A Social Change Booklist

Photo: Abhi Sharma via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Abhi Sharma via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I’ve been asked a few times about the books I’ve read that shape my thinking about social change. Everytime I think about it, I’m always amazed by how much these books influenced my own views over these past few years!

Below is my short list of my top 6 books for social change. In the comments, make sure to leave your favorite books or if you have thoughts on these books!


Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy by Rinku Sen


If you’ve been following Organizing Change, you know I’ve mentioned Rinku Sen and this book a few times (e.g. her ideas on long-lasting movements, leadership development, the importance of a values-based ideology, and organizational development).

Rinku Sen’s perspective is the perfect framework for the 21st century, as opposed to relying on the previous Alinsky-tradition. Her analysis demonstrates the need for cross-issue strategies and pushing for long-term culture change over shorter-term victories.

To me the critical message and sentence from the book is that those pushing for social change need to start “increasing our organizing among the people affected and then addressing their issues with sustained campaigns and the addition of research and media capacity.

While the book is laid out a bit more densely than something like Organizing for Social Change (described below), you will find the core skills and analysis we need to make concrete and impactful results through strategic organizing.


Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision by George Lakoff


This is a great addition to George Lakoff’s other book on values-based framing. Don’t Think of an Elephant.

This book builds on those framing discussions and really delves into how we can create a long-term and resilient strategy for creating a positive progressive future.

George Lakoff looks at effective ways to communicate our vision and values that truly represent what we believe and avoiding deceptive/poor tactics and phrasing. He also describes, and gives detailed examples for, the need for cross-issue campaigns (which he calls “Strategic Initiatives”).

It’s a short read, but packed with the essentials on how to authentically communicate for the common-good.


De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century by Elizabeth Martínez


When I first picked up this book, I had no idea how much it would fundamentally influence my efforts here on Organizing Change.

Elizabeth Martínez’s book has not got nearly the attention it deserves. This description of progressive activism and history in the 20th century highlights key movements, while at the same time offering wisdom on better strategies we can take in this century.

For example, Elizabeth Martínez notes that the aversion to incorporating spirituality in leftist circles “has opened the door wide to right-wing manipulation of spiritual hunger.” She offers as a counter, that we should be allowing room for faith and other affirmations of the heart instead of suppressing these essential parts of ourselves.

So if you’re looking to learn from past social change organizing and how we can grow/shift these efforts, then check out this incredible book!


Organizing for Social Change by Midwest Academy


This manual is perfect for understanding the fundamentals and advanced practices of organizers in any field.

The Midwest Academy’s book offers an in-depth look at tactics, meeting with decisionmakers, coalitions, recruiting, leadership development, etc.

Once I combined this book with Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up (which has a bit more analysis of intersectionality/power dynamics), I felt like I had the essential knowledge to take on any organizing situation.


The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein


I wrote more in-depth about this book and its implications in my post The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism; however, I think it is critically important to understand how our organizing connects to global structures.

I know I get caught up in a few issues from time to time, but Naomi Klein demonstrates how neoliberalism is a force impacting pretty much everything.

Also, if you read this book and some of the ideas listed in my post above you’ll have a clear idea of some real steps we can take to preventing the spread of the neoliberal ideology and creating a more positive economic framework.

If you like history and detailed journalism, you’ll love this book! If not, well then maybe you can skim a few of the 720 pages!


The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE!


INCITE!’s book on the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC) was truly groundbreaking since it was one of the first attempts to gather a range of perspectives on why nonprofits (as a system) were not achieving the desired aims.

Here are a few of the main points I took away from this book:

  • Nonprofits now focus most on providing social services, not social change, because that would mean challenging those institutions in power (e.g. government, business, and foundations)
  • Activism cannot be simply “a career,” we must find ways to integrate into our lives
  • Nonprofits often siphon away activists to just become “part of the system,” instead of challenging it to change
  • Foundations and government agencies strived to use the structure of current nonprofits to create/maintain control over social movements/social change work (i.e. so grassroots movements wouldn’t get “antagonistic”/”disruptive”)

Even if you don’t work in a nonprofit, you’ll still should be acquainted with this anthology since its analysis hits on all areas of society.


2 EXTRAS!!! For community organizers!


Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing by DeFilippis, Fisher, and Shragge


A must-read if you’re involved in community organizing. It lays out some of the main faults of most community organizing (e.g. being non-ideological and resisting connecting local work to national or international efforts), while also presenting some ways for improvement (e.g. pushing for long-term social change and understanding the limits of community organizing).

While it leans toward the heavy-duty academic side, you’re definitely going to want to check out this book.


Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group by John Atlas


The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was a highly impactful anti-poverty organization and one of the most proactive groups to ever organize.

This book looks at how ACORN structured itself, the organizing practices it advocated, and the ways in which it was unprepared for deceptive opposition.

It’s going to be crucial to remember the lessons from ACORN if we’re going to develop something at an even more advanced stage.

This is my list of the social change “must-read” books. Leave a comment below of the books that you find essential!


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!