The events of 2016 spurred millions of normally passive citizens of the U.S. to action, as potential government policies affecting human rights, women’s rights, healthcare, the environment, LGBTQ rights, freedom of religion, workers’ rights, racial equality and immigration all loomed large. 

The Women’s March in DC (and around the world) following Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration is high on any list of stories of successful activist campaigns. Started among social media groups, this march was a great example of grassroots activism. Voices were heard, and the new administration was told loud and clear they would be challenged when attempting to deny people their rights.

Activist groups can and do affect positive change. But, they must be united in their message and actively recruiting and spreading that message to expand their influence and gain massive support. In other words, the march was a grand beginning, but there is still much work to be done.

Small Can Be Effective

While people around the country want to help, many don’t know where to start. Doing things on a massive scale is not necessary for success; in fact, quite often the opposite is what’s best. Think about what you can do right now where you are. Really consider next how to build a successful personal network that you can leverage quickly for imminent threats. Take, for example, the small but vocal and persistent groups that gathered at town halls and congressional offices to oppose killing the ACA; that activism may have saved millions of lives.

Image: ACT UP

Another example is ACT UP. Formed in the 1980’s, they represented HIV-positive people. While small, their protests garnered lots of media attention due to their methods. Showing up at a Republican senator’s house in North Carolina with a giant sign that said “Helms is Deadlier Than A Virus” gained them news coverage around the world. Another stunt, involving an ACT UP activist who managed to gain access to the set of “CBS News With Dan Rather” and interrupt the program with the organization’s message, garnered the group widespread attention. The event lasted only a few seconds and involved very few people, but it had the desired effect. While never holding huge rallies, ACT UP pushed the FDA to rush experimental drugs to market, and pharmaceutical price-gouging was discouraged. Their civil disobedience methods worked then and now, and today, they train young activists in the activist group Rise and Resist.

How to Build a Successful Activist Group

With so many legislative and policy issues to protest, burnout is a real concern. For this reason, it’s important that you build a core group of dedicated and passionate activists and constantly ask yourself how you can keep the group engaged. It is, after all, the actions that matter and not the size of the group. Harnessing the energy of the collective members, more than growing numbers, is what keeps the group motivated and active.

In her recent book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, long time activist L.A. Kauffman says everybody can do something and stay sane and have fun in the process. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Kauffman points out that protest works, and that when “people are willing to do something bold and take risks, they’re able to hold onto their gains or make new gains in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise.”

Brainstorm, choose your actions wisely, and allow subgroups to focus on certain causes that they can champion. In a political climate where there are so many battles to be fought, bringing in fresh faces and encouraging leaders from the ground up can help. Don’t overlook connecting with influencers to broadcast group messages via social channels and give your group small, regular wins.


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