Answering the Hard Questions about Movements and Organizations

ACORN Organizing

New Orleans    In Lafayette, Louisiana after the screening of the documentary, “The Organizer,” a question was phrased differently than I heard in New Orleans or Woodstock, New York, when I fielded questions after people watched the movie, but despite the sentence construction, the sentiment was much the same.  A woman asked, given the excitement and ongoing activism of the Women’s march, how to explain that despite her support and commitment, she felt uncomfortable because somehow it still fell short of the mark.  She wasn’t convinced anything would really happen or, in other words, that the results would equal the anger, solidarity, and enthusiasm of the marches and protests.  Wade, what do you think?

Gulp!   I answered in a round about and constructive way, so that I could get to the real problem that she was pointing out:  a movement is not an organization.   There is nothing like the magic of a movement.  When that lightning strikes, I run to it, not away from it.  The soaring demands for change, feet in the street, voices rising, makes the impossible probable, makes the hard to achieve winnable.

At the same time none of that happens without marrying the energy of a movement to organization.  I don’t see the impulses as competitive, but as complimentary.  The impetus for movement may be spontaneous or in modern vernacular, viral, but the work that builds the infrastructure underneath a movement, whether organizing marches, formulating demands, or making sure the buses arrive and depart on time is very much organizational.

I can’t speak to the Women’s March and the organization steering the events over the last year.  Reportedly, they are moving the energy nationally towards voter registration and mobilization and the midterm elections.  Local groups are trying to consolidate the energy into organization in some cases aligning with the national coordinators and in some cases in different ways.

A poignant story written by the gymnast and now lawyer and mother who triggered the investigation of sexual abuse of young girls and women by the Olympic team and Michigan State University doctor that led to his recent sentencing of between 40 and 175 years is a good example of this problem, as is the back-and-forth around the #MeToo moment and the efforts of Time’s Up! to scaffold an organization to the energy.  Rachel Denhollander’s story of her lonely plight and her isolation from her community when she made the charges are a story of heroism, but also underline the need for an organization to protect victims, support the fight, and make the change.  The dissonance between #MeToo victims and Time’s Up on the other hand indicates that grafting an organization on a movement moment isn’t easy, because it must be as inclusive, militant, and effective as the times demand.

It was easy for me to answer the question that organization has to follow movement, nothing about building an organization is easy though, so I in all honesty I cautioned in my answer that marching can be a lot easier than building an organization.