A question that campaigners regularly ponder is: what is it that makes some people become campaigners, and how can we encourage more people to do so? This is particularly relevant for big social challenges that might not have any personal ramifications (it was depressing to see how many turned up to a public meeting where I live when the council said it was thinking of getting rid of a right-hand turn for cars at a local junction).
It is an absolutely critical question. Despite high levels of concern about a wide array of issues, relatively small numbers of people take the step of actively campaigning. Why is it that some people do and others don’t?
From our experience at SMK, three broad groups come to mind. The first are what I will call the Out of Adversity campaigners – people who have been through some unusual and often traumatic event and campaign to stop it happening to others. Driven by personal pain and a need to channel this positively, these campaigners are often the most formidable and effective: Cynthia Barlow from Roadpeace, who has done so much for cycling safety since her own daughter was killed, and Shirley Smith from the If U Care Share Foundation, campaigning to raise awareness of male depression after her son took his life. There are so many; they’re often family members and very often mothers. Doreen Lawrence is probably the most famous of all.
Then there are the Dynasty Campaigners. These are the people who are born into it. They typically grow up in values-led, socially active families and are motivated from an early age to be involved in social change. Very many of these people work in charities and politics – look at the generations of the Benn family who have been in politics, or Helen Pankhurst, great grand-daughter of Emmeline and grand-daughter of Sylvia, and herself an active feminist campaigner.
My final category is Convert Campaigners – the ones recruited to a cause through significant relationships with others. Evidence suggests the impact of peers on campaigning behaviour is higher than you might think: a study in the US found that more than half of anti-abortion campaigners either hadn’t had a particularly strong view on the issue – or even held the opposite view – until they were influenced and recruited by a peer.
Of all these categories it is perhaps the last that is most interesting. We can’t control the numbers in the first; indeed, we have to hope there are as few of these as possible, given the pain involved in their journeys. The second is interesting – particularly at the moment – because it shows how politics can interest and mobilise people.
But for campaigners, it is the third group that we can foster, for we can meet people and seek to persuade them to share our concerns and join our fights. It testifies to the value of investing time in people and relationships, and to how much people are willing to give and do if they feel passionate about a cause.
These groupings are very broadly drawn and wholly unscientific. It would be interesting to bring some more robust behaviourial insight to bear on the various journeys into campaigning. Has anyone out there actually done this?