Monday Original Blog–May 9, 2016: The Brown School of Thinking on Activism

Editor’s Note: the following is an excerpt from a Master’s thesis I completed at Colorado State University in May of 2015. For that project, I researched soaps, online activism, and their juncture in the Save Our Soaps (SOS) movement, for which I created my own SOS group, In the introductory section that follows, I define activism as it pertains to the SOS group I created for the project, Prior to this section, I mention that I will rely on three texts on activism in defining activism: Building Powerful Community Organizations by Michael Jacoby Brown; Tweets and the Streets, by Paolo Gerbaudo; and Cyberactivism by Martha McCaughey and Michael D. Ayers. Though I reference and use other texts in the document and the creation of my own SOS group, these three texts ground and found my thinking on online activism. 

The Brown School of Thinking on Activism


The Brown school rooted as it is in pre-digital technology, bears unmistakable marks of being influenced by the social justice movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, which in turn were heavily influenced by the non-violent and egalitarian thinking of Mahatma Gandhi and the socialist thinking that grew out of the writings of Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels. Nevertheless, it proposes an activism based in traditional organizational structure: “hard” (yet still democratic) leadership, i.e., one person heading a top-down hierarchy (though this person may not always be elected by vote, as a single person may start a group and take responsibility for running it, especially in its initial stages). This literature emphasizes the importance of the roles of individual members in a given organization, how individual membership and action contribute to the realization of the group’s aims. It stresses the importance of activist group members’ time and physical energy to realizing its explicitly articulated mission/s.

In keeping with its founding in pre-digital life, this activist literature recommends many “analog” approaches to action. These include establishing and maintaining activist organizations based on face-to-face relationships, and nurturing each of these relationships one-on-one with the ultimate goal of cementing the interpersonal bonds that will hold activists groups together. Other recommendations include recruiting people through active pursuit using the physical realm in which our bodies exist.

Recruiting in the physical realm allows meetings of activist organizations in edifices to come together in person, where rules can be posted on walls, food can be brought and shared, eye contact and gesticulation can partly comprise persuasion in meetings that last potentially for hours. Fliers can be made and later distributed by members on the street, leaders and members pound the pavement, visiting homes and other dwellings in the interest of winning over organization members and passing on organizational intent and goals. The use of hard-copy petitions to influence public policy, as well as taking meetings with politicians and policy-makers on their turf (city hall or office buildings, for example) and marching, picketing, and sitting-in as some of the primary means of achieving activist goals are unmatched techniques. As one text in the activist literature (ironically a text from the McCaughey and Ayers strain!) summed up a good deal of the impetus behind Brown thinking and action, “The only things more consequential than getting arrested and jailed for what one believes are taking a serious beating or dying for it” (Elin 97).

Because is based mostly online and in digital technologies as methods of carrying out my activist goals for it, it relies more heavily on the Gerbaudo and McCaughey and Ayers Schools than on the Brown one. Still it pays a not insignificant amount of attention to the Brown school as it is the parent of the Gerbaudo and McCaughey and Ayers schools, rebellious as its children sometimes are. Also, my leaning going into an investigation of the thinking on online activism was and remains still an allegiance to the Gerbaudo school

The theory and practice undergirding Gerbaudo and McCaughey and Ayers schools of activist literature originate in the advent and spread of digital technologies as spaces of interaction, tools of communication, and as means of performing a host of both symbolic and physical human behaviors. Gerbaudo school activist literature contains both utopian and dystopian intellectual influences on their view of the role of digital technologies in our lives and activism. And as I mentioned earlier, McCaughey and Ayers school activist literature expresses a tangible urge for wholly original methods of activism based on the affordances of digital technology, with a still-tenuous way of theorizing about and acting out how these might happen. Paradoxically, both the Gerbaudo and McCaughey and Ayers schools do pay attention to and value face-to-face activism as well as digital activism. Sometimes they even imbue with increased, novelty-based value given the overall decrease in face-to-face interaction caused by our use of the Internet.

Brown school activist literature, as I mention above, finds its theoretical inspiration and recommendations for activist behavior in pre-digital world history. Michael Jacoby Brown’s text, Building Powerful Community Organizations: a Personal Guide to Creating Groups That Can Solve Problems and Save the World, is emblematic of this and other characteristics of Brown school literature. Brown’s grandparents and many other family members were murdered in the Holocaust, Brown’s living relatives also included survivors of some the Holocaust’s most notorious and horrific manifestations, such as the Warsaw ghetto. These realities, which his parents informed him of early on in his life, filled Brown with an anger at social injustice that he says led him to a life spent (and still being spent) creating and running his own activist organizations and guiding others in doing the same for themselves. He came of age when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., taking cues from the non-violent protest advocated and partaken of by Mahatma Gandhi in India, led the struggle in the United States that sought civil rights for African-Americans, and when early feminist leaders began doing the same in seeking equitable treatment of women in United States culture.

Brown posits that there are two primary and necessary foundational aspects of an activist organization: to build the organization itself and to nurture, within its membership, other leaders (Brown 10). While he advises minimum numbers of core groups of committed members, he says activist organizations must involve the people whom their actions intend to affect, otherwise they stand little chance at survival, as humans are motivated a) by self-interest and b) the need to feel needed. He advises any organization’s leaders to nurture other leaders within its member pool, because members will not stay long in an organization in which they feel little agency or need for their presence. As such, his book contains both the why (theory) and how (advice) that an activist organization must follow if it wishes to see its goals realized. It is peppered with exercises for the reader to undertake in building his/her own activist organization, “Quick Tips” that succinctly summarize the book’s main points, and stories that illustrate his arguments about activism.

Building Powerful Community Organizations begins by considering why activist organizations exist. One reason is that people crave community, and if an activist organization can provide this, alongside working toward solving the problems it identifies, which ostensibly the members of an organization will benefit from, Brown sees the organization as highly likely to succeed, perhaps even after it has met the goals that originally found it.

The knowledge I gained from Brown’s text made possible vital parts of TTIF. First, it showed me the importance building and maintaining a sense of community in an activist organization as crucial to gaining and sustaining members. Second, it introduced me to the idea that activist organizations must draw in members by showing them the organization addresses problems that matter to them, otherwise they will have little desire or need to join the fold. And third, it exposed me the concept of assigning each member of an activist organization roles necessary to keep the organization running, thereby assuring these members know the matter to the organization and can be nurtured into leadership roles the more responsibility they are given and supported in.

By Akbi Khan

Edited by Akbi Khan


  1. Jen says

    Well done. I love how you used aspects of which led to the social need for activism and how it changed as technology and faster means of communication came to be.

    • Blog Editor says

      Thanks, Jen. It was really neat doing this project and getting to read both about soaps and online activism, and see how the SOS movement followed the same path as other highly digitally-based contemporary activist movements.

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