Chapter Four: Resist Together
As has often been noted, the Republican revolution that allowed them to take over so many state houses and take power far beyond their numbers came partly from corporate cash, but partly from the willingness to do the slow, plodding, patient work of building and maintaining power from the ground up and being in it for the long run. And partly from telling stories that, though often deeply distorting the facts and forces at play, were compelling. This work is always, first and last, storytelling work, or what some of my friends call “the battle of the story.” Building, remembering, retelling, celebrating our own stories is part of our work.
—Rebecca Solnit, “Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option”
There’s a reason they’re called social movements. Working together, we can accomplish so much more than we can on our own. Resistance is a group sport.
Millions of people have taken the first step toward resisting Donald Trump. What will keep them fighting? What will sustain them along the way?
To help build the kind of active popular support that will stop the Trump/GOP agenda and replace it with a government of, for and by the people, you need two things. You need to a way to resist together—preferably a small group or groups that meet frequently with consistency. And you need training in how to resist successfully.
In thousands of small ways, joining together with others strengthens our resolve and brings joy to our experience. We become accountable to one another. We keep each other company. We learn each other’s life stories and struggles and so come to feel that we aren’t only fighting for ourselves but for each other. We help keep hope alive for one another.
Especially when the stakes are high—when we are fighting for our communities, our democracy, and the rights and freedoms of fellow human beings—we need other people to share the load, to bring an outside perspective, and occasionally to lighten the mood. We remind each other to celebrate our victories, great and small.
Participating as an individual can be helpful, but it’s not enough. Connecting and participating online can support movement goals, but unless it also moves off-line, into the world, its effectiveness is limited.
Research shows that social connection—being part of a group—is the key factor in sustaining active popular support for a resistance movement. In his book Freedom Summer, about the volunteers who traveled to the South in 1964 as part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Summer campaign, historian Doug McAdam found that having “strong ties” among the volunteers—that is, having close friends who also participated—was more predictive of continued involvement in the movement than any other factor, even commitment to its ideals.
Relationships sustain us. And small groups sustain us best.
Small groups are better than big lists
The strongest building blocks for our movement are small groups. Looking around at the state of the resistance today might give you a different idea, however. National nonprofits and political campaigns boast of email lists hundreds of thousands of names long. They mobilize individuals to sign petitions, make phone calls, and turn out to rallies, marches and town hall meetings.
At specific times and for specific tasks, those lists are incredibly effective tools. But they won’t help us create a resilient social movement that is built for steady, sustainable growth and that can mobilize beyond big actions. To do, that we must form small groups that can last and grow.
Between mass marches and sustained participation: the missing link
Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency was historic in many ways. One of the most significant was his campaign’s embrace of the principles of social movements. Obama outmaneuvered better-established, better-funded primary opponents by using critical insights that their campaigns didn’t understand nearly as well.
First, the Obama campaign conducted face-to-face mass trainings. Its staffers corralled enthusiastic crowds attracted by the candidate and got them on the same page, with a common message, a common means and a common goal.
Second, the campaign encouraged people to take their participation into their own hands. Instead of waiting for further meetings to be announced by a central organization, they created small groups, supporting sustained participation in their common agenda.
By election time, the Obama campaign had created tens of thousands of trained community organizers, linked to one another in small groups that spanned the United States. (Sadly, this organization was largely demobilized after Obama took office.)
Of course, the Obama campaign didn’t invent these techniques. Mass meetings and trainings often make the difference between a social movement that digs in for the long haul and one that is merely a flash in the pan. Civil rights leaders, for example, saw mass meetings as a bridge between individual protests and long-term movement-building. They drew protesters regularly to churches for sermons, freedom songs, tactical briefings and trainings.
These strategies have been used to great effect by groups outside the United States as well. The nonviolent civil resistance movement that successfully pushed for the overthrow of dictator Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in the early 2000s, known as Otpor, which means “resistance,” developed a technique to rapidly train tens of thousands of activists in the principles and strategies of their movement. Otpor is one of the best-studied examples of a movement that, by sustaining participation over the long term—through the inevitable cycles of boom and bust, expansion and contraction—successfully passed the critical threshold of 3.5% of the population.
Otpor’s successful actions attracted new participants who would then be invited to a week’s worth of content-rich classes. Participants came to the classes with little experience, but left united around the movement’s goals, immersed in the tactics and principles of nonviolent protest, and prepared to form small groups and to lead protests of their own. They also left equipped with the inspiration they would need to keep moving forward in the face of an often-terrifying opposition.
Finding or forming your group
What if tens of thousands of small groups all over the United States, their members trained in face-to-face mass trainings, met weekly to plan actions using all three types of protest?
What if you knew that millions of people like you had small groups they could count on to encourage and nurture their political activity, keeping them inspired and moving forward?
We could take back Congress and our state legislatures. We could block Trump’s agenda, remove him from office, and ignite a progressive revolution.
The first step is training. The Resistance Guide training draws heavily from the curriculum developed by Otpor. We offer frequent in-person trainings and would love for you to sign up for one today. Many other groups offer mass trainings, some of which we helped develop. After one of these trainings, you’ll be able to form your own group—just like those that advanced the Civil Rights Movement, or overthrew Milosevic in Serbia.
After training, the second step is finding or forming a group. It’s possible even without the benefit of an overarching organization. Your group could include your closest friends, your neighbors, someone you met at a protest, people from your religious community or people you’ve interacted with online. We suggest that groups be no smaller than four people and no larger than 15. There’s no hard and fast rule, but within that range you can be effective and flexible while helping one other to stay active.
The three key elements that your group should provide are: relationships, training and action.
Build relationships with one another through personal storytelling. This is a community organizing tactic that was used very well by the Obama campaign. This kind of storytelling—developed by theorist Marshall Ganz as “public narrative”—encourages activists to develop a “story of self,” a “story of us” and a “story of now.” (First, we share the struggles we have undergone or witnessed as individuals. Then we connect those struggles to our vision and values as activists. Then we connect that vision to the crisis of the current moment. Grounding our activism in these perspectives lends our words moral weight and surprising effectiveness as we reach out to others. In terms of building active popular support, it’s enduring work.
Train one another about the issues at stake and about practices of resistance. Use materials provided by this guide and other groups to develop your understanding of your own tactics and those of your opponents.
Take action. This is the most important role of your group, though all action will be strengthened when ample time is given to relationships and training. The most important thing you can do is show up, and the most important way you can show up is as a group. Keep in mind our recommended minimum commitment:
- Once a month, show up to either a trigger event protest with game change potential or a small, group-led action.
- Once a week, put pressure on decision makers with phone calls or at town halls.
- Vote for and do get out the vote work for movement candidates in local, state and federal elections.
This is where having a group pays off. By showing up together, you’re accomplishing three critical things: You’re sustaining the movement by maintaining active popular support. You’re keeping one other in relationship, and probably—just as importantly—having more fun. And you’re encouraging others to show up. These are simple things, but they make the difference between success and failure.
We’re big fans of the Indivisible Guide’s recommendations on starting your own group. Read it here.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
You may be already part of an organization that hosts mass trainings. Perhaps it’s your church, your union, the Sierra Club or another organization. If you have standing relationships within such an organization, and the organization is lending its participation to the resistance, please stick with it. Momentum may be able to offer the group additional training resources.
The best criteria to keep in mind when selecting a group is whether you like the people involved and are interested in building relationships with them. In some ways, this is even more important than a perfect match on the issues, as long as you share the broader goals. Relationships will sustain your participation, and help you build the emotional resources to take on the issues you care about.
You may find yourself initially out of sync with a group’s agenda, but give it some time. Rather than raising objections or alternatives right off the bat, listen, ask questions, volunteer and take on leadership as opportunities arise. Appreciate that the existing leadership may be making certain decisions for a reason, and try to learn about those reasons. And if it’s not a great fit, try something else. Many roads lead to the resistance!
In nearly every city in the world, there’s a group that meets every day, sometimes dozens of times in a day. It meets without the support of a central bureaucracy, a dues-paying membership, or even elected leaders, and it provides vital, life-saving services to millions of individuals. The name of this group? Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA and other 12-step movements have flourished in diverse environments for decades in part because every meeting follows the same, proven script.
Religious rituals have been practiced for millennia under the same principle. To observe the Passover holiday, Jews need only have a copy of the Haggadah, a book that lays out the story and the traditions of Passover, to be read at a family dinner. The Haggadah is a meeting script that has been in use for more than a thousand years.
Meeting formats allow anyone to step up and lead, no matter the place or time. A volunteer leader can read a script that assigns different responsibilities to other leaders. These scripts can shape a one-time action or can provide a consistent structure for an ongoing group.
At our website, you will find an example of a meeting script. Whether or not you affiliate with us, your group may find this script useful for organizing your energies and sustaining your participation in the resistance.