By Doyle Canning, Patrick Reinsborough
In this excerpt from Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning outline the points of intervention available to campaigners and make suggestions about how to best target each of them. For examples of how activists have successfully done so in Australia go here.
Points of intervention are specific places in a system where a targeted action can effectively interrupt the functioning of the system and open up opportunities for change. By understanding these different points, organizers can develop a strategy that identifies the best places to intervene in order to have the greatest impact. – Reinsborough and Canning, 2017
Social Change as Intervention
Intervention is an action meant to change the course of events. It can take many forms, but generally means interacting or interfering with a situation, physical space, institution, audience, social structure, system, or narrative, with the intent of shifting popular understanding. Often this is called taking “direct action.” Direct action is an age-old method to make positive changes in the world by acting directly as an individual, group, or a community rather than waiting for some intermediary to do something. From a community putting up their own radio transmitter to give voice to local residents, to mass civil disobedience to physically shut down a corporate war profiteer, to reclaiming public land to grow food, direct action is an established, common-sense remedy for social problems.
Intervention is a useful general term for this direct action spirit to capture any effort where people step out of their traditional, scripted roles (passive consumers, spectators, disempowered nobodies, etc.) and challenge the dominant expectation of obedience. Intervention is often a tactic within a broader strategy, but it also represents a political ethic of creating fundamental change at the deepest levels of power relations. When a creative intervention is effective, it can shift power relationships and leave an imprint of new possibilities on the collective imagination.
Intervention is one of the easiest and most effective ways to change a story. Social change forces don’t have equal access to the privately owned infrastructure of mass media and communication, thus we often need to creatively tell our stories through our actions. In the classic words of the progressive radio news commentator Wes “Scoop” Nisker: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”
Points of intervention are specific places in a system where a targeted action can effectively interrupt the functioning of the system and open up opportunities for change. By understanding these different points, organizers can develop a strategy that identifies the best places to intervene in order to have the greatest impact. Narrative Power Analysis reminds us that interventions at physical points can go beyond disrupting a system to pose a deeper challenge to underlying assumptions and legitimacy.
Social movements have traditionally intervened at physical points in the systems that shape our lives: the point of production where goods are produced (such as a factory or farm), the point of destruction where resources are extracted or an injustice is most visible (such as a coal mine or a site of police brutality), the point of consumption where products are purchased (such as a store or ticket counter) and the point of decision where the power-holders are located (such as a corporate headquarters or a politician’s office).
Well-designed interventions at physical points can go beyond simply disrupting a system to pose a deeper challenge to its underlying assumptions and perceived legitimacy. This holds true whether it is a physical system, such as fossil fuel extraction, or an ideological system like racism, sexism, or market fundamentalism. Through the lens of story-based strategy, we can see points of intervention that operate not only in physical space, but also within dominant narratives.
Points of Intervention are the places in a system where taking action can make change. Social movements have a long history of taking action where production, consumption, destruction, or decision-making is happening. Story-based strategy helps us expand these efforts to envision interventions into the narratives that shape popular understanding by taking action at the point of assumption.
Point of Production
Action at the point of production is the foundational insight of the labor movement. Workers organize to target the economic system where it directly affects them, and where that system is most vulnerable—at the site of production. Strikes, picket lines, work slowdowns, and factory takeovers are all common point-of-production actions. Other points of production are factory farms or facilities where new products or technologies are created.
Strikes like the famous 1936-7 sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, have been instrumental to expanding worker organizing and building unions. This spirit lives on today as in 2008 when over 200 workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago responded to their bankrupt company’s plan to not pay them their wages (a violation of federal labor law) by occupying their shuttered factory. It was at the beginning of the so-called Great Recession and the dramatic intervention immediately won widespread public support, including from then President-elect Barack Obama! After six days, the action won new concessions from the company’s creditors and the workers received their just compensation. The workers continued organizing and eventually launched their own cooperatively owned, worker-run factory, New Era Windows, in 2013.
Flint sit-down strikers celebrating victory at the point of production in an occupied factory, 1937 (Public domain)
Point of Destruction
A point of destruction is where harm or an injustice is actually occurring in its most blatant form. It could be the place where industrial resource extraction like mining, drilling, or logging is happening, or the site of obvious oppression like the location of a police shooting. The point of destruction can also be the place where the waste from the point of production is dumped—an effluent pipe in a river, diesel emissions along a trucking route, or a leaky toxic waste dump.
Starting in 1987, members of the Penan indigenous resistance in the Malaysian state of Sarawak blockaded illegal logging roads built in their traditional homelands. The Penan’s movement to protect the rainforests helped inspire North American direct action techniques of tree sitting and road blockades to stop industrial logging.
Intervening at a specific point of destruction can be an effective strategy for exposing a broader systemic problem. For instance in 2010 Arizona passed SB 1070, a draconian, anti-immigrant law allowing police to racially profile and demand people show proof-of-citizenship or risk immediate arrest pending possible deportation. On the first day that it was to be implemented, community members and allies in Phoenix blockaded the jail of infamous racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio to prevent him making any arrests. The action showed the world that Arizonians would not allow racist attacks on undocumented community members to go unchallenged.3
It is critical to bring public attention to the point of destruction because it is almost always (by design) out of the public eye. In many cases, the point of destruction is made invisible by distance, oppressive assumptions, or ignorance. Power-holders have a long track record of locating extractive operations and polluting facilities in communities with less political power. From remote rural and wilderness areas, to polluted inner cities, impacted communities frequently mobilize to take action at the point of destruction.
Intervention at this point can halt the practice in the moment, as well as dramatize the larger battle of the story around the issue.
Poster celebrating a protest camp and blockade which held up the destruction of the Unist’otʼen clan’s traditional territory in British Columbia, Canada from 2019 to 2020. Poster by Jesse Purcell/Just Seeds.
Point of Consumption
The point of consumption is the place where we interact with a product or service that is linked to injustice. Point of consumption actions are the traditional arena of consumer boycotts and storefront demonstrations. Examples include: the civil rights movement’s sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counters to confront legalized racial segregation, protesting fossil fuel dependency at gas stations, or efforts to change purchasing habits with memes like “sweatshop free,” “dolphin-safe tuna,” and “fair trade.” The point of consumption is often the most accessible point of intervention in our consumerist society. Point of consumption actions can also be an effective way to influence public opinion around an issue or get the attention of corporate power-holders when lawmakers aren’t listening.
Over the past two decades, “markets campaigns” have emerged as a model that aims to shift the dynamics of an industry by shutting down the market for destructive products. This strategy goes beyond brand-busting and operates with a comprehensive analysis of an industry and its key institutional players. Campaigners have effectively pressured retailers, investors, shareholders, wholesale suppliers, subcontractors, and other links in the chain of production, destruction, and consumption, to meet their demands. Human rights activists have confronted retailers selling sweatshop products. Labor unions have organized workers in the supply chain of their target companies. Forest defenders have pressured companies to stop purchasing wood and paper from old growth forests. Public health crusaders have targeted cosmetics and chemical companies with actions aimed at impacting brand profiles and eroding market share. Intervention at the point of consumption is often useful for creating economic pressure on a campaign target.
Workers and community allies affiliated with the OURWalmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart) protested at over 1,000 Walmart stores on Black Friday 2012 (the biggest shopping day of the year). By targeting the point of consumption they leveraged their campaign for higher wages and more dignified working conditions.
Fairwear anti-sweatshop action at the point of consumption, Melbourne, 2004. Photo by Peter Cahill
Point of Decision
The point of decision is the location of the power-holders who possess the ability to meet the campaign’s demand. Whether taking over a slumlord’s office, bursting into a corporate boardroom, or protesting at the state capitol, many successful campaigns have used some form of action at the point of decision to put pressure on the key decision-makers.
The point of decision can seem very self-evident, but power structures aren’t always transparent in how they operate. Sometimes a campaign needs to target a decision-maker whose role has not been part of the public discussion. Point-of-decision actions that unmask hidden interests or challenge assumptions about who is responsible for a problem can help reframe an issue. For instance, when community activists fighting an unjust policy don’t target the political decision-makers (who perhaps have ignored them) but instead go after their financial backers. Or when a well-known company is held responsible for the actions of a distant subsidiary they own. In these cases action at the point of decision can help tell an important story about how power is operating and what is needed to make change.
In 2011 the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which was intended to transport Canadian Tar Sands oil into the U.S., was a little-known issue. Indigenous rights and climate activists decided to make it a public flash-point by exposing President Obama as having ultimate decision-making power over the project. They mobilized over 1,200 people to engage in civil disobedience at the White House and helped galvanize a national movement around the issue. The strategy of making the pipeline a litmus test for the Obama administration’s action on climate and targeting a specific point of decision helped amplify frontline community voices and build the climate movement. Ultimately the multifaceted campaign forced the U.S. government to reject the project in 2015.
Points of intervention within a narrative are called points of assumption because, the underlying assumptions are what an audience has to believe to interpret the story as true. In order to change stories, we need to shift assumptions because they are the glue that holds the meaning of a narrative together. – Reinsborough and Doyle, 2017
Point of Assumption
The four points of intervention outlined above are interventions in physical space. These points focus on the tangible mechanisms that drive injustice, oppression, and destruction. Historically, social movements have succeeded in winning changes when these physical actions have also changed popular understanding of the issue. This means reframing the problem, building a base of committed people, and winning a critical mass of support for solutions. The end result is a repatterning of popular consciousness to a new story. But how do we make sure our interventions shift the story around the issue in a way that builds the broader momentum for change?
This is where assumptions come back in. Points of intervention within a narrative are called points of assumption because, the underlying assumptions are what an audience has to believe to interpret the story as true. In order to change stories, we need to shift assumptions because they are the glue that holds the meaning of a narrative together. Assumptions are the building blocks of ideology, the DNA of political beliefs. Many assumptions operate best when they remain unexamined. If the underlying assumptions of a dominant story can be exposed as contrary to people’s values or lived experience, belief in the story can be shifted.
Actions at a point of assumption are actions with the explicit goal of changing the story. They focus on intervening in the narratives that obscure, rationalize, or justify the injustices occurring at all the other points. If a point of assumption strategy succeeds it can shift the discourse around an issue and open up new political space. For this reason, the point of assumption is probably the most important of all the points of intervention.
Challenging an assumption is more difficult than merely informing people of something they didn’t previously know. People don’t easily let go of existing beliefs. Shifting an assumption means altering current understanding and requires getting past the target audience’s narrative filters. To succeed, we must apply a narrative power analysis to map out the elements of the story and identify which assumptions we need to target. Since points of assumption within a narrative are often quite ethereal, it can be helpful to combine them with an action at a physical point to make the intervention more tangible.
If the underlying assumptions of a dominant story can be exposed as contrary to people’s values or lived experience, belief in the story can be shifted.
The point of assumption plays out in how the specific intervention challenges the dominant story. There are many ways to intervene at the point of assumption. Depending on the situation, it may mean exposing hypocrisy, reframing the issue, offering an alternative vision, or amplifying the voices of previously silenced characters in the story.
Other Points of Intervention
Note from Commons Librarians: The points discussed in the extract above are by no means exhaustive but serve as an invitation for campaigners to consider where they might best take action. In the book and website Beautiful Trouble Reinsborough and Canning add a sixth point: the Point of Opportunity. They note that “sometimes calendar events present unique chances to draw attention to your cause. These can be religious or commemorative dates, national holidays, or a scheduled visit or speech by a significant figure (such as a CEO or elected official) to your locale.”
Iain McIntyre in his book Environmental Blockades puts forward the Point of Transport as another valuable place to intervene. The Point of Transport can include warehouses, railways, ports and other key points in logistics and supply chains. Actions at these locations allow people to engage in and support workplace struggles as well as to disrupt and draw attention to the movement of raw materials, such as coal and uranium, that will be used for destructive activities. Action at such points can also alert people to the presence and deployment of warships, weapons and troops.
Points of Intervention Planning Tool
Patrick Reinsborough published the following activity in Beautiful Trouble. Use this activity to help your group clarify where it will take action to have impact.
1. Prepare six flip charts, one for each Point of Intervention, and hang them around the training space with room in between each chart. Add the name of the Point of Intervention at the top of each chart, with two columns—PLACE and ACTION—underneath.
- Point of Decision
- Point of Destruction
- Point of Consumption
- Point of Production
- Point of Assumption
- Point of Opportunity
2. Divide the participants into six small teams, one for each Point-of-Intervention chart. Ask them to brainstorm and write down all the locations they can think of for their specific campaign issue, under the PLACE column.
3. Ask each group to move to the next chart and repeat the exercise. Continue to have teams move to the consecutive charts, decreasing the amount of time spent at each.
4. After three or four moves, change it up and ask the teams to focus instead on the ACTION columns. They can read what is in the PLACE column and add specific event ideas accordingly.
5. Finally, hold a free-for-all session where teams can go wherever they are drawn.
6. Then, as a whole group, visit each Point of Intervention chart. Read what is written (either individually or out loud) and ask: What stands out? Any new ideas to add? What can be used immediately, and what can be a kernel for a future event?
To read more about taking action at the point of assumption visit here. To read about examples of Australian actions at different points of intervention visit here and here.
To obtain a copy of Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World visit the publisher PM Press.
Image Credit: Points of Intervention cogs and spanner (image adapted) from Beautiful Trouble.
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