Making Activism Work. (Government)

The Futurist, May 2002 | Go to article overview
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Making Activism Work. (Government)


Social activists in the twenty-first century are beginning to focus on a sweeping goal: to create "a new era of ecology, justice, and sustainability," according to social organizer and theorist Bill Moyer. But the activists' efforts could fall short unless they can appeal to the mainstream citizenry.

"Activists will be successful only to the extent that they can convince the great majority of people that the movement, not the elite powerholders, truly represents society's positive and widely held values and sensibilities," writes Moyer in Doing Democracy, a book designed to help activists organize more effectively.

Moyer contends that social movements are not rare fringe events and their advocates are not rebels and misfits. Instead, nonviolent social action is crucial to society's evolution. The abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and the civil-rights movement accomplished important social goals, and they promoted participatory democracy.

But it takes more than the strong convictions of true believers for a social movement to succeed. Activists must learn how to plan their activities, execute their plans, and evaluate the results. They must also be prepared to fend off feelings of failure and powerlessness when they encounter setbacks. What many social activists have lacked is a map to guide their efforts, according to Moyer.

Moyer has developed an analytical model called MAP--movement action plan--for organizing activist efforts. The plan outlines the key stages that social movements have in common, including a period of ripening conditions for change, a take-off stage in which an issue is put on the nation's social agenda, a period of failure or setback, and a breakthrough in which a majority of mainstream citizens and institutions begin to address a given problem.

For example, breast-cancer activists were able to secure U.S. congressional approval of increased funding for breast-cancer research during the 1990s. That seemingly rapid success was in fact built on early-stage efforts of activists to prove the failure of existing institutions to address women's health and reproductive rights issues (1973-1986) and reflected a period of ripening conditions for change in which local activist groups began to focus on women with cancer (1986-1991).

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