Learning about Social Movements

The resources in the collection at Commonweal tell us about the creation, building and strategies of social movements working on peace, justice and human rights across a wide range of campaign issues over decades. But why are social movements so important? And what are they?

Movements are bigger than a single campaign or organisation. They’re about building a wide coalition of people united behind an idea. They’re about challenging and taking on power and powerholders. Nonviolent campaigns use the power of mass participation to force powerholders to change their behaviour. Movements are all about change, and they have big goals that are hard to achieve.

For example, building a movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons began as soon as they were invented in 1945.  It has involved many different people from al over the world. There have been direct action protests, legal challenges, alternative defence commissions and education initiatives. There have been some campaign successes, but the movement is still working towards the big goal.

Movements are important for achieving social change because the powerful interests who benefit from the current situation won’t change unless coalitions and collaborations of people force them to.

The history of successful movements is long, and you are a recipient of the changes they achieved. As Peter Dreier points out,

“Back in 1900, people who called for women’s suffrage, laws protecting the environment and consumers, an end to lynching, the right of workers to form unions, a progressive income tax, a federal minimum wage, old-age insurance, dismantling of Jim Crow laws, the eight-hour workday, and government-subsidized health care and housing were considered impractical idealists, utopian dreamers, or dangerous socialists. Now we take these ideas for granted. The radical ideas of one generation have become the common sense of the next.”

You’ll find stories of social movements in songs, films and books. They are part of our cultural history. Movements have big goals, dreams (I have a dream!), and last longer than any one person or individual campaign.

Social movements change history, and they don’t stick to rigid boundaries. For example, Wangari Maathai and Vandana Shiva organise in their own countries and influence the world, and they both straddle environmental, rights, and women’s movements through their work.

Movements that have been successful, or even partially successful in raising awareness and support, have built them up strategically over a long period of time.

Some approaches to movement building that you might like to look up:

To build a movement you need many different types of people playing roles and showing their support. The skills and qualities that are needed include:

  • Research – you need to know everything about the people you are challenging, and what the weak points are, who your allies are and how best to communicate your message.
  • Discipline – it is always a struggle to wrench power from the powerholders and you need commitment and discipline to see you through the struggle.
  • Imagination – to envision a different future and new ways of working together
  • Listening (listening to others and learning to work with them is a powerful tool).

A key notion in building a social movement is revealing the oppression to those who are oppressed. For example, the consciousness-raising work in the Women’s Movement helped women understand that the reason they were underpaid and experiencing domestic abuse wasn’t their fault; it was a system organised to oppress women.

Having raised awareness and got your key allies on board, you need to build more support and persuade people that your issue, message and strategy is one they will support. You will have been on the receiving end of these strategies and messages – have you ever been asked to sign a petition, attend an event, join a demonstration or donate to a cause? What prompted you to support them (or not)? That is a movement building support.

Places to start learning more:

  • You can study the resources available in the Bibliography of Civil Resistance which hosts ebooks and a bibliography of resources on historical movements
  • You can arrange to visit the Commonweal Collection and look for books about the movements you want to study. To learn a strategy you could use the Movement Action Plan, more details here.
  • The Commons Library website includes theory, ideas and strategies

Growing a social movement or succeeding at a campaign takes a lot of work, dedication and friends. The imagination, creativity, friends and determination will all come from you!