Evaluating Success

Earlier this month in Ottawa, I helped to organize an event called “We Win Every Day” with longtime organizer and writer Chris Crass as part of his speaking tour through Quebec and Ontario. This event opened up some great discussions about victories that local organizations have achieved in recent years (check out some lovely posters generated from these victory stories here). Afterward, many people present talked about how unusual it is to acknowledge victories in this intentional way.

My experience at the event definitely got me thinking about how to bring a regular practice of celebrating victories into my work. More generally, it also provoked me to think about how we, as activists and organizers, tend to evaluate success, individually and collectively, in our political efforts. On reflection, I don’t think we do this so well.

For one thing, we often don’t stop for even a basic evaluation before moving on to another activity. Here, I’m thinking of a collective discussion about what we hoped to achieve, what we did achieve, what was challenging, and what we can learn from our experiences. Even when we do evaluate our efforts, though, it’s tempting to gauge the effectiveness of our activities with metrics that are easy to see but actually not very useful:

  • Frenzy and exhaustion: Perhaps the most readily available mode of evaluation we have for judging our success is how busy we are. Indeed, many activist communities have elaborate status hierarchies based on who is able to take on the most responsibilities, sleep the least, and appear the most stressed. The problem here is that doing more doesn’t necessarily mean that we are getting any closer to achieving our goals. Sometimes it does, for sure. But other times, it just means that we’re succeeding in creating a small frenzied core of very stressed-out, exhausted activists.
  • Social recognition: Within relatively small and interconnected activist scenes, popularity can function as a powerful metric. The more other activists notice what we’re doing, the more we can feel that we’re succeeding in our efforts. Social media definitely amplifies this dynamic. And of course, there are many worthwhile initiatives that get a lot of attention among activists. However, gaining social recognition within activist scenes doesn’t necessarily translate into having relevance or impact beyond them. At worst, social recognition can prevent us from frankly evaluating the limitations of our efforts.
  • State repression: When the state pushes back against us with surveillance, arrests, or outright violence, it’s tempting to use this as evidence that we’re succeeding. In some cases, we are. The trouble is that this mode of evaluation mainly focuses on moments of confrontation rather than all of what we’re trying to build and achieve in the long-term. And perhaps more troubling, it gauges our success through state logics – with all of their internal contradictions – rather than through our self-determined goals and priorities.

So, what sorts of modes of evaluation can we develop that would be better? There are some wonderful initiatives that have developed helpful metrics, but here I just want to contribute some brief, general ideas to get us thinking. I offer them as five questions:

  1. How are our activities winning tangible gains that demonstrate the power of collective action by ordinary, non-activist people?
  2. How are our activities bringing more people together, creating new kinds of connections, and widening the circle of participation?
  3. How are our activities building new confidence and capacities in people, particularly those who are structurally excluded and oppressed in our society?
  4. How are our activities communicating a transformative vision, not just rhetorically but also through how they are organized and what they create?
  5. How are our activities laying the basis for future successful struggles, in terms of moving ruling institutions, shifting consciousness, and building movement infrastructure?

In my view, these kinds of questions begin to move us toward the more fine-tuned, self-determined evaluation routines that we need. What kinds of metrics do you use? How do you articulate them?

6 thoughts on “Evaluating Success

  1. This is so good. I’d like to add — I think some of these metrics are tied to the middle class character of mainstream social movements organizations. Workaholism (work addiction), already a middle class affliction, is often encouraged through the positive value on working incredibly long hours; “self-care” is considered within many organizations to be what you do to make up for the “burn” that results. And for a lot of activists that don’t have to worry about paying our rent next month or our kids’ healthcare, we can get by on social recognition while other people are pushed out of our neighborhoods. (More thoughts on the impact of middle class culture: http://porvida.org/?p=224)

    Thanks for sharing this, Chris

  2. Thanks for this, Chris! While evaluating our success and celebrating victories can help us actualize our political progress, change the way we look at our work, and enhance our collective experience, such practices could also restructure the way we think about the development of our political strategies and tactics.

    The importance of recognizing our short-term victories in ways that will help us better gauge the effectiveness of our activities cannot be overemphasized. But will such recognition by itself help us to understand the importance of developing political strategies and tactics that are deliberately designed for short-term success or failure?

    In other words, it may not be good enough to just come up with better metrics for evaluating the achievement of our goals. I think we need to better design our organizing to set concrete and achievable goals, and short-term goals in particular. This might be stating the obvious, but we often overlook the importance of setting short-term goals, perhaps fearing that by doing so we risk diminishing the power of the ultimate objective.

    But, the truth is, we need to celebrate our victories and evaluate our actions, not simply as an exercise to capture lessons we can use in future campaigns but also, and possibly more importantly, as a way to sustain our activism, vitality, and political strength.

    • I completely agree with you, Kris. And I particularly appreciate how you highlight the implications here for how we organize, develop strategies, and choose tactics. In my blog post, I didn’t at all mean to imply that evaluation should stand apart from our ongoing work. You’re right that it should be at the center of developing our approaches and sustaining our vitality.

      Also, I’m glad you touched on goal-setting. I agree with you about this too. The tricky part, I think, is how to set short-term, credible goals while also embedding them in transformative collective vision. Are there initiatives that you’ve encountered that you feel successfully do this kind of goal-setting?

  3. Goal-setting is, unfortunately, rare in organizing circles, especially among more militant and direct action-oriented organizations. One group that defies this characterization is ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), and ACT UP Philadelphia in particular: http://www.actupphilly.org. By no means a perfectly run organization, my experience with ACT UP Philly in the early 2000s on setting and achieving our deliberate short-term goals was nothing less than inspiring, invigorating, and fulfilling.

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