Social Justice Movement Roles
Finding your niche in the social justice ecosystem
QFTC organizer | March 20, 2021
One of my favorite metaphors for social justice activism is called “the parable of the choir”: “A choir can sing a beautiful note impossibly long because singers can individually drop out to breathe as necessary and the note goes on.” Similarly along those lines, a choir can sing complex melodies and harmonies because each singer combines their voice with the many voices of their fellow choir members. No individual person can do every single thing that a full-fledged progressive movement requires (heck, even individual groups or organizations can’t), but many people and many groups together can fill all of the vital roles and niches.
Thus, it’s useful to think about what strengths you as an individual can contribute to a movement: the niches you can fill and the roles that suit you best, what you can bring to the cause over the long haul without exhausting yourself or burning out. Below I’ve compiled lists of possible roles in social justice movements from various sources that have somewhat different frameworks/philosophies, though there are many commonalities between them. (Personally, my favorite list is the “social justice D&D classes”!)
SOCIAL CHANGE ECOSYSTEM MAP:
This website provides a reflection guide to help you find your place on the map and the way you want to move forward in your role(s). It’s meant to be used to identify your values and cause, map your roles and those played by your ecosystem, and reflect/assess/plan. It can help you identify how to begin, or how to reset if you feel stuck or burned out.
- Weavers: I see the through-lines of connectivity between people, places, organizations, ideas, and movements.
- Experimenters: I innovate, pioneer, and invent. I take risks and course-correct as needed.
- Frontline Responders: I address community crises by marshaling and organizing resources, networks, and messages.
- Visionaries: I imagine and generate our boldest possibilities, hopes and dreams, and remind us of our direction.
- Builders: I develop, organize, and implement ideas, practices, people, and resources in service of a collective vision.
- Caregivers: I nurture and nourish the people around me by creating and sustaining a community of care, joy, and connection.
- Disruptors: I take uncomfortable and risky actions to shake up the status quo, to raise awareness, and to build power.
- Healers: I recognize and tend to the generational and current traumas caused by oppressive systems, institutions, policies, and practices.
- Storytellers: I craft and share our community stories, cultures, experiences, histories, and possibilities through art, music, media, and movement.
- Guides: I teach, counsel, and advise, using my gifts of well-earned discernment and wisdom.
THE FOUR ROLES OF SOCIAL ACTIVISM:
Bill Moyer (M) came up with the original four roles, as well as descriptions of “effective” and “ineffective” ways that people may play these roles: https://commonslibrary.org/the-four-roles-of-social-activism/
George Lakey (L) expanded on the concepts and renamed 3 of them (and thus I’m providing both names in the list below): https://wagingnonviolence.org/2016/02/bill-moyer-four-roles-of-social-change/
- Reformer (M) / Advocate (L): Uses official channels to make change - for instance, via lobbying, legal action, or elections; focuses on communication with the “powerholders” (usually authorities/government) who can change a policy or practice
- Citizen (M) / Helper (L): Does what they personally can to remedy the situation via direct service in their communities; promotes positive values; empowers individuals; are typically grounded in the center of society.
- Change Agent (M) / Organizer (L): Uses “people power” aka the power of sheer numbers; gathers a critical mass of people via grassroots organizing; educates and involves a majority of citizens; promotes alternatives and paradigm shift via strategy and tactics for waging long-term movements
- Rebel: Puts problems in the public spotlight and makes a commotion to force powerholders to make a change; says “no” to violation of positive values; uses direct action and civil disobedience
FROM “HOW TO STOP AN ELECTION RELATED POWER GRAB”
This is actually from a training put on by George Lakey and Zein Nakhoda last fall. Unfortunately there is no website explaining or expanding on the concepts of these specific roles, but they’re fairly self-explanatory as it is. Also, Zein Nakhoda is part of the staff for the Training for Change website, which has a lot of other good resources: https://www.trainingforchange.org/
- The Inviter: organizes events; gets people to come together
- The Bridgebuilder: looks outside the usual circles and build bridges to other groups who might be interested in getting involved
- The Caregiver: checks on people/communities, keeps people safe, maintains and sustains the group
- The Truth Teller: raises questions or brings up facts that people might not want to hear
AGITATE, INNOVATE, OR ORCHESTRATE?
This is based on research studying many social change initiatives over many years; the researchers assert that any pathway to social change requires all three of these roles. In the article linked above, they also talk about sources of power (personal, positional, relational) and major tasks for movement leaders (communicating, organizing, and evaluating).
- Agitator: Highlights or articulates a problem that needs to be solved, brings the grievances of specific individuals or groups to the forefront of public awareness, mobilizes diverse parties to take collective action against the status quo
- Innovator: Develops an actionable solution to address the problem and demonstrates its superiority to the status quo, bridges multiple sectors to build a coalition of supporters behind the proposed solution/innovation
- Orchestrator: Plans the strategy for change adoption; coordinates action across groups, organizations, and sectors to scale the proposed solution; tailors the message to different constituents while keeping it coherent; broadens and sustains collective action towards change
Social Justice D&D Classes
From an Internet meme riffing on the idea of “social justice warrior” and expanding it to other traditional roleplaying game classes.
- Social Justice Warrior: Wades into the front lines of online and IRL [“in real life”] confrontations
- Social Justice Barbarian: Punches Nazis
- Social Justice Paladin: Activist and crusader
- Social Justice Bard: Writes blog posts, protest songs, slam poetry
- Social Justice Druid: Knows you can’t afford your medication and has something that will help you sleep
- Social Justice Warlock: Works from within the system, probably deep-cover on 4chan
- Social Justice Monk: Hunger strikers, sit-in stagers, protest marchers. Probably hasn’t slept since 2003.
- Social Justice Cleric: Emotional and physical support; gets people the help they need
- Social Justice Ranger: Investigative journalists, loners doing the right thing, the one safe person in a toxic climate
- Social Justice Rogue: Gleefully flouts discriminatory policies, uses the system against itself, is always recording authorities and uploading to YouTube
- Social Justice Sorcerer: Charismatic leaders, can finagle resources from nowhere
- Social Justice Wizard: “How do you even DO that with the internet?”
And here are a couple of additional lists, not of roles, but of ways (suggested tasks) to help progressive movements beyond showing up to protests:
- 26 Ways to Be In The Struggle Beyond The Streets: https://issuu.com/nlc.sf.2014/docs/beyondthestreets_final
- Community organizing, collaboration, and care: https://www.facebook.com/smilbern/posts/871897943997