Giving new meaning to the phrase “coalition politics”

Like most community organizers and policy advocates, I have spent A LOT of time in coalition meetings. I have invested considerable energy in forming coalitions, trying to improve the functioning and increase the power of those of which I have been a part, and figuring out how to gracefully exit those that are no longer providing me with any real benefit. I have learned that, while coalitions are absolutely essential in many of our campaigns for policy change (because very few nonprofit organizations have adequate power on their own to push through our agendas), there is such a thing as a counterproductive alliance. Coalition work is practiced by almost everyone, yet few people do it really well, and marginal or actually destructive coalition experiences are all-too-common. During my years of advocacy practice, I was part of many coalitions: United we DREAM, Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, Campaign for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Low-Wage Immigrant Workers, Faith/Labor Alliance, Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, and more. Some of these experiences were very positive, some were OK, and some were, at times, toxic and painful.

When I stepped away from full-time advocacy to teach, then, one of my areas of research interest was in coalition practice–figuring out what scholars have learned about what makes coalitions work (and not), what principles need to be incorporated into coalition practice, and even the conditions in which coalitions may not be worth it! I didn’t find as much as I would have liked, and I still have a lot of unanswered questions, but several readings, including a few by Terry Mizrahi, who has done more thinking than most social workers on this topic, have shed some light on some of what I found in the field.

For one of the class sessions in my Advanced Advocacy Practice class, I present some content on the essential tasks of a social change coalition, drawing comparisons to social work group practice and the stages of group development with which my students are usually more familiar, and then we spend quite a bit of time discussing some scenarios of coalition practice. I challenge students to think about how they would handle these situations and to practice simultaneously attending to the coalition’s internal development and its pursuit of its external goals, a balancing act I consider the preeminent challenge of coalition practice. Too often, I see that coalitions develop rather organically, without adequate attention to questions of membership, roles and responsibilities, and processes for decision-making, so, then, we should not be surprised when these same issues cause problems in coalitions later.

Here are some of my thoughts about coalitions, with a link to the scenarios I have developed (all reflective of actual issues from my own experience, with some significant modifications). If you are involved in an advocacy coalition right now, how is it going? What are the coalition’s strengths and weaknesses? How might you improve the coalition’s functioning? Why did you develop a coalition, and do you still believe that it was necessary? How might you have accomplished your goals without a coalition?

Tasks in Development for Social Change Coalitions–asking the often-unasked questions:

  • Deciding whether to start–what about funder-imposed coalitions? If we don’t have a choice in starting a coalition, how can we make it as helpful as possible? When is a coalition necessary, rather than a looser ‘collaboration’?
  • Establish criteria for membership—who do we need? What must organizations contribute? What resources/strengths does each organization bring? How do we decide who’s worth their attendant liabilities?
  • Establish a structure—how will we allocate power? Who will make decisions? How will organizational representatives be accountable simultaneously to their constituencies and our joint constituency? How can we attend to internal issues while exerting influence on our external targets?
  • Establish a vision—why do we exist? What is the need that we are attempting to fill? What can organizations get out of membership that they could not get on their own? What is our common message? How will we ‘police’ this?
  • Develop leadership—who will lead us? What rights and responsibilities will come with leadership? Do we need different leaders to handle different leadership tasks? Do we need to invest in leadership development of some of our members in order to find the right ‘fit’ for our core tasks?
  • Manage conflict—how will we handle differences in ideology? What about disagreements about appropriate means? How much dissent can our coalition accommodate? What about differences based on professional staff v. grassroots leaders, gender, race/ethnicity? What about differences of opinion on issues tangential to our common work?
  • Evaluate success—how will we set our goals? How will we measure our accomplishments? When will we decide if our goals have been met? What if we fail? Who gets credit for success and ‘blame’ for failures?
  • Negotiate transition—when is our work together ‘done’? If we evolve, will we do so with static membership? If we disband, how will we handle resource distribution, any ongoing relationships? How do we message our termination with the public, our targets, and our allies?

    I have been part of coalitions that resulted in deep new friendships, powerful political victories, and truly transformational practice. I have been part of (indeed, played leadership roles in) coalitions where people just went through the motions and continued to operate in isolation. And I have been part of coalitions that were paralyzed by dissent, overcome with personal attacks, and ultimately distracting us from the work at hand. I believe that social workers’ skills in attending to the person in the environment and dealing with interpersonal relationships as well as task functions can be especially valuable in coalition practice. One of our jobs, then, is to figure out how to make our coalitions work, and to bring our formidable talents to the development of this tool for advocacy.

    Time to practice:
    Scenarios for Coalition Practice

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