Today’s array of societal challenges – from economic disparity, political injustice, rising dangers posed by climate change, and ongoing threats to basic human rights and democratic freedoms – demand, more urgently than ever, that citizens come together and act in collaboration to hold accountable, or change, the existing institutions and systems meant to ensure justice, health, safety, and dignity for people. The Harvard Kennedy School offers numerous important courses that explore the fundamental ways people organize and take collective action for social change. Further, the MLD Area course offerings provide students with the excellent opportunities to directly apply their learning in existing advocacy organizations and movements, and even to create campaigns of their own from the ground up.
In her new course MLD 370: Social Movements: The Art and Science of Social Change, Assistant Professor of Public Policy Liz McKenna applies a sociological lens to historical and contemporary cases of social, labor, and political movements from around the world to answer the questions: What’s the difference between a movement that wins victories for its constituents, and one that fails? And, what are the factors that make collective action powerful?
Drawing on her award-winning doctoral research on civil society in Brazil, and the studies detailed in her 2021 book, Prisms of the People: Power and Organizing in 21st Century America, McKenna’s work examines how organizational leaders build constituency bases that successfully exercise political power. Students in the course will also learn about the role of culture, media, and technology in collective action. With these frameworks in their toolkit, students then enter an experiential learning “lab,” where they investigate how the course concepts work in practice by selecting an existing social-movement organization and analyzing a challenge its leaders face. Projects can explore areas ranging from movement narratives; organizational structure and governance; leadership development; strategy and tactics; learning and adaptation; political contestation; power mapping; and effective use of data. Again, by understanding how to analyze, then potentially create and implement these aspects of a movement or campaign, students will benefit when working in future change-making roles.
For students interested in immediate, hands-on experience creating and working in campaigns and movements, the MLD Area offers three other powerful courses:
- MLD-375: Creating Justice in Real Time: Vision, Strategies and Campaigns with Cornell William Brooks
- MLD-377M: People, Power & Change: A Practicum in Leadership, Organizing and Action – Campaign Design with Marshall Ganz
- MLD-378M: People, Power & Change: A Practicum in Leadership, Organizing and Action – Campaign Leadership with Marshall Ganz
Marshall Ganz, the esteemed Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing and Civil Society, has been teaching organizing at HKS for nearly 30 years. Having first come to Harvard (College) in the fall of 1960, he left a year before graduating to volunteer with the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. There, he found a “calling” as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and, in the fall of 1965 joined Cesar Chavez in his effort to unionize California farm workers. During 16 years with the United Farm Workers he gained experience in union, political, and community organizing; became Director of Organizing; and was elected to the national executive board on which he served for 8 years. During the 1980s he worked with grassroots groups to develop new organizing programs and designed innovative voter mobilization strategies for local, state, and national electoral campaigns. In 1991, in order to deepen his intellectual understanding of his work, he returned to Harvard College and after a 28-year “leave of absence” completed his undergraduate degree in history and government. He earned his MPA from HKS in 1993, then began teaching at HKS soon thereafter, while simultaneously completing a Harvard PhD in sociology (awarded in 2000). During his time as HKS faculty, Ganz has continued to work “in the field,” including with the Obama presidential campaign (2007-8), the Sierra Club, the Ahel Organizing Initiative (Jordan), Serbia on the Move (Belgrade), Avina (Bogata), Tatua (Kenya), and Community Organizing Japan (Tokyo), learning and perfecting his organizing frameworks.
The premise for MLD-377M and MLD-378M is that an “organized” citizenry is able to formulate, articulate, and assert its shared interests. Organizing, in turn, requires leadership: accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve a shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. Organizers, then, ask three core questions:
- Who are my people?
- What is the change we need?
- How can we turn our resources into the power we need to achieve that change?
That is to say, organizers must learn to identify, recruit and develop leadership; build community with that leadership; and create power from resources of that community. Students do this in MLD-377M, the “Design” module of the two-course sequence, by applying the five organizing practices: storytelling; relationship building; strategizing; structuring; and, lastly, taking action, as they actually organize their own leadership teams, decide upon a shared purpose, and design organizing campaigns to achieve their purpose. The pedagogy is structured in a purposeful sequence: “explanation,” “modeling,” “practice,” and “reflective debriefing,” which allow students to better learn from repeated practice.
During the second “Leadership” (in practice) module, MLD-378M, students learn to lead the campaign they designed: organizing a kick-off; developing leadership; innovating tactics; engaging with power; and winning, losing, and learning. Practice and critical reflection are again the keys to learning in this module. Students are supported in this process by a set of skilled course coaches who, themselves, have extensive experience actively engaging in these organizing practices and developing students into movement leaders.
Note: *Enrollment into MLD-377M is limited and by permission of the instructor. The course is taught in a two-week intensive format during the Spring 1 Module, with in-person instruction limited to two intensive workshops on the weekends (February 23-25 and March 1-3, 2024). Also, MLD-377M is a firm prerequisite for enrollment in MLD-378M.
MLD-375 Creating Justice in Real Time: Vision, Strategies and Campaigns taught by Professor Cornell William Brooks is another powerful experiential learning course in which students actively engage with movements addressing many of the most critical social injustices of our time.
Brooks’s course seeks to understand longstanding inequities and injustices and recognizes the importance of principled advocacy in an age of unprecedented activism.
Like Ganz, Professor Brooks, brings a wealth of experience into the classroom, having served four years (2014 – 2017) as president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); worked as civil rights attorney; and practiced as an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
At the NAACP Brooks reinvigorated the activist social justice heritage of the NAACP, dramatically increased its youth membership, and conceived and led the 2015 march known as “America’s Journey for Justice” from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C., over 40 days and 1000 miles. During his tenure, Brooks and the NCAAP aided in organizing to address policing injustice in Ferguson, MO to failure of government to protect water quality in the majority-black, low-income community of Flint, MI. Prior to leading the NAACP, Brooks was president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, where he led the passage of pioneering criminal justice reform and housing legislation. He also served as senior counsel and acting director of the Office of Communications Business Opportunities at the Federal Communications Commission; executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, and a trial attorney at both the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the U.S. Department of Justice. As a DOJ trial attorney, he secured a record-setting settlement for housing discrimination victims and filed the first government case alleging housing discrimination against a nursing home.
Brooks’s course MLD-375 seeks to understand longstanding inequities and injustices and recognizes the importance of principled advocacy in an age of unprecedented activism. Issues of highest concern in the course are environmental injustice, biased policing and public safety, criminal justice and prison reform, the fragility and erosion of the right to vote, the need for equitable economic development, and the long call for reparations for racial injustice in the United States. Brooks teaches students tested advocacy principles – e.g., moral ambition, perfect/imperfect victims, concentric/consecutive coalitions, and scholarship — to address these issues, including the particular strategies of the arc of advocacy.
To provide an experiential element, students in MLD-375 work with the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice, U.S. municipal governments, as well as national- & state-level advocacy organizations, on real time campaigns with a focus on what is demonstrably effective. Students will develop visions, strategies and campaigns as well as designing legislative, policy, organizing, communication, and moral framing strategies to address injustices. As an example, one recent student project sought a posthumous presidential pardon for pioneering civil rights leader, Callie House, who at the turn of the 20th century was wrongfully imprisoned. House founded the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association, a movement of over 300,000 members, but her efforts were squashed and her legacy was tarnished and minimized by a gross corruption of justice. (Read more here.) Projects like this are part of a portfolio of reparations efforts featured in the course that aim to face up to the deep harm caused by slavery, racist Jim-Crow era laws and policies, and ongoing structural inequities.
Note: Students must competitively apply for enrollment in MLD-375, with the key criteria being a demonstrated passion for social justice. Students admitted to the course should expect extensive work outside of class and must remain patient, flexible, and persistent in the face of the real-time challenges posed in the course.
A range of other HKS courses complement the four MLD Area offerings above, with each one listed below providing a different framework, addressing different issues and contexts, and providing informed and valuable approaches.
MLD-340 Power and Influence for Positive Impact (Julie Battilana)
DPI-312 Sparking Social Change Through Arts and Culture (Sanderijn Cels)
DPI-376M Queer Nation: LGBTQ Protest, Politics, and Policy in the U.S. (Tim McCarthy)
IGA-147 Civil Resistance: How It Works (Erica Chenoweth; Not offered AY24)
IGA-385 Strategizing for Human Rights: Moving from Ideals to Practice (Doug Johnson)
IGA-453 Reweaving Ourselves and the World: New Perspectives on Climate Change (Rebecca Henderson)
In combination, HKS offers students a powerful set of opportunities to develop capacities and experience creating social change.
If you have any questions about these courses, or any other in the MLD curriculum, email Greg Dorchak, MLD Area Administrator.