How To Build A Movement For Change That Lasts

#Run4Water campaign Treeshake managed earlier in 2017 (Photo by Kelvin Trautman)

#Run4Water campaign Treeshake managed earlier in 2017 (Photo by Kelvin Trautman)

Environmental crises. Climate change. Poverty. Drug addiction. Homelessness. Unemployment. There are more than enough reasons to build a social movement for change. But how do you create a transformative powerhouse that does real good and lasts for the long term?

Five local and global change makers offer ten insights to show you how to change the world using the power of human networks.



“My name is Suzanne Smith and this is basically the house where I live. In this house we used to sell drugs. We used to keep a lot of guns in this house. We were part of the Americans Gang because we sold drugs for them.” A single parent of two boys from the Cape Flats, Smith always dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but this goal faded after she got involved in local gangs. “I didn’t have any direction in life,” Smith says, adding: “It just felt like my life is over.”


Smith’s life was transformed at Reconstructed Living Lab (RLabs), a movement for change-cum-social enterprise situated in Athlone on the Cape Flats. We asked the founder of RLabs, Marlon Parker,  to share 10 principles that RLabs uses to help break the hold gangs and drugs have over some individuals:


1. Embrace Your Members

“When people come through our doors we accept them for who they are. Nothing else matters. We don’t see where the person is at, and judge that. We look at where the person is going,” says Parker. Acceptance is powerful, and at RLabs this sense of belonging not only helps individuals to change, but helps them to break away from violent gangs.

2. Don’t Just Inspire. Enable

It isn’t enough to inspire — a movement for change must be transformative. “When you want change you must create environments for people to take the next step, to go where their aspiration takes them,” Parker says. “It is not just about getting people fired up, it is about using that fire to create forward movement in a person’s life.”

Research shows that it is important to appreciate that a movement for social change is a human network — what Yale’s revered sociologist and physician, Nicholas Christakis, describes as “living, breathing entities that reproduce, and that have a kind of memory.” Christakis, the author of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives [with James Fowler], says human networks are “very difficult to understand”. In an interview with Wired Magazine he reveals the rules he’s discerned about how human networks work:

  • Rule One: “We shape our networks.” Christakis says that we literally create the networks around us.

  • Rule Two: “Where you are located in the network has significant implications for the experience you have in life,” he says, explaining that as humans we’re affected by what is going on around us.

  • Rule Three: Christakis says our friends affect us.

  • Rule Four: And this is where it gets interesting. Christakis has found that in human networks there’s a domino effect or what he sometimes refers to as “social contagion”. Not only do our friends affect us, “but our friends’ friends’ friends affect us” he says, adding: “Things ripple through the network”.

  • Rule Five: “The network has a life of its own,” says Christakis in Wired.

“When you start focusing on Nicholas Christakis’ ground breaking work on human networks you start to get an appreciation about just how careful one has to be when choosing the people and practices you employ to create a successful movement for change,” says Dave Duarte, CEO of Treeshake, educator and social entrepreneur.


3. Individuals Influence Each Other, And The Network

“What Christakis’ research reveals is surprising. Who you are friends with and spend time with will even influence aspects of yourself that you may think of as being your individual identity,” the CEO of Treeshake says. “Our networks, and our places in them, can affect our happiness and could even influence our weight. The epiphany is that who you spend time with helps shape who and what you are, and will influence your human network’s outcomes.”


4. Powered By Purpose

Given the complexities of human networks, Duarte says the best way to start building one is to keep a big picture in mind. “Go for small wins in the beginning, and remember that relationships are built one interaction at a time. But before you set out, the very first question you’ve got to ask yourself is: “What is my purpose?” Don’t get distracted by technology or social media tools. Distill your ‘why’, your reason and understand your purpose. This will take you far in the long run.”

5. Face To Face Beats Facebook

“At the start, meeting physically is vastly superior to meeting virtually,” says Duarte. “I don’t think there is anything we have that matches what happens when people meet in person. There is so much more information that is communicated in a physical context,” he explains. “More information means you can create deeper understanding and trust,” Duarte says.

Real world rituals and routines are a ready part of Gina Flash’s social change toolbox. Flash is the founder of a movement for social change with reach across South Africa called Mensch. A human network that mobilises positive social activism, Mensch has flourished since it was founded in 2014.


6. Create Relevance in People’s Lives.

“Creating a movement for change that thrives means understanding what’s important to the people in your movement. It is a conversation, so at Mensch we listen as well as talk,” says Flash. What’s been critical to the Jewish social change organisation Flash runs is listening deeply, doing regular benchmarks and surveying people to find out where they’re at and what they need. The founder of Mensch adds: “Don’t forget to be cognitively kind. People are busy so you don’t want to cause them more work — you want to add more value.”


7. Great Movements Are Multi-Generational

Both Flash and Parker embrace diversity of age. While gang violence is predominantly a youth problem, Parker actively seeks older members of the Cape Flats community to be part of his programme. “Our organisation is built on a family model, because the people who come to us more often than not come from broken homes. Older folk know a lot. In the Cape Flats they’ve seen the destructive cycles and this becomes the baseline we build on.” At Mensch, Flash says older people are part of her network because they can offer profound insights and have the experience that makes them perfect mentors.


8. Deep Connections Create Change

“We teach people how to network, so they get the best out of our events. We use different tactics like speed networking, to get people to know each other and trust each other,” says Flash. The Mensch Founder says this opens people to opportunities. “The more people understand who is in the network, the more people understand the reasons to connect. The more people connect deeply the more they can help each other and enable work that creates social change,” Flash says.

In Grahamstown, Admire Mare is a Global Excellence in Stature Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies, who reveals a key insight about building robust social movements for change.


9. Real World Builds Capacity

In his research Admire distinguishes between two types of movements. “What we see with social media is that we have social media enhanced movements that exist offline, but which champion their causes online,” Mare explains that these include the likes of the #FeesMustFall movements. “Then there are social media movements that start online and try to go offline. Some of these movements make it, others don’t,” he says.

“Social movements that start offline are good at capacity building, and creating trust between members, and because of this they have longevity. Online what we see is that people support movements, but the reason why they do this isn’t always apparent and these audiences can be fickle.” Mare advises that if you want to build a sustainable movement for change it is better to start offline and work to build capacity and trust. “It is very difficult to measure commitment online or to discern whether support is click activism. I am not saying that digital movements aren’t important, you just need to be aware that people aren’t always as committed online as they are when they turn up in real spaces.”


10. The Value Of Values

Never underestimate the power of organising with people who share the same principles. Says Duarte: “Shared values means that you can shortcut later conflicts about moral issues, because if you share the same principles with the people in your group you’ll have a basic moral compass in place. Remember that there’s a big difference between identity and values, so even if you are in a group that’s gathered around a similar identity, the values of the people in the group won’t necessarily be aligned.”



Read more:

  • Nicholas Christakis: Does This Social Network Make Me Look Fat? In Wired
  • What really motivates people to rally around a cause in Fast Company
  • Koketso Moeti on creating a platform to fight injustice at Destiny Magazine



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Treeshake is an education, consulting and communications company that connects organisations to change. All our articles are made available for republication, usually under a Creative Commons [CC-BY 4.0] license. You’re welcome to republish this article, but please attribute Treeshake and link back to