What makes an effective protest movement | In conversation with James Ozden, Director at Social Change Lab

Esther Foreman and Rachel Krengel from The Social Change Agency meet up with James Ozden, Director at Social Change Lab to explore what makes an effective protest movement.

Topics covered include:

  • the importance of shared identity and collaboration
  • the need for more funding to be directed towards social movements
  • the challenges of volunteer burnout and retention
  • why some protest movements flourish (and some don’t)
  • whether disruptive tactics work
  • the importance of timing for social movements

You can find out more about the Social Change Lab at socialchangelab.org and find James Ozden on Twitter at @JamesOzden.

Listen below (or through your favourite podcast provider), or continue reading for the interview in full.

Introducing James Ozden, Director of Social Change Lab and Rachel Krengel, Consultant at The Social Change Agency

Esther: Hi everyone and welcome to The Social Change Agency podcast. This time with the additional Social Change Nest CIC podcast added in today. We’ve got a really exciting session for all our lovely listeners out there. We have the amazing Rachel Krengel talking about social movements and how to measure the impact with James Ozden. James runs the Social Change Lab and he’s brought out some incredibly interesting research looking at whether or not social movements can actually help solve the world’s most pressing problems. James, do you want to introduce yourself a little bit?

James: Yep. So, hi, my name is James. I’m the Director of Social Change Lab. We are a new nonprofit and we do social movement research to try and understand how we can tackle some of the biggest problems facing humanity today. And my background is in grassroots social movement. So I’ve been involved in the climate movement and the animal advocacy movement for the past few years. And before that I studied physics, so hence the slightly quantitative analysis in my work. So yeah, that’s me.

Esther: Welcome James. And Rachel over to you. Tell us about yourself.

Rachel: I’m on the consults team here at Social Change Agency. I’ve been in and around lots of social movements for quite a lot of years, from occasionally waving a sign through to organising demonstrations of several thousand people and lots of slightly less legal things than that. And I also have a more than casual, interest in, particularly social science and the measuring of social movements from an academic point of view. So really excited to talk to James about research.

What got you interested in understanding and measuring the impact of social movements?

Esther: James, do you want to tell us a little bit about how you came to found the Social Change Lab and what got you interested in looking at the impact of social movements and whether you can measure them or not?

James: So the reason why we came about, I was quite involved with Extinction Rebellion in the UK for quite a few years working on the strategy with them and also at Animal Rebellion. And we had lots of questions in terms of how do we make the best campaigns, how do we message our work, who should we target, which tactic should we use? And I looked online as much as possible and I couldn’t actually find any really good answers for how we solve some of these things. And it’s not a very well-trodden path and if it is, it’s not very well written down or researched. So I kind of thought if I have got these questions, I’m sure that people do too. I guess my quest was to find out; how do these campaigns become as successful as possible? How do we win change – the best ways? And how do we actually win these desperately important issues.

What have you discovered through your research?

Esther: Can you just explain a little bit for our listeners what your research is showing?

James: We’ve done a few bits of work so far, but I guess two literature reviews we’ve done, is looking at roughly 60 academic papers over the past like 50 years, focusing on, particularly movements that use protests as a tactic and first what they’ve achieved in terms of their impacts on public opinion, on policy, on voting behavior, on corporate behavior. And also looking at what factors make some protests more successful than other ones. And largely what we’ve seen is that protests and movements have had quite significant impacts. Studies have shown that places that had larger civil rights protests had a larger democratic voting than places that didn’t and that was replicated also in 2020 after the George Floyd protests. So there’s like a reasonably large impact on voting, which obviously determines future of a country in some cases.

largely what we’ve seen is that protests and movements have had quite significant impacts

On top of that, there’s things we looked at [like] how XR shifted public opinion, Extinction Rebellion, sorry for the jargon, shifted public opinion on climate in the last three or four years as YouGov polling shows how much it’s increased in terms of how much people care about climate. So there’s lots of different metrics that show lots of success.

What motivates people to get involved with protest movements?

Esther: Taking it right back, right, right back. Why do you think people come out to protest?

James: There’s definitely a few reasons and we mostly look at instrumental reasons. So you protest because you want to achieve something because you want the world to change and you think you have a better plan for it. But there’s many other reasons besides that. One is you think it’s the right thing to do. So even though nothing might change, you just think it’s morally the right thing to do to stick up for people who are in the worst place than you or you want to protect someone, or the planet. And there’s other things where you want to help people in other countries, people far away in the future who aren’t even alive yet, or animals who can’t support you. So there’s like many, many different reasons, or people you might want to protest, and otherwise just a democratic right to protest. If you just want to exercise that, I think that’s also totally reasonable and makes sense.

Rachel: What is really interesting is where there is a body of research, it’s in the social psychology element of like why people protest. The last few years have presented a really interesting testimony on this is the role of shared identity and I don’t like, obviously there is an identity in being a feminist or being anti-racist or anti-fascist or whatever, but actually the role that the identity of like, “I am a young person” and young people… You know, one of the things that I think is really, really exciting that’s happening now is the parents against climate movements because that’s an identity that cuts through so many things and really speaks to the core of people and it is mobilising people.

sometimes people are there because it’s fun and because they see their own people out there and that’s okay

And actually that’s something that’s really interesting as people who are involved in movements that perhaps it’s almost uncomfortable because we want to believe that everyone’s out there because of these very pure ideological reasons. But actually no, sometimes people are there because it’s fun and because they see their own people out there and that’s okay. And leaning into it and making that more of part of our protest probably is how we get those numbers and how we get that unity of message because people are unified with people they see themselves in and probably build more effective protests.

Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I mean I first went to an Extinction Rebellion protest protest in 2018 and it was one of the best days of my life for sure. It was so colorful, people were so friendly, it was just really fun, lots of music, lots of dancing. And my background before that was lots of animal rights stuff, which is much more sad and intense and a bit dark. So going into that climate space, I was like wow, you can do activism and have fun at the same time. I was like, maybe we should try bring this and bring more people in. Because, you’re right, it brings in so many more people and you want to stay there and you want to come back and you make great friends. So I think that is a really important element.

And I think there’s actually some interesting research on the pro-life movement, there’s a book called the Making of Pro-Life Activists by Ziad Munson and he finds that 50% of people who join the pro-life movement join not being pro-life, either as pro-choice or indifferent. The community they’ve built is so good and so welcoming and it’s so supportive, you end up forming identity just the longer you stay in the space. So yeah, I think there’s lots of interesting things to learn from that.

Rachel: Yeah, I think that’s one of those problems with being very, very married to our ideological idea of what protests should be, is that the people on the other side are absolutely not above using like in a very deliberate, quite manipulative sometimes, way – community identity and those things. And actually that does mean they have very, very effective bases and I think it’s really easy to dismiss them. But we look at what’s happening in pro life movements a really good example of what’s just happened in America and that that comes out of a movement as much as much as the good things do.

The NRA have a really great base of lots of chapters and they have, barbecues and days out, and they’re very [much] a community based organisation

James: Yeah, exactly. Another nefarious example is the gun rights movement. The NRA have a really great base of lots of chapters and they have, barbecues and days out, and they’re very [much] a community based organisation. And as weird as that might seem for people on the more progressive side of things, they’re really effective at mobilising people around the country to go and lobby local counsellors and elected officials for what they want. And they’re doing it quite well because effectively, it’s quite a small percentage of the population who believe what the NRA believe, yet they’re quite successful in actually getting what they want done in legislation.

How effective are disruptive tactics in brining about social change?

Esther: So in the end of it [the research paper], there’s the assumption that we think protest are good because they do achieve a level of impact by guiding others. There is a huge amount of resentment out there though because of the Extinction Rebellion protests and I’ve no doubt this question comes up again and again for you, what is the message that you have for those, the ones that are like, you know, “you block the roads”, “you stopped x getting to hospital”, “you stopped y getting to work”, you know, “it’s not right that protests disrupt daily life or harm individuals”. It’s a fine line. Any insights on that from your research?

James: Yeah, I’d definitely agree it’s a fine line and I think also XR hasn’t always been on the right side of the line either. I think there’s one caveat. I think with civil rights movement, you can kind of draw analogies from there, when people doing the sit-ins were actually quite unpopular at the time. Then looking back we’ll see them as being progressive leaders of civil rights movement. And I’m not necessarily saying that’s the case with every single action that XR does, but in some ways you can just see by the public opinion changing over time that they have been quite successful at actually mainstreaming climate as an issue, normalising things like climate emergency, the word, and also getting UK government to declare a climate emergency, there’s been like quite substantial wins as a result of their tactics.

But I guess the question now is that worked then, should they change? Should we change now given that, do we have diminishing marginal returns with the disruptive stuff? And I think we’ve seen, well I’ve seen at least, hints of that in some survey polling we’ve done recently with YouGov. We did some polling around Just Stop Oil, some similarly disruptive protests in about April and there was no increase in public support for climate change as a result of the protests. But there was two years ago when XR did very similar stuff and one reason for that might be when XR did it, support for climate change concern in the UK was about 60%. Now it’s 80%. So we’ve kind of saturated the market of all the climate concerned people. So that’s definitely one concern I have about being disruptive more and more, where it might not be the right thing to do anymore.

Esther: What about the movements that haven’t ever really had that level of public popularity? I’m thinking of disability rights movement where it’s very hard to cut into the public consciousness. Do you think the same principles could apply there?

James: Yeah, I mean that’s the main reason why we did Animal Rebellion, which was to use quite XR like tactics to try push animal advocacy and animal rights into the mainstream. Because when you’re a small group or small movement with not much funding, not much tension in a way, you almost want do whatever you can within reason like non-violently to get your issue seen because there’s so many important and really pressing issues in the world.

You want to do it with a variety of tactics. If you’re just disruptive and you do nothing else, then people will just be, “oh, you’re just annoying”.

Whether it’s disability rights or animal rights or racism, etc, that you want to push out. And I definitely see reason why activists do use that. Whether it’s effective, I think there’s some sweet spot where you want some public support so you don’t alienate your movement right from the get go and be really like boxed in. But you also want to use it to build support. I guess one of the things is you want to do it with a variety of tactics. If you’re just disruptive and you do nothing else, then people will just be, “oh, you’re just annoying”. But if you do some community building, you found some education on the side, there’s other bits that will support your message then that might be more successful.

Do movements have sweet spots, moments in time when they can be most effective?

Esther: So I know that you’ve written a great article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. And in that you kind of deconstructed what it is to be the movement to get to that sweet spot. It’s every activists dream isn’t it, to create or curate that sweet spot? Maybe that’s the time that’s happened for the environmental movement, but I’m thinking about, can you go back to the disability rights movement, you know, that is decades and decades old, but we never seem to have any cut through. You know, is it that some topics, movements in various topics, (whether it be various rights, or it’s disability, or it’s animal) they have their sweet spot as part of their history and once you’ve you’ve had it, it’s gone. You never really get it back. What do you think about that?

he sees it as movements of seasons… he thinks these cycles happen roughly five to 15 years

James: I think that’s a great question. One we thought about a lot and there’s a great article written by Carlos Saavedra who works at the Ayni Institute and they were one of the thought leaders for me in the social movement space. They incubated Momentum who incubated lots of great groups and he sees it as movements of seasons. So the winter is like the fallow period where not much is happening, issues still exist, but it’s not in the public eye. And then as spring comes up you get more legislation and then summer is where you gotta go out and get dancing. It’s called moments of the whirlwind or trigger event periods where it’s your issues in the public eye. Things like when George Floyd was murdered the summer of protests all around the world.

James: So that would be a like a prime example of summer for the anti racism movement. Just like maybe for the climate movement it was 2019 and then I think that these are going to go in cycles so then quietens down again. You’ll hopefully get legislation on some of your victories and you get policy passed and then you go back into the winter phase and you hopefully start rebuilding for next time. And he thinks these cycles happen roughly five to 15 years. And this is based on his experience in the immigration movement in the US. But I think there’s definitely some analogies I can see in that model. And also Bill Moyer has something called a move in action plan which is kind of similar where movements have stages. So I think it’s very natural that it happens but yeah, some might just take longer or shorter than others. That’s the hard thing to know.

What do movements need to flourish?

Esther: I understand that with climate crisis we don’t have the luxury of 10 to 15 years for your movement to come, rebuild, be reborn. But I also am very aware that your research has shown that you can cultivate the context in which your movement can flourish. Do you want to talk a bit more about that?

James: Do you mean how a movement can flourish or specifically like how to capitalise on that?

Esther: We would call them enablers. So there are things that a movement can have that enable the movement to grow, funding being one of them.

James: I think funding is a very clear one. We did some interesting research recently where we surveyed about 13 or 15 social movement organisations, reasonably grassroots, doing animal and climate work in the US and Europe to ask them what were their main bottlenecks to being more successful. And a big thing for that was funding, but also finding the right people and retaining the right people.

there’s a big issue of volunteer burnout and lack of retention in movements

So there’s a big issue of volunteer burnout and lack of retention in movements. And I’m sure we’ve all experienced this because the work is so hard, it’s so all consuming and you care so much about it so you want to spend all your time on it. So I think the enablers for that might be good governance, how do you pay people the right amount? How do you deal with conflict within your movement and how do you traverse all these difficult things about setting strategy and what’s the right target and who should we try and mobilise? So I think, for me, governance and compensation of finance are a really big piece of it.

Another bit is, I think coalitions are amazingly successful in terms of working with a network of organisations. So rather than thinking ‘we’re the best group doing the most important work’, really I think what people should think is we’re doing one particular strategy and we’re supporting this whole ecology of movements and we’re all fighting towards the same things. How can we support each other and help one another? Whether that’s your NGOs to your grassroots groups, to your political parties. I think it’s important to try be cooperative rather than competitive in that landscape.

Should more funding be directed towards movements instead of the traditional charity sector?

Esther: I noticed that in one of your papers you call for additional funding into movements. Do you think that’s something that the public should take more of an interest in? That actually rather than funding going into the more traditional NGO sector, the more traditional NGO is something that we often talk about, [that] actually you would be better placed to put your donation into a social movement.

James: It’s hard because everyone needs more funding. There’s so many big things to tackle and all NGOs, everyone you talk to will be like, we need more, we just want to do more things, more great work. But I think for me it’s a relative thing. It’s how effective is your dollar given to an NGO versus a grassroots group and usually these grassroots social movement organisations are quite small, have no full-time staff or often have staff who are paid below minimum wage, which I and many of my friends were, or some still are, for several years and that’s just not sustainable to do that long term. And that’s mainly due to lack of funding. So I think just that kind of stuff would mean your key organisers can actually stay in that organisation. Because often what happens is they get poached by NGO se they’re such great activist they end up going to NGOs where then you have all your brain drain of your great talent. It’s a bit of a rant but…

Esther: We like rants, it’s OK do rant!

James: But I guess long story short is I think, provided you pick your organisation well, I think funding grassroots groups can be one of the best things your donor or your philanthropists can do.

funding grassroots groups can be one of the best things your donor or your philanthropists can do

Rachel: We do some work for a really big funders doing very, very small grants to grassroots community groups who are doing things like turning turning TRA halls into food banks or setting up football clubs for kids. And one of the things I’ve always said is that if you get someone with the right support and the right infrastructure, which we are able to provide them with, and give a thousand pounds to a group or a TRA who want to make a food bank versus giving that thousand pounds to a big food bank NGO, it’s one, it’s just a drop in the ocean, it’s going to disappear. The other is game changing. I guess the question I have is how, you know we want act, I know so many activists who’ve been underpaid for so long and they mostly either don’t work in the activist space or like you say they’re in NGOs now. We want people to be properly paid, we want to put that structures in place, but how do we retain that value for money without just becoming another NGO?

James: Yeah, I think that’s such a hard question and I think there’s Mark and Paul Engler who wrote ‘This Is an Uprising’, a real seminal text in like the nonviolence scene. They have this whole piece on something called rejecting professionalisation in movements. Because I guess the point is, if you just get more money and pay like £50,000 pounds a year, you’re just another NGO and then the whole point of movements is you want to scale and you want be volunteer driven and that way you get more people to join and you just explode exponentially. So I definitely think that is a concern. I guess to me there’s a balance of can you provide at least housing or support for people with low incomes, or at least some sort of financial stability so they know they can do it for a set period of time and then look further opportunities if needed.

Rachel: Hire a decent volunteer manager. Right. If we gave every social movement in the country a really good volunteer manager overnight the picture would change because that’s why it becomes untenable it’s because what you have is volunteers who who are themselves activists managing other activists and this kind of almost fetishization of doing it for the movement and people burn out. Whereas one of the things I’m very evangelical about now is like no you are managing volunteers. That is a job and maybe that’s someone’s only job, but if you do that well like it’s better to get two hours a week from someone for 10 years than for them to kill themselves and six months later they’re gone and you never see them again.

James: I totally agree. I think we work people incredibly hard because usually when you’re doing it full time and you work in the day because that’s when people work then you manage volunteers in the weekday evenings and also on the weekends. You end up working all your free time and it just becomes unsustainable to do that long term.

What’s been your most favourite protest?

Esther: So moving from the mechanics of the movement and how movements work, to the impact of the movement, to actually, what has been your most favourite protest? It’s a question for both of you.

Rachel: My favourite, it’s not at all effective, it’s one of the tiniest, tiniest protests I’ve ever done, which was International Women’s Day 2017. Me and a narco-feminist collective I was part of went and stood outside Parliament Square. But it was very visual. We had a little coffin we’d made. We were all in black and we all did speeches about basically women’s rights under austerity. Also that day all the other little narco-feminist groups were doing similar little protests around London. So we were just basically ended in this convoy traveling around London, just protesting in different places and it was probably one of the most fun days of activism I’ve ever had. I don’t know how effective it was long term, but it was, it was a good moment for building us as part of the movement.

James: Nice. It’s amazing. Yeah I think, I think mine might be the first XR protest I went to the one I mentioned on the Bridges.

the vibrancy and joy that you can find in activist spaces… that is what keeps people in

So that was 2018 November and that was the first XR protest I went to. And yeah, on the same day about 5,000 people blocked five bridges in London, which to me was just totally ridiculous. And I guess the level of ambition that XR showed to even attempt that when it was like one of their second major actions shows the level of ambition you need to be successful. I met amazing people, everyone was so friendly, so kind, there were great speech, there was great dancing. So it was for me really brought alive, the vibrancy and joy that you can find in activist spaces and that is what keeps people in and keeps them going long term.

What’s next for Social Change Lab

Esther: That’s true. They come for the for the change… no they come for the cake and stay for the people, is the saying. So talking about the future, what’s next for Social Change Lab?

James: We are defining our research questions for the next six months and I think we have a few things we want to tackle. One of which is actually why do some movements fail? That’s something we want to examine because obviously that’s things we want to avoid, things like bad governance, infighting, your opponents were too elite and powerful and they pushed you out. We want to find out why did these other progressive issues fail in achieving what they want to achieve, at least so far, and how can we learn from that and make sure we’re robust [against] those kind of issues. And something else we want to do is comparative case studies on a more social movement level. We’ve been looking more at protests specifically, but want to expand to social movements to see did some movements used particular strategies and tactics and they were successful and how does that relate to the ones that didn’t use those [tactics]? It’s trying to figure out what are those key things that we should all implement in our work? And I’ve spoken about a few of them, like the diversity of groups and the unity, but is there anything bigger? Like you want to have allies in these places, or you want to be really grassroots, or have like this amount of local group structure. So there’s like lots of things to look into. But obviously that’s all funding dependent. So yeah, hopefully we’ll get money for that.

Esther: And speaking of funding, who, where does your funding come from?

James: So very generously we got a grant from the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund. So for those that don’t know, effective altruism is kind of this philosophy that wants to use money in the most effective way to help as many beings as possible. And so we got a seed grant from them six months ago and yeah, we’ve been going off that and I guess we’re now in a fundraising phase.

Where can people find out more about Social Change Lab?

Esther: Where do people go to find out more information?

James: Our website is probably the best place, which is socialchangelab.org. And on our page you can see our research that we’ve compiled today and we have a newsletter you can follow up as well. And besides that, I guess on Twitter @JamesOzden, I also occasionally tweet work related things.

Esther: That’s great. Thank you very much for your time today, James and Rachel. Thanks for being here. I really appreciate it and really interesting.

James: Thanks for having me.

Esther: Thank you for listening to the Social Change Agency podcast. If you’d like to find out more about what we’ve been doing to support climate and other grassroots movements, then make sure you sign up to our newsletter at thesocialchangeagency.org. Or you can find us on Twitter at @SocialChangeAg

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