In Review

In Review

The Activist’s Handbook:
A Primer

Randy Shaw, University of California Press (2001), $19.95 (list)

In an age of escalating human need, The Activist’s Handbook is an invaluable tool. It’s a user-friendly primer to fighting back, effecting change, and making a difference, written by someone with the right blend of pragmatism and disgruntlement, someone who’s not afraid to stand in the front line with a banner and who yet recognizes that wilier tactics are sometimes needed.

Shaw focuses on “proactive strategic and tactical planning,” an intellectual process of investigation and groundwork he believes is the cornerstone of any successful campaign. These tactics include creating “a fear and loathing” relationship towards politicians to ensure their accountability, the forging of coalitions, harnessing the media, and “effectively using sit-ins, ‘die-ins,’ and other forms of direct action.”

Despite the frequency with which he refers to the civil rights movement, Shaw flatly rejects the notion that successful social change activism is a thing of the past. “As hostile to progressive change as the US political landscape appears… contemporary institutional and cultural obstacles do not approach the magnitude of the barriers successfully overcome by the civil rights movement.”

Shaw emphasizes grassroots activism as the most efficient way of effecting change at the national level. He stresses, moreover, the ineffectiveness of merely opposing threats or defending past gains. This is fighting a battle on your opponents’ terms and can come at the expense of lasting change. And while direct action can be a useful tool, to use it without focus drains energy better used elsewhere.

Using examples from Shaw’s own colorful career, The Activist’s Handbook is a savvy analysis of the contemporary American political climate. Useful for both hardened and first-time campaigners alike, its inherently practical approach could not have come at a better time.

—Piers Moore Ede

Change Activist: Make Big Things Happen Fast
Carmel McConnell, Perseus Publishing (2001), $20.00 (list)

Aside from sleeping and looking for our keys, we spend most of our lives working. In an ideal world, we’d all have jobs that fulfill our souls, make us feel valued, give us a sense of accomplishment and pride, and allow us to feel we’re making positive contributions to our planet.

In Change Activist: Make Big Things Happen Fast, British activist Carmel McConnell puts forth the notion that we can change the structure of the workplace and make the ideal world a reality. There are seven critical elements social activists use to orchestrate change, which McConnell defines as the “activist toolkit.” This toolkit—clarity of objective, motivation and motivational leadership, trust and care (or emotional intelligence), inclusive ways of working, communication, sense of self-esteem and worth in the world, and physical stamina—provides what is necessary to institute personal change, leading to greater happiness and a more harmonic balance with the Earth, according to McConnell.

Although the book examines the principles of moving from passivity to activity, applying them to all aspects of life, it does not achieve its objectives in a very organized manner. Just as social change requires a solid methodical approach, so does personal change. Further, the book seems to suffer an identity crisis, unsure of whether it’s talking to business managers, or to those further down the ladder (which shouldn’t exist, right?). It tends to bounce between activating change in the workplace and in the larger social scheme of things. The last chapter of the book—“Activism and Peaceful Dissent”—tries hard to make the link between effective social activism and empowered workers, but in just 17 pages, fails to make a compelling case.

Change Activist scatters its energies in a variety of directions, apparently in the hope that if it provides its audience with an array of interviews, essays, quotes, outlines for strategic planning, and tables, some information will hit home. That might possibly be the case: you may find a few odd gems within the pages to jolt you into action. If you’re desperate for a place to start, this 217-page book won’t take too much time to peruse as you head down the road to enlightenment. If you’re looking for the keys to your happiness, however, you probably won’t find them here.

—Audrey Webb

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