The purpose of this study was to discover how young activist groups develop strategies of action – patterned ways of ordering action through time – in order to better understand the forces that shape these groups’ capacity to incubate transformative economic and social relationships. The study consists of a comparative ethnography of two nascent activist groups, acting independently of each other in two Rust Belt cities. Ethnographic data are supplemented by interview data and document analysis. Both groups perceived a lack of access to affordable, healthy, and sustainably produced food – “Good Food” – in their urban communities. By establishing alternative food projects, they hoped to address this problem in ways that would build social ties between community members and create new economic opportunities.
Study findings show that imagined futures of sustainable community powerfully mobilized activists and oriented their work. These future projections, and the strategies that activists initially utilized to pursue them, were informed by dominant narratives about the lack of Good Food in urban neighborhoods, as well as activists’ skills and prior knowledge. Over time, however, three intervening processes affected activists’ collective pursuit of sustainable community. First, activists adopted styles of conflict management that affect participation and, consequently, action. Second, activists’ busy schedules narrowed their horizon of engagement, and finally, activists’ social ties made variable resources available and legible for action. These intervening processes were particularly influential when the groups faced significant resource obstacles. Ultimately, these findings explain why groups struggle to establish patterns of action that create viable economic opportunities and durable social relationships in inner-city neighborhoods. They also explain why activists come to act in ways that seemingly undermine their best intentions. The study concludes with propositions for future research to establish a general theory of strategy formation in activist groups.