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Praxis makes perfect

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In Sum

Theory without action produces armchair revolutionaries. Action without reflection produces ineffective or counter-productive activism. That’s why we have praxis: a cycle of theory, action and reflection that helps us analyze our efforts in order to improve our ideas.

Effective activism follows a cycle. We start with our theory of how change happens. Then we take action based on our theory. Then we take a step back and reflect on how the action went, which re-shapes our theory. Basically, praxis means “learning.” It may seem simple, but few activists actually do it.

Praxis requires us to be students of our own experience and context. It’s not just about being smart and reflecting. It’s also about building specific behaviors and group norms that promote habits of strategy, debrief and revision. It’s about your group’s meeting style, organizational structure and leadership dynamics.

Here’s the difference that praxis can make:

Let’s say we’re in a student group at a college. If our group lacks praxis, we may say: “Let’s bring Radical Thinker X to speak at our campus!” We affirm that the event will be “good.” Then we have the event. It’s somewhat well-attended, but afterwards our group has mixed feelings about it. We decide to keep moving forward and host another event.

That’s a bit directionless. There was no actual theory, and no basis for reflection.

Instead, let’s start with a theory. We start our group meeting by saying “Bringing Radical Thinker X to campus will help our campaign. They can talk about why activism is powerful, and it will reach a new audience of people who are not yet engaged in our campaign. Let’s post fliers in our favorite coffee shops. Three hundred people will attend, fifty will sign up, and five of those people will show up at our next meeting.”

Now that’s a real theory. It has an explicit logic, a process of how you will do your action, and concrete measurable outcomes that you expect.

The event happens. Only one hundred people attend and most of them already work with your group, so only a few sign your list, and nobody new comes to your next meeting.

You now have a real basis for reflection. You can debrief your event, and instead of subjectively talking about whether you thought it was “good” or not, you can have a conversation about why it didn’t measure up to your success indicators, and what to do next time. These lessons shape how you do your next event.

Organizers should have the praxis cycle spinning in their heads all the time. We are always learning from what’s going on around us. The point of building a culture of praxis in your group, however, is so your whole group can learn, not just a couple of organizers. When you develop your theory (your plan and your goals) with your group, and then have a real debrief after, the lessons are available to all. If you don’t take real time out to name your theories, and then reflect, revise, and learn lessons, you will be left spinning your wheels, with fewer and fewer people understanding how to do the work of your group.

Joshua Kahn Russell is an organizer and strategist serving movements for social justice and ecological balance. He is an action coordinator, facilitator & trainer with the Ruckus Society, and has trained thousands of activists. Joshua has written numerous movement strategy essays, chapters for several books, and a few organizing manuals, most recently Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis, with Hilary Moore (PM Press 2011). He has helped win campaigns against banks, oil companies, logging corporations, and coal barons; worked with a wide variety of groups in a breadth of arenas, from local resiliency projects, to national coalitions, to the United Nations Climate Negotiations.

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