When it comes to effective activism, where you live might matter as much, or more, than what you do.
By Wayne Hsiung
On September 17, 2011, a few dozen protesters gathered on Wall Street. They were responding to the call of a Canadian anti-consumerist magazine, Adbusters, to challenge the corporate greed that nearly led to a global economic meltdown in 2008. While a major depression had been avoided – job growth slowly began ticking up by 2011 – the benefits of the recovery were mainly going to the richest of the rich. The vast majority of the people on this planet continued to suffer quietly, with poor health care, stress, and even displacement or death.
The beginning of this protest movement, however, was interesting in that the call was not to Occupy Your Local Bank. Rather, the call went out for activists across the world to Occupy… Wall Street. For those of us who see financial greed and misconduct as a widespread, global practice – as it surely is – this might have seemed a strange decision. After all, there were bad actors in not just Wall Street but also in LA, Chicago, and San Francisco. Moreover, it seemed unrealistic to ask activists against inequality, who were politically weak, geographically dispersed, and few in number, to uproot their lives and travel to New York City. Yet that is exactly what Adbusters did.
The rest, of course, is history.
Perhaps the most powerful movement against inequality in a generation was triggered, leading to tens of thousands of protesters not just in NYC, but also in dozens of cities (and eventually, countries) across the world. Public discussion of inequality skyrocketed, and serious policy changes were sustained (e.g. Obamacare) or enacted (extended unemployment benefits) as a result. And it all started when just a few dozen activists gathered in Zucotti Park.
Occupy Wall Street is just one small example of the power of concentration to cause growth in a movement. In areas ranging from technological innovation to improved health care practices, concentration has been instrumental to giving marginal ideas the boost they need to survive and ultimately flourish.
Yet within animal rights circles, we often take the opposite approach. We say that we have to disperse widely to get the broadest reach. We stretch ourselves thin to reach schools, neighborhoods, and cities that have the lowest concentration of animal rights sympathy. We even sometimes move to far-flung regions of the world in an effort to spread our message far and wide.
The story of Zucotti Park (and the extensive research into geographic concentration in sociology, political science, and economics) suggests flaws in this approach. From sociological research into the spatial clustering of social movements, to recent breakthroughs on the importance of high-density cities to innovation, to Paul Krugman’s now canonical work on economic geography, there is a convergence around a simple idea: concentration matters. And it matters for three principal reasons. First, concentration allows for shared resources, knowledge, and commitment. Second, concentration provides a stronger foundation for growth. Third, concentration creates political opportunities that are out of reach for a dispersed movement.
Many of the resources in a grassroots movement – e.g. community spaces, protest equipment, or even a website – can only be acquired through group effort. For example, a community of three people probably does not have the ability to rent out a community space. But if there are clusters of activists in the same area, they can share in the expense and acquire resources that previously had been out of reach.
This clustering is particularly important, as Mancur Olsen pointed out many years ago, when the resources are “public” in nature, i.e. they benefit the community as a whole rather than specific individuals. While public goods are vital to community development – and innovation – it can be difficult to secure contributions for such resources because every individual can “free ride.” That is, since securing the resource probably does not depend on their individual contribution, and they can’t be excluded from utilizing the resource once it is secured, it often makes sense to let others do the work. But if everyone takes this approach, then even public resources that we all want may end up underfunded.
Geographic concentration helps us combat this problem in two ways. First, it allows for better coordination between activists to ensure that public resources receive commitments from individuals. It’s a lot easier to check in and ask someone for help when you’re seeing them physically on a regular basis. Second, once a resource has been secured, e.g. a community space, geographic concentration allows for more people to benefit from it. Instead of having to rent ten different community spaces in ten different regions, we can rent one – and everyone gets to use it!
What’s true of material resources is just as true of knowledge, skill, and enthusiasm. It is well established by scholars of technological innovation, for example, that geographic concentration greatly benefits new industries such as the car industry in the early to mid 20th century, or the computing explosion in the early 2000s. Particularly with technology such as software, this might seem puzzling. Why should everyone cluster in Silicon Valley, for example, if all the work can be done remotely (and far more cheaply in regions of the country with far lower property costs)? The reason is that knowledge has a way of spilling over when innovative people are all in the same city, neighborhood, or even room. Instead of each re-inventing the wheel, participants in a movement – whether technological or moral – can learn from and enhance one another’s insight and experience. The result, very often, is an innovative explosion.
Perhaps the most important sharing, however, is of commitment and enthusiasm. Doug McAdam at Stanford identified social influence as the key determinant in movement participation many decades ago, and we know that social influence spreads more powerfully when people are geographically close to one another. (See, for example, how geography can surprisingly have impacts on loneliness or happiness.) Maintaining and growing our commitments to social justice, in short, may be as simple as moving closer to one another.
DxE is an international network that has now had participation in an astonishing 130 cities and 27 countries. Indeed, our founding mission was to inspire direct action… everywhere. Not just in one geographically concentrated region. And, indeed, the international scope of our network is one of the most inspiring aspects of our activism. Doesn’t concentration defeat this purpose?
The answer, surprisingly, is no, and for three primary reasons. First, if a movement is truly a movement – rather than just an organization led by a few key people – then concentration and growth go hand in hand. One of our most important values within the DxE organizing group is emergent leadership: the notion that leadership is assessed not by individual talent or success but by community empowerment. The mark of a great leader, under this philosophy, is the creation of other leaders. Emergent leadership (which is all the rage in the tech circles that are most focused on innovative forms of organization, e.g. Google) is the only way for a movement to effectively grow. We can’t compete in the battle of dollars and cents. We can’t hire our way to liberation. But we can inspire leadership in the grassroots, where we trade in the power of ideas rather than dollars.
If this is our model, however, then we need not worry about individuals moving towards greater concentration. It is the culture and community that will lead to sustained international growth, after all, and not any particular set of leaders. If our movement is strong, then new leaders will step up. That is exactly what has happened, in fact, in cities such as Vancouver and Chicago. When Wilson left Vancouver (or Almira left for a two-month stay in the Bay Area), you might have thought that the chapter would fall apart. In fact, it became even stronger because it gave new leaders an opportunity to step up. Similarly, when Katie left Chicago, it might have been seen as a blow to the Midwest. But again, new organizers such as Linzi and Ernesto stepped up (and Katie started a new chapter in Tucson).
This brings me to the second reason that growth is sustained by concentration, however: the power of symbols. We know that talking about numbers, for their own sake, has limited impacts. A million is simply a statistic, they say, but the story of one suffering child can change the world. What is true of suffering is also true of inspiration. The key to mobilizing a network is to have powerful symbols of success. In short, strengthening key hubs that have been important to the history of social justice can have impacts that resonate across the globe.
This was the power of Occupy Wall Street. It was one regional cluster, for sure. But it was a regional cluster that had symbolic importance across the world. And when thousands took over the Brooklyn Bridge, the world – and not just NYC – paid heed. The result was that Occupy encampments sprouted in dozens of cities across the world.
Of course, there are ways to maintain geographic concentration while fostering an international network. We encourage organizers to maintain relationships throughout the network, but especially in cities to which they once had a geographic connection. (Chicago will always be close to home for me personally.) Regional or international convergences, moreover, can help spread the strength of the big urban centers to smaller cities with less active movements. But at root, it’s important to remember that this strength comes from concentration and connection – not dispersion – and this is as true, surprisingly, as in the remote regions of the country as in its urban hubs.
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The third and perhaps most important reason for concentration is that it expands our movements’ opportunities, and allows us to achieve incredible political change. One of the central findings of social science is that changing institutions – the formal and informal set of rules and understandings that guide every human decision – is absolutely key to creating real and permanent change.