Examples – from 350.org and beyond – about ways people handled campaign losses in healthy, soul-giving, and strategic ways. The examples are from the following campaigns:
- Sweden and Brown Coal / Lignite
- US Immigrant Rights
- Canada’s Keystone 1
This presentation is shared as part of the Organising Story-telling Lab, a collection of different case studies and stories of organising and movements from across the globe collated and presented by 350.org.
The story telling lab weaves lessons from a range of stories and perspectives, including people close to the ground and nationally.
Each case draws out lessons from the people involved and concludes with broader generalisations. Whilst these case studies are focused on 350 and the climate movement the lessons learned and reflections are applicable to any campaign.
See the original slides on the 350.org Organising Story-telling lab. The Commons has also shared the presentation below and made minor formatting edits to the original such as adding headings and quotes.
Campaigns Sometimes Lose!
Setting ambitious goals means we may not succeed. Reaching for the stars means we sometimes miss. But the alternative is worse – picking goals only deemed easily winnable by the political times.
Real social change requires ambitious campaigns – and sometimes we lose.
The emotional feelings with a campaign loss can be severe:
- anger, and
It is a strategically challenging moment – offering fuel for future fights even as it may feel like dying embers.
What follows are examples – from 350 and beyond – about ways people handled those losses in healthy, soul-giving, and strategic ways.
1. Case Study – Sweden and Lignite: The Possibility of Loss
Swedish Power Company Vattenfall announced Plans to sell its Brown Coal (Lignite) Operations. With Secret Negotiations and no Environmental Plans, this would violate Sweden’s commitment to The Paris Agreement. Already Vattenfall’s Coal-Fired Power Plants account for more than twice as auch Co-Emissions as the rest of Sweden.
Groups tried to convince the government to stop the sale and close operations. By late June 2016, it looked unlikely to win.
Sharing feelings with others
Olivia Linander wrote a blog, Preparing for a climate loss, to prepare folks for the loss.
Today broke it for me. I cried in a friend’s arms for a half hour. I noticed that what I felt was fear. Very strong fear. And I know now what I’m afraid of…
I fear that the government will approve a deal that will lead to greater carbon dioxide release than Sweden will ever have the power to stop again.
I’m afraid of the consequences when countries see that “even Sweden” refuses to leave the coal in the ground, and thus realize that despite the Paris Agreement they can be totally irresponsible.
I’m afraid that we will lose our fighting embers at such a huge loss and that I will not succeed at preventing it.
I’m afraid that those who experienced their first climate activism will feel their struggle was in vain. The list of my fears does not simply stop there, but is as long as a list of all the climatic disasters that await the world…
Fear and anxiety are hardly surprising in this context. The climate threat, as well as other injustices, is scary. Because it’s dangerous….
But believe together we can be stronger by talking openly about our fear, sadness and anger; about love, optimism and hope. For me it’s strategy, too.
The Blog concluded with suggestions…
I would therefore like to share with you my own strategy for the near future:
- Do not cling desperately onto the hope of a sensible decision when it seems unlikely. Think realistically about different scenarios.
- Feel. Express the feelings you have. Share them openly with others to build common emotional readiness.
- Be ready for the wave of feelings that follow the announcement by talking about this with friends, to make sure we are ready to take care of each other. Be prepared that you may need time for the news to get over those feelings; sadness, fear, anger and more.
- At work: Prepare ahead of time press releases, email blasts, blog, text, etc. I do not expect to be my most strategic and articulate self after the announcement.
- Take time off in the evenings (not working myself to death) and hang out with people who are also affected by the news, talk about feelings, talk about the future.
- Physical activity of any kind.
- Plan a live broadcast on the climate movement’s future with speakers from different organizations/movements about fights ahead – on what’s next.
I hope to succeed with most things on this list. If not, I know that there are people to hug and talk to in order to maintain our fighting spirit…..
Let us hope – and work to ensure – that we are wrong and the government does the only sensible thing and keeps all that carbon in the ground. And let’s be ready emotionally – including for more activism – if it does not.
People responded with appreciation – and it opened space for reflection and healing in the movement.
2. Case Study – US Immigrant Rights: Experiencing a Sudden Loss
Faith-Based Group – New Sanctuary Movement NSW – is one among many grassroots groups fighting for justice for immigrants in ihe United States. They were hopeful when President Obama issued an Executive Order creating a process for some undocumented immigrants to become legal citizens.
But in Late June 2016, a split Supreme Court decision resulted in voiding Obama’s decision, and it left thousands of people in the cold, including several of New Sanctuary’s leaders.
Bringing People Together
Peter Pedemonti’s (NSW Director) called for a collective debriefing.
When I got the news I was in a workshop with elders from different movements. I asked them for advice. An older African-American pastor said,
When you hit a wall, there is a time of weeping together. Then you get up and you turn – you pivot – you find a way around the wall and keep going.
That set me in a direction. Instead of jumping to quick action responses (press calls and telling people our plan), I felt like we needed to first take care of ourselves.
So we designed a community meeting a few days later – not to come up with a plan of responses – but just for the immigrant community to process together.
In our faith traditions, we mourn together. In the past, we used to have that kind of community mourning together – and we needed that.
Expecting grief and anger Peter’s plan for the meeting was:
- Opening Song, Prayer and Go-around (name/congregation/how they were feeling)
- Large-group: Update about what the decision means (Share facts about what happened)
- Small groups: Share what’s in your heart right now? How are you feeling?
- In the large group, give space for people to share those feelings (His note to himself: If there is space, use this conversation to also do political education)
- Water/Wine Ritual
Place a bowl in the center, surrounded by cups of wine/grape juice. Give everyone a cup of water. Explain the water represents our tears, sadness, and rage. “In this time of grieving. although we’ve lost and though our hearts our broken, we know that this loss is not the end of the story.” Each person comes forward and pours their “water of tears” into the communal bowl. Everyone takes a cup of wine/grape juice, symbolising joy and abundance and celebration. Each passes their cup of wine to their neighbor, with a blessing. Drink together.
- Close with a prayer
Surprisingly, the group didn’t want to talk about how sad they were in our go-around, people talked about hopefulness and started talking strategy. So I made the decision to leave the original design and shift in-the-moment.
What Actually Happened at the Meeting
During the go-around people talked about “how this is a small loss but we have faith we will ultimately win.” Instead of talking about feelings, they moved immediately to strategy, like voting and why Trump can’t be allowed to win. A number talked about voting as a way to win.
Rather than inflict a design that didn’t match, he adapted his design to listen to where people were (what some call their primary process). He knew the secondary process – the sadness and rage underneath – was present and he would create space for that. But he would meet people on their own terms.
“So I followed their conversation,” he said, and used a political education tool to talk about how voting is one kind of power – but we have to build movement power. We used the moment for political education.
Then they still got to the very sweet heart-felt ritual.
So Peter’s Actual Meeting Design:
- Opening Song, Prayer, and Go-around (name/congregation/how they were feeling)
- Impromptu large-group discussion about what to do next, focussing especially on voting
- Chair Power – A political education tool from Theatre of the Oppressed, where a series of chairs are placed in the center. People are asked, “Which is the most powerful?” Through conversation, we build a more complex sense of power – noticing different ways power can be utilised. Peter then used this to teach people about movement power, in contrast to power of official institutions. Movement power comes from the grassroots.
- Application of this lesson: small groups talk about how we engage more people and build our movement’s power (not merely voting, but shifting the balance of power). Share lessons in large group.
- Water/Wine Ritual
- Close with a prayer.
How’d it go?
I came to this meeting really heart-broken and sad and angry. It was healing to me to listen to people talking about their hope and determination – it helped me click into my hope, too.
If we had had that meeting the night of the decision, it would have been different. People had already done some of the emotional processing and so were not as sad as expected. But being flexible was really important to this.
I do think it was really good in a ritual to create space for touching the grief. It opened up more than just talking.
Either way, the act of being together was really helpful. It reminds us that we can’t and don’t do any of this alone. When we win, we win together. And it’s important that when we lose, we lose together – and we don’t follow the temptation of despair to pull back from the group. Instead, we come together so we can move forward together.
3. Case Study – Canada’s Keystone I: A Clear-Cut Defeat
Before massive opposition to Keystone Xl, Clayton Thomas-Muller and other Native Peoples were fighting against Keystone I. They saw Keystone I as the beginning of a new Canadian carbon rush – as dozens of new pipeline projects began to transport dirty Tar Sands.
Though allies and funding were limited, they mounted an effort to stop the planned pipeline, which stretched 1,853 miles through Native Territory in Canada and the U.S. They organised native communities across the footprint, in protest and ceremony, to Oppose The Project.
But despite all their efforts, the Pipeline was built. In June 2010, Keystone I went into operation. Within its first year it dad 11 spills, including one spill of seventeen-thousand gallons of crude oil.
Clayton Thomas Muller on how the Community Responded…We lost that campaign. It kicked me in the teeth. It kicked the Indigenous Environmental Network in the teeth.
The mood of folks that we were working with was a feeling of injustice.
People were feeling the reality that we deal with everyday. Indigenous peoples are used to this kind of back-and-forth and the very real need to carry on. The feeling was one of definitely a downer.
But people also had a sense: We really gave it to them. We really challenged them. What Keystone I did was created a line in the sand. It showed our people it was a viable strategy: expanding media, uniting people.
We then had to decide:
- Do we continue?
- Do we position ourselves to take on future pipelines?
- Do we have faith that people are going to follow us?
Figuring out Next Steps
There was a series with community meetings and ceremonies to advise us community campaigners. We prayed about it – pipe ceremony and sweat lodge.
At Tom Goldtooth’s sweat lodge, we’d go into ceremony and pray about this stuff. It came from a spiritual place. We sat with folks. “What should we do? There’s this other pipeline, called Keystone XL. So what should we do? We have all this earned media? We’ve injected this conversation, at least in Indian country?”
Those are the questions we took to our bundles.
At those meetings, we got approval from Tom Goldtooth and other leaders to continue.
And what they developed was a next step that expanded on their campaign – rooted in their strengths they had built – media and uniting the Native community.
Use Momentum from the Losing Campaign to Grow the Movement
We reached out to like 12 different tribes from the Texas Alabama-Coushatta Tribe, the Sac and Fox in Oklahoma, and more, meeting with a bunch of people we didn’t know. I met with landowners. And all of them told, “We just did this big scrap – and we lost, but there’s one of these coming your way. This is going to threaten your water.”
Avatar [the movie] was big at the time. A friend of mine from Amazon Watch happened to be seeing director James Cameron at a party. I was like, “Can you give him this letter?” It was an invitation we helped write from the Dené and Cree people to visit the Tar Sands. We knew media. So we developed a strategy to use James Cameron to put Tar Sands on the front pages – even on Oprah Winfrey.
‘Losing’ must be put in Perspective
The loss from our perspective, was a learning moment. The Keystone I wasn’t just about winning. It was about knowing my enemy, knowing their ambitions. Knowing who we were and what we have and needed.
Getting James Cameron was huge and put Tar Sands on the map. Without the loss of Keystone I, I don’t think Cameron would have come.
I think that through the loss at Keystone, I raised the profile of a massive, much bigger issue. We caught these guys trying to silently operate, that was going to hard-wire a new industry in our country.
But we continued anyways. The result was funders – who told us pipelines never win – finally came on board. And we did our part to stopping Keystone XL.
I know the ancestors got my back – and so can’t I lose. Keystone I ended up being a mechanism to put out a big basket to bring more energy to our struggle.
So What are We Learning?
Let’s review key lessons from these examples.
1. Meet People Where They Are
If people are feeling emotional, they need to be met at that level. It’s no use talking strategy to people who are stuck in emotional turmoil.
Meet your people where they are – finding rituals and processes to match their internal states. Like Peter Pedemonti, if you have a plan and the people are in a different state – adjust to match their primary process.
Affirm whatever is the primary process.
2. Normalise People’s Different Reactions
Whatever people’s primary process, there is also a vibrant secondary process: grief, sadness, anger, despair, shock and a range of other feelings. In a way, losses like this are traumatizing – and each person reacts in different ways. Our reactions are normal reactions to injustices.
Use every opportunity to normalise those reactions. For example, use the Diversity Welcome to welcome all feelings. (For example: “Welcome everyone feeling pissed… disappointed… not eating…”)
3. Collective Debriefing
Create space for the community to come together. It’s best if it’s face-to-face. People need to see each other and feel each other’s reactions.
Use that space to normalise people’s reactions and just to be together.
Include rituals known to your community, or introduce them to new rituals to share and unite together.
4. Making Meaning of the ‘Loss’
It’s not enough to just emotionally acknowledge the loss. Collective meaning must be made of the experience.
Even through the loss, paint a bigger picture. How does this fit into the broader movement?
Without minimising the loss, begin to answer:
- What lessons have we learned from the campaign?
- What achievements have we made?
Even wrestle with the painful questions:
- What would we do differently?
5. Move Forward
Use anger and momentum from the loss to regroup and expand. Lean on strengths from the last campaign to decide what’s next.
In the broad sweep of the climate change movement, this may become a turning point for other wins down the road. Perhaps new leaders are skilled up to move on to other campaigns.
Be open and share the hard lessons on what went wrong, so others in the movement can change course.
Read about a campaign that routinely lost and kept moving forward in the book Strategy and Soul by Daniel Hunter.
At the end, our loss wasn’t because we failed. We did the right thing and we did our part. It’s the government and corporations that failed us, that failed to protect the land and failed to live up to their values. We have to keep doing the right things! – Jojo McVeagh from the Save Happy Valley Campaign
- What to do when we ‘lose’
Some important lessons on dealing with loss from a recent generation-defining struggle in New Zealand: the Save Happy Valley Campaign.
- Movements and leaders have seasons – it’s important to know which one you are in
Learning to attune to the cycles of our own leadership can help us know when to do the right thing at the right time.
- How to un-do a ‘done deal’ with Strategy and Soul
- Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan and Four Roles of Activism
- Ayni Institute – Strategic Capacity: Seasons Course
- Surviving the ups and downs of social movements
- How do we keep going? Activist burnout and personal sustainability in social movements
- 10 Great Resources on Activist Wellbeing
- Organising Stories and Lessons from the 350 Organising Story Telling Lab