Heidi Burgess

August 2005

Disputants can be categorized as inactive or active. Active disputants (more commonly called "activists" or "advocates") are people with a cause who are actively pursuing that cause through nonviolent -- or even sometimes violent -- "direct action." Though activists can work alone, most successful ones work by organizing bigger and bigger groups of people and organizations, harnessing "people power" to make their interests known and eventually addressed. Activists work through established channels (such as by using politics and the legal system), and they also act outside of established channels (as when they stage strikes or boycotts, march in the streets, organize letter-writing campaigns, or even fuel violent revolutions).

Political Activism

Political activism differs greatly in character from one country to another, as what is seen as legitimate political activity differs greatly from one regime to another. In the United States and other democratic regimes, political activism is a standard part of our democratic process. In other, less democratic societies, political activism is still possible, but it is much more dangerous. It can cause one to be ostracized, harassed, or even killed, as was so tragically illustrated in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. [1]

Even in democratic societies, political activity that opposes the government or its policies can be subject to scrutiny or harassment. This was evident in the U.S. during the Nixon administration, when anti-Vietnam War protesters were carefully watched and sometimes infiltrated and/or arrested. Some observers assert that the same thing is going on in the George W. Bush administration, as part of its "war on terror," through the internal intelligence activities authorized by the Patriot Act.

Despite its risks, political activism is still common in much of the world and has seen notable successes. Most of the civil rights victories in the U.S. came as the result of political activism -- first on the part of African Americans, and later on the part of Blacks and Whites working together for social justice. The Vietnam War also was brought to an end through determined political activism, despite opposition from the government and many pro-war American citizens. In a personal reflection published on this website, Notre Dame peace studies student Taras Mazyar describes the 2004-2005 "Orange Revolution" in the Ukraine, through which opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko eventually was declared the victor of a disputed presidential election as a result of massive nonviolent "people power." These cases, as well as hundreds of others, demonstrate that political activism of "ordinary people" can have very extraordinary effects.

Legal Activism

Other activists work through the legal system. This has been the route of choice for many environmental activists (for example, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council). They file lawsuits against polluters, developers, and the government whenever they believe that environmental laws are not being upheld. They have been especially successful in stopping development projects using the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act as tools to implement a broad environmental agenda. They also lobby through the political system to try to prevent those acts and others from being "watered down," and they support the passage of new legislation designed to protect the environment further.

Community Organizing

Community organizing is a standard technique of activists who want to increase their power and effectiveness. Championed by '60s activist and writer Saul Alinsky, community organizing focuses on bringing people together to work as a unified whole, which can then challenge the otherwise superior power of the elite. Alinsky focused on building the organization first, and acting second. Thus, he got people together, formed organizations, staffed them, and trained them before he started taking on "the establishment" in political, legal, or social ways. This type of organizing generally starts at the community level (hence the name) -- often working block-by-block at first, and then getting larger and larger until whole communities (meaning geographical communities) and/or interest-based groups (for example, parents of students in a particular high school or school district) are working together to achieve a particular goal. [2]

Nonviolent Direct Action

In addition to acting through established venues, activists also engage in protest activities (such as demonstrations, marches, strikes, work slowdowns, etc.). For example, in contrast to the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which generally use negotiation and/or lawsuits to pursue their goals, other people use direct action (e.g., lying down in front of bulldozers, chaining themselves to trees, or "living" in trees in an attempt to block development or logging), while simultaneously gaining attention and public support for their anti-development or anti-logging position. Others go so far as "eco-sabotage," which has included putting heavy metal spikes in trees which shatter when chainsaws hit them, making cutting the trees a possibly deadly undertaking. [3] While not nearly as threatening, the environmental organization Greenpeace has become especially well-known for its sympathy-inducing tactics of sending out small boats to challenge such diverse practices as nuclear testing and environmentally-damaging commercial fishing. A recent operation focused not on whales and dolphins (as many Greenpeace operations have in the past), but on a little fish called the menhaden. This campaign is described on the Greenpeace website:

Omega Protein [a large fishing company] has been fishing for trouble in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, and today, they found it. We're [Greenpeace] causing a lot of trouble to save a little fish called menhaden. Factory fishing giant Omega has been vacuuming up massive quantities of this tiny fish, and it has had a devastating impact on ecosystems up and down the East Coast. That's because the menhaden is a critical part of the food chain that stretches all the way up to the majestic whale.

But this important little fish is disappearing, and there are no regulations limiting the number of these fish Omega can vacuum from the Chesapeake Bay. That's why we've decided to take matters into our own hands. We're calling for a moratorium on industrial fishing -- and we're setting our own limits -- by herding the fish away from Omega's factory ships... [4]

The phrase, "we've decided to take matters into our own hands," is a good example of nonviolent, yet forceful activism.

Activism and Conflict Resolution

Since activists are clearly partisan and most conflict resolvers claim to be neutral (although whether or not they are really neutral is a matter of considerable debate), some people see little overlap between activism and conflict resolution. Others, however, believe they are pursuing the same goal: social justice.

Some mediators, for example, believe they can -- and actually do -- engage in mediation and pursue social justice simultaneously. Most often, these are mediators who see mediation as a way of empowering either one or both parties, enabling them to sit at the table with "the establishment" as equals. By providing training, "coaching," or "capacity building" to the lower-power party, mediators can help them negotiate more effectively and thereby more effectively advocate for their own interests.

U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service mediators, for example, do this routinely. They explain to the "establishment" parties -- the school administrators or the police, for example -- that it will be a lot easier for them to work with "the other side" if the other side has had some negotiation training and understands how to frame their interests in such a way that the police or educators can effectively respond.

For example, former mediator Nancy Ferrell described coaching she gave minority students who were having a conflict with their university administration. She said to them:

Certainly you have some rage, certainly you have some interest in sharing that feeling that you have. But what is it going to get you? You need to be very clear about what your concerns are and they need to be definable. They need to be stated in a way that they can be resolved. Saying you're angry at the administration because they're not responding to you, doesn't tell the administration anything and there's nothing they can do to respond to that.

So, Ferrell explained:

I coached them in being prepared to sit at the table. ... If you put somebody there and they're not ready ... then you haven't done them any favors. My coaching there would be getting them ready to come to the table and feel confident. The student had as much power at that table as the vice president of student affairs. There was no power and no rank. And that was part of my process, my responsibility. And everybody had to agree to that, the tenured faculty included. They had no more influence on the group than a student did. [5]

Oftentimes, CRS mediators were actually former activists themselves, but they decided that they could do more for their "cause" acting as a mediator than they could being a traditional activist. For example, long-time CRS mediator Efrain Martinez explains:

I was working part time at the post office, but working full time as a volunteer community activist in the Chicago 18th street area. We felt at the time it would kind of shake up the system. We hoped when it settled we would be a little better off. Then in 1972, one of my colleagues in Chicago, who was with CRS already, asked me to help him. I was kind of reluctant to join the Justice Department. I didn't trust them. But six months later that I finally said, "Okay." Once I got to know the agency, I felt that I could still do the same things and I could fulfill the same goals, but from a different perspective. And I would probably have more impact.

As an example, right after I had signed up, we had a community organization that had been trying to get more employment for Hispanics in the post office. It was very difficult. My old friends called me because they were going to picket the post office downtown because they couldn't get a meeting with the postmaster. I said, "Okay, I'll see what I can do."

I went to the post office, called the postmaster, and said that I wanted to set up a meeting. Then I went to the picket line and some of my old colleagues were there. One of them said, "Hey Martinez, pick up a sign and get on the right side. You're kind of a traitor now." Or something like that.

I said, "Look, I could join you, but all I would be is one more sign carrier, whereas now I can set up a meeting with the postmaster. You've been trying to get a meeting for months, I'll be able to get you that meeting." So I did. I got a meeting. They talked and things worked out. So I was doing the same thing but now from a different perspective.

Groups up to then were not part of the decision making process. They were not included. I remember once I was responding to a beating of a Mexican guy in Texas, back in the early 80's. We set up meetings with the mayor and the police chief before there was going to be a big march through downtown to the cemetery. The mayor asked one of the local leaders, "Why do you have to have this rally? You're going to give the city a bad name, with all the media out here." The guy answered, "We didn't give the city a bad name. It's your police officers who gave the city a bad name." The mayor asked, "Why don't you work through the system?" The guy said, "Well, let us in." If he wanted them to work through the system, then he had to let them into the system. That's where I guess a lot of minorities see themselves as not being part of the system. For whatever reason.

But they need to be in where decisions are being made. In essence, a lot of our work is pretty much like that leveling the playing field. Bringing them to the table where they can discuss matters on a level plain. Through us, they can get to do that. Once they're there, they take up matters themselves. [6]

Respected mediator and author Bernard Mayer suggests in his book, Beyond Neutrality, that conflict resolvers would be much more respected and better utilized if they acted as advocates as often as they act as neutrals. [7] By understanding conflict dynamics and conflict systems as well as they do, mediators are uniquely positioned to be able to offer effective negotiation training and coaching to activists who do not know how to champion their cause effectively. Most people in difficult conflicts, Mayer explains, do not want to compromise. They want to win. To the extent that mediators can help them win (while perhaps allowing the other side to win some of what they want as well), everyone will be better off.

[1] A good description of what happened, along with excellent pictures can be found in the Wikipedia entry on Tiananmen Square: "Tiananmen Square protests of 1989" available at

[2] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books. 1971. and Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals. (still in print.) :Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1946 (still in print.) Community organizing is also discussed in the essay on empowerment.

[3] See the Wikipedia article on "tree sitting" at for information on that tactic, and and for information on legal tactics.

[4] Greenpeace. "A Big Fight for a Small Fish." August 10, 2005. Posted on the Greenpeace Website:

[5] Nancy Ferrell, Interview. Summer, 1999. Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project. Available online at

[6] Efrain Martinez, Interview, Summer, 1999. Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project. Available online at

[7] Bernard Mayer. Beyond Neutrality. San Fransisco: Jossey Bass. 2004.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "Activism." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2005 <>.

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