Over the past few years we’ve had our share of forgettable media moments in this country. Remember the Duck Dynasty controversy? Or the Ice Bucket Challenge? Neither do I. In the current twitter-fueled hyperspeed political context, each of us, in our own way, struggles to stay focused for long enough to take back our own time and sanity, to have some semblance of agency over our lives before the incessant stream of social media carries it away to the rest of the world in filtered, square-shaped photos.
That fight for our minds, in many ways, is a mirror image of the fight for a better world that so many of us have engaged with this year. Freeing our own minds from the mindless banter of cable news isn’t so different than freeing our economy from the bankers and financiers who brought on the great recession or from the fossil fuel industry that continues to dump its carbon trash into the atmosphere. Both require us to own up to our own participation in the systems that are unhealthy for ourselves, our families, neighbors and the planet, and then to try like hell to push back with love and righteous anger; to try to disrupt those vicious circles that steal our humanity and others’ away.
In countless ways, the personal and political are wrapped up together, from how we understand the news to how we experience the weather to how we vote. And when we’re aggrieved, angry or upset, we seek out the company of other people to gain comfort and rebuild a sense of personal agency. When a small group of young, economically dispossessed people decided to camp out in Zucotti Park in the fall of 2011, they brought to the surface the yearning of millions of people, young and old, who felt the same way. With their presence, swagger, the highly resonant chant “We are the 99%” and a reasonably plausible roadmap for change, they managed to put economic inequality on the political map. While it’s impossible to point to specific policy outcomes, Occupy changed the debate on inequality in this country for years to come, and that alone should put instrumentalist arguments against it to rest. It was a movement moment that helped us envision ourselves as change agents, and in so doing, helped shift our political and cultural context.
Like Occupy, the recent upsurge in movement activity on climate change hasn’t generated many explicit policy wins at the scale of the problem. The People’s Climate March, which I helped organize, brought together over 400,000 people from labor, environmental and economic justice, faith and many more communities to march the streets of New York City together. It was a magical day without a magic wand. We built incredible relationships across social movements, and helped to position the climate movement as a people’s movement rather than an elitist enterprise. By building a political moment and providing a compelling roadmap for change, we shifted the debate about climate in this country.
And now, the #blacklivesmatter movement, led by young people of color, is successfully spotlighting the enduring reality of racism in this country. With creative direct actions and interventions, this decentralized movement has turned multiple brutal murders of young people of color in the past months by police into a referendum on our failing criminal justice system. Participating in these actions, the anger and sadness is palpable, but what shows through the seams is a desire to be together, to free our minds from the monotony of systems that don’t serve us, and reclaim some of the personal and political agency that we’ve lost to the endless media cycle.
These three movement moments are examples of how by coming together in the streets, we can collectively shift the debate about big issues. Having been in the middle of one of these moments, and involved in the other two, I can tell you it’s no small task to push through the skepticism, inertia and turf wars that often hinder activists. Most often, these kinds of efforts fall flat. On rare occasions, they succeed in moving the needle. Another thing these moments have in common is that they are moments. Taken alone, they aren’t enough to get the kinds of financial or carbon regulations we want, or to reform the criminal justice system. They’re necessary steps in getting what we want, but they won’t take us all the way there.
Movement moments are more about expressing ourselves, coming together with other people in the streets, and ultimately about freeing our minds from the pedestrian skepticism of change we all live with day in and day out. Movement moments build potential power—power that has the potential to change systems—but they don’t build kinetic power—the kind of power we need to exercise to get the things we want.
When we’re marching in the streets or sitting in, fighting for our own agency, it’s easy to forget that this is really about winning real change, fighting for a more livable world. It’s easy to confound a strategic plan to change the systems that continue to fail us with self-expression and personal freedom. And when we mix up movement with moment, It’s easy to sink into despair when even after the massive street protests, Congress bails out the banks or the Grand Jury acquits or world leaders fail to make meaningful progress on reducing emissions. When those disappointments come to pass—as they so often do—we don’t just lose a specific battle, but we often give up on our own agency: How could a Grand Jury acquit when I just expressed my own power by taking over the West Side Highway?
And we sink back into the comfort of re-tweeting articles from The Atlantic and posting rage-filled tirades about the state of the world on Facebook. We’ve all been there. There’s no shame in despair, but there’s no drive for change in it either.
So let’s make a pact. Instead of marching in the streets and then bailing on each other when the going gets tough, let’s commit to these resolutions in 2015:
Get Together — This seems like an obvious one, but don’t go back into your cave of despair! With all the deflating headlines at the end of the year, it’s so easy to lose hope and sink back into the mindless routines of daily life. Humans are wired to be together—our brains and bodies literally feel better when we’re next to other humans. Take advantage of that to host a house party with concerned neighbors, friends and family to discuss what you can do together in your city or town. Join a local meetup or campaign that’s already running. Whatever you do, do it with others.
Get Active — Marching in the streets is great. Do it more. And if you’re truly committed to fighting for justice and a safe planet, escalate your commitment. If you marched, sit-in next time. If you sat in, find out who’s been organizing the actions, and help plan the next one. Your bravery is contagious: the more you show, the more people will be compelled to get involved in the fight.
Get Engaged — It’s not enough to express your frustration by marching or sitting-in. Each action you’ve taken part in has been organized and coordinated by teams of committed people just like you. It’s not rocket science, but it takes some skill to do well. Be humble, listen, and step up when something needs to get done to run an action or engage lots of other people. A movement that’s powerful is a movement that’s growing.
Get Political — It’s a curious habit of people in our movements to pit political engagement against direct action as competing strategies. The history of social movements shows that one doesn’t usually work without the other—it’s to our peril to outright reject one or the other. Let’s deepen our commitment to using direct action to escalate our movements. And let’s move past the fear of engaging in the electoral system by developing a real plan to take back our democracy from those who use it to enrich themselves at the expense of our planet and communities.
Get Invested — Moments don’t need a lot of money to run—their primary currency is anger, passion and urgency. But movements are marathons, and require resources to run the campaigns and organizing efforts that anchor the effort. Pick a big institutional non-profit and make a year-end donation, but save a few bucks for the community groups, startup efforts and ad-hoc teams who are pushing the envelope from the streets of New York City to the White House and beyond.
Get Real — Ending racism, winning fair wages and reversing climate change isn’t going to happen overnight. It probably won’t happen in 2015 (though we might make some real progress!) It’s time to get real and play the long game. Going from mass movement moments that put millions in the streets to enduring power takes time and careful planning. Now isn’t the time to take the foot off the gas or let up on the pressure. Now is the time to escalate—to ramp up our commitment, and at the same time to ramp up our strategic planning, our creativity and our organizing efforts.
Let’s make 2015 the year our movements got loud, took to the streets more, turned that potential power into political power, and began to win some real change for ourselves, our communities and the planet. That’s a New Year’s resolution I hope we can stick to.