10 Groundbreakers Who’ve Shaped My Views of Social Change

A few weeks ago Heath Mitchell asked to co-write 42 Errors Changemakers and Humanitarians Make (which ended up being one of the most popular posts here), and now he got me thinking again by asking about the people/organizations that have influenced my ideas of activism and organizing.

Anytime someone asks me to write a post on a certain topic I try my best to do so, even if it takes a few months! I’m especially stoked when I get to write about those folks who’ve fundamentally impacted my life through their own words/actions.

The names that follow are a few of the main individuals and groups who I consistently ‎learn from and wish to share more about.


Elizabeth Martinez


Author of De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century and 500 years of Chicano History, Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez has been called one of the 20th century’s most important activists and progressive historians.

When I read De Colores Means All of Us I thought it had some of the most insightful strategies for social change that we still have not adopted some 15 years later.

So if you’re looking for a clear picture of 20th century progressive activism and unrealized pathways for change, then check out Betita’s work.


Marshall Ganz/Sierra Club


One of my first direct experiences with organizing training was with with the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), an organization that grew out of the Sierra Club. Much of the SSC’s trainers were based on Marshall Ganz’s frameworks and research for the Sierra Club.

Marshall Ganz was a volunteer with the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, served with the United Farm Workers, created the dominant curriculum for training Obama’s campaign organizers, and now is working to develop the Leading Change Network (LCN).

Check out Marshall’s online module on organizing and the LCN to learn more about values-based changemaking, leadership, and campaigns.


Yuri Kochiyama



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

Yuri Kochiyama is one of the most intersectional activists to grace the changemaking world and doesn’t appear to be showing any signs of slowing down. She’s organized around the rights of political prisoners, Puerto Rican Independence, and reparations for Japanese Americans forcibly held in internment camps during WWII.

Not only did Yuri Kochiyama show me how to integrate a range of activist efforts, but she also demonstrated that one can begin to organize at any age and while taking care of family.

There’s a great film called Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice which details her accomplishments and what she has done for cross-issue movement building.


Naomi Klein


Naomi Klein’s journalist and activist endeavors serve as a beating heart of the opposition to neoliberalism in all of its forms.

Her book The Shock Doctrine fundamentally altered my understanding of just how pervasive neoliberalism had become in all parts of our society (e.g. education, government, and international relations).

I’m currently working on a post inspired by much of Naomi Klein’s work that focuses on neoliberalism frames, ideas, and policies along with ways activists can combat this entrenched ideology.


Ella Baker


I’ve mentioned Ella Baker a few times before, in particular about her contributions to leadership development in any type of organizing.

Ella Baker throughout the civil rights movement (e.g. through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) continually pushed for increasing opportunities for multiple leaders and criticizing those that were held up as the only focal points for action.

Now the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is making sure to honor her legacy and contributions, and remind us to look to Ella for ideas on how to build up strong cohesive leadership systems.


Bill McKibben and


Photo: 350 .org via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: 350 .org via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Bill McKibben and the rest of the team constantly mobilize some of the largest and most impactful demonstrations for taking action against climate change and the Keystone XL Pipeline.

When the issue of climate change keeps getting pushed back to the edges of the news, and its partners keep finding ways to refocus attention.


Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)


Though conservative attacks/lies forced ACORN to cease most of its operations to register voters, increase homeownership, and counter powerful banks, ACORN’s still has made a huge impact on social change organizing.

Right now the absence of ACORN’s local-regional-national organizing structure leaves a void that is hard to fill. How many other organizations could bring together so many hundreds of thousands of people to bring forward constructive anti-poverty solutions? Or really any issue?

I recently read John Atlas’s book about ACORN called Seeds of Change and if you’re looking to find out more about how ACORN operated, that book is a great place to start.


Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta


The founders of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta showed how to develop new leaders by going door-to-door and being persistent.

Dolores Huerta exemplified this attitude that every person had important contribution to make when she said “Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk.”




INCITE! is a “is a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and our communities through direct action, critical dialogue, and grassroots organizing.”

One of their most well-known and influential publication is the The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.

This book taught me a ton about the differences between social services and social change, how activists can get diverted into professionalized careers, and the role foundation/government grants have in shaping social change.


Rinku Sen


Rinku Sen is probably the organizer that has had the biggest impact on my personal outlook on social change.

After reading her book Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy I immediately felt a clearer sense of my own purpose.

I’ve written many posts already about Rinku Sen’s work (e.g. about how she “prepares extraordinary movements”) so I won’t go into much more detail other than to say that you should either read some of her articles on Colorlines or just talk to me!

Thanks again Heath for asking about people who’ve influenced my ideas!

This is just a short list of those that have impacted my views of activism and organizing, but who else would you include? Leave a comment below!


8 Facilitation Essentials for Having That Productive Meeting

Photo: we collaborate via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: we collaborate via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I know I’m constantly looking for ways to improve the effectiveness and joyfulness of meetings.

Judging from the amount of times I hear people talking about how they try to avoid meetings, I think there’s a few basics we need to keep in mind to have those great meetings we all seek.

Ok so close your eyes and imagine (so make sure to have someone read this out loud through this section).


Unfilling meeting example


You just sat down for your organization’s weekly staff meeting and you are super excited to share some new ideas and make important decisions for the “big project.”

However, the meeting starts with finding out people had many unfinished tasks and by the end of the meeting you are frustrated because you feel like you had a lost voice in the discussion.

Also, since the group had unfocused conversation, the meeting ran out of time with no decisions on moving the project forward.

You walk away thinking “meetings are a waste of time.”


Productive meeting example


The next week you come into the meeting already resigned to another unproductive hour, but you see that there is a facilitator sitting across the the table.

The facilitator starts by asking the group to take the first 10 minutes of the meeting to create shared group norms and you think “here we go again, just more talking.”

Then the facilitator got the meeting going and you saw that people listened, made amiable consensus decisions even if there was not unanimity, and had productive and inclusive discussions.

When the meeting ends early, you are feeling pretty high energy and a little bewildered by how the group was able to start getting stuff done.

You walk away thinking “meetings rock!”


8 Elements of Great Meetings!


So what happened? This facilitator follow some facilitation basics.

Below are the primary reasons that the 2nd meeting was much more successful.

1. Share intentional group norms! Crafting a set of norms (i.e. group agreements or expectations) about how meetings will function will address a lot of issues before they even arise.

Norms, whether you make time to create them or they happen without as much thought, form the basis for group functions. Basically all the following ideas are norms.

2. Have a facilitator! The individual guiding the meeting (NOT leading the meeting) should be focused on drawing out the ideas of the group and making sure the folks at the table listen to each other.

Facilitators should not merely share information, but also ensure a smooth meeting process.

3. Create an agenda! Agendas are structured talking points with meeting outcomes/objectives and suggested times for each section.

Make sure you have an idea of what you need to accomplish since you only have a bit of time during a meeting to get everything done.

4. Take notes and keep track of tasks! Make sure someone takes notes who is not the facilitator (so they can focus on the process) and that they keep track of tasks in a way that is easy for participants to find later (when they look for their tasks from the meeting).

5. Have meetings with varied processes and styles! Meetings should be more than just discussions since folks operate and work in different way so your meetings should too.

For example you could have breakout conversations, places for folks to draw their ideas, sections to move around the room, use games, etc.

6. Decide upon a decision making process! Having a predetermined system (e.g. consensus or majority rules) for making decisions means that the group can agree on a course of action for going forward, without talking back and forth.

Just make sure that your group is not always dominated by a few voices.

7. Set process for having discussion!  Since discussions will be the primary mode of communication during meetings, it is crucial to know how the group will communicate. This can be using hand signals or how the group will contribute ideas or proposals.

For example you can create a norm around raising hands in a “stack” (i.e. having an order of those who raised their hand) or “sparkles”/”spirit fingers” (i.e. silent agreement – to save time by making sure people do not need to raise their hands to say “I agree”).

8. Differentiate between “work” and “decisional/informational” meetings! Everyone does not need to be at each meeting.

Sometimes having a smaller “work” meeting (i.e. getting together to actually accomplish tasks/projects) as opposed to a “decisional/information” meeting (i.e. a place to decide what work needs to be done and any relevant information) can be a great way to jumpstart complex or large tasks/projects.

Also, consider having some meetings being a mix of these different types.

With these main elements in place, any meeting can go from being disruptive/boring to action-oriented/fun!

So what are some ways we can build on these fundamentals? Check out this newly released resource from the AORTA Collective about Anti-Oppressive Facilitation.


5 Empowerment Principles to Instill in Your Organization

I remember a few years ago while talking to a friend and and I said “I’ve never really being an organizer before.” My friend immediately responded “I don’t believe that.”

My friend immediately stopped me and made me think of all the experiences I had organizing people in my past. I realized that throughout my life I have been organizing people, from getting together a group of friends (i.e. coordinating) to asking people questions about what we should do that afternoon (i.e. facilitating).

The actions I had always considered to be just a part of my day, were really the experiences that gave me the skills to organize for change. I always had trouble feeling confident about myself and my role in groups.

Even when I began to work on issue campaigns (e.g. climate change legislation and opposing dominant narratives) and facilitate meetings, I never looked at myself as a “leader” or someone who was organizing others. However, once reminded that I was, and am, an organizer, it was much easier to gain confidence in myself.

Instead of thinking of “empowerment” as something we need to instill in someone, this frame looks to “release” or recognize (as my friend made me realize about my organizing history) the power already inside all of us.


Reframing “Empowerment”


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

While both myself and others I have worked with have aimed to make sure we only provide opportunities for an individual to accentuate their own skills, I know we have fallen for the trap of thinking “I know how I can empower them.”

We need to provide these self-growth chances, but we also have to remember our role is to always show our commitment to the individual and our belief in their current abilities and their potential. We cannot foster paternalistic attitudes that lead us to “know” the best process to help someone grow.

What I’ve learned, after support from many incredible folks who have helped me develop my own confidence and understanding, is that those of us aiming to “release” the power of another individual need to think of ourselves as mutual participants in the process and not as the leaders of the process.

Our path toward “unleashing our potential” involves many elements in our lives such as our community, the world around us, and ourselves. This demonstrates we need numerous entities to foster our self-power, not only those doing “empowerment work.”


5 Principles of True “Empowerment”/Releasing Individual Power


This frame of empowerment, has a whole new slew of opportunities and challenges we must make sure to consider. Below are some ways that other changemakers have sought to work through the complexities of empowerment.

1. Work with individuals and/or communities to develop their capacity

The Community Workers’ Co-operative writes “It is about working with people to enable them to become critical, creative, liberated and active participant in taking more control of the direction of their lives.” This means folks should be developing their own self-managed programs/organizations, instead of being led by the outside.

2. Aid people in increasing their own self-confidence

“Confidence is affected by such conditions as isolation, integration within a social group, level of functioning or degree of independence” notes Jayne Leone. Thus, we have to end stereotypes that continue the perpetuation of discrimination and self-marginalization.

3. Provide opportunities for people to identify their own power

Maintain leadership development programs, trainings, reduce hierarchies and have numerous leadership positions, etc. The Climate Justice League taught me these techniques, which they state as “Give people the space to succeed and grow.”

4. Institute just power relations

Again, the Community Workers’ Co-operative has great thoughts and writes we should be “addressing the unequal distribution of power.” We have to dismantle all forms of injustice that stand in the way of illuminating true empowerment.

5. Implement flexible systems and programs

Recognize that some of the dominant ways of organizing often exclude many groups of people. So we need to be conscientiously designing our organizations to eliminate this exclusion. This means we cannot be tied to one way of doing things especially if it continues institutionalized “isms.”

While I was lucky to have someone who was astute enough to tell me that I’ve always been an organizer in some fashion (after which I really started to take on more challenging projects), not everyone will have the same catalyst for “unleashing” their empowered selves.

Empowerment takes time, thought, and dedication from many different areas of our lives. Often it’s just the realization “I can empower myself” that sparks this change.

What ideas do you have for those involved in empowerment? Leave your thoughts below!


How to Develop Confident Activist Leadership – These 5 Sustainable Ways

“There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less” – Kurt Hahn (20th century experiential educational advocate.)

“Strong people don’t need strong leaders” – Ella Baker (civil rights movement builder and one of the greatest advocates of leadership development in history)

These words exemplify my visions for change. I believe that once someone recognizes their highest potential for themselves, and have the opportunity to express it, then it will facilitate confident and sustained movements.

One of my deepest passions stems from seeing a person’s confidence in themselves grow, which is why I believe understanding leadership development is crucial to making the changes we seek.


Defining leadership development


At its core, leadership development is about showing your commitment to others to build confidence in themselves and their expression of leadership.

Cesar Chavez noted that people learn leadership skills, they are not born with them. He said leaders develop their ability “on the picket line.” Thus, we have to provide opportunities for new leaders to hone their capabilities.

Here are some key characteristics of leadership development:

  • It’s a process, not an end result
  • It has numerous forms and definitions
  • Creates opportunities for others to succeed

We may not know exactly where folks will end up, but by believing in someone’s ability to engage with their leadership potential we foster new pathways for change.


How oppressive institutions limit expression of confident leadership


While I am fortunate to learn about myself everyday and to have dedicated people support me through my journey, there is a huge potential within individuals that our current societal systems suppress and/or fails to encourage.

Too often, people do not have the chance to experience their own potential. Because others may tell them “you won’t be able to do that;” however, once folks are able to make mistakes and learn, these same doubters get to see how well people can succeed once given the opportunity.

At the Applied Research Center’s Facing Race Conference last year, I had many discussions about how many of the U.S.’s institutions view leadership through the prism of U.S. white culture (i.e. the dominant values, acts, and ways of thinking stemming from Western Europe) and masculinity.

Some key assumptions of leadership, as valued by the oppressive institutions of white privilege and male privilege, manifest themselves as the following:

  • Avoiding conflict or anything that is seen as “confrontational”
  • Ability to ignore privilege
  • Listening more closely to those who are assertive/outspoken
  • Demanding “rational” behaviors and dismissing emotional ones
  • Instituting individual/hierarchical leadership over collective leadership
  • Those with privilege are still respected even if they operate outside of the “norms” listed above

I could’ve kept going with this list showing the ways dominant privileges influence our cultural constructions of leadership, but this is a blog post not an anthology.


Principles of just, and sustainable leadership development


While the interest in leadership development has seemed to skyrocket in the past few decades, the practice has been around much longer (e.g. W.E.B. DuBois’ analysis of Black leadership). Below are 5 key principles for sustainable personal growth, that do not focus on dominant narratives of leadership.

Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

1. Build collective leadership (i.e. many leaders with less hierarchy) – The Ella Baker quote from the beginning of this post (“Strong people don’t need strong leaders”) highlights this idea that we should rely on a committed changemaker group, not just a few individuals.

2. Recognize leadership in multiple forms – As noted earlier, oppressive narratives often try to decide who gets to be called a “leader,” so we need to show that we need many types of leaders not just a “monocrop.”

3. Develop intersectional leaders instead of identifying leaders – In Rinku Sen’s incredible organizing book Stir It Up, she describes that instead of just picking out folks who have had the opportunity to express some level of leadership, we need to spend significant time and energy to build activist capacity to fight the “isms” (e.g. sexism, ableism, colonialism).

4. Prepare for leadership rejuvenation – This principle, another great one from Rinku’s book, advocates for putting procedures in place to reduce “burnout” (e.g. rotating work schedule, extended breaks, incorporating mental/physical health into the group’s operations).

5. Expect and push for the best from people – Even if someone doesn’t think they can “be a leader” or achieve something, we must never forget to show our dedication and belief in an individual’s ability to be who they wish to be. Just identify in advance how someone wishes to be “stretched” in their abilities.


Being unwilling to settle for less


For me leadership development gives me energy to build my own confidence.

Although, leadership development can often be challenging and difficult at times, once someone realizes just how much they accomplish then their only course is to strive for their highest potential.

What ways have you seen to foster long-term leadership development? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.