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!