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Why The “March For Our Lives” Kids Are Succeeding Where So Many Others Have Failed

2018 April 22
by Greg Satell

We all have a change we want to see happen. For some of us, it is something in our organization or industry. Other times, it is something in our community or throughout society as a whole. That’s why people start companies or join groups at church and school. Sometimes groups connect with other groups and the call for change becomes a movement.

Creating true change is never easy. Most startups fail. Most community groups never get beyond small local actions and, even when a spark catches fire, as in the case of the Occupy movement, it often seems to fizzle out almost as fast. The status quo is, almost by definition, well-entrenched and never gives up without a fight.

Yet the kids from Stoneman Douglas High School seem to be succeeding where so many others have failed. Their “March for our Lives” protest was one of the biggest since the Vietnam War and they seem to be getting real results. Their home state of Florida has already passed new gun legislation and other states plan to do the same. Here’s why they’re winning:

1. Going Beyond Grievance

Every change effort starts with a grievance, most of the time with a whole list of them. It is the perceived flaws in the world that inspires people to act for change, whether those actions are to sign a petition, join a group, go to a march or start a company. Nothing stirs passion like a wrong that needs to be righted.

The Occupy movement was galvanized by income inequality and adopted “the 99% vs. the 1% as its mantra. More recently, the NFL protests were sparked by police brutality. Yet grievance is never enough to actually make change happen because far too many have a stake in the status quo. You never get very far by asking others to internalize your own experience.

Successful change movements go beyond grievance to voice a true vision for the future. Gandhi spoke not just of British injustice, but Indian self-rule and the society he wanted to create. Martin Luther King Jr. went beyond the injustices committed against the black community and spoke of the ideals embedded in the founding documents of our republic. The LGBT movement never got anywhere with “we’re here, we’re queer…” but flourished as a recognition of basic American principles.

The March for our Lives movement has continued very much in the same vein. While their sense of grievance is clear, their emphasis has been the very basic right to go to school without fear of being shot, which is something that everyone can relate to. You don’t actually have to experience tragedy to know you don’t want it to happen to you.

Making Change Safe For Everybody

The first thing you can expect — and must plan for — in any change effort is a backlash. Or, as Saul Alinsky put it, every revolution inspires a counterrevolution. That is the physics of change and its laws apply no matter how righteous your cause or how deeply you feel the need for things to be different.

Consider the LGBT movement. President Bush’s condemnation of gay marriage in a State of the Union Speech inspired San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to unilaterally start performing same sex marriages. That led to Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment outlawing the practice, which was so harsh that it, in turn, spurred on the effort that led to the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that outlawed gay marriage bans.

When Paul O’Neill took over as CEO of Alcoa he vowed to improve employee safety and faced bewilderment from the financial community. Yet when he was able to show that better safety habits meant better operations and improved profit, he won everybody over and accomplished one of the great corporate turnarounds in history. It all started because he worked to build credibility with all stakeholders.

What has made the March for our Lives movement different from previous gun control efforts is that it has made it clear that it respects the rights of gun owners. In fact, several of the students have pointed out that they have guns in their own homes. Instead of attacking those with different views, they have made it clear that they want to work with them.

All too often, we see supporters of different sides of an issue as monolithic, but that’s never true. There is always a spectrum of opinions, some of which are active in their support for their cause, others more passive and many who are fairly neutral. The Parkland students have been masterful in their ability to court those who passively resist their movement and isolate the hardliners.

Attacking Pillars Of Support

In 1984, Apartheid was the rule of law in South Africa and blacks in the country had no rights. They could be attacked or thrown in jail for just about any reason and had little means to fight back against their oppressors, who had a monopoly on power. The influence of the NRA, although considerable, pales in comparison.

Yet the regime was vulnerable. In 1984, supporters of the anti-Apartheid movement spray painted “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” over Barclays’ ATMs in British college towns. The damage to the bank’s business at home was so great that it pulled its investments out of South Africa, greatly damaging the ruling government.

The March for our Lives students have shown a similar talent for jujitsu. For example, when Fox News host Laura Ingraham used her platform to mock one of the student leaders, David Hogg, for getting rejected from several colleges, he responded by tweeting a list of her top advertisers, some of which began pulling their ads. She soon apologized and later announced she would be taking a break from her show.

In my TED talk about why some movements succeed and others fail, I make the point that power doesn’t fall simply because you want it to, but it will crumble if you bring those that support it over to your side. That’s exactly what the students from Parkland are working to do.

Calling For Action

During the 2016 NFL preseason, San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick’s simple act of sitting during the national anthem led to a wave of protests across the NFL and in other sports. In the controversy that followed, Kaepernick lost a promising career and many others were subject to backlash. Some lost lucrative endorsements.

Yet despite the athletes willing to risk their public reputations, along with the income those reputations support, they asked nothing of the rest of us. There were no petitions to sign, legislation to vote for or lists of organizations to send donations to. They drew attention to their cause, but did not specify actions to actually make change happen.

Compare that to Mercadona, Spain’s leading discount retailer, when it needed change to happen. In the recession of 2008, its business, like many others, took a big hit. However, instead of cutting wages or reducing staff, it asked its employees to act by coming up with ways to save money. It managed to reduce prices by 10% and increased market share from 15% to 20%.

In a similar vein, the students from Parkland have called for those who support them to act. They have called for millennials to improve their lackluster voting turnout, their parents to sign a pledge to vote against politicians who support lax gun laws and for fellow students to stage walkouts to protest gun violence. It is action that builds a sense of inclusion and leads people to take ownership of a movement.

And that’s what probably most distinguishes the March for our Lives movement from most change efforts. It’s a movement designed for action rather than merely to build awareness around a set of beliefs.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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