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Occupying, Organizing and the Movements That Demand Both, Rinku Sen

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With people power exploding all around us, both new and old social justice activists are trying to figure out where to plug in, how to support the moment and what we can all do to turn it into lasting

This piece is reposted from ColorLines.

With people power exploding all around us, both new and old social justice activists are trying to figure out where to plug in, how to support the moment and what we can all do to turn it into lasting change. In this context, a colleague asked recently about my 2003 book, “Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy“—specifically, when I’ll write another installment. I don’t know about a new book, but the questions my colleague raised are urgently important. So I’ll answer it here for everyone:

Hi Rinku, in your spare time would you mind banging out the sequel to “Stir It Up” please? I’d like to see a tidy best practices compendium on organizing models, methods, and theory during “movement moments.” I feel like our whole approach and practice is rooted in how to organize when there’s not a wave inspiring people to take initiative on their own. This works most of the time, but then when the wave comes, (as it did maybe for the Battle of Seattle, the anti-gentrification fight in San Francisco in 1999-2001, the antiwar movement pre-March 2003, the immigration marches in 2006, the Obama campaign, devoid of ideology, and perhaps now occupy together), our folks aren’t prepared to deepen, sustain, harness, etc. all the excitement. At least not at a big enough scale. Now that Occupy Wall Street seems to be generating a lot of energy, and people don’t know how to reorient their perspective on organizing and movement-building to fit the moment. Or maybe they do and I’m missing it.

Nato Green

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Hi Nato –

No time for a whole new book, but I’ll try to answer your important question. I have spent hours, weeks, months in discussions about how to recognize a movement—and whether anything we’ve done on all the issues you’ve mentioned counts. Suddenly, there are thousands of people taking some action, inspired by each other and seemingly not organized by anybody, and the conversation shifts to how we can harness the energy that has been released in that moment. Embedded in these discussions is an implicit assumption that one can build a movement in much the same way that one builds organizations: methodically, over the long term, with lots of structure so that people can join and find a path to leadership. I think this assumption is fundamentally wrong.

Organizations and movements are certainly related. Organizing builds infrastructure for a movement, and sometimes trains a movement’s leaders. The simplified movement stories we read today—how Rosa Parks sat down one day ‘cause she was too tired to move to the back of the bus, for example—are pretty much fantasy. Rosa Parks was a devoted member of the NAACP for 20 years before that day. She had put in her time recruiting members, registering people to vote, supporting legal efforts and plotting change. Before Mrs. Parks refused to move, others had, too, just as there were desegregation sit-ins at Southern lunch counters before the Greensboro Five sat down at Woolworth’s. Some of those sit-ins even had some success, but they didn’t spark spontaneous mass action, and only a real history buff or someone who was involved will bother to dig up their memory. Sometimes it’s useful to think of this period as the “pre-movement” stage. This is all the stuff that Gandhi did in South Africa years before the Salt Marches in India; all the work to protect gay people before Stonewall; everything we’re doing right now on our way to a new immigration system.

There does turn out to be a time that a cause, identified with a particular tactic, activates people to an extent previously unseen. So many factors feed into that moment. Some elements are tangible and we can try to influence them, like media pick up of the action, or a simple tactical design that eases replication. But some of these elements are intangible. We can’t predict them and we can’t control for them. They are comprised of some magical combination of an angry-enough constituency, a large-enough break in the system of repression so that what is underground can rise up, and the presence of creative leadership. When these factors are present, we might have a movement moment. Thus, organizers have to be prepared for such a moment to hit at any time. I wish I knew how to call it years in advance, but I’ve never really met anyone who could. The best we can do is open our eyes when it’s right on top of us.

This is the moment when conflict can arise between a new movement and the established organizations that created the pre-movement infrastructure, because this is when the differences between enabling movements and building organizations becomes clear. Movements are decentralized; organizations are centralized. Movements are spontaneous; organizations have strategies and plans, not to mention members and funders. These first two characteristics make movements go fast, while organizations can be slooow. Movements and organizations both want change, but organizations have the added goal of building for the long term, of perpetuating themselves. That goal can make organizations reluctant to embrace movements, even on the issues they’ve worked on forever, and can in turn can feed contempt for established organizations among movements.

We need both kinds of activity. There are things that the NAACP can do because it’s 100 years old, and there are things it can’t do for that very same reason. There are things Occupy Wall Street can do because it is nimble and unknown, but there are things it can’t do for that same reason. A good relationship between social justice organizations and movements requires reorientation from both.

Organizations can speed up by shifting some of their priorities. They can drop the notion that we must get all those occupiers or marchers or queer public smoochers to join their groups. They can be willing to share their planning and tactical skills even for an effort that they do not control and for which they will not likely get credit. In a movement moment, the imperatives of organization building can be set aside, and we might even recognize that not every organization has to live forever to make a great contribution. Organizers are used to hunkering down for marathons, but movement moments require sprinting. As a collective body, we must prepare to run full out.

For their part, movements can slow down enough to make sure they don’t exclude important perspectives in the rush to action. They can do their homework so that they know who John Lewis is when he wants to speak to them. They can adopt enough structure to protect people within the movement who could be abused by people with more power. They can refrain from blaming the current situation on the organizers who “failed” to make change earlier. More than anything else, social justice organizations and movements have to support each other, because the opposition will do its best to divide them by punishing the new movement, by pressuring the established groups to withhold support, even by making some concessions to one or the other.

Lately I’ve been remembering a quote by Omowale Satterwhite, a former board member of the Applied Research Center, which publishes During one meeting, long before an Obama presidency, Omowale said that our organization had to be ready for anything. People might not care so much about race now, he said, but that could change at any moment. He had observed from the fight against South African apartheid that “you never know how close you are to freedom.” We can’t set the timer for a movement moment, but we can act correctly when the clock strikes now.