and think we need to better combine these two types of organizing, we need to figure out how to do so effectively.

1. Use electoral campaign infrastructure to support an issue

A few months ago I heard Rep. Keith Ellison from Minnesota describe how during one reelection cycle he focused his campaign on defeating voter ID policies, rather than campaigning for himself. At the beginning of his effort, even his allies thought voter ID was inevitable, but he mobilized his resources to a surprise defeat of voter suppression.

He did this by emphasizing heavy field organizing (rather than ads) and voter turnout. In order to accomplish this his campaign really had to train and support new community leadership.

This example of focusing on an issue and building community capacity that will keep pushing issues after an election is a model to follow.

2. Getting those supporting issues to come out for progressive candidates

Rishi Awatramani writes we need to involve “people in conscious political action, winning office for progressive candidates (including those that emerge directly from our base), training communities in direct accountability of elected officials we put into office, and sharpening our skills at running campaigns.”

We who focus on the community side need to demonstrate the importance of ensuring strong candidates get elected.

3. Support the growth of community capacity

Both electoral and issue based often just ask for a “vote” or “sign this petition/become a member/etc.” which greatly limits the involvement of people to impact change.

Instead of just asking them to support our single issue or candidate, we should find ways to engage them in developing their own skills and abilities (e.g. training programs, coaching, creating or connecting them to leadership roles, etc.).

4. Build a culture of cross-organizing among candidates and organizations

From the earlier example of Rep. Keith Ellison, he said he worked with state and local politicians/communities as a coalition. Right now many candidates work in silos (other than the occasional canvass/phone bank for each other), but they could be working in coalitions to support each other.

Organizations do this as well and fosters an environment of competition rather than collaboration. We need to build momentum to enhance all of our collective efforts.

5. Engage in mass political education

In our organizing we often think what can win this issue now or get this candidate elected, but we also have the opportunity to discuss deeper issues (e.g. dismantling oppression, working for intersectional justice, and the role of institutions) rather than just “blander” issues (e.g. “middle class,” “go vote,” etc.).

This takes time to really sit down and have the right space to have constructive dialogue; however, if we’re in this to make lasting and long-term change we should be using every opportunity we have to foster a culture of mass education.

6. Recognize the limits and potential of each type of organizing

Another good quote from Rishi Awatramani specifically about one limit with electoral organizing where he says “We must not mistake the political power we might win through this process as analogous to the power people might win through deeper forms of political change”

He goes on to describe the potential in that “It is equally important that we recognize the potential to create real benefits for oppressed people in the US and beyond through this type of political work. And more than anything, we have to build new organizations for the new emerging majority in this country that can build towards deep, lasting social justice.”

As for issue organizing, one limit is the shorter and reduced lens through which we see our work. We normally don’t work on grand platforms, so we can get stuck thinking of only “what’s realistic.”

However, one potential of issue organizing is we can make specific positive changes in people’s lives. Issue campaigns can stay focused on one thing until it finally becomes a reality.

7. Get out on the streets

Lastly, we all need to be on the streets more and go to people’s doors. It can be really easy for advocacy organizations working on particular issues, just to rely on their particular network.

For electoral campaigns this more applies to after the election. It can be easy to get caught up in campaigns (e.g. Obama’s) and then stopped organizing to the same degree after our candidates get in office.

This connection between issues and elections takes more time and thought, but may prove a better use of our collective energy.

Privilege and Oppression

How to Talk About Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter


Photo: Tiffany Von Arnim via Flickr (Creative Commons)

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground.” ~ Frederick Douglass

On Saturday, August 8th 2015 two activists with Seattle’s Black Lives Matter activists disrupted a Bernie Sanders speech to call attention to the role of structural racism and to recognize the 1-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown.

Their action has drawn immediate analysis and posts on everything from whether the tactic was “strategic” to the background/”intentions” of the disrupters themselves.

How many of us supporters of Bernie immediately jumped to his defense just because he is our favorite candidate for President? We say “he marched with MLK” and he is proposing policies that will support all lives.

How many of us took offense that the activists focused on Bernie, when “Hillary and especially the Republican field are much worse?”

How many of us “felt bad for Bernie” and looked for any way to discount the disrupters’ actions?

How many of us tried to silence their voices by “booing,” “chanting,” or even “calling for the police to make arrests?”

These and so many other comments are similar to what I’m sure many of us have heard over the past few days, especially (though not exclusively) in predominantly White spaces.

Instead, we should be discussing the best ways we can propel racial justice in this country as our first priority. Once we are sure we are doing everything in our capacity to dismantle unjust systems of Whiteness, then we can consider other dialogues.

Until that day comes, here are a few ways I remind myself of how to engage in critical conversations around race.

1. Be Willing to Accept Criticism (Even When It’s Not On My Schedule)

Discussing race for many is a sensitive topic, so it can be doubly difficult when someone points out how we can do better.

I know for me it’s much easier, though not easy, to receive feedback when I ask for it instead of when someone else brings it up on their own. We need to be understanding and as graciously as we can to accept criticism even when it comes at times when we aren’t expecting it.

2. Act on Feedback

I think Bernie showed this well by releasing a racial justice platform the day after the event. This proved the point of whether the disruption was strategic, since Bernie actually listened and acted (In addition, the Black Lives Matter Netroots disruption of Bernie is what stirred him to start developing the platform).

Now we don’t all have the opportunity to release a policy platform, but we can all lend our support for one and get involved in efforts to bring them about.

3. Amplify Rather than Silence Marginalized Voices

If the worst thing the activists did was prevent Bernie Sanders from making a few speeches, that surely seems justified to bring attention to the death, incarceration, and fundamental injustices faced by Black lives in the United States.

I think this is a needed conversation for all us, and we should be using this time to reflect and take action.

In particular for those who identify as “progressive” we have to support the Black Lives Matter movement and its push for racial justice. We must avoid solely discussing economic issues.

I actually think Bernie Sanders is doing a good job moving in the right direction (after actions focused on him), so we need to follow his example and actually respond to the calls of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Even if we disagree about the Black Lives Matter disrupters’ phrasing and context, we should be recognizing the courage of these women to bring this narrative to the forefront.

Those of us who identify as White often have the privilege to choose when we engage in conversation around race. This often results in fewer deep and challenging reflections on our systems of Whiteness.

The activists on Saturday made sure people at the rally, and those who support Sanders, heard their message for racial justice.

Now we have a choice of whether to listen.

Organizational Development

Lessons We Can Learn From ACORN

I often think about how to resist the powerful tide of money and media that props up the status quo.

I wonder how we can solve local or state issues, when our national politics continue to be deadlocked and politicians remain beholden to elite interest groups and the funding they provide.

I seek how we can address institutions of injustice that prevent people from experiencing their own potential.

Then I consider the void left by one organization, and realize that we may already have a model for disrupting our current systems and propelling us quicker along the arc of justice.

That organization is the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN).

ACORN, one of the most successful anti-poverty organizations in the U.S.’s history, tirelessly fought for justice (e.g. affordable housing, workers’ rights, living wages, livable neighborhoods, etc.).

Unfortunately, those opposed to the political empowerment of low-income communities also noticed the rise of ACORN’s influence.

The Republican Party and conservative news media framed ACORN using deceptive journalism, and were helped by mainstream news who repeated rather than fact-checked the allegations.

There is a reason Republicans attacked ACORN so frantically and Democrats, more worried about their own elections than the people ACORN represented, allowed it to fall.

Now ACORN wasn’t perfect by any means, but ACORN did offer a model to amplify the voices of low-income communities, and also worked to elevate their interests to a level where they couldn’t be ignored.


Lessons We Can Learn From ACORN


ACORN did things well and also made mistakes. We should learn the lessons of what ACORN did well or should have done differently, to create a new set of resilient organizations that can strongly work for justice.

We need to learn to:

1. Build New Leadership


There is a big difference between recruiting existing leaders vs. training people to develop their own leadership skills.

Just think in your own organizing, how often are the same faces at every meeting? The people most impacted by injustice should be leading the charge.

Particularly in low-/moderate-income and/or non-organized communities, we need to create programs, host workshops, and work 1-on-1 to expand leadership capacity.

2. Tie National Organizations to Local Organizations – And Vice Versa


If ACORN was solely a local organization, it would have had a tough time standing up to bank that offered predatory loans. However, since it had such a robust network across the county it allowed ACORN to stand up to powerful interests of all sizes.

ACORN’s local groups had some degree of flexibility to focus on the issues impacting their own communities, which could then scale up to become national issues.

There are times when having a unified focus is essential to moving forward progressive issues, and then there a times the multi-issue approach works best.

3. Register voters


We need to conduct a disciplined and comprehensive voter registration drive to get more people to the polls.

Politicians need to be accountable to ALL their constituents, not just those with the loudest voice. By making sure most people register and vote, politicians will need to reach out to and listen to their base.

Even though ACORN had a well-trained voter registration drive, the media focused on isolated incidents and held them up as systemic issues.

Thus, it becomes doubly important to have discipline and accountability so as to be resilient to attacks from those afraid of registering low-income and disenfranchised voters.

4. Develop intersectional cross-issue plans


To solve issues of low wages, high incarceration rates, environmental degradation, attacks on basic rights, etc. we must look at them holistically.

People are impacted by a whole host of issues and most people have multiple identities (e.g. based on economics, race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, etc.). This is called intersectionality.

We ought to look beyond single-issue politics and engage in cross-issue plans that can propel significant victories against multifaceted problems (e.g. the Prison Industrial Complex, poverty, and poor educational outcomes).

 5. Provide political education


We need a truly grassroots organization that frequently engages people in political education.

Rinku Sen writes in Stir It Up these means we need to organize our members to “read, share information, understand history, bring people to speak to our groups, and talk with people in other places.”

A mass-based organization could engage people in actions for justice regardless of whether the truth is covered in schools, politics, or the media.

6. Grow media and research capacity


If an organization relies on the dominant media to relay their message, then they are constantly fighting an uphill battle.

Rinku Sen notes in Stir It Up (and implements it in practice with the essential role in media in all of our organizing efforts, and that we have to BOTH foster alternative ways to get our message out and better learn how to work with mainstream media.

This means building relationships with news outlets, focusing our messages on a specific audience, and developing our own media.

7. Coordinate multiple, long-term cross-issue campaigns


We need to be action-oriented in order to engage and educate people. We also need to work for the long-term (i.e. think beyond election cycles) to achieve larger-scale changes.

To be able to run multiple campaigns at the same time requires a lot of base building, but allows our organizations to gain a much higher capacity level.

To summarize all these points, I again turn to the wise words of Rinku Sen who writes we need to be “increasing our organizing among the people affected and then addressing their issues with sustained campaigns and the addition of research and media capacity.”

Strategy creation

Strategizing – Ecosystems, Allies, and More!

Last week I mentioned I’ve been working on creating a workshop on Strategy and ReStrategizing. I focused on Constituency, Vision, and Problem Analysis.

This week I’m going to share the next 4 sections we covered in our strategy training document. This has some pretty in-depth questions for campaigns to consider, hopefully it will be of use for your next campaign!

4. Ecosystem Analysis/Situational Analysis


You cannot create your strategy in a vacuum! We’ve already looked at your constituency and the problems they face, but you also need to consider a host of other factors that could influence how you implement your strategy.

This section focuses on information gathering. What information should you look for in order to inform your strategy?

One way is to develop your “Ecosystem/Situational Analysis.” This contains all the information about the situation in which the campaign will be conducted including but not limited to: transportation, political climate, communications, opponent’s capabilities, weather, legal system, etc.

You could spend your entire life analyzing your particular “ecosystem,” so you need to choose what to focus on and the characteristics of the ecosystem that don’t have to be quite as comprehensive.

When compiling the information on your ecosystem analysis, make sure to note whether the information is fact or assumption (i.e. a belief in lieu of hard facts). So that way you can update your analysis once you have the facts.

Below are a few potential parts of the “ecosystem” to choose from when conducting your own focus analysis areas.

Key “Ecosystem” Areas to Analyze

Here are some “ecosystem” characteristics to identify for your campaign (from the informative book Strategies for Social Change):

  • Level of social aggregation (local, national, or international)
  • Type of institution (civic society, economy, education system, family, media, politics, religion)
  • Duration (short term, medium term, long term)
  • Cultural characteristics (attitudes, beliefs, discourses, emotions, frames, ideologies, identities, norms, objects, repertoires of contention, rituals, symbols and symbolic repertoires, traditions, tropes, values)
  • Structural characteristics (alliance and conflict systems, capacities, degrees of centralization, decision-making processes, divisions of labor, dynamics, organizational fields, degrees of formality, communication and mobilization infrastructures, heterogeneity or homogeneity, leadership roles, network, opportunities, and threats, power relations, resources)


Here’s how this Ecosystem Analysis would look for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts:

  • Level of social aggregation – Local (the City of Montgomery)
  • Type of institution – Focused on bus company (economy) and intersections of families, churches, and broader networks (family, religion, and civic society)
  • Duration – Started as short term (a few weeks or a month) and then expanded to mid term based on ReStrategizing (so lasted just over a year)
  • Cultural characteristics – Sought to dismantle the idea of “Separate but equal” (frame/ideology)
  • Structural characteristics – Aimed to activate the intersections of families, churches, and Black-own taxis (mobilization infrastructures, networks, and allies)

Political/Government Analysis

All campaigns definitely need to understand the general political/government climate and how it impacts the short- and long-term campaign.

  • Current political situation – Analyze the general direction of the political climate (e.g. moving to be more/less democratic or seeking to maintain the status quo)
  • Level of repression – Consider whether the government will use all means at its disposal to limit dissent (e.g. through force, legal systems, and the media) or whether it will only use a few
  • Opposition in government – Look to understand whether the government is united or divided in its opposition to your campaign
  • Level of corruption – Consider whether there is a high-level of political favoritism or money laundering in the current government
  • Opponent’s position – Aim to be an “expert” of your opponent’s position so you will be prepared for anything they say/do.
  • Other factors – Think of anything else that your campaign should be aware of that influences the political/government situation

For additional descriptions of this content, see Core Curriculum: A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle (pages 185-198)

Characteristics of the Area of Operations

Your “Area of Operations” is the physical (e.g. ecological and infrastructural) and specific political situation impacting your work. Look at the following to see if analyzing these areas may support your work.

A. Geography – The geography could impact your organizing and timing.

  • Topography (i.e mapping out the surface)
  • Hydrography (i.e. mapping out the bodies of water)

B. Climate/Weather – While information is fairly easy to obtain, make sure you consistent gather information on the weather if it could impact your actions.

  • Cold/Hot
  • Rainy/Dry

C. Transportation – All sides in the struggle need to travel, so consider taking time to understand the different options.

  • Type
  • Availability
  • Speed
  • Locations
  • Vulnerability

D. Telecommunications – What communication methods will you, the opposition, and your allies use?

  • Type
  • Availability
  • Acquirability
  • Vulnerability

For additional descriptions of this content, see Core Curriculum: A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle (pages 185-198)


5. Pillars of Support & Power Analysis

While your strategy may be aligned to your values in creating the world you want to see, there is almost assuredly some institutions/people that wish to see the continuation of the status quo. These institutions/people may not necessarily be opposed to your values/vision, but they resist any attempts to change how things are currently.

If it turns out that we have the resources we need, but just need to use them more collaboratively, then it’s a “power with” dynamic. If it turns out that the resources we need have to come from somewhere else, then it’s a “power over” dynamic. This idea of “power over/power with” has been expanding over the years, and I learned the most about it from the incredible folks over at the Northwest Institute for Community Enrichment.

Make sure, when creating your strategy you take time to discuss whether this work is more “power over” or “power with.”

Conducting your Power Analysis

It may be helpful here, to refer back to Problem Analysis which I talked about in my last blog post.

We call these institutions/people that uphold the status quo (i.e. the problem/system of injustice) the Pillars of Support.

As you identify the problem/current system’s Pillars of Support, you begin the process of Power Analysis (i.e. who/what has the power and why do people give them that power?).

Here are some questions to help identify your Pillars of Support & conduct your Power Analysis (This time we’ll look at the case of the United Farm Workers to give examples):

Who benefits from the systems as it is? – The farm owners and corporations benefited from the cheap labor and ability to ignore labor laws. Also, consumers who enjoyed the benefits of cheaper food.

Why do people obey? Why do people NOT resist the status quo? – The workers obey because they just want to earn money to support their families. Consumers want cheap food.

What are the institutions and groups of people that are supporting this problem/system of injustice (i.e. the pillars of support for the existing system)?  – The farm owners, corporations, and President Richard Nixon.

Who are the “sub pillars of support?” Who are the people/organizations that prop up the main pillars of support (MAKE SURE to do this for each pillar!)? – Specific farms in California opposed to fair labor laws, field managers, and the Defense Department (because President Nixon ordered the Defense Department to purchase more table grapes for the military).


6. Seven Strategic Questions

Marshall Ganz offers 5 critical questions, as a way for groups to hone in on their strategy. Here I’ve added 2 more (i.e. courses of action and evaluation).

  • Who are the PEOPLE involved? (Map of Actors)
  • What CHANGE do they seek? (Goal)
  • Where can they get the RESOURCES to succeed? (Capacity)
  • What COURSES OF ACTION will they/the opposition take? (Theory of Change)
  • Which TACTICS can they use?
  • What is their TIMELINE?
  • How will they EVALUATE their strategy?

The last parts of the strategizing process goes in depth into each of these questions. In this post I’m just covering the Map of Actors, and future posts will look at these other sections.


7. Map of Actors

Not everyone is going to be a Pillar of Support for the status quo! There’s a range of people who influence your strategy: some who oppose you, some who support you, and some who are neutral.

Who make-up your constituency, your leadership, your opposition, your competitors and your collaborators? Who are some of the other actors involved (e.g. the media)? These are some of the most common groups of people impacting most organizing efforts, but make sure to think of any others that may influence your work!

The Playing Field

The Playing Field is a graphical depiction from Marshall Ganz of those impacting your work for change.

On one are those with the “Greatest Interest in Change” and on the other are those with the “Greatest Interest in the Status Quo.” In-between those two are where the “action” takes place.

Those who don’t participate in any of this are on the “sidelines” (and in general, those on the sidelines indirectly prop up the status quo), but you should still try to get them on your side for change!

Laying out the Playing FieldQuestions to Ask

Here is some questions to help you use the Playing Field – for an example of a biomass plant being built near a school:

Who are the actors on the playing field? – Identify as many as you can for each

  • Constituency (e.g. students/families located near the proposed biomass plant)
  • Leadership (e.g. a mix of student, community, and nonprofit leaders)
  • Support (e.g. teachers union, environmental groups, and civic associations)
  • Opposition (e.g. city council and biomass plant company) – you should have already identified the opposition from earlier work in this training
  • Competition (e.g. a nonprofit trying to get the same school/community involved in working on another issue)

Where should you place “the people/organizations that will shape your strategy in a positive, negative, or unknown way” on the playing field? – Take those actors from the above section and place them in each of these categories

What do you know about these “actors?”

  • What are their resources/strengths? (e.g. financial, people, etc.)
  • What are the actual/potential weaknesses?
  • What are their interests? (e.g. supporting successful schools, protecting a local watershed, etc.)
  • What’s their level of support (e.g. willing to dedicate hours/weeks of their time, or just forward an email?)
  • What’s their level of influence? (e.g. are they a leader on their block with lots of local influence or are they 1st-year student with lots of time/energy, but little current influence?)
  • What/Who are their “Pillars of Support?” (if you haven’t already identified them)?
  • What’s their susceptibility to shifting their place on the “Playing Field”? (e.g. could a competitor, or even the opposition, become a supporter or a leader? Or if you are not careful, could a supporter become the opposition?) Think of how you can shift people’s loyalties/allegiances, specifically, your opponent’s toward the movement.
  • Who has the greatest stake in change? (e.g. parents, residents in the community) Who has the greatest stake in the status quo? (e.g. Politicians, school board leaders, local powerplant company)
  • Who are already the least loyal/obedient to the status quo or most easily shifted? (e.g. teachers, students, etc.)

Who are the primary targets and secondary targets?

  • Who are the primary targets in each of our prime categories (i.e. constituency, leadership, support, opposition, and competition)? Then decide “whose resources we need the most to make the change we want?”
  • Who are secondary targets that influence each of the primary targets? You need these secondary targets if you decide you cannot influence the primary targets with your current resources.

Whew! Even for me that’s a lot of content. Thanks for reading through all this and good luck on your campaign. Next time I’ll be looking at Capacity, Theory of Change, and a bit more!

Strategy creation

ReStrategizing – The First 3 Parts!

Since the Fall of 2013, I’ve been working with a group of great folks from the Leading Change Network on creating a workshop on Strategy and ReStrategizing. While we took about 5-6 months off from our work, a few of us are back into and are nearing the home stretch of our collective labors!

This project started as a way to build on Marshall Ganz’s curriculum on strategy, specifically adding content on how to “re-strategize” during a campaign. “Re-strategizing” is the idea that strategy should be flexible, and should adapt to changing contexts.

We quickly realized though, that based on Althea Middleton-Detzner’s (International Center on Nonviolent Conflict) and Joe Worthy’s (Children’s Defense Fund) worth on strategic nonviolent conflict, that there was some additional material that could be built into the initial curriculum on strategy (e.g. ideas around power analysis, pillars of support, ecosystem analysis, etc.).

We took a new look at our work and decided to build our workshop from the ground up, and make an adapted workshop on strategy to better incorporate the ideas we learned from the worlds of strategic nonviolence, business, military, and other social change organizations.

With these new concepts in tow, we designed a new workshop comprised of 3 essential components of the strategizing program. A. The Initial Strategy, B. The ReStrategizing Process, and C. Capacity Needed to Strategizing (e.g. organizational structures or individual mindsets).

Over the next few posts I want to share a little of what we found out!

First 3 sections of Strategy: Constituency, Vision, and Problem Analysis


1. Constituency

Your constituency are the ones you organize to achieve your goals.

Generally your constituency will start out with a core base of supporters, and your organization’s job is to grow your constituency by moving more people “to your side.”

Later on in the workshop (in the “Playing Field”/”Axis of Allies” section) we discuss the essential idea that you while someone may start as a “bystander” or even “opponent,” you must continually look for opportunities to move people closer to your constituency/side.

When deciding your strategy, you must also take care to ground it in your current constituency’s values and fit with their range of organizing (though if necessary/helpful, you can push what “fits”), because they are the primary ones carrying out the strategy!

The Midwest Academy says the job of the organizer is to figure out what your constituency’s relationship to power and their ability to affect your target or decision maker’s interest.

Below are a few questions you can ask about your constituency:

  • Who are your people? Who are you organizing? (e.g. low- and moderate-income workers in a rural town in Pennsylvania)
  • What are their values? (e.g. community collaboration, healthy and educated children, and economic self-sufficiency)

 2. Visioning

Rinku Sen writes that your strategy should be clear about “what you believe, what you oppose, and the future you aim to create.”

You have to make sure any strategy you create helps pushes against what you oppose, while also propelling your vision. Below are those questions you should ask to help guide your strategy to its clear future.

  • What do you believe?
  • What do you oppose?
  • What world do you want to live in?
  • What it will look like when you know you have “won?”

In a previous post on Organizing Change, I looked at how to do this analysis in more detail.

Here’s a breakdown for a group opposed to the Prison Industrial Complex (i.e. the interconnection between corporations, politics, and the prison system):

  • What we believe – We believe in replacing the punitive-based prison system, with one based on restorative justice. We also believe in the abolition of the PIC and the creation of alternative means of community security.
  • What we oppose – We oppose a racist/homophobic and punitive-based prison system that has increased incarceration and institutional racism in the U.S. to the level that with 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
  • What world we want to live in – We want to live in a world where people are fairly respected and not immediately thought suspicious because of their race, sexual orientation, or immigration status. We also want to live a world where people have a chance to contribute back to their community if they make a mistake, and not just punished in an inhumane manner.
  • What we want changed – We want to institute restorative justice into our prison/political systems. We also want to eliminate people politically/economically benefiting from the PIC’s rise, heightened surveillance, and the media’s influence on criminal justice policy.

Once you’ve done this visioning, and generally identified what you opposed, you need to specifically understand the problems facing your issues.

 3. Problem Analysis

One way to specifically address the problems that prevent you from reaching your visions, is to do a problem analysis.

A “problem analysis,” seeks to clearly identify the negative systems that impact people’s’ lives (e.g. underfunded schools or high rates of pollution near a school).

The problem analysis “grounds” the context of your organizing, by making sure groups understand the problems they are trying to address. Do this at both a large (i.e. institutional/structural) and small-scale.

By answering some of the following questions (some of which should take time and research to uncover), you’ll have a great start on your problem analysis!

The responses listed below are potential ones for a community concerned about gun violence.

What problems does our constituency face? Which is the worst? – The main grievances, day-to-day issues, problems they face include:

  • People are dying
  • Police have an “enforcement” view of the community, rather than seeking collaboration/service
  • Discrimination

What are the “roots” of the problem (you will also refer to these again in the Power Analysis, which will come later):

  • Economic injustice (e.g. discrimination in financial system, hiring practices, etc.)
  • Punitive-based discipline (e.g. prison industrial complex, school to prison pipeline, and the death penalty)
  • Other forms of structural racism (e.g. “colorblind” policies)

Why does the problem exist?

  • Community impacted by gun violence located in a poor neighborhood – thus receives less political attention
  • Inability/Unwillingness to talk about intersectional issues of race, poverty, etc.
  • People who say we are “post-racial” and thus, should advocate “colorblind” policies

What are the institutions/players that contribute to the problem?

  • Regressive politicians that don’t take responsibility for serving the community
  • Corporate prisons
  • Financial institutions – that profit off the poor and vulnerable
  • Community leaders saying ALL responsibility should be on the community

Who benefits from the problem? – Often the same as those that contribute to the problem)

  • Corporate prison systems benefit from violence because that increases the number of people who enter and stay in prison
  • Financial institutions benefit from predatory lending practices.

Why hasn’t the problem been solved yet? Why is there a gap (between the problem and the vision)?

  • A regressive focus that “the community needs to change”
  • Companies (e.g. prisons) that benefit from violence


Ecosystem Analysis, Pillars of Support, and Map of Actors


Next week I’ll be continuing this look at comprehensive strategy creation by looking at 3 more key aspects to creating a strategy.

Those three include: 1. Ecosystem Analysis/Situational Analysis, 2. Pillars of Support & Power Analysis, 3. Map of Actors.

Culture Changing

Think Everything’s “Normal?” Then It’s Time To Reconsider And Promote A New Narrative Of Disability

Photo: Dicemanic via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Dicemanic via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Michael Warner notes that here in the U.S. “[being] normal probably outranks all other social aspirations” in the Disability Studies Reader. I know I often want to fit in with my communities and participate.

But does this desire to participate also force conformity and exclusion? Through seeking “normalcy” does U.S. culture also diminish and stigmatize those who do not fit the traditional ideas of “being normal?”

It probably doesn’t take you too long to think of how true this sentiment is, that our “culture of normalcy” demands people to meet many unrealistic expectations. In addition, those who have this view also believe everyone wants to meet the norm and if they don’t meet it, must be “suffering” or have a “difficult life.”

This directly connects to ableism, which is the idea that what a person can achieve or their ability to live a fulfilling life is determined by their disability. Thus anyone who is disabled lives “less of a life” than those who are nondisabled.

In particular this “culture of normalcy” perpetuates the oppression of disabled communities by “othering” people and viewing them as individuals outside the norm.

Changing our language (e.g. saying “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled”) means little if we resist changing our actions, institutions, and broader culture.

I’m going to look at what some incredible activists point out as the core attributes of this “culture of normalcy” and what we can do to promote a new narrative of disability that seeks justice and inclusion of difference instead of trying to force assimilation/conformity.


Ok, so I still don’t quite get what “Normalcy” is…


Well below I’ve got a list of the core attributes of our “culture of normalcy” and how it contributes to negative actions and injustice. So let’s go ahead and get started!

The “Culture of Normalcy…”

Creates the illusion that a “normal” way of living/acting/being actually exists

What’s considered “normal” today is completely different from the norm 100 years ago and even just 10-20 years ago. It will also continue to change.

Lennard Davis notes that “[normal] is a configuration that arises in a particular historical moment. It is part of a notion of progress, of industrialization, and of ideological consolidation [of power].” This means, our definitions of normal support those in power and the dominant worldview, rather than being based in any intrinsic attributes.

Human difference is so vast that it’s impossible to say there’s only one way to live/act/be in this complicated world. This is one reason we have so many attitudes of ableism (i.e. oppression towards those with disabilities), heteronormativism, and sizeism (i.e. oppression towards those of certain body sizes).

For example, many in the Deaf community view themselves as part of a linguistic minority rather than having a “disability.” These communities note that they don’t feel “cut off” from the rest of the world, but rather just speak a different language.

We must NOT deem any life “abnormal” just because they have a different way of learning, communicating, or moving.

Forces compulsion to be “like everyone else”

If an individual or group is different in some way, then I see so many examples of people wanting to “help” them “fit in.” Why can’t they just fit in by being who they are?

One common sign of this is for school photos that involve students in wheelchairs. Parents or staff will often setup photos so that they hide the wheelchair and, thus, makes the kid seem “normal.”

It seems to me that this is clearly about making everyone else more comfortable, not to make the student feel more included.

If our society didn’t have such a fear of difference, then it wouldn’t matter whether someone used a wheelchair, communicated differently, etc. or not.

To continue the example in the last section about Deaf communities, U.S. society has often forced the Deaf to not learn sign language and communicate “normally” (e.g. which has some similarities to how the U.S. forced Native Americans to speak English and not speak their tribe’s language).

So whether it’s with the “helpful” mindset or through force, the “culture of normalcy” makes some think they have a duty/responsibility to make every “fit in” even if they just included them as they are, then they wouldn’t need to do anything else.

Puts emphasis on people to “overcome a disability” rather than seeking societal changes

How many stories do you hear about people with disabilities who “overcome their disability” and are considered heroes? What does that mean?

Does it mean they are a “hero” because they are now “like everyone else?”

The phrase “overcoming a disability,” Simi Linton notes in Reassigning Meaning, puts a huge emphasis on the disabled to work harder rather than focusing on what our society needs to do to change.

This also steers those with disabilities to internalize oppression by thinking they must “do more” to “overcome their disability,” even if that shouldn’t be the message we send.

I’ll look more in-depth at some of the societal changes we need to push for, but for now just remember how the phrase “overcoming a disability” makes people feel OK about accepting the status quo. Instead, we still have a long way to go before reaching a truly inclusive society.

Makes people believe that everyone wants to be “Normal,” because their life must be full of suffering

Marsha Saxton in The Disability Studies Reader writes “the stereotyped notions of the ‘tragedy’ and ‘suffering’ of ‘the disabled’ result from the isolation of disabled people in society.”

Marsha Saxton goes on to write that impairments (e.g. mental or physical) are an inconvenience, however “It is discriminatory attitudes and thoughtless behaviors, and the ensuing ostracism and lack of accommodation, that makes life difficult.”

These statements highlight that most people with disabilities suffer most because of oppression, discrimination, and lack of opportunities. Even those with painful disabilities would be better served if people focused less on their pain, and how to treat them as human.

Still a little unsure how our “culture of normalcy” shows up in society? Well continue on to the next section to clearly see how it shows up on all facets of life.


Institutions perpetuating disability/normalcy


The Medical Industrial Complex


The Medical Industrial Complex (MIC) is the complex multibillion-dollar interconnected relationships among the health industry, including:

  • Doctors
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Insurance companies
  • Drug manufacturers
  • Hospital supply and equipment companies
  • Real estate and construction businesses
  • Health systems consulting and accounting firms
  • Banks

You’ve probably heard about how the corporatization of medicine has led to skyrocketing profits for the MIC, drug companies suppress negative results of drug testing, and corporate lobbyist continually pressure doctors to use their drugs.

But have you heard as much about how the MIC enforces our “culture of normalcy” and stigmatizes those with disabilities?

Doctors, psychologists, and others are just as caught up in the idea of what is “normal” as the rest of us, and thus, enforce those standards by saying anyone who doesn’t fit in the box must be “abnormal” and need “fixing.”

For example, Mia Mingus writes about her experience being forced as a child to wear a brace against her will so she would walk “normally.” She writes that “For me, my brace represented the medical establishment’s grubby little hands on my body, forcing me to adhere to a standardized, able bodied norm of how bodies are supposed to be, look, act and move.”

Also, there is an increasing diagnoses of “mental illness” even though there is no basis for what a “mental illness” really is or that the MIC “identifies” it at higher rates among poor communities of color.

So if someone appears to act, communicate, or move other than our “normalized” ideas, then the MIC immediately steps in to “correct” the disability, at the expense of recognizing the diversity of humanity.


Charity/Government Social Institutions


In her great article, Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability, Susan Wendell talks about how “governments and charity organizations will spend far more money to keep disabled people in institutions where they have no chance to be productive than they will spend to enable the same people to live independently and productively.”

I’ll point out more examples in the solutions section, but the Independent Living Movement showcased how there are many opportunities for people to live full and productive lives, but just with a few accommodations.

Also, Susan Wendell highlights how these “‘special’ resources the disabled need merely compensate for bad social planning that is based on the illusion that everyone is young, strong, healthy (and, often, male).”


Dominant media


Whether we are talking about film, literature, plays, or television, the media is rife with depictions of disability…though, most of it is negative and paternalistic.

Two of the most common stereotypes of disability in the media are those of the “tragic villain” (i.e. the disability/deformity “represents their evil”) and the “superhero” (i.e. those who “overcome” their disability).

The hero is the one who “overcomes,” which is problematic as I looked at earlier. By sensationalizing headlines/stories and drawing a connection between intellectual impairment and criminality the news media continues this focus on the “villain.”

James Charlton writes that the worst forms of disability representations “are the telethons ‘for. crippled people, especially, poor, pathetic, crippled children…In the U.S. surveys have shown that more people form attitudes about disabilities from telethons than from any other source.”

So stereotypic characters and telethons are where most people get their ideas of disability. No wonder we still have so much work to change the “culture of normalcy.”


The Education System


“Students with disabilities, as soon as their disability is recognized by school officials, are placed on a separate track” notes James Charlton. This separate track often has lower standards for children and immediately expects students to achieve less.

James Charlton also provides this troubling list of the common ways the education system controls students with disabilities through:

  • Labeling – e.g. special education and ADHD
  • Symbols – e.g. “Handicapped Room” signs
  • Structure – e.g. pull-out programs, segregated classrooms, “special” schools, inaccessible areas, etc.
  • Curriculum – “especially designed for students with disabilities (behavior modification for emotionally disturbed kids, training skills without knowledge instruction for significantly mentally retarded students and students w/ autistic behavior) or having significant implications for these students”
  • Testing and evaluation – “biased toward the functional needs of the dominant culture”
  • Body language/Disposition of school culture – “teachers almost never look into the eyes of students with disabilities and practice even greater patterns of superiority and paternalism than they do with other students”
  • Discipline – e.g. physical restraints, out-of-school suspensions, isolation/time-out rooms with locked doors, use of Haldol and other sedatives, etc.

One of the most currently talked about impediments to justice, is the School-to-Prison Pipeline. The School-to-Prison Pipeline describes the increasing reliance on punitive-based measures and law enforcement for handling student behavior that, according to The Advancement Project “push children off of an academic track and on to a track to prison.”

The Advancement Project goes on to say “Youth of color, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities are punished more often and more harshly than their peers for the same misbehavior.”

In the fall I went to a conference put on by Education Voices here in Delaware and it put the stats around race and perceived disability into clear context for me. The keynote speaker Dr. Umar Abdullah-Johnson said how black boys are 4 times as likely to be misclassified as intellectually disabled, and 4 times as unlikely to be classified as mentally gifted.

He want on to speak about how really, it’s very difficult to actually tell if a student is disabled when they are between Kindergarten and 3rd grade. Most times students of color will be labeled “ADHD” or other special needs if people perceive them to be “disruptive.” There are countless reasons why a student is having trouble at school, but often the first thing people think of is a emotional/learning disability.

One of the biggest things I took away from Dr. Umar Abdullah-Johnson’s talk was how, once a student is “labeled,” they often carry that label with them for the rest of their lives (i.e. they think they cannot achieve as much because society tells them that they are “disabled”).







Action 1 – Recognize that Disability is an identity. An identity can be something people claim (e.g. through the statement “disabled and proud”), but it can also be an identity that faces discrimination and bias (e.g. through thinking of those with disability as “not normal”).

In a world where the medical definitions dominate discussions of disability (and what they can/cannot do), we need to remember that disability should not be centered on comparisons, but rather about adaptation to circumstance (i.e. less focus on “limitations,” but more focus on what people can do with the body/mind they do have). Just because it may be different, doesn’t necessarily mean they are “suffering.”

Thus you may hear some talk about the Disabled community and their shared connections. Not everyone feels this way about their disability, but just remember that for many people the disability they have has shaped their view of the world and thus is an integral part of their identity.

Playwright and Disability rights activist Neil Marcus said “Disability is not a brave struggle or ‘courage in the face of adversity.’ Disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.”

Action 2 – End the use of ableist language and promote the (numerous) alternatives. How we communicate is one of the most influential in shaping human values and ideas. We need to recognize that some of our language continues to “other” those with disabilities, both mental and physical.

Here’s a great list of alternative words to use instead of “crazy,” “nuts,” “psycho,”,”insane,” “retarded,” and “lame.” The author also covers phrases such as “they were ‘blinded’ by the fact” and “the campaign was ‘crippled’ by the latest development.” Really check this list out!

Also, if you’re looking for how ableist language contributes to racism Black Girl Dangerous has a detailed analysis of the word “psychopath” that you’ll want to see.

Action 3 – Stop promoting the “normal” able-bodied life as the only “full” way to live. Talking about the Disabled as “suffering from” or “afflicted with” a particular condition is one of the most common ways of talking about disability; however, it implies that anyone with a disability must be suffering and that is the defining feature of their lives.

This way of talking (e.g. “suffering from” or “afflicted with”) heightens the view of those with disabilities as “passive” and “victims.” This should not be our automatic view.

An individual may have a disability, but we should believe they have the same chance for having a fulfilling life as the rest of us in this complicated world. Though, society actually makes things difficult by focusing on the disability, rather than the person.

There are plenty of ways to live, so it’s time to stop focusing on a “normal” life as the only way.


Medical industrial complex


Action 4 – Focus on “treating” society, not just the individual. When society thinks of disability only in medical terms, we miss an opportunity to address oppression and injustice.

While the medical system has produced tremendous benefits for some with disabilities and saved lives, it has also contributed to the idea that those with disabilities are “suffering” and must be “fixed” to live a “normal” life.

Simi Linton writes in Reassigning Meaning ”the medicalization of disability casts human variation as deviance from the norm, as pathological condition, as deficit, and significantly as an individual burden and personal tragedy.”

So while we still need the medical system, society as a whole should put the emphasis on what it can do to change, rather than just thinking the only thing it can do is support the medical system. Just check out this list of actions for other ideas on what society can do!

Action 5 – Create a medical system based on serving the needs of people and halt the corporatization of medicine. I mentioned the medical industrial complex above, which each year seems to continue making higher profits and corresponding higher rates to consumers.

This Medical Industrial Complex gets people to spend billions of dollars to be “normal,” and convinces some they are “a burden.” With the expansion of the pharmaceutical industry into drugs affecting the brain, we see more and more people striving to be “like everyone else.”

Every new “defect” becomes an opportunity for corporate profit.

If instead we had a medical system based on what people need, as opposed to corporations, then we might actually have people living fulfilling lives instead of continually taking drugs or looking for the most advanced technology.

Action 6 – Stop the rapid rise in diagnoses of “mental illness.” As I noted earlier in this post, the Medical Industrial Complex identifies “severe mental illness” at higher rates among poor communities of color.

Colorlines highlights a few studies showing that this rise in over-identifying “mental illness” comes from the civil rights movements where psychiatry field “updated” their definitions to include “hostile and aggressive behavior.” Meaning many involved in protests may be seen as “mentally ill.”

It is not hard to believe that the first studies showing “people of color were often over-diagnosed with much more severe mental illnesses than their white counterparts” came in the 1970s shortly after the updated definitions in the ‘60s.

Media and representation


Action 7 – Show disability as just another part of human identities (e.g. gender or class), and stop sensationalizing it (e.g. “heroes” and “villains”).  “[W]hile stories rely upon the potency of disability as a symbolic figure, they rarely take up disability as an experience of social or political dimensions” note David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder.

This statement reminded me that nearly everytime I see disability represented in any form of media (e.g. books and TV), disability is almost always a “symbol” for part of the plot. Disability should be represented, but as a social identity.

We should see people with disabilities represented living, working, raising families, having joys/sorrows, etc. just as we do for every other identity.

Action 8 – Fundamentally change telethons so they show those with disabilities participating in community life and living independently. Evan Kemp Jr., a former director of the Disability Rights Center, noted how telethons contribute to the perception that “many people in our society consider the disabled to be childlike, helpless, hopeless, nonfunctioning and noncontributing members of society.”

He goes on to note that by only showing children (i.e. “ideal for use in a pity appeal”), and ignoring adults, telethons maintain the sentiment that “the adolescent or mature adult is a cripple to be avoided.”

“Playing to pity may raise money, but it also raises walls of fear between the public and us” Evan Kemp Jr. writes. Instead of strengthening the narrative of equating disability with “helplessness,” telethons must show the myriad of people living as part of a community and independently.

Education system


Action 9 – Install restorative policies and end the School-to-Prison-Pipeline. I already mentioned how the School-to-Prison-Pipeline negatively impacts students of color and those with disabilities (i.e. harsher and more severe discipline).

Ending the school-to-prison-pipeline will take a combination of funding schools at appropriate levels (e.g. for school counselors and programs aimed at early intervention), applying restorative justice policies (i.e. policies based more on how a student can contribute, rather than punishing them), and ending high stakes testing.

Action 10 – Give schools more resources so they can provide more accommodations instead of “special education”/labeling students. Special education today focuses on providing a different curriculum to students who do not fit the “norm” (e.g. having trouble focusing). This curriculum often has lower expectations. This also involves “labeling” (e.g. ADHD), which lasts a lifetime.

If schools had appropriate levels of funding, as opposed to being constantly underfunded, then they would be able to meet students’ needs in other ways than immediately sending every kid who has trouble focusing to special education.

Some of the alternatives to an IEP (individualized education plan) for accommodations use a 504 education plan to provide more 1-to-1 aides, more breaks, meetings with counselors, and longer time on tests.


Government/Nonprofit industry


Action 11 – Develop policies/programs based on accommodation, instead of dividing and elimination. Instead of setting limits on what we think people can do, we should be creating initiatives that emphasize supporting a person in adapting to life based on their disabilities.

This contrasts with the dominant model now that tries to setup separate facilities or spur research to “end disability.” These clearly communicate a truly negative message, as opposed to including options that accommodate what a person needs to live their life as fuller as possible.

Action 12 – Stop relying on fears of disability in fundraising or in promoting policies/programs. Whether in the telethons or in modern conservative politics talking about the dangers of the “disability king.”

Either way, these types of rhetoric indicate that we should think of those with disabilities as “burdens.”

On the political side, James Wilson writes in (Re)Writing the Genetic Body “In this bogeyman representation, disability becomes not only a personal tragedy but a public burden that costs taxpayers excessively.”

The message from the nonprofit/medical side is not much better, since it focuses on “If we raise enough money we can ‘erase’ disability.’”

Continuing to raise fears of disability perpetuates the “culture of normalcy” and keeps us away from social accommodation and the “othering” of those with disabilities.

Action 13 – Promote independent living policies, rather than solely supporting dependent living. One of the central aims of disability rights is to end segregated living (i.e. housing those with disabilities in facilities, where the residents have little control over their lives), and instead create independent living programs.

Independent living programs bring about self-determination (both mental and physical), by having the following attributes. These attributes of independent living situations include those that:

  • People with disabilities run and maintain
  • Provide peer support/role modeling where people learn how to live life from others with similar disabilities
  • Build a sense of collective community.

So instead of someone learning only from a nondisabled “professional” about how to live with a mental/physical disability, they would instead have a chance to be included in, and actively contribute to, a community of support.



Action 14 – Remember disability is a civil and human rights issue, not an individual issue. The history of the disability rights movement highlights the significant emphasis on disability as a civil rights issue, countering the idea that a disability was purely an individual issue.

This means we as a society are responsible for ending discrimination/hate crimes, supporting independent living programs, ending the culture of “normalcy,” etc.

Action 15 – Engage in confidence building and ending the mindset of self-oppression. From a young age in our “culture of normalcy” we teach people to set a “low bar” for those with disabilities.

The same model of internalizing oppression (i.e. believing the myths and stereotypes of how one must act or what one can do in life) that impacts other identities, also influence those with disabilities. Some may overcome this mindset, but we shouldn’t even allow this self-oppression to develop at all.

Instead, if we taught each other, disabled and nondisabled, to focus less on the limits of impairments and focus more on how we can adapt to whatever our situation is to achieve the most we can, don’t you think more people would be living fulfilling and independent lives?

Action 16 – Support the Disabled community’s push for self-determination. Tobin Siebers strongly states that those with disabilities just want “to live life as a human being…They do not want to feel dominated by the people on whom they depend for help.”

Often those who need services from others just to function become represented as “weak or inferior;” however, they just want to live life on equal terms with those providing the services.

Tobin Siebers reminds us that we should be “opposing the belief that people with disabilities are needy, selfish, and resentful – and will consequently take more than their fair share of resources from society as a whole.” The Disabled community aims for self-sufficiency and self-determination, NOT more programs that keep them away from their own sovereignty.

This means that for many with disabilities, people just want “to live with their disability, to come to know their body, to accept what it can do, and to keep doing what they can for as long as they can” continues Tobin Siebers.


Beyond “Normal”


These actions listed are just the start of what many Disability justice activists have called for, and continue to call for.

The “Culture of Normalcy” already has countless people trying to break it down, and replace it with values based on recognizing all people. We just have to keep pushing.


4 Essentials To Organize For The Long Haul


Photo: jay galvin via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: jay galvin via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Last month I attended the New Organizing Institute’s RootsCamp. It was rejuvenating to see folks I hadn’t seen in years and those I have been working with for a while, but had never seen in person like Althea and Chris from the ReStrategizing Team of the Leading Change Network.

There were a ton of important sessions I attended, but since it is the start of the new year and the time of resolutions I thought it would be a perfect time to share about what I learned at Heather Booth’s session on “Organizing for the Long Haul.”

Heather Booth is the founding Director/current President of the Midwest Academy and a long-time activist for countless causes (e.g. financial reform, racial justice, and immigrant rights).

The heart of this session was about figuring out how to continue being an activist without “burning out” or feeling like you couldn’t emotionally/spiritually/physically/etc. maintain your contributions to the social change movement.

Heather Booth facilitated a rich discussion with tons of incredible tips and ideas, but let’s start with her main principles first.


4 ways to live in this movement for the long haul


1. Our work needs to be based in love

Anger is a part of us and shouldn’t be ignored; however, in terms of making sure we can do this work for many years we need to make sure our efforts are grounded in love for people, places, and the world around us.

In Paula X. Rojas’ article in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded she writes political involvement/movements must intertwine with “our relationships with loved ones and the larger community” in order to be “truly liberatory.”

2. Invest time in that relationship

Heather Booth noted “Time is not renewable.” Though this may seem obvious when you take time to think about it, but I know for myself I sometimes have trouble taking the time “when there is so much left to do.”

The work will get done, so I should enjoy the time I have with those I love and not worry about what “I could be working on.”

3. Think strategically about love in this work the same way we do for our campaigns

Yes! A way to apply what we love about organizing to relationships! If it’s helpful for you, the very same tools we do in our social change efforts can just as easily apply to the rest of our lives.

Heather Booth noted 2 key pieces to this concept is to have the following:

  • Have a strategic plan (e.g. goals, visions, etc.)
  • Have a strategic schedule/timeline

In particular, use these strategic plans/schedules to spend time with kids. But for me, since I don’t have any kids (except those I teach chess to) I’m going to think of how to strategically think about how I invest myself in my partner and those around me.

4. Be gentle with ourselves

One of the biggest lessons I’ve been trying to learn over the past few months. It can sometimes be dangerous to continually criticize yourself even if it is to work on “self-improvement.”

While there are times when we must also commit to changing some aspects of ourselves (e.g. because of oppressive thoughts/actions/ideas), in general we have to remember to avoid allowing “guilt to overcome.”

Heather Booth noted that one of the best ways to achieve this gentleness with ourselves is to “seek out community…They will be there for you…and you will do the same for them.”


Other key ideas to living as an activist


I noted at the beginning that Heather Booth did an excellent job drawing out the experiences of the group, so here are a few of the other ideas that resonated with me the most.



1. Be intentional about time – Every minute is precious to me so I’m increasingly trying to protect my time. This means knowing how I want to spend my time. This goes back to Heather Booth’s idea to strategize a plan/schedule for our relationships.

2. Alone time – I need time to myself to journal or think. The degree each person needs obviously varies, but the idea is the same…take time for yourself. You deserve it!

3. Require vacation time – Organizations should mandate their members take some time off and ideally should support them in this endeavor (i.e. providing funds). Whenever I take a break, even if I really really don’t want to, I know I always come back with much better energy.

4. Say no to protect time – It can be tempting for us to support everyone around us, but that limits the amount of time/energy we put into each project. Think of it this way, you’re still supporting people by letting them know what you can/cannot do at the moment. They’ll be glad to know!




These don’t quite go together as nicely, but they are extremely important!

5. Be clear about values – I know many times we are making choices about what to share about ourselves or our ideologies based on the situation. However, it’s important to have a community that you do feel comfortable sharing with and being clear about your values both for yourself, and your growth as an organizer.

6. $ matters in order to support each other – I have trouble with this one since I would rather not have to worry about money. However, right now it has to play into our thoughts of our work and relationships. Otherwise, a lack of funds may lead to other stresses. Unfortunately, remedying this idea (i.e. finding a position that pays what you need) is not easy.




7. Non-movement friends – Some folks at the workshop mentioned how energized they felt by having different conversations than they had in their work. Also, they noted that having people to talk to who weren’t embroiled in a campaign or intense planning/acting was extremely valuable.

8. Have mentors – Throughout my life I have benefited so much from people who have dedicated time and thought to supporting my journey. Even now I can think of people who make me realize my confidence is already here and I can do this whole organizing thing! Sometimes I forget, but having a mentor can be really helpful in this regard

9. Hold each other accountable for living your values – We need to be honest to each other and make sure we are truly thinking about our actions and their potential impacts. I want to be around people, and I want to be myself someone who have high expectations for each other and hold each other to our own values.

10. Partners/Family engaged in activism who can support each other – This was one of my favorite topics discussed in the workshop! The more we integrate the important people in our lives into activism, the more we learn and grow together. This doesn’t mean you’re each doing the same work, just engaged at some level together.

11. Build an intentional community of support – We cannot do this alone! Over the past 2 years I’ve moved a few times so I know how tough it can be to build this community. But luckily I keep remembering how many amazing people are in my life, even if we don’t live close to each other. It takes time to build/maintain, but this is key!

I hope these ideas were as motivating to you as they were to me! Let me know if you have other ideas, I’m always looking for more!

Culture Changing

Why Patriarchy Persists (and How We Can Change It)

“Patriarchy has no gender.”

bell hooks in Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom

bell hooks’ quote is a clear reminder that patriarchy does not just describe male actions of domination, but also how some organizations and cultural narratives function.

Patriarchy, like most forms of oppression, has a way of trying to convince us that, in the words of the Crunk Feminist Collective “things are the way they are because they have to be, that they have always been that way, that there are no alternatives and that they will never change.”

From Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde, people have been resisting this mentality and pointing out another path away from unjust power systems.

Through the rest of this post I’m going to summarize intersectional changemakers’ ideas on:

  • The current state of patriarchy
  • The frames that perpetuate the acceptance of patriarchy
  • Examples of patriarchy in our current institutions
  • The main long-term efforts we can take to combat patriarchy

We’re lucky that that numerous changemakers have already clearly demonstrated what we need to do to dismantle patriarchy. Now we just all have to integrate these actions into all of our organizing efforts.


The core attributes of patriarchy


Patriarchy is a system that has many elements associated with it. Below are some of the key expressions of patriarchy:

Holds up the traditional male qualities as central, while other qualities are considered subordinate. The attributes of power, control, rationality, and extreme competitiveness are examples of these traditional male qualities. Emotional expressiveness, compassion, and ability to nurture are examples of subordinate qualities in patriarchal systems.

Dualistic and gendered thinking of roles. Within this structure, men and women both have their own specific roles (e.g. men leading, and women supporting). Even though this view may appear to be fading in some areas, it’s clear that certain careers historically associated with women (e.g. childcare and teaching) have disproportionately lower salaries.

Male domination. Men often occupy the most important and visible roles (e.g. executives, politicians, public leaders, etc.). Women who do hold these positions are expected to subscribe to male norms.

Protection of traditional patriarchal social structures. If a person or group challenges patriarchy in any form, then the patriarchal response is to increase control. In particular, this means increasing control over oppressed or marginalized groups.

Reinforcement of other types of oppression. Patriarch contributes to racism, sizeism, and homophobia. Third Wave feminists, such as Rebecca Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, and Cherríe Moraga, are the major voices to articulate this truth. All of the manifestations of patriarchy mentioned above, magnify for those with other oppressed identities.

However, one other important point to remember is, as described on the Daily Kos, “patriarchy is generally not an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women. It is a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously.

This means, that people of all gender identities can perpetuate patriarchy, even if it is mainly male-identified individuals that reap most of the societal benefits.

For a powerful succinct description of patriarchy, check out bell hooks’ article Understanding Patriarchy.


Frames that perpetuate patriarchal ideas


“Boys will be boys.” This idea that men are biologically “programmed” to behave certain ways, against all scientific evidence, is one of the biggest cultural narratives that continues our current patriarchal systems.

Celebrating “macho” or “alpha” men.

Jackson Katz, in his book The Macho Paradox, discusses how society often promotes violent and controlling aspects of male culture. From lifting up the “strong” hero to denigrating “sissies,” our language and media foster this image of what “real men” look like.

Men believing they should be silent, instead of challenging other men on patriarchal and sexist ideas/actions. One of the most insidious characteristics of patriarchy, as mention above, is that it seeks to protect traditional male traits and actions. Even of some men would never subscribe to certain actions/ideas/language, they ignore when their peers commit those very same things.

“It’s a women’s issue.” Patriarchy and sexual violence impact both men and women. Patriarchy impacts everyone, at all levels of society.

While there are countless other frames that prop up patriarchy, these are a few of the most prominent.


How patriarchy manifests itself in current society




There are numerous ways the mass media accentuates patriarchal ideas and thoughts.

The media amplifies patriarchal viewpoints through:

In addition, the journalism industry itself reserves most senior analyst and producer positions for men. Further, both men and women that do have these jobs must make sure to spin their stories that subscribe to dominant patriarchal narratives, instead of challenging them.




Men disproportionately occupy top leadership positions, often because they exhibit those very same traditional male traits (e.g. outspoken, “rational,” and individual-based leadership).

In addition women often have “lower salaries, appointments at lower ranks, slower rates of promotion and lower rates of retention, and less recognition through awards.” This trend continues despite widespread recognition, which to me indicates that we still need to address the root causes (i.e. patriarchal culture).


Sexual violence


Sexual violence impacts both men and women, and relationships along the spectrum of sexual orientations. However, “99% of people who rape are men.”

Bruce Kokopeli and George Lakey write “Patriarchy tells men that their need for love and respect can only be met by being masculine, powerful, and ultimately violent.” This viewpoint also contributes to the high amount of male bystanders who do little or nothing to prevent sexual violence.




The traditional nuclear family, with men as the “leaders” and women as the “nurturers,” is still incredibly prevalent. This translates into male figure as the “authority” on all important decisions.

George Lakoff writes of the “strict father model” as the dominant conservative worldview, which he uses to explain why many conservatives pursue the “war on women.”

For other expressions of patriarchy, check out Shannon Ridgway’s great post on Everyday Feminism.

How to start ending patriarchy


Now challenging patriarchy is something that has been ongoing for countless generations, and it will take many more before it can finally be eliminated. This is essential for those of all gender identities.

However, there are numerous options all of us can take to push back against the system of patriarchy, no matter what field or time of life we may be in.


Changing the patriarchal narrative


Action 1: Push for a culture of excellence to hold men/boys accountable for their language and actions where all people can make positive influences on the world. This means countering the “boys will be boys” idea.

We shouldn’t discount men and their ability to be upstanding individuals, we just have to keep high expectations.

Action 2: Support a spectrum of ideas of what a “real man” looks like, such as those that are compassionate and responsible. We need to stop holding up “macho” or the “tough, silent type” as the gold standard for maleness.

Action 3: Reframe patriarchy as an issue for everyone (not just “a women’s issue”). Jackson Katz writes on how this is also a men’s issue, since men should take responsibility for altering both themselves and challenging men around them.

As bell hooks’ quote from the beginning of this post reminds us, “Patriarchy has no gender,” thus it’s going to take all people to combat it.

Action 4: End the viewpoint that the traditional nuclear family as the ideal. Instead, we should accept and encourage loving, compassionate families of any style and form.


Altering how we approach sexual violence prevention


Photo: Rachel Kramer Bussel via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Rachel Kramer Bussel via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Action 5: Advocate for a definition of consent based on “Yes” rather than “No.” One common phrase in sexual violence prevention is “No means no.” However, Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti’s anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape reframes this to be “Yes means Yes!”

The anthology describes how consent should be “given freely and enthusiastically,” rather than making assumptions based on silence or passivity. Also, they write “men need to feel empowered to say no also.”

One necessity for this is that men need to be able to effectively ask and listen, which leads directly to the next action.

Action 6: Teach boys and men how to authentically communicate their emotions and listen empathetically to others. From an early age, few people encourage boys to express their emotions, and many try to encourage boys to “hide their emotions.”

So whether you work with kids, have a child, or want to contribute to reducing sexual violence, we need to train males how to express themselves.

Action 7: Implement comprehensive sex education. Cara Kulwicki in her essay in Yes Means Yes writes “teaches that sex is more than heterosexual intercourse and should be consensual and pleasurable for all participants.”

This type of education also includes how to talk about sex. If more men have knowledge of how to talk about consent, contraception, and sex in general, and understand what rape actually is then there is much more potential for healthy relationships.

Action 8: Create collective accountability systems for handling sexual violence. The current criminal “justice” system exacerbates injustices based on race, sexual orientation, and ability. Thus, we need an alternate system that gives survivors the choice of whether to pursue the current legal system or a framework based on community accountability.

Cristina Meztli Tzintzun, in her essay in Yes Means Yes writes that we need “collective accountability based on love, support, forgiveness, transformation, and consequence.”

Action 9: Train men and foster the attitude that men should be proactive in addressing patriarchy. Men need to challenge other men on their patriarchal and sexist ideas/actions. So it seems to me that it is a much better mentality to stand up to your friends and community in order to help make them more conscientious people.

As long as men standby when these patriarchal events take place, they prop up the oppressive frame they “must be silent.” I know it may be difficult to challenge every single instance, since it’s all around us, but taking action should be the norm rather than “that one time I stood up.”


Challenge existing institutions that contribute to patriarchy


Action 10: Ending conservatives’ war on women. Many conservative politicians try to say their policies are “not a war on women,” but the record levels of legislation limiting women’s rights and the impact says otherwise.

Elizabeth Martinez notes, this war on women has been a frequent effort by the conservative leadership over the past decades. Now it has ramped up, in particular at the state-level. We have to keep up the pressure on these regressive policies and highlight the implications of this conservative war.

Action 11: Hold the media accountable. Whether this is for for male-dominated journalism/movies, or for victim-blaming in cases involving sexual violence, we have to stop the media’s focus on dominant culture and instead reflect its viewers with all types of relationships and backgrounds.

Also, if you’re not already, start reading the works of those combating patriarchy and it’s connections to other forms of oppression. Here’s a great list to start with.

For more ways to challenge patriarchy, check out Harsha Walia’s great summary at Beautiful Trouble.

This fight is for everyone


Ending patriarchy is about removing barriers for people of all gender identities. It ties directly to our work addressing white privilege, homophobia, sizisim, etc.

I started this post with a bell hooks quote, and I believe her following words capture the world we should all seek to create.

“The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” ― bell hooks


My Life Update and Organizing Change’s Direction

Photo: Vinoth Chandar via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Vinoth Chandar via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Normally on Organizing Change my focus is on what’s going on in the world of social change and what we should be taking the time to learn about. However, this week I thought I’d share a little bit about what I’ve been up to and what’s in store for Organizing Change.

Though my posts on Organizing Change have been pretty sparse over the past month or two, I’m still adding new ideas to my “Future Posts List.” Whenever I find a new skill-building resource or strategy to dismantle injustice, I think of how best to share the information with others here on this blog.

So here’s a life update and what I’ve been learning about.


Education Organizing Landscape



I recently moved to Delaware and have been taking a bit of time to get oriented in this new place and explore the area. I’m slowly starting to get in a great rhythm here and now I’m seeing how I can get more involved in organizing here.

One of the key parts of organizing is relationships, so it often takes a bit of time to get a “lay of the land” and know what efforts are already going on and how you can contribute at a local level.

For example, there’s a big commitment to increasing the ability of Delaware’s education system to support all students. Concurrently, there’s also a specific interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education.

As is generally the case, government and nonprofits are taking a leading role and there’s little true engagement from the grassroots. These institutional entities have important roles, but we still must find ways to include those outside of the established organizations.

Already I’ve talked to so many people who want to participate in making a better education for kids…they just don’t know exactly how to get involved. The main reason for that is there isn’t a ton of opportunities to get involved.

Even if a nonprofit advocacy group conducts “community organizing,” it’s generally just on the scale of getting people to speak at hearings or sign petitions. Very few closely involve those most impacted in planning and implementing projects/campaigns.

So what this means for me is that I’ve been thinking of ways to create truly grassroots campaigns that involve all constituents here. Interestingly, the one that has the most promise is a chess-in-the-schools initiative.

Whether people have read the studies or not, that show how helpful chess is for increasing academic abilities, many families and schools all seem to enthusiastically support chess.

Now I am wondering how we can use this interest in chess to create a campaign that builds a base of people that can also work on other issues of addressing institutional injustices. This work is still in the formation stage, but I see how many want to get involved so it’s time we find a way to get them a chance.


Leading Change Network


I joined the Leading Change Network (LCN) last July at their Global Event, because I was immediately interested in their efforts around learning, resource sharing, and identifying best organizing practices.

Since then I’ve started working with an incredible team on researching how to “restrategize” (i.e. what do you do once you create an initial strategy, but then have to modify it) during a campaign.

We’re also getting the chance to investigate strategy from a variety of fields (e.g. business, military, and education) to see what else our social change work should consider or at least be prepared for. We’re even comparing strategy from across the social change world (e.g. Marshall Ganz’s frameworks and the work of the Midwest Academy).

Basically we’ve set ourselves up with the ambitious goal of identifying the key elements of “restrategizing” and laying out the core baseline of “strategy” from numerous disciplines. Though, it’s pretty cool to have the chance to compile best practices for an important aspect of our campaigns.

This “restrategizing working group” is also the highest functioning digitally-based group I’ve ever got the opportunity to be a part of! We have tall aspirations, but I feel that this team is going to keep on surprising folks with how much we get done.

Similarly, I’m also working on LCN’s Network Resource Center to highlight valuable organizing articles, videos, workshops, and guides. Eventually we’ll have an easy-to-use online repository to showcase some of the most important documents on social change.

Both of these projects I currently have the opportunity to work with are especially enlightening for me because I hoped to do similar things with Organizing Change, but now I don’t have to wait!


Organizing Change Next Steps


Organizing Change has been publishing for about 7 months now and its actually about where I was hoping it would be!

I wanted the first year of Organizing Change to be about clearly identifying important organizations and their work, along with improving my own writing skills. Both of these I feel like I’ve definitely accomplished (though with some further goals to work on!).

Now over the next year I really want to finalize my “cornerstone content” (i.e. the core information I think all changemakers should be aware of). While I hope to make most of my posts here informative, I aim to compile the key essentials that would be useful for organizers in any field.

One of my first forays into this endeavor was my post on The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism. I used this post as a way to bolster my capacity to delve into the details, but also summarize information in an easily accessible format.

Here’s my 5 main pieces of “cornerstone content” I’m going to be working on over this next year:

  • Changing the Narrative of Dominant Culture
  • Strategy Development for the Long-Term
  • Organize for the 21st Century (i.e. organizer skills – the “toolbox”)
  • Injustice We Must Fight – Solutions We Must Create
  • Movement Building

This is going to be a gradual process, but I’m already looking forward to writing each of these!

You might see a post or two contribute to these 5 main pieces of content, but I’m still going to try to have a mix of what I discuss here at Organizing Change.

I hope that gives you a little better picture of what I’ve been working on in my life recently. I think being out here in Delaware, though a little unexpected, has a lot of positive possibilities!

Thank you for all the support over these past few months, you keep giving me energy to keep on writing!