The Rules Have Changed: How to Build a ‘Movement of Movements’ in the U.S.

The election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States calls into question not just American democracy but the promise of democracy around the world. Trump’s promises to deport immigrants, ban Muslims, militarize our cities, punish women who choose to have abortions — in addition to the hate and violence he has condoned against nearly every minority in this country — should not be seen as empty threats. The majority of white people chose racism and the uncertainty of a bigoted demagogue over an establishment politician. Frontline communities, marginalized populations most at risk in Trump’s America, have met his election with legitimate fear in a country of already-surging rates of hate crimes and violence against minorities.

But his election has also been met with an unprecedented level of outrage and uproar across the country, which is a reason to hope. Protests and calls to action have broken out in numbers unseen. The curtain has been pulled back. A broad spectrum of people, many of whom have never before been socially or politically active, are ready to fight. Most of the outpouring comes from minorities who, when put together, actually make up a sizable majority — women, LGBTQ+, religious minorities, people of color.

People are ready to be meaningfully activated to protect the rights of their families, neighbors and communities. Yet, two things stand in our way: First, those who are not already in activist or progressive spaces struggle to find meaningful, ongoing engagement beyond the digital petition, one-off protest or symbol of solidarity. Second, with the democratic party in shambles and the Left’s institutions fragmented by issue, identity or geographical focus, our collective power is diluted. 
It is time to organize.

An Outmoded Understanding of Change

For the last fifty years, the so-called “Left” has built itself around a theory of change that puts government at the center: change policy and laws to protect and win people’s rights. Movement organizers call this the theory of “monolithic power,” the idea that government and the representative leaders within our institutions are the primary means to change people’s lives. We have built huge national institutions or associations — Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, National Resources Defense Council, NAACP — that get the majority of our resources — time, money, attention. A few representative leaders decide on our priorities and then work within the system to change policies, pass laws, mine new data that results in incremental change.

This type of change is most certainly needed, but if this election proves anything (other than the fundamental racism, xenophobia and misogyny of many of our white brethren), it is that these institutions are simply not enough. New laws cannot protect us from bigotry. Issue-organizing does not unite us. Electoral politics, in its current state, divides us even more. Calling on people to mobilize around a policy win or election do not a movement make. This strategy siloes and fractures our people and resources. But, the biggest issue is that it only activates people when they are needed and excludes people from the daily work of solving their own problems. Movement-building brings this activation to scale and sustains it.

Trump won the presidency by refusing to play by the rules and by dividing people through fear and manipulation. We are about to have a monolith at the wheel of the U.S. Government, who gives not two f**ks about what our majority thinks. Trump’s initial slew of appointees further confirms this. Our current styles of organizing will not work against him. We must embrace new models of movement-building so that we can leverage the newfound energy to fight back.

Redefining Civic Participation

We have to organize smarter — with a new type of participatory leadership that can be embraced, localized and grown in every community across the country. Together, we can redefine civic participation not by organizational membership but as movement-building. Movement-building is an ongoing process of building leadership, relationships and avenues for getting involved. It catalyzes community involvement and finds localized ways to continuously bring new people into the movement and keep them there through a unified strategy and a broad common purpose. Movement-building combines incremental, institutional change with social power to create an overall change of the system. It builds the active civic participation that forms the social fabric of all healthy democracies, and it is this sense of interconnection that America so dearly needs. In other words, movement-building changes the rules of the game. But unlike “Tea Party populism” that preys on ignorance and fear, our movements can be sustainably rooted in communities, activated on issues that tangibly affect people’s lives and united around common values.

The good news is that this type of work is not unprecedented. We have movement-building play books we can pull from around the world. To an extent, we can start with none other than the Tea Party and how they built a powerful grassroots movement outside of traditional institutions, but we can also look to the Serbian Otpor! movement that took down their dictator in 2000, the 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolution, the South African Anti-Apartheid movement, Tunisia’s 2010 revolution.

These groups use a different style of organizing, one that is based on the following key tenants that colleagues and I have extracted from studying and working with dozens of movements around the world:

1. Strategic unity and common purpose: All successful movements have a clear vision for the future they want to build that broadly encompasses the interests of heterogeneous populations — from race to economic opportunity. These values coalesce around a clear “meta-narrative” that anyone can understand and adopt. This is not the brand of one organization, issue or political party. Our vision is far bigger than any one affiliation. We may disagree on specific policies, but we can be united around values and a common vision for the future — the American ideal of inclusivity, around civil liberties, around a secular government that protects the freedom of diverse religions, and around the right to decide what happens to our bodies. Black Lives Matter is a great example of a successful meta-narrative.
 These values help inform a clearer, big picture strategy — not for the Left but for all Americans who do or could agree with us. The strategy may include political aims (take back Congress in 2018) but also cultural (understand microaggressions, white people) and societal goals of eroding permissive bigotry and violence. It will take a loosely organized network of people, organizations and resources to implement this strategy. Our movements must share resources so we defray competition with each other and become less fractured and nimbler.

2. Participatory leadership builds participatory communities: While our vision and strategy must unify us, our work must be decentralized and localized. Mass mobilization at key moments does not sustain action. What does are activities that allow people engage on personally relevant, local issues that are connected to the broader values of the movement. The New Yorker’s 2010 profile of the Tea Party vividly describes how the movement found a volunteer role for anyone who wanted one. It was scrappy and not professionalized — one man served as his chapter’s webmaster, another woman served as events coordinator, a young person manned social media. We need participation-oriented leaders whose job is to empower and activate rather than represent and control, allowing communities around the country to replicate the same behavior and build overall capacity.

3. Strategic action: Protests are a fine vehicle to channel public outrage or culminate at tipping point moments, such as the March on Washington in 1963, which led to the signing of the seminal Civil Rights Act. But protest is not a strategy. Strategic action feeds movement growth by ensuring each action leads people to another action. Leave a documentary screening about climate change with an invitation to come to an information session about how to get more involved. Go to a potluck dinner to discuss housing rights and then become a host of the next one. These actions are part of a larger strategy to build critical mass that is only possible when everyday people take on new volunteer and leadership roles.

Ultimately, building participatory communities and strategic actions feed each other. The more actions, the more activated people, the more actions. And when done in the name of a higher calling, people have hope and a North Star that keeps them going.

Building a Unified Movement, Centered on Frontline Communities

We have a proven framework to steer our work, but all of this means nothing if we do not center it around the plights of America’s most vulnerable communities. The movements for racial justice, immigrant rights, gender equality, climate justice, LGBTQ+ rights, indigenous rights, religious freedom have been on the frontlines of these fights long before this election. They have pushed the needle on these critical issues and built the greatest force standing between marginalized communities’ basic safety and rights and the repressive policies of the Trump administration. They have brought these issues to the consciousness of the majority of the American people by engaging truly grassroots-led movements.

But these brave activists cannot do it alone. Right now, most of these communities are in crisis, fighting for their all-too precarious rights about to be swept away. To scale, take their actions to the next level and absorb the masses who stand ready to fight with them, we must all stand behind them and do everything we can to connect our struggles and strengthen them. White Americans ready to fight must either prioritize minorities’ struggles or we will all lose. While our movements fight for their lives, others with more privilege must also step to the frontlines to use their privilege and connections to undermine the state’s power to deport, disenfranchise, target and imprison.

The only silver lining of a DJT election is the unprecedented opportunity we have to build on this moment, in which so many around the country are ready to take action. We need unprecedented unity — a new paradigm for democracy, that can be an example for the rest of the world of how we can both tear down oppressive systems and build up more people-driven ones, centered around the frontline populations that build our country from the ground-up with every new generation. But if we don’t organize right now, come January 20th, without a North Star, the momentum will begin to dwindle. As history has shown, first they will come for the immigrants, the Muslims, black communities, trans* people, women — all of us.

“First they came…” by Martin Niemoller