Building Movements: Lessons from an Organizing Season

It’s been almost six years since we (Carlos Saavedra & Paul Engler) met at the James Lawson Institute. At that time Carlos was finishing up almost 10 years with the DREAM movement and Paul was creating the beginnings of a new movement based on ten years of intellectual work and experimentation with social movements. It was at that retreat that Paul shared with Carlos the first writings about the hybrid model of social movements and began a process of reflection, systematization and training in order to bring greater awareness of their potential. After these last years of collaboration together, we sat down for three days in December to reflect on the last season of work and community.

First and foremost, we want to express our deepest gratitude and appreciation to the core team who began this work with us: Max Berger, Belinda Rodriguez, and Kate Werning; second, to the 2nd generation of leadership of the Momentum community that is working so hard to sustain and improve the difficult labor of supporting mass protest movements; and third, to the thousands of others who have accompanied us on this journey, by participating in trainings, viewing our webinars, and applying these frameworks in their context. Our hope was that we would create frameworks in a community where people could experiment, that we could create the architecture for lots of other people to build the buildings. We(Ayni Institute) are just one piece of these frameworks, which continue to be held by other training institutions like Momentum, Relational Uprising, and others. Thanks to all of you, the last five years have been a dream come true, beyond any of our wildest expectations of what was possible.

Our first training in the amazing Watershed Center

When we started, we had a deep vision, one that many thought was too grandiose or downright impossible: to stage an intervention on the left in the United States by creating new organizing traditions, especially in what we call the mass protest space. We had gone through a lot of pain and struggle within social movements, and we were in a period of revelation about how we could do our work better. Those revelations had so transformed us that we wanted to share them with other people. We had a vision that these ideas could create new organizing traditions that would change the world, but we didn’t know whether or not it would actually catch on. We didn’t know whether other people outside of the founding core of Momentum and Movement Mastery would understand the power of these ideas.

Now, five years later, we know that these ideas have caught on. Now, the possibilities seem tremendous. As we enter a new season of Ayni’s Movement Program, we want to reflect on our accomplishments and all the lessons we have learned along the way.

  1. New strategic frameworks. It’s one thing to write a book or do a training around certain ideas, to just throw a stone into the ocean and see what happens. It rarely has much effect, except among a few people, and even then you don’t often sense the ripples among the waves. With Momentum, though, we have seen these frameworks expand beyond our wildest imagination. We have trained thousands of people in the theory of Momentum and the concepts of social movement ecology; our introductory webinar has been seen thousands of times; our book This Is An Uprising has been translated into Korean and Catalonian (still in negotiations for Spanish) and continues to sell thousands of copies each year (to the surprise of our publisher). To this day we encounter strangers who have watched the entire webinar series and tell us how it has impacted their lives. At meetings and conferences we get asked complex questions about specific topics that show real engagement with Momentum frameworks. And then there are the “converts” who have done our trainings, read our books, and are now forming campaigns and movements using these concepts. If, as Oscar Wilde said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” we have been flattered beyond measure. These frameworks have even made their way into academic circles. We were invited an intellectual debate in the United Kingdom using the frames of social movement ecology, strategic politics and alternatives. Francis Fox Pippens said that Momentum had “constructed a new intellectual platform” to understand the major strategic dilemmas on the left, and Bill McKibben commented that “This Is An Uprising would be a classic in the literature of social change.” In sum, Momentum is more than just a strategic framework. It has created language for so many other strategic concepts and debates to happen. As Max Burger said, “It’s almost a linguistic intervention on the left.” That has been our experience. Even among those we don’t agree with.
  2. Birth of a Community of Practice. We now have a whole community that is experimenting with and embodying the Momentum school of thought and practice. This community shares a common strategic language; community practices like storytelling, resonating, and singing; and strategic practices like a culture of mass training and frontloading. Incredible organizations have arisen to support this community of practice like Momentum and Relational Uprising, and the Ayni Institute continues to support advanced training for this community. This community of practice and the infrastructure that holds it together have been key to the success of our strategic frameworks.
  3. Bold Experiments. In turn, this Community of Practice has given life to amazing experiments, with different and varied models of frontloading and launching mass protest movements. As we say in Momentum, “The hardest part of the revolution is the front-loading process.” Four major organizations have grown out of a frontloading process and are making huge contributions to movements. From Cosecha organizing protests in front of Trump tower and fighting for driver’s licenses for all, to If Not Now bringing Birthright trips to the forefront of debate in the Jewish community, to Sunrise creating trigger events and hitting the front pages of newspapers around the country, our bold experiments are just beginning. Moreover, because these experiments come out of the same Community of Practice, we all still strategize about best practices, share successes and innovation, and continue to be in community together, as organizers, roommates, partners, and more. We are still in dialogue together over some of the biggest strategic questions. How do we play an inside-outside game? How involved we can be in electoral politics and leftist realignment? What’s the scale of non-cooperation that we can mobilize? How can we continue building decentralized structures? And how do we maintain healthy social movement ecology? How do we continue a mass training program for movements with and without momentum?
  4. Popular Support for Social Movements. We have seen that these strategic frameworks, the Momentum community of practice, and the bold experiments it has produced have all contributed to increased support for mass protest activity. Leaders in mainstream organizations like labor unions, and community groups have started asking us for advice and are interested in learning more about mass protest; funders tell us that our work has led to more resources going to support mass protest, social movements, and trigger events. Of course fear, resistance, and skepticism remain. Nonetheless, these small changes show that the needle has moved, and that mass protest movements are gaining acceptance beyond our core community.
  5. The Power of Experience: Above all, in these last five years we have gained so much experience that only time and practice can give. On a personal level, we have become better coaches and better leaders. On a strategic level, we know so much more about what works and what doesn’t, and we have engaged in so many fruitful debates and experiments that have showed us where our theories are weak or where we need more skills. Now we can start grappling with broader questions. We have seen how to create mass protest movements around single issues, but how do we create new models for many different movements? How do we have a deeper healthy, resilient, and compassionate organizational culture? How do we build a system of reciprocity that can support multiple movements? How do we create a healthy social movement ecology that is complex yet organized? How do we build stronger decentralized structures? How do we incorporate a deeper sense of personal transformation rooted in the spiritual technologies of the great indigenous and mystical traditions? How do we create a movement of movements to address the larger crises of late stage consumer capitalism in the environment and our communities? How can we address some of the deepest challenges on the global left?

If the ecosystem that we have already helped birth can continue to grow independently of us, it gives us inspiration to believe that we can do this again on an even bigger scale. With deepest appreciation for all of those who have accompanied on this journey so far, we look forward to the work ahead.

In solidarity,

Carlos Saavedra & Paul Engler (Ayni Institute)

In our first training.

Correction: We corrected the title and added a few sentences upon feedback from close partners, thank you.