Transformative action is a new name for a very old approach to social change. It has been advocated by leaders such as King, Gandhi, and Chavez. It dates back to ancient times, where it was used successfully by slaves and plebians to gain important reforms in the Roman empire. (Sibley 1963, 108) In recent decades, these strategies have been used with increasing frequency and success to overcome conflicts in such places as Bolivia (1977, 1982), Sudan (1985), Haiti (1985), Phillippines (1986), South Korea (1987), Chile (1989), Poland (1989), East Germany (1989), Czechoslovakia (1989), Mongolia (1990), Nepal (1990), Mali (1992), Madagascar (1993), Bangladesh (1996), and Indonesia (1998). (Zunes 2000) "The historical results were massive: Tyrants were toppled, governments were overthrown, occupying armies were impeded, and political systems that withheld human rights were shattered. Entire societies were transformed, suddenly or gradually, by people using their nonviolent resistance to destroy their opponents' capacity to control events." (Ackerman and DuVall 2000) 

Traditionally, these strategies have gone under the name of "nonviolence." However, this description has too often been confusing and misleading. 

For example, in the environmental justice movement, there are few, if any, community groups that are using violence in their struggles. Grassroots activists are not throwing molotov cocktails in the streets, nor are they planting bombs at corporate headquarters. They are not engaged in terrorism, warfare, or other acts that are traditionally considered "violent." 

But transformative action means much more than simply refraining from violence. It seeks to create positive solutions that benefit all parties. It brings together the opposite sides in a conflict, uniting them in a common cause against the problems that they share. It wins over adversaries, rather than defeating them. 

In fact, the theory of transformative action goes far beyond describing the typical strategies of nonviolent direct action: boycotts, protests, marches, and other appeals to power. It is about transforming the dynamics of a conflict: Instead of a competitive ethic of "you versus me," communities are working with corporations and governments in a cooperative approach of "you and I together working towards a common goal." 

More importantly, it is about transforming communities themselves. It is not just a reactive strategy of fighting against injustice. It's not just about closing down toxic landfills, stopping incinerators from moving into the neighborhood, and battling against polluting industries. Instead, it is also a proactive approach of constructing better alternatives -- creating a new vision of the community that is both economically strong and environmentally healthy. 

This chapter explores the concept of transformative action in depth. It begins by examining the academic literature to date on theories of nonviolent social change.


A Brief History of Nonviolent Social Change Theory

 The academic study of nonviolent social change is relatively new. Yet the strategies of nonviolent social change have been around for centuries. Several of the world's religions have nonviolence as their core principle. (Kool 1990)

In previous times, people believed that an appropriate response to conditions of suffering and injustice was violence; that hatred should be answered with hatred; that oppressed people should rise up in arms against their oppressors. (Sharp 1973, 3-4)

But, beginning thousands of years ago, there were people who said that there was a more effective way of resolving conflicts. "Hatred will never put an end to hatred," observed the Buddha. "Love alone puts an end to hatred. This is an unalterable law." (Easwaran 1985, 78) In the following centuries, there were dramatic examples of successful nonviolent action everywhere from ancient Rome to China to Africa. (Sibley 1963; Sharp 1970; Nagler 1982)

America has been one of the central places where the philosophy and practice of nonviolence developed. This tradition extends back to the Quakers in the 17th century, who would rather disobey the law than disobey their conscience. They used nonviolent strategies to expose injustice, even when it meant that they would suffer persecution as a result. They believed that they were literally following the teachings of the Christian religion: after all, hadn't Christ himself urged people to love their enemies, forgive wrongs, and turn the other cheek? The Quakers' willingness to suffer for their beliefs made a deep impression on members of the colonial society. It led to new rights and protections in New England, after years of oppression and legalized violence against religious minorities. (Lynd 1966; Cooney 1977)

Strategies of nonviolent resistance were critical in leading to the liberation of the American colonies from Great Britain. Although traditional historians mostly focus on the bloody events of the Revolutionary War, some scholars now believe that the colonists would have gained independence much faster if they had continued their successful experiments with noncooperation. (Sharp 1970; Shepard 1990; Nagler 2001)

In the following century, nonviolence played a major role in the philosophy of people working for the abolition of slavery. The 19th century also saw the seminal writings of Henry David Thoreau, one of the pioneers of nonviolence; his work on "Civil Disobedience" would inspire future generations to resist injustice. (Lynd 1966)

Nonviolent strategies continued to exert an influence on people working to transform American society in the following decades: in the early movement for women's rights, the campaign for better working conditions in American industry, and the conscientious objection of pacifists to war. (Lynd 1966; Sharp 1970; Cooney 1977) 

Since 1900, the philosophy of nonviolence has become more widely studied and practiced than ever before. It may seem ironic that nonviolence has spread so much during a century of overwhelming violence -- a century that witnessed two world wars, countless massacres, holocausts of innocent citizens, and the development of nuclear weapons that could destroy all human life. But perhaps it is fitting that this philosophy should emerge at a time of such destruction. Increasingly the choice in an age of terrorism and nuclear weapons is becoming “nonviolence or nonexistence," as Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently pointed out. (King 1986, 39)

The most famous example of nonviolent social change occurred more than 50 years ago in India when Mahatma Gandhi led his nation to independence without firing a single shot. India became the world's largest democracy in a peaceful transition of power. 

Since that time, nonviolence has proven a remarkable tool for achieving social change and overcoming injustice. Martin Luther King, Jr. adopted the strategies of nonviolence to lead the civil rights movement in America. Cesar Chavez used these techniques in California to lead thousands of impoverished laborers to victory in one of the first environmental justice struggles -- the farmworkers battling against unfair and unsafe working conditions in the pesticide-covered fields.

All around the world, the strategies of nonviolent social change have produced dramatic transformations that would have been thought impossible just a few decades ago. 

The entire Soviet Union collapsed without a fight. Communism virtually vanished from Europe without violence. Meanwhile, brutal military dictatorships across South America were overturned peacefully and democratically by the nonviolent masses. From the Philippines to Czechoslovakia, nonviolent revolutions also toppled brutal regimes. Most recently, in South Africa, a nonviolent movement led by Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela managed to end the racist regime of apartheid. Even against Nazi Germany, nonviolence was successful in the few cases it was attempted. 

Yet the potential of nonviolence has hardly been explored. As peace activist David Dellinger said, the "theory and practice of nonviolence are roughly at the same stage of development as those of electricity in the early days of Marconi and Edison." (Nagler 1982, 84) 

What is the secret? Why is nonviolence so powerful in responding to problems of social injustice? In order to answer these questions, the philosophy underlying it must be examined.


Philosophical Framework of Nonviolent Social Change

 The philosophy of nonviolent social change is often misunderstood. It challenges the conventional notions of power and academic theories on conflict. Nonviolence has been dismissed as too idealistic, not taking into account the darker side of human nature. (Horsbrugh 1968)

Even today, political scientists, sociologists, and philosophers generally subscribe to the idea of power by the gun. They insist that most real social change happens through physical force and domination. For example, Michigan sociologist William Gamson concluded that violence tends to be the most successful way to achieve social change. He studied 53 groups that had challenged the status quo in America, and determined that the most effective groups were those that used antagonistic, aggressive tactics to harm the opposition. "With respect to violence," he commented, " appears better to give than to receive." (Gamson 1974, 80) This is the philosophy of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and the practitioners of realpolitik. 

But Gandhi would have disagreed. "I object to violence," he said, "because, when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent." (Easwaran 1978, 42) Violence leaves a bitter residue; the vanquished are never satisfied. They have been subdued by force, but their spirits are still rebellious.

The people who dismiss nonviolence so easily do not really understand it. Nonviolence does not mean standing passively in the face of injustice. On the contrary, it exerts a powerful moral force that can transform the world.

Nonviolence is a method for liberating people from the chains of helplessness and submission. They realize a tremendous sense of power that they never knew they had within them. It gives traditionally oppressed citizens "the conviction that there is something they can do about their plight. Nonviolent strategies have given a powerful voice to those otherwise inarticulate." (Sharp 1973, 782)

One of the reasons that nonviolence is so successful is because it offers a new perspective on who has power and control over a society: It is not the government. Nor is it the multinational corporations. Rather, the citizens are the ones who control the power in society. Politicians and corporations only appear to have power because average Americans have given it to them. Without the consent and cooperation of the governed, they could not rule.

A famous example from the Civil Rights movement illustrates this point: In 1955, most people believed that whites had power over Alabama; they controlled the political offices; they ran the major businesses. It was a virulently racist society, and blacks were thought to be powerless. They were deprived of basic rights and equalities.

But when the black population of Montgomery, Alabama refused to ride the segregated buses anymore, it brought the rest of society to its knees. The buses were going empty, and losing tremendous amounts of money. The politicians tried to harass and imprison leaders of the black community, but they could not deprive the average citizens of their power. The nonviolent strategies won the attention of a worldwide audience. They exposed the injustices and racist practices of American society. Eventually, the city of Montgomery crumbled. The buses were integrated. "This was a victory, not over the white man, but for justice and democracy." (Sharp 1973, 96)

This example demonstrates why boycotts can be so effective. It reveals that big corporations only have power to the extent that the consumers give it to them. If all the consumers withdraw their consent and refuse to buy their products, the businesses are powerless.

Similarly, strikes can be very powerful. The businesses depend on the cooperation of the laborers. Their entire enterprise is in the hands of the workers. If the workers withdraw their consent, then the corporate executives have lost most of their power and authority. They can (and do) try to hire strikebreakers. But the ultimate power belongs to the people. This idea is central to the success of nonviolent action.


Major Contributors to Nonviolent Social Change Theory

 There have been a number of respected academic scholars who have been attempting to develop a theory of nonviolent social change. They have studied the phenomenon and produced many important works to explain how and why it works. (Bondurant 1958; Sharp 1970; Sharp 1973; Naess 1975; Bruyn 1979; Nagler 1982; Bondurant 1988; McCarthy 1994; Gupta 1995; Nagler 1998; Nagler 2001) The most prominent and influential works include the following:

Bondurant (1958, 1988) was one of the first to systematically study Gandhi's techniques for social and political change. She attempted to discover what was universal about these methods, analyzing them outside of their historical and cultural context. 

Bondurant, a political scientist at U.C. Berkeley, noted that the major contribution of Gandhian political theory was its emphasis on means, rather than ends. All the methods of nonviolent activists should be based on the three ideals of truth, love, and self-sacrifice. Rather than inflict suffering on opponents, the Gandhians would attempt to win over their adversaries to their side. They would not use any means that involved evil thoughts, anger, hatred, or ill will towards their opponents. Moreover, they would not seek to defeat anyone, but would instead attempt to generate agreement and reconciliation among all parties. Bondurant concluded that these were the essential elements of Gandhian satyagraha. They differentiated this form of nonviolent social change from all other forms of direct action.

Sharp (1970, 1973) elaborated on Bondurant's framework. A researcher at Harvard University, he was not just interested in the ideals and principles of nonviolence theory, but also interested in discovering the most effective tactics. In his exhaustive 902-page survey, he explored the detailed methods of nonviolent action. He studied not only the example of Gandhi in India, but also hundreds of other examples from around the world, including successful nonviolent resistance to Soviet communism, Nazi oppression, and other forms of fascism and dictatorship throughout history. He identified 198 different forms of nonviolent action. These included withdrawal from the social system, refusal to cooperate with unjust regimes, withholding of support from oppressive institutions, and other types of civil disobedience. It is significant that Sharp identified 194 ways of resisting and responding to injustice. Only four of his techniques of nonviolent action were about constructing better alternatives.

Nagler (1982, 1998, 2001) made a major contribution to the field by recognizing that the constructive program was an essential part of Gandhi's campaign. While most scholars of nonviolent social change had been directing their gaze toward the responses to injustice --protests, boycotts, and sit-ins -- Nagler looked at the positive alternatives that visionary social activists could create. This had long been a neglected part of nonviolence social change theory.

Indeed, several years before Nagler's work, McCarthy and Kruegler (1993) had noted that there was a great need for further research and theory building in the study of nonviolent action. "While the practice of nonviolent action has a lengthy history, the study of nonviolent action began only recently," they confessed. (1993, 5) As a result, this academic field is still in its infancy; there is much more to be understood about the elements that lead to effective nonviolent action.

Zunes (2000) agreed with this assessment. He began by observing that nonviolent action was increasing around the globe, as was its success. Nonviolent campaigns had "led to the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in nearly two dozen countries over the past two decades, forced substantial reforms in even more, and seriously challenged repressive or unjust systems in still others...."

But Zunes also noted that the theory needed to be studied in greater depth:

Despite the diffusion of nonviolence as a conscious strategy through movements around the world in recent decades, little is understood about how or why nonviolence works as a technique for securing social change. 'Nonviolence' is not even a category in the mainstream academic lexicon. (Zunes 2000, 181)

In fact, there are a few simple reasons why "nonviolence" has not yet been recognized as a major field of academic study, despite its apparent success in promoting social change across the globe. In the next section, some of these reasons are examined.


The Need for a New Theory

 The word "nonviolence" can be confusing and misleading. It appears to describe any action that does not inflict physical injury upon one's opponents. Under this definition, even Nazis marching through the streets of Skokie (or Ku Klux Klan members holding demonstrations in Ann Arbor) could be considered "nonviolent," so long as they do not convert their hateful, intolerant rhetoric into brutal force. 

Arun Gandhi, the grandson of the pioneer of these methods, explains:

"The greatest challenge in promoting nonviolence is the English language and its limitations.... When my grandfather Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi developed his philosophy of nonviolence in South Africa and wanted an appropriate word to describe it, he could not find one.... He even offered a reward to anyone who could come up with a positive English word to describe what he had in mind. Alas, no one could." (Collopy 2000, 38) 

Like Gandhi, scholars have been frustrated with the inadequate terminology of "nonviolence." Many other words and phrases have been proposed as alternatives, but each has its own problems.

For example, the term "passive resistance" focuses on just a small part of what nonviolent strategies entail. Nonviolent action is not only about resisting injustice, but also about constructing a better alternative. (And it is anything but passive!) 

Similarly, nonviolent action cannot be defined in the term "civil disobedience." Many social activists use tactics of protests, sit-ins, and other "disobedient" means. But they are not truly following the strategies of Gandhi, King, and Chavez if they come from a consciousness of anger, hatred, and the desire to defeat their opponents.

Some scholars and activists have preferred to borrow terms from other languages. (Bondurant 1958; Naess 1975) For example, Gandhi resorted to Indian words, like "Ahimsa" or "Satyagraha." Unfortunately, these words are not easily understandable (or even pronounceable) for many people in the West. Even the literal English translations do not help to clarify matters. "Ahimsa" is derived from words that mean "not to harm." (Easwaran 1978) Just like the word "nonviolence" itself, this word does not convey any positive meaning. It simply refers to the absence of physical injury. On the other hand, "Satyagraha" has been translated as "soul force." (Easwaran 1978) This can be dismissed as being too mystical and ethereal for modern, Western audiences. 

Most experts have simply accepted the use of the term "nonviolence." (Sharp 1973; McCarthy and Kruegler 1993; Nagler 2000; Zunes 2000) Like the word "sustainability" in environmental circles, it is widely seen as imperfect, but it has gained common currency.

Now, however, this study proposes a new term to express the creative social force that Gandhi and King were describing: "transformative action." 

The term "transformative action" has many advantages. First of all, it shows what activists are hoping to achieve, not simply what they are opposing: It's all about transforming enemies into friends, and adversaries into allies. It's about transforming the situation from one of partisan rancor and animosity to one of redemption and reconciliation between all the parties involved. It's about transforming the dynamics of a conflict, to the point where everyone is united in a common vision.

Unlike most social change strategists, "transformative activists" do not seek to defeat, embarrass, or humiliate their opponents; instead they seek a situation where everyone wins. 

In the next section, the essential principles of transformative action theory are explored in more detail. These principles are derived from the pioneering work of Bondurant, Sharp, and Nagler. 


The Principles of Transformative Action Theory

There are three major principles of transformative action theory (Table 31):

1) Exposing Injustice

Transformative action is about "speaking the truth to power." Immoral and illegal practices can only thrive in secrecy, when they are well hidden from view. For example, corporations often release thousands of tons of illicit chemicals into the air and water; it is cheaper for them to do this illegal dumping, rather than disposing of the materials properly or retrofitting their facilities to produce less waste. They know that the government has limited capacity for enforcing environmental laws; the chances are that they won't get caught in their illegal behavior.

However, if activists can shine the light of day upon these transgressions, then everyone can see the problem. The citizens are likely to stir the consciences of thousands of people; even their adversaries will be ashamed when their behavior is brought to light. These corporations know that that their actions were wrong; that's why they tried to hide such illicit behavior from view. 

 Table 31

The Principles of Transformative Action



  1. A group will be successful if it can expose injustice -- bringing it out from the darkness of secrecy to the light of day.




* Protests

* Marches

* Demonstrations

* Public Education Campaigns

* Media blitzes

* Research and investigation


  1. The most effective response to injustice will be positive actions, intended to create "social chrysalis."




* Attitude of goodwill towards opponents

* Searching for common ground with adversaries

* Reframing "win-lose" situations into "win-win" paradigm

* Self-sacrifice and suffering

* Non-cooperation with system of injustice

* Civil disobedience




  1. The major goal of any campaign of transformative action should be a constructive program.




* Creating visions of a better future

* Finding alternatives to unsustainable development

* Empowering citizens to lead the process 

* Inviting all stakeholders to cooperate as partners




Because transformative activists are exposing injustice, they are often viewed as "agitators." In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, civil rights activists were described by some people as troublemakers who were disturbing the peace. They were daring to speak out against the unfair conditions that had prevailed in the United States for hundreds of years. This stirred controversy and conflict.

But conflict can be a very good thing. It can be the catalyst for social transformation. As Frederick Douglass said: 


Power concedes nothing without a demand. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her earnest claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. (Douglass 1999)


Transformative activists expose the problems of society through protests, demonstrations, marches, public education campaigns, and appeals to the media. These are the forms of direct action that are predominant in most environmental justice struggles, as noted in chapters 3, 4, and 5.


2) "Social Chrysalis"

"Social chrysalis" is the process of transformation from conflict, animosity, and hatred to cooperation, synergy, and goodwill. It takes its name from the metamorphosis that a caterpillar undergoes when taking on wings and becoming reborn as a butterfly. Analogously, among human societies, activists can emerge from the cocoon of competition and anger that normally characterizes most situations of conflict. They can respond to social injustice in ways that will uplift both their own cause and that of the opposition. This changes the dynamics of a conflict and helps all sides realize their full potential.

The methods of social chrysalis include civil disobedience, acts of self-sacrifice, and a refusal to cooperate with the system of injustice. These strategies have transformative effects on the adversaries, the activists, and the situation, as will be explored below.


A. Transformative Effect on Situation: From Competition to Cooperation

Until recently, conflict theory has been about how one side gains a victory over the other. (Oberschall 1997) It is based on the idea that some people will win, while other people will lose. As one leading sociologist defined it, "the aims of the (parties in a conflict) are to neutralize, injure, or eliminate rivals." (Coser 1956, 8) 

Gandhi turns this idea on its head: He insists that the true goal is for everyone to win. The ideal situation is to "exalt all sides." (Easwaran 1978, 158) Instead of triumphing over their antagonists, citizens seek to eliminate the antagonisms all together.

Gandhi changes the struggle from one of "you versus me," to one where "you and I are working together against the common problems we share." From a very practical standpoint, it is clear why this strategy might prove more effective than traditional conflict strategies: When two parties are struggling against each other, they often pour a great amount of energy, time, money, and resources into defeating the opponent, rather than the problem itself. What results is that the side that loses is bitter, resentful, and ultimately seeking revenge. 

For example, most protest movements in the United States mobilize hundreds of grassroots activists and enraged citizens against the existing power structure. They denounce corporate leaders and government officials. They hold mock trials of their enemies, condemning them for "crimes against humanity." They burn their opponents in effigy and rally against their evils.

These strategies often prove ineffective for several reasons: First, they attack people, rather than attacking the problem. Secondly, they encounter tremendous resistance from the people being attacked. The government leaders and corporate executives invest a considerable amount of energy, time, and resources into battling back against the grassroots activists. There builds up an enormous amount of anger, resentment, ill will, and acrimony between the warring parties. Meanwhile, the problems themselves are rarely solved. The groups have been focusing all their attention on each other, rather than the problems that confront them.

A transformative movement seeks to change the perspective from a win-lose situation to a win-win situation. This is the basis of negotiation theory, consensus building, and alternative dispute resolution. (Fisher and Ury 1991; Susskind 1996) It is a powerful force for bringing people together. It seeks to transform the enemy into a friend. It is based on understanding and respect, rather than divisiveness and conflict.

Hundreds of scientific studies have supported the idea that people working together will be much more productive than people who are competing against each other. For instance, social psychologists David and Roger Johnson (1981) reviewed dozens of studies that had been conducted in North America on the effects of competition and cooperation. Most of the evidence showed that people performed better when they were united with others towards a common goal rather than when they were competing against opponents. 65 studies found that working together leads to higher achievement and success in an activity than does competition. Only 8 studies came to the opposite conclusion. 

Indeed, after reviewing the extensive literature on the subject, researcher Alfie Kohn concluded that competition "drags us down, devastates us psychologically, poisons our relationships, (and) interferes with our performance." (Kohn 1986, 114) In fact, the "superiority of cooperation held for all subject areas and all age groups." (Kohn 1987, 48) From business to education to social change, cooperative efforts seem to produce the best results.

The findings of conflict resolution theory confirm that cooperative strategies are the most effective. At the end of his life, Morton Deutsch, the leading scholar in the field, summarized the discoveries of his 50 years of studying conflicts: Studies repeatedly showed that people who use antagonistic and adversarial tactics are most likely to escalate the intensity of a conflict; the results of such strategies are increased hostility, suspicion, and distrust. They lead to a breakdown in communication and an atmosphere of threats and coercion. Overall, antagonistic tactics destroy relationships. (Deutsch 1985)

On the other hand, people who use cooperative strategies (similar to the principles of transformative action theory) tend to engage in constructive solutions to their problems.

According to all the evidence, the most profound and enduring positive changes in intergroup relations happen when groups are working together on a common goal. They are no longer fighting each other; they are now cooperating and uniting to achieve some greater victory that will leave all parties better off. The hostility and suspicion between the groups diminishes substantially; their communication improves; and, most importantly, they overcome the barriers and prejudices that had been dividing them.

Like the ancient martial arts of jiu-jitsu and aikido, transformative action converts all the power and strength of the adversary to one's advantage. Instead of pouring all their force into injuring each other, the opponents work together. This produces the well-documented effect of "synergy:" two groups have a greater power for solving a problem than the sum of their individual capacities. Everybody triumphs in the end. 


B. Transformative Effect on Adversaries: From Antagonists to Allies

As mentioned above, any conflict strategy that seeks to defeat the opponent is going to encounter resistance and resentment. Even if community groups are successful in defeating their opponents in a short-term battle, they are going to make a lot of enemies among the people in power. They may win the battle, but end up losing the war.

Transformative action does not try to coerce the opponent to do something against his will; that sort of compulsion would be contrary to the real goals of the campaign. The "nonviolent" activist tries to win over the heart of his opponent, to transform his adversary into an ally.

 King elaborated: "Nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.... The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness." (King 1986, 18)

Because of this insistence on cultivating good relations, transformative activists would never take deliberate action to injure their opponents. They would rather take suffering upon themselves than inflict suffering on another.

The theory is that suffering will melt the heart of the opponents. As Gandhi explained, "Suffering is infinitely more powerful than reason for converting the opponent and opening his ears which are otherwise shut to the voice of reason." (Easwaran 1978, 161)

A famous example of this phenomenon took place in the Civil Rights Movement in 1963. Several hundred blacks were marching through the city of Birmingham. The racist police chief of the city, Bull Connor, ordered his troops to unleash all their weapons against the marchers. But, just before the brutal assault began, many of the protesters got on their knees to pray. They blessed the police officers who were about to attack them, and refused to retaliate for any harm that was done to them. They were "ready to pit nothing but the power of their bodies and souls against Connor's police dogs, clubs, and fire hoses." (King 1998, 211)

The police officers, many of whom were virulent racists and members of the Ku Klux Klan, were paralyzed. They refused to attack the people who were marching and praying and offering them goodwill. They had gained a newfound respect for these courageous protesters who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. 

King later explained why these strategies were so successful in winning over their enemies:

Nonviolent resistance, when planned and positive in action, can work effectively even under totalitarian regimes.... True nonviolent resistance is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the opponent, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart. (King 1986, 26)

Indeed, transformative action is based on the principle that all life is interrelated -- a theory that is the foundation of ecology. When we harm others, we harm ourselves. 

Transformative activists want to help their opponents realize their full potential. They want to help them change their destructive behavior. They are seeking a solution that leads to the best outcome for everyone.


C. Transformative Effect on Activists: From Anger to Goodwill

Until the development of nonviolent social change theory, many sociologists believed that anger was an effective way of mobilizing people to action. (Gitlin 2003) When people were outraged by some injustice, it was an effective way of rousing citizens who might ordinarily be apathetic. Citizens who had never been involved in politics would suddenly find themselves as leaders. Indeed, one of the principles of social movement theory is that "suddenly imposed grievances" are likely to cause a community to mobilize. (McAdam 1988, 706). A plan for a toxic waste incinerator is likely to mobilize angry opposition from the community. Citizens are likely to become outraged, uniting against this perceived threat to their health and well-being.

Transformative action theory does not dispute the effectiveness of mobilizing people against injustice. Indeed, all of the major experiments of nonviolence -- whether led by Gandhi, King, Chavez, or others -- have come about in response to grave injustice like exploitation or discrimination.

However, transformative action theory postulates that anger, while effective in mobilizing a social movement, will not be very effective at actually solving the problem. Anger hurts the individual; it breaks down social relations; it builds walls between people.

Overwhelming medical evidence shows the deleterious effects of anger. People who suffer from chronic hostility suffer a 5 to 7 time greater risk of dying before age 50; moreover, frequent feelings of frustration and rage can tremendously increase the chances of developing a life-threatening malady like heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and anxiety. (Novaco 2000; Anger 2000; Niehoff 1999; Siegman 1994; Johnson 1990; Novaco 1986; Shekelle 1983; Williams 1980) 

Moreover, anger leads to emotional distance and separation. It can harm people in many ways. Not only do people have less control over their behavior, they also invite dangers such as retaliation, social censure, and loss of supportive relationships. One medical expert described anger as "eruptive, destructive, unbridled, savage, venomous, burning, and consuming." (Novaco 2000) 

Of course, anger can also be seen as energizing and empowering. It can be seen as something valuable, especially in the face of injustice. As environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill has stated, "we have a right -- and a responsibility -- to be angry," when confronted with corporate malfeasance. "We have a right and responsibility to be angry when we see old-growth forests getting clearcut and toxic wastes being dumped in minority neighborhoods. We should not be victims, passively accepting injustice. Instead we should become indignant about injustice. But then we must convert that energy into something stronger. If we are angry when we act, it will destroy the situation and destroy us. Instead, we must transform our anger and transform the situation." (Hill 2000a)

Hill continues: "I knew that to hate... was to be a part of that same violence I was trying to stop.... You see that a lot in activists.... The intense negative forces... wind up overcoming many of them. They get so absorbed by the hate and anger that they become hollow." (Hill 2000b, 66-67) 

Martin Luther King, Jr. explained the same idea:

"In struggling for human dignity, the oppressed of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate or bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world." (King 1986, 8)

For King, the central principle of transformative action was love. This was not a sentimental, romantic notion. Instead, it meant goodwill towards all people -- even those who were racist, even those who bombed his church and killed four little girls. King wanted to oppose people's actions, but not the people themselves. He wanted to get rid of the evil system, but "not the individual who happens to be misguided, who happens to be misled, who was taught wrong." (King 1986, 47)

Transformative strategies are never the result of anger or malice. Anger, rage, and hatred are forms of violence. True transformative action means not even harboring ill will towards your adversaries. This may sound difficult to do, but it is crucial for leading an effective movement. Late in his life, Gandhi commented:

"I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world." (Easwaran 1978, 74)

This concept of social chrysalis is very different from the traditional attitudes of direct action. (Table 32)

Table 32

The Differences between Traditional Direct Action and Social Chrysalis


Traditional direct action























"You vs. Me"



"You and I together 

vs. the common problems we share"



Motivated by anger and hatred



Motivated by goodwill and respect



Seeking to defeat your adversary



Seeking to win over your adversary


Humiliating and embarrassing your opponent



Wanting the best for your opponent



But transformative action is more than just social chrysalis; it’s more than simply fighting against injustice. For Gandhi, there had to be a next step of constructing a better alternative. All the energy that was normally poured into anger should be channeled into constructive pursuits.


3) The Constructive Program 

Transformative activists should not only work towards tearing down the old society, but should also work towards building the foundations of a new society.

Typically, the most famous strategies of a "nonviolent" campaign are those that are responding to injustice:

* Boycotts

* Acts of civil disobedience

* Marches and protests

These are the techniques that the Civil Rights movement used very effectively throughout the South during the 1950s and 1960s. In cities such as Selma and Birmingham, they proved that these tactics could be very powerful in winning converts to their cause and in tearing down the structures of racism and injustice that scaffolded American society. 

These are also the major tactics used by the environmental justice movement. And for good reason. As was seen in Chapter 5, these techniques of direct action are often successful at exposing injustice to the light of day. These strategies are also effective at mobilizing people in opposition to the injustice. Frequently, the citizens manage to overcome the problem.

Yet King realized late in his life that responding to injustice was only the first step. It was a great victory to end discrimination in restaurants, but if African Americans did not have the money to purchase food in these restaurants, then their hard-won rights were meaningless. 

King was assassinated before he started on a constructive program. But this was already the direction that his thinking was taking in the last few years of his life. He was beginning to address problems of poverty and economic injustice; he was beginning to address the need for creating an entirely new society. 

Ironically, it was Malcolm X who pointed out the psychology behind the constructive program. In his autobiography, he talked about the most important lesson he ever learned. His mentor Elijah Muhammad took two glasses of water. Into one of the glasses, he poured some oil, so that the water became viscous and dirty. The other glass remained clean, pure, and pristine. "Never tell anyone that they have a dirty glass of water," he instructed Malcolm. "They will resent you for pointing out their problems. They will go into denial. They will get upset. They may even end up fighting you."

"A much better strategy is to hold up a clean glass of water and let the other person make a choice for himself." (Haley 1964, 236)

After all, as transformative activist Sharif Abdullah, points out: "Protests are not effective in solving problems. They are good at pointing out problems, but they do nothing to resolve them. 

"A person who spends his time fighting the power is really just acknowledging his own powerlessness. In effect, he is saying that he has no power to change conditions of his community; instead, he has to complain, scream, cajole, and coerce some other person to make some changes for him. A much better strategy is to acknowledge the power you already have to change conditions in your community." (Abdullah 1993)

Abdullah contends that even the most impoverished people in communities fighting against toxic wastes have some power to make a difference in their community. The belief that they have no power is a jail that they have built for themselves. Indeed, Abdullah believes that people spend too much time protesting the conditions in which they live, rather than creating a constructive program around a better vision of the future.

"If I want to have the perfect chocolate chip cookies, I don't go out and protest the terrible cookies that are being made at the Keebler cookie factory," Abdullah comments. "Instead, I get a recipe, and I start making them for myself." (Abdullah 1993) Similarly, if citizens want to create a better society, it does little good to spend their entire time protesting the old one. It's better to start creating the new society that they want to see. 

Gandhi explained: "The best preparation for, and even the expression of, nonviolence lies in the determined pursuit of the constructive programme." (Gandhi 1945a) In any constructive program, there must be positive, creative goals. Normally, revolutions are destructive and reactive. But transformative revolutions look towards creating a better future. Essentially, they attempt to promote a vision of the ideal society. 

King elaborated: 

"If one is in search of a better job, it does not help to burn down the factory. If one needs more adequate education, shooting the principal will not help.... (I)f housing is the goal, only building and construction will produce that end. To destroy anything, person or property, can't bring us closer to the goal we seek." (King 1986, 58)

One of the most significant aspects of the constructive program is that the community groups often start to create "parallel institutions." In other words, rather than work within the system that is oppressing them, the activists start inventing their own system to replace it.

The most famous example of this taking place was, again, in Gandhi's India. The people working for independence started their own governments, courts, and other institutions of authority. People invented their own cottage industries, rather than purchasing overpriced, overtaxed, heavily regulated goods from the British. In effect, the Indians were acting as if they had already achieved independence. 

When the British institutions were ignored, they effectively lost any power or legitimacy. They withered away from disuse. The Indian actions had the same effect of a boycott -- they refused to cooperate, economically or politically, with a system that was oppressing them. Instead, they helped create a system that would take its place. 

The constructive program is perhaps the least known element of transformative action theory. It is not as famous as the boycott, the sit-in, and the march. But to Gandhi, the constructive program was the most important element of transformative action. It was about taking power into one's own hands. Moreover, it was about creating the ideal society that could benefit everyone.

This is an important point in the philosophy of transformative action: The people have the power to change their own lives. Such a philosophy of power may be contrasted to most programs for rebuilding the inner city, which are controlled by the government or big corporations. An example of this is "Rebuild L.A.", an ambitious plan to revitalize the poorest areas of Los Angeles after the widespread civil unrest and violence in 1992. Many large corporations pledged to reconstruct the economies of such places as South Central Los Angeles and Watts. However, the plan failed and fell apart within five years. It did not consult the citizens about what they wanted. It gave them little control over their own futures. It did not allow them to participate in the building of their own dreams. 

By contrast, transformative action is in the hands of the citizens. They control the process in a truly democratic fashion. They almost always invite the government and corporations to help them make their dreams come true. In fact, they usually welcome the financial support of foundations, banks, and other outside institutions. But the residents emphasize that they are the leaders. No matter how poor or politically marginalized they are, they have the power to reshape their community.

Typically, there are several stages in the constructive program. First of all, the citizens engage in a community visioning process. (Walzer 1996) In other words, they get together to imagine limitless possibilities. What do they want to see in their community in ten years? Do they want better health care? New housing? A computer jobs training center? In a brainstorming session, no idea is off limits.

Ideally, these strategic visioning programs involve as many stakeholders in the community as possible. Everyone from the very young to the very old is included, and made to feel that their ideas are valuable. Of course, these meetings should not be too large, or else people will sense that their voices are not being heard. Often it's best to have a series of small community meetings, with diverse groups involved in each one.

In these constructive programs, there is little room for antagonism, anger, or animosity. Instead of focusing on a problem, the residents are now turning their attention to solutions. Moreover, they are working together with all the groups that might have been adversaries in the past. They unite with governments and corporations for their mutual benefit.

The second stage of this constructive program is to identify priorities and set goals. The citizens decide which of the ideas is most important at the present time. Then they start figuring out a plan for how they can achieve their goals. This sets the framework and timeline for translating their dreams to reality.

Perhaps the most notable example of this successful community visioning processes is that of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Less than 30 years ago, Chattanooga suffered the ignominious distinction of being America's most polluted city. Now, it is a world leader in sustainable development. This transformation began with just a handful of citizens, who decided to take the initiative to revitalize their blighted city.

They formed a program called Vision 2000. Over a period of 20 weeks, this program invited thousands of people to share their dreams of a clean, green future for Chattanooga. Residents became excited about participating in the process; until this time, they had imagined that only a small, wealthy elite controlled power in the state of Tennessee. Now they started believing that they could make a difference, too. 

Vision 2000 proved to be a practical example of how much citizens can accomplish by taking the leadership and involvement for revitalizing their city. Chattanooga implemented 223 programs that the citizens suggested, with a total investment of $793 million and the creation of 1,300 new jobs. (Shavelson 1994) By 1992, the community had met 85 percent of the goals it had set for itself only eight years earlier.


The Relevance of Transformative Action Theory Today

For Gandhi, "nonviolence" was a science. He was experimenting with these principles for 50 years, testing them in South Africa and India. Today these experiments continue across the world. From Latin America to Asia, such experiments are helping to show that the theory is valid: transformative action can be a successful method of social change. Gandhi called it the "greatest and (most active) force in the world." (Ackerman and DuVall 2000)

However, transformative action does not always work miracles overnight. In 1989, a nonviolent student movement for democracy in China was crushed by a brutal massacre in Tianamen Square. Similarly, the Tibetan people, led by his Holiness the Dalai Lama, have long been waging a nonviolent campaign to win the freedom of their homeland from China. These efforts have been continuing for 40 years without resolution. 

Even Gandhi, King, and Chavez needed to work for many years before they achieved their greatest victories. And all three died before they had seen their dreams come to full fruition.

Still transformative action remains a powerful strategy for achieving social change. To paraphrase Theodore Roszak, people try transformative action for a week, and get discouraged if it doesn't work right away. But people have been trying violence, hatred, antagonism, and other adversarial strategies for thousands of years, and those have never worked very effectively. (Shepard 1990)

To call on the words of Gandhi one final time:

"We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence [a.k.a. transformative action]." (Easwaran 1978, 50)

Most of the "discoveries" in the field of transformative action so far have been in the international arena, with peoples struggling against oppressive regimes in places such as Chile, the Philippines, Burma, and Poland. But transformative action can also succeed in democracies like the United States for citizens who feel excluded from the traditional corridors of power. This is particularly relevant for the environmental justice movement. In the final section of this chapter, the role of transformative action in the movement will be examined briefly.


Transformative Action in the Environmental Justice Movement

As discussed in chapters 4 and 5, many environmental justice groups have used the first principle of transformative action: they have successfully exposed the injustices in their communities through strategies of direct action.

But it has been rare for communities to adopt the second principle of "social chrysalis." While the majority of groups claimed to be following in the footsteps of the Civil Rights movement, it does not appear that many of them have actually embraced the compassionate philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Instead, the movement has been fueled by a tremendous amount of righteous anger. Citizens have built up hatred and rage towards corporations that have built waste facilities in their communities. They often harbor animosity towards government bureaucrats, who are seen as puppets of the industries. A frequent refrain of the citizens is that the EPA does nothing to help them. If anything, they claim that it obstructs their efforts and belittles their claims of environmental racism. There is division and bitterness.

This anger may be justified. The complaints of the citizens are frequently valid, as they see children suffering illnesses in the face of government inaction. When an epidemic of cancer was spreading through the small farm town of McFarland, California, the Latino citizens had a right to be upset with the government officials who said there was no proof of a problem. "How many more children have to die?" asked one furious mother, who had seen countless babies with birth defects, youngsters with leukemia, and other adolescents with their legs amputated. (Warren 1992)

Indeed, many believe it is only the anger that will get them the attention that they need. A polite approach simply will not work. Corporations and government officials "have never listened to calm, reasoned arguments," explains one member of the anti-nuclear forces in Rocky Flats, Colorado. (Piller 1991, 70). Only the people who use angry, confrontational tactics will move the government to action. 

In Love Canal, for example, the residents were tired of government inaction. They state and federal government had denied their claims of danger. Moreover, local officials accused them of hurting tourism in the state and giving the Niagara Falls area a bad reputation. But these people had seen their children get diseases. If they threw a rock at the ground, it would explode. Dogs that sniffed the soil would burn their noses. For the citizens, this was sufficient evidence that something was terribly wrong. They needed to be evacuated immediately. But the federal government did not take action for many months. Finally, the impatient, angry citizens took two EPA officials hostage. This got the attention of the U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Within days he had approved the buy-out of their homes. (Gibbs 1998)

Taking hostages may be extreme. But many citizens see anger as their only natural response to the calamities that they face. After all, these are emotional, passionate subjects. They are not simply the dry policy issues of a technocratic debate over risk assessment. When a mother believes that her child is being poisoned by dioxin, and the government does not acknowledge a problem, she is going to be furious. She cannot negotiate or compromise in the face of such injustice. In such a case, moral outrage is her most powerful weapon. 

The politics of anger also seems to attract good press. As was discussed in chapter 5, the media is attracted to stories of “good versus evil.” A meeting of many stakeholders to discuss issues of common ground would hardly provide good footage on the evening news. But a rally in which people cry out about "corrupt politicians" and "corporate genocide" is likely to catch the public eye. It seems to have the effect of mobilizing the corporations and governments to action; they don't want to be the subject of such embarrassing accusations. In order to avoid a public relations disaster, they often grant concessions. 

So anger appears to have some benefits. It is a strategy that has been used frequently in the environmental justice movement, as a fuel for direct action.

However, there are also many dangers in anger, which were briefly mentioned above. Anger may be analogous to the power of a fire. A fire can warm the hearth on a cold winter's night, but it can also burn down the house if not tended correctly. Similarly, rage can be used in both good and bad ways.

Experience shows that it has destroyed relationships and alienated potential supporters. Public hearings often turn into shouting matches, full of flaring emotional outbursts, accusations, and insults. There is little civility. One industry consultant has called these meetings "the last of the blood sports." (Inhaber 1998, 15) 

For instance, in the East Liverpool conflict, the residents were justifiably furious. The government had proposed operating the incinerator for a year, and then testing the children at the nearby school to see if their health had actually declined. To the citizens of the town, this policy was absurd; it was akin to using their children as guinea pigs in a dangerous experiment.

Therefore the citizens were disruptive and antagonistic whenever they met with government officials. They would walk into public meetings, yelling "Traitors! Traitors! Traitors!" At an EPA hearing for a proposed permit for the WTI facility, hundreds of protesters refused to let the proceedings take place. "The public hearing process is a sham!" yelled the leader, Terri Swearingen. "We demand democracy!" Meanwhile, the rest of the group continued to drown out any possible speakers, filling the auditorium with a "deafening roar" and absolute "bedlam." Finally the EPA gave up trying to conduct the hearing. "At the Ohio EPA, [Shelby Thurman] Jackson, whose job is to manage public involvement would never again have a kind word to say about the protesters in East Liverpool. She had tried to do her job and they had thwarted her." (Schwab 1994, 128) 

In this situation, Jackson had legitimately wanted to work with the citizens of East Liverpool. She wanted to come up with a solution that would protect the health of their children, but they demonized her and drove her away from their side. Although the citizens' anger was understandable, they had not managed to channel that energy into constructive pursuits. Instead, they had destroyed the relationships with people who potentially could have helped them.

A review of the 60 case studies also supports the contention that anger can cause burnout. Walsh, Warland, and Smith (1997, x) report the common problem of citizens who:

were wearied and/or confused with the exaggeration and name-calling by proponents as well as opponents in these sometimes heated disputes. Corporate sponsors of [incineration] technologies too often arrogantly ridicule the alleged ignorance of grass-roots opponents, while some of the latter caricature the former as greedy, diabolical incarnations, rather than as businesspersons attempting to find financially profitable solutions to challenging technical and political problems. In the cases examined here, each side insisted that the other had prostituted "science" by using intentionally bogus data in support of its own economic and political agenda. After hearing such charges and counter-charges, some people in the surrounding areas said -- more often with actions than with these specific words -- 'a plague on both your houses' -- and went about living their own private lives without becoming involved.

In fact, excessive displays of rage not only turn away many supporters of the cause. They also make it more difficult to win the sympathy of their opponents. In effect, they undermine the moral advantages that the "nonviolent" resisters have been trying to cultivate. When people are screaming at you and demonizing you, it is all too easy to dislike them. Thus, anger can be like a form of violence. It is emotional violence, attacking and attempting to injure the other person. In that sense, it breeds even more hatred, anger, and enmity as a response. It is not the most effective way to appeal to an opponent's heart. 

Finally, the case studies indicate that anger can be emotionally exhausting and physically debilitating. A movement can not be sustained on hatred. As discussed previously, there are dozens of medical and psychological studies that document the health hazards of chronic anger. In some cases, it may be as hazardous to people's health as the industries they are fighting. 

Perhaps anger is an important first step in launching a movement against injustice. It can serve well to mobilize an entire community in reaction to a threat to their health. The righteous indignation will lead them to demand their rights. It will rouse people from their complacency. It can move even the most sedentary people off of their couches and into the streets. 

But there comes a time when that anger needs to be channeled into constructive pursuits. This is the third principle of transformative action: creating a vision of a better future. The most successful community groups, according to transformative action theory, are not simply content to fight against injustice; they also want to create the positive conditions of justice for all -- good jobs, housing, and health care. They imagine ways to restore the environment and reweave the tattered social fabric. 

However, this third principle of transformative action has yet to be attempted by most environmental justice groups. Of the 60 case studies reviewed for this research, only six were moving in that direction: Dilkon, East L.A., South Central L.A., Boston, Minneapolis, and West Harlem. 

Still, these initial successes show that there is a promising new direction for the environmental justice movement. It's not just about blocking toxics and containing contaminants. It's also about creating safe, healthy, beautiful communities where people can prosper and thrive. The final pages of this chapter briefly examine three of these environmental justice cases that have been most successful in adopting these new approaches. Each one highlights a different principle of transformative action. (Table 33) 

Table 33

Transformative Action in the Environmental Justice Movement:

Three Case Studies

Case study








Mothers of

East Los Angeles


* prison

* incinerator

* oil pipeline



* transformed hatred towards enemies into goodwill



* water conservation program





Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative,








* illegal dumps


* transformed a community wracked by ethnic conflict into a multiracial alliance for social change 


* transformed traditional enemies (government, businesses) into partners for redevelopment







* revitalization of a poor community into an "urban village"





Green Institute,










* waste facility






* transformed antagonistic conflict into "win-win" situation


* Deconstruction Services (plan for reducing waste)


* Reuse Center


* Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center (new model for ecologically sustainable development)






  1. East Los Angeles: Exposing Injustices to Light

 The Mothers of East L.A. demonstrate the first principle of transformative action, exposing multiple injustices to win a series of victories for their community.

In each case, the government and corporations had made plans for East L.A. without the knowledge and consent of neighborhood residents. Therefore, when a group of women brought the news to the public’s attention, it caused a major outcry. The uprorar grew even louder as more facts came to light.

For example, when making plans for a large-scale hazardous waste incinerator in a metropolitan area, the government claimed that the facility would have no adverse impact on the surrounding communities. Thus, public officials did not require an Environmental Impact Report. 

However, the Mothers of East Los Angeles conducted their own investigation. They discovered that the company that was building the incinerator, California Thermal Treatment Services (CTTS), had dozens of reported violations of health and safety codes at its other smaller incinerators already existing in Southern California. In Long Beach, its incinerator had been cited 20 times in just six years for violations of statutes. It was always cheaper for CTTS to pay the fines, rather than clean up its operations. 

When the Mothers of East L.A. exposed these facts, it caused 500 people to protest at a Department of Health Services meeting. The press publicized the findings, the mayor pledged his support to the residents, and the incinerator was stopped. 

This example illustrates the power of simply bringing information to light. The citizens were confident that their concerns for health, safety, and the environment would be validated when all of the facts were unveiled. They especially depend on the power of publicity to aid their cause. As Joseph Pulitzer once noted, “more crime, immorality, and rascality is prevented by the fear of exposure in the newspapers than by all the laws, moral and statute, ever devised.” (Serrin and Serrin 2002, 20)

The Mothers of East L.A. repeatedly uncovered scandals and exposed hidden problems with local land use proposals. When fighting a prison, they found that a county supervisor had selected a site in their neighborhood that would make millions of dollars in profits for one of his close friends. (Gutierrez 1994, 226) When fighting an oil pipeline, they exposed a corporate official who seemed more concerned with protecting marine life than human life. (Lerner 1997b) When fighting a series of toxic waste proposals for their area, they discovered a secret government document that advocated the targeting of poor, uneducated communities such as their own, because of their perceived powerlessness and apathy. (Gutierrez 1994)

In each case, they were able to win a battle against injustice, simply by taking something embarrassing that had been hidden and revealing it to the light of day. This proved to be the most effective way of stopping the problem. As Supreme Court Justice Lous Brandeis once noted, “Sunlight is the… best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” (Brandeis 1976)

The Mothers of East L.A. also used the other principles of transformative action, but to a lesser degree. In principle, they adhered to strategies of goodwill and respect for their adversaries. Yet these efforts were not entirely successful; the group could not even maintain unity among its own members, causing a fractious split into two separate factions. (Gold 1999)

Because of their lack of unity, their efforts to create a constructive program have been minimal. One of the factions has been collaborating with the city on water conservation efforts. But there has been no larger vision for revitalizing the entire neighborhood. In order to understand further development of transformative action, it is necessary to turn to a community in Massachusetts.


  1. Boston: Social Chrysalis

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston provides a valuable example of social chrysalis -- transforming a situation of enmity, animosity, and conflict into a cooperative solution that benefited all stakeholders in the community.

Before the environmental justice campaign, members of the multiracial neighborhood had segregated themselves into separate ethnic and cultural enclaves. The Black, Latino, Cape Verdean, and white communities were often at odds with each other, fighting turf wars. There were also misunderstandings, as three different languages -- Portuguese, Spanish, and English -- clashed. The politics had frequently been bitter and acrimonious, as each group fought for its own power. (Medoff and Sklar 1994, 47)

Yet the residents soon realized that they had a common problem that they needed to surmount: their impoverished neighborhood had become the dumping ground for most of the Boston metropolitan area. There were four illegal waste facilities operating within a few city blocks, filling the area with toxic chemicals and threats to public safety. The city department of health declared a state of emergency in the neighborhood.

When the residents united across racial and ethnic lines to expose the environmental problems of their neighborhood, they also decided to transform their relationship to local politicians. Previously they had a hostile relationship towards city officials, whom they considered to be racist. They believed that Mayor Ray Flynn had no concern for the plight of their community. He had never been perceived as someone who cared about the issues of poor people or minorities.

 Yet the mayor would prove to be one of the biggest supporters of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Instead of denouncing him as the enemy, DSNI recruited him as an ally in their campaign to expose the illegal dumping that was proliferating in their area. Flynn played an instrumental role in shutting down the facilities that were operating without a permit.

The residents of Dudley Street also recruited charitable foundations, local businesses, and major corporations to be allies in their campaign to rebuild the neighborhood. Together the residents imagined their vision of an ecologically healthy "urban village." This was a place where the vacant lots would be transformed into beautiful gardens, overflowing with food and flowers. The abandoned, burnt-out, boarded-up buildings would be resurrected as restaurants, theaters, and a thriving marketplace. 

There would be outdoor cafes, art galleries, comedy clubs, and bookstores spread throughout the village. There would be a central town commons, featuring open air concerts of live music --- gospel, jazz, or rock 'n roll. There would be bike paths, apple orchards and fountains. There would even be an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, which families could visit on a hot summer day. 

In order to realize this dream, the Dudley Street residents needed the financial and political support of all the major stakeholders in the city. They had to transform potential enemies into allies. For example, the residents approached the city with a cooperative attitude, rather than an antagonistic, hostile strategy of fighting the power. DSNI had come into the planning process with the philosophy of having as many people as possible invest in the process. They wanted everyone in this together.  

Unlike many other community organizing groups, they had never lashed out with anger and violence of spirit. Such tactics could have alienated their potential supporters in the government. Indeed, if they had ever treated the city officials as their bitter adversaries, it would have been easy for Boston to reject their ambitious vision. Instead, the residents always treated the city officials with respect. 

Peter Medoff, the former executive director of DSNI, explained it this way: "A unified visionary community can create political will where there was none before and make government a partner rather than an obstacle or adversary." (Medoff and Sklar 1994, 262) 

This transformative attitude towards city officials proved fruitful. In the end, the residents won an unprecedented victory: The government delegated them the power to take over 1300 vacant lots, scattered among their neighborhood -- a full 107 acres of prime real estate. This was the first time a community group had ever been given the power of eminent domain – the constitutional right, normally reserved for governments, to take over property for the public good.

This property has become the location of the community renaissance. New houses are literally rising from the ashes of the burnt-out, abandoned buildings. Vacant lots that once overflowed with trash -- filled with their pungent stench -- are now green open spaces, many filled with fragrant wildflowers. The central red-brick church has been restored to immaculate condition. A beautiful town commons has been created with a $1 million grant from the state's Department of Environmental Management; it is the first time an inner city area has ever won this award. 

According to the Boston Globe, the residents have transformed "far-flung dreams into fantastic results." (Jackson 1997) The residents have already developed 300 of the 1300 vacant lots. They have built over 225 attractive new homes and restored hundreds more. $80 million has been invested in the community since 1989. 

Much of this success can be attributed to the transformations in attitude that have taken place in the community. The residents have turned antagonists into allies and conflict into consensus. With a spirit of goodwill, the African Americans, Latinos, Cape Verdeans, and whites have come together to work towards common goals. Social chrysalis has played a major role in the revitalization of the area.

Of course, the Dudley Street renaissance is far from complete. The residents have made remarkable progress, but there are miles to go before they will fully achieve the conditions of environmental justice. Yes, they have been successful in building new homes, and a new sense of community. Unfortunately, economic development still lags behind. It is not so easy to transform an economically depressed neighborhood overnight. 

In 1993, two of the largest employers in the Roxbury area -- Digital Equipment Corporation and Stride Rite shoe corporation -- both decided to shut down their operations, to move overseas where they could take advantage of much cheaper labor forces in Indonesia and China. In those nations, skilled workers earn as little as $100 month for 65 hours of work each week; unskilled workers earn only $50 a month. 

This downsizing in the Dudley Street neighborhood left almost 500 people without their primary source of income; it eliminated almost 20 percent of the manufacturing jobs in the area. (Medoff and Sklar 1994, 189-90) It was another case of disinvestment in the community. 

DSNI residents may have had control over their land and housing development, but they had no control over these multinational corporate decisions. Thus, they needed a new strategy for community control over economic development. Such a strategy – a constructive program of sustainable economic development – has been started in Minnesota.

  1. Minneapolis: The Constructive Program

 The Green Institute in Minneapolis illuminates the full potential of the constructive program -- building alternative development projects that are good for the economy, the environment, and the health of the local citizens.

For ten years, activists had been trying to expose the hazards of a proposed trash transfer station inh their neighborhood. Their tactics included protests, rallies, lawsuits and prominent billboards informing the public about the imminent danger to their health and welfare. But they did not use any elements of social chrysalis -- attempting to transform their adversaries into allies, their anger into goodwill, and the conflict into consensus. They had done nothing to win over the opposition. 

On the contrary, their tactics were divisive, adversarial, and violent of spirit. They used many of the organizing tactics favored by Saul Alinsky, the self-proclaimed “radical” from Chicago. They angrily denounced members of the county government, and tried to rally the neighbors around their rage. They built up an "us versus them" ethic that threatened to rip the city apart.

At one point, the animosity had grown so much that they were accused of being "pesky little gnats" by a county official. They responded by starting a group called NATS -- Neighbors Against the Transfer Station. They became such a nuisance to the county government that it took away all the money that it had previously granted to their neighborhood organization.

Even the community itself was balkanized. There were many factions, angry with each other and antagonistic. As a result, they were losing their battles. After a decade, nothing had been solved; many of the citizens had burnt out with frustration and dropped out of the struggle. The government still pressed forward with its plans. 

Public officials figured that the remaining activists would eventually grow weary and give up their struggle. This did not happen. Instead, a tragedy occurred. When a Native American child from the Phillips neighborhood was killed by a garbage truck, the community members stopped fighting each other. They realized that they needed to join together in solidarity against a common enemy. In their view, the dangers were only going to grow: When the trash transfer station was complete, 720 trucks would drive through the neighborhood everyday. 

"The battle with the County did a lot to unify Phillips," explained Michael Krause, a community leader. "Renters, homeowners, and businesses all worked together. African Americans and Native Americans had the same goals. People got a sense of what they could accomplish together." (Nathanson 1999)

But soon they came to understand that they could not win their battle if they were still fighting again the government and industry. For ten years, they had been operating under a paradigm of competition and antagonism. In order to reach a stage of social chrysalis and transformation, they needed to work with all shareholders towards a common vision.

Therefore, they decided to take a more positive approach. Instead of pointing out the problems with the transfer station, they decided to say "We have a better idea." This was the genesis of their constructive program.

As Krause explained, "You can't allow yourself to expend all your energy fighting against something." (Krause 1999) They needed to present a positive alternative to the trash transfer station that would win over the government. Ultimately, the county could become their greatest ally. It would save $85 million if it did not have to build the waste facility. If the citizens could demonstrate that there were other solutions to the garbage crisis facing Minnesota, they might be able to win their battle.

They formed an organization called the Green Institute. This would offer a new vision of sustainable economic development for the Phillips neighborhood. It would spark a series of businesses that would work to reduce solid waste, restore the environment, and provide jobs for local people.

First the Green Institute created an enterprise called Deconstruction Services. This business salvages high-quality materials from construction and demolition sites. The activists calculated that they could reduce the city’s need for waste facilities by 33 percent simply by rescuing the good materials that would have normally been thrown into the garbage.

Then the Green Institute profits from salvaging this raw material. They have started a successful business called the Re-Use Center, where they sell goods to other people who are planning on building houses. Rather than destroying virgin forests, the consumers can get high-quality wood for 20 to 80 percent of the current price. Everybody wins: the disposer (who gets a tax break by giving them materials, rather than throwing them in the garbage), the consumer, the Green Institute, and the natural world.

This also benefits the government. The cost of constructing an expensive new incinerator can be as much as $150 million. It makes much more sense to prevent the waste from being generated in the first place. The pollution is prevented, and no community -- rich or poor, black or white -- has to fear the potentially toxic effects of the smokestacks.

After starting two successful businesses, the Green Institute announced plans for its most ambitious project. On the land that was initially slated for the waste facility, the activists were going to create an "eco-industrial park" -- a model of sustainable enterprise and ecological development. It would attempt to eliminate pollution and waste almost completely from the industrial process.

Opened in 1999, the Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center soon provided 250 people from the local community with good jobs at living wages. It is a $5.3 million project, bringing jobs and investment to the heart of one of the most impoverished areas in the entire state. About 15 small businesses have located in the building. 

All of these businesses in the Eco-Enterprise Center are dedicated to promoting sustainability. For example, the companies recycle products, manufacture energy-efficient equipment, and produce "cutting-edge" environmental technologies

Most importantly, the building is a model of ecological design, with a reduced impact on the environment and a minimum of waste produced. If all buildings in the country followed the design of the Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center, there would be less of a need for new landfills, incinerators, and other dumping grounds that so often cause environmental injustice in poor communities. 

By the time that the Eco-Enterprise Center opened in 1999, the Green Institute had already won the federal government's National Award for Environmental Sustainability. Then, in 2000, the American Institute of Architects recognized the Center as one of the ten best ecological buildings in the United States. Now cities and businesses as far away as Hyderabad, India are trying to replicate the success of this innovative economic development project. (Inskip 2000) 

The Green Institute has the potential to serve as a model for hundreds of other poor communities struggling to achieve environmental justice. For it shows that a strong economic future, with good jobs, does not have to come at the expense of either health or the environment. This is the best example of transformative action in the movement; it is also the best example of a community achieving success.


By Scott Sherman, Dissertation



E-mail me when people leave their comments –

Scott Sherman's Dissertation

You need to be a member of Mothers Out Front Tompkins to add comments!

Join Mothers Out Front Tompkins


  • This is a long piece, but packed with insights about our work as activists. Would love to have a discussion focused on Transformative Action. 

    “More importantly, it is about transforming communities themselves. It is not just a reactive strategy of fighting against injustice. It's not just about closing down toxic landfills, stopping incinerators from moving into the neighborhood, and battling against polluting industries. Instead, it is also a proactive approach of constructing better alternatives -- creating a new vision of the community that is both economically strong and environmentally healthy. ”

This reply was deleted.