Practice Meets Theory?

An activist who follows Mobilizing Ideas recently brought to our attention a TEDx talk by the social and environmental activist, Eran Ben-Yemini. Eran Ben-Yemini is a well-known figure in the Israeli environmental movement. During the 1990s, he played an important role in the Israeli student movement, helping to found Green Course, a national student environmental organization and the largest volunteer environmental organization in Israel. In the 2008, Ben-Yemini entered the Israeli political scene by working with Alon Tal to establish the Green Movement, a political party that gained some notice in the 2009 elections.

In this TEDx talk, Ben-Yemini shares insights from his work as a grassroots organizer and presents a strategy for mobilizing for social change. The central message is that it is possible to build a movement and make a change with a relatively simple formula: Story + Way + Setting = Change. Come with a story, discuss the way together, set an organization, and change will follow.

Social movement scholars may find it interesting to consider Ben-Yemini’s formula in relation to what we know from research and theory in our field. For example, he suggests that a story based on “big” ideas will attract and inspire people. Developing a way forward involves research, strategy, tools, and milestones. It is necessary to research the problem, offer solutions, and know the political environment (e.g., who is friend or foe). Strategy involves focusing on specific issues and creating the right message. Movements should draw upon many different tools, such as educating the public, legal actions, and civil disobedience. Finally, it is necessary to have milestones that measure progress and highlight successes.

Some of what Ben-Yemini presents relates to ideas found in social movement theories of framing and political opportunities. He offers an approach for diagnostic, prognostic and motivational framing and hints at the role of political allies and opportunities. Do his ideas mesh with what we know from research on social movements?

For example, resources are noticeably absent from the discussion. Yet, we know that resources are necessary to maintain large-scale mobilizations for social change. What kinds of resources are needed? How do activists get them? A 2011 survey of Israeli environmental organizations shows that Green Course received 96% of its funding from foundations. Ben-Yemini’s talk is instructive, inspirational, and perhaps revealing. Is the failure to discuss resources an oversight? Or does it indicate a potential conflict between the norms and effective practice of grassroots organizing?

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