Moment or Movement?

Clues to social-change staying power

From the Ice Bucket Challenge and the 99 Percent to Black Lives Matter and “Lean In,” in the past few years, we’ve witnessed no shortage of social-change campaigns and popular, thought-provoking initiatives. These efforts have been designed to heighten general knowledge and mobilize collective action for various social-change causes and worthwhile crusades. But why do some campaigns maintain traction, while others become a blip that few remember?

We live in a day and age where new awareness-raising hashtags consume our social media feeds at seemingly any given moment. We see our friends and those in our network becoming virtual agitators and activists, as they post pictures, memes and calls to action that stir up emotions and foster conversations – both online and face to face.

But as technology makes getting the word out easier and more innovative than ever – and as everyday armchair activists and boots-on-the-ground agents of change have made more of us into cause-championing devotees, it can be hard to tell which causes and efforts will actually have staying power.

[tweet bird=”yes”] Is the latest high-profile cause a moment or a movement? What is the difference between the two? [/tweet] At first blush, moments and movements appear more alike than different.

Here’s why:

Common Consensus – Both moments and movements are characterized by a sense of shared collective perspective, a nearly universal consensus, that overcomes difference – socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, faith and geography. General beliefs or perspectives on the issue are so similar that the groupthink behind the opportunity or challenge practically rises to a commonsense no-brainer.

Mobilization of People – Perhaps it starts with a smattering of a person here or a small group there, but both movements and moments, over time, bring together like-minded people on a common accord, united by a shared belief and goal. They convene to protest with signs and horns, they march down thoroughfares and shut down traffic, and they pass out informational flyers and discuss the issue with passersby. Other times, they “get on the horn,” and call people to raise awareness about an issue. Many individuals, who perhaps otherwise would neither cross paths nor have anything to discuss with each other, find themselves organically thrown together, championing a cause with passion.

Social Outcry – Moments and movements stir up emotions and rile up a sense of outrage that brings out strong emotions on both sides. Impassioned chants, spirited debates, argumentative dialogues, uncontrollable tears and instinctive shouts, yells and cries – when words alone will not suffice – are characteristic of both movements and moments. Sometimes social-change causes strike a personal chord or hit home deeply, bringing out victims’ and advocates’ closely held senses of injustice, passion, anger, disappointment or disgust. It is from this type of personal perspective that social outcry is born, driven by strong emotions that manifest in demonstrative, uniquely human, ways.

As you can see, moments and movements can look and feel similar on the surface. Perhaps the single most distinguishable factor is staying power. Movements are chronicled for posterity, with a memory that outlasts social buzz or trending topics. Movements are preserved in stories that parents and grandparents pass down to their children and grandchildren. They are written about in textbooks, history books, biographies and other works. And they influence and inform the social fabric of a people or a place for generations well past the original event that sparked the social-change activity.

Moments that Became Movements

Today, we can credit major social movements to gains in many areas, from racial and gender equity to workplace safety and improved national governance. Years ago, perhaps onlookers and naysayers initially dismissed the abolition, women’s rights or civil rights movements as short-lived moments, but they were proved wrong by the champions, ambassadors and supporters of such seminal social-change causes. Policies were changed, and laws were enacted, forever transforming the tapestry of communities and shifting human relations.

Even in contemporary times, we have witnessed the rise of environmentalism from a niche crusade to an international concern that has altered the way everyday people think and how major companies operate. From its formative years in the 1960s, the environmental moment became a true movement, characterized by the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, which established a framework for protecting the planet when projects like airports, military complexes, highways, parks and other federal activities are proposed. Today, manufacturers, businesses and households alike have incorporated recycling practices as a standard mode of operation, and consumers continually vote with their dollars – buying products and services marketed as sustainable, energy efficient and renewable.

Movements like these have fueled the vision and mission of various spinoff nonprofit organizations today. Many modern organizations can connect their founding motivation or inspiration to moments that became movements years ago. Those that champion gender parity in education or the workplace, for example, are influenced by the strides of the Women’s Rights Movement. Similarly, organizations focused on racial equality and economic justice are carrying on the work of the Civil Rights Movement.

What do you think are the differences between a movement and a moment? What are the most popular movements and moments going on right now?

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