We need strategy to build, so let’s build for strategy
By Maria Poblet, Mateo Nube and Chris Crass
"Are you tired of working your butt off and watching crooked politicians and corporate jerks rule the world? Are you tired of social-justice work in this country so often being small, scattered, and isolated? Would you like your community organizing to fit into a broader strategy to build a movement big enough and sharp enough to create revolutionary transformation?"
If this were an infomercial, this is where the nauseatingly perky host would appear and offer the solution to all your problems–for “three easy payments of $39.99.” He’d flash his pearly whites at the camera and add, “this miracle product not only creates unified movement strategy – it can also take notes at all your meetings, undermine patriarchy in your organization, and deep-fry cabbage without any fat, at no extra cost!”
But this is no infomercial. We don’t have any easy answers (and we won’t ask you for three payments of $39.99). But, we do have some lessons that we are excited to share about an experimental strategy program that we participated in called Movement Generation (MG). The first year of the program is complete and we are now halfway through our second year.
MG is a San Francisco, Bay Area based program that began in early 2004. A group of younger generation organizers (20-35 years old) came together because we had all experienced the limits of community organizing without a deeper, long-term political vision. We were exhausted by 'from action-to-action' activism without a broader strategy. We were frustrated by the traditional, funder-driven non-profit structure of political work, and we were ready to move beyond thinking of just one organization, one coalition, or one organizing campaign. Many of us are focused on bringing new people into our organizations and the movement and supporting other people's political development. While we have organizing skills and experience under our belts, we often don't have systematic support to help us continue learning and growing as radical organizers. Many of us identified a major need for space to have higher level conversations about developing long-term strategic thinking grounded in left movement building. Over the past few years, particularly after Sept. 11th, many of us had been working to create non-sectarian left anti-imperialist movement building spaces in the Bay Area to bring together organizers and activists engaged in anti-war, racial, economic, environmental and global justice struggles.
In early 2004 over 30 leaders and organizers from 20 organizations were invited to two community meetings to discuss a strategy program for younger generation leaders. With support and a long list of ideas for such a program, a planning committee was selected with leaders from different organizations representing multiple left political traditions. Meeting bi-weekly for a year, with several larger feedback sessions, the committee created the framework and curriculum for the program.
We focused on questions of strategy such as: “What exactly is a strategy?” “How do we get one?” “What role can I/my organization play?” and "What are we working for?" Many of us had already been discussing these questions within our own groups and were looking for places to do so across organizations and sectors. Throughout the U.S. and the world, many organizers are trying to tackle these questions, knowing that our success as a social justice movement depends on it. MG formed alongside these other efforts and grew out of a specific context where many individuals and organizations were prioritizing figuring this out.
Coming out of our experience we knew bringing people together to go deep on strategy was going to be a major undertaking. As Malachi Larrabee-Garza from SOUL (School of Unity and Liberation) explains, “Strategy isn’t something that you read about and then can do well. Strategy needs the components of articulation, struggle, synthesis, trial and error, and reflection to reach a place where you can truly improve your game and ability to move strategically.” With this in mind, MG was designed as a nine-month long program of monthly daylong sessions with weekend retreats at the beginning and end.
With the curriculum developed, representatives from all the organizations involved in the original meetings were invited to participate. Additionally, we asked for recommendations of individuals from organizations to invite. Out of this recruitment a group of 30 were in the program. The second round of MG has another 30 participants. Those in the second round are about half members of organizations who went through the first round and half from new organizations.
The majority of participants in MG (both rounds) are grassroots organizers in communities of color working to build power in oppressed communities through campaigns, base building and development of working-class leadership. Participants work with groups organizing domestic workers like the Women's Collective of the Day Labor Program, POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights) and Mujeres Unidas y Activas. Groups organizing working class tenants of color against gentrification like St. Peter's Housing Committee, Just Cause Oakland and Chinese Progressive Association. We are in youth organizations like LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center), AYPAL (Asian Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership) and HIFY (Health Initiatives for Youth), anti-prison groups like Critical Resistance and Books Not Bars, global justice groups like Global Exchange and environmental groups like Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Rainforest Action Network, PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights), Green Action and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
They are in women's groups like SF Women Against Rape and Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, Native American Sisterhood Alliance, white anti-imperialist groups like the Heads Up Collective, revolutionary nationalist groups like Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and immigrant rights groups like Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. Additionally there are people from other movement-building organizations such as SOUL (School of Unity and Liberation), Movement Strategy Center, Youth Media Council, and Catalyst Project that do political education to develop younger generation activists of color and white anti-racists/anti-imperialists.
MG includes anarchists and communists, revolutionary nationalists, and free radicals of many types. Most people had been doing grassroots organizing for many years, and have key roles in their organizations and in the broader social justice community. We range in age from 20 to 35.
As participants, we share the desire and political commitment to build unity across our differences, understand each other’s work and ideas more deeply, and develop our individual and organizational ability to develop strategy. In short, we want to build a strong and united left movement.
As Jason Negron-Gonzales, the Movement Generation staff person states it; "We aren't just building a movement because we share values or politics, although we do. We are building a movement because when we do a little digging we can see that displacement of Black people from San Francisco is connected to government funds to support biological weapons research. And the deportation of low-wage immigrant workers from the global South in San Jose is connected to gentrification that is being carried out by developers throughout the Bay Area. If we miss the connections, we misunderstand why things are happening, and we can miss the opportunity to build a broader movement."
The three main components of MG are as follows. First, provide trainings in advanced-level movement skills such as forging cross-sector strategic alliances, visionary leadership, and creating and sustaining movement organizations and infrastructure. Second, support collective strategy development through models and theories of organizing practice, lessons from past social movements, political and economic analysis of the Bay Area in a national framework, movement mapping of our existing organizations and institutions, and building a shared political vision for change. Third, building the relationships and solidarity between organizations by identifying shared values, practicing principles of trust building, and engaging in creative, healthy forms of discussion, sharing and debate.
The overall framework of MG is how do we build a movement strategy for collective liberation that challenges white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, the gender binary system, imperialism and the state. A movement strategy, for us, means coming up with a plan – a long-term plan with short-term and long-term goals – to help lots of groups collaborate to achieve a shared vision. We believe MG helped us get closer to the movement strategy we need and below are some of the steps we took to do this.
We struggled to understand current conditions in the Bay Area and asked what makes them so. We studied the Bay Area political economy, developed analysis about culture and society in the U.S. with an emphasis on how white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, imperialism and the state interact to create a ruling class hegemony (a 'common sense' understanding of how the world works shaped by systems of oppression). Marisa Franco, an organizer with POWER, explains that "in any struggle, understanding your opponent's weaknesses, strengths and their plan is a key to victory. Within the context of grassroots organizing, understanding the local and regional political economy can provide the information needed in order to position ourselves most strategically to advance our vision and win changes in our communities."
We did this as Clare Bayard of the Catalyst Project out-lines, "Through a series of presentations and popular education sessions, we used both the knowledge in the room and available resources to do some mapping of the Bay Area and its role in global capitalism (and fighting it!). We studied POWER's book and used a historical framework from Urban Habitat with a race, class, and migration lens to look at the evolution of our local landscape, then developed a collective assessment of the Bay Area's political economy. Building this picture, we came to a deeper understanding of the specific factors affecting all our work in different sectors of this area's movement, as well as outlining the major forces arranged against us. From this, we moved to the flip-side of outlining our resistance, and investigated the roles different communities do and could play in revolutionary social change, given the particular conditions of our area."
Bayard believes this was "an excellent way to build our analysis and our capacity to make strategies that accurately address what we're working with here. It was also a great process to go through with some people who had worked closely together for many years and some who had never met before the program as it was a grounded way to build relationships without the pressure of a particular coalition or campaign."
In this assessment of political economy and forces for change we focused on the strategic power of working class communities of color. We believe that working class communities of color play a leading and strategic role in left social change. We came to this conclusion because of the level of consciousness of historic and systemic oppression, histories of resistance (particularly collective struggles) and the potential capacity given their locations in the economy to exercise power against the state. We also struggled with important questions about how we think about class today and agreed that we needed a lot more study and discussion.
After doing this assessment, we took time to envision the world we are collectively striving to create. We asked MG participants representing different political traditions (revolutionary nationalism, third world Marxism, anarchism and Paulo Freirian popular education) to speak on a panel together. Each focused on the historical development of their tradition, the main contributions from their tradition to help us develop a synthesis of radical politics for today and what they have learned from other traditions.
Through an exercise on political vision following the panel, we developed the following statement: "We will create a world that is governed equitably by the people through international forums connected to local systems of control. We will work towards a society free from all forms of oppression and economic exploitation as well as allow for self-determination for all nations. We believe in the self-determination of oppressed people and the fight for creative forms of economic democracy as we transition towards a socialist society. We offer this vision not as a utopian ideal, but as part of a dialectical process–to help us envision shared practice, initiate a long-term process of on-going development, and open up space for debate."
We then focused on movement strategy and political organizations. We worked to create a road map for getting from the current context to the world we aspire towards. In doing this we focused on the existing work of the organizations we are in to look for parts of the map. This included supporting and building cooperative workplaces and the development of a People's Development Plan in the Mission District where working class residents designed a plan for the neighborhood and forced City Hall to incorporate parts of it. It also included the successful living wage campaign that focused on building working class power beyond the election. We discussed two areas of work under the headings: self-determination of oppressed peoples and economic democracy.
Additionally we found that our organizations are often focused on particular fights and issues and this can limit our ability to think big and see strategic opportunities. As one participant noted, "Having a cross sector analysis is really helpful in thinking outside of my youth work box. If we can't do an analysis of how tech industry growth is connected to military recruitment in schools, then we will never dismantle the system that is oppressing low-income, young people of color." From this bigger picture we can connect the issues and identify meaningful struggles for organizations to form coalitions and advance systemic critiques and solutions.
Beyond how we effectively fight common enemies, MG was focused on helping us think about building together. Maria Lupe Arreola, an organizer with St. Peter's Housing Committee, explained that "as a developing revolutionary Movement Generation provided the space and tools for me to think about long term strategy alongside amazing comrades doing organizing work in the Bay Area. We were able to analyze together where we are as a movement, how we got there, and began setting the groundwork for future conversations and for building towards a united Bay Area movement strategy. It helped me clarify my organization's role as an immigrant base-building organization in the Bay Area in relation to the current forces working against us (venture capital, media, biotech industries), and in relation to our organized and unorganized allies."
To us MG is just a start, one of the many collective experiments we’ll need to move towards a united and effective strategy. Yet, as we are in our second year of study with a new group of participants, we are hopeful and confident that the fresh ideas, excitement, and analytical discipline born out of this process will have a broad effect for the left in the Bay Area and beyond.
We share our experience and lessons because we know that many of you are engaging in similar projects around the country (or want to be). Additionally, we share our lessons and process with you because we think of our movement as a team and believe that sharing our experiences with one another is an essential component of learning how to effectively work together.
Now, if this were an infomercial, the host with sparkly teeth surrounded by swooning “random testers” would conclude by saying that this is a limited time offer and that you have to call within the next ten minutes to take advantage of it. We know that those of you reading this don't need a gimmick to want to develop strategy, nor do you need a ten minute push to do it now as most of you have been at this for some time. Instead, we share our work with you because we think there is a tremendous need for our younger generation of leaders, organizers and activists to take on the challenges of building effective, strategic, healthy and dynamic left movement rooted in and guided by the struggles of working-class people of color and third world people in the U.S and around the world. We look around the world, as well as at home, for inspiration and lessons and we share this with you in the spirit of working together to help our movement rise to the challenges and make the most of the opportunities before us.
Let us continue to learn and share with one another, whether that means joining the next round of Movement Generation, continuing your own strategy-building projects, or making use of what we’ve presented here to strengthen your work and then share lessons with us. Let us build together.
For more information on Movement Generation, contact:
Lessons from Our Process
No single existing left political tradition has all of the answers, and we have much to learn from each of them.
We need a non-sectarian movement-building space to study and learn from past theory and develop new thinking that is relevant to our current conditions. This will help us win victories tomorrow.
We need to prioritize the leadership of women, people of color, working class and queer people in developing movement strategy. For us this has meant a multiracial, majority women space with a commitment to supporting working class and queer leadership. This political orientation helps us think about who we want on the planning committee and who we want leading sessions.
Organizations are key to building effective movements for the long haul and that we should prioritize people in the program who are representing organizations.
Look for networks of existing relationships to help bring people and organizations together for such a program while also looking for ways to bring other people and organizations in.
Bringing people together from different classes, races, genders, sexualities, political traditions and organizing backgrounds is challenging and necessary. Be clear about how the goals, purpose and intentions of such a project are rooted in challenging systems of oppression.
Our local/regional analysis and work is connected and needs to be understood as connected to national and international political economy and global movements for justice.
We need to get beyond our own egos, fear of admitting mistakes and learn how to be comrades to one another as we build a dynamic movement that is bigger than any one of us.
We were not looking for everyone to come to a set of pre-defined conclusions, but rather we were creating a framework and process to analyze, imagine and develop our thinking together.
From this framework we prioritized a process that would help build relationships between organizers from groups already working with each other in some capacity along with groups that did not know each other.
The program utilized resources in the non-profit sector while maintaining a commitment to thinking beyond non-profits both in the here and now and in how we envision movement-building work for the future.
While MG was focused on developing the strategic capacity of younger generation organizers, we brought in movement veterans to both share their analysis and experience and help us put our work into a long-term framework.
We will rarely, if ever, have the time to answer all of these questions, but developing a collective process guided by movement building is a major step forward.
Mateo Nube was born and grew up in La Paz, Bolivia. Since moving to the Bay Area, he has worked in the labor, environmental justice and international solidarity movements. He is currently a member of the musical collective Los Nadies.
Maria Poblet is an immigrant Latina community organizer, popular educator, and poet. She works with the St Peter's housing committee, fighting for immigrant rights and housing rights in San Francisco's mission district. She is embarrassed to admit that she once bought a turbie twist hair towel from an infomercial.
Chris Crass is the coordinator of the Catalyst Project, a center for political education and movement building. They prioritize anti-racist work with mostly white sections of the global justice and anti-war movements with the goal of deepening anti-racist commitment in white communities and building multiracial left movements for liberation.