Thursday, January 21, 2010

How to Spark a Social Movement: Thinking Outside the Box

Some "blue sky" thinking about how we could move from where we are after Craig's uplifting review of Arnie Duncan's career. Crossposted from Open Left.

What Would a Movement Organization Look Like?

Let's imagine, as concretely and pragmatically as possible, what a movement-sparking organization would look like in America. Despite its limitations, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee provides at least a starting place. SNCC had a central hub, but it looked across the South for locations where their cadre of organizers might be able to spark resistance. Like SNCC, then, our movement organization would have a central location, led by someone with a broad vision of possibilities for social change in America. Note, however, that most of what I describe could be mounted by a local organization as well.

I am assuming, as I did in Part I, that social movements are almost always sparked by local efforts. The success and vision of local efforts provide models for replication in other areas. When one local area makes the impossible possible--as King and SNCC did in Montgomery and Birmingham, or as the sit-in students did in North Carolina--leaders elsewhere begin to think differently. In a world of limited resources, a focus on the nation all at once seems unlikely to be effective. Another "March on Washington"? This wouldn't provide the kind of social disruption that Piven and Cloward argue is necessary to bring the system to the breaking point, to the point where some kind of change on the part of the establishment is unavoidable.

The paid staff of this organization would consist of a few--perhaps only one or two--creative and visionary organizers, an overall director, and perhaps one support staff person. These would be people with long experience in neighborhood organizing who have not become locked into the pre-set, narrow approaches of current organizing groups. They might include, for example, an experienced ACORN organizer who has become disillusioned and feels constricted by the standardized ACORN model. These people would be educators as much as actors, people with the capacity to inspire and connect deeply with individuals from many different walks of life. People like Ella Baker --likely less impressive, but also less ideological, less committed, for example, to enforcing their own vision of "real" democracy.

Sauron's All-Seeing Eye

The attention of central staff would sweep out across the nation, seeking out indications of cities where the beginnings of a movement might be sparked. When they found likely locations, they would do some initial investigation, seeing if there was enough support to provide a realistic toe-hold for a movement-sparking effort. Only cities where sufficient local organizational sponsorship and enough of a financial commitment to show that these organizations were willing to share in the risk (but not fully pay for it) would be on the final list.

Once one or more locations were chosen, this organization would begin to recruit widely for young volunteers (in their early 20s). It would ask for at least a year-long commitment and hope for two, offering only a small monthly stipend and room and board. Recruitment might include outreach to organizations like the Lutheran Volunteers . The recent national DART recruitment of new organizers also provides a useful model.

Staff would sift through applications looking for people who seem like they have the "fire in the belly" to work 14 hour days, packed four to a room in a communal apartment and the humility to listen instead of tell. Those with potential would be brought together at national training sessions and their numbers winnowed. Efforts would be made to balance middle-class and working-class youth, and of course diversity would be a key goal.

Then, for chosen city, a lead organizer and 10-15 volunteers (assuming some will drop out) would move into a large apartment together.

How to Start Organizing?

Teams of two or three students would each be given a particular low-income area to focus on. Instead of trying to recreate the wheel, these teams would each be based out of a community organizing group or church or other relevant organization in their area. At least part of their time would be spent serving the specific needs of that organization, although there would need to be clarity about exactly how much time they would be expected to give (this would create tensions, but that may be inevitable).

My own pastor, who co-chairs the jobs committee of our local congregational group, suggested an addition to this model: finding a young pastor--hopefully, in my opinion, from a charismatic tradition--to add to the mix. This person would recruit in the low-income pentecostal and holiness churches that, because of their focus on "faith not works," are left out of traditional progressive congregational organizing (which, for reasons I discuss here , focuses almost entirely on mainline middle-class churches). The goal of this pastor would be to find, if not pastors, at least congregation members willing to join the organization and spread the message among their members.

More generally, the job of volunteer organizers would be both simple and difficult. Their task would be to get to "know" that neighborhood better than the people who live there. They would go from door to door, barbershop to storefront church, speaking with people, developing relationships, sussing out local leaders. They would read old newspapers about the area and learn about the local elected officials and trace out local tensions and concerns.

They would seek to recruit people to join a local organization, and they would seek out local issues around which they could mobilize action and resistance. But they would not make the hard, quick sell of an ACORN organizer. (It would be helpful, here, to distinguish more carefully what I am doing from the ACORN model , but that must wait.) I could also imagine book clubs, video screenings and discussions, weekly dinners for talk and companionship, and more. Creative uses of new social technology would be part of this. In different ways organizers would seek to fan the flames of discontent at the same time as they fostered webs of interconnection. A core aspect of these efforts would include training in nonviolent action. And the volunteers would be given extensive freedom to experiment and make mistakes.

The aim would be to form long-term commitments, not short-term actions. The aim would be to foster local leadership and community.

Most importantly, the organizers would seek out those in the city who would be willing to put their lives on the line for their families and communities. While the volunteers would talk to many, they would aim to fine a cadre of, say, 50 individuals that could provide an example of a different way to assert their humanity in the face of a state that has lost any interest in their futures. Again, this is fundamentally different from the community organizing approach, which focuses on mobilizing large numbers and partly as a result is unable to engage in truly disruptive actions given the level of commitment they can generate in such groups.

The volunteers would also participate in weekly meetings with their peers to share experiences and ideas in addition to the natural sharing that would happen as a result of living together, planning meals, etc. And they would participate in reading groups to give them more depth in the ways people have thought about organizing, power, and social action.

In addition to walking the streets with the volunteers, the lead organizer would be meeting with established local leaders and leaders uncovered by the volunteers, seeking to map out possible movement issues and actions.

Sparking a Movement

Cadres should keep testing for disruptive protest possibilities. Watch for indications that people are ready for defiant challenges . . . . Adopt a stance that points toward political possibilities, that gives hope, and that encourages people to act on their grievances. . . .

Cadres should use mobilizing tactics to expand disruptive dissensus during times of turmoil. . . . Organizers should scour social contexts for unnotices opportunities for disruptive action. . . .

[And cadres] should lead. They should engage in "exemplary" actions (e.g., leading mass arrests) in order to exacerbate institutional disruptions.

--Piven and Cloward, 1993

At some point, the lead organizer, key local leaders, and the volunteers would decide it was time to take a risk. While they would have likely already engaged in more standard organizing efforts, they would move to more serious disruptive actions, drawing together the most committed members they had located. In contrast with the community organizing approach, these movement organizers may need to be willing to lead as well as facilitate. They will need to be at least willing to put their own bodies on the line and model the risk they want others to take. They must be ready to be arrested or teargassed or threatened.

The general aim with these actions would be to throw a (nonviolent) wrench into the status quo operation of oppressive organizations. The organization's leaders would keep a close eye on the wider response of less committed members of their organization and the wider public. They would seek to extend on efforts that successfully attracted outside participants. The goal would not be to simply get their own people to actions, but to change the tenor of life in the city, to wake some portion of the larger population up to new possibilities for social transformation.

And that's as far as I can go in terms of describing the organization.

But before I conclude, let me take a moment to say something more generally about the kinds of issues that are likely to spark a movement and the kind of work necessary to surface these issues.

Political Education: Need vs. Dignity and Justice as a Motivation for Action

You control our lives and so far you’ve treated us like slaves. You’re responsible for the health and welfare of our children but you’re not interested in how we live. . . . It’s time to treat us like human beings.

--Etta Horn, National Welfare Rights Organization , testimony before Congress, 1969

Belief in one’s dignity as a man or a woman is one of the strongest motivating factors; from it comes the refusal to be used or abused, the assertion that "I been pushed around too long, and I ain’t gonna be pushed around no more."

--Si Kahn, How People Get Power

Union organizers will tell you that strikes are much more likely to be sparked by an assault on workers' dignity than by cuts in pay. Rick Fantasia found, for example, that this kind of mistreatment is what produces the majority of wildcat strikes. Similarly, the nationwide struggle of the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1970s was driven as much, if not more, by the the degrading treatment poor women experienced at welfare offices as by the needs of their families. In fact, when welfare shifted to standard cash awards, eliminating the humiliating discretion of social workers, mobilization fell even though this came at a time when cuts were made in the actual amounts poor women on welfare were getting.

People are not usually mobilized in large numbers for the long haul by abstractions of inequality, nor even around a sense of their own desperate need. People are mobilized by a sense of injustice, by a sense that they have been treated badly, that their core dignity has been tarnished by someone or some institution. They are also mobilized by a commitment to broader visions of justice, often arising out of religious convictions.

The jobs education issue, then, must become transformed from a question of need to a question of rights and injustice, to a refusal of the larger society to treat the unemployed like human beings. Perhaps most importantly, the jobless must be given opportunities to stop blaming themselves for their inability to find work.

Some of this learning would take place in the context of action. But it also seems to me that, as in the South during the civil rights movement, a movement-sparking effort would necessarily involve some level of ongoing political education. Hopelessness must become transformed into righteous anger for a movement to emerge. And this would be part of the task of the volunteers.

Of course, experienced adults don't want kids telling them what to think. Instead, in the tradition of Ella Baker and Myles Horton and Paulo Freire , the volunteers would need to create contexts in which people could discuss and read and watch and come to new understandings of themselves and the structure of the world around them.

(By the way, one of the limits of Baker and Horton's approach was their aversion to mass action and leader-driven organizing. Education cannot simply be in service of more education or individual action or small group engagement. Only a leader-based mass action led by a cadre of committed militants rooted in and driven by a vibrant grassroots constituency has much hope of sparking a social movement. And, in fact, there is extensive evidence that SNCC was hamstrung in many ways by its commitment to what I have argued elsewhere was Baker's essentially middle-class vision of collaboration and leaderless social action.)

Summing Up

I said at the start that I would try to envision a pragmatic approach to sparking a movement in this country. What I have written is meant as a contribution to a discussion, and I am not under the illusion that I have found "the answer" or even necessarily a particularly good answer.

However, I do believe the model I have described above has some pragmatic potential, at least as a discussion starter.

It would not, for example, require enormous amounts of funding. It would work just fine with only a couple of paid staff and a few "angel" donors. There simply isn't and likely will never be the kind of funding necessary to hire a large number of paid movement organizers.

In fact, the limits on paid staff might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. For a movement effort, you want organizers who are there because of the work, not the pay. And a paid staff creates a gulf between the organizers and the often (but not always) quite poor people they are trying to organize.

(Organizer positions, by the way, have generally been taken by the middle class. Ironically, those who get the "jobs" out of organizing the poor are usually not from poor backgrounds themselves. Perhaps we should not try to provide more than a small number of the most creative and effective organizers "real" jobs. The middle class is perfectly capable of getting good jobs elsewhere. If they want to organize in poor communities, maybe they need to "volunteer". See some initial thoughts about this tension here .)

By focusing on youth as organizers (although some older adults might also be volunteers), the model is less likely to get trapped in old ways of thinking about how organizing "should" be done. At the same time, the guidance of a lead organizer and other local organizers, can prevent them from going too far "off the rails."

This brings the challenge of turnover--but I'm willing to bet that enough of a core group would be willing to stay for two years to maintain continuity. And we are talking about sparking a movement, not building a long-term organization (although that would likely also be the result locally). If they can't pull it off in two years, they probably can't do it period. Maybe even a year is enough time to know.

Of course this raises important issues about how others will view the commitment of organizers, and about how to transition out in a productive manner that does not lead to the disollution of what the organizers have nurtured. I don't have a clear answer to this.

The model also brings with it the problem of "outsider" vs "insider" organizers and volunteers. Again, I'm don't really have a clear answer. Should the volunteers all be local? Should they all be from outside? I've framed my argument around "outsiders" but I'm actually inclined to argue for some combination.

In the end, however, the "who" is probably more important than the "where from." People who are willing to listen, who are willing to check their arrogance at the door and walk with humility can likely find acceptance over time. And in our disorganized, shifting poor urban communities, it is not clear to me how "insider" the insiders will likely be. Just because you grow up someplace doesn't mean you understand it. Even the insiders will need, in anthropological terms, to "make the familiar strange" if they are to revision what is possible in their cities and neighborhoods.

So that's my thought experiment.

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