by Hardy MerrimanMarch 24, 2021
This is the first blog post in a two-part series.
The second blog post is here.
In the face of rising authoritarianism, people worldwide are increasingly turning to civil resistance to fight for their rights.
This is an empowering choice, but it can also feel overwhelming for those involved. When people seek to build a movement, the first big question is often:
Where and how should we start?
This leads to other common questions, such as:
Should we organize a protest? Should we create an organizing manual? A manifesto? A social media account? Should we train people? And if so, which people do we train? How do we find those people? Who will train them? And what do we train them in?
Many of these questions relate to what I call “knowledge management” within a movement. Knowledge management refers to how a movement or organization develops and shares information and skills among its organizers and participants. Before deciding that a training (which is a tactic) is necessary, it can be helpful to take a step back and consider a movement’s overall knowledge management strategy. In this vein, rather than starting with the question How do we organize workshops?, we might begin by asking: Who do we need in our movement in order to win, and what do they need to know?
Below I offer a three-part framework to help think this through. The framework is generic and adaptable, and based on the idea that at least three different groups will be pivotal for a movement’s success.
The first group (we’ll call them core organizers) is a relatively small number of people who want to commit their days, weeks, months, and years to organizing and the movement. If you’re reading this blog post, you may be one of them. These are people who, time permitting, are going to read books about civil resistance movements and have peers that do the same. They do this kind of activity because they want to—it inherently resonates with them.
The second group (we’ll call them local organizers) is a comparatively larger number of people who are willing to offer some time and energy to the movement. They’re not going to commit these resources as heavily as the core organizers, but if given proper support, local organizers can play a critical role in mobilizing their communities.
The third group (we’ll call them popular participants) is potentially vast. It consists of members of the general public who will participate in movement actions and tactics, under the right circumstances.
Once we have our groups identified, we can start to consider what knowledge and skill-building resources each of them needs. Keeping with the example above:
Core organizers will likely benefit from significant multi-day or multi-week training. They will use these gatherings to form networks with other organizers and to develop strategy and shared priorities. They will also benefit from books and information-rich resources because they actively seek out relevant knowledge and apply it without external encouragement. It’s important to make sure that learning opportunities are available to them, in their language, in mediums that they can receive.
Local organizers may benefit from short-term trainings and concise, clear resources focused on practical topics—such as activist team building, organizing meetings, planning local actions, etc.—that are relevant to what they may do in the movement. They may not read extensive research, books and case studies, but if they have the right training and educational resources that are practical and appropriate to what they will do, they can be highly effective.
For popular participants, the concept of training becomes a bit more nebulous. For them “training” may take place in a 30-minute small group orientation before an action (a micro-training), or a one-hour webinar that is joined by hundreds or thousands (a mass micro-training), for example. Even if quick trainings like these are available, many popular participants will likely never attend any training at all. Instead, they may come across brief written information (i.e. 1-2 page handouts) or videos online, and have conversations with their friends. That’s how they’re going to get knowledge and a sense of how to participate in the movement.
Once you’ve identified the core groups that your movement needs (the above “Core-Local-Popular” framework is just a starting point), and you’ve identified what each of those groups need to know, assess the current status of knowledge management infrastructure for each group. A question to ask is: Does each group have what it needs in order to activate and perform?
If you want a place to start, ensure adequate infrastructure exists to support knowledge sharing and skill building among core organizers. It can be easy to skip over or underemphasize this group because they are a relatively small in number, and taking the time to produce an organizing manual or provide in-depth workshops for them usually won’t lead to immediate mass mobilization. However, core organizers are the foundation of many successful movements because they often guide actions of local organizers and popular participants. Their depth of knowledge also enables them to flexibly adapt movement strategy to new developments over time. Therefore, as a first step, consider investing in a small, motivated, and talented group of individuals, and make sure they’re supported thereafter.
This leads to the next task, which is building infrastructure and resources for local organizers. Core organizers can lead in these efforts. Local organizers need practical, focused information and opportunities that are relevant to what they’re going to do in the movement. It’s the job of core organizers to listen to them, engage with them, and produce resources and training opportunities relevant to their needs. If you work in a movement support-organization and are already engaged with a group of core organizers, you may want to consider how to support them building outreach to local organizers.
For popular participants, knowledge management efforts focus on the essential things that they need to know about your movement when they mobilize. Quick trainings and messaging will generally convey core principles (i.e. what your movement stands for; what it stands against; its commitment to nonviolent means; and any other principles that may be relevant) as well as what exactly you want them to do (such as protest, boycott, connect with a local organizer, take pictures at a public action, etc.). However, to frame your communications effectively, you will first need to speak with and listen to popular participants, in order to understand how they think and talk about issues.
Given this framework, a few things should stand out:
1. These constituencies are all interrelated, and none is sufficient by itself.
If you only emphasize outreach to core organizers, you may end up with a highly knowledgeable set of leaders with little mobilizing capacity. If you only emphasize outreach to local organizers, you may end up with localized mobilization that does not synergize or feed into a larger strategy. If you only emphasize outreach to popular participants (as is sometimes done with a social media-based strategy), you may end up with quick and impressive mass mobilization that is followed by confusion, disagreement and demoralization about what next steps should be.
2. Prioritization is important.
All three groups may be essential, but if resources are scarce, it is important to prioritize on which group(s) you will focus, especially in early stages of movement growth.
3. In early knowledge management efforts, you may not see immediate results.
If you prioritize focusing on core organizers, you may not see a quick impact, but you will likely be setting the conditions for major growth later on. In contrast, if you emphasize popular participants first, you may see immediate results (mobilization) that grabs attention, but it can be challenging to sustain momentum and generate longer-term strategy.
If you use this as a framework to help you plan knowledge management efforts, additional questions will likely arise about implementation. In my next blog post I aim to respond to a few common ones on this topic, including:
• We don’t have any funding, so how can we organize trainings and other knowledge management activities?
• How do we determine what content should be included in trainings and educational resources?
• We don't know any core organizers or local organizers. How do we find them?
• Who can lead trainings if we don’t know any trainers?
Hardy Merriman is President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), and led ICNC as President & CEO from 2015 until 2021. He has worked in the field of civil resistance for over 20 years, presenting at workshops for activists and organizers; speaking widely to scholars, journalists, and members of international organizations; and developing educational resources.Read More