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organizing, mobilizing, and the people’s climate march – a guest post by hahrie han

Hahrie Han (@hahriehan) is an associate professor of political science at Wellesley College. She is a leading expert on political organizations, activism, and civic engagement. Her first book is Moved to Action: Motivation, Participation, and Inequality in American Politics. Her new books discuss the Obama campaign organization and the cultivation of leadership. This guest post draws from her recent work.

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On Sunday, somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 people gathered in New York City for the People’s Climate March—the largest march for climate justice in history and, as Bill McKibben pointed out in one of his tweets following the march, “the largest political gathering about anything in the US in a very very long time. About anything!” How were march organizers able to get so many people engaged in this moment of collective action?

The #PeoplesClimateMarch created a flurry of activity online—a number of different organizations reached out via social media, organizers created and distributed a short movie called “Disruption” to advertise the march, and organizations themselves reached their members via multiple online tools. Although some media has focused on this online activity to explain the success of the march, the real story lies behind the tweets and online posts.

In my recent book, How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century, I asked what explains the difference between organizations that are really good at getting people involved in civic and political action around health and environmental issues and those that are not as good. I found that what differentiated the highest engagement organizations was their ability to blend mobilizing (transactional actions, including many online actions, designed to get as many people as possible to do something) with organizing (transformational work designed to transform people’s capacities for action). Many organizations confuse mobilizing and organizing, but I argue that they are quite different, and have many different implications for activism, democratic theory, and civic engagement (see here and here for a description of the difference between the two).

The highest engagement organizations in my study used mobilizing strategies to reach people at scale, and organizing strategies to develop the leaders they needed who could do that outreach. The math is simple: the more people there are mobilizing their own personal networks to take action, the more likely the organization is to achieve scale. How do you develop leaders who have the willingness and skills to mobilize their networks? Organizing. Distributing leadership through organizing, in other words, was their secret to mobilizing at scale, and achieving wins like what we saw with the People’s Climate March.

Consider Phil, for instance, an environmental organizer profiled in my book (note that all the names used here are pseudonyms). He was responsible for organizing a statewide conference with the goal of bringing several thousand people together around a campaign to pressure the state legislature. At first, he tried to do the work alone—but quickly realized there was no way he could generate the kind of attendance they wanted if he worked alone. So he recruited a group of volunteer leaders to be part of the steering committee of the conference. Each of those volunteers recruited their friends to head up committees and subcommittees. Each committee chair was responsible for recruiting people to be part of her team. In the end, there was a group of about 100 volunteers responsible for planning the conference. Phil’s job was not to mobilize several thousand people, but instead to support and coach the volunteer leaders who were doing the mobilizing. By using organizing to build a structure of distributed leadership, Phil was able to mobilize at scale.

Despite evidence demonstrating the power of community organizing, many organizations choose not to do it because it’s too hard. Unlike mobilizing, organizing can be extremely time-consuming and resource intensive. It is always easier to craft a well-target email to send to a wide network than it is to have an agitational conversation with a new volunteer. The thing that organizations making this choice miss, however, is the fact that mobilizing becomes easier if they organize. This is a lesson that climate justice organizers learned over the years and put to good use in planning the People’s Climate March.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

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Written by fabiorojas

September 24, 2014 at 12:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. With 60 BILLION food animals on the planet, this should be our first step in the Climate March!
    http://meatonomics.com/

    “As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?”

    “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains… the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.” Environmental Defense Fund

    “A 1% reduction in world-wide meat intake has the same benefit as a three trillion-dollar investment in solar energy.” ~ Chris Mentzel, CEO of Clean Energy

    There is one single industry destroying the planet more than any other. But no one wants to talk about it… http://cowspiracy.com

    Step by Step Guide: How to Transition to a Vegan Diet http://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/step-by-step-guide-how-to-transition-to-vegan-diet/

    Like

    JC

    September 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm

  2. In terms of mobilizing people, maybe the march was a win but what about in terms of climate change? Was the People’s Climate March a win or was it just another large march in New York City? What does social movement literature say? If we look at the use of marches and protests in other movements should we expect this march to have much of an impact in terms of climate change policy? Are there better mobilization alternatives to a march?

    Like

    chris eberhardt

    September 26, 2014 at 3:07 pm


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