Stages of Activist Development

A Study of US Animal Rights Organizers
Learn how understanding activism as a grief process can help us build stronger communities and recruit more activists.

Here's what happened

They didn’t just join

Participants in this study made the rare decision to devote hundreds of unpaid hours to a movement with arguably little public support. They spent their own money on the work, suffered the loss or distancing of many relationships, and faced arrest and criminal charges.

They stuck with it

Estimates on how long activists stay involved on average range from six months to two years. The median length of involvement of organizers in this study was 4.5 years and counting, with some sustaining their involvement for decades.

Who are these people?

We interviewed 38 animal rights organizers in the US.

They lived in California, North Carolina, Illinois, Utah, Wisconsin, Arizona, Missouri, Texas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Colorado, and Michigan.

Participants worked on issues related to animals used for food, testing, and entertainment, including circuses and zoos.

What did we find?


Study participants felt changed by the work: empowered, more confident, and more able to animate purpose in life.


Long-time organizers could all identify self-talk they used to stay motivated despite working against an enormous societal problem.


Many participants discussed conflict as a low point in their activism, and none described mechanisms in place for conflict resolution.


Snowball sampling means earlier participants were asked to recommend later participants.

Open-ended interviews of 30-60 minutes asked about participants’ movement origins, experiences, and relationships.

Each transcript was transcribed and coded to identify common themes between interviews.

About the Study

Stages of Activist Development

Hearing the stories of so many organizers, we started to conceive of a process by which we transition from “randos” (an affection term for the not-yet activists we’d like to recruit) into seasoned, dedicated organizers. This report offers a framework for understanding the development of an activist.

Early in the process of developing this model, we realized that the process seemed to share some uncanny parallels with the Stages of Grief as conceived by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Similar to the Stages of Grief, these are not linear steps- activists experience multiple stages in the same time period, experience them in a different order than listed here, or experience the same stage multiple times. Importantly, each stage has distinct needs that more veteran organizers can help to meet- challenges that, if not overcome, could result in burnout, conflict, dropping out of the movement, or all three.

While assembling this report, we stopped thinking of it as just a neat parallel to the Stages of Grief, and instead began to consider it a literal grief process, experienced by people who were exposed to the true horror of animal agriculture and who found a way to live in the world despite it. We're using alternate names for the stages to better reflect the language the study participants used, but they can also be understood as manifestations of the Stages of Grief.


We were skeptical that we could do anything about the problem and, at points, didn’t feel particularly obligated, largely putting the issue out of our minds.
Learn More 


We’re overwhelmed with how not okay the system is, and how people we love and respect continue to participate in it.
Learn More 


We’re willing to do nearly anything to get involved.
Learn More 


Without a sense that we can be a meaningful part of a solution, we disengage.
Learn More 


We hold a sober view of what the world is like and our part in changing it, however small.
Learn More 

Represented Organizations

What follows is an incomplete list of organizations where study participants worked and continue to work.

In order to build a powerful movement, we need to keep our most dedicated organizers going strong.

Show me how to retain organizers! →