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.
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.
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