By Joe Solomon
Learn from research on anti-abortion activists and Joe Solomon’s personal experience with his brother’s transformation on how to bring people into your movement.
This article is from a book blog project called “Rough Waters Ahead: Holding on for Young & Rising Climate Change Activists” by Joe Solomon. This is from Chapter 29 – Actions > Awareness.
What the Research Shows
I think there’s a part of me that wishes mobilizing the planet was as easy as being right.
That if we just explained ourselves, if we worded our Facebook posts with exact precision, if we engaged in the comments with tact and research, that if we calmly brought the facts to the dinner table, that we’d turn everyone over to our side.
Actually, I know that there’s a part of me that wishes all we had to do was master the art of persuasion.
It would certainly make things a lot easier.
And yet: the research shows a different story.
There’s some fascinating evidence that makes the case for why actions are our best tools for generating awareness (and not the other way around). It comes from the pro-life movement (oh, if only climate activists had nabbed this moniker first).
The pro-life movement, or rather the anti-abortion movement, is not where I usually look for movement lessons. That said, I was listening to a webinar with Randall Smith of PowerLabs where he kind of rocked my world.
Smith highlighted how a sociologist, Ziad Munson (who picked up his PhD from Harvard), wanted to understand how it is that anti-abortion activists first got involved. After all, if you’ve ever hung outside a health center that offers abortion services, you know that the anti-abortion folks are some of the most turned up and dedicated activists around (I’m not condoning their passion for prohibiting women from accessing healthcare – far from it – but it’s intense!). Munson wanted to understand how these folks got that way. So he did interviews with 132 anti-abortion leaders and activists.
And what Munson found was startling.
Almost half of the anti-abortion activists he interviewed on the frontlines were not anti-abortion when they attended their first event. Indeed: 23% were pro-choice when they joined their first event. 23%! Were pro-choice! (Another 20% started out undecided.)
In other words, on day one, about ¼ of anti-abortion activists believed in the right to abortion. Isn’t that wild?
It quickly became clear to Munson that for many of these activists, they didn’t arrive to their first barricade as fully-ready, aware-to-the-tilt preaching anti-abortion advocates—the barricades made them that way.
Munson dug deeper into what led to these peoples’ transformations. What led people who were normally not quite so pumped, and certainly not rabid, to head down such a rabbit hole? What was it about those barricades?
What Munson found was that it was relationships, and feeling part of a bigger whole that helped people gel into their anti-abortion beliefs. Munson found something else interesting too: that people who evolved into an anti-abortion activist were more likely to be at a significant turning point in their life.
People who had just graduated high school or college, moved to a new city, started a new family, were newly retired, etc.
This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, it seems more intuitive that thoughts guide actions. I want a glass of lemonade, then I drink a glass of lemonade. It’s not quite: I drink a glass of lemonade and then realize I wanted one.
As activists, it’s a go-to belief that awareness leads to actions. That if we raise peoples’ awareness: if we win ’em over with pile-ons of facebook posts, kick-ass news articles, brilliantly cut inspiring videos, that eventually they’ll want to get as turned up as we are.
However, what Munson’s research shows and what PowerLabs’ work with over a dozen movement-oriented groups demonstrate (including the Sunrise Movement), is that the best way to move people is to first get them in the door.
That the secret to winning people over is not to worry about winning them over—it’s to let the magic of feeling welcome and held do the work for you.
And beyond feeling part of something–giving people something to do. “The best kind of persuasion is self-persuasion through the work,” Randall explained to me. “Whether that’s canvassing, or phone banking, or getting people to attend a rally.”
My Brother’s Transformation
Before I saw Randall Smith’s webinar or heard about Ziad Munson’s research, I saw an example of this kind of transformation play out with someone close to me.
It happened with my brother.
One of my brothers, Mat, is four years older than me. Mat has a heart of gold and would give anything to help his friends, even if it meant spending his last dollar. Growing up, he’d always share his french fries with me (I would never return the favor).
And as for as long I can remember Mat’s leaned in the direction of conservative politics. He could spout conservative talking points from FOX News. Mat would bash Obama, and make fun of me for wanting to “save the world.” He’s been so infused with Bill O’Reilly propaganda, I’d long since given up on trying to rope him into my world.
This story goes back to when I was living in Burlington, Vermont.
Mat came to visit me, and at the time it looked like he would even move to Burlington. When he first arrived, he didn’t have any friends yet. And I was always bustling about, going to different activist things.
So one day I asked Mat if he wanted to come to a meeting that Rising Tide Vermont was hosting. The meeting was fully focused on action prep. The group was getting ready to interrupt an event at the University of Vermont where a Shell oil executive had been invited to give a talk. We were going to, you know, shut the talk down.
The plan was for us, as local activists, to sit in different parts of the audience and then wait for the speaker to be introduced. We would then stand up, in staggered beats, and state facts about how Shell was poisoning communities across the globe.
My friends didn’t know anything about Mat other than that he was my brother. They didn’t know he’d probably be just as likely to go to a rally about greenlighting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
At one point in the meeting we realized we needed to document the interruption. So one of the lead organizers said, “Hey Mat, we could use a videographer…. wanna hold the camera when we roll out?”
And Mat didn’t just say yes, he was pumped.
Perhaps more than most, my brother loves being included. He took the camera and learned the basics. And when the action night came, he was ready. As the Rising Tide activists started to pop out of our chairs and read our facts, Mat was there, zooming in.
He filmed us with abandon that night, getting different angles, maneuvering through the surprised room as a delightful chaos ensued – eager to show us the footage afterwards.
Mat continued to return to the Rising Tide meetings for the few weeks that he stayed in Burlington. And years later, long after Mat left the Green Mountain State, Mat still reminisces. He remembers the night well, even though beyond Mat helming the camera, my memory of what went down is super fuzzy. I think we shut down the talk — either that or the rest of the executive’s talk was super awkward.
And what’s interesting is, since that event Mat’s also been against fracking. He still listens to conservative talk shows on the radio but when it comes to fracking, he’s hard set against it.
I believe Mat’s story speaks to climate fence-sitters writ large, while showing Munson’s research in action.
When you approach someone who thinks climate change is a hoax or a natural phenomenon or what have you, you’re asking them to admit they’re wrong. And nobody, nobody wants to do that. If you approach them with community, you’re asking them to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And that’s what everybody dreams of.
And Mat was offered a way to contribute: the Rising Tide organizers had good instincts to create as many roles as possible for the action, and then ask new people to try them out.
Mat was also new to Burlington, Vermont—he was at a crossroads. This was another one of the indicators Munson identified for being a fertile bed for powerful transformation. While many of our new recruits may not be new to our town, or just graduated, or what have you—we are all at a crossroads now. The planet is literally spinning towards a future we’ve never witnessed. The fires and floods mean we’re all somewhat adrift, having left a world that was safer, headed towards one in ever more peril.
The question, more and more, is how well do we pull people together, as the world threatens to tear us apart?
The question, more and more, is: how do we build movements that welcome people—that offer and support these pathways of transformation?
As we seek to build movement groups in our backyards, how do we avoid them turning “clubbish” or “clique-ish” or holier-than-thou righteous, and instead make them a haven for people to find themselves? How do we multiply the stories of my brother a million-fold?
Continue reading… Chapter 30: Building Welcoming Movements.
Note: The Commons Library has added headings and quote marks.
- Evidence-based suggestions for volunteer recruitment and teams by Randall Smith, PowerLabs
- Rough Waters Ahead by Joe Solomon – A book of stories + lessons learned for young & rising climate activists.
- Efficacy is Essential for Taking Action
- The Intertwine Charter: Going beyond anti-discrimination and towards pro-active change to welcome others
- PowerLabs Collection