Section 2.H: Descriptions of Exercises

In this Section:

Personal Reflection

Understanding Change

Visions of a Good Society

Connecting Problems to Social Change Solutions


Strategy Analysis

Next Steps

Exercises are grouped in this section into seven distinct sets for use in different parts of the START course. But use your own judgment to decide which exercises will best meet the needs of your group for any particular session.

For more good exercises, see the Training for Change site:

Personal Reflection

What is Most Important?

This is a good exercise that several groups have used to help participants define what aspects of life are most important to them. It involves listing in three categories:

  • Things (values, freedoms, possessions, etc.) we would give up under no circumstances
  • Things we would give up for a better society
  • Things we would be willing to share

It might be good to announce this exercise the week before so that people can think through their own ideas ahead of time. Then, during the meeting, the whole group (or perhaps two or three smaller groups) can combine their ideas and list them on a wall chart.

Personal Action for Positive Change

This exercise, applying the ideas of appreciative inquiry, focuses on the ways we have already acted well for positive change and how we might do more in the future. It tends to bring out and encourage the best side of each person.

For this exercise, the group should break into pairs. One person in each group interviews the other, using the six questions below, for 10 minutes, and then they switch roles for another 10 minutes. It may be useful for the interviewer to write down the answers and give them to the interviewee for future reference. At the end, depending on the group’s interest, a few people might report back some of the most striking stories or you might brainstorm the important factors people mentioned that enabled them to act well.

  1. Think of a time when you did the right thing for yourself or for someone else — in the face of hatred, oppression, injustice, indifference or inertia — when you acted upon your conscience. This might be a monumental act affecting society or a simple act in your family, community, school, or workplace. Describe that experience.
  2. What were the circumstances that led up to the event?
  3. What made it possible for you to boldly act upon your conscience, to respond with love?
  4. How did you feel?
  5. What would it be like to act like this now, in situations facing you, your community, and your nation today?
  6. What is one thing you can do that will honor and build upon the courageous story you told today?

Removing Barriers to Action

Often it is much easier to take a stand than to act on it. This exercise is designed to help identify and remove barriers to action.

Instruct each person: Write at the top of a piece of paper an action you know is right but are having difficulty taking. Then draw a line lengthwise down the middle of the paper. On the right-hand side, list all the perceived or real barriers, both within and outside yourself, which seem to be keeping you from acting. On the left-hand side of the paper, list steps you could take which might help reduce or remove each of the barriers. Finally, on the back of the paper, develop a plan of action for actually removing the barriers — what are 3 or 4 things you could actually do and when would you do them?

This exercise may be done individually or in small groups with each of the group members taking turns being the focus of attention and receiving support or helpful suggestions from other group members.

Getting Started

Many of us have grandiose plans that we find difficult to put into action. This exercise encourages people to move toward action as well as to ask the question, “Am I really doing what I want to do with my life?”

Instruct each person: Prepare a sheet of paper with three columns headed “What I want to do,” “Date”, “First steps.” Then list up to five things you want to do and assign realistic dates to each task. Next, list the first steps to be taken in getting started.

Once everyone has finished, divide into small groups and give each person some time as a focus person. The focus person discusses what she/he hopes to do and how she/he intends to get started. Other group members give feedback and additional suggestions for getting started.

Other Ideas

The previous two exercises are adapted from the book Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students by Simon, Howe, and Kirshenbaum (updated in 1991). This book contains many other exercises that interested groups could adapt for use in the START course.

Understanding Change

Social Problem-to-Causes Web Chart

The group starts by writing an issue of concern in the center of a large wall chart (several taped together are often useful), such as “heavy U.S. reliance on the automobile” or “the inadequacy of health care in our town.” Group members then suggest what they feel are important causes of the problem. As group members suggest various items, these items are written on the chart around the central concern and connecting lines are drawn from each item to the central problem. When the group is satisfied that major direct causes have been identified, they then concentrate on what they feel are the principal causes of those major direct causes, which in turn are causing the central problem. As numerous second, third, and perhaps even fourth-level causes are added, the diagram assumes the appearance of a web. The entire procedure can take from half an hour to an hour.

This visual process enables a group to trace the root causes or effects of any specific concrete social condition. It quite literally results in a “big picture,” locating the issue of concern in the center of a web of forces directly related to it. It facilitates a group analysis of a problem and — by identifying some “handles” on the problem — can also be of considerable value in helping the group plan a strategy.

Note: it is very important to make the central issue on which you concentrate a very concrete one; if it is too vague you will soon become lost in questions of what various terms “really” mean.

Social Problem-to-Consequences Web Chart

This exercise is the same as the one above except that instead of listing important causes of a problem, you list important consequences of a problem. This is a good way to trace the ripple effects of a bad situation.

Personal Oppression-to-Macro Forces Web Chart

Most of us feel oppressed by certain elements in the society around us, but often we are not clear about the connections between our personal feelings of oppression and societal forces. This exercise is designed to help make these connections clearer.

  1. Participants begin by thinking for 3-5 minutes about what aspects of their lives really hurt. These may vary widely: racism, homophobia, oppression of a job or housework, traffic jams, poor healthcare, the hurt at seeing people killed far away. Each person picks the three most important hurts/oppressions to report to the group, and these are listed on a wall chart.
  2. The group then selects one specific item that everyone can identify with at least to some extent. This, too, should be done quickly, recognizing that it probably will not be possible to select something that everyone will feel strongly about.
  3. The item chosen is then recorded in the middle of a large wall chart, and the group proceeds to construct a web chart (as described above) of the causes of these hurts/oppressions.
  4. Several ways of bringing this exercise to a useful finish have been tried:
    • When the web chart is complete, group members list items toward the edge of the web that are most important to them. The group selects from that list an item that might be changed by positive social action, and then each person says what she/he wishes could be true about that situation. The group then selects one of the wishes and carries out the “Social Problem-Solution-Action Brainstorm” exercise described below.
    • The group brainstorms and discusses various action projects that would challenge the causes of the central oppression.
    • The group brainstorms questions for further research and analysis. Since the overall process takes at least an hour, it is unlikely that more than one theme can be followed through in a single meeting of a group.

Personal Liberation-to-Macro Forces Web Chart

This exercise, like the one above, uses the web chart but focuses on personal liberations, as follows:

  1. Group members think briefly about conditions they personally would like to have in a good society, e.g., close connections with neighbors, good mass transit, working for income no more than three days a week, etc.
  2. Each person then shares these with the group, and the group brainstorms additional personal liberations for a few minutes. All items mentioned are listed on a wall chart.
  3. After one item has been chosen to pursue further, people build a web chart around it by thinking about what would be needed to bring this liberation to exist in society, and then, in the next ring of items, what would be needed for those conditions to exist. The outside ring eventually will consist of large-scale social forces necessary for the emergence of the original personal liberation in the center.
  4. If the exercise is done for several personal liberations (perhaps by subgroups working simultaneously), all the macro forces for all the web charts can be put on a wall chart entitled “visionary macro forces.”

Visions of a Good Society

Vision Gallery

This is an effective technique for helping people think of positive, achievable aspects of a good society.

Divide the group into small groups of 3-5 people each. For 10-15 minutes, have each person write down major features of a really good society that she/he would like to see, assuming there were no constraints of money, political power, etc.

Note that this individual thinking can be done from several different perspectives, and it is generally best if all members of the subgroup agree on what perspective they would like to adopt, such as:

  • A description of a major function in such a society, e.g., healthcare, education, transportation
  • A description of the kind of community one would like to live in
  • What kind of work people would do, and where they would live
  • A description of “a day in my life” in a good society

When these descriptions are completed, have each person share his or her ideas with the rest of the small group. Then have the group combine the best points of all its ideas and record them on a wall chart. This may take the form of a picture, a graph, or a list of items. When the small groups are finished, have them come back together and hang their papers side by side on a wall in a gallery of visions of a new society. Have spokespeople for each small group explain the main points of their vision.

This procedure can take from 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours depending on the group’s wishes.


  • What might this community look like ten years from now, ideally?
  • What would a day in my life look like in this community? In an ideal society?
  • What kind of factory would I like to work in?
  • What would the U.S. look like?

Vision Scenario Writing

Instruct participants to write a description answering the question, “What will a good society/ world/ town/ personal life look like in 10 years if the most optimistic changes occur (though kept within realistic bounds)?” The scenario might be written as if it is a newspaper story ten years hence describing conditions as they would exist then compared to now. Then have each person read their description to the group.

Since these descriptions can take a long time to write, they can also be done at home before the session.

Brainstorm Characteristics of a Good Society

Hang wall charts with five columns marked “Economic,” “Political,” “Social,” “Personal,” and “Other.” Then have the group successively brainstorm characteristics of a good society for each of the topics.

Once the brainstorming is finished, if there is time and the group wishes to, the facilitator can focus on each item in turn and ask whether the whole group agrees it is a characteristic of a good society. For those items for which there is not agreement, people with opposing views might briefly tell their reasons.

Think and Listen about Visions

For 5 minutes in silence have each person think of aspects of a good society that are important to her/him. Then have each person, in turn, take 3 minutes to tell her/his key vision ideas to the whole group. A recorder might list the ideas on a wall chart.

Connecting Problems to Social Change Solutions

If groups do not act to help resolve the problems they learn about, they often suffer from feelings of powerlessness and become frustrated and inactive. Here are some exercises that help identify feasible action solutions. Even though the action ideas generated in these exercises are usually not acted on immediately, conceiving of them is still a valuable step since it reminds participants of all the things that could be done and encourages them to consider acting.

Social Problem-Solution-Action Brainstorm

We suggest that this exercise be used frequently in the Understanding Problems and Identifying Solutions segment. This exercise helps groups to rapidly gather and make sense of information by listing the problems discussed, possible solutions to them, and specific actions people can take to help achieve the solutions. Focusing on actions helps prevent people from becoming depressed and bogged down in too much disheartening analysis.

  1. The recorder makes three columns on wall charts and heads them “problems,” “solutions or visions” and “actions.”
  2. For 2 minutes the group brainstorms the problems that were discussed in that session and the recorder rapidly writes them in the “problems” column of the wall chart. Continue for another minute if the group is going strong and wants more time.
  3. For 2 minutes the group brainstorms solutions to the problems listed in the first column and the recorder rapidly writes the solutions in the second column. Continue for another minute if needed.
  4. For 2 minutes the group brainstorms projects that groups could adopt and lifestyle changes individuals might take to achieve the solutions in column two. Continue for another minute if needed.
  5. How to do a specific project. The facilitator asks the group to quickly choose one of the projects or lifestyle changes that were brainstormed. The facilitator then asks, “How could we achieve that?” and the group brainstorms its answers while the recorder writes them on a new wall chart. The list should consist only of positive ideas without criticisms. When the group feels that the list is long enough, the facilitator again asks the group to pick an item from this newly brainstormed list and repeats the question, “How could we accomplish this?” This cycle of selecting a project idea and brainstorming how it could be accomplished is repeated 3 or 4 times until the projects and lifestyle changes become specific, clear, and achievable.

This whole procedure usually takes from 30 to 45 minutes, but can, if necessary, be shortened to 20 minutes.

Social Problem-Solution-Project Chronicle

Before the first report is presented in a session, the recorder makes 3 columns on the wall chart, headed “problems,” “solutions” and “projects.” Then, as each report is given, and during discussion, the recorder extracts any problems, solutions, or projects mentioned, and writes them in the appropriate column. This helps focus the discussion more on change, helps the group produce more useful and practical ideas, and is a good memory device. All the past “action” wall charts can be brought out and hung up each week.

Social Problem-to-Causes Web Chart

See the description above.

Social Problem-to-Consequences Web Chart

See the description above.

Critical Analysis of Our Existing Programs and Lifestyles

Make a list (either individually or by brainstorming as a group) of destructive things we each do and/or that we know others do related to the topic area. Discuss how we could change our own lifestyles or dialog with others about theirs.

Paired Roleplay — Challenging Someone to Change

  1. Ask everyone to stand in two parallel lines and pair off. Point out that this is a one-on-one roleplay — even though there are many other people in the room, everyone should pretend they and their partner are the only ones there; ignore everyone else.
  2. Present a scenario to the people in one of the lines: “Pretend that someone you know (the person you are paired with) has made choices that contribute to a social, economic, or environmental problem. You’ll need to choose a particular choice that the person has made. For example, pretend the person has just purchased a car with poor gas mileage or the person has purchased a product made by people oppressed by poor working conditions and low pay.” Let people take a minute to consider what problem the person’s behavior is contributing to and to get into their roles. The people in the other line — those who will be confronted — should prepare themselves to play along with the confronter and offer excuses and resist criticism, become belligerent and difficult, or eagerly accept criticism — depending on their preference and how the interaction develops.
  3. Then have people begin the roleplay: The change agent approaches the other person, engages that person in conversation, and invites her/him to change.
  4. After a minute or two, ask everyone to stop (“Freeze!”) and notice their body language. Then gather into a circle and ask questions like: “What was effective?” “What might you have done differently to have it work better?” “How did it feel to confront someone?” “What did it feel like to be challenged?” Let a number of people answer, but do not go on too long.
  5. Then have everyone in one line shift to the left one space (with the person at the end wrapping around to the other end of the line) so that everyone has a new partner. Then switch the roles so that the people in the other line will be the “confronters.” Have them choose a different problem and behavior, get into their new roles, then play again, and debrief.

The point of this roleplay is to learn how to confront someone in a way that is useful — that will lead people to change their behavior in a positive way and not just get defensive and angry. The debriefing period is essential to explore and learn from each other what works, what does not, and why.


Personal empowerment is crucial to bringing about positive change. Sometimes just sharing our thinking, sharing inspiring success stories, or even sharing our frustrations empowers us. It is also useful for us to practice again and again finding solutions to problems and acting on them.

See Chapter 5 for more discussion about the need for empowerment.

Sharing Thinking

Often just a simple “think and listen” process — taking time in a group for each person to think about an issue and then sharing that thinking — can generate a wealth of insights, information, and exciting new ideas. It seems a particularly good way of applying our own experience to larger issues and making new connections between them.

  1. A particular problem or issue is chosen which everyone focuses on. People in the group spend time thinking by themselves with pen and paper (this time can be taken either before or during the meeting). Alternatively divide into “think and listen pairs” — one person thinks aloud for a designated amount of time while the other listens silently, maybe taking notes for the person who is thinking, then reverse roles. The attention of another person can stimulate new thinking, and the process can help people to organize and articulate the important points before sharing them with the group. Not having any feedback from the listener is important in creating a safe environment just for thinking.
  2. After the designated amount of time, people return to the group prepared to share their thinking. The available time is divided equally between each of the participants. Each individual shares her/his thinking with the group leaving a short time at the end for clarifying questions.
  3. After hearing from everyone, the group spends some time discussing what has been presented. Finding common threads in people’s sharing and isolating important factors helps to incorporate the personal thinking into group thinking.

Suggested topics:

  • Childhood factors that shape us. Realizing that people’s values and their understanding of their role in society are greatly influenced by experiences that they had while growing up, exploring some of this past can help illuminate the present situation. Some questions that might be useful to think about are: When you were young, who did you feel superior to? Who did you feel inferior to? What were you expected to do or be when you grew up? How did you react to those expectations? Where did your motivation for changing society come from?
  • Factors that help and hinder change. The purpose of this exercise is to isolate factors that help people to take action, and factors that hold them back. During the thinking time, each person thinks of times or situations in which they were able to take action, make changes, or feel in control of a difficult situation (standing up to somebody, challenging authority, changing jobs, getting a group to do something, making a stand, altering lifestyle, etc.), and think of the factors which enabled them to take that action. The process can be repeated with people thinking about the times when it was hard to take action and the factors involved in that. With a list of the variety of factors that help and hinder in making changes, the group can begin to get a broader perspective on the most basic things that we need in order to make any kind of change.
  • Strategy sharing. Having everyone in the group write their own strategy for large-scale change really encourages people to do some broad thinking. This tool can help people to look carefully at what they are doing and how it fits in with their strategy for change. A helpful way of thinking about this is to project into the future: “Assume that in thirty years we are living in the kind of society that we would like to see. What were the steps that were necessary to bring that about?” (or choose a shorter time span and a more limited goal). Enough thinking is required for this that preparation is probably best done before the meeting.

Sharing Success Stories

Looking at the experience of people who have successfully managed to bring about changes can be an encouragement to thinking about taking action. Gene Sharp’s Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973) is full of success stories. Personal experiences of successful action are also very good to share.

Brainstorming Reasons Why It’s All Hopeless

The purpose of this exercise is to air the feelings of hopelessness that often keep people from taking action and to recognize the existence of those feelings and deal with them openly instead of thinking they should not be there or pretending they are not. The group starts by brainstorming all the reasons why it feels hopeless (either a specific situation or societal change in general), then picks one or more of those reasons and brainstorms specific things that can be done to overcome that sense of hopelessness.

During and following the first brainstorm, it may be helpful for the group to let out a loud, exaggerated sigh of hopelessness and wail and moan a bit together about how difficult it all is. This can sometimes lead to shared laughter and tension release. After coming up with ways to overcome hopelessness, it may be helpful for the group to let out a collective whoop of delight and feel the strength that comes from working together to overcome problems.

Group Problem-Solving

Choose some practical problem to solve — either a situation an individual is facing or a local issue that someone feels should be addressed. Start by having the person clearly state the problem — including a few sentences of history and any solutions that have already been tried. Then the group brainstorms various possible solutions. One good way to bring out really creative possibilities is to phrase them in terms of “goal-wishes” — “I wish that…” “How could we…?” After about five minutes, the person who introduced the problem should pick one of those ideas (or combine several) to consider further. She/he should say three positive things about the proposed solution and then say one aspect that needs more thought. The group then brainstorms on that aspect and the process is repeated until the time is up (about a half hour is good) and/or the person has a clear idea of possible next steps in working toward a solution. Note that this style of problem solving relies on quickness, unfettered creativity, enthusiasm, and building on positive ideas. Work to foster these traits.

Individual Problem-Solving

This is an exercise to help people think in an organized and concrete way about developing a strategy for acting on a particular issue by considering what the present situation is, what the desired one would be, what things stand in the way of that happening, and what steps can be taken to overcome those blocks. The format outlined below can help people organize that information. The issue can range from personal goals (where my life is now and where I would like it to be in a year) to strategies for a change campaign in which someone is involved. A good way to use this exercise in a group is to introduce it, then have each person work individually for about half an hour, then gather together, either in small groups or as a whole, to share insights.

Present Situation
~~ ~~
Forces Keeping
Me/Us in Present
# # #
Forces Moving
Me/Us Toward Goal
Desired Situation
* * *
People who would be affected by change: Specific steps to take to overcome blocks:

Strategy Analysis

Force Field Analysis

This tool is very useful in helping a group organize information about an up-coming decision or dilemma in such a way as to clarify possible solutions and their implications. If the group knows it would prefer a particular solution, force field analysis can help to specify the obstacles which must be overcome and, combined with other tools, to suggest how much and what kind of effort may be required to overcome them.

A frequent use of the tool is to help a group answer the question, “Should we carry out this possible campaign or not?” Or, in other words, “Is the campaign likely to be successful?” Assuming that the group has a working definition of what success means to it, it proceeds with the analysis by asking, “What are the forces and factors which will contribute to the failure of this project, and what forces will contribute to its success?” This results in two lists of forces, one positive and one negative. The beginning of such lists might look like this:

Should We Carry Out this Campaign or Not?
Forces Contributing to Its Success (+) Forces Contributing to Its Failure (–)
1. The issue is of real concern to people in a wide spectrum of local groups. 1. The police department is extremely repressive and paranoid.
2. We have good contacts with sympathetic people in the media. 2. Local action groups aren’t accustomed to really working with one another.

Looking at the two lists on a blackboard or wall chart, the group judges their relative weight on a mental seesaw to determine which set of forces is heavier. This involves not merely noting which list is longer, but generally deciding which set of factors the group feels carries the most total force. If the negatives outweigh the positives, the group tries to weaken or remove some of the negatives and to add more positive factors. For example, “We could hold a weekend training session, which would be planned and participated in by all local action groups that would be involved, to determine how well we all can really work together.” Trying to change the overall balance may require an interim period of information gathering before a final decision is reached. If the seesaw can be tipped in favor of the success of the project, the group is ready to proceed.

Much of the value of the force field analysis comes from the shared thinking about the factors to be put on the lists. The two lists, when completed and placed side-by-side, offer a holistic perspective to an extent not often enough produced by a group considering a change campaign. This process can be used for many other purposes, of course, such as deciding whether or not to publish a pamphlet, start a food co-op, or take a new member into a community.

Impact Analysis

This exercise is useful in helping a group figure out what it is trying to accomplish and whether a particular change action will accomplish it.

  1. Begin by having someone describe a proposed public action — such as a demonstration, a lobbying visit to a legislator, or a nonviolent blockade of a harmful company — and provide enough detail so that everyone understands what would be involved.
  2. Then the group quickly brainstorms a list of the individuals and groups that might be affected by the proposed action either directly or indirectly — such as the planners of the action, the participants in the action, the targeted decision-makers, other authorities, government or company employees, company owners or shareholders, voters, the police, sympathetic and unsympathetic bystanders, TV viewers watching coverage (sympathetic, neutral, and hostile), children who hear about the action, and potential movement recruits (people who hear about the action later and might be moved to participate in the next planned change action).
  3. Then, for each of these individuals and groups, briefly brainstorm ways they are likely to be affected, both positively and negatively. Are they likely to be enlightened, persuaded, encouraged, inspired, outraged, challenged, pressured, or coerced? Will they likely feel eager and excited, empowered and strong, resentful and disaffected, fearful and angry? Will they be more or less likely to refuse to support harmful behavior, change their behavior in positive ways, or work for positive change — immediately or in the future? Will the action make them more or less supportive of the change group that carried out the action?
  4. Next, look at all the brainstormed lists and discuss the overall impact. Will the action accomplish the group’s goals? Will the action reveal societal secrets and make clear the ugly reality? Will it clearly present a positive alternative? Are there ways to change the action to make it more effective in accomplishing the goals and less likely to fail? Is there another activity that would be better able to achieve the goals?

Often, after considering the impact on various parties, the group will have a better understanding of what its real goals are. It may be useful for the group to codify this understanding by brainstorming an explicit list of the desired way the action will affect each group.

Strengths and Weaknesses

This exercise is useful in helping a group find an effective strategy to bring about a specific positive change.

  1. Begin by identifying the main individuals or groups that stand in the way of the desired change.
  2. Then, for each entity, brainstorm that entity’s strengths and weaknesses in all the relevant realms: military, political, economic, social, ethical, geographic, and demographic. Is that entity powerful and does it “hold the high ground” or is it vulnerable and weak? Is it smart, educated, and well trained or ignorant, clumsy, and stupid? Is it cohesive or scattered? Does it have a lot of allies or is it isolated? Is it confident and secure or is it uncertain or ashamed?
  3. Next, identify the main individuals or groups that are working to implement positive change. Then, for each entity, again brainstorm its strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Now, compare the two, especially looking for matches between the change group’s strengths and the opponents’ weaknesses — often a fruitful area in which to base a change campaign. But also notice other possibilities, like opponent strengths that might be decreased. For example, the opponents might be generally considered very ethical, but if their true, unethical behavior were revealed, they would lose their authority, opening the way for positive change.
  5. Finally, choose one match of strengths and weaknesses for the changers and the opponents and consider how a campaign might be constructed that would pit these against each other. How would that campaign likely play out? Would it be an effective campaign for positive change?

Spectrogram of Actions

This exercise allows a group to explore how various activities might bring about effective nonviolent social change.

  1. The exercise facilitator chooses 8 or 10 of the items in the list below.
  2. She/he reads the question below and fills in the first chosen item at the end.
  3. Everyone else then arranges themselves in the room in a location that indicates how violent or nonviolent they think the action is and how effective or ineffective. One wall of the room represents “The action is violent” and the opposite wall represents “it is nonviolent”; a third wall represents “The action is effective” and the opposite wall is “It is not effective”. Like a giant XY chart, their location indicates how violent and effective each person thinks the action is. For example, if someone thinks the action is very violent and very ineffective, she/he would stand in the corner closest to those two walls.
  4. After everyone is in place, the facilitator then asks participants who are standing at various points in the room to explain why they chose to stand where they did — why do they feel the action is violent and effective, nonviolent and effective, violent and ineffective, or nonviolent and ineffective (or why are they standing in the middle)? If no one is standing near one of the walls (for example, no one thinks the action is effective), the facilitator might explain why someone might stand there. For example, for the question “Do nothing” someone might stand near the wall indicating the action is effective with the idea that if they don’t know anything useful to do, it would be more effective to do nothing than to do something counterproductive.


“In order to stop oppression, exploitation, or war, is it violent or nonviolent and is it effective or not effective to _________ ?”

  • Do nothing
  • Work in a soup kitchen feeding the poor
  • Research an issue, write a leaflet that describes what’s wrong and what should be done instead, then copy the leaflet and hand it to 500 people in your community
  • Write a letter to the editor of the local paper calling for change
  • Conduct a vigil in a visible public place; hold signs
  • Organize a rally of 500 people; have speeches calling for change
  • Organize a march of 500 people; hold signs and chant
  • Meet with a decision-maker and attempt to persuade her/him that she/he should make a different decision (such as vote for an alternative)
  • Organize 500 people to write a letter to a decision-maker urging her/him to make a different decision
  • Throw a pie in the face of a decision-maker and denounce her/him
  • Burn an effigy of a decision-maker and denounce her/him
  • Boycott a product of a company that you think is oppressive
  • Organize a blockade of 100 people at the gate of a company that you believe does something immoral by sitting down and linking arms with others
  • Organize a blockade of 5 people at the gate of a company that you believe does something immoral by locking yourselves to a gate
  • Destroy something that you believe is immoral (such as a nuclear missile) and then go to prison for what you have done (“Plowshares” action)
  • Destroy something that you believe is immoral (such as a nuclear missile or a ski resort built in a virgin forest) at night and run away without being caught (sabotage)
  • Refuse to pay taxes until a change is made
  • Block traffic in a city as a way of calling for an alternative policy

In doing this exercise, people may all end up in one corner of the room. If so, then ask or suggest what might motivate someone to stand in the opposite corner. The point of this exercise is to explore effective nonviolent action, not to demonstrate groupthink! These are difficult questions and “it depends on what kind of chants” or “it depends what the leaflet says” is often a good answer, which then lets you discuss what kind of chants and leaflets would be most effective and most nonviolent and why.

To further stimulate discussion as you go along, perhaps also ask these questions and have one or two people answer:

  • “What particular aspect of this action makes it violent?”
  • “Does this action encourage people to be bold and active or meek and passive?”
  • “Is this action empowering or alienating?”
  • “What would make this action more effective?”
  • “What is this action effective in accomplishing (what does it achieve)?”

It takes 20 minutes minimum to do this exercise and taking 30 or 40 minutes is usually better. For the first few examples, you probably want to spend some time really exploring why everyone is standing where they are and why someone might stand somewhere else, but with the later items, you can go a little faster. For some items you might not ask any questions at all — just let everyone move to where they think they ought to be, notice where everyone else is, and then move on to the next item.

The point, of course, is for people to really think about what effective nonviolent action is, why it works, why other things don’t work, who the audience for the action is, how the action affects them, etc. The context is usually crucial for deciding.

Strategy Contest

After selecting a well-defined change goal, e.g., “converting Honeywell Corporation to socially valuable production in 10 years,” the group splits into two groups, one of which plays the role of nonviolent direct action advocates while the other plays the role of people who advocate always working within established structures to bring about change. Each team is given a separate working place and approximately half an hour in which to produce a program for attaining this change goal. The programs should specify what they expect to have accomplished at the end of year one, year two, etc. At the end of the time period, both groups come back together and share their strategies with each other. This sometimes develops into an informal debate and sheds light on the often-unnoticed interdependence of such groups.

Depending on the strong voices in your community, you might want to substitute other specific group strategies to roleplay instead of these two such as: advocates of moral suasion and self-suffering, advocates of education and rational discussion, advocates of electoral politics, or advocates of sabotage.


Develop a list of contrary goals or directions for social action and debate them. For example, you could debate economic growth versus de-development, capitalism versus socialism, free trade versus fair trade, increasing U.S. foreign aid versus stopping it, pushing for universal healthcare versus incrementally extending healthcare to more groups, or universal versus a selective approach to alleviating American poverty.

Next Steps

It is extremely important for groups to spend at least one session at the end of their START course considering their next steps. The following exercises can help.

Vision-Action Crystal Ball

This exercise helps groups to relate their future visions of society to the development of social actions today.

  1. Individually or in small groups predict how the world, nation, and/or your own life might look ten years from now if present trends continue.
  2. Share these briefly with the whole group.
  3. Individually or in small groups write a description of your vision of the world, nation, local community, or your personal life ten years from now if maximum success for positive change happens (be very optimistic but not impossibly unrealistic). It might be written as if it is a newspaper article at that time describing conditions.
  4. Then write a scenario of events that led up to the good society. What caused the changes? Be as specific as possible. Emphasis here should be on the causes that brought about the good society, not so much of a description of the good society itself. Try to make it believable.
  5. What role did groups you are involved with play? What did you do? What did you do in the first year (i.e., the next year from today)? (This exercise can also be used for specific issues and shorter time periods such as the energy crisis over the next 5 years or U.S. support of dictatorships over the next 3 years.)

Personal Sharing

In small groups of 2 or 3 people each, individuals share their hopes, plans, and goals for their own social change activities in the next 12 months. Do you hope the people in this START course continue as a group? If so, what do you hope the group does next? If you would like to spend more time on social change, what barriers are in your way? What are some ways you might overcome these barriers? Small groups then report to the whole group.

Next Steps for the Group

While individuals are reporting their personal goals to the whole group (during the personal sharing exercise above), the recorder writes these on a wall chart. On another chart the recorder writes individuals’ ideas of what the group as a whole might do. After individuals give their reports, the group focuses on the future of the START group.

Even if the group chooses not to become an action group, it might decide to stay together to support individuals’ actions in other groups they belong to or to provide a forum for ongoing analysis of current events and individuals’ actions. Ideally the group should stay together either until it makes plans for action or until individuals feel clear about their personal directions.

Next Chapter: 3. Alternatives to a Standard START Course