Evaluating Success

Earlier this month in Ottawa, I helped to organize an event called “We Win Every Day” with longtime organizer and writer Chris Crass as part of his speaking tour through Quebec and Ontario. This event opened up some great discussions about victories that local organizations have achieved in recent years (check out some lovely posters generated from these victory stories here). Afterward, many people present talked about how unusual it is to acknowledge victories in this intentional way.

My experience at the event definitely got me thinking about how to bring a regular practice of celebrating victories into my work. More generally, it also provoked me to think about how we, as activists and organizers, tend to evaluate success, individually and collectively, in our political efforts. On reflection, I don’t think we do this so well.

For one thing, we often don’t stop for even a basic evaluation before moving on to another activity. Here, I’m thinking of a collective discussion about what we hoped to achieve, what we did achieve, what was challenging, and what we can learn from our experiences. Even when we do evaluate our efforts, though, it’s tempting to gauge the effectiveness of our activities with metrics that are easy to see but actually not very useful:

  • Frenzy and exhaustion: Perhaps the most readily available mode of evaluation we have for judging our success is how busy we are. Indeed, many activist communities have elaborate status hierarchies based on who is able to take on the most responsibilities, sleep the least, and appear the most stressed. The problem here is that doing more doesn’t necessarily mean that we are getting any closer to achieving our goals. Sometimes it does, for sure. But other times, it just means that we’re succeeding in creating a small frenzied core of very stressed-out, exhausted activists.
  • Social recognition: Within relatively small and interconnected activist scenes, popularity can function as a powerful metric. The more other activists notice what we’re doing, the more we can feel that we’re succeeding in our efforts. Social media definitely amplifies this dynamic. And of course, there are many worthwhile initiatives that get a lot of attention among activists. However, gaining social recognition within activist scenes doesn’t necessarily translate into having relevance or impact beyond them. At worst, social recognition can prevent us from frankly evaluating the limitations of our efforts.
  • State repression: When the state pushes back against us with surveillance, arrests, or outright violence, it’s tempting to use this as evidence that we’re succeeding. In some cases, we are. The trouble is that this mode of evaluation mainly focuses on moments of confrontation rather than all of what we’re trying to build and achieve in the long-term. And perhaps more troubling, it gauges our success through state logics – with all of their internal contradictions – rather than through our self-determined goals and priorities.

So, what sorts of modes of evaluation can we develop that would be better? There are some wonderful initiatives that have developed helpful metrics, but here I just want to contribute some brief, general ideas to get us thinking. I offer them as five questions:

  1. How are our activities winning tangible gains that demonstrate the power of collective action by ordinary, non-activist people?
  2. How are our activities bringing more people together, creating new kinds of connections, and widening the circle of participation?
  3. How are our activities building new confidence and capacities in people, particularly those who are structurally excluded and oppressed in our society?
  4. How are our activities communicating a transformative vision, not just rhetorically but also through how they are organized and what they create?
  5. How are our activities laying the basis for future successful struggles, in terms of moving ruling institutions, shifting consciousness, and building movement infrastructure?

In my view, these kinds of questions begin to move us toward the more fine-tuned, self-determined evaluation routines that we need. What kinds of metrics do you use? How do you articulate them?