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Building Movements by Divya Kumaraiah movement beeck center social impact

To Build a Movement

April 18th, 2017 | Divya Kumaraiah

Movements are not spontaneous.

Building a movement takes work. As a student of collective power, a community organizer, a business leader in user engagement, and a shaper of public policy, I’ve spent my professional life working within, around, and for movements. The “M” word, as it’s called in my home, is not something I take lightly.

But it is a word that nearly every nonprofit, organization, company, and protest uses to inspire and motivate supporters and employees. So really, beyond just saying the word itself, what does it take to build a movement?

The first ingredient is capacity building.

Movements are not spontaneous. They require planning and capacity. Many massive protests that might appear to have “sprung up” overnight, like Black Lives Matter and Pantsuit Nation, were founded on months, even years, of painstaking work from the same or related groups. A protest is purposefully just one piece of that work. Efforts that consist only in the form of a protest, without focused and deliberate work on the front end, often don’t end up achieving the outcomes they initially sought, as sociologist and associate professor at the University of North Carolina Zeynep Tufekci describes in her TED talk.

My mentor Marshall Ganz, senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and long time activist, has spent decades teaching students the foundations of organizing. Capacity building — through relationship building, leadership development, and physical and digital infrastructure — are essential to organizing and driving social change. Without this, there is no institutional knowledge and no lasting capacity to withstand the uncertainty, inevitable setbacks, and difficult consensus — all of which come social change. People drive change, and people need training and support.

When investing in capacity building, it is important to support both bonding and bridging. Bonding strengthens ties within a group, and bridging builds ties between different groups. Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, introduces this framework in his bestselling book Bowling Alone. In movement building, developing strong relationships within a group, while also collaborating across groups is critical. Movements will only be successful if they grow beyond those who started them.

The second ingredient is the brand.

As a young community organizer, I believed that being “in the field” was the most important role on a campaign. Now, working in business, I have come to appreciate the added value of a clear narrative to further outreach efforts. Without a unifying, inspiring, and authentic narrative that has broad reach, which is what a good brand is, the work of community organizing stretches only as far as the people you touch. The 2008 Obama campaign, one which I’m proud to have worked on, proved the power of a strong narrative, a powerful brand, and a clean, inspiring logo. (Yes, a logo. Images can have reach too.) The #NoDAPL campaign, started in 2016 and led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, used powerful imagery, along with effective organizing, to spread it’s message.

Companies can also demonstrate values-driven narratives. Google, now Alphabet, had the motto “don’t be evil” and recently changed it to “do the right thing.” Simple and clear, this motto is a north star for employees and decision making. A brand can both get a message out and bring in new supporters and participants in ways that relying only on people power cannot.

The third ingredient is public attention.

Public attention is an accelerant. Even more than a strong brand, public attention can catapult a strong ground effort and story to reach new communities, educate stakeholders, and captivate new supporters. Strong communication, media, and digital strategies are critical for a movement’s growth and sustainability.

In 2009, the conservative Tea Party movement leveraged broadcast media coverage to quickly grow and activate its base to not only stand against President Obama’s legislative agenda, but also support a number of successful candidates for office. Analogously, in 2015, REI leveraged social media to launch its “Opt Outside” campaign the day after Thanksgiving, often the busiest shopping day of the year, when it closed all retail locations and paid employees to be outside. The campaign was so successful that it continues on today, with REI acting as the “celebrant rather than celebrity of its community.” With a strong foundation and clear narrative, attracting media spanning print, broadcast, social, and digital forms can spread a message far.

The fourth, and most important ingredient, is shifting power.

Movements are fundamentally about shifting power to achieve an outcome. Often that entails shifting political power, as with the Suffragette movementin the 1920s that demanded women the right to vote, the Marriage Equality movement in the 2000s that demanded legal recognition of same-sex marriage, and the Civil Rights Movement, which began in the 1950s and continues today, fighting to end racial segregation and discrimination. It can also mean shifting economic power, as with the Farmworkers movement in 1960s that fought for fair pay and worker’s right, and the Equal Pay movement that began in the 1950s and continues today, fighting for women to be paid the same as men for equal work. Or it can be shifting social power, as with the Black Power movement and the second wave of feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

This being said, political power, economic power, and social power are often intertwined, and shifting any one often requires shifting the others as well. Successful movements define a clear outcome and build the stakeholders, capacity, awareness, and recognition to shift systemic power in order to achieve the desired outcome.

Let’s get to work.

Movements are incredibly powerful. Through the work of capacity building, a strong brand, public attention, and shifting power, they can create lasting change. As fellow students, organizers, business leaders, and policy makers, what movements are you a part of, and what work do you see left do to?

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