Whatever happened to the Mink Brigade?

I’m closing out this week (and my blogging year) with some reflections on what I hope is to come in 2010, a sort of Christmas list for social justice.

It can’t hurt to ask, right?

And while I’m thinking bold and grand, I figured it wouldn’t hurt, either, to at least wonder aloud why we can’t revive something out of the Progressive Era that sounds like a riot, and just the thing to shake up political coalitions in this shifting age.

As described in The Woman Behind the New Deal, the Mink Brigade was a group of wealthy, liberal young women who used their money and political connections to support progressive political causes–women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, workplace safety, children’s issues. They bailed out striking workers, pulled strings to get access to public officials, and even went to jail to protest unsafe conditions, unfair treatment, and unjust laws.

As I’ve said before, I still think our best bet is to restructure our society so that there are not such extremes of wealth and poverty.

But, as long as there are still divisions between rich and poor, organizers for social justice would be well served to figure out how we can elicit support from those who money and position make powerful allies.

While this might seem like an impossibly tall order, given the unlikeliness of these alliances, there are at least some signs of hope and some pockets of people with wealth committed to using those resources as a tool, and a platform, for good. There’s the “Gang of Four”, for example, which, while certainly not socialites risking arrest for social justice, is a promising example of really rich people investing in progressive politicians and just causes, because they want to make a long-term commitment to social change and see politics as a way to leverage more than mere philanthropy (one of them is even a member of Congress now).

Still, if what we’re after is real alliances between rich and poor, I see the obstacles to building a sort of “21st Century Mink Brigade” as multiple:

  • The distance between people in poverty and those in wealth (and how such distance makes true solidarity harder)
  • The changed profile of social workers (and the fewer connections that many social workers, especially macro-practice ones, have to rich people)
  • The decline in structures and institutions that have the ability to pull people together around social justice issues (this is connected to the first challenge; our churches and political parties and even many social justice organizations are highly segregated along class lines today)

    I would never assert that organizing such a “grasstops” strategy should be an advocate’s first priority. Our key work has to focus around amplifying the voices and stories and experiences of those most affected by the social problems we’re addressing, not providing wealthy people with opportunities to “make a difference” or “find meaning” in their lives.

    But we also have to get over ourselves, a little bit, and think strategically about how we can build bridges to those whose position in this society and economy can make, if combined with politicization and a consciousness that makes them authentically committed to social good, valuable partners in an egalitarian coalition. Just because someone has money does not make them an enemy of social justice, and writing checks is not the only role for wealthy people in a struggle for social change.

    Will this mean some uncomfortable conversations about privilege and power and ill-gotten gains? Will it mean confronting our own prejudices about people with money, and those without? Will it mean vigilance to protect our messages and avoid shortcuts that can sell out our own power?

    Yes, yes, and, of course, yes.

    But I think that the lessons of history, and some of those of history in the making, suggest that it still might be worth it.

    And, besides, you never know when you might need bail money.

  • One response to “Whatever happened to the Mink Brigade?

    1. Amen, sista. However, I would like to point out that sometimes “providing wealthy people with opportunities to “make a difference” or “find meaning” in their lives” can and has been the first step in engaging them to get more involved. Sometimes the rich just need a chance to “experience” the other reality that we see everyday.

      And while I am not suggesting that we merely use “the haves” to help “the have nots,” some people just need a little nudge to get them more involved, and, once nudged, can become powerful allies in our fight for social justice. Let’s get our foot in the door, so to speak.

      Happy Holidays to all. And for the New Year, here is an old Irish saying.

      “May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been; the foresight to know where you are going; and the insight to know when you have gone too far.

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