#4, March 2020
From Mobilization to Deployment
Four questions to Tom Liacas, networked advocacy specialist and Senior Strategist at NetChange Consulting.
By Florence Sara G. Ferraris.
Harnessing a collective feeling of being fed up, grassroots movements quickly deploy outstanding power, which can be very potent when channelled properly.
Raccords: There’s no denying the scale certain grassroots movements have reached over the last decade. In light of these events, should we prioritize leveraging these campaigns to accelerate social change?
Tom Liacas: Absolutely! What we realize when we take a look at communication strategies is that these grassroots movements have a power of mobilization far beyond that of more traditional campaigns, which have a clear agenda and well-defined target audience, set up by trade unions, for example, or non-governmental organizations like Greenpeace or Save the Children.
Conversely, grassroots movements are more organic. They are strong, but disorganized, social responses to injustice or critical societal issues. They bring together angry people speaking to other angry people. They give a voice to marginalized groups, like racialized people, women, and people living in poverty, who would otherwise have a hard time finding each other in the public sphere. Think about the sexually assaulted women involved in the #MeToo movement, or the spontaneous protests organized in reaction to police violence against black communities in the United States (Black Lives Matter). When you manage to catalyze this rage, you can succeed in penetrating the political sphere, and thus shake up established frameworks!
The anger behind the Black Lives Matter movement, once organized, led to the election of prosecutors who are sensitive to the rights of African-Americans. And we saw just about the same thing happen with Fight for $15 in the early 2010s. Except in that case, the call to action came from a trade union—so from an already-organized structure—which didn’t prevent it from filtering through to the grassroots and, in the end, translating into a minimum wage increase in more than 20 American states.
What are the constraints and limits faced by grassroots campaigns that arise out of mass movements?
Paradoxically, the strength of these campaigns is also one of their major limitations. Hear me out: Grassroots movements draw their energy from the masses; they are anchored in anger and a vague feeling of injustice that transcends physical and social barriers. They come out of a collective sense of being fed up, which, all of a sudden, is set in motion. It’s very powerful!
While fundamentally horizontal and supported by a critical mass of people, they are nonetheless usually poorly organized. Occupy Wall Street, whose actions multiplied all over the world, always worked in a very collegial manner, for the purposes of allowing every participant to have a say. It’s commendable, but this lack of a clear structure can prevent action being taken. And after a while, the anger needs to be transposed into a coherent message that will have the power to bring about real change, namely when it comes to elected officials and the authorities. Eventually, by pointing in all directions, you can no longer choose where you want to go, and you witness a slow demobilizing of the troops: the initial momentum evaporates. In the case of Occupy, it doesn’t mean, however, that the movement wasn’t fruitful; quite the opposite, in fact! The movement managed to formulate the income gap issue in a way that resonated with a wide swath of the population, media discourse, and among elected officials, in a lasting manner. And still today, there are hundreds among those who earned their first stripes in the Occupy camps who continue to be mobilized for other causes, other movements.
Moreover, by nature, the emergence of these movements is completely unpredictable. They arise out of multiple factors, and even more so from the passage of time, from accumulating frustration. Yet for someone working or fighting actively for social change, it can be hard to keep waiting for a wave to gain traction. That’s why people get involved in politics or decide to campaign within established organizations: because even if change takes longer to materialize, immediate action is more enabling than waiting. And actually, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of these day-to-day activists, whose actions, even if they occur in the shadows, raise awareness and bring people together, mobilize players and resources, until the emergence of the movements that reach their climax in the media and in the street.
Then again, it’s clear that each time social change is brought about—regardless of its nature—the ones who benefit from the status quo in their daily lives feel penalized and lash out. The negative reactions provoked by grassroots movements shouldn’t colour how we look at them. Take the black Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s: do you really think the majority of the population and leaders saw it in a positive light? Yet today, there are very few people who would dare say this resistance was enough of a reason to stop the fight for greater racial justice.
How can we make sure the attitude changes demanded by a movement spill over and find a lasting anchor within the general population and our institutions?
At some point, these movements need to be able to structure themselves; failing that, channeling the energy of the masses into concrete action, like getting young people to vote, becomes difficult. It can happen, among other ways, by accepting a form of leadership found more often in traditional communication campaigns. And it’s actually at that stage that bridges can be made between campaigns generated by grassroots mobilizations and more classical communication strategies. To that end, distributed leadership structures, which allow the framing of the message delivered by the troops without robbing the activists of the power to adapt their means of action and scale of intervention, are a good example of hybrid organizational models. Once the movement’s framework is properly articulated, nothing prevents it from resorting to traditional strategies like political targeting, door-to-door canvassing, or the online posting of a petition as part of its campaign.
The mobilization happening around the climate crisis is a good illustration of this evolution. Driven by young people who were eventually pushed aside, it took a more organized turn last fall, whether via the Sunrise Movement in the United States, which was pushing for the adoption of the Green New Deal, or the Our Time campaign in Canada, which, during the most recent federal election campaign, was aiming for the election of MPs who were sensitive to those issues. In both cases, there is clearly an exchange between the grassroots mobilization and more structured organizations for more defined political purposes. And that’s where we can see that both approaches feed each other; through how they strike, but also through the players that are mobilized. I’ve already mentioned the “children of Occupy”, but in Québec we see the same thing with the student activists of the Maple Spring who now campaign within the Québec Solidaire party.
Moreover, we tend to believe that to drive things forward, we constantly need to rally new people to our cause; yet, even if thousands of us claim to be worried about climate change and recognize the urgent need to act, it will never be enough if words aren’t followed by deeds. We even realize that it’s sometimes better to be fewer, but to be ready for concrete action, to change how we do things, to upset the way things are. There comes a moment when we need to get our hands dirty. And that sometimes involves adjusting our behaviours to the needs of the cause.
Over the coming years, how do you think mobilizing communication strategies are going to evolve?
Networking strategies based on digital platforms or personalized peer-to-peer communications, which borrow their methods and vocabulary from grassroots movements, are still in their infancy. And actually, it’s to help them flourish that I created the Blueprints for Change project two years ago. Halfway between social network and open-source sharing library, this platform enabled hundreds of campaigners to share their work tools and strategies, to learn from other activists, and to form alliances.
In this way, the platform thus also acts a bit like a bridge between grassroots movements and structured campaigns. Among other things, because the campaigners behind the project often have, like me, an activist background—their work is thus driven by a deep desire for change above all else. We are part of those who cut our teeth within these movements and who, rather than wait for the next mobilization, decided to integrate established structures to better reform them.