Tag Archives: social movements

A movement is a movement is a movement

Yesterday, my reflections on Generation Roe centered on three ‘takeaways’ that I believe apply to other advocacy and social change efforts.

Today is really a continuation of that theme, with more insights into just how universal some of the core ‘movement tasks’ are…and how much involvement in one movement, then, can prime activists to be effective operatives in another. In some cases, these points bring to mind specific issues/campaigns where I see them as particularly relevant; in others, it’s really hard to think of any current social change movement that does not evoke these tensions.

In no particular order:

  • It’s hard to be appropriately nuanced, even authentically so, when under attack (p. 21). Like, it’s hard to find a place to talk about the ways in which welfare policy can sometimes work against supporting employment, when we’re afraid of falling into the ‘dependency’ trap. It’s hard to start conversations about the level of immigration that make sense for sending as well as receiving nations, when we are fighting to claim moral ground for immigration as a human rights issue. We don’t help anyone, least of all our cause, when we narrowly assert only one dimension of it, but it’s understandable that we feel less than comfortable with transparency when under siege.
  • There is a very real divide, in many movements, between those for whom today’s context is a dramatic improvement over prior injustices, and those who take the current landscape as a given backdrop (p. 164). For the most part, this is a generational gap, but I see it, too, in the immigrant rights struggle, between those without immigration status and those who have secured this protection (or been given it!), and in other campaigns on lines of class, too. Fundamentally, the inability to bridge this gap reflects insufficient imagination and empathy, which bode poorly for the movement’s progress, even beyond the immediate divides.
  • Organizations have to get beyond insisting that only one person be the spokesperson, no matter how nervous they are with ‘free agents’ (p. 215). It really baffles me, truly, when organizations think that they can control what people say about and for them, as though muzzling your advocates was EVER a good idea. In some ways, I guess, it makes me feel better to see really well-established advocacy organizations make this same mistake. But, then, not, because it’s super alarming and quite destructive.
  • The line between pragmatic compromise and opportunism that erodes fundamental rights is not nearly as hard and fast as we like to pretend (p. 209). There is real risk that we cross it, every day, and national advocacy organizations, particularly those based in DC, are perhaps particularly vulnerable to this temptation, as they try to ‘be players’ in policy debates. We must not give away the farm. We must not accept Pyrrhic victories.
  • The strategy most likely to lead to (relatively) quick victory is not always the best bet. It sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but just as pursuing legal action may not be the best use of resources (p. 143), as compared to grassroots action, so, too, must movements evaluate their options with an eye not just towards most immediate payoff, but also the movement building that, after all, is all that will help them survive to fight another day, on another front.
  • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: every movement needs to triangulate (p. 226), developing and actively encouraging a radical left flank that can create some space for more moderate organizations to maneuver. If we’re all on the ‘same page’ when we start to push and negotiate, we have essentially ensured that what we’ll end up with will be somewhere between what we all agreed to and what someone else is willing to give us. That’s not a recipe for strength. Someone needs to ask for the moon and stars. So maybe we can get refundable tax credits.

Review Week: Generation Roe

I reviewed the book Generation Roe last fall, and there were several places where I found parallels to other struggles, in other contexts and other issues.

That has made me think more about the interconnections between causes and campaigns, what silos we need to break down in order to optimally learn from each other, and how our parochial concerns can lead to thinking that no issue is as challenging as ours and, thus, that no one can offer us anything of value.

So, in the interest of helping us get beyond our own, more narrow, ways of seeing our advocacy work, this week I have some reflections on the reproductive rights battle. My focus is not on the substance, here, nearly as much as the process, and the insights to be gleaned from these seemingly divergent issues.

Today: authentically rooting your issue in clients’ lived experiences

One of the emphases in Generation Roe was about the importance of systems thinking, and the problems that arise from practitioners and advocates looking at a client’s–or a larger group of women’s–abortion decision decision in isolation, rather than examining the interlocking systems that work to shape perceived choices…and constrains options.

I think this same tendency plays out in other arenas, too, such as in the evolving understanding about the role of trauma in shaping later well-being, and in the practice to refer clients to different systems when they need other types of help, rather than surrounding them with all of the supports they need. We know, in our own lives, that we can’t neatly compartmentalize our challenges–our worries about our ailing parents spill over into our decision about accepting the promotion we’ve been working towards, or our anxieties about our marriage keep us from scheduling that long-delayed doctor’s appointment–but we often expect clients to focus on whatever is the priority for our ‘slice’ of work with them, sometimes in willful ignorance of the messiness that is reality.

Many of the providers interviewed in Generation Roe talked about the difficulty of being face-to-face with desperation. It is harrowing, is it not, to really accompany someone through tremendous pain. So we build walls to protect ourselves from a visceral reaction, not because we don’t care, but because we do…so much.

The tragedy, here, is that this reaction neither protects our hearts nor aids our analysis. Instead, we can more easily become bitter and hopeless, cutting ourselves off from the human connections–painful though they often are–that were, for most of us, our motivation for entering social work in the first place.

And, finally, the most poignant passage for me was about questioning our right and responsibility to urge our clients to speak out, even when they might prefer to be silent, if such visibility and vocalization are the only ways that we can humanize the issues on which we are working (p. 174).

This evokes, for me, a lot of reflection about the immigrant rights movement, particularly the organizing of undocumented youth, and the way in which their ‘coming out’ has galvanized a generation of immigrants and their allies, even though many of us were hesitant to see them play this public role. What about when the tables are turned, and clients may not want to self-identify? Clearly we have an obligation to preserve their privacy, but do we have a role to play in encouraging them to drop those barriers on their own? If so, where is the line?

Where do you see yourself turning to campaigns and movements, even far afield of your own work, for inspiration or caution? What makes it hard to generalize from these seemingly parallel efforts? How can we bridge the gaps for greater collective force? How can we be better students of movements?

An All-in-Nation: Equity is the Superior Growth Model

One of the products that PolicyLink has created as part of their All-in-Nation effort is an examination of the inadequacies of current economic models which pursue economic growth basically for its own sake, assuming, somehow, contrary to all observed fact, that increases in Gross Domestic Product will translate neatly into improvements in the well-being of individuals and communities, equitably shared.

They outline, instead, an economic growth model focused on fostering greater equity, successfully arguing that this approach is not only likely to bring real improvements to people’s lives but, also, stronger long-term prosperity across the economy, too.

I believe it is imperative that we garner momentum for this shift, if we are to reverse the tide of increasing inequality and restore the ladders of opportunity and mobility that are supposed to work, especially for young people.

And, so, I think it’s worth considering where there are roles for social work and for social workers, in articulating these priorities and, indeed, staffing a more inclusive economic growth strategy.

Here’s what I mean:

  • If rebuilding our public infrastructure is an essential part of literally constructing the foundation for economic growth, what should social workers be doing to push for these investments, particularly at the local and county level, where there’s often a bit of a power vacuum, and some engaged and informed leadership could shift the power dynamic and create some real change?
  • If creating new, good jobs is the starting point for a more democratic economy, what do social workers need to learn and understand about how business works, what it takes to support people in entrepreneurship, and how to foster the skills to help people survive in the jobs of tomorrow?
  • If galvanizing support for these investments will, indeed, take a movement, where are social workers actively leading movement building, fostering critical consciousness among clients and coworkers, implementing proven methods of community engagement, and looking to build alliances beyond the silos of their particular practices?

This isn’t a case where just doing more of what we’ve been doing, or making technical improvements to our programs, will get us anywhere close to where we need to be.

We need new metrics, new aims, and new strategies.

We need a new definition of economic ‘success’, and we need new people at the table.

And, I believe, social workers must be part of those solutions.

Whither the American Dream? Not on our watch.

It is, of course, not enough just to catalog the way that U.S. social and economic policies are imperiling the American dream.

We have to stop it.

That will, of course, take a movement, since, on our own, we tend to respond to the confrontation of so much that’s wrong with a disengagement, what Ernie Cortes calls the axiom that “powerlessness also corrupts” (p. xviii).

But, together, we could have what Smith calls an ‘army of volunteers prepared to battle for the common cause of reclaiming the American Dream” (p. 425).

That will take changes to the way the system works, maybe with mandatory voting, so that elected officials would know with some certainty that they would face the wrath of the entire electorate if they fail to vote the interests of most Americans (p. 417), and certainly with campaign finance reform. We likely need to rethink the role of political parties (p. 414), and there is certainly evidence that Senate rules have outlived their usefulness (p. 322). There is evidence that members of Congress tune out the opinions of average Americans when voting on legislation, especially when powerful financial interests get engaged (p. 135). But they wouldn’t–they couldn’t–if we change the terms of engagement.

Shifting these terms of engagement could result in real changes in the distributional policies we pursue, including reductions in military spending so that we can reinvest in U.S. infrastructure and opportunity, what then-candidate Obama described as “fighting to put the American Dream within reach for every American…for what folks in this state have been spending on the Iraq war, we could be giving health care to nearly 450,000 of your neighbors, hiring nearly 30,000 new elementary school teachers, and making college more affordable for over 300,000 students” (p. 373). But we’re not. Yet. And that has to change. Dwight Eisenhower knew that “to amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another” (p. 353). Another case of a Kansan who got it right.

And we need new tax policies. Really. Our tax policies are the opposite of what Americans really want, what some economists consider “the most political law in the world” (p. 106). We need new estate tax policies, to start, and to eliminate the earnings cap on Social Security. Achieving some victories like that could, perhaps, get more Americans to see how much tax policies matter, to build momentum for even bigger lifts.

Truly, there’s so much that needs to be fixed that you can sort of take your pick about where we start, in terms of substantive policy changes.

What is even more important is the strategy. That’s why, when I heard this piece on NPR during an early morning workout, I was struck by the quote at the very end.

It’s going to take a revolution.

But isn’t a dream worth fighting for?

Principles for ‘Anytime Everywhere’ Advocacy

book

The five principles for ‘anytime everywhere’ social change identified in the book are:

1. Identify your community from the crowd
2. Focus on shared goals
3. Choose tools for discovery and distribution
4. Highlight personal stories
5. Build a movement

When I started reading, #5 stopped me.

I mean, ‘build a movement’ as an item on a to-do list? Sure, we would all like to have a movement around our issues, but I had a hard time seeing how instructing us to build one counts as a ‘principle’, as reminding us that we can’t get to engagement without leveraging personal stories is.

But the way that the authors talk about movement building, I get how this commandment is an important reminder about the way we need to work. It’s about co-creation, letting go of our imagined control so that people are working our issues alongside us, not ‘under’ or ‘for’ us. Most significantly, the book has several very concrete examples of how this movement-building can look, including what it ‘costs’ an organization, psychically, to commit to this style of engagement.

Movement building, understood in this space, requires identifying the collaborators who can help your organization ‘open up’, so that your next campaign is about the larger movement/cause, instead of about your organization. It means unbranding, to an extent, and getting out of the way. It focuses on impact, and rigorous assessment through metrics, so that ‘loose’ doesn’t devolve into ‘untraceable’.

It’s about more than crowdsourcing, because you’re not trying to get the ‘crowd’ to circle back to you. It’s more of a ‘send the dove forth from the ark’ sort of thing. When your movement leaders don’t come back, you rely on your measures to let you know that’s a very, very good thing.

Question: Who are your collaborators? Who would carry forth your cause, if you encouraged them? Who is already free-agenting for you? What shifts would it take within your organization to get more comfortable with these movement actors and their roles? How can you cultivate those?

Why be an organization when you could build a movement?

As I have posted before, the definition of advocacy that I use when talking with direct service organizations about how they can ease into it comes from the Latin root word, advocare, which means “to call to aid”.

It’s about how you build a constituency around your cause, even more broadly than around your organization.

It’s how we make our issue really our issue, so that others feel that they own the concerns that motivate our work, too.

It’s how we build a movement.

In Creating Room to Read, the founder’s way of talking about their work resonates with this inclusive definition of advocacy.

He says that he doesn’t want to be the one leader of an organization but, instead, one of many leaders of a global movement (p. 269).

Because it’s going to take movements to end the social problems that plague us.

But what does this mean, in terms of how we have to change what we do, in order to build this kind of cause identification and mobilize the latent constituencies around our issues so that they coalesce into a movement?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers to that question, but I spend quite a bit of time talking about this with nonprofits, and thinking about it besides, and I do have some ideas.

  • Movement building has to be our goal: We too seldom set our sights on this kind of deep engagement around a cause; sometimes we can’t really even articulate the root causes that motivate our work. Of course, we won’t get there if we don’t set out in that direction.
  • Similarly, we need visions, not just missions: The other day, I asked a group of hard-working nonprofit staff what change they would make if they had a magic wand to make one thing different in the lives of the families they serve. I got mostly blank looks, with some very concrete suggestions about how their organization needs to improve its communication channels. I find that stunning. If someone is giving me a magic wand, things are going to change. We need to know what we want the world to look like, because that’s a vision compelling enough to convince people to come along with us.
  • We have to share the credit: Movements are never animated by one person, even the ones you are picturing in your head that you think were driven by one person. Really, they aren’t. An organization can be run unilaterally by one strong person (although, honestly, probably not very well), but a movement? That will take a crowd.
  • We will have to risk to build: Organizations can plod. Movements have to be nimble and adaptive and daring. Movements have major setbacks. They wander in the wilderness for decades before reaching the promised land. They have to find ways to sustain themselves through periods of great darkness, and they have to fail. A lot.

Where and when are you movement-building? What does it look like? And where does our organization fit in?

But our path can’t be that easy, or why advocates can’t be Amazon

Even I, who have not watched television since the 2008 Olympics, have seen those “easy button” commercials. And my husband and I joke about how Amazon.com makes it so easy to order (just 1-click! great!) that we end up buying way more than we really needed (and paying more; we’ll do just about anything to get stuff delivered).

We know that there are two ways to shape behavior: the hard way, which requires motivating people to do something different, even something that they may not really want to do; and the ‘easy’ way, which relies instead on changing the context in which behavior happens, so that we reset the default.

I still think that there’s a lot that we can do to make it as easy as possible for people to advocate, and I still think that’s a fundamentally good idea. There are enough barriers to action naturally that we need to make sure that we’re not constructing any more.

But, the more that I think about it, the more convinced I am that, unfortunately, we just can’t make activism too easy.

If our targets–those decision-makers we want to listen to us and to our concerns–know that it’s that easy, I worry that our impact will be sorely diluted. I mean, the movements that have really changed societies (and, in the process, laws) have required far more than a click from people. And that has been precisely their power, the ability to demand much of people who, in the process, discover much about themselves and their leadership.

I don’t know what the tipping point is, certainly, that spot at which advocacy becomes too easy to be very meaningful. And I’m not going to stop thinking about how we need to build cultures within our organizations and our movements that create as many entry points as possible, that provide people with activism mentors, and that integrate advocacy into people’s lives to the greatest extent possible. To do otherwise is to pretend that “real” advocates will do anything, against any odds, and that kind of martyr complex doesn’t do anyone any favors.

But I’m also not going to spend a lot of time figuring out how to “amazon” our advocacy efforts, how to strip them down to such a low threshold of engagement that we are asking very little of those we want to move.

Because, really, are we moving them much, in the ’1-click’ school of activism?

I get it, I do, that building activist structures is probably easier than helping people connect meaningfully with a cause, and with each other, and overcoming the powerful inertia built into our psyche and our culture in order to bring people together for transformation.

I guess I’m just concluding that our world is a little different than buying books (and loaf pans and tape refills and everything else my husband finds for us on Amazon). Here, there has to be some sacrifice, because the advocacy is a signal to those in power of what we’re willing to expend to address the problems that motivate our action.

There has to be some struggle.

And that doesn’t come with free shipping.

Spend your “extra” day fighting a losing battle

The way I see it, folks, tomorrow is a freebie.

It’s a totally bonus day that we only get once every four years.

You won’t have a February 29th next year, and you got by without one last year. Since we don’t plan on it, then, it’s essentially a total bonus, right?

So here’s my thought:

Let’s “waste” this extra day fighting some battles we’ll almost certainly lose. You know the ones–they need to be fought, to right a wrong or just stir up some trouble for those who need to be troubled. But we avoid them, because it seems more prudent to focus our energies on more attainable victories.

But not tomorrow.

Those 24 hours are a calendar’s gift, so we might as well throw them away on some of these hopeless causes.

My list, to get the day started:

  • Public assistance eligibility for immigrant families–can you think of a less popular cause? But economic hardship sentences some citizen children of immigrant parents to a lifetime of reduced life chances, and financial desperation traps some immigrant women in violent homes. Our public assistance systems are designed to reduce hardship and provide a safety net, and these families–part of our communities–deserve that, too.
  • Tax fairness–okay, so I fight this one on some of the other days, too, but I figure I can spare a few extra hours today. We need a revenue system equal to the challenges that face us, as a state and a country, and maybe this Leap Day can put us over the top.
  • Electing truly progressive candidates to my state legislature–most of the year I’ll do some campaigning for some allies whose relatively moderate views make them important stopgaps in our current political environment, but I have dreams of seeing some folks with big plans and huge hearts elected, and maybe some fundraising calls on this extra afternoon can help.
  • Peace on earth–yeah, I know. But, then, I ask myself: what have I done lately to try to stop war and promote peace? The answer, sadly, is not much, even though I very much want my kids to grow up in a safer world. I’ll spend some time today checking out the activities of peace groups local and international, and find a way to contribute some of my time (or, most likely, my money) as an investment in the future I want for them, and for us all.

The way I see it, we spend too much energy talking ourselves out of some of the fights we really should embrace.

Pragmatism is overrated, and the greatest movements for social justice certainly never conducted a feasibility analysis first.

We have to be strategic, but we also have to be bold. And stubborn. And, sometimes, a bit foolhardy.

So, what’s on your list of losing battles for our bonus day?

Happy February 29th.

Personal is Political Week: My Advocacy and My Faith

The church where I grew up, and where I was married

This is the second post for my The Personal is Political Week, and it’s probably the most personal of all three.

Discussion of religion, of course, is particularly fraught, and I’m never quite sure when, or where, or how it makes sense to share to students as a part of my worldview. For me, in my social work context, it’s not at all about evangelism, yet it’s pretty impossible for me to ignore the very real influence that my faith plays on my vision of social justice.

Last year, when I completed my goal to read all of Taylor Branch’s three-book series on Martin Luther King, Jr., it struck me anew, just how artificial it is to try to seal off my faith from my campaigning for social justice.

Because the day that I’m working towards, ultimately, is what the prophet Amos described, when “justice (shall) roll down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

I once gave a speech to several hundred church women who had gathered in Topeka to lobby the legislature on anti-poverty and child welfare policy. My remarks centered on the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Thy Kingdom Come, on earth as it is in heaven.” For me, that means a responsibility, especially for believers, to work unceasingly to make this very flawed planet conform more to that vision of Amos’.

I don’t believe that we pray our way to the political and economic structures that would let justice reign, and I certainly don’t believe in waiting until heaven for the poor, sick, hungry, and outcast to get what they rightly deserve. But the sense that I’m doing what my faith compels has definitely sustained me during some of the bleakest points of my advocacy, and it has also allowed me to make common cause with some unlikely allies who share some of those same principles.

It’s not always a feel-good faith, I’ll acknowledge–I’d love to believe that God is intervening to save the sick and rescue the hurting, but I’ve seen too much sorrow to believe anything but that He expects us to do a lot of the heavy lifting there. I don’t pretend to be terribly learned in matters of faith, and I’m sure that there are contradictions galore in my belief system, just as there are in people’s political ideologies, too. And, certainly, it probably goes without saying that my soul aches for the ways in which those who would profess a nominally similar faith to mine use those beliefs to pursue personal profit, practice the politics of division and destruction, and justify abuses of precisely those with whom I believe my God is most preoccupied.

But I know of few other powers as capable of moving people to do extraordinary things on behalf of others, and that’s why so many successful organizing efforts and social movements, past and present, have woven some expression of faith into their core principles.

What about you? Does your faith, however you experience it, influence your aspirations for justice, and the way that you pursue them? How do you talk about your faith with those who may or may not share it, especially in a social justice context? If faith is not a motivation for you, how do you sustain your heart in the face of constant injustice?

Yes, they can: Foundations and Movement-Building

These are bleak times for many of us committed to progressive social change and a vision of social justice that includes an end to poverty, full protection of civil rights for citizens and for immigrants, real power for working people, universal health care, and a sustainable environment. The ongoing economic hardship that has plagued our country for all of my twins’ young lives, and a much more constrained understanding of the social contract among policymakers in our state and federal governments, can lead to despair and retrenchment.

Or

We can focus on building long-term movements for social change, the kind that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, are our only hope for bringing about the world as we wish it anyway. What the almost three years since the 2008 elections have taught us, or perhaps reminded us, is that there are no shortcuts, and that we can never, ever, ever stop organizing.

And that’s why, for me, it’s the perfect time for this Foundation Review article outlining how foundations can (and should!) support movement building. It begins with the obvious acknowledgement that philanthropy does not a movement make, and that successful movements must, by definition, be driven by those animating them with their own passions and pains (so foundations have to relinquish control over the ultimate (and even many of the interim) goals, as well as the timeline).

But it analyzes powerful movements from history to define their core elements, and then suggests activities in which foundations can invest in order to infuse social movements with essential resources. My own study of the civil rights movement (I finally accomplished my goal of reading all of Taylor Branch’s trilogy on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) shows the many points when donations, from individuals and from philanthropic and religious institutions, facilitated the next steps that, combined, built one of the greatest movements for social justice our world has known. The article also illustrates the role that foundations can play in very long-term movement building with a brief history of the conservative movement and the foundations that decided in the 1960s to systematically invest in building capacity–investments that began to pay real dividends with the election of Ronald Reagan and, certainly, is very much in play still today.

Bringing these ideas to our progressive work requires some shifting on the part of foundations, to be sure, so that they see themselves as movement strategists, more than as funders, with a commitment to changing the terms of the debate so that, ultimately, the kinds of policies we support are seen as “natural”, because we’ve framed them that way. If progressive foundations are to build the kind of world they seek, they’ll need movements to create it. And those movements will happen much more surely if they can hire the people they need, purchase the media to communicate, and conduct activities in pursuit of their vision.

And that means, yes, multi-year grants and general operating support and transparent, mutual relationships with those receiving investments. It means not expecting grantees to demonstrate their unique “niche”, but encouraging collaboration and even “duplication”, as reflecting convergence of focus and enhanced overall capacity. This report uses the term “advocacy infrastructure” to talk about these long-term investments that cross organizational and issue boundaries.

But putting all of this on foundations is unwise and unfair. Community organizers, direct service practitioners engaged in social change, and all of us who care about building movements need to think beyond single-issue campaigns, too, and develop relationships with philanthropists so that we can help them to see the future through our same vision.

We need to have clear strategies related to each of the components of successful movement building: base-building, research and framing, strategic power assessment, organizational management, engagement and networking, and leadership and vision development. We can’t expect foundations to invest in these activities if we continue to zero in on tactics immediately and populate our grant applications with detailed descriptions of what we’ll do, with little attention to the who, and, most importantly, the why.

One of my favorite parts of this discussion was the inclusion of direct service providers as a key avenue to base building. That thinking builds on foundations’ existing relationships with social service agencies and could leverage those considerable resources for real power building. It’s also significant that their discussion of leadership development transcends the intense “academies” that are fairly popular with foundations (and, absolutely, potentially very impactful), because they have a pretty high initial “cost” of entry, and we need leadership capacity development at all levels of engagement.

Of course, my interest in advocacy evaluation made me hone in on the discussion of outcomes and assessment, especially because it’s very true that our nascent field of policy and advocacy evaluation misses many of the elements of movement building that would need to be included in a more comprehensive evaluation. There’s a table at the end with the stages of movement building, the five core elements, and benchmarks for each that I’ve printed out to refer to for my evaluation practice; it’s only a beginning, but it’s a good place to start. This piece is critical not only because it will add to the field of knowledge about what works and increase our understanding about social movements, but also because speaking philanthropic language about accountability and measures can help us to bridge these gaps.

As the authors say, “Foundations do not make history. They fund it.”

And then I’ll have even more books on my nightstand, to retrace the victories and the roles that activists and the philanthropists who invested in them played in creating the victories that we can’t imagine living without.

Here’s to a brighter future and the movements that will bring it.

We’ve got long-term work to do.