Groups and Movements
Many activists are members of groups, which can be small or large, local or global. By operating in groups, activists gain several advantages. They can undertake larger tasks, such as organizing a city-wide campaign. They can benefit from specialization, such as when one person responds to queries, another sets up a website, another handles memberships, and yet another talks to the media.
Another vital function of groups is to provide mutual support. Many activists lose heart or burn out through constant struggle and slow progress. Working with others can give a feeling of solidarity and often leads to lasting friendships.
Most people who join activist groups do so because they are invited by someone already involved. Groups serve personal and social purposes as well as getting tasks done.
A century ago, nearly all activist groups operated face-to-face, with coordination between groups via visits, the postal system, and public notices. The telephone allowed rapid coordination across greater distances and the Internet has made it much easier to coordinate globally.
Activist groups, like groups of any kind, from families to corporations, can have problems, including miscommunication, personal animosities, and power struggles. Getting group members to work well together is vital. Skills like listening, summarizing, and conflict resolution are called maintenance functions, whereas skills for undertaking action outside the group are called task functions.
Many small activist groups are made up entirely of volunteers. Large groups often have some paid staff plus many volunteers. International activist organizations like Amnesty International or Friends of the Earth are made up of numerous local groups, with some paid staff in national or international offices.
Paid activists seldom receive a large salary, though there are exceptions. Because they are committed to a cause, activists are often willing to work at much lower wages than if they took a conventional job. The term “professional activist” can apply to a paid staff member but also – sometime pejoratively – to volunteers who spend so much time doing activism that they are as experienced as a full-time worker.
The easiest way to learn how to be an activist is to join a group and become involved. There are few courses in educational institutions about activism, and even fewer teaching in practical skills. Some activist groups run training sessions for their members and others, but most learning occurs on a person-to-person basis, through direct instruction, learning by imitation, and learning by doing. This is supplemented by manuals on community organizing, campaigning, nonviolent action, and other skills, with an ever-growing amount of material available online.
Groups are the main way that activists are organized to get tasks done. In many cases, groups are part of what is called a social movement. A social movement typically includes many groups and individuals acting towards a common goal to change society in a particular way. A movement is broader than any single organization and it has a broader, less precise vision than most groups.
The peace movement, for example, includes a wide variety of groups, including local groups campaigning on a single issue such as against a particular war, national groups with an agenda such as nuclear disarmament, professional networks such as Physicians for Social Responsibility, and international organizations such as War Resisters’ International. The peace movement also contains a diversity of general themes, such as opposition to wars and inhumane weapons.
Within any movement, there can be many different beliefs and emphases. Some people and groups in the peace movement oppose any involvement in war or war-making, whereas others are primarily concerned about nuclear weapons, land mines, or a particular war.
Other social movements include the labor, feminist, environmental, gay and lesbian, animal rights, and disability movements. Movements provide an important context for activism in several ways. They constitute a network of individuals and groups that is a source of communication, advice and inspiration. They provide a learning environment, with activists drawing on the experience of other groups to find out what works. And they provide a framework or perspective for understanding society, its problems, possible futures, and ways of bringing about change. This framework, or belief system, develops out of the experience of activists, combined with the ideas of writers and leaders, some who are part of the movement and some who are largely independent of it.
For example, the feminist movement has supported activism through the network of individuals and groups, has fostered learning about tactics, and has offered an understanding of the problem of patriarchy through women sharing their experience and through feminist writers presenting ideas that illuminate and inspire their readers.
Most movements have activist and non-activist aspects. The feminist movement, for example, has included plenty of activism, including confrontation and noncooperation with sexist practices. There are also many important parts of the movement that are less activist or non-activist. Women’s consciousness raising groups – in which women share their experiences – were a key part of the second wave of the western feminist movement, starting in the 1960s, but most of these groups did not engage in action. Similarly, liberal feminists who operated through the system by pushing for equal opportunity laws and procedures were at the less activist end of the spectrum, as were those who put all their energy into feminist scholarship.
This again raises the issue of the boundaries of what is called activism. Someone working on a campaign might spend time listening to the news, reading and sending e-mails, phoning others, participating in a meeting, and writing a grant proposal. None of this is out in public, such as joining a rally or blockade, but it is all an essential part of what makes such public events possible. It is useful to distinguish between “direct action” or “front-line action,” in which people are putting their bodies on the line, and support work, which is usually behind the scenes. Without the support work, the front-line action could hardly occur. This is analogous to military forces: only a few troops are engaged in fighting, with vastly more personnel involved in accounts, cooking, maintenance, and a host of other support activities.
Those involved in behind-the-scenes work, in support of a cause, can either be called activists or supporters or members of an activist group or movement. This is a matter of definition but has a wider significance. For many people who are concerned about the world’s problems, and especially in social movement groups, there is status in being called an activist. This can lead to a valuing of dramatic and visible direct action and a corresponding devaluation of routine, less visible activity such as answering correspondence or handling accounts. On the other hand, some people who take action do not think of themselves as activists: in their minds, they are simply doing what is necessary to address a pressing problem.
It is useful to think of an ecology of activism, in which a flower or fruit can only exist with the support of nutrients, roots, stems, pollinators, and sunlight. Analogously, effective direct action depends on prior learning, supportive group members, resources (including funds), and communication. Many people can contribute to making activism effective without necessarily being activists themselves: financial contributors, resource people, teachers, supportive friends and family members, and journalists, among others.
There are some activists who operate on their own, largely or entirely independent of groups. They might produce their own leaflets and hold a single-person vigil outside an office. Such individuals, if campaigning on a relevant issue, could be considered part of a social movement. A few such individual activists take up issues that no one else is concerned about. Most activists find it much easier to be part of a group, but this is not an obligation!