Progressive Movement Building

What are the basic building blocks of a
successful social movement?

  • A discontented group of politicized persons who share the perception that they have common grievances they want society to address;
  • A powerful and lucid ideological vision linked to strategies and tactics that have some reasonable chance of success;
  • The recruitment of people into the movement through pre-existing social, political, and cultural networks;
  • A core group of trusted strategic leaders and local activists who effectively mobilize, organize, educate, and communicate with the politicized mass base;
  • The efficient mobilization of resources that are available, or can be developed, to assist the movement to meet its goals;
  • An institutional infrastructure integrating political coordination, research and policy think tanks, training centers, conferences, and alternative media.
  • Opportunities in the larger political and social scene that can be exploited by movement leaders and activists;
  • The skillful framing of ideas and slogans for multiple audiences such as leaders, members, potential recruits, policymakers, and the general public.
  • An attractive movement culture that creates a sense of community through mass rituals, celebrations, music, drama, poetry, art, and narrative stories about past victories, current struggles, and future successes.
  • The ability of recruits to craft a coherent and functional identity as a movement participant.

(This list is based on the work of Goffman, Zald, McCarthy, Meyer, Gamson, Snow, McAdam, Benford, Klandermans, Johnston, Ewick, Silbey, Polletta, and many other scholars)


“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to freedom and yet deprecate agitation…want crops without plowing. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Frederick Douglass

To build a movement for progressive social change, we need to reach across boundaries and build coalitions based on mutual respect and accountability. Ideally, we will engage in cross-sector work. Under the banner of a broad global human rights movement, these are some of the various sectors we need to support in a collective and collaborative manner:

Issues & Sectors

Global Human Rights Movement
Civil Rights Peace,
Foreign Policy, & Defense
Civil Liberties
Race, Ethnicity, & Nationality Economic Fairness, Class, & Work Gender & Sexuality
Environmental Sustainability Basic Human Needs
(Food, Housing,
Health Care)
Public Education
Students & Youth Communities of Faith & Spirituality Labor Unions
Cross-Sector Work

Coalition-Building is Crucial!

Bernice Johnson Reagon has discussed the practical problems of coalition work in terms of risk and discomfort. She built a metaphor around her problems breathing due to being at a high altitude for the first time at a 1981 meeting of women in Yosemite National Forest:

“You got one group of people who are in strain—and the group of people who are feeling fine are trying to figure out why you are staggering around, and that’s what this workshop [on coalition politics] is about this morning.”

“I wish there had been another way to graphically make me feel it because I belong to the group of people who are having a very difficult time being here. I feel as if I’m gonna keel over any minute and die. That is often what it feels like if you’re really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”

      –Bernice Johnson Reagon

Using the Human Rights Framework:

Methods & Infrastructure of
Collaborative Social Movements

International Social Movement Organizing
National Organizing
Community Based Organizing Individual Political Acts State & Regional Organizing
Direct Service Strategy
Issue Advocacy
Movement Philanthropy & Donors Intellectuals and Scholars Visual and Performing Arts
Legal Advocacy & Defense Think Tanks &
Watch Groups
Conferences & Retreats
Training and Technical Assistance Applied Research and Analysis Leadership Development
Networking &
Coalition Building
Collaborative Electoral & Legislative Work Media and Publishing



“…the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.”

                                –Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We need to reach out across the divides within our movement, but also reach out to a broader audience using a variety of methods and media.

Outreach to External Groups

Electoral & Legislative Corporate
Alternative Media & Corporate Media Speakers Invited to Address Meetings National & State Political Party Builders Obtaining News Coverage
Leaflets & Flyers Information Placed in Newsletters Congressional Membership Organizations Op-Eds
Rallies & Events Tabling at Meetings & Conferences Political Coalitions & Networks Letters to the Editor

Based in part on Mapping the Progressive Movement by Jean Hardisty and Ana Perea.


“While many progressive people agree that we must work against racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc., I’m not sure that we always understand how intricately these oppressions are linked and how deeply they are connected to our very survival. For instance, do white lesbians and gay men truly understand that fighting against racism is key to our freedom? As we pursue liberation, we will have to build politics of connection from those glimpses we get of our shared destiny with other oppressed people.”

“Sometimes I feel our work is like celestial navigation. Before directional instruments were invented, sailors navigated the seas by fixing their compass on the North Star; however, if they fixed on the wrong star, then everything thereafter was off course. We are working against years of a society fixing on the wrong star. This nation has built all its institutions and policies from the starting point of a fundamental lie: that certain groups of people are inferior to others and hence should be subordinated to them. Every direction taken from this fundamental lie puts us off course, and group after group gets lost. If one begins with the lie that people of color are inferior to white people, then it makes equal sense that women are inferior to men. And so it goes. It is our work to fix upon the truth: that all people are of equal worth and deserve justice.”

“We must do this work as though our lives depend on it. Because they do–all of them, no matter what sex or race or sexual identity or class. There must be justice for all of us or there will be peace for none.”

                                        –Suzanne Pharr

Clarifying Basic Principles

While the focus of progressive movement-building is now on creating large organizations “to scale,” yet another of the movement’s greatest challenges is being neglected: We are undecided on the larger principles that underlie our work for social justice. Many people don’t like to do this “big picture” thinking. They prefer results-oriented activism and practical solutions. And they are correct that larger principles must be tied to people’s everyday concerns and identifiable, attainable goals.

But to be successful, mass organizing must be informed by visionary principles as well as nuts-and-bolts techniques. Most bold new policy proposals grow out of the everyday work that activists in submovements do on various issues. These proposals–for example, national healthcare, full rights and services for immigrants, or replacing the racist criminal justice system–are not the polished, poll-tested, slightly left-of-center ones increasingly attractive to Democratic Party centrists. Indeed, they may seem fringe and far out of the mainstream. But they have their roots in real material conditions.

What we lack are the overarching principles to tie these proposals together. In the 1960s and ’70s progressives generally agreed that government had a responsibility to defend the weak or temporarily weak, protect individual rights, provide a reasonable standard of living and regulate private enterprise to protect the public from rampant greed and criminal behavior. Battered by the right’s relentless assaults on these core principles, progressive movement activists today do not have a coherent vision. Instead, we are driven by a vague sense of what a better society would look like, a recognition of how times have changed and persistent despair as we fight one defensive battle after another.

It is therefore essential that we address several fundamental questions right now: What is the role and responsibility of government? How can the racial imbalance of our movement’s leadership be corrected? What role should religion play in public life? How should progressives respond to globalization? And what social issues should we identify as “bottom line”? As principles that respond to these questions emerge, we must not allow political expediency to trump creativity. The voices of people of color, and young people and women of all races must be explicitly sought out. Funding may facilitate this discussion, but it will not in itself produce a dynamic vision. Think tanks alone will not develop these principles, and framing and messaging will not substitute for them. The process of drawing out larger principles must be an organic one: a step-by-step process of slowly creating broad consensus. Here, we can learn from the right’s success with active listening.

While the challenges we face are considerable, they are not insurmountable. But we must get moving so that when the tide of public opinion turns in our direction, we are not caught flatfooted, with a movement badly in need of reform and lacking the very basics needed to seize the moment and go forward. The right was ready for the backlash of the late 1970s. We must be ready for the coming backlash against the outrages of the past twenty-five years.

Jean Hardisty & Deepak Bhargarva

Wrong About the Right (The Nation, October 20, 2005)

Chip Berlet: Social Movements Need an Infrastructure to Succeed

 Jean Hardisty: My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism

How the Right Took Power and the Failure of Liberal Infrastructures

Progressive Movement Building

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