Horizontal Uprising: a model for impact organizing

RAVEN’s presentation on Communications Engagement & Strategy as part of the University of Toronto/Queens University hosted “Watering the Grassroots” conference.

Transcript of talk:

I’m Andrea Palframan, she her pronouns, and I live on the unceded territories of the Hulqiminum speaking peoples, on an island called Chuan or Salt Spring. My work with RAVEN is part of the decolonizing work that really matters if any of our movements are going to succeed: without justice there is no chance for lasting peace or lasting ecological protection. RAVEN exists to level the playing field, so that Indigenous nations can assert their rights in court. We’ve built a diverse movement of people who, behind the leadership of Indigenous Nations, have stopped pipelines, pushed back against open pit mining, and created better laws. 

“The world is something we make. And could just as easily make differently.” — David Graber

In a world that is fragmented, quite deliberately, by outrage and divisiveness, the goal of old structures of power is to isolate, and to talk each one of us out of our agency to make a better world.  

Social Media is an Outrage machine. 

While citizens are more connected to one another, the platforms have discovered that the best way to keep us there is to make outrage contagious. 

Every moral or emotional word used in a tweet increases its virality by 20 percent. 

Posts exhibiting indignant disagreement received nearly twice as much engagement as other types of content on FB. 

You must not let the tail wag you: or you will lose your vision in the pursuit of clicks. 

One of the ways we internalize this fragmentation as organizations is to have haphazard communications that try to adapt to what’s trending in the social media blizzard, instead of being anchored in confident strategy. From there, it’s a slippery slope to exploiting – or being exploited by – the forces that reward inflammatory content above all else. 

One way to get caught up in the outrage machine of social media is to declare, and then defend ideologies rather than organizing around shared goals. 

So this is NOT a talk about how to win at Facebook and Instagram. Rather, it’s a dive into how you can anchor your communications in solid strategy and, hopefully and idealistically, that by leading with messages of love, belonging, repair and redress we can be agents of transformation. 

Our organizations can regain confidence, and begin to build inter-reliant communities by embracing collaborative theories of change and strategic communications approaches. 

Today we’re going to focus on horizontal uprising: 

We hear a lot about top down vs bottom up organizing. That’s all mired in this idea that we need hierarchies at all. I told you it was going to be idealistic! Moving From top-down messaging and control, to distributed organizing aka networked change is all about opening to new sources of power, rather than entrenching them at the imaginary ‘top’ of hierarchies.

Each one of us has our own soapbox now; we are also more likely, in an information saturated world, rely on trusted networks to help us understand the world than on organizations

Diversity is strength. Out of a plurality of methods and understandings comes a more creative and resilient movement. 

This image is meant to symbolize a mycellium network. Mycellium are these fungal pathways that unite trees and plants within a forest ecosystem and act as a communications network. When one tree is in need of nutrients, the mycellia can redistribute them from one of its neighbours; there is no ‘mother mycellia’ : they are all connected and in turn they thrive because they are a collective. If you think of stakeholders – NGOs, organizations, institutions – as trees, then YOU as a grassroots organizer are the mycellium. You are the connective tissue of the activist ecosystem. 

This just makes your communications job soooooo much easier, because instead of needing  to invent a host of stories, you simply build a platform in the media town square, and pass the mic.   Let your cross-movement network speak for itself.

Theory of Change

So, Theory of change is actually a very simple concept. Throughout our work and personal lives we have aims, objectives and ideas about how to achieve our goals, but we rarely take the time to think these through, articulate and scrutinise them. All a theory of change process does is to make these assumptions explicit and therefore more testable.

Recognizing the problems that exist in the world.

Expressing how you are addressing them, and 

Sharing a vision for the outcome – what will the result be if you meet your goals? 

Some examples:

Encompassing the best of the diverse Australian climate movement, Stop Adani is amassing a potent counterpoint to the old power of the coal industry.

Building a movement of settlers and allies to enable Indigenous Nations overcome barriers in access to justice is a strategic pathway towards reconciliation and environmental justice.

To give children and families a healthy and equitable foundation,  we are uniting to force B.C.’s next government to fund high quality, affordable child care for all. 

Exercise – try this at home

The Problem. Our Way: tools, approach, method, activities. The Outcome. 

  1. Describe the need you are trying to address, 
  2. What you are doing
  3. The outcome of your work. 

Test it with 2 questions:  “Does the problem you are trying to solve really matter to anyone?” and “Is the solution you propose realistic and effective?”.

A handy guide: https://www.tascosslibrary.org.au/how-write-theory-change-0

Engagement Spirals

A ladder of engagement is a framework designed to deepen engagement. It works by asking someone to take increasingly important actions, leading up to an ultimate goal. A spiral of engagement is a bit different in that it is iterative: there is no ultimate goal, because once you travel the spiral you return to the beginning, with more skills, to take on fresh and harder challenges. 

  1. Start with easy actions and escalate. 
  2. Collect data on participants as they move, so you can recognize what level people are at when you talk to them. 
  3. Pair with incentives at each step, follow up as people move. 

Know. Care. Act. Inspire. Lead. 

• Know: person is aware of you. Looks at social media, website but no clicks

• Care: follows on social media/blog/subscribes to newsletter/podcast

• Act: shows up at an event, donates, takes advocacy action (petition signatures, letters to editor, call your MP)

• Lead: become an organizer, set up a crowdfunder, host webinars, recruit volunteers. 

• Inspire: set up an “ambassador machine” that equips supporters as organizational advocates & offers them inner circle training, support & mentorship

You guys are all at the Inspire level if you are here at this conference, so let’s focus on that for a sec. 

  • Formalize an amplifier network with a distinct mailing list; send out action alerts. 
  • Enlist bloggers and influencers who can direct new audiences to the campaign. 

A case study. Pull Together

(courtesy of Netchange.co)

Indigenous peoples in Canada have earned powerful constitutional rights over major projects on their lands, yet governments and big business continue to ignore them. Pull Together was created as a grassroots campaign to fund First Nations legal battles and stop unwanted fossil fuel projects, together.

The campaign was designed as a directed network, and its success was based on using four principles. It was most importantly open to people power. Our only engine of growth was our supporters, and all of our stories were about them, never us. Starting with no list or existing base, our growth came organically from people organizing and sharing stories.

We framed a compelling story that tapped into the emotions of people who felt betrayed by pipeline approvals, or moved to put Indigenous reconciliation into action. Our theory of change – that Indigenous lawsuits can stop unwanted projects – was clear. 

Our campaign team’s primary role was to convene cross-movement network hubs. The issue bridged the Indigenous rights, climate justice, and environmental movements, and we spent our time helping others do the work of the campaign. Finally we ran with focus and discipline. We regularly reviewed our metrics  and pivoted towards activities that were achieving the best results while dropping things that weren’t. We watched for and organized around moments of political leverage or media attention. 

Calls to Action

These are Wedded to your engagement spiral, and are actions linked with each turn on the spiral. 

Give people important yet powerful things to do – organize film screenings, attend town halls, participate in bank/corporate actions, phone calling days, and days of action. Each action builds capacity, story, momentum, and confidence until your group becomes a major force for change. 

Be specific. GOOD: Donate, Organize, Fundraise. BAD: We must shift to renewable energy. 

Keep it simple. GOOD: Click here to register. BAD: Show up on this day. 

Build in feedback loops. GOOD: Thanks for attending our “Training webinar”. Now: host your own event with crowdfunding. BAD: We’re the experts, let us do it. 

Training: Offered toolkits, webinars, and mentoring to volunteers who went on to lead over 200 community events.  

Feedback Loop: All of our stories were about them, never us.  We used those stories to drive more media attention. 

Open source: brand was easy to re-mix and share, and not associated with any particular NGO. 

Simple: instead of making time-consuming/complex graphics, we used photos, videos, and footage from events to create a sense of momentum.

We are the storytelling animal. 

Most messages still play to our intellect rather than our emotions. In the impact organizing space – where we all live – there is a force of critique and callouts to old powers that can overwhelm the message of transformation and create an insider language, and even an orthodoxy, that makes your space unfriendly or even unsafe for newcomers.

Stories break that apart, because stories make issues relatable, while drawing an arc from Setup to Confrontation to Resolution. We are wired for story; unlike slogans, stories call us to engage with empathy and imagination – bypassing our biases. 

The most powerful advocacy messages find resonance with deeper social currents that are already mobilizing networks of supporters on parallel issues. Do you like this? Then you’ll love this. Everyone’s favorite word is INTERSECTIONAL – instead of narrowing in on your issue, broaden out to the ways in which different types of people are affected by the problem. What do they care most about? 

• Shift the focus from what you want to achieve, to connect with what your potential supporters want to achieve. Then, amplify their stories as they lead. 

• Storytelling goes both ways. Gather ideas & content from the crowd. 

• Deliver emotional and visually powerful treatments: narrative is part of the solution, but visual style and treatment do the rest.

Lead with love – invite people to belonging – decolonize your mind but occupy your heart. 


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