6 reasons why movements sing to the choir

Making change is about reaching people who don't agree with us. To do that, we have to rally the choir to sing at the top of their lungs.
(Pexels/Pavel Danilyuk)

“Aren’t we supposed to sing beyond the choir?” 

This question recently came up during a training, the person’s eyebrows drawing down into a perplexed expression. On the screen, a diagram of the Spectrum of Allies — a classic activism tool that helps us refine our strategy to sway people toward our cause — had the segments on mobilizing passive allies highlighted. I’d just told them to remember to sing to the choir from time to time, too.

Usually, singing beyond the choir is our greatest challenge as organizers. After all, making change is about shifting the actions of people who don’t already agree with us. To succeed, we have to rally the choir, get them singing at the top of our lungs, wake up the sleeping, startle the disinterested, and disrupt the toxic monologue of business-as-usual.

On the other hand, there are times when it’s your own choir that needs to be sung to — and with. In my observation, many of our movements are in this situation. Tired, despairing, plagued by hopelessness, overwhelmed by cascading crises of everyday survival, people are trying to keep the lights on, the family fed, the debt collectors at bay, and their bodies simply alive. 

Now is the time to sing to your choir. They need the solace, the comfort, the solidarity and sense that they’re not alone. The song changes, too. It’s less of a battle cry to make your opposition quake in their boots. It’s a healing balm and a comforting ritual that rekindles their love, passion, vision and even hope. These songs are about reminding your choir that you see them. You understand what they’re going through. You empathize and can strategize in response to our humanness as we respond to the compounding crises we face. 

In this context, it’s crucial to sing to the choir. You won’t be able to reach beyond them unless you do. To bend this metaphor even further, here are six other circumstances in which focusing on your choir is vitally important to the cause. 

Sing to the choir . . .

When they’re silent. Even the truest believers can’t sing all the time without going hoarse. They need a break — and if they don’t get one, they burnout. The choir goes silent for many reasons. They think the song is over (even when it’s not). They assume someone else is singing. The solo went on so long they didn’t realize it was their time to sing (have fun parsing that metaphor for your organization’s soloists). One by one, they fall off until the last person’s ragged voice falters out. When any of these happen, someone needs to start the tempo up again, give them the one-two, one-two-three-four count, and get them singing again.

When they’re busy looking at their phones. Seriously. It happens. The world is very distracting and the forces of destruction use bread-and-circus tactics to keep our folks scrolling through idiotic nonsense and terrifying news soundbites instead of working for change. Tell your choir that you get it, it happens to you as well, and invite them to consider silencing the notifications. Pick a song they love and get them singing again. (Hint: uplifting and inspiring songs help, rather than we’re doomed unless we do something.)

When they’re off-key or out of tempo. Every movement gets off-key from time to time. Our voices are loud, but discordant, and the choir’s chaos is backfiring on our movement. Even when people hear us, they don’t like the sound and decide they don’t like the cause. When this happens, it’s time to sing to (and I recommend with) your choir until you find the rhythm and key that gets you all singing together again.

When they forget the lyrics. Back when I was literally in the choir (and a marching band, if you must know), I was that kid in the soprano section moving my lips without any sound coming out. Usually, that was because I didn’t know the words. I knew the melody, since it repeated over and over, but whenever lyrics eluded me, I just stopped singing. In our changemaking efforts, this can look like people who are unsure what to say to their relatives who disagree, or hesitate to write letters to the editor because they don’t know the facts on the issue, or won’t speak up because they’re under-practiced in articulating the key points of the cause. Just raising your voice at them isn’t going to do the trick. They need to train. Host some role-playing sessions, form a press and media training team, make space for them to try out their lines and get them right. Which brings us to the next point.

When they need practice. All choirs need to practice. Where and when do the people who support your issue have time and space to do that? How do they get trained? What resources are available at midnight when a working-class supporter wakes up in the night and can’t get back to sleep? How can you make reminders of these resources accessible to your folks who are riding the subway to work or class or health appointments? How can your true believers see each other’s faces (even virtually) and practice lifting their voices together?

When they’ve gone lackluster. It’s hard to sing the same song over and over again. The passion can go out of us. And once a critical mass of the choir starts mumbling or singing in quiet half-voices, the rest of the choir “sings small,” too. Or one person blares louder and louder, trying to pull everybody else along through brute volume, which rarely works. You’ve got to get in there and sing with them. Go over to your tenors and harmonize. Stand with your sopranos and get them clapping. Wink at those altos and make a funny face. Cheer the bass section on until their voices rumble the foundations of the building. Passion isn’t an autopilot function. It takes tending, nurturing and encouragement. 

When they think no one’s listening. It’s a Catch-22. If you want to sing beyond the choir, you need to get your choir singing in the first place. Remember, it’s tied together, too. Choirs are often motivated to sing because they know there’s an audience listening. Conversely, audiences appreciated motivated, passionate and skillful choirs. They spread the word. They tell more people to tune in. If your choir is caught in the death spiral of dwindling audiences, check on both parts of this equation. Neither can be neglected. 

You can keep working this metaphor. There are many more sing-to-the-choir situations out there. Be thoughtful about this aspect of organizing for change. Not only will it make your movement stronger, it can also be a source of inner resilience, inspiration, solidarity and connection. There’s a reason why singing together is more than a metaphor in movements for change. It’s powerful. Tap into it with love. 

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.