Join | Login

Principles for Promoting Social Change



Lead others to active involvement by encouraging, reinforcing, and supporting their political participation.

Encouragement. After presenting your message, it is important to encourage and support your audience for whatever level of commitment they feel able to make. This tells people that, no matter what they choose, they and their decisions will be appreciated and respected. Betsy Corner and Randy Kehler were willing to lose their home for their principles. Wally Nelson was willing to risk his life fasting in jail in their support, should that have proven necessary. But everyone is not a Betsy, Randy, or Wally. One of the reasons cited by many for their ongoing participation in the Colrain mass action was the fact that, from the very beginning, everyone was urged only to take whatever steps they felt comfortable taking; to only make whatever sacrifice they truly desired to make. There was no "Holier than thou" or "one participant is valued more than another" attitude. Consequently, people from all over the country, some of whom had paid all their taxes, along with some who had endured years of jail themselves refusing to pay, could all join together in keeping the 24-hour vigil alive week after week, month after month.

Proper Training. Education and training will also encourage people to take on new roles. Pacifists may move from a theoretical stance into actual civil disobedience if effective training in non-violence is offered before a suggested action. People who have previously walked in marches may be willing to monitor and help others in peacekeeping training and orientation. This will increase the rookie's confidence to participate, as s/he will be more familiar with what to expect.

Demonstration. An action that is demonstrated as socially acceptable will make it more likely that others will emulate that action. During the Reagan years, for example, when Nicaragua was portrayed as an evil Communist threat to this country, many areas successfully adopted the "sister city" approach. It encouraged people to begin "respectable" activities such as collecting pencils and notebooks for school children in their "sister" town in Nicaragua.

Observing credible or familiar people doing an action also increases participation. When the war tax resisters in Colrain wanted to underscore the importance of spending federal revenues on creating homes rather than bombing them, they organized a Swords into Plowshares building action, along the lines of Habitat for Humanity. In addition to the powerful symbolism, they created an effective visual presentation illustrating familiar local business and individual participation in the actual building process. Sharing this at a neighborhood house meeting had a delightful "snowballing" effect!

Public Commitment. When many people commit to or for an action, it facilitates emulation of that action. Drawing another example from the Nicaragua-Reagan era, there was the national Pledge of Resistance: people committed as a group in advance in order to resist invasion in Central America through civil disobedience. In this way, it was possible for people to take part who might not have done so in isolation. Thus, you can stimulate a self-fulfilling prophecy, by appealing to an individual's or group's stated principles.

Drawing on people's past commitment to a principle increases the chance they will act in a consistent manner again. For example, appealing to the positive image of Unitarians, a young woman quietly states, "Our church has always been known for being welcoming to all, welcoming the poor, refusing to discriminate against people of color. That's why I trust that this is a safe place to come out as a lesbian." The response she received?--not only the acceptance she sought but also an answer to the question, "How can our church be sure other gay and lesbian young people know we'd welcome them as well?"

When asking for help, remember that effective help is usually mutual help; it is a two-way street. For example, the Palestinian groups that provide schools and health clinics for their people are consequently more likely to get their beneficiaries to reciprocate and support them if they call for a work stoppage.

It is important to influence the attitude of your audience toward the particular action you desire. For example, do not assume that a favorable attitude toward preserving the rain forest will naturally lead others to write to Congress or volunteer time on the issue. Stress the reasons why it is important to write or volunteer time.

Positive Reinforcement. It is important to have a system established so that people benefit materially and/or psychologically after taking actions. One reason walk-a-thons have proven so successful is that they not only have a whole schedule of prizes, t-shirts, etc., but they also offer the chance for a great day outdoors; a way to spend time with family or friends; a sharing of mutual commitment with others; a sense of participation in something bigger than oneself; and visibility in one's community--especially when the route is in a well-populated area. (It is important to remember that except for that smaller minority whose only motivation is to advance the cause, most people have personal life motivations as well that affect their participation.)

Reinforcements that encourage people to actively participate also increase the likelihood they will want to get involved with an issue. Hunger groups have effectively used this principle in designing Hunger Banquets, where by "luck-of-the-draw," they experience what it is like to eat only rice and beans while watching others have a full meal (or what it is like to be one of the rare few sitting at the table, being watched by the multitude of hungry others). The Million Man March of Black males on Washington gave participants an experience of united energy that mere words could not have produced.

Therefore, if you want people to participate, and continue participating, provide for their larger needs simultaneously (e.g., community, recognition, purpose, inspiration, sense of connection to something "bigger" in a historical context). One big event, such as the Million Man March, or other simultaneous events woven into the fabric of your ongoing project, can do much to keep activists from "burning out."

Structure and Support. Volunteer action can be facilitated with some support and structure. In other words, for most people, the easier and more convenient it is to undertake an action, the more likely is their participation. Can people raise funds for you simply by using your cause's credit card? Can they influence a legislator on your behalf by being part of 20/20's easy letter writing campaign? Can you offer volunteers limited time involvement by recruiting many people, giving each a structured task that takes only a couple of hours a month? Starting with small commitments, which many people are able to complete, is often the first step to a larger involvement.

People feel more comfortable taking on a risk if they understand its necessity and its connection to the "bigger" picture. Work-a-thon organizers in Massachusetts had little trouble attracting volunteers when they explained how people could "feed two birds with one seed." Their work would help a local housing structure get a new coat of paint, while their pledges would generate money for a new housing project in El Salvador!

Similarly, people are more likely to participate in an action when it speaks to their sense of responsibility. Organizers of a photo/ biological exhibit of women who had died from breast cancer received a good response because their partners/children/friends understood the importance of sharing lessons learned from the experience of other women.

Emphasizing the connection between your work, the desired action you wish people to engage in, and the life concerns of those people (if you know that) can also increase active commitment. Coca-Cola boycott organizers, for example, helped college students in America identify with the educational conditions faced by young people in apartheid South Africa. The organizers then increased boycott participation by connecting those conditions to the investment practices of multinational corporations like Coca-Cola. People's level of participation depends on the belief that their actions, in conjunction with others, will collectively lead to a change. The more effective people feel, the more likely they will participate. During the time of the civil rights bus boycott, the Black bus riders of Montgomery, Alabama, may not individually have had the power to attract the bus company, but when asked to collectively come together and support each other, they became a mighty force.

Similarly, people are more likely to become involved if they can contribute with the skills they already possess or tasks they enjoy doing, be it speaking, number crunching, cooking, painting, or stuffing envelopes.

Active Participation. Most importantly, people actively putting themselves and all of their energy "out there" for an issue has a marked effect on them: the large amount of energy expended requires justification; that is, they themselves become more committed to that particular cause and will consequently support it more vigorously. Habitat for Humanity draws people into a concern for housing inequities as it draws on their carpentry skills; peace walks deepen people's convictions about "peace as the way" as they walk the talk.

Finally, participating in another's experience can also move people effectively. Many people gave more than a passing thought to the different experiences of the deaf community after having been exposed to the signers at Sweet Honey in the Rock and Holly Near concerts. Urban Americans grasped the true experience of "illegal immigrants" from south of the border after viewing the potent movie El Norte.

Previous    Next

The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues / / last updated May 10, 2000