8 Stages of Successful Social Movements

(ref: Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership by Berit Lakey, George Lakey, Rod Napier, Janice Robinson)

Bill MoyerBill Moyer, a United States social change activist, developed a strategic model for waging successful nonviolent social movements in the late 1970s. This model is called the Movement Action Plan (MAP). Here is a summary of this model as described by George Lakey, the founder and retired executive director of Training for Change.

Stage One: Business as Usual
In this stage, relatively few people care about the issue. Small groups are formed to support each other. The objective is to get people to start thinking about the issue and start spreading the word. Small action projects may be taken on in this stage.

Stage Two: Failure of Established Channels
The general public is unaware of the injustice and largely uninterested in learning about the issue. The public is thinking (or hoping) that established structures are taking care of the problem. “Surely the government is watching out for the safety of our ground water.” “Surely, corporations know which chemicals are safe and unsafe and are already ensuring that workers and the public are not being exposed to the unsafe ones.” In this stage, small groups research the issue and the victims of the injustice. They may sue government agencies or corporations and will usually lose. Nevertheless, these actions are a necessary exercise in building public awareness.  Stage Two polls will show 15% to 20% of public opinion leaning towards the change.

Stage Three: Ripening Conditions/Education and Organizing
People who were not listening (and did not want to listen) in earlier stages are becoming interested. The pace is picking up. New groups are sprouting up to work on the issue largely through providing education. Groups will send speakers out to talk about the issue, organize marches, and hold house meetings and news conferences. Polls are showing 20% to 30% support.

Stage Four: Takeoff
This stage is initiated by a trigger event or a dramatic happening that puts a spotlight on the problem, sparking wide public attention and concern. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. focused on Birmingham, Alabama, in a direct action campaign that filled the jails and highlighted the evils of segregation.  Gandhi used boycotts and personal hunger strikes to focus attention on injustices and discrimination against Indians. Cleve Jones used the AIDS quilt to focus attention on people needlessly dying of AIDS for lack of concern and research into treatment options. Part of the success of this stage depends on relating the demands of the movement to widely held values (like freedom, fairness, and democracy)

Stage Five: Perception of Failure
The adage: “Two steps forward, one step back” applies to this stage. Numbers are down in the demonstrations, media is paying less attention, and policy changes have not yet been won. Those opposing the movement will declare “The movement has failed!”  To recapture the excitement, subgroups may even embark on “Rambo-style” actions of anger and violence. The media focuses on splits and dissent within the movement and will focus particularly on factions of the movement and those activities of subgroups which the public will find particularly offensive. It is the very success and excitement of Stage Four that feeds disillusionment  in Stage Five. Fortunately, a great many activists do not become discouraged or at least accept this stage as part of the process. Creating strategic, achievable, and measurable objectives for the movement is important at this stage.

Stage Six: Winning over the majority
Crisis-based protest is transformed into a long-term struggle with the powerholders. The goal is to win majority opinion and many new groups are formed particularly among a broader public not previously involved. In this stage, 60% to 75% of the public agrees on the need for change and the issue is showing up in electoral campaigns and candidate platforms. Self-interested powerholders will try to discredit and disrupt the movement,  and will insist that there is no positive alternative, promote bogus reforms, and create crisis events designed to scare the public. The powerholders become more split at this stage. The movement needs to beware of: national organizations and staff dominating the movement and reducing grassroots energy; reformers over-compromising on policy changes; delivering the movement into the hands of politicians; a belief that the movement has failed just because it has not yet succeeded.

Stage Seven: Achieving Alternatives
The goal of this stage is to recognize a movement’s success, empower activists and their organizations to act effectively, and to achieve objectives and demands within a new model or way of thinking about the issue. A successful social movement can gain objectives that, although grudgingly yielded by the powerholders, introduce a new and better way of operating and being that benefits all. Each movement needs to develop an endgame which makes sense in terms of its own goals and situation.

Stage Eight: Consolidation and Moving On
Movement leaders need to protect and extend the successes achieved. The successful movement becomes a midwife to other social movements. Not only can the movement celebrate the specific changes it gained but also celebrate the ripple effect it has on other aspects of society and future movements.

Good resource book: Building Powerful Community Organizations by Michael Jacoby Brown available at Reach and Teach.

A Force More Powerful (also available from Reach and Teach) is a great video game that teaches non-violent organizing principals in a fun and challenging way.

Also check out 10 Elements of an Ideal Organizer (according to Saul Alinsky).


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