Four roles of social activism

Yes to renewables rally

(Photo: Takver)

With our recent planning weekend, I’ve been thinking about the role of Transition Newcastle in relation to social change. At times, like when we watched The Economics of Happiness and its critique of aspects of globalisation, I feel as if we are skating around the edges of the real challenges we face. Rather than focusing on how Newcastle can become more sustainable and less reliant on fossil fuels, maybe we should be tackling issues like an economic system that fails to value the environment, the growth fetish, multinationals or some of the big issues that make our addiction to oil and coal difficult to break.

Should we be joining the blockades of the largest coal port in the world? Should we be tackling head on climate deniers? Should we become a more “radical” organisation?

At the moment we are positioning ourselves as creating a positive vision of a sustainable Newcastle. We are not positioning ourselves as a protest group.

I find Bill Moyer’s four roles of social activism useful in considering our role. In his book Doing democracy: The MAP model for organizing social movements he suggests four potential roles:

The Citizen

  • Upholds a widely held vision of the democratic, good society
  • Demonstrates ordinary people support social change
  • Gives the movement legitimacy
  • Makes it harder for authorities to discredit the movement
  • Reduces the potential for violent attitudes and actions within the movement
The Reformer

  • Transmits movement analyses and goals to authorities
  • Performs parliamentary and legal efforts –lobbying, referenda, lawsuits
  • Works to create and expand new laws and policies
  • Acts as a watchdog to ensure the new laws and policies are actually funded and carried out
  • Mobilises movement opposition to conservative backlash efforts
The Rebel

  • Puts issues on the social and political agenda through dramatic, nonviolent actions
  • Dramatically illustrates social issues
  • Shows how institutions and official authorities violate public trust by causing and perpetuating critical social problems
  • Forces society to face its problems
  • Promotes democracy
The Change Agent

  • Supports the involvement of large numbers of people in the process of addressing social problems
  • Promotes a new social and political majority consensus favouring positive solutions
  • Promotes democratic principles and human values
  • Supports the development of coalitions
  • Counters the actions of the authorities
  • Moves society from reform to social change by promoting a paradigm shift

Each of these roles plays an important function. We need people who are challenging power structures, who are at the cutting edge of social change. We also need people who make it easy for “ordinary” people to join the movement for change. I see Transition Newcastle fitting into the role of “Citizen”. I certainly see us as being part of a broader social movement. But our focus is creating a vision of what we want, not just saying what we don’t want. We want to attract people who may not be interested in radical social change, but might be willing to consider how we can build a resilient community able to respond to the challenges of climate change and peak oil.

Hopefully through this process they will also consider some of the reasons we face the environmental challenges and may become more conscious of some of the limitations of our current economic, political and social systems.

We need the rebels who put issues on the political agenda by dramatically bringing them to the public’s attention. We need the change agents who encourage society to embrace social change. We need the reformers who work in the legal and political arenas. And we need the citizens who make change socially acceptable and who provide an entry point for ordinary people.

It may not be the most glamorous part of social change, but it is still important. Fortunately we are not alone and there are many other individuals and groups playing other important roles.

Reference: Moyer, Bill (ed.) 2001, Doing democracy: The MAP model for organizing social movements, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. What are complex problems?
  2. The paradox of inconsequence
  3. Our addiction to growth
  4. The widening gap between rich and poor – Time to even it up

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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