Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation 

Working for peace, social justice and principled nonviolence since 1976

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Strategizing to Work on Issues, Reach New Audiences, and Build Alliances

~ Glen Anderson

Essay #5 in the “Building an Effective Peace Movement” series:

This is the fifth of a series of articles exploring various ways the peace movement can strengthen itself and become more effective. These articles recognize that: (1) The way to win peace and social justice is through grassroots organizing to build an ever-larger movement of the general public; (2) To win public opinion, nonviolence is both necessary and powerful; (3) We need to strategize carefully to build this movement through a variety of smart campaigns and activities; and (4) Details that might seem small can mean the difference between success and failure. Each issue of the Olympia FOR newsletter includes an article related to one of these topics, although not necessarily in this 1-2-3-4 order. Previous articles will soon be posted on our website, www.olyfor.org


De-polarize our thinking – Open ourselves to really inviting the public to join us:

The nonviolence movement does not pretend that conflict does not exist. Conflict has always existed, and conflict will always exist. What nonviolence does is change the dynamics of conflict so the parties are able to pursue truth – to pursue new, workable solutions. Nonviolence is always open to discovering the truth and inventing creative solutions to old problems. Nonviolence sees the possibilities of bringing people together to work to protect every person’s inherent human dignity. Nonviolence is inherently positive. A thorough grounding in the theory and practice of nonviolence can protect us from cynicism, which only disempowers people.

Poll after poll reports growing numbers of people saying the U.S. is on the wrong track. People experience and feel profound problems in our nation, even if they don’t analyze the problems in the same ways that organizers for peace and justice do. Public opinion is ripe for us to help the public understand the world in new ways – and to empower and organize the public to solve the problems and create a more humane and satisfying world.

Peace and justice movements have tremendous potential for changing how our nation functions, but often we unwittingly hold ourselves back. Sometimes we express cynicism and negativity that turn off the people we want to reach. Sometimes we defiantly stake out our turf opposing the status quo – but that can be perceived as feeling negative or dismissive toward the general public. If we convey an attitude that the general public is an enemy or an obstacle, we’re rejecting the very people we want to be reaching out to and inviting into the movement.

Historically, nonviolent social change movements have succeeded by reaching out to larger and larger portions of the public and welcoming them into our movements. Now – since the public already senses that our country is seriously on the wrong track – the public is ready to join with us. We need to listen to people open-mindedly and empathetically, and offer the public hope and practical solutions.

Reframe political and societal values to invite people into our movements:

We could discover new political allies by re-thinking our political assumptions. For example, we are used to thinking of a political spectrum ranging from left to right. But we’ve discovered that Socialists and Libertarians alike oppose the U.S. empire and the military occupation of Iraq. And actually the ACLU and the National Rifle Association both oppose the PATRIOT Act. Many examples of “left” and “right” similarities occur on other issues.

Perhaps the real differences are between those who want to concentrate political and economic power at the top and those who want to decentralize political and economic power. A number of “strange bedfellows” oppose concentrations of power in the hands of governments, militaries, police, economic elites, and other domineering forces. In many cases Progressives could frame the issues in terms of a “pro-democracy” movement and reach out to a wide variety of people as potential allies.

We know that sending troops to war does not “support” them, and that we “support the troops” better by keeping them safe at home. Likewise, why let the right wing claim “family values” as their own exclusive property? Big business’s policies are hurting families, so labor unions actually protect the “family values” that are economic. Remember the bumper sticker “War is not healthy for children and other living things” – and the current gay-friendly one “Hate is not a family value”?

In what additional ways could we position our progressive values (peace, social justice, etc.) in ways the general public (and especially people who might have been labeled “conservative” or “non-political”) could easily hear and accept? Rather than blame the general public for their values, we can show them that their deepest values are really compatible with ours.

A great many people in our society have experienced 12-step programs to cure addictions. Even Bush has admitted that the U.S. is addicted to oil. Can we help the public see that the U.S. is also addicted to nationalism, violence, and militarism? If so, people who understand 12-step programs could share their tools to help cure our national addictions.

Some people tell us that we are wasting and exhausting the earth’s natural resources. They urge us to live in radical simplicity and radical justice – to “live simply that others may simply live.” This is a Gandhian approach. Gandhi worked for swaraj, a term that means more than mere “national independence.” Gandhi’s swaraj was a more profound independence that would free people from domination by any hierarchical power (political, economic, etc.) and would cultivate local self-reliance and an egalitarian society that respected and empowered every person.

In a society where most people feel powerless – everything is controlled by people outside of our control – don’t we also need swaraj? How could the nonviolent peace and justice movement help the American people liberate ourselves from giant corporations, unresponsive government, arrogant media, dysfunctional electoral systems, and so forth? How many ordinary Americans would join us if we would reach out to them with sensitivity to their values and needs?

Reach out effectively to the general public:

Peace and justice activists tend to accumulate information and talk among ourselves. In order to make political progress, we’ll have to interact with the general public, discover the widely held frustrations, create a vision of the society we all want, define some clear goals, and strategize how to accomplish our goals.

Most Americans are repulsed by political conflicts that get polarized or negative. If that’s what we offer, they’d rather settle for the status quo. So how can we engage the public in making political change? How can we help mainstream people stretch enough beyond their comfort zones to engage in grassroots activism? We will have to offer them conversations and activities that are safe – rooted in nonviolence and mutual respect – and that model the positive values of the new society we want to create.

EXERCISE #1: Spend 5 minutes with a sheet of paper and write down a number of answers to this question: How could we help the general public feel comfortable about challenging the status quo of US foreign policy?

Part of our solution must include embodying the spirit of nonviolence – not just the tactics of nonviolence but also the spirit. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King said: “A basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win their friendship and understanding.... It avoids not only external violence but also internal violence of spirit. Nonviolent resisters not only refuse to shoot their opponents, but also refuse to hate them.”

EXERCISE #2: Spend 5 minutes with a sheet of paper and write answers to this question: How could we better practice the spirit of nonviolence in our grassroots organizing?


EXERCISE #3: Spend 5 minutes with a sheet of paper and write answers to this question: How could we draw upon the power of nonviolence – and convey our nonviolent attitudes – when we talk with people who assume that we need to continue occupying Iraq for the foreseeable future?

Successful political and social change movements can provide insights that we can adapt for other movements. For example, gay and lesbian folks have achieved tremendous progress in the past few decades. They made progress by being open about who they are – by “coming out.” When some people “come out,” other “closeted” people feel more free to publicly reveal – and feel good about – their own identities.

In contrast, many people who want to abolish the death penalty have not “come out” to their friends, family members, and the public about opposing the death penalty. If more people would “come out of the closet” and publicly oppose the death penalty, the abolition movement would achieve more mainstream visibility and status. The general public’s attitudes would become more open to abolishing the death penalty, and politicians and mainstream media would yield to this growing social movement. Social science indicates that a modest number of individuals can create powerful social movements by energetically spreading the word. Epidemiologists know that epidemics of diseases can spread through a few virulent carriers, and sociologists know that the same is true of ambitious and well connected activists.  

Express our values, visions and goals in positive ways:

Peace and justice activists are slammed with negative stereotypes. Let’s not act in ways that only reinforce those stereotypes and marginalize ourselves. Let’s pay attention to our messages, images, methods, and every other aspect of how we function. We can convey ourselves in ways that communicate the message that we want to convey, without letting people be distracted by appearance, behavior, and other factors that would interfere with or distract people from our actual messages.o:p>

Typically, peace and justice activists react against what we don’t like. We protest against this war, protest against that injustice, and protest against yet another environmental abuse. As a result, the public, news media and governments see as negative. Actually, we oppose war because we want peace, we oppose injustice because we want fairness for everyone, we oppose environmental abuse because we want a healthy and sustainable environment. Besides protesting against what we oppose, let’s also articulate clearly the new society we want. We could create a better public image – and be more effective in the long run – by devoting more time and effort to expressing our positive values, visions and goals.

President Reagan massively escalated the nuclear arms race in 1981, and the public reacted with horror. The public re-discovered that the U.S. had long been willing to start a nuclear war, was building many new “first-strike” nuclear weapons, and was getting closer to destroying the world, whether on purpose or by accident. People were terrified of utter destruction, and perhaps extinction. In 1982 the Thurston County Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign organized a county-wide ballot issue calling for a freeze on the testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons. But instead of using a slogan like, “Holy crap! We’re gonna blow ourselves up!” the local Freeze campaign devised the slogan, “Ain’t it great to be alive!” A serious subject was expressed in a positive way. We won the November election with a 62% “YES” vote.

Another effective approach is to state our vision or goal in the present tense, as if it were already true. Examples: “Everyone has a home” or “Olympia declares peace.” Then instead of an ambitious goal appearing to be merely an unrealistic dream, it is placed on the table and in our minds as an achieved reality. Now it seems more realistic, and more people can join us for implementation.

We can make progress by rooting our message in terms of widely held public values and mainstream culture. For example, a few years ago the Olympia City Council tried to cram a very unpopular conference center down the public’s throats without a public vote. In response, the opponents affirmed the widespread value of democracy and voting rather than an arbitrary top-down decision-making process. They also objected to spending public tax dollars for private interests, so they named their organization “Public Funds for Public Purposes.” The also appealed to the widely held “Olympia way” of doing things, which the City Council’s proposal violated. They did a huge amount of outreach in many ways, including door-to-door conversations, and they stopped the conference center proposal.

Meet people where they are:

People tend to do things that they feel comfortable doing. While it’s OK to challenge people, that’s an uphill struggle, and we’re more likely to gain support by offering people ideas and activities that they can more easily identify with.

For example, relatively few people in the general public see themselves as the kind of people who attend demonstrations. If we focus on organizing peace demonstrations, people won’t participate, even if they oppose the war. Relatively few people drive somewhere to hear a speaker, but we keep doing that over and over and wonder why new people don’t attend. We need to figure out what the people we want to reach are likely to do. Instead of merely telling people to come to us at our stereotypical events, we need to reach out to people where they actually are and devise low-threshold ways to involve them.

Peace and justice activists often frustrate ourselves because we can’t convert the people on the far opposite sides of our issues. Actually, we don’t need to convert our hard-core opponents to our side in order to win on our issues. There is a whole spectrum ranging from people who already agree with us, people who are pretty sympathetic but not totally committed, people who tilt somewhat our way, people who are in the middle, people who tilt somewhat against our view, people who are more strongly against our view, and finally the people who are absolutely on the opposite side. Imagine those various constituencies along the spectrum. We don’t have to convert the opposite person to swing all the way to our side. We can win on the issue if we can strategize ways to move some of the various constituencies one notch toward our direction. Further, we can devise and implement specific strategies for specific constituencies within each of those various notches in the spectrum. The center of gravity will then shift our way, and we can win.


For more information, resources and workshops

on effective grassroots organizing – contact

the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation at

(360) 491-9093 info@olyfor.org    www.olyfor.org


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