Editor’s note: The following conceptual tool is designed to help community organizers to categorize community groups, businesses, government bodies, and individuals along a “spectrum of allies.” This exercise teaches a fundamental tenet of community organizing: that our goal is not only to find people who agree with us fully, but to gradually shift those who disagree with us into greater political alignment.
By Nadine Bloch
Movements seldom win by overpowering the opposition; they win by shifting support out from under it. Use a spectrum-of-allies analysis to identify the social groups (students, workers) that are affected by your issue, and locate those groups along a spectrum, from active opposition to active allies, so you can focus your efforts on shifting those groups closer to your position. Identifying specific stakeholders (e.g. not just students, but students at public colleges; not just workers, but domestic workers) can help you identify the most effective ways of moving different social groups closer to your position, in order to win your campaign.
When mapping out your campaign, it is useful to look at society as a collection of specific communities, blocs, or networks, some of which are institutions (unions, churches, schools), others of which are less visible or cohesive, like youth subcultures or demographic groupings. The more precisely you can identify stakeholders and impacted communities, the better you can prepare to persuade those groups or individuals to move closer to your position. You can then weigh the relative costs and benefits of focusing on different blocs.
Evaluating your spectrum of allies can help you avoid some common pitfalls. Some activist groups, for instance, only concern themselves with their active allies, which runs the risk of “preaching to the choir” — building marginal subcultures that are incomprehensible to everyone else, while ignoring the people you actually need to convince. Others behave as if everyone who disagrees with their position is an active opponent, playing out the “story of the righteous few,” acting as if the whole world is against them. Yet others take a “speak truth to power” approach, figuring that through moral appeal or force of logical argument, they can somehow win over their most entrenched active opponents. All three of these extreme approaches virtually guarantee failure.
Movements and campaigns are won not by overpowering one’s active opposition, but by shifting each group one notch around the spectrum (passive allies into active allies, neutrals into passive allies, and passive opponents into neutrals), thereby increasing people power in favour of change and weakening your opposition.
For example, in 1964 in the U.S., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a major driver of the African-American civil rights movement in the racially segregated South, realized that in order to win desegregation and voting rights for African Americans, they needed to make active allies of sympathetic white northerners. Many students in the North were sympathetic, but had no entry point into the movement. They didn’t need to be educated or convinced, they needed an invitation to enter the struggle. (Or in the spectrum-of-allies schema, they needed to be moved from passive allies into active allies.) Moreover, these white students had extended communities of white families and friends who were not directly impacted by the struggles of African-American southerners. As the struggle escalated, these groups could be shifted from neutral to passive allies or even active allies.
Based on this analysis, the SNCC made a strategic decision to focus on reaching neutral white communities in the North by engaging sympathetic white students in their Freedom Summer program. Busloads of students travelled to the South to assist with voter registration, and many were deeply radicalized in the process. They witnessed lynchings, violent police abuse, and angry white mobs, all a response to black Southerners simply trying to exercise their right to vote.
Many wrote letters home to their parents, who suddenly had a personal connection to the struggle. This triggered another desired shift: Their families became passive allies, often bringing their workplaces and social networks with them. The students, meanwhile, returned to school in the fall as active allies, and proceeded to organize their campuses — more shifts in the direction of civil rights. The result: a profound transformation of the political landscape.
This cascading shift of support wasn’t spontaneous; it was part of a deliberate movement strategy that, to this day, carries profound lessons for other movements.
How to use
Use this tool to identify the constituencies that could be moved one notch along the spectrum, as well as to assess the relative costs of reaching, educating, or mobilizing each of these constituencies. Do not use this tool to identify your arch enemies and go after them — it’s the people in the middle you’ll most often want to focus on. The groupings or individuals you identify should be as specific as possible: not just unions, for instance, but specific unions. The more specific you can be, the better this tool will serve you.
Here’s how to do a spectrum-of-allies analysis:
1. Set up a “half-pie” drawing (see diagram).
Label the entire drawing with the name of the specific movement or campaign you are discussing, and put yourself on the left side, with your opposition on the right side.
2. Divide the half-pie into five slices:
- active allies, or people who agree with you and are fighting alongside you;
- passive allies, or people who agree with you but aren’t (yet) doing anything about it;
- neutrals, or the unengaged and uninformed;
- passive opposition, or people who disagree with you but aren’t actively trying to stop you; and
- active opposition, or people who not only disagree with you, but are actively organizing against you.
In the appropriate wedges, place different constituencies, organizations, or individuals. Spend a significant amount of time brainstorming the groups and individuals that belong in each of the sections. Be specific: list them with as many identifying characteristics as possible. And make sure to cover every wedge; neglecting sections will limit your strategic planning and your potential effectiveness.
3. Step back and see if you’re being specific enough
For every group or bloc you listed in the diagram, ask yourself whether you could be more specific — are there more adjectives or qualifiers you could add to give more definition to the description? You might be tempted to say “mothers,” but the reality might be that “wealthy mothers who live in gated communities” might belong in one wedge, and “mothers who work as market vendors” would belong in another. The more specific you can be, the better this tool will serve you.
4. Identify what else you need to know.
When you come up against the limits of your knowledge, make sure to start a list of follow-up questions — and commit to doing the research you’ll need to get the answers.
Combine with other tools
The spectrum of allies can also work well in combination with other methodologies:
- First, use pillars of power to map out the biggest forces at play.
- Combine with a SWOT matrix in order to help you identify all key constituencies.
- Follow up with points of intervention in order to identify tactics and actions to engage the key constituencies you’ve identified.
Nadine Bloch is currently Training Director for Beautiful Trouble, as well as an artist, political organizer, direct action trainer, and puppetista. If you have a question for Nadine about this tool you can contact her via the form at the bottom on the Beautiful Uprising Spectrum of Allies article.
This article is published under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA license. Small portions of the original article were omitted for clarity.