Action and Reaction

Over the last five weeks I have been writing about some key concepts in organising. Last week, I looked at how community organisers work with their leaders to decide which issues to tackle. In this final part of this series, I want to write about one of the most distinctive elements of organising: designing ‘actions’. Having described how organising determines what to tackle, this week I want to explore how organisers choose to act.

Release the pressure by Scribblings of Light CC FlickrActions put targets under pressure

An action is designed to apply pressure to the interests of your target (I wrote about targets here). Such pressure is not applied without provocation; the leaders will normally seek resolution of their issue by first ‘asking nicely’. It is only when they are turned down that they apply pressure. Confrontation is a tactical choice, not a pre-determined position. However, if the issue is important to the target they will seldom give up without a fight and need to be persuaded to act in the common good. The leaders’ attempt to negotiate with power is undertaken with a full assessment of the people power held by the network (I wrote about power here).

Good actions come in many forms but often match six simple criteria:

  • Makes a clear demand for action
  • Surprises because its novel
  • Fits the norms of your people
  • Brings out lots of supporters
  • Develops leaders, educates and informs
  • People have a ball!

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner delivers his speech at CNY 2008 by Destinys Agent CC FlickrGood actions make specific demands

In cutting the issue, the leaders have already become acquainted with the idea that they need to be absolutely clear what they want to achieve through their campaign. When it comes to tactics, a similar logic runs on through. Defining the target of the action and the ‘ask’ that will take you forward is vital. If you want to get an appointment with the police commissioner, then your action needs to put pressure on him (or her) that can be reduced by giving you a slot in his (or her) calendar. Such an action takes fewer people and less power than demanding the Mayor invests £100M in a housing project. But both have a specific concrete result that can be delivered.

Go outside your target’s experience

Most people when thinking about tactics reach for the standard repertoire of campaigning: petitions, marches, pickets. But most targets can handle these easily because they have been used many times before and have become ‘normalised’. The leadership group is looking for an action that disarms their target because it come from left field. Creating pressure on your target by reframing the issue in favour of your case can have spectacular results. A ‘People’s Housing Unit’ was formed to inspect homes that were infested, insanitary, damp and unsafe. The unit took journalists around the estate documenting the appalling conditions and publicising the inaction of the landlord (and the housing inspectors). Consequently the inspectors arrived and found so much wrong that they issued an enforcement order and the repairs were made within a month.

Classroom by -Marlith- CC flickrAct within the experience of your people

Human communities accept different levels of conflict and some action may just cause your people to feel uncomfortable and that it is unethical. Keeping within the experience of those taking part is critical to helping them become more at ease with the process and stretching their boundaries gently helps leaders appreciate how far they might need to go in time. In working with people who have found school a challenging experience, the organiser can help leaders to develop actions that are supportive of those with limited educational achievements.

Always involve lots of people

Sometimes the easy route to victory is for a small number to negotiate a solution or even for an individual to write a letter. For organising though, this fails to build the network, to increase the membership and to give everyone a stake in the result. It may be a harder journey but making demands on a wide range of people has many advantages. Involvement means that families have to continue to find time for the issue in their busy lives. By mobilising large groups of people, the impression of widespread support is given concrete visibility. And leaders learn to work with their followers in new ways.

Actions provide a educational bonanza

Generally, organisers believe that you learn to fight power not by sitting in the classroom or reading great books but by fighting power. By involving a range of people in developing and implementing the action, you offer them opportunity to get to practical grips with how power can be challenged. Actions themselves can be designed to give participants and the wider public clear and concise lessons about the issue. And of course good reflection and evaluation after the action always helps to reinforce how things can be done better next time. Together building a shared picture of the action and its lessons can be critical for the network to create more powerful actions in future.

Off-peak road crossing in Ginza by specialoperations CC FlickrActions are memorable, engaging and fun

If people are going to turn out again, they need to have a good time. If they are going to talk to their colleagues and friends about the issue, they need to remember key moments, people and facts. If they are going to take along their friends and family, they want to have confidence that it’ll be interesting to them. If you want traffic lights fitted at a junction, use your numbers at rush hour to cross and re-cross the roads whilst handing out flyers with the name and telephone number of the responsible person to all the drivers. Such creative non-violent direct action makes the best use of your power to be fun, enjoyable and effective!

And the Response?

Most battles are not won in a day. Great actions put immense pressure on the target but the target may feel they have the option of standing firm. Most times the reaction is one of seven D’s of Defence (with thanks to Lee Staples). But as Alinsky wrote “the action is in the reaction”:

  • Deflecting
  • Delaying
  • Deceiving
  • Dividing
  • Denying
  • Discrediting
  • Destroying

In taking up such positions, the effective leadership team can respond by using the response to create a new action. Knowing the target’s self interest and their own power, one action leads to a reaction which in turn leads to a second action. The pressure builds and the target becomes more desperate to move from under the hammer. The successful action that delivers the long held objective can be years away but each action builds the capacity of the network to wield still more power next time. And the leadership group as it matures finds itself ready to risk more for the sake of justice and fairness in their community.


Lee Staples (2004) Roots to Power – a Manual for Grassroots Organizing (Second Edition) Praeger

Aaron Schutz and Marie G. Sandy (2011) Collective Action for Social Change – An Introduction to Community Organizing Palgrave MacMillan

Kim Bobo et al (2001) Organizing for Social Change – Midwest Academy Manual for Activists (Third Edition) Seven Locks Press

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