Dream Big, Start Small – Initiating Momentum & Victory

The American injustice landscape has targets everywhere. Systemic racism breaks down into layers of issues. There is generational poverty and quality of primary education, there is police brutality and racist employment practices. It even intersects with climate change through the pollution disparity between communities of color and predominately white communities. Climate change itself breaks down into thousands more issues. Good campaign planning starts with an idea of what world you are fighting for. When you want to change the world but are unsure how or where to begin, think of “Blueprint For Revolution”, Chapter Two: Dream Big, Start Small.

Stated more clearly by public education activist Jonathon Kozol, “Pick battles big enough to matter, but small enough to win.” Srdja Popovic, the author of “Blueprint For Revolution”, illustrates this point with the stories of four successful activists.

He also gives readers an activity to work out whether their issue can bring together enough people to win. He suggests writing the issue on a napkin and drawing a line. On one side of the line you write the groups who share the issue of interest with you, groups who would help win. On the other side you write the groups who would oppose you. You know when you have found your pivotal issue when the groups on your side vastly outnumber those against you.

Winnable But Significant Campaign Planning: In Practice

The first examplar is Itzik Alrov. He built a boycott of cottage cheese manufacturers as they raised prices in Israel. He started a Facebook group in 2011 that a blogger picked up and made viral. According to Popovic, the successful boycott inspired young Israelis to take up, and win, an affordable housing campaign. The cottage cheese boycott worked because, according to Popovic, Israelis love cottage cheese, and thus, were united in their opposition to price-rises.  

Mahatma Gandhi used a British tax on Indian salt to undermine their Empire. He organized a march to collect salt from the Indian coast. The Imperialist forces responded by brutalizing them and jailing more than 60,000 people for making or buying untaxed salt. This response led to boycotts, tax avoidance campaigns, and law breaking across the country. The 1930 action did not gain any victories against the British who left the country in 1947 as World War II drained their wealth.

The political career of Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay elected official in California, owes its first electoral victory to this strategy. In 1973 and ‘75 he lost elections campaigning on gay rights. In 1977 he campaigned on getting dog shit off of the streets of San Francisco. This was an issue that united San Franciscans. He found the common concern in the community of too many people not cleaning up after their dogs, then he campaigned on it and won. He once began a campaign press conference in a Bay Area park by stepping in a scouted-out pile of it.

The final exemplar, James Lawson, was a Tennessee racial justice organizer and nonviolent direct action trainer. He was a black man who organized in white and black communities. He helped organize the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins and encouraged the protesters to dress nicely, remain nonviolent, and be respectful while protesting. He thought that racial equality would be better won through an incremental approach. His approach to campaign planning reflected this. Popovic recounts how he would advise people who wanted to march that, “We don’t want a white person with a negro of the opposite sex, because we don’t want to fight that battle.” He felt that desegregation was possible at that time, but not mixed-race relationships.

This tidbit of wisdom, advice to choose your targets, has helped create tipping-points for social justice causes. Activists look for opportunities in the weakness of the system. Knowing this makes campaign planning easier. Popovic quoted “The Art Of War” to describe why the strategy works, he said that Sun Tzu knew, “How important it is to always put your strong points against your enemy’s weak points”. So I asked several activists and organizers what opportunities they see for campaigns which are both meaningful and winnable.

Winnable But Significant Campaign Planning: From The Pros

One respondent, Dan Perry, has volunteered with J Street and on an American University Community Garden, highlighted the healthcare battle. I met him at a healthcare protests in August at which he was arrested for occupying the office of the Republican Nevada Senator Dean Heller. He said, “a single-payer system is highly feasible, and works well in many other countries. We also just won the public opinion battle over Obamacare, big time, so we have the momentum.”

Another friend, one of the people who trained me as a Street Medic, said, “Well, totally doable and super topical now is getting my local, public confederate monuments removed/rededicated to justice. Lots of intersection and opportunity for deeper issue delving.” Dave P (as he asked to be called) trains people to respond to basic medical emergencies in protests with the organization Appalachian Medical Solidarity.

Curt Ries, the co-founder of Democracy Spring, gave me a nuanced answer steeped in social change theory. He discussed the importance of knowing the overall issue you want to impact before choosing its bite-size companion, saying, “So I pose this question as what are strategic demands and targets for any given issue. I think DAPL and KXL have been excellent examples of that for the climate movement. The demand was achievable in the short-term: stop the pipeline. But they clearly built much broader momentum for the climate movement as a whole.”

Beth Porter is the Director of the Better Paper Project at Green America and a former organizing peer at UNC Asheville. She responded by mentioning a victory Green America had by campaigning for Apple to remove two carcinogens from their supply chain. On the local level, she recommended pushing for local incentives for to improve your community’s recycling and waste production, “like getting your local municipality to adopt a Pay As You Throw Program to increase landfill diversion through a smart economic incentive program. That’s something that isn’t going to happen on a national scale, but towns and cities that have adopted it have seen great results from it and often it was spurred on by local organizers.”

Rosanna Tavarez of RISE District suggested an issue that is hyper-local to DC. The issue regards affordable housing for all people, specifically the inhabitants of Barry Farms. Barry Farms is an affordable housing complex in Southeast D.C. where the residents are expecting eviction. They have decided to engage in direct action to resist their relocation. The land would be used for construction of new apartments and retail space. She said, “Affordable housing is critical to conversations surrounding social justice issues and income inequality. One community’s struggle to stay in their homes while the city attempts to modernize may not seem like a priority in comparison to nationally covered events like immigration and healthcare, but it truly is pivotal in engaging the community, to reinforce a sense of community among neighbors and lead to transformative change in the long run.”

Finally, the People For The American Way Manager of the Government By The People campaign, Rio Tazewell, suggested a campaign that targets a specific corporation for their political lobbying and spending.


Effective campaign planning means choosing battles with issues that are both meaningful and winnable. We have shared the thoughts of several activists on what sorts of campaigns fall into this strategy. If you are working on a campaign give the activity on the napkin a try. Work out what issues will get the broadest support and pursue them. 


This is Part 2 of a series on Srdja Popovic’s “Blueprint For Revolution”

Part 1 Why Liberation From Oppression Can Happen Here And Anywhere

Part 3 How To Peacefully Face A Brutal Dictatorship And Win

Part 4 Topple Your Target With The Help Of Their Financiers

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