Review... The Activists Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, 2nd Edition, by Randy Shaw.

Review... The Activists Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, 2nd Edition, by Randy Shaw, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013, Reviewed by Kim Scipes... The emerging social justice activism and organizing that has been building since 2011 in the US and elsewhere is inspiring. The environmental mobilizing, the Black Lives Matter explosion, the $15 minimum wage struggles, and the greater interest in these and many other social justice issues calls for resources to help these activists develop and expand their projects.

Activists need to understand both history and theory in order to move forward facing the challenges of the 21st Century.The second edition of Randy Shaws The Activists Handbook is definitely right on time. Updating his book from the early 1990s and noting the considerably changed social situation, Shaw notes, The second edition examines new strategies, tactics, issues and grassroots campaigns, and revisits whether activists have learned from past mistakes.

Shaws approach starts with the basics: we need social change in this country (in oh-so-many ways), social change always begins with activists (not politicians), and that activists need to learn from the past and must develop so as to innovate in the future. Yet his is a practical approach: Central to all social change activism is the need to engage in proactive strategies and tactical planning. Activists must develop an agenda and then focus their resources on realizing. He also points out, Social change activists can avoid fighting battles on their opponents terms by establishing a broad, realizable program for fulfilling their goals.

To get his points across, Shaw tells many useful stories; some are from national struggles such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, and some are from his local experiences in San Francisco with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. His approach is pro-active organizing, rather than responding defensively to opponents projects.

One of the most useful chapters in the second: Elected Officials: Inspiring Fear and Loathing. He talks about the Tom Hayden/Jane Fonda-initiated organization in California, the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), and its alliance with Governor Jerry Brown in the 1970s. (Brown is again governor of California today.) Shaw reports that CEDs approach was to support the governor when he supported the groups stand on issues and oppose him when he opposed its position. Shaw argues, this idea is the best model for tactical activists in dealing with elected officials.

He notes this is difficult to implement, especially for groups who helped put a politician in a particular office, but it is essential: The potential for conflict always exists. Nevertheless, for tactical activists seeking to accomplish social change, an independent stance beings both power and respect; to succeed, they must accept the credo that, in regards to elected officials, it is better to be feared than loved.

It is interestingwriting a few days after President Obama killed the Keystone XL Pipelineto read Shaws comments about how the environmental movement dealt with the presidents backsliding after 2011. After a few pages of discussion, Shaw argues that environmental groups had learned that giving politicians a pass on breaking environmental commitments to one constituency leads to further betrayals.

After discussing a few other campaignsimmigrant rights and gay rights (Dont Ask, Dont Tell and Defense of Marriage Act) campaigns, Shaw turns to coalition politics. He argues a need to go wider than the usual suspects, and to reach across established barriers whenever possible. He discusses an excellent case in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, where a sect of Hassidic Jews and Catholic Latinos joined together to defeat the siting of a toxic waste incinerator in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Shaw also has chapters on ballot initiatives, working with the media, using social media, direct action, how to work with lawyers (and not let them dominate you), and the re-emergent student activism

The theme that Shaw focuses on is building political power for grassroots organizations: THAT is what its all about, but it must be done within the culture and values of the movement. I think it is Shaws clarity about the need to build political power for grassroots organizations that is what makes this book special. This is not a how to organize book, but once you are organized, how can you build political power to win on your chosen issues? Shaw brings a lot of experience to this book project, especially from his work around housing and homelessness in San Francisco. He recounts it in ways Ive not gone into, as I dont have the knowledge to evaluate the work of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Clearly, however, he has over 30 years experience in that area, and with working with local politicians, and his book is a thoughtful one that deserves attention.

How do I evaluate this book? His chapters on working with politicians, coalition politics, direct action and working with lawyers are his strongest ones, and he presents good cases and explains thingsboth pro and conwell. However, I didnt think his chapter on the media was as strong as it could have been: he didnt make the point that a media campaign should supplement a political campaign, and not drive things, nor did he point out that an areas dominant morning newspaper drives much of an areas daily news agenda, including radio and TV.

This is an important book for activists. Whether you agree with his prescriptions or not, it clearly will stimulate activists thinking about organizing and how to do itand how to win.


Kim Scipes is a long-time organizer, having volunteered for years with the Oakland-based Plant Closures Project, and later served as the Executive Director of The Calumet Project, a labor-church-community coalition in Northwest Indiana. He currently works as an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN, where he teaches courses on the media and social movements (along with other courses).


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