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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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Passion with an Umbrella:
Grassroots Activism in the Workplace

by
Maureen Scully and Amy Segal

Sloan School of Management
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Task Force Working Paper #WP13

Prepared for the May 25-26, 1999, conference “Symposium on Changing Employment Relations and New Institutions of Representation”

September 1, 1999

Do Activists Invoke a Broad Social Movement Discourse?

The sections below show how the imagery of social movements appeared in the words of organizational activists. Activists frequently referred to the grassroots nature of their initiatives. Indeed, they emphasized that the grassroots was the necessary and legitimate source of change efforts. The power of a social movements approach to change in organizational settings is illustrated in the discourse and imagery of the activists. They referred to vivid images of activism from the societal culture. At the same time, we found that activists used this very imagery to portray the limits of their activism, indicating how they cannot afford to seem too extreme or radical. We introduce the metaphor of "passion with an umbrella," which portrays their activism within constraints.

Language and Imagery of Social Movements

Many activists used vivid imagery that was specifically evocative of revolutions to describe their activism in the organization:

Usually there’s some grassroots things going on. The people at the top have their heads in the clouds, and (their) awareness comes from, ‘Oh god, there’s an insurgency uprising out there. I mean we should listen to what the peasants are saying.’

In particular, they saw their activism on the hot topic of diversity as part of a larger societal change effort imported into the organization:

It’s the whole intellectual debate – and you know, cultural milieu – what’s going on in the rest of society. So there’s huge potential in that.

They portrayed their own roles in the movement in similar language. One African-American woman used her position as an administrative assistant to influence managers and characterized herself as "the little rebel over here" because of her outspokenness about diversity issues. Another African-American woman linked her involvement in the diversity efforts at PineCo to battles fought in an earlier societal movement. She saw herself continuing her parents' fight in the civil rights movement:

[My parents]...made a hell of a lot more progress than I would make on an issue like this. I mean now we vote.... I want to be able to say at least my generation has made that type of mark someplace. I want to be able to say, OK all right, now we do have vice presidents in Fortune 500 companies.

Legitimation of the Grassroots

Employees legitimated the grassroots by claiming it should rightly be credited with starting the diversity efforts and by emphasizing that it is crucial for sustaining the effort and avoiding complacency. Because senior management had officially stated that they support diversity efforts, it is possible that these groups and individuals were merely carrying out a management initiated corporate edict, rather than initiating and shaping their own resistance. Many activists perceived that the company’s diversity efforts were prompted by grassroots efforts, rather than by management, as two of them explained:

I see [the diversity effort] all as having come out of employee initiative, not senior management insight and benevolence....That’s what gives it life and keeps it alive.

I think the grassroots efforts have been instrumental even during the lower periods [of energy] in bringing it back up to a peak ....I don’t think you can do without the grassroots efforts. I think the grassroots are necessary because this is what started [the diversity effort] anyway.

The grassroots efforts we identified were generally fueled by a belief that top management had not sufficiently or adequately addressed issues regarding diversity, rather than by employees' compliance with a managerial mandate promulgating employee involvement in diversity efforts. Employee activism became both a spur and a reaction to top management pronouncements and actions about diversity. Individuals voiced their sense of frustration about top-down initiatives and disbelief in management commitment. As one white woman remarked:

Well, the grassroots efforts that have happened are certainly all a result of people’s frustration at things not happening sooner. They want to keep this whole idea out in front of people’s faces.

A member of the African-American Caucus emphasized his group's role in holding management's feet to the fire:

I think it’s easier for us now to just push, push to let ourselves be known.... We’re here to help facilitate [the diversity effort], we’re here to help support, but we’re also going to start holding people accountable and to question the motives.

One top manager recognized this impetus and voiced concern that promises of diversity gave ammunition to employees and created a situation in which employees' expectations and frustrations escalated:

PineCo has an image of being a very diverse company in the outside world.... One of the problems we have now is we have raised [diversity] to an issue that we talk about. And that then frustrates the people who want to do something about it.... When we didn't talk about it, when it wasn't in front of our face, people were happier and they likely went along, and this is the way we were, and OK, they decided to stay and accept it. So now we say we're going to change this, and we don't makes the changes, then all of a sudden there's more anger. So I have some questions about whether we're sort of, you know, shooting ourselves in the foot here.

The grassroots efforts acquired some legitimacy, because management reluctantly realized that there was no turning back once the wheels had been set in motion.

Imagery Shows Limits to Activism

While employees appealed to images of social movements and painted their grassroots efforts in colorful language, they used the same imagery to illustrate that more militant activism would be too extreme in their organizational setting. Employees mentioned some symbolic actions of protest that would be far too risky to undertake, both for their careers and for the future credibility of the grassroots efforts. One white woman quipped that clearly she would not go so far as "forming a picket line around [the CEO's] office." A black employee similarly invoked the imagery of "the black glove on the raised fist," by way of saying it would be far too radical an action. A white man painted a provocative vision of income distribution but acknowledged that it would be far too extreme to voice to anyone in the company:

You want a really subversive thought? I assert that if you took the entire [high tech] industry and...if you took starting at the very top, fifty percent of people's salaries, maybe all the way down to ten percent of the lowest rungs, people would still have great jobs and probably still work for that money. It's completely an artifact of the economy and history that we can command these wages....I'd never voice that. God, they'd push me over the balcony.

This social movement discourse appeared to have a dual symbolism. It evoked a kinship between these individuals' actions and more dramatic and radical change efforts, demonstrating the radical significance of the activists' charter. But at the same time, this language was used as hyperbole to show the distance between the modest efforts possible at work and the extreme actions of a revolution.

"Passion With an Umbrella."

While discontent with management’s efforts fueled their activism, these activists needed and sought top management support to pursue their change efforts. The imagery used by one activist spoke colorfully and pragmatically about the delicate balance required for activism in organizational settings:

The critical thing that has to happen to give diversity some life here is that the rank and file, and I don’t mean to exclude managers, I include them, but...there has to be initiatives that sort of bring diversity to life in the organization. It can’t all be sort of top-down or HR-down. And for those initiatives to succeed you both need leadership from people who have some passion and understanding of the issues, and they exist. And then they need protection, they need like what I call an umbrella. They need space, the time to do it.... For the umbrella to exist, the V.P.'s have to not squash [diversity] and even think it’s good and even start to at least allow there to be a diverse culture.

In speaking with the activists, we could hear the passion that led activists to form groups to amplify their message. Activists needed to enlist managers' help, but also needed distance, independence, and freedom to experiment with local change efforts. Consequently, they often had to soften their message to garner top management support. Managing passion and salesmanship creates an uneasy tension for groups of activists, whose collective social identity made it difficult to hide their project. The "passion with an umbrella" phrase emphasizes integrating the need for grassroots energy with a role for top management.

We embraced "passion with an umbrella" as our title, because this metaphor captures the broad project of activists inside organizations. Probing the metaphor reveals issues of importance for the study of social movements in organizations. Passion is crucial to the movement and reminds us that grassroots activism was often fueled by emotions not solely by rational calculation. It took passion for activists to make time to pursue a challenging issue like diversity. All emphasized their incredibly busy schedules. Several of them reported that they had periods of burnout or cycles of greater or lesser involvement in the cause. "Passion" captures the rage and drive that employees brought to the issue. It also captures the idea of suffering and endurance, derived from the Latin "pati." Many of the activists had suffered insults, subtle "micro-inequities" (Rowe, 1990), or greater injustices that fueled their commitment to the cause and gave them the motivation to try to endure in their activism.

The umbrella is a protective device, symbolizing managers' ability to protect and encourage employees who worked on diversity issues. Managers can give a range of support: they can simply acknowledge employees' efforts verbally, endorse their work to other managers, provide time during the work day to pursue diversity projects, or sometimes even give rewards and recognition for efforts on behalf of diversity. An umbrella is a shield, suggesting that managers should create a safe place for diversity activists to do their work and then stay out of the way. While an umbrella provides protection, it can also be flimsy support in stormy winds. An umbrella is a "a collapsible canopy mounted on a central rod" (American Heritage Dictionary, 1976), a potent image for the centrality that management commands in the organization and the tenuousness of management support.

The next two questions that we address – about how groups form and about how they sustain their commitment – speak in particular to the importance of passion. The following two questions – about the tactics used to manage risks and about what the groups actually do – speak in particular to the importance of managing and holding onto the umbrella. At the same time, underlying all these issues is the tension between unbridled passion and the uncertainty caused by a flimsy umbrella.

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