| building on-ramps to activism
The complex history and dynamics of the professionalization of the progressive movement deserve a more thorough discussion (and anyone who has something to add is welcome to weigh in). In all fairness, there are dozens of non-profit groups dedicated to training and leadership development for social justice advocates, young activists, and community organizers. But there remains a severe shortage of low-cost, continuing programs designed to build and sustain grassroots capacity on a local scale, leaving ordinary people with common concerns (or a bone to pick with the powers that be) with limited opportunities to acquire basic change work skills. As civic engagement continues to erode in the U.S., non-partisan groups that once facilitated grassroots network-building at the local level -- including voluntary associations, membership groups, and service organizations -- are rapidly succumbing to attrition, creating a void for community members in search of entry-level on-ramps to political activism. Needless to say, the devitalization of the labor movement in the United States has also closed off pathways to collective action for millions of middle- and lower-income Americans.
Based on first-hand experience, my impression is that the average middle-class mom is not under-informed or ambivalent about the persistence of gender inequality or employer practices and policy gaps that constrain our opportunities and put all mothers -- and our dependent children -- at greater risk for hardship. To the contrary, a 2004 survey found that 90 percent of U.S. mothers believe the government can do more to support children and families. But short of one-click action campaigns organized by netroots ventures such as MomsRising and MoveOn, mothers and others who want to participate in collective action are hard pressed to find ready-made opportunities in their home communities. Starting a social movement organization from scratch is NOT a feasible solution for would-be activists with real jobs and family responsibilities -- meaning, just about everyone between the ages of 30 and 65 -- and in any case, examples of productive (or even unproductive) grassroots organizing are so rare in most American communities that millions of people who thirst for change are missing critical background knowledge about what really works and where to begin.
In a Sunday morning workshop on "Inspiring the Next Generation of Empowered Women" (not my title!) at the Mothers '08 conference, I wanted to drive home the message that successful change movements require more from social activists than inspiration, passion, and commitment to a shared ideal -- there's real work involved in organizing for change, which (like all kinds of work) can be done effectively, or not.
The single most important thing to know about social movement work is that organizing for change is, first and foremost, a social process. The heart and soul of social activism is making contact with other people who care about the future of the community -- whether the practical definition of "the community" is everyone in your neighborhood, or everyone on the planet. Working for change is not an abstract, intellectual endeavor. It involves working with people you know, and people you will get to know. The time we spend writing, deliberating, and consciousness-raising is a critical step in the change-making process, because it helps us refine our claims, clarify mutual goals, and identify others who are sympathetic or opposed to our cause. As social scientist Charles Tilly notes in Stories, Identity, and Political Change (2002), political organizers "spend a significant part of their effort on the creation and broadcast of collective standard stories that will facilitate communication, coordination, and commitment on the part of allies, bystanders, and even objects of collective claims."
But change work that gets results is also a political process. Successful social movements involve planning, resource mobilization, and strategic interaction with allies and power-holders who represent the systems or institutions we want to transform. If we want the mothers' movement to flourish as a change movement, at some point we need to add a pragmatic layer to all the chatter, and take action to achieve the progress we want to see. Making change is not rocket science -- most of the hands-on work of grassroots activism involves things you already know how to do, like breaking down big tasks into smaller steps, setting priorities, and keeping channels of communication open. Everything else you will need to know can be learned.
Finally, scholars who study the birth and demise of social movements agree that working for change is an identity process. Becoming a social activist means stepping into the stream of change, as an individual and member of your community. One way to define change is "passing from one place, state, form, or phase to another," which, on a personal level, usually means feeling and thinking differently about the world and our place in it, and acting from that new awareness. Unless you happen to be an extraordinarily uninhibited or self-actualized person, it's very likely that working for change will force you to step out of your comfort zone. (If it doesn't, you may want to check out whether your change work is having the impact you'd like to see.)
The mothers' movement is in a perfect position to take advantage of new models of working for change. For example, the innovative organizing paradigm emerging from the Obama for America campaign has mobilized millions of supporters and volunteers with a hybrid model of community organizing that combines conventional ground operations and building grassroots capacity in the field with sophisticated online networking tools to streamline communication and organizing tasks. But in order to grow our movement in a way that will empower mothers and others to act for change, we need to invest in the development of new structures and capacities (a challenge that also applies to the progressive movement in general.) Here's a short list of needs and possibilities:
1. Invest in new organizing structures, including new, community-centered programs for grassroots training and leadership development. Instead of trying to restore or recreate the voluntary networks and organizational structures that supported feminist, labor, and social justice activism 35 years ago, we need to develop and fund new projects and organizations that can sustain the work of grassroots activists at the community level and beyond.
2. Develop and invest in inclusive organizing structures. Working for change is not just for young people or people with advanced degrees. Our social movement organizations, programs, funding priorities, and actions need to do a better job of bringing together stakeholders from diverse communities and backgrounds to develop collective capacity, rather than splitting people who share progressive values into competing special interest camps. Today's progressive movement seriously sucks at developing inclusive organizing structures, which is one of the reasons it's easy for conservative pundits to dismiss progressive leaders as latte-drinking elites who are out of touch with the concerns of the struggling class. The mothers' movement doesn't have to repeat this mistake -- and we don't have to design our social movement organizations based on existing, non-inclusive models.
3. Do what works. For activist mothers, time and energy are precious resources -- which is why we need to be realistic and smart about evaluating how effective our collective actions are in bringing about the change we want to achieve. (A good rule of thumb is "use common sense." Wearing a t-shirt with a slogan on it is a nice way to show your support for a cause, but it's not going to change the world unless you're doing some kind of pragmatic political work while you're wearing it.) What works depends on the specific goals of an action campaign, but it's important to match your organizing approach and tools to the problem you want to solve. For example, if you want to reduce maternal poverty in your community, you might be better off joining a grassroots coalition in support of paid sick days or a living wage ordinance, instead of volunteering in a soup kitchen. Mothers' movement organizations can play an important role in modeling and facilitating effective change work by focusing on what really works instead of resorting to conventional approaches that have little or no measurable impact on resolving unhealthy, unsafe, unfair, and unsustainable social conditions.
4. Plan action campaigns with multiple entry and exit points for first-time and seasoned activists. Some people are so fired up by an issue that they want to devote days or months to a political cause. Others may have only a few hours to spare, but still have something valuable to contribute to a campaign. It's possible to make room for everyone by breaking down tasks into smaller components. Organizers need to build as much flexibility as possible into when and where tasks are performed, and provide good training and coaching for volunteers so that they can use their time productively, learn new skills, and come away with the feeling that they've made a meaningful contribution.
5. Use technology with an eye toward its limitations, and cultivate multiple communication streams. As a get-out-the-vote volunteer and co-coordinator of a small grassroots organizing network in the NH Seacoast region, I've encountered several situations where overreliance on electronic communication creates barriers to participation. In the local context, I work with volunteers who do not like to read or send email (my preferred mode of communication by far), and several who don't have home computers or internet access but want to stay informed. I've also volunteered in low-income communities where a majority of households do not have internet access. The great thing about computer mediated communication is that it's fast and cheap, and can move huge volumes of information to millions of recipients at the same time. The downside is that it doesn't reach everybody, and the people it does reach tend to be concentrated in younger and more affluent demographic groups. In using new technologies, we need to think carefully about who we are actually empowering -- the information consumers, or those who generate information -- and who gets left out of the power surge altogether.