Let’s say you’re passionate about fighting climate change. You form a local group to work for a national reduction in carbon emissions. You write letters to congress, hand out leaflets to raise public awareness and organize demonstrations in your town.
Meanwhile, more climate-change deniers are elected, coalmines reopened and auto fuel-efficiency standards relaxed. Despite your hard work, membership in your little group gradually wanes to just a few hardcore activists. Everyone still believes in the cause, but it just doesn’t seem worth it. Your group members are so consumed with their hectic, everyday lives—what’s the point in tilting at windmills? In their heart of hearts they suspect they can’t make much of a difference and nothing will change anyway. It’s hard to keep people engaged when the goals are ambitious and achieving them seems such a long way off.
In his book Blueprint for Revolution1 Srdja Popovic has some advice for you on how to build a movement: start small. Choose an initial issue that is tangible, relatable and winnable.
Popovic was one of the principles in Otpor, the group that was instrumental in ousting Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. A few years later Popovic and others formed CANVAS, an organization that advises activists around the world how to build more effective resistance campaigns.
Popovic recommends finding out what ordinary people really care about and using that as a guide for which battles to start with. Lets face it—many of your fellow citizens are mostly apathetic and self-absorbed. It’s hard for them to work up much passion for grandiose, abstract goals like peace, freedom or slowing climate change. But if you can find a local issue that affects their lives directly, they may be more prone to get involved. This may mean pursuing your goal obliquely, at least in the beginning. Ideological purity is nice, but you won’t win unless you have a lot of popular backing. That’s not to say you give up on your broader goals. It means breaking your campaign into small, achievable steps.
When you celebrate a victory, no matter how insignificant, it gives people hope and makes them think your group knows what it’s doing. Success breeds success. People want to be a part of successful endeavors.
The principle of starting out small and addressing specific local issues applies equally to movements in democratic and authoritarian societies. One of Otpor’s founders, Ivan Marovic, explained in an interview how the group grew its provincial membership in Serbia to build a national resistance campaign against the Milosevic dictatorship:
“’What we had to do is to show with our personal example, through small victories, that progress is possible.’ By working on a local and regional level to publicize and solve civic-minded problems such as lack of electricity or a corrupt mayor, Otpor convinced Serbians that the movement could be effective. Moreover, Marovic explained, ‘People started connecting these local problems with the overall problem, which was the Milosevic regime. So [while] we gave visibility to these local problems, these local problems also gave visibility to the overall struggle.’”2
Arab Spring activists trying to overthrow Mubarak in Egypt came to a similar conclusion. Political freedom might have been the lofty goal, but they discovered big movements are built on small victories. In an interview Mohammed Adel, one of the leaders of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, talked about the importance of picking concrete, achievable goals:
“When we demonstrated for political change in Egypt, we were arrested and tear-gassed all the time. Labour movements protest about bread-and-butter issues and get concessions from the government. We wanted to choose the right battles—the ones we can win, as the labour movement does…”3
Another example of using everyday grievances as a stepping-stone to more ambitious goals comes from South Africa. Over the years people in the racially segregated black townships had been subjected to horrific violent repression from the white minority government and as a result were fearful of getting involved in any political resistance. During a conference on nonviolent sanctions in 1990 Patrick Lekota of the United Democratic Front explained the necessity of bringing people along slowly:
“And so it became very important that we begin the campaign at the level at which their psychological capacity would allow them to be willing to risk something. We had to calculate carefully that every campaign that we were going to take on not be too heavy on them. It had to be equal to their psychological preparedness. And we had to make sure that each campaign, each step that was taken would yield some kind of positive result, because each positive result in fact reinforces the little preparedness we had at the beginning…”4
In the early 1980’s voluntary associations called “civics” proliferated in townships throughout South Africa. The civics, which eventually became a potent weapon in the struggle against apartheid, initially avoided traditional political resistance and instead addressed the daily problems that directly affected people’s lives. Lekota continues:
“The initial formations were the civics, the Soweto Civic Association, for instance, which would pick up the issue that there is no water, or that there is not sufficient electricity. The word ‘politics’ had to stay out of it. So the word that became very popular in our circles around this time became the word ‘issue,’ or . . . ‘day to day issues.’ People can afford to say ‘the government must give us more water,’ and feel that they are not talking politics. They are prepared to say ‘the rents are too high and that we think the rents should not go so high,’ and they don’t feel that it is politics that they are talking. And in any event the risks involved are not so vast. We needed to start from there so we set up civics….
We actually did have a long-term objective, but that long-term objective, like a book which is being written, had to be broken into small chapters. People read a book better when they know that they read this chapter after that one. But if you were to write it without chapters and they must read it straight through from start to finish, it gets discouraging. People like to read a little bit at a time, and they know that they can start here and end there. Then they feel a sense of achievement; they’ve finished a chapter.”5
So even if you have ambitious goals, there seem to be several advantages to starting with a small, local battle:
- You have a better chance of winning a more limited campaign, demonstrating your competence to potential supporters and giving them hope that things can change.
- By addressing local, everyday problems that people really care about, you can engage more people in your struggle and grow your movement. Otpor worked in Serbian villages on problems like corruption and the lack of electricity, while the civic organizations in South Africa initially addressed “day-to-day issues” like water shortages and high rents.
- People may begin to see connections between their local issues and the broader struggle. As Ivan Marovic pointed out, in Serbia villagers came to see Milosevic as the true source of their problems.
- In environments of severe repression, limited campaigns can be carried out with less risk, encouraging greater participation. This was the approach used in South Africa by the United Democratic Front to nudge people toward a more aggressive challenge to apartheid.
- As also demonstrated by the South African example, the baby-step approach can give people confidence and a feeling of accomplishment as they successfully complete each “chapter” in the larger struggle.
So how does all this apply to your climate justice group? Instead of staging local demonstrations aimed at influencing national or international policies, start by targeting the policies of your city council. Or, develop a campaign to stop the drilling of a proposed oil well in your town. Get your university to divest from fossil fuel companies. Resist the building of a highway extension. Agitate for more public transit.
That’s not to say any of these objectives are easily achieved. It still takes hard work and careful planning. But with a tangible goal and a reasonable chance of short-term success, your fellow activists will be more likely to stay enthusiastic and engaged. And along the way they might gain the skills, confidence and increased popular support to tackle more ambitious goals.
For a real-life example of picking a specific, winnable goal, see this story by George Lakey: Targets matter—why a small action group took on a mighty bank (and won).
Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
- Srdja Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015)
- “The Year Life Won in Serbia: The Otpor Movement Against Milosevic,” Tavaana, accessed April 10. 2017, https://tavaana.org/en/content/year-life-won-serbia-otpor-movement-against-milosevic-0#_ednref14.
- “A Velvet Fist,” Intelligent Life Magazine, accessed September 2, 2012, http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ideas/a-velvet-fist.
- Patrick Lekota, “The Anti-Apartheid Struggle in South Africa,” Nonviolent Sanctions (Spring/Summer 1990): 12.
- Ibid., 13.