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Climate resilience as Inside-Outside Strategy

by Cherie Kwok

What it is: Inside/outside strategy, also called IOS, is a political and organizing strategy utilized to broadly shift public opinion and incite transformational social change. The strategy hinges upon growing the number of social-, racial-, and climate-justice champions embedded inside political institutions (and other established institutions) while building robust grassroots movements and alternative systems outside those institutions. On the inside, people in positions of power, such as political representatives, members of commissions and boards, and union and advocacy group leaders, work to funnel resources to the outside, champion the visions of the mass movement, and actualize meaningful climate action and justice-oriented legislation, projects, and more. Meanwhile, on the outside, activists organize and nurture movements, develop solutions grounded in the lived expertise of community members, engage in protest and direct action, and push insiders to act more boldly. Together they create synergy.

Examples of inside/outside strategy in practice include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Activists infiltrating political institutions to advocate for policy reforms, engage with lawmakers, and otherwise advance the agenda developed by the community/communities in which they’re rooted;
  • Activists infiltrating media spaces (such as traditional news outlets, television and film, social media, etc.) to help raise awareness, shape narratives, and build public support around the issues they’re working to address;
  • Activists infiltrating philanthropic spaces to help direct funding to grassroots groups and transforming practices and decision making structures to be more movement-driven;
  • Grassroots movements building coalitions and alliances with other groups, movements, and people in order to create broad networks of support and leverage collective power;
  • Grassroots movements engaging their base to register to vote and get one another to the polls, show up to town halls and commission meetings, flood public comments, etc.;
  • Grassroots movements organizing to help pass ballot measures and elect candidates who come from within their movement and/or align with their values and agendas;
  • Grassroots movements applying pressure through protest, demonstrations, marches, direct action, etc. to hold those elected officials accountable to the commitments that they made when trying to get elected and to communities that they’re serving;
  • Grassroots movements creating alternative models in meeting community needs (such as cooperatives, community-controlled housing, urban agriculture, and community-owned energy!) to challenge and highlight the limitations of existing systems, demonstrate the feasibility and desirability of alternative models, and offer a clear pathway towards transformation;
  • And more.

It’s important to note that there’s often fluidity between “inside” and “outside” categories. Particularly when utilizing inside/outside strategy, people regularly dance between spaces and roles, often occupying multiple spaces/roles at once. Though activists and advocates, insiders and outsiders, grassroots movements and established institutions, etc. are contrasted throughout this text, in reality, there is tremendous back-and-forth and blurring of lines between groups.

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It’s essential that we use our privilege and access to any/all spaces to further community organizing while always being anchored in and accountable to community. Andrea Vásquez Jiménez, community organizer and educator (source)

Some additional context: While the exact origins of inside/outside strategy as a framework and formal term are difficult to trace, the strategy itself has been utilized by many social and political movements throughout history. Bayard Rustin, an American civil rights movement leader and strategist and one of the key organizers of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was perhaps one of the earliest and most influential proponents of the strategy; he believed that the civil rights movement would be most effective if they sought to work within existing political and institutional systems while continuing to develop strategy and apply pressure from the outside, mobilizing public support and engaging in direct action and protest.

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The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This multifaceted approach was adopted by countless movements in the 1960s and 1970s; anti-war, environmental, women’s liberation, and LGBTQ+ rights activists worked to advance their agendas both through institutional channels—lobbying for policy reforms, orchestrating legal challenges, and engaging policy negotiations, for instance, as well as through organizing sit-ins, boycotts, demonstrations, marches, public awareness campaigns, and more.

Why it’s a climate resilience powerhouse:

Helping get more folks committed to climate and social justice elected

When activists and groups who are already well known, respected, and deeply rooted in community decide to strategically engage in electoral politics, they can help to generate significant momentum and support for values-aligned candidates (who often come from their very movements). Grassroots movements have long been tapping into their already organized bases to register voters, engage in voter education, dismantle barriers to voting, endorse specific candidates, and otherwise leverage their networks to increase the chances of electing leaders who will champion climate and justice issues from within the political system.

→ For example: Grassroots organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has been organizing around local social, economic, and environmental issues in communities across Kentucky for the last 40 years (they were originally founded to hold coal and timber companies accountable for their impacts on the state), and they’ve also been savvy about engaging in electoral politics in a really holistic way to challenge power structures and help get more values-aligned candidates into office. They register voters at community events year-round, create voting guides, host candidate forums to talk with their members, and mobilize voters around elections. They’ve also been organizing for decades to combat racist voter disenfranchisement laws and to expand voting rights, ensuring that all Kentuckians have the opportunity to participate in democratic processes.

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Holding folks and institutions in positions of power accountable to the climate and community needs

Once grassroots movements have helped to get progressive champions elected, they can work together to advance bold, justice and liberation-oriented agendas. From the inside, progressive champions can stay responsive to their constituents by eliciting feedback and input on policies and decisions, holding community forums, surrounding themselves with advisors and staff members that come from grassroots movement spaces, and otherwise maintaining strong communication channels with community members. From the outside, movements can apply pressure on elected officials to follow through on campaign commitments by monitoring and publicizing their actions and voting records, organizing protests and direct actions, and orchestrating awareness-raising campaigns.

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Having a base of grassroots institutions gives movement candidates a grounding they can use to sidestep Washington norms, wage insurgent campaigns, and govern in a manner that shows accountability to their core constituencies rather than to wealthy elites. Instead of relying solely on personal values to remain principled, they make this challenge into a collective task. Mark Engler, writer, and Paul Engler, cofounder of Momentum Training and founding director of the Center for the Working Poor (source)

→ For example: Working Families Party

Developing and implementing better policy and programs

When policymakers work in lockstep with grassroots movements, it helps ensure that policies are comprehensive, responsive to community needs, and aligned with movement goals. As Sona Mohnot, the associate director of climate equity at the public policy-focused Greenlining Institute, explains in her essay in Climate Resilience (link), “Unless we’re actually speaking with people who are experiencing the impacts that policymakers are trying to address, listening to their stories and their lived experience, all of the stuff that’s harder to put in numbers, then we’re not getting the full picture or holding ourselves accountable to what communities might need.” She elaborates, “If we’re not connecting with [community members] early on and often throughout the process, it’s just a missed opportunity for us to be able to make truly impactful change.” Meaningfully engaging members of grassroots movements in the policymaking process and centering their lived expertise can help prevent well-intentioned policy from being ineffective, or worse, harmful to the communities that it was supposed to benefit.

Additionally, the dual approach of policymakers and politicians championing policy on the inside, and grassroots movements mobilizing people and applying pressure on decision makers from the outside, can provide the sense of urgency and level of awareness needed for policy to get pushed through and implemented.

→ For example: The San Francisco-based Transgender District, which is both the world’s first legally recognized transgender district and an innovative, Black-led, trans-led community organization, has worked closely with various San Francisco City and County government agencies to help shape and guide regulations, policy, and programs that better serve San Francisco’s trans community. The Transgender District has been tremendously thoughtful and savvy in fostering the relationships needed to win material changes for their community; they’ve worked with the department of public works and municipal transit agency to maintain and beautify their district, they’ve worked with the planning department and the state senator’s office to identify and document buildings that have been culturally significant to San Francisco’s transgender community, and they’ve worked with the city and county offices and housing agencies to identify ways to resist gentrification and displacement in their district and facilitate stable housing for disenfranchised members of the community. They even worked with the city’s mayor to successfully launch a cutting-edge guaranteed income program for low-income, trans San Franciscans!

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Broadly shifting public opinion

Inside/outside strategy combines and amplifies efforts both within and outside of established institutions to shift public opinion in favor of climate action, social justice, and liberation. Inside advocates may influence public opinion through media platforms, educational initiatives, the arts, and engaging with other influential individuals and institutions. Meanwhile, outside activists may raise awareness, challenge dominant narratives, and mobilize public support through grassroots organizing, public demonstrations, direct action, communication campaigns, social media channels, etc. Together, this multi-pronged approach creates a synergy that helps to shape public discourse and shift paradigms.

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Moving resources to grassroots movements

Similarly, inside/outside strategy combines and amplifies efforts both within and outside of established institutions to secure resources and support for community-led initiatives and climate action. Inside advocates may work within foundations/funds, government spaces, and other major organizations to influence resource allocation, funding priorities, and policy decisions. They might shift decision making practices to meaningfully include grassroots movements in determining where and how resources should flow, or they might even create new decision making structures altogether to grant grassroots movements full governance over resources. At the same time, outside activists can attract resources by creating greater visibility around climate and social justice issues, generating public support to address those issues, demonstrating what they could do with more resources and support, and making the revolution irresistible.

→ For example: Solidaire Network, a membership-based community of progressive donor organizers, utilizes inside/outside strategy in a couple of different ways to mobilize resources to the frontlines of social justice movements. First of all, their grantmaking infrastructure allows foundations and individuals with wealth to relinquish control of some of their resources to pooled funds, like the Black Liberation Pooled Fund and Movement Infrastructure Fund, that are governed with the help of movement partners, advisory committees, and staff members deeply rooted in grassroots movements. Second of all, members, staff, and movement partners communicate through an active listserv to organize one another to quickly move money as calls for funding arise from values-aligned organizations and efforts. Third, Solidaire hosts regular political education webinars, peer learning working groups, regional gatherings, and retreats to prompt dialogue and deepen relationships between donors and movements, to assist donors in giving more boldly, and to meaningfully examine and challenge wealth, power, and privilege.

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Building alternative systems

Inside/outside strategy can even be utilized to create alternatives to established—and problematic—institutions. As grassroots movements establish locally-driven projects and models to meet community needs in a just and liberatory way (such as cooperatives, community-controlled housing, urban agriculture, and community-owned energy), inside advocates can work within government bodies to remove barriers and push for policy changes so that those initiatives are legally allowed to exist and have the opportunity thrive. Inside advocates can also work within philanthropic spaces and other major organizations to funnel resources towards local initiatives and help them be as successful as possible. As more and more alternative models and systems are able to proliferate and prosper, the less reliant that grassroots movements will be on established institutions to advance their agendas, and the easier it will be to decompose antiquated systems in favor of new ones!

→ For example: New Mexico-based nonprofit New Energy Economy is working to shift the energy policy landscape while they build new models for community-owned energy! On the outside, they’re busy bringing solar to the people (so far, they’ve installed community-scale solar systems on public buildings, community organizations, local farms, tribal lands, and more) and demonstrating the tangible economic, environmental, and health benefits that community solar can bring. On the inside, they’ve been instrumental in developing and implementing the policy that makes their community solar projects viable! They helped to craft and pass New Mexico’s Community Solar Bill, which allows multiple participants to engage with and reap the benefits from a single solar installation, and they were also involved in passing the state’s Energy Transition Act, which set ambitious renewable energy standards and established a pathway to close coal-fired power plants.

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The nuance / caveats:

For IOS to be successful, folks on the inside must remain committed to revolutionary change and accountable to the movements that they are representing, and grassroots movements need to be large, loud, and savvy enough to mobilize the public and maintain pressure on the folks who are supposed to serve them.

Among many valid critiques of inside/outside strategy, some argue that it is oxymoronic to seek liberation within structures designed to be oppressive; trying to do so will only expand or reify harmful institutions and water down revolutionary agendas. Champions of IOS, however, contend that good IOS can transform existing structures while building new ones. They reject the idea that our movements need to be confined to either political or grassroots spaces to make a significant difference, and instead embrace both/and thinking. They explain that, by maintaining a diligent analysis of power and focusing on building local projects deeply rooted in community, IOS can help us move toward governing ourselves and reclaiming control over food, water, art, work, and power, all the while making material differences in people’s everyday lives.

Like all resilience tools featured here, inside/outside strategy may not be appropriate for every context or feel values-aligned for everyone. For folks with whom it resonates, however, IOS can be a profoundly powerful, transformative movement-building tool when wielded thoughtfully, and it’s an excellent framework to keep in mind when engaging in any political or community-building work.

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To me, building our movements only outside existing structures gets us no closer to where we need to go. Politics is a place where power operates, which means it’s a place where there are opportunities to move our agenda. Politics is also a space for learning- it’s a terrain where you can expose what priorities are dominant, and who sets those priorities, and where you can battle for hearts and minds to reshape and reorganize those priorities. Electoral power, and the way it’s wielded, have major impacts on our lives. Alicia Garza

Research + reflection prompts:

  • If elections are approaching, are there any campaigns underway that you’re excited to support or engage with?
  • Are there any commission, committee, council, or board positions open in your municipality that you might be excited to apply for? If there’s a climate action commission with openings, that could be a great place to start, but keep in mind that there are a plethora of areas where you can do fantastic work advancing intersectional climate resilience solutions. Think about which areas might be a fit for your specific expertise and interests.
  • If you were to run for office, what would your campaign priorities be? Which communities/movements would you be deeply engaged with and accountable to? (Note: these are especially great prompts to consider together with pals and comrades.)

How to get engaged:

Support Campaigns

If you’re excited to support a movement comrade or values-aligned activist or advocate running for office: There are infinite ways to support their campaign. If you know them personally, ask what they might need. Many candidates need help with everyday activities like cooking, cleaning, and childcare while they’re running for office. Bring your skills and passions to their campaign as a volunteer. Offer to host a fundraiser at your home. Gather pals to canvas door-to-door or phone bank. Donate to their campaigns and to the grassroots movements that will hold them accountable.

Local Politics

If you have the bandwidth and interest in getting more involved in local or regional politics: Begin by getting a better sense of the different ways that you can get more involved in political spaces and what makes sense for you. If you’re interested in joining a local or regional commission, committee, or board membership, programs like Urban Habitat’s Boards and Commission Leadership Institute empower community members with the skills and confidence to apply and serve effectively. If you’re interested in running for office, there are plentiful organizations that offer training and support. Running for office can be a daunting and time-consuming undertaking, so finding a community of learning and support can go a long way! Potential options include:

Financial Support

If you have access to financial resources and are interested in electoral politics: Consider making a commitment to (or otherwise getting involved with) some of the many organizations and efforts that are strengthening IOS infrastructure, building grassroots power, activating voter turnout, dismantling barriers to voting, and otherwise engaging community members in elections and local/regional justice and liberation issues. If you’re able to make contributions that aren’t tax-deductible, consider giving to 501(c)(4) organizations, which are granted greater flexibility in engaging with political activities and campaigns. Some favorite national organizations and funds include (but certainly aren’t limited to!):

Local Projects

If you’re more interested in building new systems than changing existing systems: Get involved in awesome local projects that help communities govern themselves and reclaim control over food, water, housing, work, power, art, etc.! Check out the cooperatives, community-controlled housing, urban agriculture, and community-owned energy pages (link) for more information and specific ways to get engaged.

A smattering of resources for continued learning + action:

Short Reads

Reports & Guides

Long Reads


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