The “making of” the 2019 climate moment and how to make the next one a lot bigger
For the past two decades, I have supported and closely tracked progress on a number of social, environmental and justice-oriented struggles, where the road to deep and lasting change seemed unending for many years until… all of a sudden… the impossible became possible!
In each one of those moments, and much to the surprise of us long-term activists, a new and broader public discourse on the issue we had long campaigned on, grabbed headlines and swept up whole new segments of the population. Eventually, after a time of sustained focus and wider discussion, sometimes a few months or years later, the increased political traction generated by all of this attention led to substantive policy changes.
Those around long enough to have lived through the many long and dreary ‘before’ years can best appreciate these quantum leaps in social change. Structural problems and everyday injustices, after all, tend to persist for a very long time. They are known and talked about within small circles of dedicated advocates and sometimes many years of evidence-gathering, policy research and lobbying on these causes have been spent with little visible effect on the body politic.
But in the times of big change I have personally witnessed there was a shift where, seemingly overnight, we could talk openly in mainstream circles about financial inequality and the injustices of capitalism (Occupy Wall Street), name and address systemic Police-on-Black violence (Black Lives Matter) or signal the emergency of the climate crisis and our collective fossil fuel addiction (2019 climate strikes and protests).
What shifted the social and political context in each one of these cases was a ‘movement moment’ or ‘moment of the whirlwind’, as these have been called (1). A time where multitudes take to the streets, often in response to an accumulated load of injustices, to participate in dramatic shows of force and moments of civil disobedience that capture our attention and collective imagination.
Why funders and NGOs often scramble in ‘moments of the whirlwind’
During big movement moments, from my vantage point as a consultant with NGOs, unions and key funders working on the issues above, I have listened to rushed and often heated discussions where staff within these institutions scramble to show up in support of grassroots organizers on the streets. After all, no one wants to be left out in these instances of sea change on the very thing we have been working on for years. And yet, by the time thousands are on the streets, it’s usually too late for an institution to show up and contribute in a meaningful way.
So it’s frankly refreshing and welcome that NGOs, unions and funders are asking themselves how they could better show up and support movement-moments on the causes they are advancing in their work. Collectively, when compared to grassroots organizers doing most of this work, these institutions are much richer in resources — knowledge, networks, access and funds — and could therefore help make such moments of change much more transformative and lasting.
In answer to the question: “How can progressive institutions, such as funders and NGOs, best participate in and support social movements before, during and after these moments of the whirlwind?” I am excited to announce the release of Building the Whirlwind, a report I worked on with fellow researchers Naomi Goldberg and Alejandra Bravo, supported and published by the Broadbent Institute.
This report is essentially a deep dive into the ‘making of’ the 2019 Montreal climate protests, arguably the largest climate march in the world that September but also our country’s largest collective single-day ‘movement moment’, by the numbers(2).
>>Access Building the Whirlwind as a PDF doc here
For folks in the field who now want to cut to chase and get to concrete recommendations, you can download the report linked to above and skip to pages 20 and 21. But beyond the takeaways, the testimonies and storytelling around the building of this movement-moment contain many deeper learnings that are important for those who want to get involved in a meaningful way.
Surfacing the unseen work of organizers
One of the main reasons I’m excited see this report go out is because it works back from a movement moment with a dazzling output that most Canadians saw or heard about — 500K on the streets of Montreal on September 27th — and documents the countless hours invested by organizers who were building up power and relationships for over a year in advance to make this happen.
Naomi and Alejandra on the research team made a conscious decision to capture the voices of the many organizers involved at all levels in making this movement moment happen. The raw material of this study was based on conversations with student organizers (Albert Lalonde, Ashley Torres, Louis Couillard — CEVES) founders of grassroots civil society networks (François Geoffroy -LPSP), funders (Eric St-Pierre — Trottier Family Foundation), movement-generous NGO staff (Isabelle L’Héritier — Greenpeace and Julie Roy — David Suzuki Foundation), union reps (Patrick Rondeau — FTQ) and Indigenous organizers (Kijatâi-Alexandra Veillette-Cheezo — part of the youth delegation from the Anishinabek Nation).
The interviews at the core of this report, which get to the heart of the actual work behind movement-building, reveal important elements of approach that don’t typically make headlines because they are subtle and slow-moving. Here, we’re talking mainly about trust and relationships, neither of which can be built overnight.
When it comes to the takeaways for funders and institutions that have a serious will to engage in movement support, many of the best practices in 2019 were centred around concrete acts of care and capacity support, which require institutions to adopt an agile approach to program development and ongoing listening and engagement with organizers.
Underlying all of the above, however, is an essential posture of humility and respect for the dedication and vast amount of unpaid work most organizers put in to movement building. Respect here is not only for the free work but for the innate wisdom of organizers at the heart of this.
One of the most powerful quotes from the report that I would highlight for an institutional audience is the following: “…grassroots organizers do not want progressive institutions to direct them like small players in a larger preconceived plan or tell them what they can and can’t say.”
Despite the challenges for both parties, the Building the Whirlwind report shows how powerful partnerships between grassroots actors and institutional supporters actually did happen and undoubtedly contributed to the success of the Montreal climate moment in 2019, with its 500,000 marchers and special appearance by Greta Thunberg.
The key organizers of the 2019 moment, both grassroots and institutional, were experimenting and learning as they went along. Imagine what could happen next time around if many more funders, NGOs and unions embedded themselves in movement building much earlier in the game!
Further good readings on these subjects:
-Can grassroots groups genuinely partner with NGOs? — Natasha Adams, U.K., 2022
-Protest Movements Need the Funding They Deserve - Paul Engler, U.S., 2018
-The Broadbent Institute has created training modules based on the Report with video excerpts of the interviews with key organizers here
- Saul Alinsky as cited in Engler, Mark and Paul Engler (2016). This is An Uprising: How nonviolent revolt is shaping the twenty-first century. Nation Books, p. 177.
- Hard to find one definitive roundup of numbers from all locations across the country but on Sep. 27 2019, anywhere between 600,000 and 1 million people turned out for climate protests in Canada that single day alone.