The four roles of activism

Facilitator's notes: 

To prepare for the exercise, put some big sheets of paper on the wall, which will give you enough space to put several cards within each quadrant (each quadrant representing a role). Do not mark anything on the paper yet - for now, it should just be a blank sheet of paper.

To introduce the exercise, explain that you want to explore different kinds of activism within a movement, and not just among those present in the group/training exercise.

Brainstorming of characteristics/roles/functions

Begin the exercise with a brainstorming. Ask participants to name characteristics of people/activists within movements they have expierenced. You can give some examples such as "promoting (minor) reforms", or "being angry, a radical voice", or "educating people".

During the brainstorm, write participant's ideas on a card (one on each card) and place the card in the most relevant quadrant of the paper on the wall. You might want to ask clarifying questions if an idea is not clear. Don't get worried if things don't match exactly the characteristics of the four roles - most examples will fit somewhere. If you leave space on the paper for things that don't fit at all, you can put some items there. Some things might fit into several roles, then put them in one for now - you can mention that later. Things that fit with the inefficient way of playing a role go onto the outer side of the quadrant.

Once the brainstorm gets slower, and/or once there is enough on the paper to get you through the four roles, you can continue with the next step. Don't worry if there are important aspects missing - you can fill them in.

Explain the four roles of activism according to the Movement Action Plan

You now explain the four roles of activism according to the Movement Action Plan, making use of as many of the characteristics participants came up with as possible, and filling in important gaps (you can add some more cards to do so).

Mark the four quadrants on the paper on the wall now or while you explain the four roles, and write the name of each role in one of the corners.

In this process, you can also draw attention to the inefficient ways of playing a role.


effective effective


  • Naive Citizen:
    believes the “Official Policies”. Does not yet realize that powerholders and institutions serve special elite interests at the expense of the less powerful minorities and the general welfare.

- or -

  • Super-patriot:
    blind obedience to powerholders and the country.

  • promote positive values, principles, symbols, e.g. democracy, freedom, justice, nonviolence.

  • Normal citizen.

  • Grounded in center of society.

  • Protect against charges of “outsiders” and “chaots”.


  • Parliamentary: Use official mainstream system and institutions, e.g., courts, parliament, city councils, corporations to get movement goals, values, alternatives adopted into official laws, policies, and conventional wisdom.

  • Use variety of means: lobbying, lawsuits, referenda, official rallies, candidates, etc.

  • Professional Opposition Organizations (POOs) are the key movement agency.

  • Watchdog successes to ensure enforcement, expand success, and protect against backlash.

  • “Realistic politics”: Promotes minor reforms that might be more acceptable to the powerholders.

  • POO limitations: patriarchal, hierarchical organization leadership and structure; organizational maintenance needs replace movement needs/goals; dominant power undermines democracy within the movement and disempowers the grassroots.

  • Cooptation: POO staff identify more with official powerholders than they do to the movement's grassroots.

  • Does not advocate paradigm shifts.

  Citizen Reformer  
  Rebel Social Change Agent  
  • against widely held values, anti-authority, anti-organization rules and structures.

  • Self-identity as radical militant, a lonely voice on society's fringe.

  • Any means necessary: especially disruptive tactics, damage of property and violence against people when “necessary”.

  • Tactics without realistic strategy.

  • Isolated from mass-based grassroots.

  • Victim attitude and behaviour: angry, aggressive, judgemental, dogmatic, powerlessness...

  • “Politically correct”, absolute truth, moral superiority.

  • Strident: acts out strong personal upset emotions, needs, and freedom, regardless of movement's needs.

  • Protest: Say, “NO!” to violations of positive democratic values.

  • Nonviolent Direct Action and attitude, including civil disobedience.

  • Target: official powerholders and institutions.

  • Puts problems and policies in public spotlight and agenda.

  • Exciting, courageous, risky.

  • People Power: Educate, convince, involve majority of ordinary citizens and whole society in change process.

  • Mass-based grassroots organizations, networks, activists.

  • Puts issue on political agenda.

  • Promote strategies and tactics for waging long-term social movement.

  • Nurturer role: empower grassroots.

  • Create permanent organizations and support and nurture activists.

  • Promote alternatives and paradigm shift.

  • Utopian: Promote visions of perfection or live alternatives in isolation from practical political and social struggle.

  • Promote only minor reform.

  • Movement leadership and organizational patriarchy and oppressive hierarchy.

  • Tunnel vision: advocate single approach, while opposing those doing all others.

  • Ignore personal issues and needs of activists.





Make clear that this model of four roles is a simplifaction. Most people will fit into several roles at once, or might move from one role to another during the course of their activism. The important aspect is that all roles (in their efficient way) need to be present in a movement to be successful, with different importance of different roles at the different phases of a movement.

Participants and their roles

To close this exercise, assign four corners of the room to a role each, and ask participants to position themselves to where they see themselves among these four extreme corners representing the four roles. Ask individual participants to volunteer to share with the group why the stand where they stand.


You can finish with a brief discussion, and the following questions can be useful:

  • What do these four roles mean to us?
  • What do they mean for our strategy?
  • Do we need to have all the roles present in our group?
  • How did I move through the roles during the course of my actisist life?
Training area: 
Organising phase: 
Organising aspect: