THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (Part II)

In the two weeks since I posted Part I, discussing the role of mass movement in creating the political space for issue-oriented advocacy, some of the Occupy Wall Street groups have begun digging in for the long haul by setting up systems and expelling troublemakers (something the New Left should have done before the FBI infiltrators led the way into violence).  At the same time, right wing commentators have begun trying to paint them as hooligans, if not agents of the devil.  (As usual, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby places himself at the bottom of the pig pen by asserting both – see “A Sinful ‘Occupation’” from 11/2/11.)

But no matter what happens to the Occupiers – whether they dribble out over the winter or explode into civil disobedience demonstrations – they have opened the door for more.  It may be less open-ended or idealistic, but the next phase will be translating the Occupy vision into a series of specific demands, then turning those into systemic reforms at both the policy and operational levels.  And accomplishing that will require sustained, organized effort – meaning strong, sophisticated organizations.

Advocacy requires developing the political will for government (or other key groups) to act in the desired manner, helping public agencies acquire the technical capacity to plan and implement the action, and then mobilizing public support behind the vision and program.  This doesn’t happen just because it ought to.  It takes slow, careful, exhausting work.

So this installment, Part II, describes the other two prime directives of social change – creating sustainable organizations and winning long-lasting, institutional reforms.


Institutional Reform

Short of the collapse of old institutions, the exile of former elites, and the often widespread suffering that occurs during a revolutionary break with the past, the end result of mass movements is reform.  The bigger the movement and the weaker the control of elites the more significant the reforms that can be won.

But even in quiet times it is possible to secure some victories.  In previous posts I have written that advocacy is a combination of “protest and partnership.”   First, the protest — being seen by officials as having the ability to disrupt “business as usual” or gain media attention or simply “create waves.”  Then the partnership – being able to act like a reasonable (even if persistent) negotiating partner with meaningful data or technically smart ideas. It is often frustrating to have advocates have to do due diligence for government agencies, but we all do better when we know someone is watching.  And too many public agencies are now so understaffed and under budgeted that they simply aren’t able to monitor or evaluate their own work and impact.  Privately pointing out program errors so corrections can be quietly made is one form of partnership.  Even better is when the trust becomes high enough that advocates are asked for input at the conceptual stages of project planning so that key issues and opportunities can be built into the initial outlines rather than ending up as a dispute later on.

For example, the number of newborns with neural tube defects has dropped 36% since 1996 when researchers (including my boss, Dr. Walter Willett at the Harvard School of Public Health) had the data to convince the FDA that adding folic acid to rice, white bread, and pasta would make a difference – and the opposing food manufacturers realized it would be unwise to appear to be unconcerned about babies.

Several decades ago, I helped start a still-existing group called the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health (MassCOSH) that brought together union activists with health and safety and legal professionals to fight for better workplace conditions.  We were inspired by the realization that much of the pollution poisoning our environment came from factories and, even before it negatively affected public health, those most dangerously exposed were the workers.  Rather than fight to close factories and end jobs, MassCOSH was started to build alliances among those with a stake and those with the skills in improving employment.  Working with people (including both shop-floor leaders and professionals) able to match company and government officials’ own technical knowledge allowed MassCOSH to be a good partner during those periods when the newly created OSHA system was actually interested in protecting workers.  Working with unions and shop-floor activists gave MassCOSH muscle in situations where those officials weren’t interested in partnership.

Similarly, LivableStreets Alliance (full disclosure — I am a founding Board member) not only works across a variety of transportation modes – dealing with pedestrian issues as much as bicycles’ and pushing for improvements in mass transit as well as car driving – it also embraces the connection of transportation to a broader range of issues from environmental and climate protection to smart growth, affordable housing and public health.  By continuously building broad coalitions we maintain our ability to provide “legitimizing endorsements” for good projects or to “create waves” if necessary through public statements, political pressure, and even on-the-street actions when dealing with bad proposals.

At the same time, LivableStreets Alliance has deliberately positioned itself as a trustworthy partner to public agencies.  It has become a gathering point for progressive professionals in fields from transportation engineering to landscape architecture, from city planning to environmental science, from medicine to zoning.  It is able to talk to agency staff in their own language.

Unfortunately, the unequal strength of the status quo compared with those wanting change usually means that institutional reform never produces the full results that advocates and mass movements desire.  Mass movements have a kind of veto power – assuming they haven’t spent themselves, they can continue disrupting things if they don’t like what those in control are proposing as the Egyptian protesters did to both Mubarak and the Army Committees that replaced him.  But institutions, corporations, universities, and governments are impersonal and immortal; they have huge resources and very long perspectives. They are usually able to wait out uprisings, offering various tokens and splitting off components of the mass movement.

The realistic goal of reform is to end up with a situation at least a little bit better than what would have happened without you.  It often feels like we have to work so hard to gain so little that sometimes it doesn’t feel worth the fight.  But it is – particularly if you can use that small step as a starting point for the next.  Sometimes, even reform can be transformative.  To the extent that change provides new tools for the previously weak, they can lay the foundation for future changes in power relationships. The creation of unions fundamentally changed industrial relations and laid the foundation for the growth of the American middle class.  The War On Poverty’s creation of neighborhood organizations of low-income people changed the nature of urban electoral politics.

Sometimes there are even bigger opportunities.  And, as the slogan says, you should never let a good crisis go to waste.  In the wake of 9/11, George Bush was able to push through an entire agenda of right wing policies – a lesson that Barack Obama unfortunately didn’t follow after the financial crisis.  Advocates need to be smarter and get as much as they can under the circumstances.

Organizational Development

But neither movement building nor institutional reform can happen without organization.  Being part of an organization magnifies the impact of individual effort, provides a focus for volunteers and supporters, and encourages collective input to decision-making.

Creating, maintaining, and growing organizations requires at least four kinds of leadership and many kinds of skills.  Organizations need organizers, people able to bring others together around a shared vision or interest and keep them engaged in the common effort.  Organizations also need fund-raisers, people able to raise money through grants, donations, or revenue-generating activities.  Most often under-appreciated, organizations need administrators, people able to stay on top of the endless paperwork, financial monitoring, regulatory reporting, database generation, web site and mailing list updating, and the countless other tasks keep things going and legal.

And most of all, organizations need strategists, people able to understand the surrounding context well enough to identify the issues and activities that sit in the sweet spot of being ripe for change, able to attract resources, and within the organization’s capabilities.  Putting those together is called strategic planning.

Organizations also need to have clear missions.  A mission not only lets everyone know what you are doing, it also (and in some respects even more importantly) helps you remember what you are not doing.  Opportunities are everywhere.  Strategic openings are rare.  Letting the enticing go while focusing on the significant requires more discipline than most of us often use (myself prominently included) – another good reason for group discussions about priorities.

On the other hand, organizations, like movements, have a life cycle.  Sometimes, especially in the advocacy world, a group has served its purpose, or the context has changed and the group is for some reason unable to adjust strategies to meet the new challenge, or the issue has ceased to attract public attention, or the group has run out of energy through the loss of its leadership or some other reason.  After dedicating years to an issue and an organization, it is very hard to let it go.  But it may be time to move on.

(Sometimes, when action is impossible, the best strategy is to step back and concentrate on education — on preserving your vision, analysis, and lessons-learned while accepting that the next wave of activism will address the issue in its own way.)

Even in less extreme situations, organizations also undercut themselves through excessive concern for self-preservation, in which the health of the organization takes precedence over the growth of a movement or even the success of a reform effort.  Sometimes it is necessary to start a project for which you don’t have a funding source, to take on an issue that stretches your resources further than feels comfortable, to jump into the wind even if you’re not sure where you will land.

As with everything else, the key to successful organizational development is good leadership, which is as much a function of personality as of skills and experience. Leadership can be taught; but not everyone can learn.  As in the business (and government) sectors, excellent managers are hard to find, and excellent leaders even harder. If you have one, keep her.

Because they rely so heavily on volunteers, and pay staff so little, advocacy groups are particularly fragile.  If your governing body becomes repeatedly deadlocked, divided between unyielding factions, it may be better to split apart into two groups.

Even the presence of an endless argumentative person, or someone who simply doesn’t fit in with the social dynamics of the group, can be deeply destructive.  That person might be adding a vital perspective to your deliberations.  But it may also mean that the group is becoming unable to make decisions, to move from discussion to action, and that group processes and events become dysfunctionally stressful rather than satisfying.  No one wants to keep wasting their time in that kind of situation, and the organization will slowly (or quickly) fall apart.  Better to accept the pain of expulsion than the agony of collapse.


Creating organizations, winning reforms, augmenting movements – putting all these together is the hallmark of a successful advocacy campaign.  Advocacy groups have events (one-time happenings) and projects (a shorter-term series of activities).  For these, the group can play the role of cheerleaders, supporter, participant, or even leader.  But the core of the program has to be a series of mission-related campaigns that draw on all the resources and contribute to all the critical needs of the organization – from “ownable” victories to being positioned for future action, from increased volunteerism to fundraising, from PR to public education.

My father, a teacher, used to say that it’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness.  In those long-ago arguments, I used to counter that society’s need for fundamental improvement required systemic changes so deep and so threatening to established interests that accomplishing it would be impossible without radical action.

We were both right, of course, although (as usual) his quoted phrasing was easier to remember.  We do need visionary goals.  And winning them will require the kinds of radical change that is only possible at moments of crisis, when systems are failing and the establishment’s hold on power is weak.  But being able to take advantage of those moments requires years of small scale work. And this requires movement building, institutional reform, and organizational development.

We have to do what we can.  Rabbi Hillel’s insight is as true today as it was 2,000 years ago:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Good luck.


Other related posts:

>DESIGNING EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS: Mobilizing Constituencies, Developing Expertise, Sustaining Action

>What Transportation And Public Health Can Learn From Each Other About Changing Public Behaviors

>REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use

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