What Role Were you Born to Play in Social Change?
Bill Moyer was a street-wise, working class white boy from rowhouse Philadelphia, who — in the turbulence of the 1960s — went to Chicago to work for an anti-racist housing campaign. He wound up joining Martin Luther King Jr.’s national staff as an organizer. I played tag football more than once with Moyer, catching his grin as he mercilessly overwhelmed his opponents through daring and smarts. He might have been the most joyfully aggressive Quaker I’ve known. By the time he died in 2002, Moyer had given significant leadership on multiple political issues, including the national anti-nuclear movement.
In California, Moyer went to graduate school to study social movement theory and indulge his love of analytical thinking. He became best known for identifying eight stages of successful social movements, which he named the Movement Action Plan, or MAP. I found activists using MAP as far away as Taiwan, where they had already read it in translation before I got there.
Moyer also invented a powerful tool that clarifies how we work for change on two levels: individually and organizationally. Four Roles of Social Activism, he called it, and right now the tool is helping environmentalist organizations in the Philadelphia area clarify their relationships to the new campaign Power Local Green Jobs. The tool also empowers individuals to become more effective. In this column I’ll describe the four roles so you can notice their resonance personally for you and also for your group.
With Moyer’s permission, I tweaked the names of three of the four roles, making the differences sharper; you’ll get both names here. I call the roles advocate, helper, organizer, and rebel.
The advocate role
The advocate focuses on communication with what Moyer called “the powerholders,” who can change a policy or practice. Think of the civil liberties lawyer suing the city for stop-and-frisk that profiles people of color, or the lobby group urging city council to change that policy. Moyer calls this role the “reformer,” while acknowledging that an advocate might urge changes that are radical in content.
In workshops, I invite people to scan their childhoods to recall whether they usually turned to an authority to correct what they felt was an injustice or problem. Maybe they went to the teacher after class to report bullying on the playground, or told a parent that little sister was upset. I’ve found that many adults who prefer to play the advocate role in social movements expressed that preference early, often developing some skill and confidence.
The helper role
The helper is drawn to direct service, personally doing what they can to remedy the situation. They address gender and racial discrimination in jobs by teaching how to write resumes or initiating job training. They attack carbon pollution by weatherizing houses or starting solar installation co-ops. Because much of mainstream community life is marked by service, Moyer’s name for this role is “citizen.”
When adults known for playing helper roles look back on their childhood they sometimes remember their own intervention to stop the bully, or their being the first one to bring a band-aid when little brother falls off the bike.
The organizer role
While the advocate and helper who want to make a bigger difference may themselves need to organize — by starting a nonprofit, for example — the organizing part is not the most satisfying for them. The advocate is happiest when convincing the judge that equal marriage is constitutional. The helper loves to witness the graduating class that includes more people of color.
The organizer, on the other hand, experiences joy from collecting people who may not even know each other and turning them into a well-oiled team, or tripling the attendance at the union local’s monthly meetings. Organizers often believe that the sheer power of numbers will make change because powerholders are afraid of alternative sources of power and may concede something to head off further growth.
When organizers were children they may have been the ones who revived the celebration of Martin Luther King Day at school, or boosted the flagging morale of the drill team. Moyer calls them “change agents,” and he himself was certainly that.
The rebel role
The rebel who sees a problem or injustice prefers to make a commotion of some kind to force powerholders to make a change. Martin Luther King Jr. explained that a campaign must create a crisis. Gandhi made so much trouble that he made India ungovernable by the British. True, some famous rebels needed organizing skills to scale up their commotion to the crisis point. But rebels look at numbers not for their own sake but to determine “how many people will it take to create what degree of crisis?” Alice Paul left the mass movement for woman suffrage in order to lead a smaller band of rebels willing to make the nonviolent trouble that forced U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to give in to justice.
Roles can be played positively or negatively
While some activists dismiss one or more of these roles as uncool — “the nonprofit-industrial complex” or “sellout lobbyists” or “infantile protesters” — Moyer found the record clear: Successful social movements include all four roles.
He acknowledged, though, that any of these roles can either assist or undermine a movement, depending on how people play the role. Advocates, for example, can — through communication with powerholders — find ways of framing demands that make it more likely that the movement will take a large step forward. On the other hand, they can get co-opted by the powerholders and undermine a campaign’s clarity so it settles for less.
Rebels can either generate drama that motivates the undecided to take the issue more seriously and to side with the movement, or it can choose tactics that are so self-marginalizing that the undecided lend their support to the powerholders.
Helpers can empower people who are feeling helpless by giving them skills and assisting them to see that they can only get what they really want through solidarity with others. Or the helpers can adopt the false belief that society changes through individuals enhancing their lives one-by-one.
In his book “Doing Democracy,” Moyer describes a number of positive and negative ways each role can be played. Looking fearlessly at his analysis helps our learning curve.
How do you play your role?
I’ve personally performed a lot of voluntary service, started and led new organizations, and lobbied elected officials. In my heart of hearts, though, I’m a rebel. To avoid burnout, I need to remember that. I’m healthiest, most creative and productive when I’m in touch with my rebel self and find a group that’s OK with that.
Becoming self-aware is also helpful for organizations. They do best when they clarify their mission, even when that means saying “No” to lots of otherwise good ideas that are offered but aren’t really aligned with the essence of their role. Earth Quaker Action Team, my primary affiliation, claims its rebel role in the larger struggle for environmental, economic and racial justice. In our new campaign Power Local Green Jobs, other groups we talk with expect that we will join with them as they advocate, or organize, or do job training. We get to explain over and over the advantages of a division of labor: “Do what you’re best at and we’ll root for you while we do our rebel thing.”
A group that embraces its particular role in the movement can also have a diversity of roles within its membership. Within EQAT we have people who as individuals shine as organizers, helpers and advocates and contribute quite a lot to the group’s internal life. Within any group there is room for all as long as they support the clear, overall mission.
Of course a membership that includes multiple role identities will also experience conflicts, and that’s a good thing — especially when hard choices must be made. An organizer may object that a rebel’s tactical proposal is premature because the group doesn’t yet have the resources to deal with the consequences. A helper may say that more solar installation training needs to be in place before the utility yields and funds extensive rooftop programs, or else the poor and people of color will be overlooked when workers start lining up for jobs. An advocate may note that the opponent is for the first time engaged in serious consideration of the demand, and argue that this is the wrong time for militant action.
People who face strategic hard choices are more likely to come up with creative and wise next moves when the four roles fight it out — fighting fairly while acknowledging differences. The research is clear: Over time, diversity actually does produce the best outcomes. Or at least diversity works when everyone agrees on the bottom line: The role the group plays in the larger movement.
This illustration from Earth Quaker Action Team can be repeated for organizations taking a different role: advocacy, say, or helping or organizing. The combination of diversity of membership and unity of purpose is a winning combination.
Bill Moyer’s Four Roles is about effectiveness. Instead of one organization trying to do many things and risking scatter, his vision was that of a proliferation of groups, each maximizing strength through focus while networking and supporting a broader sense of unity. That’s what a powerful movement looks like.