Rewriting the rules for inspiring social change

From March for Our Lives to the Movement of Black Lives, the leaders of today’s movements—young, unpretentious, unapologetic—are rewriting the rules for inspiring social change at a time when traditional strategies are proving to be not nearly enough.

Is this the dawn of a new kind of organizing and campaigning?

In short, yes. And the March for Our Lives movement is only one example. From the Movement for Black Lives and to the Women’s March and the tea party, a new wave of people-powered action is flipping the script and in some ways confounding traditional organizations that have been unable to convert into nimble social movements.

What all have in common is what authors Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms are calling “new power”—new models that are organic and grow directly from the people rather than being directed or managed by formal organizations that control what gets done and by whom.

“Old power models ask of us only that we comply (pay your taxes, do your homework) or consume,” they write. “New power models demand and allow for more: that we share ideas, create new content (as on YouTube) or assets (as on Etsy), even shape a community (think of the sprawling digital movements resisting the Trump presidency).”

Today, new movements are working with more established organizations to capitalize on their wide-reaching networks. And they are learning to embrace the kinds of technologically savvy tactics used by the Parkland students. Here are five strategies that are proving valuable.

Ditch the script

Seasoned campaigners have long understood that the most effective messengers and organizers are those with the most at stake, or—like the Parkland students—little to lose. Those most directly affected by an issue can speak from the heart, while many campaigners and advocates sound scripted when they cite statistics or the latest study to make their points.

Soon after taking the stage at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., Parkland and speaking for two minutes, senior Emma González went silent. After standing wordlessly at the podium for another four minutes and 26 seconds, she informed the crowd that her entire six minute and 20 second speech had lasted the same amount of time as she and her classmates had endured an active shooter.

She captured attention not only by speaking from the heart, but by showing rather than telling. González and her fellow student leaders are compelling to us because they have what Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, says are the three critical elements of  good stories: (1) compelling characters, (2) characters who have overcome obstacles, and (3) characters who have achieved a worthy outcome.

…The bottom line: Transformative social change is going to come from organizations that see people as change agents, not just cheerleaders or foot soldiers carrying out plans designed by those “in charge.”

The most effective social change organizations understand that as technology moves everything to warp speed, the ability to respond rapidly and nimbly matters more than ever before.

The key to such agility? Agreeing on an overarching vision and message. This provides team members with the autonomy needed to respond quickly and creatively when opportunities arise.

Dream big to go big

In one of the most viewed TED talks of all time, behavioral researcher and author Simon Sinek uses Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech to explain why a big, bold idea is a key element of movement building and social change.

“He gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, not the ‘I Have a Plan’ speech,” Sinek says. “He spoke for a different world, how to go from here to there. And he so beautifully described what ‘there’ is.”

King’s vision of a positive future mobilized a quarter of a million people to make the trek to Washington, D.C. (long before the internet). The Parkland students inspired over a million to stand up against gun violencein Washington and cities across the U.S. And March for Our Lives inspired an even bigger nationwide school walkout to keep up pressure on politicians and continue building local power.

Adopting a movement mindset

Could your organization pull off a national march in five weeks? Without any infrastructure or paid staff? With little financial support? And while leaders are still reeling from major trauma?

A lot of people told the Parkland students that what they were attempting was impossible. Luckily, they ignored the concerns because they weren’t fixating on what they didn’t have. Instead, they had a “movement mindset” that allowed them to focus on creatively and efficiently using the resources they did have.

Organizations of all sizes are discovering that they can take a page from social movements and find ways to act before everything is in place or completely figured out. Through participatory planning, rapid audience testing, and real-time ongoing improvements, organizations are developing initiatives that can be successful in rapidly shifting and unpredictable contexts. In short, the perfect is no longer the enemy of the good.

Correction: October 19, 2018.
This version updates the full length of Emma González’s March for Our Lives speech.