The Role of Social Movements with Laurance Cox – Part 1

The Role of Social Movements

In our second last session of Strategies for Change we had Laurence Cox from NUI Maynooth come and talk to us about the Role of Social Movements and how they can help us (as informed Disabled Activists) to strategically bring about collective change for disabled people.

Laurence kicked off his session by telling us that he got involved in researching Social Movements in the 1980s – over 40 years ago. His work has involves helping diverse movements in different ways and sharing what he has learned over his working time. Laurence told us that there is a lot of similarities between different movements in what they need to do regarding fighting for their rights to live ordinary lives, even though the issues can be very different, which is sometimes “a hard thing to hear and understand”. 

But the “reality of trying to change the world is very similar for different movements that experience oppression, social injustice and inequality”.

Laurence told us that he has a disabled partner, and he “has learned quite a bit from them”. He also told us that his partner can get very despondent and sometimes feels overwhelmed and feels that it’s just impossible. This feeling as we know is true for a lot of us.

So, What Are Social Movements?

Understanding exactly what constitutes a social movement can be confusing. This is because a lot of organisations can call themselves movements which is fine, and it doesn’t mean they are not but there’s a bigger way of thinking about “the Disability Movement”

Social Movements are networks and can be made up of lots of different formal organisations who know each other and sometimes work together, talk together, and argue together. Others are informal organisations and can be made up of the before mentioned, while others can be made up of individuals that want to be involved and be part of a movement that wants to affect change. 

Others get involved because they have a particular skillset, and some individuals can be even quite well known. But what’s fundamental is the “coming together and wanting to effect change for a particular group of individuals” in a meaningful way (see – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yw13pS7qB7w).  

All Social Movements are engaged in some sort of conflict, “always something that they need to push against”; be it the state to change a law; a big corporation to change its way of doing business; the medical profession; a religious institution; or a dominant social group.

The conflict can be a tension around money and economics; around power and politics; culture or all three. Social Movements exist because there is a sense that “whatever the problem or issue is about” it is worth getting involved, it warrants further discussion, and it’s worth arguing and kicking up a stink about. 

For example, Independent Living Movement Ireland are trying to grow the Disability Movement, and want disabled people to join to collectively  effect change for all those that experience ableism (see – https://www.today.com/health/what-ableism-5-things-able-bodied-people-don-t-realize-t187771).

Laurance told us that overtime he has seen what different Social Movement’s can do and this “is extraordinarily powerful”. Older people will remember growing up in an Ireland where divorce was illegal; where contraception was illegal; where homosexuality was illegal, where abortion was illegal. All these movements pushed against the state and pushed against the systems that oppressed them and most of these movements were successful. 

A movement has its own identity, its own way of communicating and strategising to collectively effect change”.

Why Should Social Movement’s Exist?

As we all know Irish people do not like conflict, we like to complain, and most of the time we are compliant. Particularly if we are dependent on our parents, or our partners, carers, support workers, or supportive systems, etc.  

Additionally, when we (disabled people) try to do something about the systems and structures that oppress/disempower us, the “powers that be” simply don’t want to relinquish the power they have. Even though they know that what they are doing is not giving us what we need/want. 

For example, non-disabled people running and working on behalf of disabled people verses disabled people’s organisation’s working alongside disabled people. The non-disabled people’s organisations are not interested in relinquishing their power. “They don’t necessary want disabled people to be powerless, but they don’t want them to be more powerful”. 

Another example are the wealthy, these people don’t necessarily want other people to be poor, but they don’t want to share their wealth. People that are looked-up too, people who are respected, people who seem powerful and healthy and happy and cheerful and shiny don’t want other people to be miserable, but they certainly want to be on the top of that heap of respect. So, to cut a long story short, “the powerful” don’t want to change a system that benefits them. So, there’s a conflict and that’s why:

  • just raising awareness about an issue doesn’t work 
  • going through the proper channels doesn’t work

We (disabled people) need to do something more; we must do and go through the kinds of efforts that we are going through (learning to be collective activists) to seek change and that is difficult but very worth while.

How Do Movement’s Work

So often change comes about when those affected by systems and structures that oppress them or disempower them, is about “stepping outside the world as is.” So, if “the powers that be” are blocking people from getting their rights or blocking them from living like everyone else, we (as activists) must ask questions, and may include:

  • are there other people effected by the issue?
  • do we have numbers – can we rally thirty wheelchairs-users on the street outside a government building?
  • is it possible to disrupt what they are doing – if they hold the money can we get in the way of this continuing funding?
Who We Are
  • if people are excluding us, can we be creative, can we find ways of showing them that “we are here” – we do exist, and we are not going away”

“It’s not easy, it’s not a situation anybody chooses to be in but it’s a situation very many people find themselves in”.

All Social Movements strategise and use many different strategies and tactics. Marshall Gantz, a key thinker, and educator in the field of community organising (see – https://commonslibrary.org/learn-about-organising-from-marshall-ganz/) says that all Social Movements are  about  

turning what you have… into what you need… to get what you want”

So, as activists what are we collectively going to do, so:

  1. knowing what we want
  2. figuring out what needs to change 
  3. asking ourselves what we already have that we can use …”and that’s the movement that leads to change”.

Power Structure Analysis – Changing a Disabling Society 

In simple terms this is about recognising who:
  • has an interest in maintaining the status quo? 
  • benefits and why? 
  • might actively and passively support the status quo?
  • has got a concrete interest in creating a society that doesn’t disable people? 
  • might have other reasons for joining us? 
  • might have good reasons for being our allies – other social movements involved in creating a more equal and just society 

Part two will follow next week.