Social Movement Leadership

From Martin Luther King Jr. to Susan B. Anthony, and from Cesar Chavez to Gloria Steinem, the most prominent social movement leaders capture the public’s attention. Yet understanding social movement leaders requires a wider focus than charisma and force of will. We dedicate this next Mobilizing Ideas dialogue to the topic of leaders and leadership. We ask our contributors to consider such topics such as the development of leaders, conflicts between leaders, leader cooptation, and the interactions of personal biography with contexts.

Many thanks to our fantastic group of contributors.

Andrew Martin, Ohio State University (essay)
Amanda Pullum, California State University, Monterey Bay (essay)

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Guillermo Trejo

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Informing Activists

Mobilizing Ideas is excited to announce the publication of a special series this month called “Informing Activists.” Coordinated by Jennifer Earl and Thomas Elliott (both at the University of Arizona), and in in partnership with the Youth Activism Project, this series includes videos from some of the top scholars in social movements, recommended readings, and other resources on topics ranging from framing to social movement consequences, all tailored to young activists, potential organizers, and/or potential protest participants. We hope you will share this series widely, especially with young people in your communities interested in working for social change.

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Dan Myers

The Youth Activism Project, which is sponsored by the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics, has joined with Mobilizing Ideas to produce a video series designed to translate academic research on social movements into actionable information and questions that can be of use to young activists, potential organizers, and/or potential protest participants.

The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) is a network of ten scholars from various disciplines that have come together to understand how youth are getting involved civically and politically, including through sharing and producing civic and political content online. We are also interested in understanding the risks and opportunities that the use of digital media may play in these engagements. While the network invests in, and members conduct, basic research on these topics, YPP is also dedicated to translating relevant research findings into actionable information for young people, activists, educators, and/or policy-makers.

This video series comes out of that desire to connect young people with critical research on activism. We’ve invited some of the top scholars in the field of social movements to talk about what their research has to say about how to be effective activists. For example, David Snow discusses what advice his pioneering work in framing has for activists looking to improve their messaging. Holly McCammon discusses how her work in strategic adaptation helps guide activists in modifying their strategies to changing contexts. Our goal is that these videos can help current and future activists better plan their campaigns to achieve success.

Each page contains at least one video that we hope will help young activists make informed decisions about their engagements, a bio about the presented, and some suggested readings if someone is interested in a deeper dive into the topic area.

We hope you find these to be helpful, and welcome suggestions about new videos. You can email us at Good luck on making the change you envision!

Table of Contents

Do movements make a difference? 

In what ways do social movements make a difference? – Thomas Elliott

How/When do movements make a political difference? – Katrin Uba

How/When do movements affect culture? – Jenn Earl

When do movements shape public opinion? – Neal Caren

How does movement participation affect people’s lives? – Marco Giugni

How do movements influence elections? – Fabio Rojas

How do I get (more/new/different) people involved?

Who Participates in Movements and Why? – Bert Klandermans and Ziad Munson

What can be done about activist burnout? – Sharon Nepstad

How do I build identity and solidarity in a movement? – Rachel Einwohner

How can I build coalitions and increase diversity? – Rich Wood

What should I focus on when I am trying to create change? 

How much does the political environment affect my cause? – David Meyer

What are the best tactics for my cause? – Catherine Corrigall-Brown

How do I use online tools to help my cause? – Lissa Soep

What are the best targets for my cause? – Tom Maher

How do I adapt my tactics to the political environment? – Holly McCammon

What should I think about when I am creating an organization?

When do I need an organization? – Jenn Earl

How do I work with existing organizations? – Grace Yukich

How can I build coalitions and increase diversity? – Rich Wood

What are some considerations for youth in organizations? – Sarah Gaby

How can I be more convincing? 

How do I talk about my cause? – David Snow

What do I need to know about the media environment? – Deana Rohlinger

How do I stay safe? 

What are the risks of activism and can I reduce those risks? – Heidi Reynolds-Stenson

How can I protect myself legally when I am active online? – Derek Bambauer

What else do I need to know? 

How Might These Topics Apply to a Specific Campaign? – Elizabeth Armstrong


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Informing Activists

Informing Activists: What are the different types of leadership I can choose from?

Three relevant pieces of research about social movement leadership: 

Classic: Robnett, Belinda. 2000. How long? How long?: African-American women in the struggle for civil rights. Oxford University Press.

Review: Morris, Aldon and Suzanne Staggenborg. 2004. “Leadership in Social Movements” Pp. 171-96 in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by D. A. Snow, S. A. Soule and H. Kriesi. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Contemporary: Nepstad, Sharon and Clifford Bob. 2006. “When Do Leaders Matter? Hypotheses on Leadership Dynamics in Social Movements.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly. 11(1):1-22.
Andrews, Kenneth T., Marshall Ganz, Matthew Baggetta, Hahrie Han, Chaeyoon Lim. 2010. “Leadership, Membership, and Voice: Civic Associations That Work.” American Journal of Sociology 115(4): 1191-1242.

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Coalition-Building through “Everyday” Social Movement Leadership

By Amanda Pullum

When I ask my students to tell me about social movement leadership, they often paint one of two metaphorical pictures. The first is of well-known leaders—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and others—whose contributions are usually described in overly broad terms. The second is of so-called “leaderless” movements, like Occupy, in which modern technology and strategic innovation are thought to enable diffuse decision-making processes, with no individuals in true leadership roles. Continue reading

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Just What Do We Mean by Leadership Anyway?

By Andrew Martin

For as long as there have been social movements, popular culture has been quick to either laud or demonize leaders of popular protest (and often those that were once scorned eventually become mythical heroes). The successes enjoyed by the Civil Rights movement was due to the effort of numerous organizations and thousands of activists willing to put their life on the line, yet Martin Luther King jr. remains the face of racial struggle in America. He is, for many Americans, a symbol of justice and the personification of racial equality. The list of other social movement leaders and revolutionaries, both loved and hated, is extensive: Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Caesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, Susan B. Anthony and the women’s suffrage movement, to name just a few. Continue reading

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Race, Gender, and the Study of Far Right Social Movements: An Interview with Kathleen Blee

Professor Kathleen Blee is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is author of four books and recipient of numerous awards for her research and teaching. Much of her research focuses on right-wing social movements, specifically gender in organized racism.

Pundits and scholars alike have pointed to what appears to be increasing visibility of far right figures and ideas in mainstream media and popular culture. Below is an edited transcript of an interview I conducted with Blee in December about what her research can tell us about the results of the November election, how organized racism is changing in the 21st century, and what this means for social movement scholars going forward. Continue reading

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New Documentary Film – The Activists: War, Peace, and Politics in the Streets

Bullfrog Films has released a new educational documentary film, titled The Activists, which may be of interest to many of the readers of Mobilizing Ideas. Michael T. Heaney, author of Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11 (Cambridge 2015), is among the producers of the project, along with Melody Shemtov and Marco Roldán. The film is priced for purchase by libraries. Discounts are available for community groups or to rent the film. Heaney is available to Skype to your classroom or community group if you show the film. More information is available here:


Activists and activism have long been a part of the struggle for peace and justice in American politics and society. Activists have fought battles for civil rights, voter enfranchisement, collective bargaining, and an end to wars. While these struggles have sometimes yielded significant victories, and at other times resulted in disappointing defeats, activism has always been driven by ordinary people who give freely of their time and resources to try to bring about their visions for a new world. However, activists – as well how they fit into the political process – are often overlooked or misunderstood by their fellow citizens. Continue reading

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The Arab Spring Sixth Years On: Part 2

Six years ago, after starting with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a wave of protests in the Arabian Middle East toppled several governments and gave voice to a new generation of activists. Mobilizing Ideas marks this anniversary with a dialogue entitled, “Movement Trajectories: The Arab Spring Six Years On.” For a second month we ask our contributors to consider the pathways of movements after the period of mass mobilization, specifically looking at the countries of the Arab Spring.

Many thanks to our fantastic group of contributors.

Rauf Arif, Texas Tech University (essay)
Dana M. Moss, University of Pittsburgh (essay)
Daniel Ritter, Stockholm University (essay)

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Guillermo Trejo

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