Movement Life Line

Facilitator's notes: 

Limitations: this exercise can be hard to do with a group a (young) activists who just recently got involved in social change, and who lack historical knowledge. It can also be difficult to do during a general training where there is a lack of shared knowledge about one or two movements which could be taken as an example (this might especially be relevant in international trainings).


Creating a Movement Life Line

A Movement Life Line is best done in smaller groups, to allow for maximum participation. However, it can also be done in a larger group, especially if there are many new people who might lack sufficient knowledge to contribute a lot of the Movement Life Line. This could turn into a problem in small groups, as some groups might feel they don't know enough.

It is important to be clear about which movement you choose as an example (if you work in several small groups, each group can choose a different example). Many movements consists of a variety of sub-movements and campaigns. Be clear what you are looking at: the overall movement or one of the sub-movements.

If you fear that there might not be sufficient knowledge in the group, make sure that the facilitators know enough about the movement to fill in important gaps.

Each group will need a sufficiently large flip chart and markers.


Step One: Brainstorm important movement events: high and low points

Begin with brainstorming important events (or conditions) of and for the movements. These can include important actions, successes (such as legislations passed), but also failures, and outside actions by governments, companies, and other actors, or any other event that had an important impact on the movement (such as the catastrophe of Chernobyl or Fukushima for the anti nuclear energy movement). Events should be placed on the timeline in relation to when they happened, and high points (successes, major mobilisations) can be placed higher than low points. It can also be an idea to use a different colour for actions by opponents, and for “outside” events, as this makes it clearer where the movement acted, and where others acted. It will be important to limit these to events really relevant to the movement in question – otherwise the chart might fill up quickly with general political events.


It is important to keep this as a brainstorm, and not turn it into a discussion about individual events. You can have an empty flip chart paper next to the lifeline to note down controversies, which might need addressing later.

Absolute accuracy is unnecessary. Don't get bogged down in a debate over exact dates – rough estimates are usually sufficient.


Step Two: Making connections

In a next step, the group tries to identify some connections. Which actions or events followed on from a low point? Which movement actions might have led to positive outcomes.

This is not about a definite analysis of cause and effect, but rather about getting an idea how different events are related, how low points have have led to new efforts and mobilisations, how repressive intervention by the government might have contributed to create responses by the movement.

This step shouldn't take longer than 5-10 minutes.


Optional step: Analyse some movement successes

As an optional step, you can have a look at some of the movement's success in more detail. This can especially be useful if there is some controversy around an event. To analyse an event, you can use the following guiding questions:

  • Why is this considered a success?

  • What actions/events contributed to this success?

  • What key events or conditions followed on from this event, and might not have been possible without it?

  • How have you/your group/your organisation been involved in this success?

  • Why might this be considered only a limited success?

Discussing some successes in some detail can help to clarify differing perspectives on the movement within the group, especially if there are contradicting opinions in the group about whether an event can be considered a success or not. How you look at a movement can have a huge impact on whether something should be considered a success or not (e.g. equal rights for lgbtiq people or queer liberation and crushing patriarchy are quite distinct).


Step Three: Identify the relevant stages of the movements according to the Movement Action Plan

This step requires that the group is already familiar with the eight stages according to the MAP, their main characteristics and the respective strategic objectives for a movement in the different stages. These could either have been introduced before this exercise, or you can do this now and so switch to a different format. A meaningful presentation of the eight stages will need at least 30 minutes.


To identify the different stages, it is often easiest to look for Stage Four (take off), if the movement already got that far. Stage four is characterised by a flurry of activities and new groups within a movement, so is often distinct. Facilitators can help by asking guiding questions, based on the main characteristics of each phase. Based on my experience, participants from movements which are somewhere in stages two or three often engage in wishful thinking, identifying themselves in stages four or six. It is also the task of the facilitators to challenge the participants in such a case, to avoid a false sense of success.

If the movement has not yet taken off, it can be good to have the characteristics of stages two and three at hand, or to ask questions based on these. Be aware that the stages are often not that clear cut, and that elements of both stages might be present.

A discussion on which stage the movement is in can lead to important insights into the movement and its successes and pitfalls.


Optional step: the four roles of activism and the Movement Life Line

A further optional step is to look at the different involvement of the four roles of activists in the different stages of the movement. This requires that the participants are familiar with the four roles.



Further use of the Movement Life Line

The Movement Life Line can stand on its own, as jointly re-creating one's movement's history and successes can be an empowering exercise of its own.

But it can also then be used as input for the development of new strategies. The different stages of a movement require differing strategic objectives, and understanding these is important for the development of effective strategies and campaigns.


Organising aspect: