My co-workers and I have started a running list of movement lies we tell ourselves. Or tell each other. Or allow to be told even when we’re squirming in our seat. These are myths, delusions, and either/or’s that hold us all back from creating the impact we seek.
Movement building means working on the collective processes and infrastructure that create shared vision, strategy, and action across different areas of social, economic, and ecological justice. It means trying to create movement conditions even when no big “movement moment” is in sight, and nurturing and sustaining those moments once they’ve begun. And like everything we imperfect beings do, we bring our foibles and bad habits to movement building. It’s good to step back every now and then and admit these, embrace the kernel of truth that made them useful, shake our heads, laugh together and let them go.
Here’s three from our Top Ten list, with more to come. What do you think of these? What’s on your Top Ten list?
Lie #1: We are so right and they are so wrong.
This might be my personal favorite because it feels so good when I let myself believe it: the self-congratulating and narrow definition of “we” that allows us to hang on to bad habits and tired ideas and the dehumanizing and possibility-killing definition of “they.” What if we took a chance and believed that we can actually take steps toward a world that works for everyone; a world based on love and care giving and dignity, rather than just reinforcing the lines that others have drawn around us?
Sound nuts? Look at National Domestic Workers Alliance who just won another state victory for the rights of domestic workers in California. NDWA took a chance and began organizing with the belief that employers of domestic workers could play a role in creating that future world. Look at the cutting edges of the movement to end violence against women and girls and all gender based violence: with support from Move to End Violence, groups like Mujeres Unidas y Activas Asian Women’s Shelter, Casa de Esperanza, A Call To Men, and Men Overcoming Violence are partnering to recognize how people identified and socialized as men and boys perpetuate cycles of violence – and to organize men and boys to play a role ending all violence. What is possible when we engage those who have perpetrated injustice or who have benefited from unequal power relationships?
Lie #2: Campaigns always build movements.
Okay, sometimes they do, but many times they don’t.Campaigns can leave those who participated feeling like they “gave” something and maybe “got” something, but not feeling like they are part of something big and long lasting. (You’ll recognize this as the “transactional” v. “transformational” distinction lots of people talk about.)
What if we started insisting that every campaign meet some basic standards of movement building? My coworker Mimi Ho has thought a lot about this (check back soon for more of her thoughts and some of the tools MSC has been developing), about what principles and practices groups are using use to make sure our campaigns really build movements. Like “How is this campaign a building block in a long term vision and strategy?”, “How can any wins be supported by an organizing base?”, “What values does this campaign seek to shift and how?”, “Does this campaign have an ambitious aspiration to engage unusual allies?” “Does it have a centralized core but roles for decentralized leadership?” “Is the side that supports our vision bigger, stronger and more unified after the campaign (or frustrated, betrayed, and divided even if they ‘win’)?” Questions like these are being asked in today’s best campaigns.
One great example is the (led by Center for Media Justice, Media Action Grassroots Network, Human Rights Defense Center/Prison Legal News (VT), and Working Narratives/Nation Inside (NC)) that scored a huge movement and policy win this summer when the Federal Communications Commission voted to reform the prison phone industry and ending the price gouging of families who accept calls from their incarcerated loved ones. More than 90,000 groups and individuals participated in this diverse cross-sector collaboration of public interest groups, civil and human rights organizations, artists, community leaders, those incarcerated and their families. The Campaign for Prison Phone Justice took movement building to DC and won.
Lie #3: Being in power is bad.
This is a tricky one because we can have such messed up ideas about power. We usually experience power as domination (like six companies owning 90% of the media) or control (like denying rights to home care workers), so, while we demand power, deep down we might resist the idea of being powerful and doing things like, say, running a government.
Across every movement sector, feelings about power are shifting. I hear it in our stories; like in the recent interview I did with someone at a big national organizing network, who told me how they’ve updated their old approach to include a focus on building organizers’ sense of their own individual power. And I see it, like in the photo of a list of principles from a community gathering in Detroit, where they had simply written “We assume our power” at the top. And I learn from it, as I watch climate justice groups stepping into collective power as they did in their letter to the AFL-CIO, assuming that their voices and work are valuable and crucial everywhere.
These examples show power in the healthy sense: generative and resilient, power that flows from deep awareness and connection, from love in action, from willingness to take responsibility and make decisions. As Sarita Gupta of Jobs With Justice recently put it, “I want us to be The Powers That Be.”
Stay tuned for more lies in the next blog of this series!