Unleashing Our Movement Superpowers

Written by Kristen Zimmerman

October 29, 2013

Sometimes it feels like we need superhuman powers to build the movements we want.

I know I’ve felt that way as I’ve worked in long-term collaborations, committed to making sure our work made a difference in people’s lives and paved the way for bigger and deeper change.

And I’ve been part of big shifts way beyond what I could have imagined.  Like serving on the facilitation and design team of Move to End Violence, witnessing the re-emergence of a movement that had achieved extraordinary success in radically shifting policies, programs, and beliefs about violence against women and girls.  After 40 years, however, the movement had lost much of its movement fire, becoming institutionalized and fragmented, and no longer serving as a bold and audacious catalyst for an end to gender violence and violence against women and girls.

Now I see this movement being re-ignited. How is this happening?

Naming big pivots seems to be crucial:  The movement builders in Move to End Violence defined and named three core pivots they want to make: from defensive stance to proactive stance, from fragmentation to wholeness, from immediate needs to social change with strategic direction.

Beyond the movement to end violence, what are the pivots that re-ignite movements?

Can we name these pivots?

Based on our collective experience across many movements, a few of us at Movement Strategy Center tried to do just that: to identify and define a set of crucial movement pivots, as well as the qualities that allow people, organizations, and alliances to make these big shifts.

Do we need some kind of new super-human power to make these pivots?

I don’t think so.

Looking across our movements I don’t see us needing x-ray vision or a magic wand or the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

No, we don’t need superpowers to make these pivots; we need the pivots to unleash the movement superpowers already within us.

Pivot #1: From Isolation to Interdependence

We all know what it feels like to operate with narrow focus – and what it feels like when we’re doing something else, when things feel interdependent and our work coordinates with others so that there is a sense of moving as a unified whole.

Is this something that just happens, or is it possible to shift a situation by showing up in a different way?

Looking across our movements we’re seeing that people (and organizations) are able to make this shift by holding broad awareness.  Look at where our movements are most successful right now and you’ll find people and organizations that see and value the ecosystem of roles and relationships all around them.  They take time to build relationships and develop a clear picture of their landscape.  Their aim is not just to get something done, but also to strengthen every aspect of the movement ecosystem.

Pivot #2: From a Defensive to an Offensive Stance

When we’re reactive, fighting for little wins at the margins, it can feel overwhelming, like there’s no way to win.  But there are moments when we know we’re on: when we’ve shifted the parameters of the debate and opened up new possibilities for change.

Leading with bold vision and purpose helps us shift from defense to offense.  The most effective people and organizations right now are able to envision beyond what is politically possible at the moment, leading with what we need and want.

One fantastic example is the Vermont Workers’ Center that began a fight for universal health care in their state, knowing it was politically impossible at that time.  They started by building a grassroots base of support capable of making it politically possible, ultimately making Vermont the first state in the US to pass universal health care.

Pivot #3: From Marginalized to Powerful

Marginalization isn’t in our heads.  It’s very real in how communities are resourced and treated, with people of color, immigrants, LGBT, and other groups shut out of power and material resources.

At the same time, people and communities can internalize this marginalization, limiting us and our efforts even in the face of opportunity.  Marginalization can become an identity, a mindset we become attached to.  And when you’re attached to marginalization, it’s pretty hard to have a healthy relationship with power.  We tend to either shun power altogether, or grab on to control, domination, and exclusion because these reactions are familiar to us — the only kinds of “power” we’ve ever experienced.

And at our best, movement builders aren’t just trying to bring “the margins to the center” but to help create a role for everyone.  For example, in Move to End Violence, we’ve needed to let go of narrow prescriptions of who could build that movement, recognizing great vision and ideas coming from people in institutions that might feel far removed from the perceived social justice infrastructure.

How do people and organizations move from internalizing marginalization to stepping into healthy power?  Grounding ourselves in people, communities, and histories is key to this pivot.

Pivot #4: From Competition to Strategic Direction

Competition is the opposite of movement building, but it’s hard to resist. It oozes through our schools, our political system, our economy, and our organizations.  Those who rise above it find ways to connect their work to the work others are doing, amplifying collective power.

Pivoting from competition to strategic direction means learning alignment: focusing on movement level strategy and coordination.  The essence of movement strategy is to build power and achieve wins by aligning around shared purpose and moving together.  Movement building is not about adopting a singular “right” social change method; it is about aligning various methods and politics towards common goals. Alignment means transcending “either/or” thinking and finding a “third way.”

A powerful example of this was last spring’s gathering of grassroots and inside-the-beltway communications leaders and organizations at what was called the Knowledge Exchange: A Telecom Agenda for a New Administration.  Co-led by the Center for Media Justice and Consumers Union, the Knowledge Exchange convenes grass-tops leaders, community organizers, and media policy leaders to strengthen the effectiveness, collaboration, and impact of the movement for media reform and justice.

Pivot #5: From Control to Creativity

For all kinds of reasons – from funding to internalized oppression – many people and organizations in social justice work feel tremendous pressure to “know” and “succeed.”  This pressure constrains us from thinking creatively and taking risks.  In fact, movement building works best in a creative environment, with unexpected solutions emerging that work for the highest good of all.

Imagine what it would feel like: unexpected solutions that work for the highest good of all, continuous processes for tapping into a deep creative impulse for freshness, beauty, and resonance.

Trusting and innovating are essential for pivoting from control to creativity.  We need to learn to trust new ideas and approaches, fiercely respecting and paying attention to each other’s humanity with curiosity and trust. We need to take risks and learn from our mistakes.  Right now we are witnessing an explosion of cultural and artistic work in every movement sector – the migrant rights butterflies, Strong Families’ Mama’s Day cards, the sunflowers at the US Social Forum; culture and art are key to the movement pivots we need to make.

Feature photo: wallyg via photopincreative commons license

You May Also Like…

Our Cafe Is A Movement Home

Our Cafe Is A Movement Home

I am the owner of Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, a labor of love that was born in my home 28 years ago as I struggled to...

Decolonizing Childhood in COVID

Decolonizing Childhood in COVID

Nuola Akinde didn’t set out to homeschool, but her experiences as a Black mother in led her to restructure her life...

Talking About Life & Death

Talking About Life & Death

As I write this, my neighbor and three dear friends are dealing with parents in Florida suffering with COVID-19. I...

Share This