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Spring 2021

How Do People Make Change?

Northwestern experts share the keys to effective social movements. By Clare Milliken

Animation of people protesting.
Image: Illustration by Anthony Russo

Beyond the pandemic, social unrest defined 2020. It started on the very first day of the year in Hong Kong, where protesters filled the streets in opposition to China’s proposed extradition law. Throughout the year — across the U.S. and around the world —protesters filled the streets to call for racial justice, challenge Big Tech, oppose COVID-19 lockdowns and fight for democracy.

But to consider protests the whole story would be missing the point. “It’s easy to focus on the sudden, dramatic moments of activism,” says anthropology associate professor Ana Aparicio. “However, sometimes activism isn’t overt or in big public spaces.”

Aldon Morris

Aldon Morris examines social movements, civil rights and social inequality.

From boycotts and marches to teaching and community building, social movements are multifaceted, organized activities that can bring people together to change the world.

Aparicio and her Northwestern colleagues have studied social movements past and present, across contexts and continents, and their work shows what makes a movement powerful and effective. It takes organization, infrastructure, partnership and, ultimately, passionate activists to sustain a movement. 

“The regular people are really the engine,” says sociology professor Aldon Morris. “Ordinary people can do extraordinary things in the context of social movements.”


Morris has dedicated his life and career to social movements. The Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern has been arrested while protesting South African apartheid, risked his academic career by opposing segregation in higher education and helped labor unions organize across the United States.

Illustration of hand using laptop

Illustration by Anthony Russo

“Movements do not arise spontaneously,” he explains. “The oppressed must organize the movement, must provide it with leadership, must provide it with resources. That’s what gives power to a movement.”

This was true of the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, which was “funded largely by the Black community. The leadership, the strategy and the genius of the movement came from the Black community,” says Morris, author of the 1984 book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change.

A clear infrastructure is also key to sustaining any movement beyond its genesis, says Kellogg School of Management professor Brayden King, who studies how social movements influence corporations and legislative policymaking. He says infrastructure enables a movement to “ride waves of relevance in the media and in broader public culture. And there’s always a core group of people working to seize upon the next opportunity.”

Brayden King

Brayden King explores how social movements influence corporations.

A sustained movement may depend on what Morris calls “indigenous resources.” In the civil rights era, he explains, Black churches and already-established Black-led organizations were willing to invest in and support the activists.

“That was extremely sustainable because churches aren’t going anywhere,” says King, the Max McGraw Chair of Management and the Environment and a professor of management and organizations. “I’m not saying that all activists need churches to sustain them, but you need some kind of infrastructure that is enduring to ensure the movement doesn’t wither away as soon as it faces a challenge.”

Even with a sound infrastructure, a movement can lose momentum due to the limits of public attention. King cites the recent protests in Hong Kong as an example.

“The protesters were trying to create enough of a scene to get the international community to put pressure on China to change its relationship with Hong Kong,” King says. “And in some ways it was working: The protests were creating negative media attention for China and causing China’s allies to distance themselves from the country. But then COVID happened.”

The issues in Hong Kong were eclipsed — but far from eliminated — when the public’s attention shifted to the pandemic.

King’s research shows that concurrent movements can compete with each other, diluting their potential impact. “Well-meaning and in many ways ideologically aligned social movements can cancel each other out,” he says, “because they’re all fighting for a very limited amount of attention.”


A movement, King says, should be multifaceted. Ideally it would be “a broad, diverse coalition of people and organizations promoting change” whose strategies are similarly varied. Movements must put pressure on as many institutional levers as possible, including the legal system, corporate practices, policymaking and public consciousness.

Political science assistant professor Chloe Thurston, who studies the role of social movements and organizations in shaping policy, says movements can spotlight individual grievances, increase their visibility and then connect them to a broader context.

Chloe Thurston

Chloe Thurston studies the role of movements in shaping policy.

Thurston says that the case of credit discrimination illustrates this tactic. Until the 1970s it was standard practice in the U.S. to deny women access to various forms of credit. But then groups like the National Organization for Women and the Women’s Equity Action League began to connect women’s individual experiences of being denied credit to show a broader pattern. They also upended the assumptions about why women couldn’t get loans or bank cards, making clear that the restrictions were baseless, discriminatory and unfair.

“NOW and other groups raised the issue to national public consciousness, and it was legislated on as a result,” Thurston says, referring to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, which prohibited lending discrimination based on sex, race, religion and other factors. She adds that racial and social equality movements — Black Lives Matter and #MeToo included — commonly connect experience to policy.

Raising public awareness alone is likely not enough to effect change, Thurston says, “but it’s certainly part of keeping these issues on the agenda.”

According to Morris, disruption is a key strategy for advancing a cause. “Social movements are not successful because they are polite,” he says. “They are successful because they shake up the status quo.”

Black leaders and organizers in Birmingham, Ala., had long fought to change the system of Jim Crow in the city, Morris says, “and each time they made very little progress. And so the civil rights movement said, ‘OK, we’re going to have to disrupt those institutions that segregate us.’ ” When the movement initiated boycotts of Birmingham businesses, organized daily street marches, staged sit-ins at restaurants and department stores and filled up all the jails, the city was paralyzed. Only then, he says, did Birmingham’s white leaders say, “‘We can’t go on like this. We’re going to have to meet with the leaders of the movement and make some concessions.’”

1800x1248 Animation
Image: Illustration by Anthony Russo


Boycotts are a proven tactic of social movements. King says roughly 25% of boycotts that receive national media attention lead to some form of concession.

“Boycotts create buzz for the movement and pose a reputational threat to the targeted company or group,” says King, who co-edited Protestors and Their Targets. Buzz increases the chances that a targeted entity will engage with activists and subsequently change their practices, he adds; that engagement can help enlist “movement allies” who work inside the targeted entity. Allies could be police officers who support Black Lives Matter or ExxonMobil scientists who support legislation to combat climate change. 

Thurston points out that, in the 1970s, a group of more than 100 economists, including some from the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers, signed a statement disavowing the use of sex or race in lending decisions. She says their statement “helped lend credibility to the claims of the women’s organizations and also helped bolster the argument for concrete regulatory change.”

Activists need organization insiders on their side, King says, to “open the door for further engagement and deeper conversations about how to implement processes that could lead to meaningful change. Activists need those insiders to help adapt and translate their ideals within an organization.”

Those potential allies, however, tend to reject a movement that is expressing hostility. King cites research showing that many finance industry workers supported the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement (begun in September 2011) but were unwilling to become real allies.

“They felt it was an angry movement and bringing that anger into the workplace would make them a target among their co-workers and the people they depended on for career advancement,” King says. “That anger turned them off from becoming real allies.”


When it comes to social movements, community-building activities can help create a foundation for engagement around particular issues. Ana Aparicio studies how Latinx communities develop local politics, and some of her recent work focuses on a community garden in a Long Island, N.Y., suburb. Since it was planted in an abandoned lot a decade ago, the garden has grown into much more: It is the site of monthly community meetings and has inspired community events and even a radio show. Through their involvement in the garden, community members share resources and discuss issues they’re facing.

Ana Aparicio

Ana Aparicio studies how Latinx communities develop local politics.

“It’s not a movement of overt dissent but one where people create a political and social community,” Aparicio says of the garden. “The daily convivencia — everyday practices — bring people together, engendering a sense of care and hope that is critical for people and critical for a movement to be sustained over a longer period.”

And because places like the suburbs of Long Island were originally designed to exclude Latinx and Black communities, Aparicio says, sustaining the garden is a political act unto itself.

“Claiming public space by having a Latinx festival, for example, is fun,” Aparicio says, “but there’s also another point to it. It’s not necessarily to organize for or against something. Coming together is in and of itself as critical as anything that comes out of it.”

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Image: Illustration by Anthony Russo


Just as there are many ways to define and propel a movement, there are innumerable ways to assess its role and impact.

“Should success be defined as policy? Should it be defined as changing the way people talk about issues or whether certain things people used to overlook are now considered problematic?” Thurston asks.

Additionally, a movement that seems to have failed may contribute to changes that come a decade later. Occupy Wall Street, she says, is a good example.

“Many people thought Occupy failed after just a few years,” Thurston says, “but when we look at the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, issues of inequality were really high on the list of things that most candidates were willing to talk about.” 

“For many movements, the No. 1 goal is to change the conversation — to grab the attention of the public and get them to think differently about a certain issue,” King says. “If you’re able to get politicians to talk and think differently, that’s a big change.”

Clare Milliken is senior writer and producer in the Office of Global Marketing and Communications.


Northwestern students have often made their voices heard in support of causes they care about. Here’s a look at a few examples of campus activism over the years.



Following World War I, a group of 38 students gathered at a student conference and voted against U.S. participation in another war. The students were mocked by the alumni association president as “spineless, pusillanimous pacifists” at a campus patriotism rally and denounced in a Daily Northwestern editorial.


Quibblers in 1945


After the University opened so-called international houses for minority women and men in 1947 and 1949, Northwestern’s first multiracial civil rights organization, the Quibblers, wrote in a letter to the Daily Northwestern that such a move was not a solution but “in itself an act of segregation.” Other student groups called for an end to discrimination across the University during this time as well. (Full integration of University-owned housing occurred in 1953.)

Four students


More than 100 students peacefully occupied the Bursar’s Office for 38 hours to protest the Black student experience at Northwestern. The takeover ended with the May 4th Agreement, a resolution in which the administration agreed to respond to a list of student demands.


Group of Northwestern students protesting


After four Kent State University student protesters were killed on their campus by National Guardsmen, thousands of Northwestern students took part in a peaceful strike — the largest political gathering in University history — that included blocking Sheridan Road and causing classes to be canceled for days. Ten days after the Kent State killings, two students were killed by police at Jackson State University. All six students were eventually memorialized on Northwestern’s Deering Meadow.


Students striking at Weber Arch


In their push for the creation of an Asian American studies program, students on the Asian American Advisory Board helped organize a hunger strike that lasted more than three weeks and garnered national attention. Asian American studies was established as a Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences minor in 1999 and a major in 2016.


Woman raising Black Lives Matter sign


Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, students joined protests occurring across the country in support of Black Lives Matter and racial justice.

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Reader Responses

  • When you profiled all the student movements at Northwestern, how could you have left out the role of NU students in the 1980s anti-apartheid movement? The protesters built a major shanty town on campus to show the living conditions of South African workers, and they boycotted and picketed the 1981 Ford Foundation/Northwestern–sponsored campus conference that sought to diminish the power of the divestment from South Africa movement, and they pushed for Northwestern’s divestment. Some Northwestern faculty and staff supported students in these efforts. In my opinion it was major to leave all of that out.

    Cheryl Johnson-Odim ’78 PhD, Evanston, via Northwestern Magazine

  • As always, I love your publications: insightful, well-researched and well-written.
    However, I believe someone ought to have read — or reread — the professional publications of the late Dr. Leland Griffin, professor of communication studies, on movements. He was the first communication scholar to study movements. One of his last publications dealt with Lee Harvey Oswald and movements. Fascinating stuff.
    I had had many courses with him. He was on my doctoral committee in the early 1970s and taught at Northwestern for about 40 years.

    John Kares Smith ’64 Oswego, N.Y., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Thank you, Cheryl. Indeed! How and why was the anti-apartheid work left off?

    Jean Allman ’79 St. Louis, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Despite the social movements of the last half century, the work of female scholars continues to be devalued in both blatant and subtle ways. When turning to this article, my eyes were first drawn to the photographs of four individuals (two male and two female) and to the captions under the photos. The verbs "examine" and "explore" were used to describe the men's contributions, while the women were noted to "study." That language left me wondering whether the women were students or faculty members. One might also argue that the verbs chosen for the captions under the men's photos suggest more active or rigorous scholarly inquiry than does the verb appearing under the women's photos. On reading the article, I learned that the women were faculty members. I also discovered that the men pictured held full professorships, while the women did not. There may certainly be valid reasons for the difference in rank among these particular individuals. Nevertheless, the difference is a reminder of the gender disparity that still applies to faculty in higher education.

    So how DO people make change? We choose our words thoughtfully, because language matters. We act with purpose to recognize the value of equity, diversity and inclusion. We set an example.

    Avis Gibons ’78 Mount Prospect, Ill. , via Northwestern Magazine

  • I wonder why you strategically failed to mention Northwestern Community Not Cops, who is organizing to get Northwestern to divest from Black Death and invest in Black life. You cannot pretend to “admire” organizers but not acknowledge them by name. The Bursar’s takeover demands STILL have not been met. Why haven’t you named Fossil Free Northwestern, who has been fighting to get the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry and invest in life-affirming resources? Or Students Organizing for Labor Rights, fighting to protect service workers from the incredible violence this school shows them. Stop sanitizing and co-opting radical organizing on campus!

    Keala Uchôa ’22 Chicago, via Northwestern Magazine

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