What Liberation Technology Can Learn From Historical Movements

Seven principles that past movements have taught me on sustaining change today, drawing especially from the civil rights movement.

by Ebele Mogo on July 2nd, 2015

Scientists say the invention of technology marked a breakthrough in our ability to survive as a species: from projectiles that allowed us to aim far, to fight and to hunt, to cultural technologies that allowed us to transmit the knowledge we had gained and to cooperate. One can say that the creation of technology was originally very focused on domination. We needed to survive, we needed to protect our own and we needed to defend and attack.

However, technology can also play a role not just of safety, dominance and protecting our own, but in opening spaces, pushing for inclusivity and loosening hegemonies. The internet arms us with education, with a platform and an opportunity to share our voices and to show solidarity with people all over the world in a simple hashtag.

While movements of the past may not have had the privilege of hashtags and cellphones and quick Internet access, they were still able to achieve monumental things that can still speak to us in the 21st century. Below, I will share seven principles that past movements have taught me on sustaining change today, drawing especially from the civil rights movement.

The need for an informed social imagination

Since the picture of Martin Luther King Jr most prominent in our minds is that of him organizing, we may not know that his acting was shaped by years of thinking. Martin Luther King Jr’s approach to the civil rights movement was shaped by his lifelong interest in humanistic philosophy. This was most prominent during his study at Crozer Theological Seminary where he spent a lot of his time evaluating schools of thought such as those of Karl Marx, Plato, Gandhi, Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr. He also studied world religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Islam and Christianity. His goal was to comparatively assess their understandings of social justice so that he could arrive at an intellectual vision for himself, comparing their ideas, understanding their limits and ultimately integrating their contradictions to form his own ideals. This intellectual, moral and social vision supported him throughout the course of his work in determining what routes of action to take.

The MLK memorial in Washington, D.C.

Photo CC-BY Gage Skidmore, filtered.

Once he died, the biographer Marshall Frady noted that it was hard for the movement to have that same unifying transcendent vision which Martin Luther King Jr used in motivating his community. From this we learn that acting and thinking go hand in hand, and that an informed moral vision and intellectual imagination are critical to our success even when using modern technology as a platform.

I think of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in post-apartheid South Africa, and the way that the civil and political leaders came together to make sense of South Africa’s new identity. On the one hand, there was need to name the trauma and the pain inflicted by apartheid. There was need for justice, in a way that would bring disparate racial and social groups together to create a new future for the country without minimizing the baggage of the past. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up as a means of restorative justice, to allow perpetrators of violence to express regret for the human rights abuses committed, and to channel their guilt into a positive and united future for the country. In many countries, trauma and national wounds are not confronted and named in any deep and meaningful way. However, it is the social imagination of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement shaped by years of political and communal reflection that enabled them to propose this restorative means for moving forward.

The role of privilege and a sense of self-determination

Another factor that shaped Martin Luther King Jr’s approach to civil rights was his elevated status as a middle class black man and the son of a preacher. This gave him a sense of responsibility to his community and a palpable sense of privilege. As a result of this he was aware of the pain of his community and chose to be a preacher as a strategic response to meeting their needs. Because of his reputation as a preacher, he was viewed as the voice of reason and a respectable member of society, eventually leading to his being chosen to spearhead the first boycott of the buses in Alabama.

Other leaders of the civil rights movement were educated and had a sense of power within their communities and even in the broader American community. Being middle class they were able to conceive of themselves as being on equal footing with their oppressors. This shows the opportunity in the thoughtful use of privilege to empower our communities.

This is still relevant in the social media and technological era, as we can use our privilege to thoughtfully invite marginalized voices into the conversation. Privilege can facilitate movements if we are thoughtful about it and take on the responsibility it brings. With privilege, we span multiple identities that can allow us to make more space for marginalized voices and communities. Ultimately, if privilege is not translating to centering less dominant voices, then not only is it being misused in a movement, it is also not going to be a sustainable movement, because a strong sense of empowerment and self-determination is necessary for communities to own their movement. We see this principle at play in not only the civil rights movement but in the AIDS advocacy movements whose success owed to having members with a keen sense not only of marginalization and stigmatization, but of self-determination.

A mural for Bring Back Our Girls on the side of a building in West Vale. The mural depicts a kidnapped girl staring out at the viewer, and includes the Bring Back Our Girls hashtag.

Photo CC-BY Tim Green, filtered.

The recent elections in Nigeria are a good example of this principle. I was very impressed by how prominent people in the arts, media, journalism, the diaspora, and human rights groups among others played a role in encouraging people to vote and to demand accountability from the presidential candidates. Some people asked questions of the candidates, some monitored the electoral process, and many used their status in society to call for peace throughout the process. Another example is that of a prominent leader of the Bring Back Our Girls Movement -Oby Ezekwesili. Once Vice President of the World Bank, she used this already-acquired status in demanding that governments take note of the missing girls and in organizing to make sure that the girls were not forgotten.

Acting small, thinking big

The foot-in-the-door approach appears quite often when studying past movements. The foot-in-the-door approach is a psychological tactic that makes use of a little request, which then opens the door for a bigger request. During the first boycott, the Blacks in the community had simply asked for the Whites to allow them to occupy their section of the bus without being asked to give it up for a White person. Marshall Frady reports that Martin Luther King Jr had not dared to imagine a full end to segregation at that point. The success of the boycott shaped a larger understanding of what might be possible and led Martin Luther King Jr to believe that they might be on to even bigger change. A simple success expands the imagination on what is possible and also creates the motivation to dare even more. One can therefore start with using technology to mobilize around a small win on the way to bigger and bigger wins. Small incremental wins also give communities hope, and a tangible success to build upon, thus feeding the movement.

Let us consider a more recent social change effort – the movement to ban smoking on planes. As scientists generated more and more evidence that showed that smoking was harmful to health, it was simply impossible to refute this fact. People started pressing for airlines to reduce the exposure of their passengers to secondhand smoke. This movement was ultimately successful in giving us the smoke-free flights we enjoy today. However, they started by asking planes be separated into smoking and non-smoking sections. When this was successful, they pushed for smoke-free flights.

Severe-looking No Smoking sign.

Photo CC-BY machechyp, filtered.

This is not to suggest that leaders set out to deceive by asking for a small change only to ask for a big change, but to show the power of focusing your efforts on one little change, and how this little change expands the imagination, empowers the public and can set the scene for monumental change.

Understand your community

Context was critical to the success of the civil rights movement. The anti-segregation efforts in the South were successful because Martin Luther King Jr was very knowledgeable about his community and was part of a critical watering hole of the community (the church). Because he understood his community, their language and even their spiritual texts, he was able to draw upon these to lead the movement.

Another lesson learnt from this is the importance of using the language and rhetoric that one’s community is most at home with to inspire change. While he drew from many thinkers and scholars in the course of his education, he primarily used the Christian language when appealing to his primarily Christian Southern community. He even used the exaggerated emotive tone of speaking common to his spiritual community, which he first of all disowned and then later re-integrated into his way of speaking.

Let us contrast the success in the South to when they decided to take the movement to the more urban North where racism was more systemic than obvious. Martin Luther King Jr was unable to have the same unifying and transcendent hold on the hearts and minds of his people as he did in the South. The change in terrain was difficult for the leaders of the movement and they faced the most violent opposition to the movement there. It is therefore critical to understand the terrain as a movement grows, and to shape the strategy accordingly, not assuming a one-size-fits-all approach applies.

Many development efforts locally and internationally fail because they underestimate the context, whether it is an effort to engage low-income communities, or to do a development project in a faraway country. Sometimes the problem is not with the idea, because these ideas have been tested and tried in sanitized settings where social interaction is predictable. Yet, take these tried and tested approaches to systems where there is a large informal economy, where the cultural nuances are different, where governance is not as strong, and they fail because well-meaning people have not taken time to understand the new context and to view the community as equals who have something to teach them.

Appreciating conflict and diversity in movements

Different streams of a movement may seem irritating from a superficial perspective as they dismantle the veneer and ideal of uniformity in a group. Yet, this diversity was critical to the eventual sustenance of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr could be considered part of the non-militant stream of his movement while many of the younger members subscribed to a more militant approach. While Martin Luther King Jr did not necessarily like this, it became obvious that both streams were needed. A more vocal stream was important to serve as a counter-voice, which then made way for the pacifist stream to be treated with more regard. This is consistent with other movements such as movements for gay rights and AIDS advocacy, amongst others, where the unpredictable and sometimes volatile streams actually served to enable the calmer stream to gain political power.

Image from NYC Rise Up and #ShutItDown for Baltimore protest in Union Square, New York, with a large banner reading Black Lives Matter, a number of people gathered around it holding posters and listening to a speaker.

Photo CC-BY The All-Nite Images, filtered.

We might consider this question in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, and ask: do people calmly mediate or vocally protest? Do people confront the police or engage in dialogue? Do people create opportunity or do people call for the destruction of systemic oppression? Perhaps the answer is all; all streams of the movement feed into one another and sustain the vision.

We can also ask this question of development efforts. Do we ditch non-profits for social entrepreneurship? Do we forget about corrupt governments and simply focus on grassroots efforts? Do we do charitable deeds or do we encourage trade and economic empowerment? Do we do research or do we act? The answer to me is that we should do both, as long as all our efforts focus on sustainability and not just short term do-goodism.

Choose your frame wisely

Your frame can make or break your vision. Typically the frame of individual responsibility tends to prevail in North American society, but this frame is insufficient when viewing issues of global consequence, so we have to step back and make sure that we are using frames that handle the issue responsibly. For example, it is not sufficient to say that people should exercise and eat healthy without also adding that governments should create walkable streets for them to exercise and ensure good housing, less traffic, violence and noise in order to reduce stressors that may make people likely to imbibe unhealthy habits. One frame focuses on the individual, the other integrates the system for a holistic perspective.

Looking at the civil rights movement, we see that it was framed insightfully. The civil rights movement was not simply named an anti-segregation effort but a civil rights movement. In addition, Martin Luther King Jr appealed to the highest and most transcendent sensibilities in his people and his opponents when advocating for change. He connected the dots to a human rights framework, and made the case for change based on his conviction that his proposed change was morally superior. This moral vision was the frame into which the issue (segregation) was placed.

Via the image description: "A nurse at Merawi health centre in northern Ethiopia prepares a measles vaccine for delivery."

Photo CC-BY Pete Lewis / Department for International Development, filtered.

A more contemporary example of framing is the issue of vaccination in the United States. Vaccination is considered a moral and political issue in the United States because people wonder: what right does the government have to tell me what to do with my children? Since the language of individual freedom and responsibility is the mother tongue of the United States, the challenge of the public health worker is to reframe the question away from the individual freedom frame and toward the population health frame. So if asked on television: “what is your right to tell me what to do with my child?”, instead of feeling defensive, you will have to take a step back and reply in a way that recognizes the individual and social and environmental factors that affect health. Instead of feeling defensive and telling the person why you have a right, step back and set the frame; help them understand how their child’s vulnerability to infection reduces the population’s immunity, causes many others to be infected and increases health care spending.

The law is an important technology too

Law is a critical technology for sustaining a movement. Legal activism had been used by more moderate members of the civil rights movement before Martin Luther King Jr became a leader, but the legal activism had not been creating the required results at this point. The community-centered movement of Martin Luther King Jr was important for the civil rights movement to grow, to have a voice in society and have bargaining power with the systems of the day. However, the resources for the boycott were already being depleted and strained by law enforcement, and without the law being passed to end segregation on the buses, the boycott would not have been sustained. Temperate and reasoned legal activism and more energized civil participation need to go hand in hand to sustain a movement. One without the other would have been futile in this case.

A recent example of using the law as a form of liberation technology is 18-year-old Memory Banda, who rallied the girls in her community to ask Malawi’s Parliament to change the legal marriage age to eighteen in order to change the norms around child marriage and sexual assault in her community.

In this overview, we see that history has rich lessons for us on creating change. Some recurring features of successful social change efforts include diversity in the movement, the use of privilege and power to facilitate change, a deep insider understanding of context, the need for the law and community to work hand in hand, and thoughtful framing of issues to allow for a vision that is both global and incremental.