Building the Whirlwind

Learning moments of the whirlwind

Learning from moments of the whirlwind

Nicholas Von Hoffman, who worked with Saul Alinsky, dubbed moments like the Maple Spring, the 2019 climate movement and the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 as “moments of the whirlwind”. At such times, multitudes take to the streets to participate in dramatic shows of force and moments of civil disobedience that capture our attention and collective imagination. The movement and the social issues it raises suddenly receive an unusually high amount of press coverage and public attention. The status quo is challenged, and the average person must reckon with the question, which side are you on?.

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There are plenty of debates about the effectiveness of mass mobilizations. Those most involved in leading them are often the most critical of all. There’s always an end to the momentum, and to many organizers, especially young ones, it can feel like nothing was accomplished.

However, in a matter of months, these moments of the whirlwind can do more to shift the window of what the public imagines is politically urgent and therefore what becomes politically possible than decades of campaigning, lobbying, and other forms of long-term institutional advocacy work. 

Sometimes moments of the whirlwind emanate from deliberate planning. At other times, they appear unexpectedly. Often, it’s a mix of both. It takes years of background work - building relationships, developing the movement ecosystem, building and activating their bases - and some form of coordination to guide the whirlwind as it surges. 

The momentum for the surge of massive moments typically comes from the mobilization of member-based groups and informal collectives of local activists. Often these are supported by and/or collaborate with progressive institutions - understood here as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), philanthropic foundations and labour unions - but...