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Power in a movement by Judith Stadtman Tucker


| the tension between talk and action

The tension between talk and action surfaced early in the leader's roundtable discussion on Saturday afternoon, when several experienced advocates agreed that lobbying the government to collect more specific data on caregiving activities and mothers' patterns of employment should be our top priority. If we just had more detailed information about mothers' lives and livelihoods, these leaders proposed, the media and public might take our grievances more seriously -- and we'd be in a better position to persuade employers and legislators to do the right thing. (Roundtable participants included representatives from Mothers & More, NAMC, Welfare Warriors, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, MomsRising, Family and Home Network, Mothers Acting Up, the Motherhood Project, and NOW Mothers & Caregivers Economic Rights Committee.)

It's awfully tempting to imagine that the solution to the motherhood problem lies in more targeted research, more accurate media coverage, better understanding of national opinion, and closer attention to framing the public conversation -- all of which would contribute to more effective communication about motherhood and caregiving as social issues. But here's the thing: we already have all the information we need to take effective action. We have 30-plus years of peer-reviewed social research on the causes and consequences of the motherhood penalty, plus reams of expert analysis on policy models and labor standards that have broad social benefits and reduce mothers' economic vulnerability. If newer research has anything critical to tell us, it's that the situation for women and families in the United States isn't getting any better -- and on many social and economic measures, is getting worse. Overwork, flexible work, work-family conflict, and parenting as a gender issue have attracted more and more balanced news coverage -- at both local and national levels -- in the last five years than in the previous two decades, combined. Early in the 2008 Democratic primary race, leading candidates announced a commitment to expanding policies to support caregivers and working families -- a move that just four years ago, would have been viewed as political suicide. Three states -- California, Washington, and New Jersey -- have passed paid family and medical leave bills, and more than a dozen states and municipalities are considering legislation to guarantee workers a minimum number of paid sick days. We don't need more facts and figures to get the mothers' movement off the ground. We need to get on the train before it leaves the station.

| words and deeds

Let me back up a little. Mothers' movement sympathizers are not alone in the conviction that creating and disseminating more information is key to shifting the balance of political power in the United States. If we can just get our hands on fool-proof data and analysis showing that our nation's spending and policy priorities reinforce historic inequalities and are directly harmful to children and families -- not to mention antithetical to core democratic values -- how could any self-respecting lawmaker possibly fail to act?

Our problem, however, is not that our studies and statistics are inaccurate, inconsistent, or incomplete, or that we need to talk about what we feel and know in a more convincing way. What slows the pace of progress has more to do with how power-hoarding groups interpret the source (individual-versus-systemic failure) and impact (fair, not unfair) of social problems, and how difficult it is for social justice activists to disrupt the cause-and-effect logic that undergirds the status quo. (It's tough to talk people out of a belief system that works to their advantage -- no matter how strong the evidence is or how forcefully it's presented.) But in a knowledge-driven society run by super-educated elites, it's easy to see why collective efforts to verify and describe negative fallout from bad policy decisions and unchecked social forces might overshadow community-based organizing as an avenue for giving ordinary people more political clout. When other channels for political activism are closed off, naming and framing our common grievances may be the last, best option for creating a sense of engagement -- at least until new opportunities arise.

Since the mid-1980s, the progressive movement has invested heavily in the production and dissemination of ideas and information, primarily through funding public interest research organizations and progressive media outlets. (I use the term "funding" loosely here, since it's common knowledge that progressive organizations and media projects are constantly strapped for cash.) Today, the most prominent actors in the progressive change community are media professionals, academically-trained analysts, communication specialists, and heads of labor and non-profit organizations. In various capacities, these experts interact with the press, other organizational leaders, the research community, legislators, and the public to raise awareness about social and economic policies that fly in the face of progress or otherwise diminish the general welfare. Day-to-day work in the progressive research industry involves conducting studies, publishing reports, providing expert testimony, developing policy models, and organizing events, meetings, forums, symposia, press conferences, and panel discussions where academically-trained policy wonks, professional advocates, journalists, labor movement leaders, liberal lawmakers, and other masters of the progressive universe get together and swap ideas about our country's most pressing problems and how to solve them. Sometimes the public is invited to participate -- particularly when information is delivered through blogging or other online sources, or when emotional personal testimony is needed to bring a policy platform to life. But most of these projects and programs exist to enlighten political elites and concerned citizens about the effects of bad policy-making on American communities, not to mobilize ground-level activists.

The professionalization of the progressive movement (including mainstream elements of the women's rights, civil rights, economic justice, and peace movements) was a strategic and necessary response to the breakdown of mid-twentieth century change movements and the massive growth of the right-wing thought industry. It's also been fabulously helpful to intellectual activists like me, who do the work of interpreting and rebroadcasting fact-based information that validates our cause for the benefit of a wider audience. In building the case for a mothers' movement, advocates have cited reports and resources produced by a legion of progressive research institutes, "grasstops" advocacy organizations, and academic centers, including the Institute for Women's Policy Research, Economic Policy Institute, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Families & Work Institute, Center for WorkLife Law, Center for Law and Social Policy, National Women's Law Center, Project on Global Working Families, National Partnership for Women & Families, Sloan Work & Family Research Network, National Center for Children in Poverty, New America Foundation, Demos, projects funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and many more. Professionals who work in the progressive research industry also tend to write a lot of books, op-eds, and magazine articles, expanding the dominance of intellectual activism as the favored model for progressive problem solving.

Personally, I love this stuff. I love the notion that information is powerful, and that one idea can change the world forever -- hopefully for the better. On the other hand, we've accumulated a mountain of knowledge -- sound knowledge based on conscientious research and fair, accurate analysis -- in the form of books, studies, reports, briefing papers, and public commentary written by extremely smart people with excellent credentials, who do a first-rate job of explaining what's wrong with America and what to do about it. Yet in the last 25 years, the progressive movement has had few unqualified successes in the area of policy and regulatory reform. The rise of new conservatism and the partisan stalemate in Congress have obviously contributed to the progressive agenda's failure to thrive. But another salient factor in the moribund state of the progressive movement is the lack of a stable, community-based infrastructure to organize a diverse population of individual, non-professional activists for ongoing change work.

The academic model of progressive activism rests on the theory that, a) intellectual activists -- either by the force of overwhelming evidence or by framing an appeal the correct way -- can, despite historic patterns of resistance, move people with power to act for the common good; and, b) when societal conditions become unbearable -- or when ordinary folks absorb enough information about how and why they're getting the raw end of the deal -- there will be a spontaneous uprising of a critical mass of self-motivated citizen activists (in social movement lingo, this is referred to as "the tipping point"). But what happens in the real world is that social movement professionals and media activists (like yours truly, for example) go to meetings and conferences and scratch our collective heads, because -- given the urgency of the present situation -- we can't figure out why so many people who would benefit from pushing back against the status quo are more excited about watching the next episode of American Idol than working for change.

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building on-ramps to activism

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