“The time-honed tradition of politicized mischief is back … “

Eli Rosenberg, The Brooklyn Paper

Take leadership from the most impacted

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In Sum

Effective activism requires providing appropriate support to, and taking direction from, those who have the most at stake.

We’re all familiar with liberal do-gooder arrogance — the kind that stems from having the luxury of choosing from a salad bar of causes because none are immediately constraining their lives, or assuming that because you studied an issue in a university, you’re an expert. Avoid being that person: cultivate humility and take direction and leadership from those most affected by an issue.

Because people on the receiving end of great injustices have to live with the consequences of campaigns that seek to address those injustices, they have the most to gain from victory — and the most to lose if something goes wrong. They’re also the best equipped to know, and to articulate, workable solutions to their problems. A campaign that ignores or minimizes their knowledge and voices could easily do more harm than good.

Accepting guidance from another isn’t always easy for people who themselves identify as leaders. Self-identified “leaders” sometimes rush in too quickly, confident they’ve got the answer while their preconceptions and prejudices blind them to the organic answers all around them. We can mitigate these blindspots by being intentional about respecting the process and cultivating accountability.

Accountability can be a scary concept for activists, but it’s best to think of it as a proactive process that we walk together, rather than a standard that is either achieved or not.

The booklet Organizing Cools the Planet outlines four basic principles for cultivating accountability:[1]

Transparency means being clear about your politics, organizational structure, goals, desires and weaknesses. The point here is to be as open as possible about your perspectives and motivations.

Participation is about actively and equitably engaging with folks about the decisions that affect them.

Reflection and deliberation means that we actively open up conversation to re-evaluate where we’re headed. It happens after participation, but once it’s begun, it is a continuous thread that is woven throughout the experience.

Response is the ability to make amendments and adjustments to issues raised by Reflection and deliberation.

However, accountability is not our goal; collaboration is our goal. Accountability is the pathway we walk. The cycle above moves us toward increasingly successful collaborations. Don’t be discouraged if collaboration is difficult at first. Trust takes time. Be forgiving of yourself and others; we all make mistakes see THEORY: Anti-oppression.

The Ruckus Society’s experience with this principle is instructive. Ruckus is a network of direct action trainers and coordinators. After years of grappling with the problematic dynamic of “parachuters” coming into people’s communities from the outside, Ruckus has developed a protocol where they only go where they’re asked and prioritize long-term relationship building. Their “Ruckus Action Framework” is a great reference tool to use when building a similar protocol within your group.[2]

Taking leadership from the most impacted is a great opportunity to learn from and support impacted groups in their struggles. It can be one of the most profound and rewarding experiences of activism.

  1. [1] Hilary Moore and Joshua Kahn Russell, Organizing Cools the Planet (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011).
  2. [2] The framework is reproduced on page 54 of Organizing Cools the Planet, available for download at http://organizingcoolstheplanet.wordpress.com/get-copies-of-ocp/.

Joshua Kahn Russell is an organizer and strategist serving movements for social justice and ecological balance. He is an action coordinator, facilitator & trainer with the Ruckus Society, and has trained thousands of activists. Joshua has written numerous movement strategy essays, chapters for several books, and a few organizing manuals, most recently Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis, with Hilary Moore (PM Press 2011). He has helped win campaigns against banks, oil companies, logging corporations, and coal barons; worked with a wide variety of groups in a breadth of arenas, from local resiliency projects, to national coalitions, to the United Nations Climate Negotiations.


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