Movements change the world, they are inspiring, they are overwhelming and the process of movement building may seem complex. 

I had an opportunity of moderating a panel discussion with Daniela Matielo from Ashoka Changemakers and Sarah Slader from Making Cents International at the Atlas Corps Global Leadership Lab. This discussion was themed as De-Coding Movements. 

A few days after, their conversation was still alive for me and it inspired me to think further. This article is the culmination of inspiration from the discussion and afterthoughts.

Here are some insights on de-coding movements:

  1. Movements change mindsets and build new societal reality

“Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality”, “Racial discrimination is inhuman, uncool and unacceptable”, “young people have the power to hold governments accountable and push them to take action on climate change”

A few decades ago, statements like these could have invoked mockery, potential lawsuit or worst, a death threat. What has changed?

These big mindset shifts in society are examples of how movements are able to change thinking at a societal level and forge new societal norms. Changing societal norms does not mean every single person starts agreeing to the new proposed idea. It does mean that most of the people in society start believing in that new idea and start aligning their actions to make the idea into everyday reality like Pride march across the globe, countries legalizing same-sex marriage, corporates providing equal employment opportunities to LGBTQI population, etc.

2.  Movements are serendipitously orchestrated

Ideas spark all the time and some do germinate into actions. But not every action becomes a movement. There is a right time for an idea to transform into a movement. The beginning of a movement is sparked by an incident, initiated by one or few leaders but a larger undercurrent and yearning for that change makes the action go viral. To sustain the virality needs orchestration.  

The ripeness of the moment and someone’s action catching fire” – Sarah

Through the Youth Strike for Climate example, Sharah shared the story of Greta Thunberg. 

When 15-year-old Greta started protesting outside the Swedish parliament every Friday demanding immediate action to combat climate change. Was she thinking about launching a movement? Possibly not.

But her action drew attention from young people and an estimated 1.4 million students in 112 countries join her call in striking and protesting and demanding their governments to take action.

The world is reeling under the pressure of climate change caused by reckless human actions. Young people will inherit a broken world. Greta’s actions inspired young people to take charge of the solution.

Organization all around the world working on addressing climate change issues leveraged on Greta’s actions and aligned their efforts for the common cause. Media amplified Greta’s messages, effective use of social media helped build momentum and schools, colleges and non-profits facilitated safe spaces for young people to organize and protest. This is all part of careful orchestration. 

3.  Movements are personal. Personal is powerful!

Being personal and authentic are the most powerful elements of movements. Building and sustaining movements rely on the stories and felt experiences of individuals and their appeal to the universal values of love, compassion, freedom and just being human. The movements are aspirational, inclusive and have a common vision – “I have a dream!”.

Daniela shared how the LGBTQI movement in the US got maximum traction and found new allies once the conversation shifted from rights of LGBTQI from fairness perspective to LGBTQI people having the similar need to express, love and belong as heterosexual people.

Sharh narrated her experience of being part of the ‘March for our lives’ and people sharing deeply personal stories of how gun violence affected them. It is hard to argue with those kinds of stories and say your experiences are invalid. She also read the mission statement, “To harness the power of young people across the country to fight for sensible gun violence prevention policies that save lives.”, and explained the language of the movement is inclusive. The mission statement says “ sensible gun violence prevention policies” and avoids trigger words like gun control or a gun ban. This helps to find common ground and win allies. 

4. Movements are young and practicing new skills

Movements around the world are led and anchored by young people. 

There is no one leader of a movement. Instead, there seem to be hundreds of leaders and millions of changemakers joining hands. These leaders do not claim to be the sole custodian of the cause.

Instead, they rely on shared experiences, they are tech-savvy, they communicate and organize via social media and know-how to follow each other! These leaders admit not having not figured out everything but they show an openness to learn and are not averse to making mistakes.

Daniela shared Ashoka’s belief that in today’s world to outrun problems, we need more problem solvers (changemakers). The new skills that everyone today needs to learn and practice are Cognitive Empathy, Creativity, Leadership and Teamwork. 

The leaders at the helm of the movements demonstrate these skills at high levels.

5.   Movement is organized fluidly around the shared vision 

“Movements happen when there is a realization that to bring change, efforts have to move away from one person or organization to many.” -Daniela

In the movement-building process, the common cause or shared vision becomes the anchoring force and many stakeholders combine strengths and resources. 

This new kind of organizing is different than organizing at an organizational level. Decision making and accountability are more distributed and non-hierarchical. The roles and structures become less relevant and unique skills brought by the stakeholders become more crucial. 

Daniela says, at Ashoka, this organizing is referred to as Fluid Team of Teams’. 

Leaders at the helm of movements effectively use the tools of engaging, co-operating and collaborating to keep the fluid organizing focused. 

6. Fluidity can be measured –

Though the Movements seem fluid, viscous and intangible they do have a clear logic model. Significant change resulting from a movement might be visible after a long period, sometimes spanning over decades but it is possible to measure the impact of a movement in progress. Some of the success indicators of a movement are

  1. Change in the discourse of society – Increased number of people from diverse backgrounds start talking and discussing the issue.
  2. New converts and allies backing the movement
  3. Demands for structural changes like policy reforms, legal reforms, new systems of operations, etc to accommodate the demands of the movement
  4. Increased funding and investment for furthering the cause
  5. Several organizations working at various levels to translate the new vision into an everyday reality
  6. Demand for reforms are considered by governments/courts
  7. New behavior patterns are adopted by a large section of the society 

The sum total of impact achieved by different partners and organizations in the movement can even throw up an Impact number!

7.  Believe it or not – You are in a movement right now!

Movements permeate every aspect of our society and our lives. Every action is associated with one or multiple causes. When you chose to not use single-use plastic, you are supporting the cause of Climate Change. When you make an attempt to understand pronouns or have a conversation with someone on the naturalness of homosexuality, you become part of the LGBTQI movement.

What is your movement at this moment?