Our last Melbourne Campaigners’ Network was on Theories of Change, ably facilitated by Naomi Blackburn.

The topic was a great discussion starter, very relevant to anybody seeking to make change in the world. It was especially good to see folks from a mix of backgrounds and social movements engaging in the material – lots of healthy diversity as well as common ground.

The workshop drew on the Resource Manual for a Living Revolution (a key resource for the Movement for a New Society in the US in the1970s) and workshop curriculum developed by activist educator Tash Verco and adapted through regular use in the Australian Student Environment Network.

The Resource Manual defines the following elements of a theory of change:

  • The nature of human beings
  • The nature and sources of power
  • The nature and sources of truth and authority
  • The analysis of the causes of social problems
  • The role of individuals and institutions in social change
  • The vision of the way it can or should be
  • The mechanisms of change, existing or potential

To develop your own theory of change reflect on the beliefs you hold and assumptions you have about each of these elements. Asking questions about these in your group, organisation and campaign would be a good way to make explicit your shared theory of change – or highlight significant schisms to explore.

In the workshop Naomi predominantly focused on the nature and sources of power, the role of individuals and institutions, and the mechanisms of change. The ‘mechanisms’ are the various techniques used by people to make change. To explore mechanisms of change Naomi used an activity using the following mechanisms as listed in the Resource Manual:

  • Becoming the decision makers/ powers that be
  • Influencing the powers that be to make better decisions
  • Confronting the powers that be and forcing them to do what you want
  • Education (of decision makers and/or everyday people)
  • Care Taking (meeting the immediate needs of the crisis)
  • Social change through personal change
  • Building alternatives
  • Cultural change (through framing and communicating messages) – added by us to the original list
  • Other

The activity sparked a lot of discussion, with many people believing multiple mechanisms were required for change, but potentially at different times, or pursued by different players in movements. I found it a useful lens for considering recent or current campaigns, to consider which mechanism of change they utilise.

Naomi emphasised praxis – the link between theory and practice. Our practices are informed by our theory (whether explicit and acknowledged or not), and our theorising is not static but subject to continued evolution informed by our practice.

It was clear from the workshop that this is a topic which would benefit from further exploration. We may do that through future Melbourne Campaigners’ Network sessions, for example one on Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan, or longer workshops. Spending time exploring theories of change is beneficial for groups – get in touch if you’d like to organise a workshop customised for your group’s needs.

Interested in this topic? Have a look at the earlier posts Frameworks for Winning Change and Review: The Activists Handbook and check out Resource Manual for a Living Revolution, Coover, Deacon, Esser, & Moore, (1978) New Society Publishers, Philadelphia.

Many thanks to Naomi! Would you like to follow her lead and run a session for the Melbourne Campaigners’ Network? Share your topic ideas here.