Five Things I Wish I Knew When I First Became Politically Active

At this year’s awesome George Brown College Labour Fair Conference, I (Jessica Bell) gave a presentation that outlined five things I wish I knew when I first became politically active. What do you think of what I’ve learned?  What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started being an activist?


The anti-corporate globalization action against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in September 2000 was the first protest I attended. Naively, I called the protest a failure because the protest failed to achieve its public goal, which was to successfully block the entrances to the building hosting the meeting. After the media frenzy had subsided, I assumed nothing had changed.

What I know now is that a protest is a tactic that makes up just one aspect of a political campaign. Those mass-protests in the late 1990s and early 2000s catalyzed an anti-corporate globalization movement that has continued to stall efforts to alter trade rules to benefit multinational corporations.

This is the political campaign.

Campaign strategy document for public speaking

There’s the VISION which is big and bold. The vision represents what we want the world to be. A Toronto free of poverty is a great vision.

A CAMPAIGN GOAL is what we think we can achieve to solve our problem within six months to five years. Increasing the minimum wage in Toronto to $14 an hour is a good campaign goal.

The CAMPAIGN STRATEGY is our plan to get from where we’re at now to our goal. Pressuring the Provincial Government to pass legislation to raise the minimum wage is a campaign strategy.

TACTICS are steps taken to execute our strategy. Typically, campaigns start with steps like hosting meetings to establish campaign goals and organizing workshops to educate members about the issue. Groups also engage in tactics to build the organization by, for instance, hosting fundraisers. Organizations often negotiate with a power-holder or target, and, only after negotiations have been deemed unsuccessful, do groups move to pressure tactics, such as hosting rallies or marches or doing civil disobedience. After a time, ideally, the target and the group will engage in negotiations again. Once some victory has been achieved, groups must monitor the implementation of their goal.

Campaigns don’t win through the execution of one tactic, but through the implementation of many tactics that usually follow a certain order.  Social change rarely happens through one tactic alone but it can happen when you launch a political campaign.


When I first became politically active, I said yes to everything. I started a documentary. I volunteered for an animal rights campaign. I was a researcher for a progressive think tank. I attended sooo many demonstrations.

My desire to act was partly fueled by an excitement to explore this new activist world. I felt a crushing responsibility to respond to all the crises I was rapidly learning about. (Animal rights activists make compelling videos, FYI.) And I was unhealthily influenced by an activist culture that embraces martyrdom and looks up to workaholics.

I couldn’t keep up with my commitments. What hurt me most was that I overburdened and pissed off people who took on the responsibilities I failed to keep.

I now believe it’s best to take on one or max a few causes and do them well. Focus allows me to take on leadership roles and significantly move a cause forward. Dabbling doesn’t.

I’ve discovered it’s also wise to choose political campaigns that also focus.

I work for a group called TTCriders; we’re a membership based group advocating for better public transit in Toronto. Public transit is a hot issue. News stories, government announcements, and requests from other political groups and politicians means that practically every week our group is presented with an opportunity to host or attend a new event or launch a new campaign. We’ve taken a collective hard deep breath, assessed our capacity, and made a decision to focus on one S.M.A.R.T. campaign instead.

A SMART goal is:

SPECIFIC. The goal clearly explains the campaign’s purpose.

MEASURABLE. Success can easily be measured.

AMBITIOUS. If you can get the campaign goal simply by asking for it then it’s probably not ambitious enough.

REALISTIC. If your goal starts to sound like a vision, like “end war” then scale back to a goal that is achievable within a set period of time.

TIMELY. Now is the time to push for this goal.

Ending austerity is not a SMART goal, although its certainly important. Stopping the push to eliminate the child care subsidy from the City of Toronto’s 2012 budget is SMART.

I am still frequently compelled to jump on new opportunities. But instead of diving into overwork and stress, I let these opportunities pass by and trust that my current choices are wise.


Many political campaigns are David and Goliath in nature. There’s the little political organization in one corner and then some multi-million dollar company or government on the other side. To build enough power to win we must work with others.

But you can’t work with everyone. As a new campaigner working on an international boycott campaign against a logging company I spent the first few months of my job cultivating the leadership skills of my volunteers in a manner that would be only be appropriate if I was working for a local community group. I should have been partnering with organizations that were directly affected by this logging company, such as First Nations groups in Canada.

Here are two useful tools that I now use that have helped me be strategic in who I work with and how.

The Pyramid of Engagement


The pyramid of engagement helps you develop a plan to recruit individuals into a political organization.

Groups should aim to move people up the ladder of engagement. A group might encourage those many ‘observers’ who might be occasionally observing your group’s website to become ‘followers’. An observer becomes a ‘follower’ by joining a group’s list serv or facebook page. ‘Followers’ become ‘endorsers’ when they promote the organization, by, for instance, forwarding your email to a friend. ‘Contributors’ volunteer or donate to the organization, and leaders (who might be staff) initiate and bottom line events and programs. A volunteer board member is an example of the few who take an ‘ownership’ role in a political organization.

This video explains how the Surfrider Foundation applies the ladder of engagement.

If you want to get involved in a group look for the ladder of engagement. The more time you have to give and the more experience you have the more likely you’ll end higher up the ladder. And if you’re part of a political group, make sure you establish a clear ladder of engagement.

Spectrum of Allies.

The Spectrum of Allies tool, which was developed by Training for Change, is one of the most wonderful strategic planning tools. It’s all centered around identifying which groups and key individuals you should reach out to and collaborate with or move. This tool is a little different than the pyramid of engagement tool which looks at how you recruit people to join your group.

To use this tool, the first thing you do is add groups and people who are affected or involved in your campaign into the wedges. Typically, your group is the leading ally; active groups are involved but not leading; passive groups are supportive but not active; those who are neutral might be undecided or unaware of the issue. Passive opponents are opposed but not active and so on.

Most groups choose one or two priority stakeholders to reach out to and “move” in a campaign. It’s a huge positive win when a stakeholder moves even a little closer to your side.

Spectrum of Allies

Once you’ve filled in the chart you decide which stakeholders you are best equipped to move. Once you have identified them decide what strategies, tactics, and messaging will enable you to move these stakeholders closer to your side.

I’ll explain with an example. I was a little involved in the campaign to stop the construction of a dump site in rural Ontario. This campaign had an active opponent (local council), a passive opponent (a wary provincial government), and a leading opponent (the construction company, Genivar).

With the dumpsite approved and construction of the dump in full-swing, an ongoing protest presence was established at the site’s perimeter by nearby farmers and First Nations, fearful of groundwater-contamination. The month-long protest was a huge media draw, and offered an opportunity for more active allies, specifically radical urban activists in southern Ontario, to become involved and live at the blockade site.

Organizers also reached out to a new ally, the left leaning and progressive group, the Council of Canadians. Council of Canadians organized tactics like speaking events and rallies, which provided a venue for thousands of left-leaning older people (which tend to be Council of Canadians membership base) who owned nearby vacation properties in the area (active and passive allies) to demonstrate their support without risking arrest. Their rallies sent a powerful message to city councilors that they risked losing their seats in the next election if they approved the dump. Older home owners vote, remember. The multi-pronged strategy proved successful; the dumpsite was stopped, and a new wave of anti-dump councilors were elected in the 2010 elections.

Spectrum of Allies with examples

This tool explains such a complicated concept of relationships in such a nice and neat way. Try it.


I considered leaving activism just a few years after I got involved. I was working 70 hour weeks and feeling unappreciated. I had stopped believing that my work was effective. I was cynical and negative. Eventually I left my activist job.

Many people leave activism and a non-profit career within a few years of joining the sector. Every time someone leaves they take their experience, insight, and connections along with them. We spend so much time encouraging people to join but so little trying to convince people to stay.

How can we keep people active?

  • A few years ago I read a fascinating article by Stephanie Nepstad who wrote about why members of the radical Catholic group, the Plowshares, remain politically active for so long. Plowshares activists commit public acts of peaceful property destruction of military weapons, and they are often jailed for years for their actions. Despite the risks, many Plowshares members remain committed for a lifetime. Based on my own experience and Nepstad’s research, activists tend to stay involved if they:
  • Share ideological perspectives and values with those they work with.
  • Have close friendships and ties with other people in their social movement, including leaders they admire. Friends who share your values can act as a powerful counter to the social pressures subtly and sometimes not so subtly imposed upon you by family members, friends, and the media who expect you to secure a well paying prestigous career, get married, buy a house, and have children. Friends can tell you that you’re not crazy, and that what you’re doing is right. Leaders serve as an inspiration that you can emulate.
  • Have faith that the work they’re doing is effective. For me, that meant leaving the group whose work I no longer valued and finding a different form of activism, which was community organizing on sustainability initiatives.
  • Take on part-time flexible work in order to maintain a commitment to activism and develop a network of community members that can help share life responsibilities, such as child-raising or earning money. You might be able to volunteer like crazy as a twenty-something activist but it gets harder to live on $15,000 a year as you age and take on more time-consuming and expensive activities such as child raising, caring for elderly parents or a mortgage. Activities like jointly raising children and income-sharing are considered too radical for most activists living in individualistic North America. But activists can do things like living together (which Plowshares members do) or helping other activists who are experiencing difficulties, such as sickness. These steps can go along way in building a supportive community that low-paid activists can rely upon.


Activists don’t always critically assess their firmly held convictions on what is strategic and what isn’t. I know I certainly didn’t when I began. A few years ago I explored what academia had to say on the question of what it takes to win a campaign. I learned a lot from the writings of John Kelly and William Gamson who conducted serious empirical research to determine the factors that contribute to success.

Their research found that campaigns that win:

  • Have access to more money than their opponents.
  • Can use resources and money for a variety of purposes, including election work and confrontational tactics.
  • Employ confrontational tactics that negatively affect the image, wealth, and power of the opponent. Tactics include: direct action, boycotts, property destruction, and violence against people. (Yep, this is more effective than insider-game strategies.)
  • Do not have revolutionary goals, which include aiming to overthrow or eliminate an opponent.
  • Have one or two key goals, as opposed to a broad based multi-issue platform.
  • Do not have a powerful opponent.
  • Have dedicated leaders who devote considerable energy over a long period. (This speaks to the value of capacity building.)
  • Are composed of people who are negatively impacted and who will directly benefit from the campaign, such as workers campaigning for the right to unionize. This stands in contrast to groups that are campaigning for a general good that will benefit other people and/or a wide section of society, including those who are not active in the campaign.
  • Have people who possess campaign skills, including the ability to fundraise, organize, execute a wide range of tactics, communicate with the media, and engage in effective outreach to different constituencies. (Once again, this speaks to the value of capacity building.)
  • Consist of people who feel deeply about the issue, trust each other and get along.
  • Have people who share a common identity affiliated with their campaigning work, such as that of worker or activist.
  • Have people who agree on who or what is causing their problem, and believe that collective action is the best way to solve the problem. (I’m sure some of you have worked on a campaign where folks agree on the problem but disagree on how to solve it.  For instance, in a union-drive, some workers might believe that quitting is a more sensible way to deal with difficult management than trying to unionize the workplace.)

Some of these are obvious. And if you only worked on campaigns that met the vast majority of these criteria you are probably not working for justice or an ambitious cause. Throughout history, people and groups have effectively countered and overcome these barriers.  Often the more groundbreaking issues face the toughest obstacles. That said, there are factors on this list that activists have influence over and can cultivate, such as building the skill level of people in your group. And of course the key is to keep learning.

What do you think of these lessons? What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started being politically active?