I have had the rare privilege of witnessing the birth of a movement. At the age of 18, I founded Asexuality.org, the world’s first and still-largest community of people who identify as asexual. What began as a desperate search for people who could understand what I was going through has grown into a global movement—one that has powerfully impacted hundreds of thousands of lives and challenged the assumption that love, sex, and romance are intrinsically linked. The site mobilizes the work of hundreds of people on a daily basis, with an annual operating budget of only $3,000.

Asexuality.org, and movements like it, are powerful mechanisms for organizing human labor to positively affect people’s lives. Though their leaders reside outside of the halls of power, the historical impact of these movements often surpasses that of our greatest economic institutions. The 1850s were defined by abolitionists as much as by railroads; the 1920s by suffragettes as much as stock market speculation. When history texts look back at the current decade, it is debatable whether more ink will be spilled on Google and Facebook or on Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

If a business is a machine built around money, a movement is a machine built around relationships.

Despite their power, the mechanics of movement building are rarely taught or celebrated. Hop into the shoes of a college graduate eager to change the world, and you will be inundated with 100 pamphlets on startups and social entrepreneurship for every scrap of information on good organizing practice. When the phrase “movement building” gets thrown around, it usually refers to social media marketing—to the act of building a passive audience for one’s ideas and products, as opposed to a vocal, creative, and independently powerful set of participants in one’s work. Email lists and Twitter followers are assets in movement building, but they are not movements.

If a business is a machine built around money, a movement is a machine built around relationships. Not loose ties on social media—vulnerable human connections that have the power to change people’s lives. If businesses motivate people by paying them money, movements mobilize people by giving them a new, empowering narrative about who they are and why they matter in the world. If businesses build themselves by investing their money in operations that make more money, movements build themselves by centering relationships around work that creates more relationships. Where businesses optimize for profitability, movements optimize for relationality. Just as we can understand a business by examining its market, balance sheet, and operations, we can examine a movement by understanding how it attracts attention, builds new relationships, and keeps those relationships aligned around a shared narrative.

When examining how movements build and align relationships, I like to break it up into four layers:

  1. Awareness: People learn that the movement exists and are drawn to connect with it.
  2. Orientation: People build their first relationships and adopt a new identity.
  3. Affinity groups: People express that identity in small groups through shared work based on a unifying narrative.
  4. Core: People compete to define that unifying narrative.
A network diagram of the layers of a social movement.

Awareness

In 2006, I was interviewed on The View. The hosts, assuming that an asexual activist would be prudish and socially awkward, spent the segment peppering me with inappropriate personal questions. I was ready. I showed how I was less phased by sexuality than they were, laughing their questions off and focusing on why our movement existed in the first place. We were a bunch of people who had been lied to, who had been told that without sexuality we couldn’t form meaningful relationships or live happy lives. Now we were loudly and creatively proving otherwise, shattering the idea that humans need sexuality to experience real love or form lasting relationships.

For a long time, asexual people had been isolated in a society that told us we were destined to live lonely, insignificant lives. But now we were coming together online, sharing our stories, and proving that so many of the assumptions about love and sex just weren’t true.

It was a great segment, the kind that was sure to get sexual people talking over the dinner table—and draw thousands of previously isolated asexual people (or “aces”) to our site. While it was gratifying to think that we were shifting public dialogue around sexuality, the latter was vastly more important. The point of raising awareness is to get people to show up and build relationships within the movement, and the story I told on The View had emphasized that: “We are a community coming together online and sharing our stories.”

The difference between building an audience and building a movement lies in how you create a path to relationship.

We were about to get thousands of people who had felt unseen and alone their entire lives logging on to do just that, with tens of thousands more lurking to see how the first group was received. We needed to be ready. We tripled the number of active moderators on our forum. There was a general call for anyone who could be online during and after the View segment to give personalized, welcoming responses to new users. I knew that my personal address would also be flooded with heartfelt stories, so I recruited a team of two dozen aces to ensure all the letter writers had the opportunity to make their first friend in the movement.

The difference between building an audience and building a movement lies in how you create a path to relationship. There is a crowded marketplace for attention, and while movements lack the marketing budgets of most major corporations, they tend to have more compelling stories. A new cupcake-finding app might change someone’s life, for example, but it’s more likely that lives will be changed by a group of people redefining how we heal from and combat sexual assault.

We pay attention to stories that redefine important parts of our lives, a focus that networks of human relationships are generally much better at than corporations producing consumable goods and services. Raising awareness about a movement involves much more than simply making people aware of an issue. It’s about identifying the relationships that give people power in the face of that issue, telling a story about how joining that network of relationships will be personally transformative, and giving specific instructions about where and how to show up.

Showing up does not mean sharing something on Facebook, signing a petition, giving money, or any other action performed in isolation. Those tactics can be useful for growing an audience or a war chest (both good things to have), but they don’t result in a network of relationships. To build that, you’ll need to have people show up someplace where they can have conversations that are deep and impactful enough to spark an ongoing dialog.

Orientation

Several thousand people saw the View segment and realized for the first time in their lives that they were not alone. A sizable portion of those people went to our website, where they saw a definition of asexuality (“a person who does not experience sexual attraction”) and a discussion forum with a prominently featured “welcome area.”

Back when the community first began, I realized there was something powerful about the moment when a new person would join our community. Many had spent their entire lives feeling isolated and broken. When they found our community, those experiences came pouring out in long, vulnerable, deeply personal stories. Holding space for these stories is still the most important role our community plays.

When a wave of new, previously isolated people showed up, the first thing they saw was stories from people like them. Hundreds of enthusiastic community members made it their job to respond to these stories, either with stories of their own, simple messages of welcome, or the community’s symbol: a slice of cake. (It’s a dish that says, “You are in a community now and we are celebrating.”) It didn’t take long for the new members to join in.

To become part of a movement, people need to embrace a radical new story of who they are and what they are capable of.

All this storytelling created deeper exchanges between new and old members. The welcome area provided a clear and compelling path to relationship: Come in, tell your story, learn about the values that hold our community together, and get involved in a deeper conversation relevant to your circumstances.

As I studied movements in the following years, I found myself shocked at how many hold an eerily similar structure, one that pulls individuals from audience member to storyteller to community member. Movements that relied exclusively on giant marches and surging hashtags tended to die out quickly, while those offering participants a path to conversation and relationship tended to stand the test of time. Just as businesses must evolve a way to market their products, movements must evolve a clear path to relationship in order to survive.

This path almost always leads from a widely visible public display to an intimate, vulnerable conversation: from the fire of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches to a discussion over coffee and pie after services, from the vision of Wikipedia in its earliest days to the in-person meetups where its editors built a community. To become part of a movement, to sacrifice for it and rebuild one’s life around it, people need to embrace a radical new story of who they are and what they are capable of. That can start at 100,000-person marches or in the fray of social media, but it can’t take root there. Someone full of fear, hope, and uncertainty must tell their story in a small space that feels safe. They must feel seen in a way they have never felt seen before, and they must form relationships that keep them coming back.

Affinity Groups

The wave of new arrivals following The View and other media coverage profoundly transformed our community. We now had critical mass to start local groups in major cities and on college campuses. New identities began to form, including people who experienced low levels of sexual attraction or who experienced it rarely. Before long, the way that we talked about ourselves began to change.

With more people on the ground and online, our ability to do work also radically changed. When we learned that the American Psychiatric Association was reviewing whether a lack of sexuality constituted a mental disorder, we were able to quickly assemble a team of psychologists, researchers, and social workers to convince them that it didn’t. When a large pharma company released an ad that made fun of our community, we had it off the air in less than 24 hours. When a major television show decided to have a main character come out as ace, we had aces from the industry in their writers’ room within 72 hours. We have no paid staff and a budget that’s too small to require reporting to the IRS, but we have thousands of people eager to engage in coordinated work when an opportunity presents itself.

To understand why, let’s look at the journey of one of those people who saw The View and showed up in the welcome area of our site. She told her story, got acknowledged, and came back eager to be part of a community where she could feel seen and accepted. She and I had a brief conversation in which she thanked me for starting the community and we shared our stories. As we were wrapping up, I suggested that she could help out by researching places in her community where we could target our education efforts. Most people will eagerly agree to this sort of small task and then forget it, but she accomplished it promptly and began to earn my trust. When I learned of an opportunity to impact the American Psychiatric Association, she was on the core team that organized our work.

The vast majority of people moving through the community got their sense of validation and newfound identity and moved on. A small number became excited about the changing the world so that aces would no longer feel broken and isolated. A smaller number still proved willing and able to do real work around it. Whenever possible, those people were given a strategic task and a small group to work with. The relationships that started in the welcome area blossomed and were given purpose in these groups. People looked at the big picture of the ace community’s fight for public acceptance and saw how to take on a small chunk in their local community or profession.

It’s much more important to invest time and energy in celebrating those who do meaningful work than in shaming those who do not.

Not only did it feel good to fight back against the ignorance that had made us feel isolated, and to do so with a community cheering at our backs, the work built respect and trust that opened doors. People who accomplished things in line with the community’s values became “asexual famous,” known and respected by the community’s leadership. They went from working in their small niche, to being able to mobilize people around their ideas, to having a strong voice in the story and direction of the movement.

It is in the affinity groups of movements where work happens. Setting up lots of small spaces suitable for intimate and vulnerable storytelling is hard work, as is building websites, planning marches, and putting together policy briefs. But all of this can be accomplished when people have a shared sense of purpose and a trusted group of friends. Most affinity groups are small, often no more than six people, though they may have dozens or even hundreds more who show up when needed. They must be small enough to allow busy people to form meaningful personal relationships, find regular meeting times, and stay in constant communication about their work. Affinity groups that grow too large must subdivide their work into strategic focus areas, essentially splitting up while staying coordinated. (More on that later.)

Though affinity groups are willing to work intense hours on coordinated projects, it is a mistake to think of them as employees. Employees take orders, are incentivized by paychecks, and are fired if they fail to perform. Affinity groups don’t take orders, they take context. They crave a clear story about how something they are capable of doing will express their values, change the world, and earn them the admiration of the community.

People want to feel liked and respected by communities they care about, and affinity groups provide a clear story about how to do that: Do this small task, and these four people will respect you. Work with them to do this big task, and these 10,000 people will respect you. Affinity group members aren’t fired if they fail to perform their work; they just lose trust. The vast majority of people excited about doing work in a movement will not follow through, either because they lack discipline or because the movement failed to pull them into a compelling relationship. It’s much more important to invest time and energy in connecting with and celebrating those who do meaningful work than in shaming or chastising those who do not. It only takes a few dozen people working on a regular basis to have a few hundred who will show up to do specialized work when needed, a few thousand who will show up when bodies are needed, and a few million who abstractly identify with the movement.

The challenge with affinity groups is finding and delivering that context. Affinity groups often bicker over shared resources, ego, and differences in vision, and those squabbles can tear a movement apart unless there is a clear story to unite it.

Core

A few years after the wave of new arrivals, our community was still growing by leaps and bounds. Many of the people who had come in and formed affinity groups had become leaders in their own right, with influential blogs, people they could deploy to take action, and their own ideas about what the movement should be doing. Every year, we gathered in June in San Francisco. What had started as a barbecue and art party to prepare our Pride contingent, turned into an annual conference where members gathered to discuss the most pressing issues in our community. At one such gathering, we dug into the current pressing issue: me.

A cadre of young, accomplished activists backed me into a corner. “You’re one of the most visible members of this community; you’re who the media goes to. And when you get in front of the camera, you describe this as the asexual community. But many of us don’t use that word.” As our community had grown, so had our diversity of experience. Some now identified as “grey-a” (on a spectrum between sexual and asexual) or “demisexual” (experiencing sexual attraction only once a close emotional relationship is established), and they were feeling thrown under the bus. Without realizing it, I was treating them the way the gay rights movement has often treated bi folks. They were pissed, and they had a point.

In that conversation we decided to change the story. The word “ace,” which had been thrown around as a slang term for members of our community, became an umbrella term to describe the community going forward. In my education efforts, I stopped describing us as the “asexual community,” and made sure to talk about asexual, grey-a, and demi experiences with equal weight. Before long, most local groups were using “ace” rather than “asexual” in their name to signal inclusivity. The story of the movement had changed.

Healthy movements maintain an environment of competitive storytelling, where multiple people struggle to tell the most interesting story that best aligns with the community’s values.

At the core of most movements is a group of highly influential people who shape strategic direction through storytelling. They must continually listen, both internally and externally, and synthesize what they hear into a story about risks and opportunities viewed through the lens of the movement’s shared values. When movement cores fail, affinity groups will feel that they are in competition with one another or that the direction of the movement is no longer aligned with their values. People joining the movement won’t see a story that resonates with their experience, and people viewing the movement from afar won’t see a community that they want to be a part of. But when a core succeeds, they can tell a dynamic story that inspires people to join, participate, and coordinate their work around a larger strategic goal.

Though movement cores may control resources like bank accounts and the time of paid staff, their most important resource is attention. Because they have earned the respect of people both inside and outside the movement, they are uniquely positioned to tell a story that everyone will hear.

When this storytelling ability is entrusted to only one person (as it briefly was to me), movements can easily become toxic. Healthy movements maintain an environment of competitive storytelling, where multiple people struggle to tell the most interesting story that best aligns with the community’s values.

This competitive storytelling can feel like a beltway cocktail party, where participants engaged in a chess game of status, influence, and trendiness articulate the version of the movement’s story most likely to garner support. Like a nuclear reactor, movement cores are powerful but toxic to those who stay too long. They often breed ego, stagnation, and cults of personality unless the people inside have a way to bow out and be replaced by new blood.

These days, I have stepped back from my public role in the community, forwarding most media requests to up-and-coming movement leaders and serving mostly as a mentor and advocate. In the words of one of my friends, I have “gone Yoda”—still respected and available for advice, but having stepped back from the spotlight.

The Wisdom Within Movements

In the years I have spent in ace and other movements, I have been surprised at the similarities between them. Movements are relationship machines; in order to operate, they must solve the same underlying problems. Just as all corporations need marketing, operations, and human resources, all movements need a way to attract new members, engage them in meaningful relationships, inspire them to work on a shared project, and embrace the emergence of new goals and leadership.

The way that a botanist marvels at the myriad ways that plants turn air, soil, and water into life, I’ve been amazed at the inventive and effective ways that movements have learned to address these fundamental challenges. Movements either develop profound wisdom about how to connect people around shared purpose or they die, so most successful movements are overflowing with new discoveries.

At the same time, I’ve been amazed at how few people seem to see this wisdom in movements. The way that most corporate environments talk about work and purpose feels like bad karaoke next to the skilled music of good community organizers. When institutions like Facebook use words like “relationship” and “engagement,” the definitions have been whittled down to fit neatly in a business model. Movements show the full depth of what these words can mean, of relationships that are transformative rather than associative, of engagement that ignites the soul and changes the world.