To Work With Them As Allies | A Practical Reflection

BY ISN STAFFApril 10, 2012

written by: Matt Smith | Director of Outreach & Engagement, Campus Ministry at Santa Clara University

Since I’ve been a campus minister at Santa Clara University I’ve seen three Fair Trade campaigns. The first campaign was a year after 9/11 and corresponded with a high level of student activism at the university. I was turned off by what I perceived as an angry energy surrounding protests, both off and on campus. The rhetoric was so often about what we were against, rather than what we were for. I didn’t want to be a part of movements that left me feeling angry, depressed, and unsatisfied. I had been taught to presume the good will of the other and this approach was in complete dissonance with that idea.

In response to this sentiment, I attended a training for social action trainers led by George Lakey, a Quaker, visiting professor at Swarthmore College, and director emeritus of Training for Change. It was a completely empowering weekend that has given me many effective tools that I continue to use today. One such tool was the Spectrum of Allies, which provided a solution to my dissonance about wanting peace, but being angry at and accusatory of everyone else. I have since introduced this tool to several student groups involved in various campaigns at Santa Clara.

The premise is that, in any social change situation, there is a diversity of people who are involved in the struggle for one outcome or another. Our job is to work with them, as allies, to achieve the desired outcome. Here’s what I do. I ask the group to make a list of all the various players who will be affected by this change (stakeholders). I then draw a semicircle split into five pie wedges. Yum! We then place each stakeholder where we think they would go on the spectrum. You can do this as a group or as individuals. (For introverts, the individual time to think about this is helpful.) We look at the spectrum and make some observations. Who is farthest away from you? Who is closest to you? Where is the president of the university? I’ve seen some bulbs go off here. The students may have thought that the president was on the far side of the spectrum, only to realize that s/he’s actually more in the middle. I explain that what many activists think change looks like is persuading the person who’s farthest from them to come all the way to their side. This is unrealistic and can lead to a sense of despair. The person to talk to is the one who occupies the wedge closest to you. This is the part I love! I’m more likely to speak the “language” of the person who is right next to me. I can connect with them more easily than with the person four wedges away. If I do this effectively, then I have gained allies who will then help me to speak to the person two wedges away, and so on. Eventually (in an ideal world) everyone has moved one wedge closer to what I want and the person farthest away must move one wedge up, simply to be part of the conversation.

As with any tool, this must be used at several different points in a campaign. It’s not a one time deal that forever cements people in a particular stance. To do that would be to deny the helpfulness and fluidity of this tool. When used well, in tandem with other tools, the Spectrum of Allies has the potential to greatly diminish a sense of despair spawned by accumulated “failures.” It helped me feel empowered to articulate what I was for and how I wanted to work towards that. I hope you will find it helpful in your work.

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