Have you been to a protest or meeting, and left wondering why you bothered? It went on forever, people debated gobbledegunk, and there were no next steps. These activities are often full of good people but rarely change anything.

1. Action is in the reaction

What counts is not what you do. It is what they do in response to what you do that matters.
Saul Alinsky

The reaction can be winning something, stopping something, building solidarity, fill-in-the-blank. We can be as creative, cheeky or as serious as we want to be, as long as it does not prevent us from getting the reaction we need to start winning.

Action is making stuff happen in a planned and creative way. We take action to make something change, develop each other, and build new or strengthen old relationships. Therfore, action is also the smaller things we do; the 1-to-1s, trainings and meetings. In all of the above we are looking for reactions for a specific purpose.

2. Don’t be a chocolate teapot

Nanny Leonard would say when I was small, the world is fudged because of all the chocolate teapots in power. Basically, those in power, in Nanny Leonard’s eye’s were a bit useless.

A chocolate tea pot melting away

Nanny Leonard’s wisdom is a useful metaphor for action and politics. If there is no political edge to your work, you are involved in activity not action. Poverty wages, racism, the environment, no matter how you dress it, it’s political. Deliberately avoiding politics to run warm feeling activities, is a chocolate teapot for justice.

3. Recognition, respect and relationship

We take action to gain the three R’s from our target:

  • Recognition: for the issue we raise and us as a legitimate movement/campaign/community
  • Respect: our voice and concerns are taken seriously. People in power keep to the commitments they make with us.
  • Relationship: those in power value and seek our opinion. It only works if there is a genuine want from both sides, to work together to solve a problem.

4. Power

Understanding our power, the power of our target and how to organise around it, is crucial for effective action. Our power comes from the people. How organised, how many, how representative and diverse we are. Who do we need at the action to be taken seriously? All of this is calculated for the response we need.

What about when our power is outside the room?

A march demonstrates your organised numbers. What about a negotiation around a table? Only a few people can enter. How do you demonstrate your power then?

You bring the people who can speak about your power outside the room.

For example: a Headteacher can introduce themselves as representing one hundred teachers, one thousand students and one thousand five hundred parents from X school. These are constituents the person opposite wants to keep on side. This is demonstrating people power.

5. Ownership

Make a list of every role, responsibility and task needed to be done. We are organising not mobilising; we want everyone who wants a role to have one. Make sure their job is meaningful to them. Ask open questions; “Here is a list of everything this issue needs to win, where do you think you can help most and will enjoy?” Do not make assumptions about what people can and can not do.

Stretch people, but don’t drown them in the deep end. Where there needs to be training, provide it, so people can be successful in their role. The more roles you share, the more people show up to the action, and the stronger people become at organising for themselves.

6. Tension

Tension is required in action to make change happen. If there is no tension you are likely building activity.

To bring the point home, here is another drawing of a boat.

A cloud blowing the sail of a boat

When the wind gives us enough tension our boat moves. Too little and our boat goes nowhere, too much, we capsize. Being agreeable all the time may be more comfortable but it is not going to help your campaign win anything. Too much tension and you never get in the door. Tension is important to get right.

Ways of injecting tension

Story

Having someone affected by the issue speak to those in power, is the most effective way of injecting tension. Ijeoma’s powerful story in training 2.3 won the campaign. There was lots of work behind the scenes, but Ijeoma’s story sealed it.

Pinning

We pin to get clarity on whether we have been given a yes or no to our ask. It often happens in negotiation actions. Pinning is not about negotiating. It is simply for cementing the asks. This can be at a huge public assembly, hustings, or small negotiations with a particular person/institution.

Pinning adds tension because it seeks clarity from people who often do not like giving a yes or no answer. “Is that a yes or no to X” or “I am sorry you were not clear on Y, is that yes or no?” Be thoughtful about who is doing the pinning and make sure they have rehearsed; people can be slippery fishes.

Statistics

Use statistics to drive the point home. For example, Ijeoma gave her story and then told the politicians there are thousands of young people like me. Ijeoma went from the individual to the masses, and made the statistic personal, relatable and full of tension.

Media presence

Having media attend your action is going to heat up the tension. Anyone who makes a commitment, knows they are not only being accountable to the room, but to the public outside the room. Reputation is fragile in politics. Having the media there makes it more difficult to go back on their word.

7. Run actions familiar to the community

We run actions where the people feel as powerful and as confident as possible. One way of doing this is by running actions familiar to their lives. This means using venues, strategies and tactics that our people have used in the past and can understand.

For example: you are organising in an area where young people are struggling to find good employment. A business has moved to town and they are saying there is no local talent. This is why no one locally has got a job with them. Working with some institutions in the area, including an influential church, you have secured a meeting with the business. They invite you to their headquarters to discuss this problem. It has been causing them some bother in the press.

Instead of accepting the invitation to their headquarters, you invite the business to your holy house instead. This way the team are in familiar surroundings and the power has shifted from guest to host. The young people line up outside with their CVs and A Level results, to give to the directors. There must have been a mistake, and we would like to help you correct it.

No one wants to be rude in someone else’s home. You don’t protest when someone asks you to take your shoes off in their house, even though you’re dying inside: you haven’t changed you’re socks in three days. The business in the example above, will take a completely different tone with you when they are in your space. It will be tricky to get them outside of their comfort zone, but if you have built the tension well enough, they will make the effort to avoid further conflict.

8. Run actions unfamiliar to our target

We run actions unfamiliar to our target. People in power have seen marches before, barely lift an eyebrow to a petition and most of their letters go in the bin. What can you do that wakes them up out of their every-day experience? What is the polar opposite of what they expect? When it goes outside the norm, it makes it difficult to respond in the usual way.

Task

Create your action

With the team write down action ideas and answer the questions below. At the end you will chose the one that answers these questions best.

  1. Who is this action on? Who/what is the target?
  2. Will this action make us more powerful? How?
  3. How will we know if it was successful? Is this achievable?
  4. What could be the next steps of this action? Could it drag?
  5. Could this action bite your butt in the future? Think about the relationships you need to build over time.
  6. How do we make this a political act? Think about specific asks/speakers/timing of action.
  7. Where will we have tension? What does it look like?
  8. Do we have enough power and resources to take this action? If not, who/what do we need and how do we get them on board?
  9. How many people do we need? Is this possible?
  10. Does this action offer opportunities for people to participate?