‘How We Win’: The Social Change Playbook


Michael D. Pulliam



Whether we are looking to alter a policy at the local transit agency or overthrow a violent dictator, George Lakey’s ‘How We Win: A Guide To Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning’ (2018) is the place to start. Of all the world’s mass social struggles  between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent action campaigns had more than twice the success rate of those using violence to achieve their goals. Truly there is unrealized potential locked in strategic nonviolent organizing; ‘How We Win’ aims to turn the key.

Drawing on his extensive experience campaigning and training of action leaders in the 1960s (when he was first arrested), Lakey has spent over sixty years building a world of equity and dignity for people from all walks of life. This includes his efforts in Vietnam protesting the Vietnam War, growing the LGBTQ+ movements after coming out as a gay man in the 1970s, and working for decades co-founding and operating training programs and other organizations for social activists in the US and around the world, especially across lines of gender, race, and class. In fact, this book itself intentionally includes perspectives and writings from people of different races, classes, and backgrounds than Lakey’s.

From the outset, activists and organizers are encouraged to focus their efforts beyond the traditional images of ‘campaigning.’ Far from campaigning for a political office, where making change is too often sluggish and minimal, Lakey goes so far as to warn against relying too heavily on marches and protest rallies. In his experience, these events are powerful tools of self-expression for participants, but self-expression almost never wins tangible change; Wall Street or the White House need only wait until the protesters go home before they carry on with business as usual. It takes sustained, disciplined, creative action to dislodge power wherever it may be concentrated.

To that end, ‘How We Win’ serves as a primer, field guide, and reference book for social change. In its 224 pages are a wealth of practical tactical tools, strategic pointers and pitfalls, some notes on activist roles and class characteristics and how they influence group dynamics (as well as how to leverage these differences toward our goals), and the importance of clear, concise vision—and how to develop it.

“You can have the most elegantly pointed demand in the world, but if it cannot move people to care, it is not the right one.” Thus Lakey lays out tips on thinking deeply and communicating about where a campaign is headed, how we will measure our success, and working out deadlines for our demands. Imagine your friends pull up in their vehicle and invite you along for a ride. You may well ask, “Where are we going? When will we be back?” If everyone shrugs their shoulders and you get unclear answers, you would probably be less inclined to jump in. How much more important to have a clear destination and a timeline for social action campaigns!

And who is empowered to respond to our demands? Deciding where to target a campaign’s actions is no small task: putting pressure on a bank manager or the CEO of a tobacco company or the Shah of Iran would all call for very different tactics and strategies. ‘How We Win’ guides us through determining a target, making a plan for organizing and mobilizing people, thinking about what specific types of creative actions will make the greatest impact, and plotting a strategic arc that gradually increases in intensity (with tips on planning alone or by group consensus).

Holding to the truth that there is strength in numbers, Lakey shares how to consider and visualize a spectrum of allies: individuals and organizations that may be most likely to join our efforts, phasing outward to groups in the middle ground of our issue, finally coming to those resistant groups more likely to ally with our target. Organizing creative actions that highlight certain stark realities of the issue we wish to change can shift the spectrum in our favor, bringing our allies into alignment, inspiring thoughtful reflection in the centrists, and connecting us with a power grid of other organizations and movements in our area or across the nation and the globe.

Most of the lessons in ‘How We Win’ are illustrated with stories and case studies from nonviolent struggles throughout the 20th century. Lakey offers insight into the thought processes of Dr. King and his strategic team during the long Civil Rights Movement, campfire stories from César Chávez, innovative actions dreamed up by students from the 1960s or the 2000s, and the disciplined restraint of 1920s automaker crews non-destructively occupying factories during worker strikes. And while these social changers have certainly achieved their successes, we can also learn from their failures and missteps: Lakey is not shy about pointing out where major campaigns and leaders made regrettable decisions, written with an eye toward keeping future movements on a surer course. (Lakey and a research team at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, have collected over 1,200 case studies in the searchable online catalog Global Nonviolent Action Database. The narratives are meticulously organized, and are ranked using criteria that include how many of their original demands were successfully won.)

For those of us who dream of building a society different from what we see today, ‘How We Win’ is an essential read. We can change the world without violent force, and people from every nation have done it for millennia. Let’s join them!

‘How We Win’ is available to order at your local bookstore.


Action Database: nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu