Why do big tents so often fall down?

Over the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really committed advocates–super smart and dedicated people who are working extremely hard to protect their clients and the programs that serve them, in a climate of drastic budget cuts and an eroding social contract.

It’s soul-sucking work, and we’re losing many, many more battles than we win.

Lately, though, some of us have felt like we’re really fighting the wrong battle. Or, more accurately, battles.

It’s not just the old “divide and conquer” problem–the fact that social service advocates are vulnerable to intra-skirmishes that distract us from the real enemies and make it easier for those same opponents to play us against each other.

It’s also that we deliberately avoid taking on the real struggles, and even sometimes miss noticing them altogether, because we’re trying to contain debates that we can really only hope to dominate if we act collectively.

Here’s how it looks in real life:

In Kansas, advocates spent all last year fighting against budget cuts in different program areas–mental health, public education, child welfare, senior services. And all year, the Governor and some legislative leaders hinted that their sights were really set on a policy battle far larger and more fundamental to our state’s well-being: the revenue foundation that shores up (or doesn’t) all of those programs and far more. For the most part, they have not encountered much effectively organized opposition. From my conversations with at least some advocates, it seems that many hoped that not antagonizing the Administration on that issue would, somehow, preserve some access and influence that they could use to defend their work and serve their clients.

So, in essence, we’re sitting on the sidelines while our fates–for the next several years–are decided.

Because, of course, if the Governor and his allies are successful in eliminating the state income tax, they won’t need to legitimate their budget-slashing goals at all: there quite literally won’t be enough money to fund any of these programs, and so advocates will be fighting over crumbs.

If the failure to build a sustained, strategic, progressive coalition to take on these more global, structural issues was just a logistical one (getting people together across distance), or just jurisdictional (getting people to set aside their competition with each other), or even just a problem of capacity (people not having enough resources to take on a fight this big), then I feel like we’d know better how to start addressing it.

After all, those are the kinds of challenges that we overcome in our organizing every day.

But the real reason that building this kind of “big tent” is so hard, I think, is that too many awesome advocates think it’s a bad idea–that taking on these common concerns dilutes their influence and compromises their positions. And so we have to overcome not just inertia but entrenched resistance, and we’ve got to do it without being able to offer any guarantees that their concerns aren’t, in fact, totally well-founded: this Administration absolutely does box out those who oppose them.

But advocacy isn’t about tallying the numbers of wins v. losses.

It’s about how we can build movements that shape how people see themselves, and their worlds, and about how we can change even the debates about the policy challenges we confront. It’s about being in the arena, even if we emerge somewhat bloodied.

And so we can’t afford to sit out the really, really big fights, and we can’t presume that going it alone is ever safer.

There are some battlefields on which we just have to be willing to make a stand.

And there is solace in solidarity.

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