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Activism that Works

 by Susan M. Wolfe

Title: Activism that Works
Author : E. Whitmore, M. G. Wilson, & A. Calhoun (Editors)

Reviewed by Susan M. Wolfe

Book Review: Activism that Works
Susan M. Wolfe
Susan Wolfe and Associates, LLC
Whitmore, E., Wilson, M.G., Calhoun, A. (Eds.) (2011). Activism that works. Nova Scotia, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.  ISBN: 978-1-55266-411-7. Price: $19.95 CAN.

This book is a compilation of the experiences of 86 activists from nine groups and organizations across Canada that are described by the activists themselves.  The project had two primary purposes:  (1) to support the valuable work of activities by allowing them to reflect on their efforts and the impact they are making; and (2) to explore questions about successful activism.  The first chapter of this book provides a definition of activism, and describes the three phases of the book:  (1) the context surrounding activism and how it informed their project; (2) contributions from the organizations they worked with using their own formats and stories; and (3) a summary by the editors of the range of meanings of effectiveness in activism and reflections of what they learned from this experience. 

The second chapter provides the backgrounds to the authors’ work.  The authors contend that the market has been given precedence over the public good. The result is “neoliberalism” or the market governing our economic, social and political life rather than those factors governing the market. The degradation of social, political, economic, and environmental conditions for the majority of the world’s population is the result. The authors include description of the impacts and the responses. There is a detailed discussion of Emancipatory Social Inquiry as a research strategy. The presentation of the theoretical underpinnings is heavily academic and a slow read, but worth the effort because it provides the foundation for their methodology to evaluate the outcomes of activism.  The value of this chapter is that it provides an example of how such efforts can be evaluated in a way that assesses success from the perspective of those engaged in the process, and ultimately inform theory of activism and advocacy.

Chapters three through ten are written by the participants and present the case studies of each of the nine groups and their projects.  Each of these case studies is authored by the group members themselves so they provide interesting insights into the advocacy experiences and many nuggets of food for thought. 

Chapter Three, by Bill Hynd and Carol Miller presents the Oxfam Canada “Fair Trade in Coffee” campaign.  This chapter presents the strategies employed, the contributors to success, and further analysis of the organization’s larger role in producing social change.  Strategies described include effective advocacy and campaigns based in credible research and policy analysis; engagement at different levels and in different arenas; good knowledge about the targets of the campaign; and effective advocacy and campaigning work, including effective public engagement. They summarize by pointing out how small successes may not have large impact, but nonetheless, do contribute to real change and deserve to be celebrated.

In Chapter Four Ryan Geake, Colleen Huston and members of the Action Hall tell their story.  Action Hall was a group of disabled individuals who developed a community that provided a safe place for disabled people to be who they are and take action on systemic issues impacting them. It began by moving away from a mindset that disability is a source of shame or something to be overcome to a “disability pride” orientation.  As members told their stories, the group focus shifted from a focus on individual problems to a need to address structural issues. In addressing the structural issues, they recognized that some were unique to them, and others they shared with larger communities.

Rod Adachi and Lori Sigurdson describe how their work toward mandatory registration of social workers in Alberta, Canada led to inclusion in the Health Professions Act in 2003 and increased public recognition of social work as a self-regulated profession, and the Alberta College of Social Worker’s (ACSW) credibility as social policy critics in Chapter Five. Registration as social workers indicates they have adopted the profession’s values and ethics, which include addressing social justice.  This article describes the ACSW approaches to advocacy which include independent initiatives, collaborative initiatives with other organizations, and providing support for others’ advocacy.  It also includes a summary of lessons learned that will be applicable for other organizations as well.

Chapter Six, by Sharon Montgomery, describes the unique approach to advocacy employed by the “Calgary Raging Grannies.”  This group of women has merged social and political activism with entertaining as a means of exercising their voices on a variety of issues including peace, equality, environment, human rights, and corporate greed, with the mandate of making the world a better place for children.  They are part of a larger movement called “Gaggles” with groups all over Europe, Canada and America. In this chapter they describe their indicators of success and factors that contribute to their success.  Mostly, the Grannies show that doing advocacy work can sometimes be fun.

Marlo Raynolds and Amy Taylor describe the change strategy utilized by the Pembina Institute to capture maximum revenue for Albertans from the oil sands in Chapter Seven. This strategy included exposing injustices, framing and communicating a message that would resonate with Albertans, conducting solid research and sharing results with lawmakers, and presenting a platform for reform to the press.  The authors share the challenges of each step of the process and their insights after the fact. This example provides a blueprint and some caveats that would be useful to any group that is going up against powerful corporate interests.

Perhaps the most unique chapter in this book is Chapter Eight by Sheena Jamieson and Leighann Wichman, which describes the Youth Project Stories of Success.  The authors use photos with captions to tell the story of this organization that provides counseling and support, education, pride activities, gay-straight alliances, a food bank, social support groups, dances and a library for LGBT youth in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One of the activities was a collaborative between adults and the youth to create a theater performance that increased awareness of the challenges confronting LGBT youth.   Success is attributed to the inclusion of the youth voice and strong partnerships with experienced theater professionals.  The chapter includes the lessons learned and challenges confronted. Much like the theater production described in the chapter, the information is delivered in a way that is fun yet informative.

Derek MacCuish and Maria Rasouli describe The Social Justice Committee of Montreal in Chapter Nine.  Their work includes public education and advocacy. They focus on the protection of human rights defenders in Central America, reforming global financial institutions and corporate social responsibility. The organization has a very small staff and relies mostly on volunteers and unpaid interns. They describe the evolution of their volunteer system and provide guidance on the use of volunteers to expand staffing.

The last advocate-authored chapter written by Anne Docherty describes the Storytellers’ Foundation. This organization supports people in telling their story. Their five focal areas are Community Development Learning and Literacy, Research and Development, Peer Learning, Local Food Systems and Solidarity Cooperatives. Their work is consistent with their values of social justice, ecology, learning, cooperation, participation and equality.  Their role is to make the learning that takes place in the informal arenas of community explicit. They stress the value of informal learning and building social capital. Their initiatives promote informal learning and connections to build knowledge.

In Chapter Eleven the book authors share the themes that emerged throughout the middle chapters.  They note the different definitions of success across advocacy efforts and what facilitates the activists’ work. They also share the benefits of using Appreciative Inquiry to learn the positive aspects of work.  In Chapter Twelve they summarize the lessons learned.
This book fulfills its primary purposes to share the work of activists and explore activist success.  It provides a good range of topics and efforts, but is able to find the commonalities among them, and highlight the differences as well. The strength of this book is that we learn from those who actually did the work, rather than a second hand account that may be distorted through interpretation.

This is a recommended read for anyone who has an interest in activism. Its unique approach of describing events through the voices of those who experienced them makes it a more interesting book than one written by a single author, or in second person accounts. It is a valuable read for anyone interested in learning more about how to go about activism, regardless of the topic or method.  There’s something in here for every type of activist.  It would also serve as a great reading for a graduate course teaching advocacy because of the breadth of issues and strategies.



Susan M. Wolfe Susan M. Wolfe

Susan M. Wolfe is the principal associate of Susan Wolfe and Associates, LLC.

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