Exploring the Barriers to Movement-Building

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As we here at the Nonprofit Quarterly began to think about what we needed to address in terms of current challenges in the realm of collaborative practice, the issue of how social change movements are built and sustained emerged as a major area of interest. What kinds of collaborative relationships does it require when you are working across differences of so many different types? We asked people who are currently involved in national movements what characterizes the relationships within these efforts. After these interviews and reviewing the literature we have come to at least one conclusion: There are still many barriers to people’s participation in a movement voice that are race and class based. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What we see apparently in lieu of inclusive, unified national movements for social change are largely fragmented collections of groups and individuals. Within these, large national groups lead the advocacy agenda, often without a base among the systemically underrepresented. If you accept the notion that national advocacy groups are fighting for every citizen’s right to participate in the political process, this is a problem. Bill Gamson, student of social movements and Professor of Sociology at Boston College, points out that, “This is clearly a problem for practical reasons even if one does not accept the ability to participate as a right. Broad participation is necessary to be fully effective. The power of a movement comes from producing participants who are able to sustain various kinds of actions or campaigns. If these potential participants don’t get to participate in the process, they won’t develop the sense that their actions can make a difference. Exclusion produces passivity and passivity reduces power.”

In fact, many observers believe that the “voice” of the agenda is overwhelmingly white and middle class—that it is carried by professional staff, and supported by and informed by the worldview of well-off donors (acting as checkbook members) and large foundations. According to these observers, this has resulted in organizations segmenting their agendas into categorical issue groups that mimic the government’s propensity for compartmentalization and fit within the narrow interests of a donor base who are unable and unwilling to tackle fundamental changes in social and economic structures.

As a result, we see frequent breakdowns in respectful communication between groups working in low-income communities and those staffed by and supported by the constituency base described above. There are vast differences in infrastructures, access to resources, and influence. The result? A structural inability to get public and legislative frames of reference shifted around basic social justice issues.

That is the story in a nutshell. It is not the story we wanted to write. We hoped that in finding out what was going on with the building of national and global movements, we would find that people were acting differently and communicating more effectively across barriers of social identity and issue interest. We were interested to learn examples of how people were cross-informing the concerns of the small and local with those of the large and national, and approaching a sense of a unified vision for a sustainable, better future. We did hear some good things about uses of technology and a greater attention to message development to inform broader public opinion. But the message we lay out below presented itself as the story that needed to be told. Two activists, unknown to each other and working in different milieus, provide us with a remarkably consistent set of observations.

Jim Abernathy
Environmental Support Center

“It’s a jumble,” says Abernathy, a long time activist and supporter of grassroots environmental groups. “Some of this may be our fault,” he says, speaking of intermediaries and capacity builders. “We are always leaning on people to focus on their missions—but a collection of the mandates of the missions of hundreds or even thousands of individual organizations working on the same general set of issues do not necessarily translate to a national movement. Movement requires an unbending of the mind. It requires us to think beyond our own garden to think more broadly about gardening.”

The way this plays out, unfortunately, is that with everyone looking to their own institutional purview, power over the public dialogue often reverts to the larger, better funded groups. Abernathy points out that, “Despite a growing philanthropic investment in environmental causes, and a growing sophistication among smaller grassroots groups, foundations are not keeping pace. The really large foundations don’t have and aren’t developing the capacity to deal with the smaller organizations.”

Most of the environmental movement is made up of such smaller organizations. Those groups are of several types. Some are composed of residents of low-income communities or communities of color and often address a wide range of issues of concern to those communities including environmental problems. These groups are commonly known as environmental justice organizations. The most numerous type of smaller environmental organizations in the US tend to focus on an issue (like recycling or air pollution) or a resource (like a forest or river) or a mix of environmental issues of concern to the entire population of a geographic area (like a metropolitan area or a state).

In contrast, when most observers think of the traditional environmental network, they are seeing only the highly visible, well-funded national organizations. The relationships between all of these different types of groups in the environmental movement are quite complex, with collaboration sometimes possible but often blocked by disagreements over issues or strategies, distrust created by past disputes, or the different imperatives of organizations working at different levels.

Abernathy says that there hasn’t been much progress made in the dialogue between the traditional environmental movement and the environmental justice movement. “Some of this has to do with fear,” he advances, “ I think there is a genuine fear among mostly white groups regarding working with people of color and low-income based groups. In this they are probably not much different from the rest of society. It’s very hard in general for people to talk about racial issues and deal with the consequences of that dialogue.

“In the environmental justice organizations, people take a broader and more inclusive cut on issues. It’s more comprehensive of many factors and deals with the direct impacts people feel on their lives. There is a sense of immediacy and a whole different language. All of this disparity is part of a larger societal problem—once we got past the first wave of the civil rights movement, many white people thought disparities based on race became minimal. Polls show that this view is not shared by most people of color.”

Meizhu Lui
United for a Fair Economy

Lui, who came up through labor organizing and is now the executive director of United for a
Fair Economy, a movement support organi-zation, agrees with Abernathy on the issue
of fragmentation.

“We do not have full fledged social move-ments right now. We have lots of people (and the good news is that there are growing numbers) working on particular issues but they do not link up with each other or with people working on related issues. You have a social movement when lots of people and organizations see their fight as a piece of a broader social problem, and feel that their work is part of a broader strategy. People think about their lives holistically—it’s not about just domestic violence, or welfare-to-work, or access to health insurance,” she says, reinforcing another of Abernathy’s points, “This narrow problem framing and fragmentation is a real obstacle to movement building.

“Nonprofits have mimicked the government in putting issues in pigeonholes. I think foundations have played a large part in this. They want grants to stick to the specific and then whether or not to pursue a strategy or idea proposed by your community becomes a question of what funders will allow. The bigger nonprofits are far too dominant and don’t show any sustained commitment to poor communities.” Speaking, in particular, of academic institutions, she says, “They get research grants to look at the problems in low-income communities and the whole agenda ends up getting set by the questions of academics instead of people at the base. They get the community to do the work to test various approaches and then they will often walk away whether it is successful or not. We can’t afford this. More grants need to be open ended and focused in the long term on building the capacity for democratic participation.”

Lui extends this observation further in raising the possible mismatch between mainstream organizing strategies and the interests of communities of color. “It’s all based on the same type of short term view. If I hear ‘winnable goal’ one more time I think I’ll throw up. This type of organizing doesn’t necessarily engage people for the long haul in a way where they generate their own analysis from a deep understanding of the system in which they sit. We need to move away from providing predetermined steps for people to follow and approach issues in a more holistic way. The dialogues around community building and building civic society begin to help organizations to think more broadly—but it can’t end there.

“Nonprofits interested in creating lasting change need to do more listening to the people they serve. They need to throw out their recipes and invite people into the kitchen. There is an enormous amount of learning needed on everyone’s part. For instance, there are many veterans of sophisticated movements that have happened elsewhere in the world working in sweatshops in the United States. Their expertise is often overlooked or discounted by social change advocates. The ways in which we build movement and the ways in which we live,” she concludes, “need to be inextricably linked.”
Ironically, as foundation funding for advocacy and public policy groups has steadily increased, much of it has been devoted to “professional movement organizations” whose lack of accountability to the politically underrepresented results in their functioning more as gatekeepers brokering middle-class political activism than as advocates engaged in struggle for fundamental social change.

Gamson remarks that, “While there is no inherent problem with organizations that control large resource pools defining society’s problems, too often they ignore the input of those who lack political power but are most affected by the consequences of the poorly designed social policies inspired by these definitions. But the people they ignore are those who have the experiential knowledge about how policies are actually working. No wonder they are not willing to sign up for the cause.”
Given this problem statement, how do we forge a set of solutions that will move us forward?

Meizhu Lui says, “We need to develop a different, shared language that reflects the frames of reference of those with whom we work. We have words that conjure up images that are owned by others—words like manager and leader. We need to change the way we conceptualize these roles so that organizations that are a part of the solution do not become a part of the problem. We need to care for our organizations the way we care for our families—putting the time aside for joint reflection and relationship building. We don’t have nearly enough of these opportunities.”

On the subject of leadership, Jim Abernathy talks about the need for more “spanning leaders.” These people, he says, “have a listening style. They make it their business to carefully hear where people are coming from and are able to re-articulate it in people’s own terms. They are able to suspend the interests of their own organization in support of the interests of the whole and they have a willingness to bring other voices to the fore.”

Not surprisingly, food for thought on this discord comes from long-term organizer and director of the Applied Research Center, Gary Delgado. Like Lui and Abernathy, he
notes the importance of “bridge people” in leadership—people who can see across and through similarity and difference—to integrate the knowledge of many cultures. Such people can be a valuable asset to developing new multidimensional organizations.

Regarding funders, Delgado asks that, “When we reflect on how easy it’s been for some of us to collaborate with funders, we might want to ask ourselves why we find it so difficult to work with one another.” He challenges us to put our constituents first and take a hard look at how we participate and perpetuate funder-driven partnerships.

Ultimately, envisioning a social movement requires us to ask some new and different questions: What if we were to place poor and other underrepresented people at the center of the policy development process, and we were to discount any product that did not have their active and informed participation? How would our own practices change on individual and organizational levels?

We leave you with Gary Delgado’s provocative observation: “When many of us began organizing, we believed that the organizations we built would form the base for a movement. Somewhere along the line, many of us got stuck in our own brand of organizing. Instead of believing that all of our organizations might have a shot at building a movement, we began to believe that our network was the movement and that everybody else should join, die, or get out of the way… Given our current political situation, we may just want to rethink that position.”

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Kenneth Bailey and LoriAnn Girvan of Third Sector New England contributed to the reporting of this story.

Ruth McCambridge is director of program development at Third Sector New England.