When Does Activism Become Powerful?

It’s about much more than amassing money or people.

From Hong Kong to Chile to the United States, people around the world are angry. They don’t have a say in things that matter in their lives. So they protest, sign petitions, call their lawmakers and organize sit-ins. Despite this enormous energy, their actions can often feel futile. How can we make them add up to something more, so people have power over the things they care about?

It turns out that even three million people marching down a boulevard may not bring about change. Raising more money or shifting public opinion to your side may not either. One study of lobbyists found that those with more money than their opposition or those representing organizations with more members than groups on the other side won policy changes in Congress only about half the time. Just amassing resources, in other words, is no better than flipping a coin. Instead, people’s power depends not on what they have, but how they use what they have. To build power, outrage needs organization.

My colleagues and I studied places in the United States where people’s activism actually had an impact — places where leaders built a constituency and turned the actions of that constituency into countervailing power. We interviewed experts all over the country to identify these outliers, then selected six of them for deep investigation. The six represented different issues, different places and different constituencies. We asked, what do they have in common?

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