The Higher Ground Top 10: What Social Change Makers Should Do Differently in These Times
There’s a lot of advice going around about this political moment. In our new series, Transformation 101, we offer our ten cents on the matter.
- More reflection and planning for the long term. Even in these times of rapid fire change and attack on seemingly all fronts, we owe it to our communities to be thoughtful and visionary in our work. Without a vision supported by long term goals, we will only be in reactive mode. It’s like trying to drive somewhere only focused on where you are. We must pay attention to the road and get where we’re going. It’s ok to not be sure right now but do make time in the next six months to get there. Start with smaller vision and planning meetings in two hour chunks and build up to a daylong “retreat.”
- Invest in indigenous/local change infrastructure. The problem with most funders’ definition of scale is that it often serves to marginalize the work of organizations that are the most effective on the ground. If we learned anything from the last three elections, it is the importance of organizing work in the “nooks and crannies” of the country. Every community – especially those with significant numbers of poor, low income and working class people need progressive change infrastructure. This includes space, networks and other resources to support deep political education and transformative organizing; paid, high capacity organizers; and institutions that can hold change work (i.e., organizing, research, communications, capacity building, etc.) over time. National networks are important in ensuring that our work is connected and that we learn from and support one another but they are not a substitute for smart, community competent work on the ground.
Organizing is, at its core, the deep engagement of people in making the change they need/want to see in the world. It is about trust, connection and commitment to work together. It is about work over time. The local/smaller scale interactions are where trust is built and leadership is developed. A national network is only as stable as its local units. There are literally millions of new people springing into action. How will they be supported? How will they build their capacity? How will their contributions and involvement be sustained over time? We need to go small to ensure we have the infrastructure to hold these new activists and support our veterans so that we have the base to go big with power and purpose. Here’s a classic interview on this kind of approach with our good friend Marianne Manilov of the Engage Network.
- More collaboration and transparency in social change philanthropy. Funding more local work and more grounded national efforts will require a shift from relationship centered practice of traditional philanthropy. We probably do not know enough groups or people or networks to know all that we need to know to fund effectively. More foundations will need to talk to one another and to organizations and networks outside their traditional social and geographic orbit. There will also be a need for more open and transparent request for proposal processes that spell out funding criteria and metrics and support nontraditional applicants in effectively navigating the process. This, in turn, will require a re-examination of the implicit metrics for how change work is evaluated. For example, instead of not articulating any metrics or using only flat, transactional measures like whether a state is “red” or “blue,” we might look at whether the work is creating a cadre of leaders who are less racist, less patriarchal and more collaborative? How is power being built? How are life conditions being improved?
- Support organizing that helps people access direct services and support direct service work that helps us organize. What’s left of the safety net is crumbling. More people will be homeless, go hungry, be abused, commit suicide… Deep cuts in agency budgets mean deep trouble for many of our communities. Many US based organizers have traditionally eschewed direct services as being separate from organizing. Although there are brilliant exceptions to this rule, these times require that we let this false dichotomy go. We need to build values centered, parallel infrastructure that ensures our communities survive and thrive. Community kitchens, “free” clinics, mobile libraries and neighborhood recreation programs are all examples of how much needed services can also be a platform for deeper engagement. Combining organizing and direct services is a best practice worldwide among progressive organizers and it’s even become a part of the right wing play book of late.
- More creative engagement. Marches and other mass mobilizations are going to be with us for a long time but we needn’t do them the same old way. We should not have any marches or rallies that do not allow some space for people to connect with those around them, sing and even dance together. We know so much more about brain science, whole body learning, etc., than ever before and we know how it helps to create shifts in our thinking. Popular education methods, large scale exercises and mass games like the work of the brilliant shop Design Studio for Social Intervention invigorate participants and help them experience what democracy feels like.
- Better understand and better utilize culture and cultural work. When I was starting out in strategic communications with colleagues Lori Dorfman and Larry Wallack, we were rather isolated voices working to convince activists to focus more on solutions, hope and inspiration and less on problems and dire forecasts. More than 25 years and a great deal of work later, there is now a steady stream of progressive storytelling about the hopeful signs of resistance; stories that are viewed by millions. Yes, we are so much better at creating video, narrative and other cultural tools that inspire but we are going to have to do even better. Culture clearly matters. It helps people understand, encourages a sense of belonging and accesses centers of emotion and empathy that didactic methods do not. We need to better understand how various cultural methodologies help advance (and thwart) social change efforts. We need to support experimentation and learning in this area including investing in artists in residency programs at social justice organizations, and supporting cultural work for justice like CultureStrike, Alternate Roots and the US Department of Arts and Culture.
- Clearly address white privilege and patriarchy. There’s a lot of talk about white anger and the need to reach white voters. For many, it was troubling that a slight majority of white women (mostly older, frequent voters) would vote against a woman and for a man who appeared to have little regard for “women’s issues.” The quick story is that race trumped gender in these women’s perceived hierarchy of interests. It was also more complicated, including how deep internalized patriarchy was consistently activated throughout the campaign. The idea was to foster conditions that would have women disassociate themselves from a woman candidate by framing her life and even her candidacy as, among other things, an attack against their values. Centering insecurity around race, the future, jobs, changing demographics, the campaign was a textbook example of fear based framing to unite whites. It helped Republicans have a solid base of support and take best advantage of the electoral college formula. Still, this “victory” was less about animating white anger than suppressing progressive power. If we don’t understand that then there will be another set of ineffective “strategies” to put more money into “reaching” white people – an idea that, without a broader justice strategy, has failed repeatedly.
We will never beat the right by reinforcing their story that white people have a right to be on top and something is terribly wrong when they are not. We cannot both shout Let’s Make America Great Again! and mean two different things. There will be no shortcuts to restructuring the institutions of meaning – schools, faith communities, culture in general to support the long, hard work of helping people understand these systems, their dehumanizing effects on us all and, even more importantly, that there are better, viable alternatives. A growing number of us are recognizing that there’s no dancing around this. And it’s great to see the organizing in communities that are helping everyday people connect the dots between their own safety, affirming Black humanity, ending Islamophobia, economic justice and beyond.
- Address the rules not just the issues. it’s important to remember that the majority has not spoken. This takeover was only made possible by the systematic suppression, repression, depression and oppression of our communities by rule of law and force. The electoral college and even the Senate are rigged to reify white power under the explicitly racist premise of “states’ rights.” Six million mostly Black and Brown people are stripped of their voting rights for serving their time. Black and Brown people routinely face barriers at the polls once they can get registered.
This is not a democracy. A democracy expects and supports its people to vote. A democracy is one person one vote. In a democracy, states have no rights, corporations are not human beings and every human being is treated humanely, with the right to express themselves, to participate in the decisions that affect their lives as long as they do not thwart that right for others.
This is not a messaging problem. It is about confronting/replacing the interlocking systems of fear, exploitation and marginalization with new, interrelated systems of love, respect and justice. Issues are important onramps to engage people around their passion but it’s the rules, it’s systems that create the many of the issues we are working to address in the first place. It is true that we are facing aggressive preemption of progressive local policies and a tough national context. However, we are learning to influence and even drive policy by putting on the pressure; sometimes in unlikely places. Pressure on corporate donors, organizing international censure and plain old disruption are making a difference. It will be important to identify rule changes where we have common ground – like proportional representation and reforming elections. Our last blog lists more ideas along this line.
- Be better gardeners. It can be hard to share lists or content because the funding game seems to require so much individual branding. It’s hard to share the assets we have built with so much on the line. Some groups know how to play well with others. Others operate like weeds in the movement garden suffocating the other plant life and throwing the ecosystem out of balance. This moment requires safe, principled, voluntary collaboration. This is not a call for forced institutional marriages. We must do the work of creating a vibrant space where we surface an effective division of labor and make lots of room for variety of practice and learning. This vibrant movement “ecosystem” must also include strong independent media. Depending on corporate news has never been good strategy and given the limited availability of news in mainstream media, it’s an even worse idea.
Bottomline: we need each other and we will need to share more – information, campaigns and common language if we are to breakthrough at scale. Perhaps it looks like “movement” portals that help connect people with organizations, information and actions with specific user experiences in mind. Perhaps it’s shared physical space where issues of security, expense and infrastructure support can be addressed more economically. Working together is not optional. We might as well have the conversations, pick our crew, build the trust and be brilliant at it.
- Love and critique. Our real security is in our trust and solidarity with one another. They can spy and spread disinformation but it’s only effective if we let it in. They are smart. We are smarter. We must watch our steps and ensure that we are walking in integrity because every blow hurts us all. We need to remember to #LeadWithLove. And although movement love is not served by extended beefs on social media or unkind gossip on the downlow, it is also not served when we silence principled criticism and debate. We need both to grow and thrive.
So here is the Higher Ground Top 10. What’s yours? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org