Building a “Full Service Movement”


New Orleans   The afterglow of the giant women’s marches around the country – and the world – has been warm and illuminating. Obviously the intriguing question is whether or not this is going to be a wonderful opening act or the beginning of long run engagement that could mold the future?

Certainly all sides are moving. Numerous sponsoring groups made the best of the opportunity to engage supporters and activists for the future. Planned Parenthood reportedly trained 2000 after the march to fight to protect women’s healthcare. Many other sponsoring groups are no doubt convening meetings to discuss next steps. Given that the organizers original steps were organizing via Facebook and the internet, undoubtedly there are scores of established and putative organizations and leaders volunteering to lead to the future. From his perch near the New York Times masthead, Charles Blow almost giddily labels the march an “uprising.” Conservative pundits at the Wall Street Journal argue that the centrifugal force of so many competing issues under the big tent of the march will blow the fledgling movement apart, while others argued that diversity and inclusiveness has to be the strength of the movement. In a potential Achilles heel for organizers, women in majority-black cities like New Orleans, Atlanta, and elsewhere pointedly noted the very low participation of black women, other African-Americans, and minorities in general.

Todd Gitlin, the frequently quoted Columbia University professor and former head of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) more than 50 years ago, noted that where marches had had significant historical impact they were the product of deep organizational efforts that both preceded and followed the marches. To succeed, he cautioned in building something sustainable requires a “full service movement.” I find that constructive and helpful advice worth some thought and discussion.

Often what moves America forward from these movement events is the pure outpouring of energy and excitement that emanates from such a march. My daughter is a veteran organizer with a decade of work under her belt and her reaction to having been a participant in the Women’s March on Washington with her friends was a straightforward, unambiguous message on our family’s WhatsApp, saying: “Wow, Wow, Wow, it was so special!”

Such raw energy could generate the power to move whole countries. The problem is that often existing organizations see their role as not clearing the paths forward for it to move, but trying to bottle the energy like a magic potion to be used for their own purposes. A full-service movement has to be able to support existing infrastructure, which means long standing organizations and their issues, so that it can prove it can deliver on the cares of its coalition, but also has to rise to its own level – with their help – exceeding what others might have previously thought impossible and unachievable.

The other challenge in allowing a movement to grow in these times is that it cannot thrive only in resistance, no matter the fact that the opportunity and need will be constant. To be sustainable, such a movement has to be create and demand, not simply resist and obstruct.