Why Cross-Movement Organizing Is So Critical
For nearly 20 years, I've identified myself as an agent of social change. The way I've used that agency shifts course every two years or so, and in the not so distant past, I finally decided to embrace what I'd been identifying as frenetic issue hopping and reclaim it as a seriously effective organizing strategy.
It was a lightbulb moment really. I started my organizing career working on pro-democracy, coalition-building efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa. We used lobbying for a more fair US foreign policy as the lynchpin to engaging elected officials, faith-based communities, and youth communities around fighting oil company abuses of indigenous people and the environment, creating equitable trade agreements, and battling pharmaceutical companies for countries' rights to produce generic life-saving medications for HIV/AIDS patients. Then I went to work as a magazine editor at Forbes (!). The itch called me back to Africa work, where I had the good fortune of spending my time time traveling across the US and Africa mobilizing young people around the intersectionality of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion and geography on HIV/AIDS education and outreach.
Fast forward to working on bridging the digital divide in low-income public housing developments in the US, where I worked with a cutting edge start-up bringing broadband access into affordable housing, training folks who lived there to use it, and creating multilingual websites written at accessible literacy levels to provide services most hourly wage earners had to wait in line at social services agencies to access while missing work. Then I jumped into the healthcare reform movement, working for a union and mobilizing folks online and on the ground around good jobs, fair wages and benefits, and voter and election protection issues. I shifted to an education union, where I focused on technology integration for online branding and messaging. I ran a homeless shelter too, but after years of financial struggle the organization had to close its doors. These are all worthy issues and thankfully I was able to celebrate lots of great victories along the way.
There have been many common threads in my work on these issues, but there's one thread I could never get to stop unraveling. People seemed to have a cursory understanding that all these issues are interconnected and that in order to win, they needed to engage broader networks and communities. They invested in community organizing and engagement around specific, time sensitive goals. I saw partnerships reduced to how many logos you could get under "sponsor" on a flyer or a letter or an email campaign. I also saw partnerships where organizations with the most power (and often the most money) would swoop in to get voters out for particular candidates or legislation, then disappear when it came time to investing in long-term capacity building in between election cycles and legislative campaigns.
Now, I recognize the value in being able to do that and do it well. I also recognize this as a short-sighted, selfish approach that doesn't create real, sustainable change. After tripping over this roadblock for what felt like the millionth time, I thought long and hard about how I could build this kind of change as a central theme in my work, rather than as a tactic to win smaller victories. I think that is the most central challenge to movement building on any issue.
So I decided to start my own business. I'd had enough of working for other people on single issues and I put my shingle out as a communications and digital strategy company that focuses on helping people connect those dots. I've seen great successes when people move beyond single issues and focus on cross-disciplinary organizing. But it ain't easy...
So, Web of Change family, I want to know what you think about moving from issue to issue as a way of fully manifesting cross-disciplinary organizing. I want to know what you think effective cross-disciplinary organizing looks like and how we can build truly transformative change from the ground up and from the top down. I'm looking forward to leading this conversation in September with Jessy Tolkan, who I recently met and find kind of amazing. Good stuff is coming!