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Learn how to empower the population and use strength in numbers to spread awareness of the issue and unify the community on a common cause.


  • What is social action?

  • Why engage in social action?

  • When should you engage in social action?

  • Who should be involved in social action?

  • How do you engage in social action?

Sometimes, the best way to inspire change is to confront decision makers in a concerted action. This is called social action, and can range from organizing a letter-writing campaign to assembling tens of thousands of people in the state or national capital to protest government actions. This section looks at organizing communities to engage in social action - why and hwo to do it, when it's appropriate, and what it might accomplish.

What is social action?

Social action is the practice of taking action – usually as part of an organized group or community – to create positive change. Sometimes social action can lead to profound social change, as in the case of the Civil Rights Movement; sometimes social action seeks more limited and specific changes – the preservation of an open space, for example, or better pay for a specific group of workers.

Social action, by its nature, is often practiced by those who either traditionally have little power in society – the poor, minorities, or people with disabilities, for example – but it may also be used by any group that feels its concerns are being ignored. By working together, members of these groups can exercise power collectively because of their numbers, using the media, their votes, boycotts, and other types of social, political, and economic pressure to convince those in power to rethink their positions.

A few of the numerous reasons that a group might engage in social action:  

  • To include in policy considerations, the interests of those who have traditionally been ignored in these discussions, most often low-income and minority communities.
  • To institute fairer policies and eliminate discrimination.
  • To right past wrongs, as in providing apologies and restitution to Japanese-Americans who were unfairly – and unconstitutionally – interned in concentration camps in the American West during World War II.
  • To prevent harm to the community. This might mean challenging the siting of an industrial facility because of pollution concerns, for instance.
  • To gain particular benefits to the community, or a part of the community, sometimes on quite a small scale.
  • To preserve something of historical or social value.
  • To include in policy deliberations those who have been previously shut out, as in, for example, involving minority citizens on a police review board.

These are only a small number of the nearly endless possible reasons for engaging in social action. Just as there are many reasons you might take action, there are many different kinds of action you might take, ranging from explaining your situation to policy makers to confronting force with civil disobedience. Some examples:

  • Organizing a group to write letters, make phone calls, or send e-mails to policy makers, particularly legislators, in order to make both your position and the extent of your constituency known.
  • Persuading the media to cover events or to publish stories that highlight particular issues or embarrass politicians and others in power who refuse to do what’s right. You might also plan events particularly to attract the media.
  • Putting together or backing a slate of candidates for public office. This may entail anything from stuffing envelopes to going door to door discussing the issues to driving voters to the polls.
  • Attending, as a group (or packing or disrupting, depending on your philosophy and the circumstances), a public meeting at which an issue of interest to your community is being discussed.
  • Performing street theater. Street theater, as its name implies, is theater performed in public that is meant to ridicule the opposition and/or to convey a profound message in a way that is easily understood and  entertaining. It goes back at least to ancient Greece, continued through the Middle Ages in morality plays and puppet shows, and has been used in modern times, particularly since the mid-Twentieth Century, for political protest.

The Bread and Puppet Theater, now based in Vermont, was known particularly during the Vietnam War for its political street productions featuring huge puppets and its custom of sharing bread with the audience.

  • Organizing demonstrations, rallies and marches. The “classic” social actions, these often involve signs, speeches, entertainment, and/or elements of street theater.
  • Picketing or organizing a strike. These are, of course, time-honored labor tactics, usually applied to a particular plant or corporation or industry. There is also the possibility of a general strike – a situation where everyone in a group, a community, or even a whole country, refuses to work for a day, a few days, or indefinitely until those in power accede to demands.
  • Organizing a boycott. Named after Charles Boycott, a British land agent in Ireland who was ostracized (i.e., no Irish would deal or communicate with him) for his policies, a boycott consists of refusing to deal or trade with a company (or a city, state, or country) that the boycotters believe is doing something morally wrong.
  • Organizing a sit-in. Often an act of civil disobedience, this involves a group occupying a space – perhaps the office of an official who made or represents a policy the group is protesting, perhaps a courtyard or a particular building or a park – in order to make a moral point, to assert their right to use the space, or to force the owners of the space (or public officials) to negotiate or meet their demands. The act becomes civil disobedience if the group is trespassing on the space they occupy.

Civil disobedience is a particular kind of action in which the group engaged intentionally breaks the law as an act of conscience. They might do so because they are protesting the law itself, or because they want to make the strongest statement possible about an issue. Civil disobedience is only effective as a strategy if those who practice it are willing to accept the consequences of their actions, and face arrest, trial, and possible punishment. Otherwise, they are simply lawbreakers, and their protest loses its moral force.

Social action is probably what most people think of when they hear the term “community organizing.” It is the type of organizing that Saul Alinsky, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, and other well-known 20th Century organizers primarily engaged in. It is meant to empower people who have been shut out of the political or social system, and help them gain control of their lives and destinies. For this reason, the “Iron Rule” of community organizing is never to do for people what they can do for themselves.

The father of modern community organizing was Saul Alinsky,who, in the late 1930’s, drew together a neighborhood of mutually hostile Eastern European slaughterhouse workers in Chicago into the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. Alinsky used existing organizations – unions, churches, and fraternal organizations – to create a political power base for workers who had been abused and exploited. The results were better working conditions and pay, neighborhood improvement, self-respect, and an organization that still exists.

Citizens for New York City, a resource for NYC neighborhoods has several tip sheets on various aspects of neighborhood organizing.

Alinsky’s type of organizing is based on building political power and using it to confront authority – generally through employing social action – and, if necessary, force those in power to negotiate. This kind of organizing is still widely used and still effective, especially in situations where power has long been in the same hands. The larger organization that Alinsky founded to carry his work around the country, the Industrial Areas Foundation, explains its strategy on its website:

"The IAF is non-ideological and strictly non-partisan, but proudly, publicly, and persistently political. The IAF builds a political base within society's rich and complex third sector - the sector of voluntary institutions that includes religious congregations, labor locals, homeowner groups, recovery groups, parents associations, settlement houses, immigrant societies, schools, seminaries, orders of men and women religious, and others. And then the leaders use that base to compete at times, to confront at times, and to cooperate at times with leaders in the public and private sectors."

This is probably as good an explanation as any of what social action is meant to do.

Why engage in social action?

Social action can sometimes be confrontational and combative. It can even be dangerous at times, as evidenced in the many bloody beatings at the hands of mobs and police experienced by Civil Rights marchers and organizers in the 1960’s, and in the violence deployed against striking farm workers in California in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. If you choose to practice civil disobedience, you could possibly get arrested, and have to pay a fine, or go to jail. Even in the mildest of circumstances –sending letters to the Editor, for instance – you might make your neighbors angry, or be seen as an extremist. So why would you choose to use these methods?

There are several reasons why social action is often the appropriate choice:

  • It can empower and energize populations that have traditionally been powerless, or haven’t understood their potential for exercising power. The experience of participating in an action – especially if it’s successful – can be uplifting for people who’ve never thought they could influence the course of events. It can change the way they look at themselves, and give them a different perspective on what’s possible. And it can prepare and sustain them for along struggle to achieve far-reaching goals.

This can be true even for people who may not have been part of the original action.  Witnessing what people like themselves can accomplish may inspire others either to join the current effort, or to join – or even start – similar efforts in the future.

  • It can unify communities. Collective action brings people together in the way that many collaborative activities do. It creates a spirit of shared effort and shared passion, and binds individuals into a community of shared purpose.
  • It can demonstrate to the larger community that the organized group is a force to be reckoned with. People have to respect and deal with its needs and interests, even if they don’t agree with them.
  • It may be the only thing that will move a stubborn opponent. The targets of social action may have been in power for a long time, or may believe that things were simply meant to be the way they are. It may take a long campaign of action to convince them that they have to address your concerns.

Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) worked for years in Little Rock and across Arkansas to organize previously hostile groups – low- and moderate-income Blacks and Whites, who didn’t at first realize that their interests were similar – and to gain and consolidate enough power to achieve increasingly significant victories. The power structure was not only uninterested in the needs of the poor, but much of the state was, in the 1970’s, still the unreconstructed South, with its segregationist attitudes intact. ACORN used the law, reinforced by social action, to make its points and work for economic justice. No amount of polite talking would have convinced the Little Rock power structure of the time that they should change their attitudes.

  • It may be seen as morally necessary. Social action can be hard and unpopular. People generally engage in it because they believe their cause is right, and may see it as their moral duty to do something about it.

When the writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay a tax to support the Mexican War, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher, asked him “Why are you in there?” Thoreau replied with his own question: “Why are you not in here?” He clearly saw his action as a moral issue.

  • It can motivate people to take other kinds of positive action. Once people realize that they can influence what happens in their world, they become willing to take on other kinds of tasks – starting cooperatives, rehabilitating derelict housing, cleaning up neighborhoods. They begin to understand that they have the resources to solve many of their own problems, and they develop the motivation and skills to use those resources.
  • It can be the beginning of a process that ends in a more unified larger community. Once a group has established its strength and made clear that it can’t be pushed, there is a possibility of accommodation and eventual collaboration with those who were once its opponents.
  • It can lead to long-term positive social change. Social action, like other forms of community organizing, generally has long-term as well as short-term goals. While the purpose of a particular action might be narrowly defined, the long-term goals of most organizing are greater equity and social and economic justice. A well-managed social action campaign that maintains its momentum over the long haul can result in a truly democratic society, where everyone’s voice counts. Once again, the prime example in our time was the Civil Rights movement, which, through action that demonstrated its moral force, moved the whole country to demand an end to segregation and racism.

In another example from ACORN, the association’s initial actions were aimed at obtaining the furniture and clothing for welfare recipients that they were entitled to under Arkansas law. As ACORN grew stronger and added more groups to its membership, it advocated for the rights of working-class homeowners, and stopped the construction of a power plant that would have devastated farming in its area. At this point, it has expanded to 75 cities in the U.S.and other countries, and works for affordable housing, fair lending,living-wage jobs, and better schools, among other causes. From modest beginnings, the effort has grown to encompass all aspects of economic and social justice.

Just as there are many reasons to engage in social action, there may be many reasons not to. In general, it makes sense to use the least aggressive method possible to achieve your goals. If you can get most of what you’re after by collaboration and compromise, you can retain a positive relationship with the opposition, and they’ll be more likely to be willing to negotiate the next time. Therefore, social action should only be used when it’s necessary. Some times when social action would be unwise:

  • When you can get what you want by lower-key means – negotiation, acceptable trade-offs, persuasion, compromise, etc.
  • When you don’t have the strength to mount a convincing social action. If you don’t have a large enough group to exert any power, for instance, you still have organizing work to do before you’re ready to take action.
  • When you’re operating on rumor rather than fact. Make sure you know that you’re taking action about something real, rather than gossip or fourth-hand reports. You can discredit your whole effort by failing to check your facts.
  • When an action, even if successful, could have disastrous social or political consequences. In some instances, you could gain your immediate demand at the cost of creating a backlash that drives your cause back beyond where you started. Social action may still be warranted here – the Civil Rights Movement certainly could be described in these terms, especially at the beginning – but you should be aware of its consequences, both to your cause and to the individuals and groups involved.

When should you engage in social action?

  • When negotiation and reason don’t produce satisfactory results. Sometimes, being reasonable just doesn’t work. For whatever reason – fear, anger, the impulse to protect privileges, prejudice, political philosophy – your opponent won’t listen or respond to your concerns, or won’t go far enough to truly address the issue.
  • When time is short. The chainsaws are already running to devastate that patch of old-growth forest; the wrecking ball is swinging toward the wall of that historic building; legislators are about to cut food stamps to pay for disaster relief. In these cases and many like them, action may be the only quick way to draw attention to the short-sightedness or injustice of what’s about to happen.

The implication here is that time may be short because what’s about to happen can’t be reversed once it’s done. You might be able to change a law, or to challenge it in court; but you can’t bring back an old-growth forest or a historic building.

  • When the time is right. The issue may be gaining recognition in the media or public opinion, or public opinion may be changing in your favor. You may have a window of opportunity here. An action at the right time can solidify support, and really put your effort over the top.
  • When you have the resources to make action possible. Just having the resources– enough people, money, media contacts, etc. – is hardly an excuse for engaging in action, but it’s a necessary foundation for doing so.
  • When you want to make a dramatic statement that will focus public attention. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, but that wasn’t what eventually integrated public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. It was the year-long bus boycott carried out by Black citizens of the city that led to an end to segregated buses. The boycott caught the attention of the nation, and affected business in Birmingham. Ultimately, the case was decided in federal court and Black citizens won: public transportation in Montgomery was integrated, and the boycott ended.
  • When you want to energize and empower the community, and develop community leadership. Social action gets people moving. It makes them feel strong, and makes them less likely to submit meekly to the rules and demands of those in power. It gives people responsibility for their own lives and actions, and brings out their leadership potential.
  • When you want to catch the attention of the public – and the media – and galvanize public opinion in your favor about an issue or about your organization or community. In the barrage of news reports and disasters that assaults the public consciousness every day, it’s easy for your message, or even your existence, to get lost. Social action can make people aware of your cause and your community.

Until the grape boycott organized by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm workers Union (UFW) in 1967, few people were aware of the plight of migrant workers. Chavez’s action not only made headlines, but also recruited millions of Americans to the UFW’s cause, and forced the grape growers and the state of California to recognize the union and negotiate better pay and working conditions for farm workers.

Who should engage in social action?

Social action is most effective when those who engage in it are those whose interests are at stake. This is a case where the Iron Rule definitely applies. Not only should those who engage in action stand to be affected by it, but they should be the ones who decide that action is necessary. They should understand what the possible consequences of the action are – from compromising their cause to political backlash to physical danger – and should make the decision as to whether the risks are worth the potential benefits.

There are really two constituencies to organize here. Alinsky approached already-existing organizations in the community – unions, fraternal and service organizations, churches – and enlisted their members through them. But in the efforts of Cesar Chavez and others to organize farm workers and gain concessions from growers, organizing usually had to concentrate on individuals.

Migrant workers had no organizations to draw on until the union brought them together. Because they had no permanent homes and because workers often split and went indifferent directions, depending on where the work was, they had little opportunity to form long-lasting groups. The growers quickly fired anyone who engaged in anything that looked like union organizing; churches couldn’t travel from Arizona to Oregon to California with the workers. As a result, organizers had to approach workers as individuals and small groups in order to form an organization that could plan and coordinate the actions that eventually improved conditions.

The answer to who should be involved in social action, then, is both organizations and institutions that include and represent the community in question, and individuals who can form groups where there are none.

How do you engage in social action?

Social action is different from locality development…but not entirely. Both start with the most important parts of community organizing – getting to know the community and its individual members, making personal contacts, and establishing trust both with and among community members. The steps to getting the community involved are discussed in detail in Section 2 of this chapter, Locality Development. We’ll review them briefly here, and add some details that are specific to organizing for social action.

Once the community is involved and a structure for action has been created – and it’s been determined from that process that social action is what’s needed in this situation – planning is the next step. Plans then have to be turned into action, and your strategy carried out. Finally, you have to follow up, evaluate what you’ve done, and decide what your next step will be.

Preparing for social action

  • Get to know the community. Learn community history, passions, relationships, and culture. Get acquainted with as many individuals as possible – have conversations not just about politics or social issues, but about families, sports, relationships, and your own histories. In other words, make friends as you would in any other circumstances.
  • Identify the issues that are likely to lead the community to social action. The assumption behind organizing is that this is a community that has traditionally felt powerless. What is important enough to move people to act?

    The answer to this question, if it is to lead to anything,must come from the community itself. In meetings with individuals and groups, especially those in which community members discuss issues with one another, the major community concerns should surface. It is sometimes an organizer’s job to frame these concerns in terms that resonate with community members. Just as often, however, they’re already clear to nearly everyone, and the organizer’s task is to help people understand that they can take action.

  • Identify and contact key individuals and groups. Starting with trusted and respected individuals and groups gives you automatic access to much of the community. If the priest or another key individual vouches for you, or if you’re working with a well-known and well-respected community-based organization or institution, you have credibility. In addition, these individuals and groups can help you avoid making damaging mistakes by informing you about relationships within the community, past failures and successes relating to organizing and the issues at hand, and other factors that might affect your effort.
    As we discussed earlier in this section, whether you concentrate on individuals or groups may depend on the situation of the community you’re approaching. Where groups exist – churches, unions, community-based health and human service organizations, fraternal and service organizations, etc. – most organizers would try to use them as a base, since they already have members and structure. Where there are no or few functioning groups, key individuals are much more important, both in gaining access to others in the community, and in bringing people together.

    Even where there are many groups in the community, your first contacts will usually be with individuals. How those individuals – clergy persons, organization directors, business owners – view you may well determine whether their organizations will join the effort. Thus, establishing relationships with key individuals is often the first step toward successful community organizing.

  • Recruit community members to the effort. This is the heart of any community organizing campaign. It involves personal contact, in the form of door-to-door canvassing, meetings in people’s houses, public meetings, conversations in bars and laundromats, etc. There is no substitute for face-to-face communication, for honesty about your purposes and goals, for personal openness and lack of pretension, and for treating people with respect. It’s difficult to build trust from a distance.

You also can’t build trust based on false premises. Be whoever you are – don’t try to pretend you’ve grown up working class, for instance, if you haven’t. What many would-be organizers often don’t understand is that you don’t have to pretend. Be comfortable with yourself and others will be comfortable with you, regardless of who you are, as long as it’s clear that you respect them for who they are. Be willing to learn, and others will be willing to teach. Never talk down to anyone, but don’t hesitate to use what you know in the service of your effort and the people you’re working with.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the courtier Polonius is often mocked for his pomposity by both characters in the play and audiences. If you pay careful attention, however, you realize he is both honorable and wise. In his advice to his son, he speaks lines that are remarkably relevant to anyone who wants to engage in community organizing: “This above all: to thine own self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Recruiting community members may take some time. Gaining the trust of a community, especially of a community that has been abused or ignored or treated with contempt by outsiders, is not an overnight task. Organizing often proceeds one individual or household at a time. You make a friend, who then introduces you to his friends, who then…

This may take a while, but it will eventually snowball, if you’re doing your job well, and if the people you recruit truly feel that the effort belongs to them. For this reason, it’s extremely important not to approach a community with a plan for what the community should do, but to wait for direction to come from the people themselves.

Saul Alinsky, in organizing the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) in Chicago in 1939, partnered with Joe Meegan, the respected manager of a local park. As individuals and organizations were recruited, it was clear that the people would make the decisions about what direction the organization would take and what it would do. The motto of the BYNC was (and still is), “We the people will work out our own destiny.”

  • Build a communication system. As you recruit individuals and groups and start to plan and carry out a social action strategy, it becomes crucial that people be able to contact one another, and that news can be spread quickly and efficiently to everyone. Having a way to make that happen – whether by phone, e-mail, or personal contact – will make your work possible.
  • Encourage leadership from the community from the beginningSome of the key individuals you contact may not be identified as “community leaders,” but maybe trusted individuals whom people listen to. They are already leaders, with or without the title. In addition, many others have the potential for leadership, or exercise leadership in certain situations or with certain groups. The sooner you can identify and start to mentor and encourage these real or potential leaders, the sooner the community will begin to “work out its own destiny.”
  • Create a structure to help the community accomplish its goals. Once the number of individuals and groups committed to the effort reaches a critical mass, it’s time to pull them together into an organization or other structure that will make it possible for them to hash out differences and plan and implement a unified social action strategy.

    The other great advantage of an organization or other structure is that it provides coordination and a focal point for whatever the community does. If there are negotiations with those in power, for instance, the organization can represent the whole community, rather than each of several groups negotiating separately. This allows the community to speak with one voice, and gives it a great deal more clout than if it were divided into a number of interest groups.

Planning for social action

Sometimes, social action arises from circumstance. The Czech opposition had for decades been hoping and planning for the spontaneous demonstrations of the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 that led to the downfall of the Communist government. Leaders were available, and there were plans for a transition to non-Communist government,but there had been no planning for the huge demonstrations. They were a public reaction to the brutal repression of a student demonstration and to the demise of the Communist stranglehold in much of the Eastern Bloc.

On the other hand, when Wade Rathke arrived in Little Rock to start what became ACORN, he had no illusions about a spontaneous movement arising. He spent time recruiting organizations and individuals, identifying the important issues, forging alliances among groups that had previously been mutually hostile – particularly across racial lines – and planning with the community the ways in which they would approach the goals they had identified as most important and most reachable.

Whether it takes place over a long or a short period, planning is an important part of a social action campaign. Once you’ve laid the groundwork, and the community has organized, it’s time to strategize.

  • Develop a strategic plan for social action. A social action campaign is just that. It’s likely that the community’s ultimate goals are long-term, and focus on permanent changes that will lead to social and economic justice. Goals that significant can’t be achieved quickly, or with only limited action. You’ll need a long-term strategy, as well as a strategy and action plan for reaching each of the interim goals that lead to the final outcome.
    We recommend the VMOSA process – develop a shared Vision; establish the Mission of your organization or initiative, based on the community vision; choose Objectives that reflect your vision and mission; formulate a Strategy for reaching those objectives; and devise Actions that will implement your strategy. Each element of this process should be carried out with the participation of – and, ideally, under the leadership of – the community, so that all of the plan is theirs. Organizers can play an important role as consultants and facilitators here, using their experience and expertise to help community members envision both short- and long-term goals, as well as what kinds of strategies and actions they might employ to reach those goals.

Some community organizers and community-building organizations limit their work to training organizers from within the community. The Highlander Center trained many of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and continues to bring together and train activists from all over the country. The Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART), based in Miami, and the Chicago-based National Training and Information Center (NTIC) both provide training and technical assistance to community leaders and others interested in organizing within their own communities. Many other organizations, including the Industrial Areas Foundation, PICO National Network (formerly the Pacific Institute for Community Organizations), Chicago-based Midwest Academy, and ACORN provide community organization training in addition to their community-building work.

  • Decide what kinds of actions will work best in your community, and what kinds of actions the community is and is not willing to take part in. There is a broad range of possible actions that a community can take. At one end are those actions that simply announce that the community exists as a unified force – letter-writing, calls or visits to officials relating to a legislative issue, etc. These actions require coordination and timing, but don’t ask anyone to subject themselves to any risk or public exposure. At the other end are acts of civil disobedience that may subject people to arrest and/or place them in physical danger.
    ​As a community, it’s important to know what you’re willing to do at any given time. This will depend on:
    • What is likely to be effective. Acts of violence against property are highly symbolic, but seldom convince the opposition of anything, and often split your own group, so that their effectiveness in most communities is questionable.
    • What community members see as ethical or moral.The whole concept of nonviolent resistance, used by Gandhi and emulated by Martin Luther King and his colleagues in the American Civil Rights Movement, is based on the premise that violence against others is simply wrong, and would rob their movement of any moral force if they used it.
    • What they will accept and are ready for. This is related to the bullets both above and below, but has more to do with the social and cultural norms of the community. Some groups may have strong taboos against confrontation or against individuals standing out from the group, for example, and social action strategies may have to work around or counter these. People have to be psychologically ready to do whatever is planned.
    • What kinds of risks they are willing to take. This may change as time goes on (see directly below), but communities may differ in what they’re willing to risk. Some will be willing to expose themselves personally and politically; others, at least at first, may not. It is sometimes important to push people beyond their comfort zones...but not too far. You may be dealing with a community that has suffered the consequences of public protest before, and those consequences may have been severe. Even if circumstances are different now, the community has to start at a level of risk that seems reasonable to it.
    • What has already been tried. A community unwilling to engage in civil disobedience at the beginning of a campaign may feel differently after its milder efforts have been ignored. A community that’s staged a successful social action effort and reached its immediate goal may be willing to up the ante the next time. Circumstances and people change, which is why it’s important to revisit this question from time to time.
  • Prepare contingency plans based on the level to which you’re willing to escalate. Sometimes a social action effort works on the first try. Sometimes it takes several tries, a change in procedure, an increase in intensity, or some other factor to bring success. Sometimes the effort doesn’t work well, or at all: that’s when you need to have a Plan B.
    Your contingency plans can encompass almost anything. One possibility, for instance, is to simply let that particular issue drop and switch your efforts to something more winnable, in order to build strength and morale. Another is to change tactics – going at the issue from another angle, or aiming your action at a different target. Still another is to threaten the next level of action – either subtly or directly – and offer to negotiate before you “are forced” to carry it out. A fourth is to ratchet up your level of action without warning, with the purpose of attracting the notice of the media, putting your opponents in a more difficult position, and/or demonstrating the extent of your strength and support.

Escalation is not the most desirable outcome here. If you can accomplish your goals by switching tactics or some other strategy, that’s by far the better outcome. You should have contingency plans that cover a lot of different possibilities, so you’ll not be surprised, and so you’ll have some choices as to how to react when things don’t go as you’d hoped. Those contingency plans should encompass escalation as well, however. You may not need it, but if you do, you should know exactly what it will look like.

The community should be clear about what level of action it’s willing to take. Will you go all the way to civil disobedience? Are there other, equally drastic measures that you’re willing to risk? What are the probable and possible consequences of your plans, both for the individuals and groups involved, and for your effort? Do you have the resources and the will to carry a difficult process – a lawsuit, for example – to the end?

Whatever your answers to these questions, it’s necessary to plan for as many possibilities as you can. Never assume that just because you’re engaged in an action, it will accomplish your goals. You have to know what your next step is if it doesn’t.

Carrying out a social action strategy

Social action doesn’t always mean gathering the troops and marching on City Hall with fire in your eyes. It certainly can, and there are many times when that’s appropriate. But it can also mean testifying at a legislative hearing, going door to door to talk to voters about an upcoming election, filing a lawsuit, meeting with a representative of a regulatory body to demand proper enforcement of already-existing rules, or paying a visit to your Congressman with a group of fellow citizens.

The key difference between social action and simple democratic participation is the display of power that comes from the presence or the support of a large group of like-minded people. Calling the White House as an individual to protest the American invasion of Iraqis democratic participation. Calling for the same purpose as part of a coordinated effort to bombard the Administration with hundreds of thousands of phone calls is social action.

Examples of social action abound. Read practically any newspaper for a week, and you’ll probably see at least one. At the current writing, for example (Fall, 2005), just one organization, ACORN, has recently:

  • Mobilized voters – through door to door canvassing, voter registration, and participation at rallies, along with many elected officials – to defeat a number of California ballot initiatives.
  • Flooded the board meeting in Cleveland of the National Paint and Coatings Association with 400 ACORN members to demand – successfully – that the industry organization discuss with them the paint industry’s responsibility for lead paint poisoning and its obligation to victims.
  • Co-sponsored a rally in New York City attended by over 1,000 home childcare workers to highlight low wages and lack of support. (ACORN helped unionize home child care workers in New York state last year.)
  • Held numerous actions of various kinds around the country to try to convince Congress to change a budget bill that would cut programs for the poor in order to help pay for disaster relief.
  • Taken part in actions and court deliberations that led to the postponement of a permit renewal for a smelter in El Paso, Texas, that emits heavy metals into the air.

Eventually – usually sooner rather than later – you must go from planning to execution. Even in the simplest and least risky of actions, however – sending letters to legislators, for instance – people often need training or other kinds of help. The more complicated and potentially risky the action, the more support those engaged in it are likely to need.

Most of the steps below refer to carrying out an individual action. Remember, however, that carrying out a social action strategy is not the same as engaging in an individual action: it is often a long-term commitment to action of various kinds, usually with the goal of changing the distribution of power toward greater equity.

  • Choose the time, place, target(s), and nature of your action based on its purpose, and on how it fits into your overall strategy. If you want to convince legislators to listen to you, or to act in a certain way, it makes no sense to demonstrate at the State House when they’re not in session, or at a place where they’re not likely to be aware of what you’re doing. If you want a bill passed, your action should aim at legislators; if you want a corporation to change its policies, your action should target the offices, or the officers, of that corporation. Think carefully about what you want to accomplish, and who actually has the power to make it happen.
    By the same token, consider what kind of action will be most effective for the purpose at hand, and for your long-term strategy. In general, it makes sense to use the lowest-key action possible, saving the more drastic – demonstrations, marches, chaining yourself to the CEO’s front gate – for when you really need them. If you can accomplish your goal in a way that doesn’t involve confrontation and accusations, that both makes your opponents more willing to deal with you in the future, and leaves you with many more options if they won’t. If you start by firing your biggest guns, you’ll have nothing left in your arsenal if the first blast doesn’t accomplish its purpose. Furthermore, if your opponents and the general public get used to hearing those big guns, they’ll stop paying attention to them.
  • Provide the training and other support necessary to carry out a successful action before you engage in it. There are a number of different kinds of support that you may be able to provide:
    • Training. If people are writing letters or making phone calls, especially if they’re doing it for the first time, they may need a sample letter or script to use as a model. Participants should be briefed as fully as possible on the nature and extent of the action, on what their roles are, on exactly where they’re expected to be and when, etc. If people are testifying before a legislative committee or a court, they should have a chance to practice what they’re going to say, and to be briefed on what to expect, who will be there, how much time they have, etc. If there’s to be civil disobedience practiced, it’s extremely important that participants receive training in non-violent protest, in how to behave and what to expect if they’re arrested. They should understand their range of choices – to engage in civil disobedience, to support those who are engaged in civil disobedience, merely to be present, etc. The more participants know about the action beforehand, the more effective it’s likely to be.
    • Logistics. If you’re planning a march or a picket line, participants will need signs. People may need rides to a public meeting, or to polling places. For some actions, costumes or clothing imprinted with appropriate slogans may have to be supplied. Participants may need maps or other information. For a media session or rally, you may need photos or pictures, sound equipment, newsprint, computers, a movie screen – the list of possibilities is nearly endless. Anticipating and supplying what organizers and participants need is an important part of organizing an action.

Don’t forget basic necessities. If a group is meeting with officials at City Hall or the State House, what will they do for lunch? Particularly if it’s a warm day, you may have to provide drinking water. Restroom facilities – portable or otherwise – might be needed. An adequate number of trash cans available during a rally will make clean-up after it much easier. The more of these kinds of things you can anticipate, the smoother your action will go.

  • Coordination and support. People function better if they know someone’s in charge. Having people designated to provide directions, instructions, information, etc. at an action will both make everything go more smoothly and give participants the sense of security that comes from good organization.

This kind of coordination and support are especially important if there’s a threat of violence, real or imagined. Because violence can discredit not only your action, but your whole organization and its cause, it’s important that there be crowd control (as informal and low-key as possible), and that any move toward violence can be stopped before it gains momentum.

  • Plan the action in detail, then follow your plan. Just as with the overall strategy, the planning of an action should be participatory, involving people affected by the issue, representatives of member and/or affiliated organizations, etc. The more stake participants have in a social action strategy – which includes the planning of individual actions – the more likely it is to continue over the long term and to be successful.
    The planning of an event should cover every possibility you and everyone else involved can think of. It’s much easier to stave off trouble before it happens than to deal with it when it does – and it will, if you don’t plan properly.

So what happens when you’ve planned carefully, and the absolutely unexpected happens: the legislative hearing you’d lined up testimony for is canceled; your main speaker is injured in a traffic accident on the way to the rally; the leader of your opposition has a heart attack on the morning of the day you’d planned to confront him?

One answer is, of course, that you should have foreseen the possibility of all of these events, and planned accordingly… and perhaps you did. But it’s simply not realistic to assume that anyone, no matter how clever, can think of everything that could happen. The best you can do is to make general contingency plans for when things go wrong, and to have a backup for everything. A speaker who’s ready to go on if she’s needed, an alternate route, an indoor space in case of bad weather – these and other contingency plans can save your bacon when the unexpected happens. Just as with the data on your computer, back up everything. You won’t be sorry.

  • Organize for action. This means activating your communication network, going door to door, calling meetings, and doing whatever else it takes to get the right people to the right place at the right time. Whether you want 20 people to write letters to the Editor, or 2,000 people in front of City Hall at 2:00 on Monday, they need to be contacted and coordinated. Here’s why you have an organization and connections with community organizations and institutions and key individuals.
  • Carry out the action. All the planning and philosophizing in the world won’t get you anything unless you translate them to action. Now’s the opportunity – do it!
  • Follow up and evaluate. You’re not done when the action itself ends. You still have a number of things to do:

Take care of the logistics: Make sure people who need them have rides home, deliver that petition to the appropriate office, tally up the number of phone calls made, etc.
If you’ve staged a large rally or demonstration, someone has to pick up after the crowd, so that your message isn’t lost in complaining over the mess that your action left. There has to be an orderly and reasonable way for a crowd to disperse and get home when the action is over.
If you have follow-up activities planned (a State House rally can turn into visits to legislators, for instance), see to it that they take place, and that everyone knows what they’re supposed to do and where they’re supposed to go. At the end of that activity, you still have to get people home in an organized fashion, pickup the trash, etc.

If you’re very clear about avoiding violence or vandalism – and in most cases you should be – the marshals or coordinators have to stay on the job until everyone involved in the action has left the scene and is actually on the way home, rather than wandering around in small or not-so-small groups. Especially if there are opponents of your issue or point of view in the area, you’ll want to do everything you can to make sure that any encounters stay reasonably civil, and that high spirits don’t turn into rash behavior.

When everything’s actually all over – the next day or the  next week – the planners should meet to evaluate how things went. Did everything go according to plan? Did the people with responsibilities do a good job? Who was especially competent (or incompetent)? What was most effective? Least effective? What was media coverage like? How would you stage such an action in the future? Overall, did this type of action seem to work toward the purpose you set for it? If not, what might have worked better? Use your evaluation to adjust your next action – or your overall strategy, if necessary – to make it more effective.

As you know if you’ve used the Community Tool Box before, we consider evaluation to be an integral and extremely important part of any health or community development activity. If you evaluate honestly, you’ll have tremendously valuable information about what you’re doing, information that will allow you to change and improve your work. Don’t ignore the opportunity, but use it consistently to hugely increase your chances of mounting a successful campaign.

  • Finally, plan your next move based on how what you just did fits into your overall strategy. You’re in this for the long haul; everything you do should fit into your long-term plan, and move you forward. Social action strategies are seldom complete in themselves. They help establish gains that ultimately add up to significant change over time, but there’s always more to accomplish. The Civil Rights Movement drastically changed the lives of Black people in the U.S. for the better, but there’s still a long way to go after more than 50 years. Community organizing and social action (if necessary) can’t stop until a community – or a society – is truly just and equitable. >That means that successful organizers simply keep at it – forever.

In Summary

Community organizing, as practiced by Saul Alinsky, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, and their colleagues and inheritors, leads to the assumption of the power that the unity of a large number of previously powerless people brings. This is social action, and it can take forms ranging from letters to the Editor to serious civil disobedience.

Social action often means refusing to follow the rules laid down by those in power, and exercising instead the right to protest and contest unfair or ill-conceived policies and decisions. It is meant to empower communities that have been abused, neglected, or treated unfairly by authority or the society as a whole, and to give them a voice and some authority of their own. By drawing attention to inequity and injustice, and by using unified action to confront – or cooperate with – policy makers and the society as a whole, a social action strategy can bring about significant social change.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Alinsky & Back of the Yards NC. Another perspective on Alinsky and BYNC by Wendy Plotkin.

Asset-Based Community Development Institute. The Northwestern University base for the work of community-building gurus John Kretzmann and John McKnight.

The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, founded in 1939by Saul Alinsky and Joseph Meegan, provided the model for much of modern community organizing.

City of Fremont, CA. Numerous tip sheets on neighborhood topics, including organizing neighborhood groups.

Vancouver (BC) Citizens’ Committee. An on-line Citizens’ Handbook to community organizing and community building.

COMM-ORG: The Online Conference on Community Organizing. Features a list-serv for community and neighborhood organizers (free membership.)

The Community Organizing Tool Box: A Funder’s Guide to Community Organizing, by Larry Parachini and Sally Covington.Includes a history of CO.

DART, the Direct Action and Research Training Center. Provides training and support to grass roots community organizations.

The Industrial Areas Foundation, founded by Saul Alinsky in1940, to bring his brand of community organizing beyond Chicago.

The National Training and Information Center. “NTIC's mission is to build grass roots leadership and strengthen neighborhoods through issue-based community organizing. “ Acts as a catalyst, providing training and technical assistance for grass roots activists and organizers.

Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed. Participatory theater as a basis for and reflection of empowerment and social action. Founded by Brazilian Augusto Boal and informed by the work of Paulo Freire.

Pew Partnership for Civic Change.

PICO National Network. A largely faith-based nationwide (USA) organization of congregations and community-based organizations that “brings people together to strengthen families and improve communities.” Grass roots efforts toward equity and social and economic justice.

Survey Graphic: Magazine of Social Interpretation. Contemporaneous perspective on BYNC – Survey Graphic Magazine, Dec. 1, 1940. Article on the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council by Kathryn Close, mentioning the forming of the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Print Resources

Alinsky, S., (1969, rev.). Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage.

Alinsky, S.(1971). Rules for Radicals. New York: Vintage.

Bobo, K., Kendall. J., &  Max S. (2001). Organizing for Social Change (3rdedn.) Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press.

Brown, M. J. (2006). Building powerful community organizations: A personal guide to creating groups that can solve problems and change the world. Arlington, MA: Long Haul Press.

Dobson. C., (2003). The Troublemaker’s Tea party: A manual for effective citizen action. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Homan. M., (2003). Promoting Community Change: Making it happen in the real world (3rdedn.) Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Mondros. B.J., &  Scott M. W., (1994). Organizing for Power and Empowerment. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Pew Partnership for Civic Change (2001). What We Know Works.

Pew Partnership for Civic Change (2002). What’s Already Out There.

Pew Partnership for Civic Change (2005).Inventing Civic Solutions.

Rothman, J.L., John L. E., & John E. T. (2001). Strategies of Community Intervention (6th edn.) Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock.

Smock, Kristina (2004). Democracy in Action: Community organizing and Urban Change. New York: Columbia University Press.