Tag Archives: social movements

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.

Teacher, mother, wife, activist…neighbor

Aerial photo of our neighborhood, including the nearby public park

Before I had kids, I didn’t do much neighboring. My husband knew the neighbors far better than I did, especially because I was seldom home from work before about 10PM. Even when I wasn’t at work, and even when I was outside working in the garden, I saw home as a refuge, a place to think through the strategies that might convince the Speaker of the House to bring a bill up for a vote I knew we could win, not a place to connect with others in a meaningful way.

But that changed when I began to see my neighborhood as the proximate environment in which my kids will grow. It’s where they will learn what it means to be a citizen, and what obligations to others mean for our own lives. It’s where they build relationships with adults beyond our family and their teachers. It’s where they mediate conflicts, and watch us do the same.

It’s home, but home as the center of shared lives, not home as an enclave against the outside.

And, so, today, my role as “neighbor” is fairly prominent in my life.

In the summer, I cut flowers from the garden for Sam to deliver to our closest neighbors. At Christmas, we sing carols with a few families around us (luckily, they’re more musically-talented than our clan!). The kids and I spend much more time in the front yard than in the back, mainly oriented around the large front porch that we added to the house last year. All year long, Sam shuttles back and forth with the kids two houses down, who spend at least an afternoon a week at our house. When their mom had another baby last summer, we brought her food for a week, and her husband and mine go out on a regular basis. The teenagers across the street not only babysit my kids, but also just play with them, and we go to their sporting events and consult on their homework. We have the phone number of our elderly neighbors’ daughter, who lives in California, on our refrigerator, and ours is the second emergency number on theirs. The young single mom across the street brings her son over for more exposure to other kids, and the divorced man next door lets my twins hang out on his front porch, which they, for some reason, prefer. When my husband comes home from work, after a rundown of the kids’ day, he usually asks, “what’s going on in the neighborhood?”

And I know.

But, still, despite the breadth and increasing depth of these relationships, and despite my background in community organizing and what I’ve witnessed as the power of “place-based” organizing for change, I’ve never thought much about my neighborhood, this community, as a force for social justice.

In part, that’s a reflection of the relative affluence in which we live; there are few glaring injustices that must be righted here.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t use these relationships to leave a mark on policies, in our community and beyond it.

We could speak out, as taxpayers and public school patrons, about the kind of state school finance formula that would serve not just our kids but all kids. We could work on issues of after-school time, a challenge for several families in our neighborhood, and one that they mostly struggle with alone. We could share the story of our walkable neighborhood as testimony to the need for public transportation and investments in infrastructure that would address the spatial isolation of other communities.

And, in so doing, we could make being neighborly more about making a difference.

One of the tools I’m exploring to help with this is a neighborhood-based social networking application, called Neighbors Forums. There aren’t any active forums in my area to date, but there are examples of those at work in other parts of the country, models that communities can follow, and tools to integrate neighborhood forums into the social networks people already use to connect. They emphasize in-person recruiting, relying on the electronic component as a complement, not a replacement, to the “old-fashioned” door-to-door organizing that still characterizes the most successful community efforts.

And that makes sense for me, and for this place.

While I’ve broached the subjects of values, and politics, and “issues” with my neighbors, enough to know what their concerns are and what moves them, I haven’t yet begun to really organize. I think that I’m headed there, as I move towards integrating the various aspects of my life into some sort of cohesive whole. I’m not sure if I’ll look to something like the Neighborhood Forums, or recruit my neighbors to join some larger venue, or both.

As I work through some of these questions, alongside these former strangers who I now can’t imagine my life without, I’d love to hear from others who are organizing where they live. What has it meant for you as strivers for social justice, and as neighbors? How have these efforts shaped your personal and professional lives? And what lessons learned would you pass along?

Youth, impatience, and social movements


DREAM students sitting in at Senator McCain’s office. All are now facing deportation charges.

I’ve never been arrested.

Yes, I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, even kicked out of church once. I’ve gotten a few threatening letters, a couple of nasty phone calls.

But I’ve never stood far enough afield of “respectable” comportment, even in opposition to laws that I find indefensibly unjust, to warrant arrest.

Which makes me think…have I been doing something wrong?

For the past year or so, there has been a tension simmering in the immigrant rights movement, one known to most other great, worthy causes that inspire social movements around them, between prudence and passion, strategy and sacrifice, “staying at the table” v. “heightening the contradictions”.

And here, as so often throughout history, those tensions have played out along the lines of established, funded, well-respected organizations v. young people demanding social justice on their terms and on their timelines, willing to use their own lives as the fodder for the change they seek.

I’ve straddled both sides of this divide, to an extent, advising the DREAM Act youth who are staging sit-ins (and being arrested for them) as well as working to support the call-in campaigns and legislative strategies of the immigrant rights organizations. I’ve made contributions for bail funds for DREAMers in jail, and, last fall, I talked with chiefs of staff about prospects for bringing a stand-alone bill to the floor.

And what I see is that, while the mainstream organizations aren’t wrong (the young people are doing risky things for which they may pay a tremendous price, and there’s no guarantee that it will have any result (as we saw, in fact, when DREAM failed in the Senate, and many of those students are now likely to be deported), and it does make people in power really uncomfortable and, at least temporarily, less willing to negotiate), they’re a little bit missing the point, at least at first, when there was a lot of whispering about the wisdom of the insider approach as contrasted to the renegade actions.

I mean, social movements aren’t just about winning legislation. They’re also about changing people’s lives, forcing a new public consciousness, and giving people the amazing opportunity to act on their deepest values.

In the first place, the students point out (echoing what Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members had to remind the Southern Christian Leadership Conference adults in the 1960s), the closed-door negotiating sessions, with much reasonableness on both sides, aren’t exactly yielding the gains we know we deserve, so (as youth tend to argue), what have we got to lose?

As adults on the sidelines, we get worried (because these kids may get deported, and some of them have families, and how will they finish school?), and kind of skittish (because now we have to answer, not just to the haters who opposed us from the beginning, but also to those sympathetic to our cause as long as it’s not too loud or too combative). So did the African-American parents whose six-year-olds went to jail in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

Social change is often really scary, especially for those who have to forge it. We get nervous when people are honest about their anger, especially if they don’t direct it at the targets we choose or express in the way we’d like.

But the truth is:

in the search for justice, patience isn’t necessarily a virtue.

In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, sounding much like the SNCC students whose side he often took in battles between the youth and the elders, reminds that “time is neutral”, that waiting never produces inevitable progress, and that “the time is always ripe to do what is right”.

Even if the Senate Majority Leader disagrees.

Today, the courageous immigrant students whose tenacity and moral witness are almost single-handedly keeping immigrant rights on the national agenda are teaching us new and needed lessons about the power of direct action, the meaning of civil disobedience, and the promise of unity. And I think that those who make their living, as I used to, from advocating alongside and on behalf of immigrant communities, are being challenged and stretched in wonderfully exciting ways, and, in many cases, are rising to those challenges, albeit with some reservations, out of acknowledgement and admiration for the movement youth are creating.

On February 1, 1960, four college students, steeped in nonviolence but not closely associated with any civil rights organization, decided, almost on a whim, to sit in at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s lunch counter.

They didn’t issue a press release, or prepare talking points, or form a coalition.

They just sat, and refused to move.

And now that lunch counter sits in the Smithsonian and the student movement their silent action sparked helped to right centuries-old wrongs.

And that’s part of what makes me a bit ashamed to have never seen the inside of a jail cell.

Where do you stand on the “inside v. outside game” divide? What are you willing to sacrifice for the causes in which you believe? How has that changed as you’ve aged? How can adults support youth movements, without co-opting or patronizing or pressuring them? And why does figuring out how to build movements with a place for more radical action matter, to our quest for justice?

The Allure of Stop Energy

A math problem, of sorts:

What’s the difference between this?


More than 750,000

and this?


Courageous and committed, but relatively few

This:

There’s a central truth in organizing.

I don’t completely understand it, but I’ve certainly witnessed it.

And I know that we have to figure it out.

It’s far easier to get people involved in a movement to stop something they see as bad, or threatening, or offensive, than it is to bring people together to support something positive, encouraging, or hopeful. Even if the latter is something that they care about a lot, and even if it would make their lives very much better.

And so that’s the story those pictures tell.

In 2006, almost without even trying, pro-immigrant organizers had thousands of people showing up for nearly-spontaneous protests against H.R. 4437, a particularly draconian anti-immigrant bill, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, that would have (among other things) criminalized assistance to undocumented immigrants (even by clergy! or social workers!).

It was ugly. And hateful. And scary.

And, so, literally MILLIONS of people turned out for those rallies.

In Kansas City, we had three within 2 months, each larger than the one before. People I’d never seen before were volunteering to be event marshals, and people I hadn’t seen in years were showing up with carfuls of friends they had convinced to come. I helped respond to community pressure for action in Garden City, Dodge City, Emporia, Hays, Pittsburg, Lawrence, and Topeka, too.

It was unprecedented, organic, and urgent.

And, so, we then started to try, in about summer of 2006 (once it became apparent that H.R. 4437 was, in fact, dead in the U.S. Senate and no longer a real, legislative worry) to translate some of that community momentum into pro-comprehensive immigration reform action.

We organized town halls on CIR. And maybe 100 people came. We organized rallies, thinking it was the type of action that had appealed to them. We maybe got 150.

And it became apparent: it’s just a lot harder for us to build a cohesive movement around support for this elusive, often ill-defined and very far off possibility, rather than some here-today, very real threat.

It hadn’t really occurred to me, though, that this was not a challenge unique to those of us in the immigrant rights world, but, instead, a more immutable law of community organizers and social change agents worldwide, until I read Clay Shirky’s essay in Rebooting America. He writes, the “usual stories of collective action have to do with short-term pressure brought upon existing institutions to try to stop them from doing something.” And I underlined “short-term” and “stop” them, and thought about 2006.

Because immigrants, the same ones who missed work and risked retaliation to oppose H.R. 4437, care very much about immigration reform. It’s not a question of generalized apathy. I even believe that if a similar threat emerged here today, we’d see similar response. We’re seeing that some in Arizona and elsewhere with more urgent battles.

The challenge, then, is this: how can we build movements with relationships and visions that will carry us through this more slogging work of articulating shared goals and building broad-based support for our message? How do we guard against the inevitable collapse of consensus? How do we charge forward when our best models, and most inspiring memories, are stop-energy focused?

How do we change the math, so that we can change the world?

What lessons for advocates in Roe v. Wade?

Opposing sides from last year's commemorative march

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the Roe v. Wade case almost 38 years ago, on January 22, 1973.

More because I finally got around to it than because I have such a keen sense of timing, I just finished reading Wrath of Angels, a quite compelling story of the battle over abortion in the United States, co-written by an investigative reporter from Kansas City who I know somewhat from her work on extremist groups associated with the anti-immigrant movement.

But, really, this post isn’t about abortion.

Instead, when I looked back at the pages I’d marked as I read, I found that what resonated with me the most were the lessons that this extraordinarily contentious, long-lived, and influential debate holds for advocates in other social justice arenas, as a sort of extreme case study that crosses multiple policy jurisdictions and has left a mark on all of American politics.

  • Public opinion may be more malleable, and more fickle, than we think. Several observers have called Roe v. Wade the ‘fastest social revolution in history’, but, just 7 years after the Supreme Court decision (issued contrary to American public opinion, which was mostly opposed to abortion), opinion polls showed considerable alignment with the expansions of reproductive freedoms the decision codified, as well as the limitations it embraced. To me, this suggests that social justice advocates should not necessarily focus as much energy on bringing “the public” to our side, but rather on working through policy mechanisms to force the changes we know our communities deserve, creating space for the rest of the nation to catch up.
  • We must be ready to fight on multiple fronts at the same time. Advocates on both sides of the abortion issue struggled to cope with a suddenly nationalized debate; where once they had fought state-by-state, building relationships with those policymakers and studying those processes, overnight they were dealing with a national issue that required a national strategy. I see a similar dilemma in the movement for immigrants’ rights; while congressional passage of comprehensive immigration reform is the end goal, advocates are also playing defense against restrictive state legislation and trying to advance something progressive at the state level as federal action remains elusive. It’s hard to play on both of these courts at the same time, particularly on an issue (like both abortion and immigrants’ rights) with important judicial tactics, as well.
  • Winning on language is huge. The anti-abortion (or “pro-life”–language figures into every aspect of this debate!) effort, in particular, has demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the importance of definitions, as evidenced in the push to have fetuses defined as children, even in areas of policy seemingly far removed from questions of reproduction itself. When we forget that how people talk about our issues matters at least as much as what they’re actually saying, we may have already lost.
  • Sometimes, movements may need to strategically exclude. This last piece is controversial for me, especially because social workers and community organizers (and I consider myself both) are rather instinctively inclusive, but I was quite transfixed by the account of the debate within the anti-abortion camp about excluding men from all of their demonstrations, in order to avoid the charge that their cause was about men controlling women’s lives, and to provide a counterbalance to the predominantly feminist reproductive health care providers they were combating. Ultimately, this commitment didn’t last long, and the major anti-abortion organizations did come to be dominated by men. But, still, it made me think: how might I feel differently about that movement, and its role in our politics, if it was authentically led by women? Which leads me to ask, should movements exclude to send a message, given how important messages are? And THAT question raises all kinds of issues about my own work within a community that’s not my own, and the kind of message that might have sent, and whether immigrants would be better off if they excluded non-immigrants from positions of leadership within their own struggle, too.

    While, obviously, I welcome your comments and questions and responses to these reflections on the theme of Roe v. Wade’s legacy for other campaigns and other causes, I’d also love to hear from those social workers who are better scholars of this particular struggle than I, about what this anniversary means for you. This post may be more about what we can learn from this epic battle than about the battle itself, but those lessons wouldn’t exist without the sacrifices of those who have gone before.

  • Philanthrocapitalism, Part II

    So you read yesterday that I might be coming around, at least a little, to this idea of the role that philanthropy, at least that which is strategic, focused on solving serious social problems, and embedded in a truly progressive tax code, can play in our quest for social justice.

    So you knew that there was a “but”. And here it is. The ironic thing, though, is that some of these very same ‘philanthrocapitalists’ are offering the same cautions, the same caveats, to which I now turn. Maybe there’s hope for me to be a billionaire someday after all. Or not.

    I love it that Bono told the authors of Philanthrocapitalism, “as great as some of the philanthropists in your book are, the real change comes from social movements” (p. 12). And it appears that he’s not alone. “A growing number of philanthrocapitalists are realizing that one of the most effective ways to leverage their money to change the world is to use it to shape how political power is exercised” (p. 240). Exactly. And that’s the point about this new emphasis on the new philanthropy that advocates of social justice cannot afford to forget; there is no way that people in poverty, those who have been excluded and marginalized around the world, will ever get what they truly deserve as a voluntary donation from those who have so much. AND, there’s no way that we’ll solve the serious social problems facing our planet (or even just our community) with just a collaboration between people in need and even the most enlightened rich person; we need the resources of our public structures on our side too.

    And only movements move those mountains. The kind of movements that a reliance on philanthropy will subvert.

    Social work has to acknowledge our own less than pristine history in this area: The Charity Organization Society, part of the heritage of our great profession, worked in Victorian England to keep government out of the business of helping the poor, arguing that such work was best done by philanthropy (and, of course, them). Even today, social workers can be guilty of that attitude–discouraging the kinds of universal approaches that seek to prevent social injustices because they may erode the need for our professional intervention. And we are willing to overlook the unscrupulous business practices of companies that write checks for our fundraisers, play up to the foundations who make us jump through unreasonable hoops, and rationalize spending way more time applying for grants than trying to change the world…because that’s the way that the system works now.

    So the part of the discussion about this new philanthropy that excites me the most is that, increasingly, philanthropists and foundations seem to get this, seem to know that they can’t do it alone, and seem willing to invest in trying to seed the kind of social change that can set the stage for real transformation. The Gates Foundation partnered with other donors to build the Ed in ’08 Campaign, an effort to put nationwide education reform at the center of the 2008 presidential campaign. They largely didn’t succeed, but, then, that’s sometimes how agenda setting starts. They’re not backing away from it, though, claiming that advocacy on several issues will be an increasingly critical part of their strategy in the coming years. The Omidyar Network’s (my husband thanks you for eBay, by the way) investment portfolio includes strengthening governments, in the belief that “effective government is crucial to social impact”. It even gave up tax advantages in exchange for the ability to engage in political campaigning to advance its goals. The Skoll Foundation has taken a more indirect route, making movies with a social message to change the public debate.

    I’m not worked up about this philanthropic engagement in politics and governmental reform being “an age of plutocracy”. Seriously–isn’t there ample evidence of the far more malicious role that money is playing in our political system today? It probably goes without saying, however, that this does not a movement make.

    An effort like DATA comes closer, since its work centers around using popular culture to bring people (mostly Millennials) to the anti-poverty cause. And it had significant impact, winning historic debt cancellation and raising the consciousness of a generation. After all, building a movement requires changing people’s hearts, and it’s indisputable that rock stars have easier initial access there than do social workers or community organizers or even charismatic politicians. They can put things on the agenda just by opening their mouths, and sometimes that’s an opening that can spark something far greater than they.

    We still have the make the road by walking. There are no real shortcuts that I’ve ever seen. But if philanthropy is increasingly willing to stock the rest stops along the way, and pack our backpacks with some of the provisions we’ll need, and buy us a really good map, well, then, we just might get there a little more quickly.

    Or, what, am I just going soft?

    photo credit, wobblycity, via Flickr

    Not game-changing: why it will take a movement to win immigration reform

    Photo credit, Reform Immigration for America

    The Immigration Policy Center just came out with a new report on the demographics, achievements, and economic contributions of immigrants in Kansas. It’s a great organization that puts out good research relating to the realities of immigrant families and communities, and I think they even “get” the politics of influencing attitudes on immigration reform better than most organizations; their blog and reports include such values-based items as What the Bible Really Says About Immigration and focus on the impact of anti-immigrant policies on immigrant children.

    And this report itself has very positive data: “If all unauthorized immigrants were removed from Kansas, the state would lose $1.8 billion in expenditures, $807.2 million in economic output, and approximately 11,879 jobs, even accounting for adequate market adjustment time.”

    So my argument is NOT that there’s anything wrong with producing these kinds of reports, or with organizations dedicating themselves to publicizing them. At all.

    BUT.

    The problem is that, alone, they won’t do much at all to move us towards our goal of good, progressive, workable, pro-immigrant reform. Our opinion polling on Americans’ attitudes towards immigration tell us that, overwhelming, it is an appeal to common values that moves them towards pro-immigrant positions, not a barrage of facts seeking to irrefutably demonstrate immigrants’ importance to our economy or society. There are two main reasons for this, and we need to understand the nature of these limitations in order to reduce our reliance on this kind of data in favor of the laborious, exhilarating, very hard work of building a social movement that will demand policy change, rather than expecting politicians to have a sudden epiphany that, “hey, immigrants are really contributing to our country and doing great things–we should be nicer to them!”

    Reason 1: People just aren’t moved by facts the way that they are by stories and values. Think about it: what are YOU more likely to pay attention to and remember–a list of impressive economic data, or a really compelling story that resonates with something central about how you see the world? Yeah, me too.

    Reason 2: Unfortunately, people know that data can be manipulated, and, in this particular area, for every study highlighting the significant contributions of immigrants to our nation, there is at least one put out by the anti-immigrant ideologues arguing exactly the opposite (plus, thrown in for good measure, some allegations that they’re all criminal child molesters and welfare cheats, too). I’ve looked at the methodology and I think it’s pretty clear that the evidence asserting a net positive impact of immigrants, including those undocumented, on the country is overwhelming, and there is even some (albeit slightly less strong) evidence of net positive impact on the state, too, AND, of course, that these positive impacts would only increase with immigration reform that gave people legal status to work in the U.S. (which would raise wages and education levels and bring people out of the underground economy). But, the point is, of course I’d come to that conclusion, because those facts support my worldview. It doesn’t happen the other way around.

    So, what to do when a report like this comes out? We should absolutely use it with our allies, to add to our talking points, share with legislators inclined towards supporting our cause but in search of ammunition with which to support it, and use with media who are tempted to run as ‘fact’ the reports that the anti-immigrant groups parade out.

    But, then, we have to get back to the work of building relationships, tying immigration reform to how people see this nation of immigrants moving forward into the future, registering citizen children of immigrant parents to vote, organizing immigrant communities to engage in collective action, building solidarity with workers and progressives…in other words, building a movement.

    Women didn’t win the right to vote because men were suddenly convinced of their (um, obvious) economic and social import. Much of the U.S. would have collapsed without the labor and consumption of African Americans, yet it wasn’t their economic impact that won their freedom, from slavery or from apartheid rule.

    Movements won those struggles, and it will take a movement again.

    Trending in Action: “Ideas for Change in America”

    According to the folks at Change.org, “Ideas for Change in America is a crowd-sourcing competition that empowers citizens to identify and build momentum around the most innovative ideas for addressing challenges our country faces. The 10 most popular ideas will be presented at an event in Washington, DC to relevant members of the Obama Administration, and Change.org will subsequently mobilize its full community to support a series of grassroots campaigns to turn each idea into reality.”

    Here’s a list of the ideas submitted so far for 2010. The 2009 list, unfortunately, hasn’t really been touched, but we know that building movements take awhile, right? And I guess there’s something valuable to be gained by bringing new campaigns on while still laboring on those other priorities? Or maybe the political landscape has shifted such that some of those other issues (health care, immigration, civil liberties) don’t seem as ripe today as they did in the honeymoon phase of the Obama Administration?

    Some thoughts:

  • Crowdsourcing suggests that a crowd will come up with the best possible ideas only when that crowd displays considerable diversity, so that you’re actually bringing ideas from across a spectrum, not from an amalgamation of a relatively homogenous group. Unfortunately, the people who spend time at Change.org (and the organizations that are the partners for the contest), while I tend to agree with most of their orientation (!), are mainly fairly tech-savvy, younger, left-leaning people (hence the idea to “end the oligarchy”), which may ultimately mean that some good ideas that could be drawn from other parts of society are lost.
  • There is a certain ‘trendiness’ here: for example, one of the ideas that was originally sent to me was to require television of Supreme Court cases. I, for one, would really like to watch the Supreme Court, and it would be a cool teaching tool, but there are also some concerns about how such publicity might change the tenor of deliberation. What’s more interesting to me, really, than the pro and con of this issue is what it reflects: our current emphasis on transparency.
  • Finally, I’ve been watching with interest the whole mobilization process that organizations are using to elevate their suggestions. In the end, the ideas that emerge victorious may be not necessarily those that resonate most with some amorphous public but those surrounded by constituencies that know how to use these media to rally people to their cause. In that sense, it’s not unlike the fundraising challenges that have used social media recently, and not immune to the controversies surrounding them.

    But what I’d really like to know is what ideas YOU have to make this a better country. What kinds of policy changes? What kinds of structural reforms? You can submit your ideas here. And can an effort like this play a role in the process of building momentum around these issues? If you think so, then go vote!