Why you should care

Peaceful change beats the alternative, and this approach could help it succeed.

Erin Mazursky looked awkward — nodding and smiling — but not out of place when she addressed a crowd of more than 50,000 at the National Mall in 2006, sharing the stage with luminaries like George Clooney, Nancy Pelosi and then-Sen. Barack Obama. The cause: halting genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Back then, the Georgetown junior was the leader of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), a national student coalition against genocide, which grew from 200 chapters to 800 in one year under her leadership.

Heady days, but also the source of an abiding lesson. STAND began to stand down when the U.N. authorized deployment of forces to Darfur in 2007. Yet the genocide continued. “It was a failure of our movement in not having a long-term strategy,” Mazursky tells OZY. That’s just one of many lessons she has taken on board in the nine years since, after working in Orlando, Florida, to elect President Obama in 2008 and later joining the administration as a youth adviser at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the government development agency.

So here’s the question: Can a not-quite-30-year-old — who cut her teeth organizing student protests and later learned the nitty-gritty of grass-roots electoral campaigning — usefully teach lessons to members of social-justice, people-power movements around the globe? That’s what she’s attempting to do with a nonprofit called Rhize, which she founded and runs as its executive director. “I’m trying to prove that there are fundamental principles that make movements not just successful but sustainable,” says Mazursky.

She appears remarkably self-assured. Sporting a simple gray sweater and black trousers, accented with gold bangles and rings, she responds to my questions with thoughtful, logical and apparently unrehearsed answers. Perhaps that’s how she has convinced so many organizers and activists with much more experience to join her. In late February, based in a donated, shared office space in New York City’s Flatiron district, Mazursky hosted an initial videoconference for most of Rhize’s 11 “coaches” — leadership trainers — spread across the globe. Coaches, for their part, work with “catalysts,” who are community leaders working for change in, say, land rights in Gambia and the Philippines; Bring Back Our Girls in Nigeria; environmental justice in Colombia; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Cyprus.

“There’s definitely a core set of skills involved, and these skills can be learned,” says Maria Stephan, senior policy fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She and Erica Chenoweth, who have studied more than 300 cases over the past century, have shown that nonviolent resistance movements are more than twice as effective as violent ones in achieving goals. It stands to reason, then, that training movement leaders could make them even more successful.

She lives partly on savings and partly on bits of consulting work for other nonprofits — even though she agrees this may not be sustainable.

But while Mazursky has embraced a smorgasbord of issues, she draws the line too. “It’s more a question of who we won’t work with,” she says. That, she explains, includes groups that deny others access to resources or advocate violence. Her aim is to identify and implement best practices, seemingly basic stuff that many just don’t do, like getting local leaders to canvass communities, setting achievable goals and knowing when to hold back tactically. Taking more of these steps, she figures, may have helped leaders behind Egypt’s popular uprising.

This kind of approach, of course, has risks. “Ensuring the safety and security of activists is paramount,” says Stephan, especially in a world where authoritarian leaders are learning the tricks of repression from one another. Indeed, security concerns could make the Rhize method most dangerous where it’s needed most — in, say, strongly repressive systems like China or Russia. Working closely with American tutors could also prove to be an unwelcome label in many places, although Rhize aims to quickly create a global network of coaches without an American accent.

Social activism was not Mazursky’s first career choice. “I accomplished my life dream when I was 18, playing Division I soccer,” she says. Then she shattered the ball of her foot. (You can see her limping onstage in 2006, though she stills runs for exercise today.) Still, she developed an intense interest in the psychology of the Holocaust at age 12. Her mother, Melanie Nelkin, jokes that Mazursky reversed the usual “apple falling close to the tree” adage. “I consider my daughter the tree, and I am the apple,” she says. Following her daughter’s lead, Nelkin started conducting tours at the local Holocaust museum, and every year, she helps shepherd a bill through the Georgia legislature to declare Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month.

These days, Mazursky lives partly on savings and partly on bits of consulting work for other nonprofits — even though she agrees this may not be sustainable. “This is my life’s work,” she says. Nearly $18,000 raised in a crowdfunding campaign has been set aside for expenses. But like the activists she is training, she has set her own goals for Rhize: to double in scale in a year, with a global infrastructure. In five years? A global network of catalyst-run campaigns with global partners, with achievements that attract their own funding.

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