SeaWorld Victory Offers Important Reminders for Social Movements

Celebrating the Diversity of Tactics That Collectively Conspired to Free Shamu

"A healthy movement -- like a healthy ecosystem -- is marked by diversity."

I've heard this refrain often in the environmental movement circles I've campaigned in, organized with and spun stories for over the last two and half decades. And the recent jaw-dropping announcement from SeaWorld offers us an elegant example of this diversity in action.

The decision by SeaWorld to end its captive breeding program is worthy of celebration. But before everyone rushes to make meaning and explain how we got here, crediting any one particular event for the victory, I feel compelled, as the systems-thinking, ocean-loving media maven that I am, to remind us all to spread the love around, and celebrate all the many great organizations and actions that have led us to this remarkable day.

Obviously the success of the documentary Blackfish springs to mind as SeaWorld falls to its knees and changes its business model, redeeming itself and perhaps a bit of our collective humanity along with it. And yes, a powerful, well crafted documentary -- with its compelling narrative of whistle blowers standing up for our beloved charismatic mega-fauna in distress -- rebroadcasted nightly for weeks on CNN, played a huge role in creating the conditions for this shift at SeaWorld. So yes, credit is due, and many culture trackers and film critics are running about the blogosphere lauding the power of film to change the world, and they are right -- in part.

But it's foolish, myopic, dangerous, and far too common to credit such a victory to just one event. Peering through keyholes at movements they don't understand, too many analysts can botch this teachable moment. If we want to extrapolate all there is to learn here, and leverage it for future victories, change agents must recognize the decades of complex and strategic work that came before Blackfish, and the important developments afterwards. A healthy mix of theories of change conspired to cultivate a particularly ripe political and cultural moment, and an alchemic mix of context, timing and organizing by dozens of organizations and hundreds of activists was essential in codifying the 'change we want to see in the world' that is SeaWorld.

So let's tip our hats to all the efforts to protect whales in the wild, as well as efforts to ease suffering of those already in the grips of man, all of which contributed to creating this moment in the collective ideaspace, a moment where such a tremendous shift could occur. Also worthy of invocation as we celebrate are decades of educational campaigns, boycotts, petition drives, policy initiatives, advertising campaigns, lobbying efforts, paddle outs, cultural interventions, creative confrontations and compelling acts of civil disobedience taking aim at the scourge of captive breeding and entertainment programs -- those of whales and of many other of our favorite beasts, great and small.

And let's not miss the other delightful lesson this case study provides us: it's all about relationships, connections and networks. In the end, an already pummeled SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby was introduced to Wayne Pacelle, Executive Director of the Humane Society, by a trusted mutual colleague. The two sat down, and had a real moment, human to human, face to face organizing at its best. Pacelle was a breakthrough messenger, who could reach Manby with a brilliant reframing, articulating a new business model, the inevitable transition to a "humane economy." Pacelle showed Manby a way out, flipping the script of the classic drama triangle, so the villain could share the hero's stage.

The point is, friends, that we need it all: we need lawyers fighting in courtrooms, just as we need media makers winning in the court of public opinion. We need brave policy makers reaching across the aisles, and bold direct action activists in inflatables putting their bodies between whales and harpoons. We need everyone, met where they are, with frames and messages they will find irresistible, urged along the 'ladder of engagement' from bumper stickers and t-shirts to letter writing and boycotts, and on to selfless acts they never before considered in their wheelhouse.

So my hope is that strategic wisdom prevails, friends, as we explore what this victory teaches us. When we can see and appreciate all the threads of change, woven together into the mosaic of a movement over decades, we will celebrate and elevate all the contributions, not just those that got the most airtime. When journalists and activists and the foundations and donors who fund them all recognize this, we can really begin to make Shamu proud.