The Toolbox of Social Change

After reading one of my books, folks who aren’t involved in social movements often ask, in private or at public talks, “What can we do?” So distraught by horrors past and present, people feel helpless and overwhelmed, and want to know how we build that better world — how does one join a social movement, exactly? I often say it’s easy to feel powerless before all the daunting obstacles — and no matter how involved you get, you typically feel you’re not doing enough. Perhaps even the most famous activists and leaders felt that way. Fortunately, I continue, if you look at history it becomes clear that social change isn’t just about one person doing a lot. It’s about countless people doing just a little bit. Howard Zinn said, “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” And he was right, as we’ve seen. Whatever challenges we face today, those who came before us faced even greater terrors — and they won, because growing numbers of ordinary people decided to act, decided to organize, to put pressure on the economically and politically powerful. I then list (some of) the tools in the toolbox of social change, which I have reproduced below so I can pass them along in written form.

The list roughly and imperfectly goes from smaller, less powerful tools to larger, more powerful ones. The first nine are largely done “together alone,” while the last nine are mostly in the realm of true organizing and collective action. Yet all are of extreme importance in building a more decent society. (It ignores, perhaps rightly, the sentiments of some comrades that there should be no participation in current electoral systems, instead favoring using all possible tools at one’s disposal.) This is in no way a comprehensive list (writing books is hopefully on this spectrum somewhere, alongside many other things), but it is enough to get the curious started.

 

Talk to people

Post on social media

Submit editorials / call-in to media

Sign petitions

Call / email / write the powerful

Donate to candidates

Donate to organizations

Vote for candidates

Vote for policy initiatives

Volunteer for candidates

Volunteer for policy initiative campaigns

Join an organization

Run for office

Launch a policy initiative campaign (from petition to ballot)

March / protest / picket

Boycott (organized refusal to buy or participate)

Strike (organized refusal to return to work or school)

Sit-in / civil disobedience / disruption (organized, nonviolent refusal to leave a place of power, cooperate, or obey the law; acceptance of arrest)