What Are The Meaningful Actions?

January 3, 2012 § 15 Comments

“So – what can I do?”

This may be the most frightening question we campaigners get asked.

One exchange this week typifies how it plays out. Glyn Jones asked tax-avoidance expert Richard Murphy on twitter;

@wipcrackaway: As an average Joe what does one do?
@richardjmurphy: Talk, write, occupy, protest and join in for change.

Imagine you are Glyn Jones – does this help? He probably feels as if he doesn’t know enough to talk or write about the issue, and what does ‘occupy’ even mean to those new to the movement? I’m picking unfairly on Richard – an absolute hero – but this exchange captured so well what we change-makers struggle with: enabling meaningful action.

Watching the biopic Gandhi this week, it struck me how careful the man was in choosing what he asked fellow activists to do. In South Africa, the burning of identity passes, in India, the collecting of salt on the beaches and boycott of British-made clothes. He didn’t want to belittle the commitment he was asking for, and he didn’t want to waste people’s time.

Each of the meaningful actions were:

  • Practically useful – what I’m doing has a real (if nominal) impact
  • Symbolic – it tells a story
  • Public – others can see what I’m doing
  • Communal – I don’t do it on my own, I do it with others
  • Clearly messaged – if I’m telling my friends what happened, I can do it in one sentence

Other successful examples are everywhere – refusing sugar when drinking tea, burning bras, picket lines, blocking of petrol stations by angry truckers. So surely we can come up with some good actions for the campaigns and movements we’re working in?

Though I’m pretty sure it’s gotta be better than these:

  • change your bank account or energy provider
  • install clean energy solutions on your house (unless it’s done like this)
  • become a vegetarian on your own
  • run a marathon and raise some money wearing fancy dress

There are thousands of people asking campaigners everyday ‘what can I do?’. It’s time we came up with some better answers.

Gandhi in Durban, 1914, inciting the burning of identity passes

§ 15 Responses to What Are The Meaningful Actions?

  • Matt Brown says:

    This post by Cangie at FearLess Revolution replaces the ‘what should I do’ question with ‘how can I serve’. He argues that it adds immediacy to the search for meaningful change. Have a read:

  • cterkuile says:

    Matt – that is fantastic and really helpful, thank you! I love how asking ‘how can I serve’ becomes generative, rather than prescriptive and allows for unexpected talents and successes to emerge. Wonderful stuff.

  • Robert says:

    Great article Casper…thank you very much, and definitely a question I frequently ask myself!

    Perhaps meaningful actions can also resonate with that person on a personal level – i.e. be relevant to their lives (so if they’re a tutor get them talking to their students about climate justice, if they’re a model get them walking an ethical catwalk etc).

    Happy 2012!

  • Bob says:

    This seems to imply that becoming a vegetarian and changing your bank account are a waste of time – or am I reading it the wrong way? Do you mean that people should do these things anyway, and that we should move towards actions beyond these basics?

    • cterkuile says:

      Bob – yes, indeed – these are useful and important actions, but I think not the most useful ‘campaign asks’ if done in isolation. We know that change-within-community is much more successful than as an individual (here’s a great example from the NYTimes on weightloss http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/at-a-big-church-a-small-group-health-solution/?emc=eta1).

      I’d like us as campaigners to be thinking much more carefully about what we’re asking people to do – because if we ask things that don’t work/last for a short time/are too difficult on one’s own – that’s disempowering, and is likely to mean people won’t try it again.

      Thanks for reading B : )

  • David Taylor says:

    Good piece, I think the hard thing is finding the right advocacy moment to hook it to…Robin Hood Tax campaign for me was a year too late to have an impact, who knows if done at start of recession could have got a positive response from Labour government (may not of course) but certainly a few months before 2010 general election was too late. 2005 works because of a government willing to act which we don’t have now. Does that mean we put on hold any campaigning until Labour next in? That’s logical conclusion of my argument but clearly not an option. But without clear advocacy output we could march people to top of hill and leave them there. Is tough one…there is only so much UK can do on its own anyway without global agreement on climate, trade, finance, and how do we influence that? Last decade have despite our best efforts prooved it to be very hard indeed, China doesn’t allow civil society and the US system has seen a good man – Obama – trip up and make the wrong decisions. Answers on a postcard please!?!

  • Johnson says:

    Never underestimate how effective word-of-mouth can be.
    For example, I ridicule and sideline people who do shit like shop at tesco. I have seen changes in behaviour of friends and family as a direct result of this and I also see some of them doing it to others.
    Brands are a very powerful thing – but it cuts both ways. By destroying brands and the behaviours they embody, we can instigate change. This is done with simple messages – like, “if you shop at tesco, you are a nob end”. The underlying reasons are a little more complex – issues like food security, reliance on carbon in the supply chain, predatory practices, destruction of ecosystems but in my experience it pays to keep it simple.

  • Casper, really interesting post. I think “change your bank account or energy provider” is a good example – as it offers a lot of opportunity to go beyond this being a personal choice to making it into a bigger campaign. Move Your Money, which is being launched in the UK, could have that potential and I hope it will reach out beyond the usual activists. I’m also not sure about its ability to get that many people to actually move their money – but that may not matter as much as it succeeding in forcing banks onto the defensive, and in putting pressure on government for deeper systemic change.

  • Joe Hall says:

    Hi Casper, thanks for a really insightful and thought-provoking post.

    I feel it’s worth getting into the truth of the joke you make at the beginning. It makes me think of the Marianne Williamson quote “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” — at times I think we can be scared of the power of our activists. Many of the larger, modern NGOs want to control what activists do, and at least one I know of has an explicit policy of not asking their supporters to meet directly with MPs for fear they’ll say the ‘wrong’ thing.

    When we think about ‘what can you do’ I feel we also need to focus on the ‘you’ more. Usually many different kinds of people are involved in a campaign, with many different motivations, levels of interest and different amounts of time to commit. Do we really cater to them?

    As NGOs we often list different types of action (maybe with different levels of commitment needed e.g. our embryonic actions page at http://www.eradicatingecocide.com/what-you-can-do/ — will be much improved soon!). But I feel too often campaigns play the numbers game, looking for how many emails or petition signatures we get (even how many lightbulbs were changed), which works for some and mass actions can be valuable — but unless you’re Avaaz or a big organisation they are increasingly difficult and they can be alienating for someone who wants to go further, do more (and here I’m thinking of Margaret Mead’s quote “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”).

    In fact if I were running say a health campaign shouldn’t I be finding out how many of my supporters is a doctor, nurse or NHS administrator? What about the well connected 1% of my supporter base who I’ve never met but who happen to know MPs, government ministers or the head of the British Medical Council? Maybe the best reply to Glyn Jones would be to ask him a few questions that get to know him better — then work out what might be best for him to do. Essentially it’s like a power mapping but starting with the activist. A rainy day idea I have is to develop a simple online tool to enable charities to do this — would love to hear if you know of anything similar.

    I feel good campaign actions will come when you have good relationships with your supporters, talk to them and involve them in developing your campaign. (How many times have you worked on a campaign strategy then towards the end thought, “And what can the public do?”!). I’ve been really influenced by people like Beth Kanter on ‘Networked Nonprofits’ (http://www.bethkanter.org/the-networked-nonprofit/) She writes: “Networked Nonprofits are simple and transparent organizations. They are easy for outsiders to get in and insiders to get out. They engage people to shape and share their work… Networked Nonprofits don’t work harder or longer than other organizations, they work differently. They engage in conversations with people beyond their walls β€” lots of conversations β€” to build relationships that spread their work through the network.” This year we will be explicitly open-sourcing the Ecocide campaign as much as possible, showing the journey of where we’re going, giving practical tools and suggestions for action but setting people free to do what’s right for them.

    And good actions flow from the way we shape our campaigns. At the Ecocide campaign we have been inspired by the work of Jane McGonigal (http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html) who suggests deep, immersive video games can be a model for social causes. She lists four key aspects: Blissful Productivity (you get lots of positive feedback that what you’re doing is achieving something); Social Fabric (you feel part of a likeminded community doing something together); Urgent Optimism (this cause needs you right now to achieve something amazing!); and Epic Meaning (this is deeply important in the world and here’s why). It’s about a campaign being a big, important, inspiring, social story you’re part of. Interestingly, I think this builds on your bullet point list above. And it rings true with Gandhi’s fight, the civil rights movement in the US, the campaign against slavery here (boycotting sugar was seen as part of a big, moral cause that was widely discussed across society spearheaded by passionate, captivating leaders) and many other causes. You see some of this coming through strongly in Greenpeace’s VW Star Wars campaign (http://vwdarkside.com/) — shouldn’t every campaign make you feel as excited as this?

    Maybe I’ve gone off-topic a little here from the point about practical actions (like I said, a thought-provoking post!) but I believe the roots of good campaign actions really go deep down to our overall approaches.

    • cterkuile says:

      Joe – what an amazingly rich comment, thank you so much for taking the time to share. Really excited to check out the networked non-profit reading, and super cool that you’re thinking about this in the context of Ecocide! Would be great to see you and Christine and talk about this properly πŸ™‚ x

  • laurie says:

    Great stuff Casper πŸ™‚ I strongly believe that identification with the ego on an individual and collective (nation state and below) level and capture of minds by egoic longing for identity and division is the main underlying driver behind most, if not all, human suffering. Whilst enlightenment/awakening from this state is no mean feat, I think that significantly broadening and deepening the discourse on spiritual awakening and the kind of values that bring happiness, and how they are activated/suppressed (and handily help to create a sustainable and compassionate future) should be a priority long-term focus for anyone campaigning for positive transformational change to create a better world – a la Action for Happiness.

    A tricky question that arises if you buy into this assertion is how to strike the balance between personal ‘awakening’ and helping others to do so.

    The New Earth by Eckhart Tolle has some interesting thoughts on the above πŸ™‚

    • cterkuile says:

      I’ve just been reading it + listening along to Oprah’s online seminars on it with Eckhart! So awesome : ) Definitely want to talk about it when we see each other! C

  • […] What are practical, meaningful actions campaigns can ask people to take? […]

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