Answering the Hard Questions about Movements and Organizations

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.


Women’s Voice and Women’s March

#MeToo discussion at year end organizing meeting in New Orleans

New Orleans   Many women hit the streets once again all around the country at the anniversary of the first Women’s March. The theme was more political activism as the new face of resistance with the looming midterm elections providing the focal point. Numbers in local cities seemed to be running at half of last year’s totals, but that was to be expected at this point when resilience is twin to resistance.

One of the more interesting workshops for the Year End/ Year Beginning meeting of our organizers top organizers from ACORN Canada, Local 100, and other operations in New Orleans was how to transfer the recognition and cultural shifts of the #MeToo moment into the meetings of our workplace and community organizations as well as through our media outlets. Some organizers told stories of members complaints of harassment from landlords demanding sex in exchange for repairs and late fees, and questioned whether their organizational response would have been the same now in this climate as it was a couple of years ago when the issue presented. Judy Duncan, the head organizer of ACORN Canada as well as other office directors in Canada, the United States and Local 100 believed that they needed to talk to local leadership, many, if not most, of whom are women about making a place in the agenda of meetings in the coming months so that women had a space to talk about incidents of harassment and abuse and groups could debate and take effective action.

John Cain from KABF and others involved in AM/FM radio programming thought that the stations should ask hosts to raise the issue on their shows and encourage call-in’s, referral, and complaint. Others thought regular public service announcements encouraging women to come forward and giving them voice could be helpful.

Appropriately, there was also discussion about how women’s voice and perspective were integrated into the internal staff and leadership dynamics of organizing as well, especially since organizing has so long been characterized as male dominated field, and despite progress over recent decades, invariably contains vestiges of such a history, tradition, and stereotypes. There was an interesting discussion on whether organizers should counter the devaluation of women’s voice internally by formalizing relationships to break the pattern. Likely addressing everyone as Mr, Mrs, or Ms would not work, but there is a reason that old labor culture embraced addressing co-combatants as Sister and Brother, or comrade as was common in the South African struggle and others, or citizen during and after the French Revolution. Breaking habits in order to signify respect and as markers that we need to deal with each other differently would not be a trivial step forward in breaking old patterns and habits.

Beth Butler, head organizer of ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, ended the workshop by letting everyone go around the room and indicate what they would do to implement the consensus and to create a different climate for women. The pledges were deep and sincere. We will have to make sure the followup is of a like kind, both here and everywhere else.