How do leaders translate collective action into political power—or not? How do they build a constituency of people that stands behind them, and then wield the power of that constituency in political negotiations? These two questions are at the heart of our book, Prisms of the People: Power and Organizing in Twenty-First Century America, which helps develop the science of social change by looking systematically at outlying cases of successful social change efforts in the US. Through the research, we identify the characteristics that social movement organizations building power on behalf of Black and brown communities share. Most previous research—and, relatedly, common assumptions in the public debate—assumes that the central challenge of collective action is to generate numbers. The more people a leader has standing behind him and his cause, the more powerful he will be, the conventional wisdom holds. Yet a community that “stands behind” a leader does not just vote, rally, or march once. The following excerpt is from a chapter in which we probe the meaning of “stand behind” by developing alternative measures for understanding whether the movement organizations in our study were able to more durably shift power. Our approach expands on previous work that conceives of power as more than just winning elections or passing policies; it is also about getting a seat at the decision-making table, shaping the terms of the debate, and impacting the underlying narratives that determine the way people interpret and understand political issues. By treating power as interactional and dynamic (as opposed to a static trait) and operative at multiple levels, we demonstrate additional pathways through which collective action can become powerful.
Han, Hahrie, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa. "Beyond Numbers." Stanford Social Innovation Review (August 10, 2021).