Leading Movements, Being Signposts

By Adria D. Goodson

Dr. Vincent Harding, one of my beloved mentors, was a historian, and a friend and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his book, “Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement”, he describes how movements and the people who need those social justice movements to challenge the status quo of oppression or inequity need “human signposts”, individuals who seek “to open up the light in the darkness, to be the candles, the signposts.” In order to survive, these human “sign posts” need to see and identify their own work as leaders, experience connection and community in the face of assault and attacks from within and without the movement, and persist for a lifetime. Morris and Staggenborg define social movement leaders as “strategic decision-makers who inspire and organize others to participate in social movements.” (Morris and Staggenborg, 2002) These leaders are the human signposts Dr. Harding described.

From 2005 to 2015, I led Hunt Alternatives’ Prime Movers program, a fellowship supporting men and women who serve as national leaders for social movements in the United States. The foundation, led by Swanee Hunt, defined “Prime Movers” as emerging or established social movement leaders who are, or could become, public faces of mass movements in the US. In “Building Bridges, Building Leaders,” (2005), based on Morris and Staggenborg’s article “Leadership in Social Movements” (2002) and my own research, I recommended that philanthropic organizations support “bridge leaders” by creating communities of support that offered retreats and shared experiences, build relationships with mentors who are connected or embedded in systems of power, and provide material resources to support the leaders and the organizations that sustain capacity for mobilization.

The term “bridging leaders” (Barnett, 1995; Robnett, 1997; Ryan, 2005) represents those who cross-institutional boundaries in order to access or create latent power for groups perceived as powerless. It is a micro-process in the practices of social movement building and includes “the work of individuals and collective actors who have worked to apply the principles of social movement theory…to transform outcomes for movements within situations of unequal power and access.” (Goodson, 2005)

For the program, we applied social movement theory to the program design and the process by which we identified and delivered resources, activities, and peer community to sustain these individuals in their work and in their lives. Being a “bridge leader” in notably difficult and the sustainability of these social movement leaders was critical to the potential impact of the movements of which they were integral part. So, what did we learn about social movement leaders and social movement leadership and how can this inform the study of social movements?

  1. Defining Leadership: Morris and Staggenborg’s defined social movement leaders as stated above and critiqued those who might conflate all movement and organizing activities in to the definition of “leadership.” Based on this hypothesis, we evolved the program’s definition of “social movement leader” to include as the primary characteristic: “empowered by a constituency.” (Morris and Staggenborg, 2002) This characteristic had been left out when the driving assumptions were grounded in theories of charismatic leadership. We also asserted that the characteristic of “being a public face” for a movement is critical in relationship to the constituency. In the age of the Internet, those who amplify the message of a movement are not exclusively those to whom the mass media turns. DeCesare argues that researchers should treat any individual as a leader who is perceived as one. (DeCesare, 2015) However, with the advent of social media, an individual can claim to be a “public face” without having a constituency. Therefore, it is the interplay of the three characteristics that is necessary to define movement leadership. In addition to rooting the new definition in social movement theory, we developed this new definition in dialogue with the Prime Mover fellows themselves transforming our own process into one grounded in the intersection between theory and praxis. To illustrate our findings, we crafted this illustration.
  2. Defining “Movements”: Movements and how they operate may be shifting in structural ways. (Castells, 2015) The mass media offer vigorous debates in real time regarding whether efforts such as Occupy Wall Street, Idle No More, #BlackLivesMatter, and the more recent Women’s March on Washington activity are “movements” or just moments in time. Researchers who are engaged in critiquing movements as they occur may be challenged to see the complexity of any given movement while they are immersed in it. Judy Rebick, a Canadian journalist, described the Idle No More movement, as “a 21st century movement, decentralized and deeply democratic in the sense that the much of the initiative belongs to the grassroots.” (The Winter We Danced, 2014) These structural shifts will likely ultimately change the definition of movement leadership, as the practice of leadership may need to shift within the dynamic intersection between structure and agency. If leadership is increasingly diffused and not represented by one organization or specific public voices, it will become necessary to be even more rigorous in the study of movements to ensure researchers are aware of the multiple facets of leadership and emerging structural shifts within any given movement.

As Dr. Harding described, the key role movement leaders play is to serve as human signposts: to point the direction and inspire and enable others to engage in collective action and learn to be leaders themselves.

Additional resources:

Post-interview after Adria Goodson’s TEDx Talk video

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