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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

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

How Do Activists Sustain Their Commitment?

This section explores how these activists were able to sustain their commitment to change. We first examine the cyclical nature of their activism. We then look at how opportunistic moments and issues re-ignited their passion. We also discuss how the collective nature of these groups conferred energy and possibilities for change.

Cycles of Involvement

While these activists were motivated by their passion to form these various groups, almost all of the groups had fluctuations in sustaining the passion needed to fuel their change efforts. The social movements literature has noted the cycles of activity that characterize most movements if followed over long historical periods (e.g. Tarrow, 1988). We similarly discovered that activism in the local setting of organizations had cycles over shorter spans of time. Several activists spoke of cycles; as one of them explained:

[The diversity issue] tends to peak and valley. It's not consistent energy, even from the grassroots. I think it goes up and down.

The cyclical nature of activism arose partly for logistical reasons. The demands of work and deadlines in the fast-paced high technology industry distracted activists. Beyond the work demands, the sheer amount of personal energy required to sustain passion created cycles of activism. Activists spoke about how they were angry at injustices they saw, but were sometimes too tired at having to push hard to eradicate or resolve them. In talking about her outspokenness, one African-American woman declared, "I figure, well, somebody has to speak up," but went on to say that she can't "always be a rebel twenty four hours a day."

In speaking up to point out injustices, activists often had to expose themselves to explain what they meant when they saw or experienced racism, sexism or homophobia. One white male senior manager recognized that it was difficult to ask people who were struggling to fit in to take the risk of sharing the experience of difference:

To get to this point they’ve learned how to exist in a white-dominated, white-male dominated world, and it’s fearsome to kind of open yourself up to say, 'this is my public life and I’ve learned to modify my behavior to be like you, that’s what is successful.' So, it’s a little threatening.

It was also difficult for activists to sustain their passions during periods of frustration at seeing too little change for all their work:

It's slow, hard slogging work. It's not easy work and it's not fast work, and so this kind of change just takes a long, long time.

We definitely need patience on the part of the group at large to understand this is a murky process. It's not going to feel good all the time. You have to understand the little wins.

While activists were often inspired to act when management efforts seemed inadequate, this same inadequacy could dampen their passion and hopes for changing the organization.

Opportunistic Moments for Enacting Passion

Because activism was difficult to sustain on a continuous basis, activists worked sporadically and opportunistically. Specific issues would arise and spur groups to action and reignite their passions. If an injustice became apparent, they seized upon it, using the specific incident to voice general concerns about fairness. If they could point to apparent hypocrisy or inconsistency, they used this lever to accelerate change.

As mentioned above, members of GALA saw themselves as a fluid group, many of whose members knew each other mostly on-line. As one member pointed out, they could be mobilized fairly easily when an issue did arise: If something comes up, by golly we can have fifty people [come] together on it in no time flat.

Such an issue arose when Colorado voters passed Amendment II, denying civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation, in the same year that PineCo was preparing to hold its annual sales meeting in Colorado. A number of national organizations launched a boycott of meetings and tourism in Colorado in protest of the new legislation. GALA's members moved quickly to encourage PineCo to honor the boycott and relocate the meeting. They argued that it was not appropriate for a company committed to diversity to provide financial resources to a state with exclusionary policies. They used their on-line network to send a flood of electronic mail messages to key top managers. They argued in their messages that the company’s relocating its conference would be a significant gesture in communicating the importance of diversity issues.

On another occasion, the members of Women of Wonderland seized a moment to rally around a pay issue. Their project group had recently shipped an important product, and group members were to receive bonuses to recognize their accomplishment. An administrative assistant in the group pointed out that administrative assistants were not eligible for a bonus. The group had been meeting to discuss gender issues, and this incident gave them a tangible incident for taking action. They discussed how the exclusion of administrative assistants, whose efforts were essential to the group's success, was emblematic of the devaluing of women's contributions. While most of the members of Women of Wonderland were developers and managers, they decided to take this issue to the general manager of human resources and more senior management, with the hope of changing policy. One woman explained their activism:

I think [we] all sort of felt this kinship there because as a woman and as--it just so happened that 95 percent of the people in the administrative assistant job are women and it's sort of that whole cycle of women being underpaid or taking jobs that were less well paid. We all kind of recognized how that occurs and we wanted to see that stopped and just women's work often not being valued....I think we sort of recognized that a group with more power needs to help the ones with less power.

In another example, the African-American Caucus coalesced when issues arose about running PineCo's operations in South Africa, a series of issues that came increasingly to the fore as apartheid was dismantled and companies from the United States began to plan their return. The African-American Caucus did some research that determined that the nascent operation in South Africa did not include any blacks in senior positions. They pointed out to top managers that this staffing was contrary to management's espoused commitment to diversity. The exhortation of hypocrisy seemed to be a powerful way for activists to get attention. Linking the issue to the need for integration in South Africa, which received powerful moral attention from many quarters, gave them an opportunity to make a strong case, with implicit appeal to a broader international social movement.

While perceived hypocrisies and inconsistencies could be propitious for mobilizing, they could at the same time hobble a change effort if employees or others interpreted them to mean that real change was hopeless. One woman from the human resources department recognized this potential problem:

What we're doing is changing years of cultural standards, years of growing up in a society that's been one way and we're trying to change it and it's a five to ten year process to get to where we want to go. And on the route and on the journey we're going to see hypocrisy. We're going to see inconsistencies. We're going to see some managers really mean it, some managers mean it half and some managers not mean it. And if we allow ourselves to get frustrated with every hypocrisy and setback and use that to say, 'Look we really don't mean it,' we're never going to move.

If most opportunities for change become evident from the apparent inadequacy of efforts to date, it may be difficult to sustain a sense of progress and efficacy. At the same time, the exhortation to managers to "walk the talk" seemed to be a powerful way for activists to get attention. It was a tool for change that activists used.

Strength in Numbers

The energy of the collectivity also helped members to sustain their passion. Individuals formed groups to exert more pressure on management by acting together or voicing their concerns as a group. They recognized that there was strength in numbers. Working in concert gave these activists a bigger and bolder sense of the possibility they had for actually effecting change. The leader of Women at PineCo said, “we wanted our voices to be heard, and we were angry.” A member of WOW said, “I think we’re more effective than we are as individuals.” An activist in the African-American Caucus pointed to the power a collective signal could send:

Who knows, now that we’re an organized group, you may even see more people just walk out all at once rather than you know one by one by one, because now we’re communicating as a body.

The act of meeting as a group also helped to preserve employees' commitment to diversity. We found that group meetings provided a consciousness-raising experience and allowed activists to see the systemic cultural and structural barriers they faced, rather than attributing blame to themselves. Being in a group setting allowed these activists to share their frustrations and provided a context which established the legitimacy of their grievances. This sense-making sustains collective action. A member of Women at PineCo said:

For the participants, it always made me feel that I was not alone because I could go to lunch or hang around with my friends who belonged and hear very similar stories to mine at all levels, it normalized and validated our experiences.

A member of WOW also confirmed the role the group had by providing “some clarity on the issues.” Through their lunch meetings, the women in WOW came to realize how the culture on the project spawned a set of norms that the women were not comfortable with. Being together for the first time allowed the women to air some of their frustrations. As another member of the group explained:

We suddenly realized out of a hundred developers in our organization, only I think, 15 or 16 were women. We realized also at the time, not incidentally, the culture in Wonderland was very aggressive, white-male oriented – meetings where like the one with the loudest voice won. It was very typical in meetings for women just totally not to be heard. The men who were there just happened to be this group of very aggressive men who all knew each other well enough to yell at each other. It was just very uncomfortable and we all sort of just got together and started talking about how we felt and how we didn’t like the culture within our little group and how we wished that that would change.

Because their own monthly meetings were so different from the meetings that took place on the project, it verified for these women that these meeting norms were cultural and systemic. There was some relief that it need not be the responsibility of individual women to develop more tough and aggressive styles in order to fit in better, but that women collectively could try to change the style that prevailed in the culture. Consequently, the women met with senior managers on the project to discuss their discomfort with the tenor of meetings and to press for specific changes.

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