Activism Doesn't Need a Leader, It Needs Many

Throughout history, political movements and revolutions have often been characterized by the people who fronted them. The Indian Independence Movement has become all but synonymous with Mahatma Gandhi; Martin Luther King Jr. epitomizes the Civil Rights Movement; Gloria Steinem, who remains a public figure today, is essentially the face of Second Wave Feminism. However, there can be unforeseen consequences borne from placing the interests of many into the hands of one–a conundrum that several influential modern movements have attempted to address.

In recent years, some key activist groups have shied away from identifying a spokesperson or leader–opting instead for non-hierarchical organizations that distribute power and responsibility among members.

Occupy Wall Street, for example, made it clear in their platform that chose to avoid defining themselves as traditional tiered groups might. And the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has employed a similar technique: deliberately avoiding tapping one or two figures in particular to represent their interests. Instead, these decentralized groups rely on the cooperation of many members in various places across the country, with local organizers taking on more upfront roles.

Brooke Lehman is Program Director at The Watershed Center, a retreat and education center for social justice organizations. She is a founder of the center and collectively runs it with a handful of colleagues. Lehman was also highly involved with Occupy Wall Street, where she taught classes on direct democracy and helped with the structure and decision-making processes of the movement.

Lehman explains that decentralized movements with horizontal power structures reject the claim that they are “leaderless,” instead insisting that they are “leaderfull.” She says, “It’s not that nobody is taking on leadership, it’s that everybody is encouraged to.”

Daniel Chodorkoff is an author, educator, lifelong activist, and cofounder of The Institute For Social Ecology, which provides “experiential radical education and support for grassroots organizing and community-building” in rural Vermont. He adds that these types of activist groups are inherently interested in empowering participants, stating, “Instead of giving an individual power over other people, the idea is to give people power with each other.”

“You have to make a distinction between leadership and hierarchy: I think all movements have leaders,” he explains. “By which I mean, there are people who–by virtue of their ideas, or their charisma, or their articulate nature, or their analytic ability–will emerge as influential individuals in that movement….” He continues, “But we have to distinguish that from a hierarchy; hierarchy is an institutionalized relationship of command and control.”

However, detractors who criticize movements like BLM and Occupy point towards what they perceive to be shortcomings in clarity and organization. This assessment is often misattributed to the absence of a singular talking head.

Some skeptics believe that consistent rhetoric and mass follow-through are only possible under the guidance of a compelling individual or two, an attitude that Lehman argues contributes to an unrealistic and unhealthy strain of individualism that runs deep in our country’s larger ethos. “There’s something about movements that put forth individuals as key to the movement that are replicating an individualist notion of the American Dream,” says Lehman. “Versus having a much more decentralized focus where everybody understands that they all play different parts.”

From this perspective, both Lehman and Chodorkoff assert that it is counterintuitive for movements to replicate and reinforce oppressive power structures within their operations precisely as they seek to oppose them. They advocate instead for an egalitarian mindset that aims not to privilege the needs, values, and opinions of one person over another.

Lehman argues, “I think that the most important intervention that social movements can make is actually this intervention around individualism, which upholds the notions of capitalism and the whole way that our state operates.”

Outside of the ideological implications of choosing not to identify a leader, there are practical reasons for doing so as well. Black Lives Matter’s website explains, “a movement with a singular leader or a few visible leaders is vulnerable, because those leaders can be easily identified, harassed, and killed, as was the case with Dr. King. By having a leaderfull movement, BLM addresses many of these concerns.”

Though leaders can certainly be powerful symbols, and indeed their death or public adversity can at times be a galvanizing force around which people can organize, it can also be devastating and immobilizing for a movement when its leader is targeted.

Both Chodorkoff and Lehman admit that, at times, seeking consensus among large groups of people can be an arduous and frustrating process, but that ultimately the lessons gained from this type of direct democratic process outweigh the potential pitfalls.

Chodorkoff says that the skills learned from “leaderfull” organizing are essential, both to the success of specific movements and also for the wellbeing of a cooperative society.

“On the one hand it’s a tool for creating actions and creating an effective movement,” he says, “and at the same time it’s a school for teaching people how to function democratically: how to listen to each other, how to be sensitive to each other, how to attend to each other.”

These acquired abilities remain useful even after the initial fervor of certain actions may have have died down. Lehman explains that the majority of people who she worked with during Occupy were first-time activists, and they have spent the years since “building all kinds of movement organizations all around the country.” She attributes this continued engagement to the horizontal structuring of their activism. “If we had been a top-down movement I’m quite sure that that would be the case.”

The basic tenants of horizontal movements can be applied to just about any community, whether that be a town, a workplace, or even a band. Take your peers seriously, listen to one another, and be vigilant, careful, and educated when it comes to decisions that affect your life. Recognize your strengths and those of the people who surround you, and remember that leadership comes in many forms.