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Bottom-up strategizing for social change

Social Movements

New Zealand children join a protest against nuclear power in 1982. Photo by John Miller/ABC News.

Increasingly, activists and organizers are discussing the question, “What’s your theory of change?” For the most part, this is positive. As climate justice organizer and activist-scholar Jen Gobby explains, a theory of change lays out our thinking about “how we will make change in the world and why we think it will work.”

At its best, this conceptual framework offers us a way to talk together about large-scale strategy for social transformation: What is our vision of a just, equitable, and habitable world? What will it take, concretely, to achieve that vision? Who will have to be involved and how?

In this time of intensifying political and ecological crisis, many people are digging into these kinds of questions and hungrily looking for useable answers. I believe this is part of the reason for the immense popularity of two recent books by people with substantial movement experience: adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy and Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts.

Although speaking to fairly distinct parts of the left, both brown and McAlevey offer ways of explicitly naming and examining ideas about how social change happens. It doesn’t surprise me at all that so many activists and organizers are eagerly reading their books, attending their presentations and workshops, and grappling with their ideas.

At the same time, some experienced radical organizers express exasperation–sometimes publicly, frequently privately–with the “theory of change” framework. They point out that “having a theory of change” has become a not-so-helpful trend within the culture of progressive nongovernmental organizations and professional activism.

I am sympathetic to this critique. A particular approach to “theory of change”–with its own specialized jargon and metrics–has indeed become influential in the worlds of social work, international development, and philanthropy in the last few decades. At its worst, this approach can limit our abilities to strategize for achieving victories beyond narrow conceptions of what presently seems “winnable” or “feasible.” Just as bad, this approach can make strategic planning seem like something that only professionals can and should do.

But the idea of “theory of change” didn’t originate in these contexts, and we should not cede the ground of developing strategy to professionals. If we want to win a world we can all inhabit, we are the ones who should strategize, together, about how to get there. In fact, social movements and communities in struggle have been deliberating about goals and plans for as long as people have been fighting domination. And at various points, movement-based formations have worked to systematize ideas about how social change happens.

One of these formations was Movement for a New Society (MNS), a US-based radical feminist and pacifist organization active in the 1970s and 1980s. As Andrew Cornell details in his book Oppose and Propose!, MNS was organized through city-based collectives and played a leading role in the direct action wing of the so-called “anti-nuke movement,” which mobilized against nuclear power and the nuclear arms race. The Movement’s influential organizing handbook Resource Manual for a Living Revolution, first published in 1977, begins with tools, questions, and exercises for “how to develop a theory of change.”

The MNS authors write, “In the past, discussions of theory and strategy tended to be dominated by an elite who planned campaigns and informed the majority about them. We believe that an understanding of the theoretical basis for change needs to be spread widely among participants, to encourage a democratic, decentralized movement for change.” Toward this end, MNS worked to develop movement-based study/action groups in which participants collaboratively explored ideas about social change, investigated actual campaigns, and reflected on their own activities.

The critique that MNS offered is still relevant. While the organizational landscape of the left has changed dramatically in the last forty years, there is still is a lot of elitism and specialization in strategic planning. And not surprisingly, social relations of oppression and benefit – based on Indigeneity, race, class, gender, ability, citizenship, and sexuality, among others – substantially shape who participates and how.

For this reason, I’m enthusiastic about bottom-up, collective discussion of theories of change. This is something that Jen Gobby has helped to create in recent years as she has interviewed and facilitated discussion groups with climate justice activists and Indigenous land defenders from across Canada. Her forthcoming book More Powerful Together shares these conversations and invites all of us to engage them.

One of the most useful things about these kinds of discussions is that they encourage us to examine what we take for granted. As Gobby observes,

Our understandings of change often remain in the shady realm of unstated assumptions, rather than being pulled out into the light of day for rigorous debate, scrutiny, and reflection. By remaining in the realm of unspoken assumptions, they (1) can render our strategies for change less effective and (2) can create tensions between agents of change who hold conflicting, yet unspoken ideas about change.

Let’s embrace this spirit of rigorous collective reflection and build shared theories of change adequate to our moment.

Chris Dixon is a long-time activist, writer, and educator. Originally from Alaska, he lives in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory, where he is a member of the Punch Up Collective. Find him online at


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