3 tips for creating a social movement - RSA

3 tips for creating a social movement


  • Picture of Kathryn Perera
    Kathryn Perera
    Head of Transformation at Horizons, NHS England
  • Health & wellbeing

In considering the blockers to starting a social movement, we tend to focus on other people. The organisational blocks. Faults in systems. ‘Difficult’ people who are resistant to change. Rarely do we stop to consider ourselves and the ways in which we impose limits which inhibit effective action.

Reflecting on ourselves is an essential first step in starting a social movement. Why would others want to act with me? What is my approach to the uncertainty inherent in change? And how will I know when I’m ready?

Here I offer three tips for moving beyond the feelings of uncertainty that stop us from starting effective action together.

Tip 1: Understand your own self-interest

Understanding our own motivation to act is key. We cannot develop effective action with others without knowing why we want to act and being able to articulate that in a way that others can understand. Building a social movement is inherently uncertain, and we need an emotional basis on which to ask others to step into that uncertainty with us. This is the work of public narrative – crafted stories-of-self which explain who we are, why we care and which allow others to connect with our underlying values. For a five-minute video masterclass, see James Croft’s call for us to ‘catch them before they jump’.

Just as importantly, understanding our own self-interest in creating a social movement provides an emotional bedrock to which we can return when our best-laid plans don’t survive contact with the enemy.

Tip 2: Re-frame uncertainty as an opportunity

Social movement leadership requires us to accept responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. In order to build the trust which allows us to do that, we need to calibrate our own mindset towards the opportunities within change.

To use a health-related example, the NHS is in a period of prolonged financial uncertainty, where morale is being tested and visionary leadership seems in short supply. From a certain perspective, the immediate challenges can feel overwhelming. Yet within that context, the opportunities for developing social movements are huge. Effective social movements offer practical examples of a radical alternative to the current status quo. The very fact that they are built through strategic action is what makes them compelling in times of uncertainty, when the preferred default is mechanistic plan-and-delivery approaches.

Tip 3: Forget perfection. Embrace reality

There is no such thing as the ideal moment to start. Indeed, the whole point of organising social movements is that they are dynamic, people-led and therefore constantly evolving to the demands of circumstances in real time.

While we might know this instinctually, there is an emotional comfort in honing a strategy document or talking about action. Tolstoy described this as the “snare of preparation”, an infliction he saw as conditioned into young people at the very time in their lives when they could be making the world anew. Starting to organise a social movement means embracing strategy as a verb not a noun. It is something we do, not something we have, and it can only be improved through doing.

Organising calls on us to respond to the fierce urgency of now. In bemoaning the snare of preparation, the great social reformer Jane Addams called on us to open our eyes to the vital realities spread before our eyes. So, revel in the messy imperfections of reality. They will be your best teacher and they are a sign that what you are building in real-time is dynamic and agile.

Take the first small step.

Fail, try again, fail better.

Kathryn Perera is Head of Transformation at Horizons, NHS England and a 2015/16 Fulbright Commission Scholar and Visiting Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Kathryn is collaborating with the team at the RSA on the the Health as a social movement programme.

Watch the live-steam of our kick-off event on Tuesday 20th September: Creating a social movement for health

Follow her on Twitter @KathrynPerera

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