Ten Elements of Movement Building

If you want to lead, you need to follow. If you want to lead, you need to be part of something bigger. If you want to lead, you need to be in solidarity with other social movements.

The collective power of people gathering, united around a vision for change, is immeasurable. The impact is tangibly imprinted into the fabric of our society, from the civil rights and suffrage movements to Pride, Black Lives Matter and March For Our Lives.

This transformative power has inspired and guided me in my work to analyze what makes certain movements so effective. I realized early on in this research that no matter how good your idea is, unless it’s connected to community organizing and a strategy developed by the community, you can’t effect lasting change.

Over the years, I’ve tried to distill what makes movements work in 10 essential elements (after all, a short list is easier to remember than long academic volumes!).

Fundamental Elements

What defines a social movement? 

  1. Vision and frame. To build support, it’s imperative to speak to peoples’ hearts and values first. A compelling vision sets the goal and an effective frame sets the terms of the debate. Van Jones emphasized this point when he said, “Martin Luther King proclaimed, ‘I have a dream,’ not ‘I have an issue.’” Living wage, marriage equality, and Black Lives Matter are all examples of frames that captivate with visions for a better future.
  1. Authentic base in key constituencies. A social movement is nothing without people. It requires time and effort to understand who is being impacted by an issue, and how those “with skin in the game” can contribute and lead in ways that are authentic to their community and culture. In successful movements, organizers are facilitators who seek to nurture power within the movement by developing leadership within engaged communities.
  1. Commitment to the long-haul. Social movements are not episodic or coalitional – they have a long-term perspective and invest in building relationships and training leaders. Furthermore, while policy adoption may be a goal, it is not the sole ambition. The immigration reform movement, for example, advocates for an end to family separation at the border, but this specific goal is one of many on the path to the long-term vision of a more humane, equitable and beneficial approach to immigration in the United States.

Implementation Tools

How does a movement create transformational change?

  1. Underlying and viable economic model. At their core, social movements are about the redistribution of power and resources. This means that movements need a research-based theory of how re-enfranchisement can be helpful to the economy, as well as a plan for economic, political and social growth after resources are redistributed.
  1. Vision of government and governance. Government is one of the most important tools of change. Given this, social movements require both a visionof the government’s role and a way to show how that role is a full expression of democracy and the values our country was built upon.
  1. Scaffold of solid research. While movements lead with a values-driven vision for the future, they also need a foundation of research and data to analyze problems and suggest solutions. Increasingly, social movements both generate their own research and are sophisticated partners with researchers.
  1. Pragmatic policy package. A solid body of research informs the development of practical policies, which are measurable stepping stones for a social movement to make its vision a reality. For long-term systems change, policy packages should push for fundamental changes in decision-making structures and the allocation of resources.


How does a social movement gain power?

  1. Recognition of the need for scale. Successful social movements are grounded in community and also understand the importance of working with organizations that are large enough – in organizational size or in size of membership base – to challenge existing power.
  1. Strategy for scaling up. Social movements gain power by growing and expanding their base, and this includes both issue areas and geography. In most cases, this does not happen by accident. Organizers have a long-term plan for how to expand their campaigns to involve specific new constituencies, and have a strategy to build from local to regional to the state to national.
  1. Willingness to network with other movements. Successful social movements are ecosystems, not empires. No one wins alone. It’s important to find commonality and bridge gaps between efforts, creating streams of social movements that converge into a raging river of change.

While presented as 10 simple steps, movement building is not easy and takes time. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Now, we all have to work together to bend it.

Dr. Manuel Pastor is a distinguished professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He is director of the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. A former Kellogg Fellow, he says, “the Kellogg Fellowship changed my life because that’s when I began doing work with and for community-based organizations.”

Read More

WKKF Community Leadership Network