New Radical Alliances for a New Era

9 05 2012

How the Left’s talk of co-optation missed the real critical questions that 99% Spring offers our movements

This post originally appears on Znet

By Joshua Kahn Russell and Harmony Goldberg.

Last month, a broad alliance of organizations from across the progressive spectrum came together to train 100,000 people in nonviolent direct action in the hopes of supporting a wave of action targeting corporations and the politicians that own them. It was called 99% Spring. Some also called it “co-optation.” We call it “alliance building.” 

The conversation within the movement has been fascinating, and reveals some key pitfalls that the resurgent U.S. Left might fall into if we’re not careful.

Grassroots groups that organize primarily in working class and communities of color such as National Peoples Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance helped lead the 99% Spring process. Despite this, the terms of the debate have almost exclusively centered on the participation and limits of MoveOn.org (as a symbol and stand-in for more moderate liberals, the institutional left, and the nonprofit industrial complex). “Are the liberals co-opting Occupy?” or “Is Occupy co-opting the liberals?” There is indeed a historical precedent of radical peoples’ movements becoming de-fanged by the status quo. And yet, too often, the historic limits of the Left in the United States has been connected to its internal tendency towards sectarianism and the politics of purity. At this moment, our own circular firing squads may be a deeper threat to the viability of our movements than “outside” groups.

ImageIt is precisely because of our long-term work with radical grassroots movements that both of us dove into helping organize 99% Spring. We were each involved in writing the curriculum and designing the trainings. We were challenged by, and learned a lot from, the process. Our organizations (the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Ruckus Society) are both movement groups that support frontline communities speaking and acting for themselves, and we were both part of the left wing of the 99% Spring alliance. 

We are living in an incredible time. Occupy has helped us all re-imagine political vision and strategy. 99% Spring was a bold effort with a lot of success, real limitations, and some mistakes. We want to share our experiences from the heart of 99% Spring project to help our movements think more clearly about alliances, and some of the challenges that our political moment presents us.

At a Crossroads
We are at a crossroads as a movement.  Many have been slogging away in the trenches for years, pushing against the political winds and doing the slow work of organizing to build popular power within communities hit hardest by the economic and ecological crises. It was hard work, and it moved slowly. Last fall, Occupy exploded on the scene and challenged many of our assumptions about what was possible. By offering both an inspiring political tactic (“occupy”) and a unifying frame (“We are the 99%”), the Occupy movement was able to tap into the mass anger about the crisis that had been brewing for years. Occupy showed that it was possible to have an explicitly radical message, to engage in confrontational action and still speak to millions of people in this country. It became acceptable to talk about economic inequality, corporate greed and capitalism, and that changed the context for all of our work in important ways. It was a humbling moment for many long-term organizers. It also helped reveal some of the shortcomings of the institutional left.

But now what? Like all movements, we have challenges. Most physical occupations have been evicted by the police, removing the ongoing public spaces that made us visible, and the ongoing police confrontations aren’t tapping into organic mass anger in the same way. Many of our internal challenges make it difficult to do the big-picture strategic thinking we need to envision the next steps. This offers us all a moment of experimentation and innovation. In order to engage it, we need to seriously reflect on our circumstance.

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Shift the Spectrum of Allies

7 05 2012

I am excited and honored to be one of 60 contributors to a new book called Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for the Revolution. The book reads as an activists manual, weaving together case studies, principles, theories, and tactics, distilled from years of working in many movements for social change. Here is one of my entries in the book, based on lessons from Training for Change, the Highlander Center, Ruckus Society, and others.

Shift the Spectrum of Allies.

In sum: Movements seldom win by overpowering the opposition; they win by shifting the support out from under them. Determine the social blocs at play on a given issue, and work to shift them closer to your position.

Activists are often good at analyzing systemic social problems, but less good at thinking systemically about organizing.

Activism is about using your power and voice to make change. Organizing is about that, too, but it’s also about activating and empowering others. It helps to think in terms of groups. Successful movement-building hinges on being able to see a society in terms of specific blocs or networks, some of which are institutions (unions, churches, schools), others of which are less visible or cohesive, like youth subcultures or demographic groupings.

Analyzing your spectrum of allies can help you to identify and mobilize the networks around you. A spectrum-of-allies analysis can be used to map out a local campaign or to strategize for a whole social movement.

Here’s how a spectrum-of-allies analysis works: in each wedge you can place different individuals (be specific: name them!), groups, or institutions. Moving from left to right, identify your active allies: people who agree with you and are fighting alongside you; your passive allies: folks who agree with you but aren’t doing anything about it; neutrals: fence-sitters, the unengaged; passive opposition: people who disagree with you but aren’t trying to stop you; and finally your active opposition.

Some activist groups only speak or work with  those in the first wedge (active allies), building insular, self-referential, marginal subcultures that are incomprehensible to everyone else. Others behave as if everyone is in the last wedge (active opposition), playing out the “story of the righteous few,” acting as if the whole world is against them. Both of these approaches virtually guarantee failure. Movements win not by overpowering their active opposition, but by shifting the support out from under them.

For example, in 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a major driver of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South, conducted a “spectrum-of-allies style” analysis. They determined that they had a lot of passive allies who were students in the North: these students were sympathetic, but had no entry point into the movement. They didn’t need to be “educated” or convinced, they needed an invitation to enter.

To shift these allies from “passive” to “active,” SNCC sent buses north to bring folks down to participate in the struggle under the banner “Freedom Summer.” Students came in droves, and many were deeply radicalized in the process, witnessing lynching, violent police abuse, and angry white mobs, all simply as a result of black people trying to vote.

Many wrote letters home to their parents, who suddenly had a personal connection to the struggle. This triggered another shift: their families became passive allies, often bringing their workplaces and social networks with them. The students, meanwhile, went back to school in the fall and proceeded to organize their campuses. More shifts. The result: a profound transformation of the political landscape of the U.S. This cascading shift of support, it’s important to emphasize, wasn’t spontaneous; it was part of a deliberate movement strategy that, to this day, carries profound lessons for other movements.

Further insights:

Explanation of the “Spectrum of Allies,” from NewTactics

Strategy tool for “Spectrum of Allies,” from Training for Change

Douglas McAdam, Freedom Summer. Oxford Univ. Press, 1988.





I’m on tour with the beehive collective!

29 03 2011

Animals strategizing at the Highlander Folk School

Whew! What a whirlwind it’s been. I’ve been doing a collaborative tour with the Beehive Design Collective for the last month! We’ve been in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and North Carolina so far. We’re so grateful to so many people in the coal fields sharing their stories with us. We’ve stood on top of mountains where we could see 3 mountaintop removal moonscapes at once; given workshops for a middle school girls afterschool program; presented alongside frontline coal community advocates; facilitated interactive organizing trainings at community spaces; given keynote talks at conferences; hung out at community colleges; and had so many generous people open up their homes to us and share with us raw and painful accounts of the challenges they’re up against in their fights for justice.

It has been absolutely exhausting, but deeply politically fulfilling.

We’re leaving coal-affected regions now, and excited to come to Pensylvania, Washington DC, New York, Connecticut, Massachussets, New Hampshire and more. You can check out some of our upcoming dates at Aid and Abet’s site.

It’s been exciting experiment so far that I hope I’ll have more time to reflect on in the near future: mixing beehive style storytelling and graphic presentations with interactive training content on organizing, social movement strategy, campaign strategy, action design, and more. In some cases we’ve been tag-teaming trainings with an organization during the day, and a public beehive presentation at night, but mostly we have been mixing the two somewhat fluidly. It’s felt engaging and a much more accessible format than your standard training OR your standard lecture-style presentation.

For a full listing of our dates (some have info forthcoming), click below:

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on megacamps and imaginal cells.

20 08 2008

I just got back from seven days that reminded me why youth are gonna save the world. I had the privilege of helping train and learn from 200 brilliant young organizers in Minneapolis Minnesota at the Energy Action Coalition Power Vote camp.

It was the most fluid and well organized training I had ever been a part of. More striking than the hard organizing skills, the web2.0 tech saavy, the smart message, strategic approach or visionary ideas, was the overwhelming sense of being called to duty.

Over and over again I heard college students telling stories about how something deep inside of them is telling us that our planet – our ecosystems, our economic, and social systems – is on the brink of collapse, and that it’s our generational challenge to steer our society and world back to sanity.

One of the most enduring metaphors of the week was shared by a young organizer: when a caterpillar is about to encase itself in a cocoon it becomes over-consumptive. It eats more than its share of leaves on the tree and grows fat and sluggish. At the moment of its developmental excess, a group of specialized cells called “imaginal cells” gravitate toward one another and find each other. Even though they are in the minority, they flow through the “nutritive soup” that has become of the rest of the caterpillar, and then they steer the caterpillar’s development until it eventually breaks through its cocoon as a butterfly.

I had heard activists of various kinds share this metaphor before. But never had I seen it catch with such resonance as this week. It struck a deep chord with participants, who were grounded in their knowledge that this is our moment and our movement. These young folks are helping usher in a new era of civic engagement with revolutionary ideas like climate justice, clean energy, sustainable communities, economies, and self determination.

The current call-to-action is called Power Vote. The idea is to build a youth voice to hold our leaders accountable by getting 1 million young people to pledge making climate a priority in the presidential election AND afterwards…

That in itself would be a remarkable feat. But we’re not stopping there. With our ‘organizer hats’ on, we see these elections as an opportunity: right now everyone in our country is talking politics. We view the elections not as an end in of themselves, but as a chance to build connections between young progressives across the country to join the youth climate movement and engage in work long after the elections. We’re leveraging our political moment to build lasting power from the ground up, strengthening local organizing across the country where it matters: in our communities.

Many students told me that for the first time, they genuinely feel a part of a movement. The energy was infectious and boundless. Trainers from Wellstone Action!, Energy Action Coalition, EAC Partners (like me!), and the Georgetown Day School Diversity Coordinators, helped set the stage for something beautiful. In particular if you ever get the chance to experience Wellstone Action, it may just change your life. I know it did for so many young visionaries this week.





Rebirth of a Dream

15 04 2008

by Amy Ortiz and Joshua Kahn Russell

This past weekend, April 4-6th, something historic took place in Memphis, Tennessee. During the same few days where people from across the nation gathered in the place where Martin Luther King Jr’s was assassinated forty years ago to honor the man, his legacy, and his dream for America, a thousand people, the majority of them people of color, came together to take part in rebirthing MLK’s vision. At The Dream Reborn, visionaries, artists and leaders came together to “create ecological solutions to heal the earth while bringing jobs, justice, wealth and health to all our communities.” We saw environmentalism re-defined, re-vitalized, re-energized and re-imagined, and witnessed not just the rebirth of MLK’s dream, but also the birth of a transformative movement with the power to bring the kind of change that we so desperately need.

The Dream Reborn was a weekend charting a new environmentalism that isn’t so new: the marriage of movements for social justice and the environment. Environmental Justice and other groups have been working at this intersection for years. Racial and Economic justice organizations strive to put an ecological lens on their organizing, just as Environmental organizations strive to put a racial and social justice lens on their work. But this weekend was the birth of that organizing with new language that is gaining influence in the mainstream of society, energy around program such as Green Jobs, and forcing major institutions and even presidential candidates to take notice. In more ways than one, the time for a new environmental movement, one for justice for both people and the planet, has come.

We spent our time at Dream Reborn coordinating and participating in Rainforest Action Network (RAN) – and it’s youth arm RAN Youth Sustaining the Earth (RYSE)’s youth delegation. 13 amazing people aged 13-22, along with 4 RAN staff, came together from across the nation. We represented many different communities, ages, and interests. We came to Memphis to connect, learn, grow, share and ultimately leave with the tools and the inspiration to go back to our communities and build a just, sustainable future. It was a chance not only to bring diverse youth to the table as stakeholders in conversations around green jobs and movements for environmental social justice, but to offer ideas and leadership to RAN’s growing network and the evolution of RYSE.

Featuring keynote speakers such as the Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Winona LaDuke, Afeni Shakur and Majora Carter, with Van Jones emceeing the event, it isn’t surprising that visions of a future of eco-equity permeated the entire weekend. Workshop and panel sessions such as Food Justice and Building a Youth Movement for Green Jobs focused on providing conference attendees with the connections and skills needed to go back to their communities and make this vision a reality. A shared understanding of the truly historic moment we were all partaking in created a space that was imbued with hope and spirituality. There were many moments when we all broke out in spontaneous hand clapping, song, celebrating the beginning of a revolution birthed from love, compassion and respect for all people and the planet.
The conference was more than just a networking opportunity. We were building community. Community with one another as RAN and RYSE organizers; community across organizations and movements. It was the birth of something exciting. It charted a course for a new revitalized vision for our country and the world. It helped provide the kind of glue that social movements are made of, bringing together the longstanding amazing work of organizers and organizations for racial and economic justice, and for the sustainability of our planet, in a way that makes a truly multi-racial mass movement for change in this country seem within our reach.

As young people, we’re committed to making the dream a reality. Lucky for us, we have the knowledge and wisdom of movements past and present to build with and learn from. We’re ready.





Climate Justice and Left Turn

26 12 2007

There is a new issue of Left Turn out. And I have an article in it.
left turn

The issue’s theme is Collective Soul: Religion and the Left. There is also a section on Climate Justice, and my writeup is on the Powershift 2007 summit. I had hoped to give a more intimate reportback here in this blog, as well as a writeup about the RAN/SEAC network that a bunch of us busted our butts launching at Powershift through what turned out to be almost a mini-action camp…but for now, here’s the article. It’s being run next to a few articles on Climate Justice, so it’s meant to compliment those, which are much more heavy in terms of political content.

Powershift 2007: Youth Rising to the Climate Challenge

On November 3rd, I felt a stadium shake from 6,000 students jumping to their feet and chanting “Green Jobs, Not Jails! Parks, Not Prisons! We Won’t Stop Till Somebody Listens!” It was kind of a national coming-out party for the youth climate movement. More than a student environmental conference, Powershift 2007 was a moment revealing youth power and its potential to drive some deeply transformative shifts in this country.

Click below to read the rest of the article!
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three actions and a camp: TORONTO

24 09 2007

A couple weeks ago I went to Toronto to be a trainer at an Action Camp coordinated by Forest Ethics and Rainforest Action Network for activists who had been involved in the Grassy Narrows Blockade. We kicked off the camp with an action that looked like this:

then went to the woods and did a bunch of trainings on strategy and advanced hard-skills, which looked kinda like this:

and then came back and did an action like this:

Then last Friday, a buncha those folks were involved in organizing a third action :

Read about what happened by clicking below…

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