Working for a whirlwind

The series has been viewed only 8,600 times over the last decade but has been hugely influential. The series encourages viewers to take an online social movements course which costs between $150 and $500. The following article, and others in the series, summarises the content of the nine YouTube training videos. I have also referenced, and reproduced the illustrations from, the Tipping Point UK zine. 

The training videos open with a discussion of the two dominant but opposing “structural” and “momentum” traditions of social organising which had evolved over decades among social justice activists and their institutions.


The structure model is recognisable as having leaders and followers, necessitating deep leadership development. Structure organisations aim for strategic targeted actions, building one-to-one relations and identifying key policymakers to influence. The classical structure tradition is described in Saul Alinsky’s Rule for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic RadicalsThis was an attempt to learn the lessons of the civil rights movement in the US, including the marches in Selma, Birmingham and Chicago. The structure tradition will be familiar to most activists on the British ‘left’.

In contrast, the momentum tradition aims to use huge public mobilisations to create a seachange in opinion which will, in turn, lead to progressive policy. It was born from the Clamshell Alliance and War Resistance League anti-nuclear protests of 1978, was developed by the Act Up movement, and later gained popular recognition during the global justice movements from the protests against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle in 1999. It will be recognisable to most people in the British environment movement.

Engler describes himself as a product of the structure tradition, having joined unions and engaged in processes where it takes three years to become an organiser. He recalls: “They are really good about creating organisational structures that can mobilise people.” Saavedra was also trained in the structure tradition. He explains: “Nobody had ever given me a manual, I was winging it. I went to the public library… and found Rules for Radicals.” He would later receive training from the Industrial Areas Foundation, which was based on Alinsky’s work. 

However, both organisers were soon confronted by the limits of the structural approach. In other words, Seattle happened. Engler had been patiently building meetings in his local area, but after the Teamsters (workers) and the Turtles (environmentalists) had come together to oppose the WTO international conference in Seattle in 1999 and hit the front page of the New York Times, his next organising meeting was attended by hundreds of people. “We could do things that were unimaginable – so many people were turned on by the movement.” He then appreciated the power of momentum.

For Saavedra, the pivotal event in his discovery of the power of the hybrid model was the migration movement which exploded in the 2000s. He had been working in the campaign for the naturalisation of migrants who had been in the USA since they were children – the ‘dreamers’ – but would witness only 200 people at any protest. 


There was an explosion of activity in 2006 which saw 10,000 people march in Chicago and then a historic 200,000 take to the streets in Los Angeles. These marches continued every week. “The whole thing was humongous everywhere”. The protests had momentum. They were dismissed as a “flash in the pan” by structure organisers who emphasised that the DREAM Act never became law. However, it changed the conversation and real concessions were won.

The momentum tradition was, at the time the YouTube series was presented, perhaps best exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) mass protests of 2011. The model’s species differentia include consensus based organising, loose structures for huge high speed actions, escalating nonviolent action, front loaded action and mass meetings with consensus decision making and affinity groups. Most of all, the mass protest created “a whirlwind” of activity, creating interest and engagement well beyond what can be achieved through structured one-to-one organising.

However, the failure of Occupy Wall Street resulted in a deep frustration with both the structure model and the momentum tradition. When the two traditions did not learn from each other ‘uprisings’ often ebbed and failed. After Occupy, structure organisations were able to survive and continue with routinised protest and lobbying, but they were unable to deliver mass events. “These conversations were exploding about how we respond,” recalled Engler. Activists felt they were “winning real battles but losing the war”. The sophisticated theoretical development of the hybrid model was in part the result of the “depression” that followed.

The Momentum Community approach advocated in the  Engler-Saavedra series derives from the integration of lessons from the entire spectrum between the opposing poles of the structure and momentum traditions, resulting in an organisational theory that could “reap the whirlwind” of spontaneous mass movements and deliver real change. 

Ivan Marovic, from the Otpor! (Resistance!) movement, which succeeded in overthrowing the dictator Slobodan Milošević in Serbia in October 2000, asserted the need to “integrate” spontaneous mass movements with formal organisation. Engler describes this as “that revelation…that they need a hybrid between mass protest and organisation.” Marovic is also credited with developing the sophisticated hybrid metastrategy which Engler referred to as “the keys to the revolution”.

The Movement Power zine from Tipping Point UK. (c) Tipping Point UK


The attraction to the hybrid approach again comes from historical protests that would fail precisely because the best aspects of structure organising and also the spontaneous momentum mass participation tradition were not in play. This, according to the series presenters, includes the Stop the War global protests in 2003. Millions of people marched in cities around the world, including the largest demonstration in Britain’s history. But the organisers lacked the culture or methods to absorb this whirlwind. The movement did not stop the war, Engler states, and the opportunity to build out effective organisations was lost. The flood of activism “transcended all of our structures that we were going through”.

In order to usefully describe the hybrid model it is worth first of all clearly defining what is meant by the structure and the movement traditions, assessing what worked and what failed across five different fundamental areas: 1. Theory of change; 2. The definition of victory; 3. Demands and tactics; 4. Leadership and resources; 5. Hierarchy and decentralisation.

First, we will look at the classical structure organisation. The primary difference between the structure and the momentum approach to community organising is found at the level of the theory of change. The structure method assumes a group of activists will leverage a target audience, often policymakers, to adopt a change in legislation or practice and therefore bring some benefit to the community. There is an us, there are those we leverage, and there is the target outcome.

Structure organisations have been doing similar style actions for more than 50 years and have perfected it to the core. The structure tradition is mostly concerned with gradual change, with specific and modest concessions. The organisation pressures one target group to deliver a specific outcome. It depends therefore on “very strategic strikes.” Alinsky is quoted as arguing that activist groups can increase their effectiveness in leveraging the target group through effective communications. He claims that power comes not only from what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.

The effectiveness of structure organisation depends almost entirely on “relational work” – building networks of support and influence. This is achieved through one-on-one meetings. The structure will mobilise the public, and find leaders among those mobilised. It will also target people in the community. “Who are the right people? Who has a leadership vibe? Do they have a following?” This then leads to “deep leadership development”. The question is, “how can you turn out the same number of people every time you want, every time you want…regardless of if the issue is hot or not.” Examples of structure organisations given include Faith in Action (formally the Pico National Network), Midwest Academy, and the (now defunct) New Organising Institute.


The structure tradition defines victory in very specific and limited ways. This might include having enough institutional weight to influence state-wide politics. The strategy is to “win transactional concessions” in contradistinction to the momentum organiser who wants to “build public support for transformational change through symbolic victories”.

The working assumption is that real power still resides within the current power structure, but that well targeted campaigning can nudge and win concessions. “It starts very small. You do not try to engage the whole public. What is the local issue that’s going to develop leadership? The assumption is that you need more power to challenge the status quo.” The structural approach therefore has very limited demands, with correspondingly limited tactics. 

The structure tradition almost by definition centres on leadership. The leadership are assumed to be the originators and bearers of the grand strategy, the culture – and the power. A structured organisation begins with “a leader or leaders, executive teams.” The leadership makes campaign decisions, which cannot, as axiomatic, be decentralised to local teams. This will be entirely familiar to people involved in the trade union movement in most countries.

This leadership model is often derived from the assumption that an activist personally already has everything they need to make change – except willing helpers who can do the practical work of delivering tasks. The leadership, as with a good old fashioned corporation, just needs willing workers. The fact the structure tradition is centred on making highly specific demands of a very targeted group of power brokers reinforces this: the campaigners come to mirror those against which the campaign is waged.

The structure approach also tends towards working with people who already hold power and influence, rightly or wrongly, in a community. “You get more power, if you have more leaders who have a following.” This might be the path of least resistance in winning concessions. But it will also reinforce existing inequalities. The workflow becomes “look for leaders; train your leaders: spend a whole year building leadership before you launch a campaign.”


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