Tag Archives: social movements

Let’s not be turtles

I do yoga.

I sometimes even curl up on the couch and read. Yes, it’s usually a book about human rights or climate change or sociology, but, still.

I understand the need to turn off our compassion and to console ourselves.

But we cannot retreat, not really, from the horrors of tragedy and the mundane suffering.

We cannot.

We cannot lull ourselves into thinking that caring for ourselves requires hiding from the world, or that we are somehow entitled to ‘peace’, if peace is purchased at the price of tremendous injustice and pain.

In One Nation Under Stress, this idea of ‘stressism’, of stress as a mentality and a sort of collective infatuation, is related to our self-talk that tries to convince ourselves that what we need (and deserve) is solitude and release and ‘free time’, when what we really need is improvement in the conditions that prompt this stress response in the first place.

Because there are two ways to respond to the unimaginable and the predictably wrong: to resolve to respond with all energy and passion or to draw into our shells and hope that things will somehow go away.

Our desire to flee the discomfort of stress leads us to retreat, when what the world craves–and what, in the end, is the only thing that can bring real relief–is concerted action to address the factors that contribute to our stresses.

We cannot be turtles, withdrawing in timidity, when our age demands tigers.

We cannot.

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?