by Nancy Latham   |  September 24, 2019

Those who study policy advocacy frequently use the concept of people power, because it can be critical to understanding advocacy outcomes. Success often requires not only the “inside game” (advocates building relationships with and educating policymakers; policymakers acting as champions for an issue), but also the “outside game” (pressure from communities often using more disruptive tactics associated with social movement organizations: protests, rallies, marches, sit-ins, mass call-in campaigns). And the outside game depends on people power.


As an evaluator, I have been perfectly happy with definitions of people power like those from PERE and Innovation Network. But as an activist, I was looking for more. And it is also as an activist – in my experience of actually trying to build people power – that I developed much keener insights into the concept. My experience as a leader in a grassroots Indivisible group led me to understand the importance of distinguishing between mobilizing and organizing. And this distinction not only can support activists as they build people power, but evaluators as they study it.

Let me begin (as all grassroots organizers do) with a story.

Nancy at the first Women’s March in DC

Nancy at the first Women’s March in DC

From Evaluator to Activist

Like many progressives, I woke up on the morning of November 9, 2016 an activist. Although that’s not really an accurate description, since I never went to sleep on November 8 – instead I stayed up all night re-reading the final volume in the Harry Potter series, because I needed to hang on to a story in which good triumphed over evil (spoiler alert!). It’s also not accurate because I wasn’t actually an activist yet, I just had the urge to do something. I knew only that I was looking for a way to resist the incoming presidential administration – a White House that was clearly about to go on the offensive against vulnerable communities, social justice, the planet, and against democracy itself. Every victory that progressive activists had fought for up through 2016 was at risk, and I felt called to be on the front lines, wherever those front lines might be.

The first thing I did (after finishing Harry Potter Book Seven and crying a lot) was to reach out to my clients who do policy advocacy. “What can I do?” I asked them. Here’s what they said: “donate money to the organizations doing the work.” Which I did, for sure. But I felt – like so many others around me did too – that that wasn’t enough anymore. Restless with the need to fight, on December 16th I read The Crowdsourced Guide to Fighting Trump’s Agenda. This was an article in the New Yorker about The Indivisible Guide, published just two days after that guide was posted on the internet. I had found, finally, my Resistance home.

By now the story of Indivisible is familiar to many: about 30 people contributed to a guide meant to help all the people out there like me, who were asking what they could do. The authors were former congressional staff who had worked in D.C. when the Tea Party had thrown so much sand in the gears of President Obama’s legislative agenda. The guide’s authors’ premise was that progressives could copy Tea Party tactics of using constituent power to put direct pressure on their own Representatives and Senators – making it clear how much members of Congress would suffer if they did not listen to their voters. Direct pressure included massive call-in campaigns, visiting congressional offices, and showing up in force at town halls.

Inspired by the Guide, I started an Indivisible group in Oakland, which existed for all of about an hour before getting absorbed into another, larger local group. That’s how I became a founding member of Indivisible East Bay, where I am still on the Governance Committee.

From Movement Moment to the Hard Work of Member Engagement 

Standing-room only meeting of Indivisible East Bay

Standing-room only meeting of Indivisible East Bay

Those early days of The Resistance were heady: traveling to D.C. for the Women’s March, where hundreds of thousands people shone with determination and with fierce, dissident beauty; flexing our power to defeat the repeal of the Affordable Care Act; flooding raucous town halls where constituents dogged members of Congress with chants of do your job!, and flipping the House in the 2018 midterms with the glorious blue wave. Now that was people power. And Indivisible East Bay? We reveled in standing-room only meetings.

But time went by, and – as heinous as the White House occupant is – the sense of living through a history-making moment began to fade, and the pull of ordinary life creeped back. Two years in, our group struggled to get even 20 people to come to a membership meeting. Fewer people were raising their hands for projects, or to visit the offices of our Representatives and Senators. We had, of course, the stalwarts who do most of the work, but we were not successfully engaging members at the scale that our ongoing national emergency demands.  

So as part of my job at Indivisible East Bay, I planned a retreat for our Governance Committee, with a focus on how to more effectively engage members. At first I turned to the literature that I had used as an evaluator of policy advocacy, but I couldn’t find what I needed. Then I turned back further, to the literature I had read as a Sociology grad student. By following this trail I found Hahrie Han, a Sociologist at UC Santa Barbara, who studies social movement organizations. She wrote a book called How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century. This book became my member engagement bible, and we based our retreat on it. That retreat is another story; here I want to share what I learned that can be of use to other evaluators.

The Trait Distinguishing Low-Engagement and High-Engagement Organizations

Han wanted to know why some grassroots groups are “high-engagement:” how are some groups able to not only involve many members in the work, but involve them deeply, and sustain that involvement over time? Han contrasts these groups with “low-engagement” groups: those struggling to keep members activated. She did research on two large advocacy organizations with grassroots chapters nationwide. Within each organization, she studied six chapters: three high-engagement, and three low-engagement.

Han says that “To build power, civic associations need lots of people to take action and also a cadre of leaders to develop and execute that activity. They need individuals who take action but also a community that learns together how to translate that action into power.” High engagement chapters have many people ready to take action, and are able to more successfully translate action into power. High-engagement chapters are able to draw ordinary people into the organization to spend a great deal of time – sacrificing leisure time to pursue social justice goals.

High-engagement organizations are – in other words – adept at building people power. How do they do it? Han distinguishes between two strategies: mobilizing and organizing. Mobilizing is the image we often have when we think about people power: it is the ability to bring more people into the organization, to get more boots on the ground: more people to knock doors, come to town halls, show up for rallies. Organizing is about building distributed leadership: capitalizing on people’s motivations and capacities to increase their involvement; and building their capacity to organize others to take collective action. Low-engagement organizations (with relatively weak people power) focus on mobilizing only;* high-engagement organizations (with strong people power) focus on mobilizing and organizing. The table below summarizes some of the differences between mobilizing and organizing approaches.


* Actually, low engagement groups also often use “lone wolf” strategies in addition to mobilizing. Lone wolf strategies depend on a few people willing to do the work by themselves. Typically this work requires deep expertise. An example of a lone wolf activity is to make comments on public agency regulations.

The Utility of Distinguishing between Mobilizing and Organizing

Rise for Climate March 2018

Rise for Climate March 2018

The concept of “people power” is immediately intuitive – we feel like we know it when we see it. But the definitions that advocacy evaluators currently use could benefit from additional specificity. Han’s work is helpful because it goes deep. She carefully outlines what mobilizing and organizing strategies are, and walks the reader through how they contribute to the ability of grassroots to successfully develop high-engagement groups. Using Han’s framework, we can unpack our current definitions of people power. Ito and Pastor (PERE) say that it is “the capacity to organize grassroots residents to engage in campaigns” – and Han helps us to see that the capacity comes down to the people, skills, and routines to mobilize and organize. And thinking of the definition from Morariu and Fox (Innovation Network), we can use Han’s work to look at the specific mobilizing and organizing strategies that groups use to build, mobilize, and sustain public support.

When you evaluate policy advocacy initiatives that involve grassroots groups, it can be easy to think of people power in ways that overlook the subtleties of what makes people power work. The next time you evaluate an advocacy landscape in which people power plays a critical role, consider using Han’s framework to investigate the capacity of grassroots groups to mobilize and organize. Specifying the concept of people power in this way could magnify your insight into how and why groups make progress on their advocacy goals.