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Hunter, D., Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow

By: Benjamin Knoll

  • SUM: this is a short pamphlet-like backgrounder for taking collective action: what's effective and what isn't.


  • The unsettling truth, however, is that too much of the activism today is for the sake of activism and does not move public awareness or public action in the needed direction.

  • movements are forces of collective energy, channeling deep emotions like anger and love and mobilized by hopes and dreams for large-scale change.

  • Myth: Movements are lit like a match.;

Myth: Movements are built by heroic figurehead leaders.;

Myth: Movements require complete internal unity.;

Myth: Movements succeed if they mobilize large, mass actions.

  • Reality: movements often take a long time, are a team effort, often have to deal with internal dissention, and success isn't measured by if they get the goal or not, but rather if they raised awareness and moved the needle.


  • Helpers are people who see an individual in need and try to meet that need.

  • Advocates see a need but also see systems out there with resources, even if they’re broken and unfair.

  • Organizers have another approach. When looking at problems, their instinct is to bring together those who are hurting. They often organize people outside the system into groups to apply pressure to change the rules of the system.

  • Rebels, driven by passion and energy, speak truth to power and do so with conviction. Rebels are often public in their work, even if it might carry personal risk for them. “Without Rebels, you can’t run a direct action campaign.” Rebels point fingers at problems that may go unnoticed, and they can be decisively bold about it.


  • We’ve been fed an image of movements that is individualistic. In fact, relationships, especially groups, are the building blocks of movements.

  • Being connected with people playing different roles—you never know when you may need a good Advocate, Rebel, etc.;

  • Being organized—use lists, Facebook, phone trees, or some mechanism to keep track of different people so that, like Jo Ann Robinson, you can rapidly activate them; Challenging people to tell their stories boldly—encourage people to share their experience with others, even if that includes taking risk; Calling people when you need help—movement-building requires reliance on each other, not taking all the work on ourselves.

  • Most people join a group or get involved because someone they know personally invited them. That’s because society is better understood as clusters of “social circles” (right side of image).

  • Show up at the events and meetings of people outside your circle—it’s

  • Notice when other groups make overtures toward your movement, and follow up with them—for

  • Do lots of one-on-ones with leaders from other movements and groups—

  • Identifying the pillars of support that keep bad policies in place can help expand our sense of how we can make change.

  • The idea with this is that we often think of power as a top-down thing and then the goal is to target the person at the top who can make the change. BUT it's often more successful to take out the "supporting pillars" of the person/thing at the top that they rely on for their power. Take these pillars out and they won't be able to wield that power anymore.

  • To support that process, groups must keep asking how to empower and develop leadership from the people most impacted by mass incarceration.



  • Groups often squander precious energy on a series of endless educational events or support groups that don’t seem to add up to anything. In contrast, campaigns channel group power by focusing on a concrete goal.

  • Have specific, defined goals that build momentum and energy, rather than spreading attention across many different actions that don’t add up to concrete gains;

  • Have a specific “target,” the individual or individuals who can make the change, thus focusing limited movement resources; Use many different kinds of tactics and actions, offering a range of ways for people to join and participate; Increase the effectiveness of educational events by showing how each action builds on previous steps and moves toward the goal; Keep up pressure over time in order to win concessions, as opposed to one-time actions that allow the target to simply wait until the storm blows over; Build leadership at the grassroots and connect with new allies; Take the offensive and build their own timeline for change.

  • The power of campaigns comes from using pressure over time to make a target change their position.


  • What issues move you or connect to your own story? Campaigns can be long and drawn out. They take energy to maintain. It’s great to pick a campaign centered on an issue that burns in your own heart from personal experience or a strong leaning.

  • 2. Does your group share a strong, common thread? The particular individuals who make up a group may have common concerns. A group of students may be attracted to certain campaigns that speak to them, for example, while a church group might be attracted to others. Groups might choose to use a process like “dotocracy” to identify shared values.

  • 3. Listen to other people active in this issue. Ask other seasoned organizers and directly impacted people. Find out what goals and campaigns excite them and interest them, and which they believe will significantly strengthen the movement.

  • 4. Is there a local or national campaign you can join? No need to build your own campaign if there’s one you can join! If your group isn’t driven to create a new campaign, then consider joining one that already exists. Looking at the above list or among allies, you may find a great fit in local or national campaigns led by people in prison or formerly incarcerated people to join (for example, “ban the box” or fighting against exorbitant costs of prison phone calls).

  • 5. Spin the bottle. I don’t mean to sound crass, but some groups—especially groups who aren’t directly impacted and want to “get it just right”—can waste years discussing what they should do. Much better to pick a small campaign, maybe one that might be completed in only a few months. That will create momentum, rather than waiting for the perfect opportunity to come along.

  • Whatever process your group uses to choose a campaign goal, don’t forget some basic criteria to consider: The goal includes tangible benefits that impact people’s lives; The goal is specific and may be achieved in an appropriate period of time; The people who will do the work feel motivated by the issue; The goal resonates with current and potential allies; The campaign has clear, identifiable targets—the people who can implement the needed change; The campaign helps connect the single-issue with other issues, movements, and seeing the bigger objectives of the movement.


  • In that spirit, it’s helpful to remember that not all campaigns are successful. But even unsuccessful campaigns can be immensely valuable. A good reminder about this comes from a near breaking point during the Montgomery bus boycott.

  • Campaigns don’t succeed by getting everyone to agree with us! In fact, in most successful campaigns, the active opposition don’t change their minds (despite our best efforts). Rather, support for their position is pulled away by shifting the passives and neutrals one step in our direction (for example, moving neutrals to passive allies). What a relief!

  • The good news mentioned before is worth repeating. We don’t need to convince everyone to become active allies to achieve our goals.

  • ALSO

  • Dilemma demonstrations are actions that force the target to either let you do what you want, or be shown as unreasonable as they stop you from doing it.

  • The yardstick of a movement is not how many campaigns are won, but how many hearts are moved and minds convinced to a new way of thinking and being.

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