S. Challenging Existing Structures

In this Chapter:

Authorities and institutions sometimes stand in the way of positive change and must be transformed or overcome.

Study Questions

  1. What promising new means are now available for challenging and transforming institutions?
  2. Given the situation right now, which method of progressive social change is most useful and effective — advocacy, elections, protest, community organizing, labor organizing, or some other?
  3. Which activists in progressive social change movements are the most effective — rebels who demonstrate and blockade, reformers who work within official channels, solid citizens who stand in the center and uphold democracy, justice, and freedom over time, or change agents who build large grassroots organizations?
  4. Which types of change organizations are most critical in building a large coalition and which constituencies are most helpful in ensuring it is powerful and effective?

Overview Articles S

11 pages total

“Approaches to Change,” balancing the scales, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, April 1992, 4 p.

There are various ways to approach social and economic change. Three of the most common are direct service, advocacy, and direct-action community organizing.

“A Winning Progressive Politics,” by Paul Wellstone, In These Times, January 6, 2003, 7 p.

There are three critical ingredients to democratic renewal and progressive change in America: good public policy, grassroots organizing, and electoral politics. Policy provides direction and an agenda for action; grassroots organizing builds a constituency to fight for change; and electoral politics is the main way we contest for power and hold decision-makers accountable.

Reading Set S1: Advocacy

35 pages total

“Thinking About Advocacy,” NP Action, excerpt from So You Want to Make a Difference, OMB Watch, 14 p.

The basics of advocacy: why and how.

“Advocacy: Benefits to Society,” NP Action, OMB Watch, 3 p.

Sometimes advocacy efforts are important to take on even when the odds seem hopelessly stacked against any possibility of success. Five are worth noting.

“Introduction: Interest Groups and Representation in Texas,” Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services, University of Texas at Austin, 2006, 4 p.

How interest groups work to influence public policy.

“Policy Watch: Harnessing the e-Advocacy Revolution,” by Judith Bell, PolicyLink, Issue 3, 2007, 3 p.

E-advocacy can be particularly effective in introducing new, somewhat foreign concepts into the public consciousness. But without the tools to turn that increased consciousness into action, it doesn’t have much impact.

“Making Media Make a Difference: Building the Independent Media, Grassroots Communications and Media Reform Movements,” by Tracy Van Slyke, United States Social Forum, 2007, 4 p.

This description of a workshop includes media strategy issues. Workshop was facilitated by the Media Consortium, a network of leading progressive independent journalism organizations working together to build smart, powerful, and passionate journalism that changes the terms of the American political and cultural debate.

“Here Come the Media Activists,” by Andrew Wasley, Red Pepper, November 2000, 7 p.

Despite the apparently explosive growth in its scale and diversity, the rise of the independent media (indymedia) movement — that has mushroomed alongside the growing campaign against globalisation and capitalism — has been dogged by controversy and set backs, funding, and image problems.

Reading Set S2: Electoral Politics

67 pages total

“What Would Democratic Elections Look Like?” by Jeff Milchen, ReclaimDemocracy.org, November 15, 2002, updated October, 2004, 8 p.

An overview of thirteen progressive electoral reforms.

“The Nader Campaign and the Future of U.S. Left Electoral Politics ,” by The Editors, Monthly Review, February 2001, 32 p.

The Ralph Nader Green Party campaign for the presidency in 2000 ran quite far to the left on issue after issue; this was no warmed-over version of mainstream liberal Democratic politics. He drew nearly three million votes, representing about 3 percent of the vote. What are the benefits and pitfalls of third-party organizing?

“Visualizing a Neo-Rainbow,” by Danny Glover and Bill Fletcher Jr., The Nation, February 14, 2005, 10 p.

The Rainbow Coalition movement and the Jackson presidential campaigns sought to build an organization and campaign both inside and outside the Democratic Party.

“Can Blogs Revolutionize Progressive Politics?” by Lakshmi Chaudhry, In These Times, February 6, 2006, 17 p.

Blogs and other on-line media allow ordinary citizens to participate in politics, be it supporting a candidate or organizing around a policy issue. Compared to traditional media, blogs are faster, cheaper, and most importantly, interactive, enabling a level of citizen involvement impossible with television or newspapers.

Reading Set S3: Community and Labor Organizing

69 pages total

“What Is Community Organizing?” excerpt from The Community Organizing Toolbox: A Funder's Guide to Community Organizing by Larry Parachini and Sally Covington, 5 p.

Community organizing is a values-based process by which people — most often low- and moderate-income people previously absent from decision-making tables — are brought together in organizations to jointly act in the interest of their communities and the common good. Ideally, in the participatory process of working for needed changes, people involved in CO organizations/groups learn how to take greater responsibility for the future of their communities, gain in mutual respect, and achieve growth as individuals.

“Direct Action Organizing,” Midwest Academy, 5 p.

Direct Action Organizing is based on the power of people to take collective action on their own behalf.

“Citizen Organizing: Many Movements, No Majority,” by Karen M. Page, American Prospect, November 30, 2002, 25 p.

As other forms of democratic participation decline, can citizen organizing make a difference? — A short history and overview of community organizing. Randy: Excellent overview and history.

“A Way of Thinking About the History of Community Organizing,” by Professor Stephen Valocchi, Department of Sociology, Trinity College, Date, 14 p.

There have been three dominant approaches or major types of neighborhood organizing in the twentieth century: the social work, political activist, and neighborhood maintenance/community development approaches.

“Organizing for Democratic Renewal,” blog entry by Marshall Ganz, TPM Cafe, March 27, 2007, 8 p.

Community organizing: a sweep through history from de Tocqueville to Alinsky.

“Can We Win for Progressive Change?” blog entry by Heather Booth, TPM Cafe, March 29, 2007, 6 p.

We cannot will a movement into existence, but we can be ready for when that time arrives — and we have prepared leadership, built organization, developed insights about how to work and how to work together. And now we have an opening. Will the extraordinary community organizing work which has taken shape over the last 30 years finally pay off?

“Innovative Labor Strategies: 10 Campaigns to Learn From,” by Amy Offner, Dollars & Sense, September/October 2003, 6 p.

Amid all the bad news, there are unions and rank-and-file groups fighting back with innovative campaigns and shop-floor actions.

Reading Set S4: Protest Politics

58 pages total

“Protest Politics 101: An Interview with Frances Fox-Piven,” Political Affairs, June 28, 205, 6 p.

The labor movement, the poverty movements of the 1960s, and the civil rights movement — none of those movements were primarily electoral efforts. They were effective because they threatened to fragment electoral coalitions. Protest movements have a kind of communicative and disruptive power that leaps over the propaganda machines that the two parties control. Protest movements are able to raise issues that are not dictated by party operatives and their fat cat contributors.

“Raise the Social Cost,” by Michael Albert, Radical Theory Instructional, Z Media Institute, 12 p.

If you can’t appeal to reason, then you have to raise the social costs and create a context in which continuing in the current policy is worse for the decision-maker than changing the policy.

“The Dilemma Demonstration: Using Nonviolent Civil Disobedience to Put the Government between a Rock and a Hard Place,” by Philippe Duhamel, New Tactics in Human Rights, Center for Victims of Torture, 2004, 4 p.

How Operation SalAMI turned our own dilemma — how to inform the Canadian public about the real dangers and inequalities of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas when we were not even allowed to see the documents — into a larger dilemma for the Canadian government by revealing the secrecy on which the approval of the agreement depended.

“Zvakwana Builds Up Steam,” by Staff Editors, Zimbabwe Observer, June 20, 2004, 3 p.

A clever and daring underground movement has sprung up in Zimbabwe that is stoking public opinion against Robert Mugabe’s government.

“The Power of Protest,” by Lawrence S. Wittner, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July-August 2004, 13 p.

The campaign against nuclear weapons was not simply an ideological movement; it was a potent political force. Bob Irwin: “Wittner quoted Reagan administration officials and their even-further-right critics on the series of shifts in position the administration was compelled to make by the strength of the Freeze movement. This was a marvelous and heartening change of perspective."

“198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” by Gene Sharp in The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Vol. 2: The Methods of Nonviolent Action, Albert Einstein Institute, 1973, 4 p.

Nonviolent actions can be classified into five main categories: protest and persuasion, social noncooperation, economic noncooperation (boycotts and strikes), political noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention.

“Recognizing the Power of Nonviolent Action,” by Stephen Zunes, Foreign Policy In Focus, March 31, 2005, 16 p.

The past 20 years have witnessed a remarkable upsurge in nonviolent insurrections against autocratic rulers. Primarily nonviolent “people power” movements have overthrown authoritarian regimes in nearly two dozen countries over the past two and a half decades, have forced substantial reforms in even more countries, and have seriously challenged other despots.

Reading Set S5: Building Movements and Coalitions

65 pages total

“A Practical Approach to Collaboration,” by Michael C. Gilbert, Nonprofit Online News Journal, April 2005, 4 p.

The basics of coalition building.

“The Movement Action Plan,” by Bill Moyer, The Practical Strategist: Movement Action Plan (MAP): Strategic Theories for Evaluating, Planning, and Conducting Social Movements, Social Movement Empowerment Project, 1990, 21 p.

Activists often believe that their social movement is failing, even when their campaigns are moving through the normal stages to success. Here is a map of the eight typical stages of successful social movements, four roles that activists play — both in their effective and ineffective modes — and how all these fit together.

“The Four Activist Roles,” by Bill Moyer, The Practical Strategist, Social Movement Empowerment Project, 1990, 1 p.

Charts to accompany the above article.

“Complementing Roles: Nationals and Grassroots,” by Mike Markarian, No Compromise, Issue 11, Winter 1998/1999, 3 p.

Some thoughts on how national and grassroots groups can be beneficial to each other.

“Clean Elections — Making a Difference,” by Micah Sifry, Yes! Magazine, Fall 2003, 6 p.

Clean elections: How did the citizens of Maine achieve such a fundamental change in their political process? The answer is it took time and a wide-ranging coalition of activists.

“The Class Divide,” by Cynthia Peters, ZNet Daily Commentaries, October 25, 1999, 5 p.

Listening to working-class voices can make a progressive campaign stronger.

“Immokalee Workers Take Down Taco Bell,” by Elly Leary, The Monthly Review, Volume 57, Number 5, October 2005, 25 p.

Building a living example of what an anticapitalist society could look like, with people-run institutions and co-operatives of all kinds, especially in the bowels of the plantation culture South, is a beacon for all of us.

Additional Resources


“Leftists, Liberals — and Losers? How and why progressives must unite for real change,” by G. William Domhoff, In These Times, December 21, 2009, 12 p.

We need to create an alliance between Democratic liberals and leftist progressives that unites electoral and non-electoral strategies, bypasses the structural impossibilities of third parties and non-market centralized planning, reaffirms the importance of social movements, and provides an “us” vs. “them” framing that allows people to change their minds and thereby join what could become a new majority.

Organizing Manuals

“Basics Of Organizing: You Can’t Build a Machine Without Nuts And Bolts,” by Shel Trapp.

Basic manual for community/neighborhood organizing.

“The Basics of Organizing,” IWW Organizing Department.

Basic manual for workplace organizing.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Campus Organizing: A Comprehensive Manual, Curtis F. Shepard, Felice Yeskel, and Charles Outcalt, Fall 1995.

Basic manual for LGBT organizing on campus.

“SEAC Organizing Guide,” Student Environmental Action Coalition, 2003.

Basic campus organizing manual. Covers all angles of student organizing, including starting or reviving a group, group structure, effective meetings, issues, strategy, tactics, an anti-oppression analysis, and a lengthy resource list.

“Organize To Win – A Grassroots Activist’s Handbook,” by Jim Britell, August 2010.

Guide for community-based environmental organizing.

“Student Organizing Manual,” ACLU.

Basic campus organizing manual.

Campus Action Handbook, Rainforest Action Network.

Basic campus organizing manual.

“Basics of Organizing,” Citizen Works.

Basic tools for organizing college students.

CDA Campaign Organizing Manual, College Democrats of America.

Basic manual on organizing a political campaign support group on campus.

“Organizing Toolbox,” Virginia Organizing Project.

Useful articles on a variety of subjects.


Next Reading Set Collection: T. Theories and Strategies