Experiments with Truth: Analysis

Want to create activists? Here’s how.

Hahrie Han is a political scientist at Wellesley College and the author of the new book “How Organizations Develop Activists.” She answered some questions from me via email. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Q: Let’s start with the title. How can organizations develop activists?

From political campaigns to the People’s Climate March, from the mass protests in Hong Kong to Ferguson October, from the Tea Party to Move On, there are thousands of organizations around the world seeking to engage people in activism every day. Some conventional wisdom suggests that the ability of these organizations to successfully generate activism depends on things like having a charismatic leader or a catchy message, leveraging big data to target recruits, technological prowess, or just plain luck.

I find that while all of these things matter, what really differentiates the highest-engagement organizations is their ability to engage people in activities and experiences that changed their sense of individual and collective agency. These high-engagement organizations didn’t just try to get more people to do more stuff, they also tried to get people to do things that would transform their interests, their motivations for engaging in further activism, and the skills they needed to do so. They combined this kind of transformational organizing with transactional mobilizing, or a hard-nosed focus on developing not only the depth of activism they needed, but also the breadth.

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