From Grievance to Governance: 8 Features of Transformative Campaigns

Transformative Campaigns require us to do things differently. Transformative campaigns can be vehicles for organisations from the community-organising field to expand their focus and capacities beyond protesting and mobilising people on single issues. These organisations and their members must not be content with protesting, changing laws or even transforming systems. They need to be working in complex networks and long-term partnerships to advance campaigns that change the narrative, put forward a political agenda, and take up leadership positions.

Building and running transformative organising campaigns is amongst the most necessary work to operationalise strategic and functional collaboration across our sectors, networks and institutions.

As a reflection on the current state of politics in Australia, and the so called political left (Labour left and Greens) I offer Eight Features of Transformative Campaigns to describe how campaigns that the grassroots left can build can be transformational (vs. transactional) — making them essential for building the alignment we need to move from grievance of social, economic and ecological injustice, to Left governance.

1) Start with Values and Vision

Transformative Campaigns don’t start with a policy goal, a person we want to elect, or an action we want to pull off. They start with deeper purpose that is rooted in values and connected to a vision. Reaching that vision will require a long-term, multi-issue political program. Starting with values and vision must be the first step in transformative campaigning.

2) Intentionally Sequence, and Plan to Implement, Structural Reforms

Structural Reforms are reforms that:

  1. Address root causes of inequality;
  2. Restructure relations of power as a means and an end;
  3. Increase participation in public life and democracy (e.g., facilitating public input, negotiation, approval, and oversight into subsequent decisions and governing structures).

In order to implement our vision, we need a political program made up of an intentional agenda of structural reforms. Transformative Campaigns are not isolated one-off initiatives. They are part of a set of issue priorities, mobilisation, policy change and campaigns that are pursuing structural reforms.

Too often, we’ve left the task of implementing and administering what we win up to those already in power. Structural reforms include mechanisms for us to be involved in the implementation and administration. They create ways for us to practice governance. When we plan for this we include capacity building as one key measure of success for the campaign. (For those concerned about promoting reformism at the expense of transformation: structural reforms aren’t in tension with transformation or even revolutionary change. Structural reforms differ from reformist agendas because they don’t “fix” systems that are designed to fail, exclude or oppress us. Instead, structural reforms structurally change those systems towards inclusivity. Because they are part of a long-term agenda and are executed through transformative campaigning, they do not compromise the end goal or vision for the sake of an illusory step “forward.”)

3) Engage, Constantly, in the Battle of Ideas

Invite, engage and ignite an examination of how we organise our economy, society and democracy. This means our campaigns must centre, not shy away from, ideas about the role of government and the purpose of public services and regulation, markets and ownership. We must name and combat the elite’s and Right-wing’s intentional use of dog-whistle politics, patriarchy and white supremacy to advance policies that ultimately hurt all of us.

Transformative campaigns look beyond what is “winnable” in the short term and often demand the hard choice to forgo a short term “win” if it requires us to abandon the battle of ideas. We can have a “win” without a policy change if we know we’re moving the dial on how people experience, think and feel about government, race, gender, democracy, and equity. In transformative campaigns we are willing to “loose forward” — to take a short-term loss on a policy or election, rather than taking a transactional “win” that perpetuates the underlying ideas of our opposition.

For example, we don’t win voting reforms if we’ve framed them as “efficient” and “cost saving”. If we achieve a policy using neoconservative and neoliberal ideas, then we’ve failed to establish the role of government and will end up spending the next year fighting the repeal of a law we just changed. A real win requires our campaigns to unabashedly put forward the idea that government has a responsibility to facilitate participation, to create regulations that level the playing field, and to promote social good and participatory governance.

4) Commit to Scale: Embrace Culture Work, Community Engagement, Grassroots Building, & the Technologies and Partnerships to Achieve Them. 

Transformational change, at scale, requires changing behaviour, beliefs and practices. Social networking and community engagement technologies as well as partnerships with cultural institutions have proven critical to achieving changes in behaviour and beliefs. Several international campaigns that have had large scale impact – have succeeded because they engaged cultural institutions and pop-culture strategies. The #BlackLivesMatter Network demonstrated the scale of impact of social networking technologies.

5) Trust in Leaderful Networks Taking Direct Action

Harnessing the power of social movements to create change requires a relationship between inside and outside strategies. When we default into models of leadership that are singular (command and control) or leaderless, we limit our ability to coordinate complex strategies and distributed tactics.

  • The #BlackLivesMatter network popularised an understanding of leaderful networks and beautifully demonstrates the power of encouraging leaders in various roles and styles.
  • The #NoXLPipeline campaign demonstrated how distributed campaigning – including tactical diversity, creative and direct actions — builds leadership and scales leadership development.

Leaderful networks are necessary for supporting popular uprisings, direct actions, mobilisations and the re-birth of powerful progressive social movements that institutions don’t, and shouldn’t, be able to, control. Uprisings and social movements need to flourish in order for progressive infrastructure to have the demand, will, credibility, and accountability to govern.

6) Shift Individualism to Interdependence

Individual, organisational and structural transformation happens when seemingly independent (and often limiting) individual and group interests are put into an interdependent framework that actualises multiple interests at once. Interdependence expands the circle of stakeholders for a desired change, generating what is called,“Strategic Empathy” — the ability to make connections and see each other’s full human dignity across difference.

Organising from interdependence is necessary to move people, issue areas, and institutions (or entire fields) from being siloed and isolated into connected, authentic relationships.

7) Create Solutions for All of Us Through an Inclusive, Specific and Targeted Approach

 There is something uniquely powerful at the intersection of experiences where those at that intersection are in a unique position to understand how the world, and how power, work. We need leadership that comes from that place of intersection. This means our leadership and our demands must be inclusive and specific. When we find solutions that are based on equity and dignity for those of us most impacted by injustice, we create benefits and equity for all of us. The movement for Black lives has elevated the fact that valuing Black lives, in particular the lives of Black cis and trans women, improves the world for everyone. Valuing Black lives benefits Latinos, (many of whom are Black), Asians, Muslims and, yes, white people.

This principle, as applied to policy design, is exemplified in an approach called Targeted Universalism (a term coined by John Powell), in which solutions are designed to be universal in terms of their goals, yet targeted with respect to the populations they specifically serve. This approach represents a commitment to reduce injustice and inequity by focusing resources on addressing the challenges faced by peoples and communities who have been disadvantaged by structural inequalities (racism, patriarchy, class, etc.). Targeted solutions to eliminate disparities, coupled with inclusive and specific leadership, will lead to improvements for all of us.

8) Move Into a “Forward Stance” and Expand the Realm of What Is Possible

Transformative campaigns put us on the offensive — not defensive — in moving towards our vision and the long-term (sequenced) agenda it will take us to get there. Transformative campaigns require us to be responsive to conditions, without being reactive. By being deliberately proactive, Transformative Campaigns are about the values and vision they move us toward, not just about moving away from something.

Taken together, these eight features illustrate how Transformative Campaigning achieves the dual purpose of advancing change in the near term while also building the capacities needed for Independent Political Power — power that we need to move from grievance to governance.

With our planet, lives and future at stake, we aren’t just trying to change what we are doing. We must change where we are going. We must create the infrastructure we need to govern ourselves, rather than make grievances about how we are governed. Let’s take a close look at the initiatives driving coordination and deep alignment across fields and sectors:

  • What do we see when we measure our alignment as our success?
  • What infrastructure expands the realm of what is possible?
  • What infrastructure do we need not just to survive or be better off, but to actually govern based on our values and vision?

Our work together has pried open a path from grievance to governance. Our potential is transforming in front of us.

Let’s take our path, together.