Better Together (Moving Really Fast and Strategically)

Yesterday, after weeks of struggle, House Republicans narrowly passed legislation to repeal and replace large parts of the Affordable Care Act. Senator Kamala Harris tweeted, "This bill isn’t just about medicine, it’s about our values as a nation. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and fight for that. Let’s go."

I'm with you, Senator Harris. Let's go! But, how? We can all agree that we must act quickly and strategically in the work we are doing right now to protect our communities, but the way forward is murky at best. Over the last few days I've been checking in with my clients, and in one way or another the conversation ultimately lands on, "What makes sense now?" As we've all pretty much figured out at this point, our "now" is wholly unlike any moment before.

This time last year, I was finishing up teaching my class on social inequities and public health. Assuming that we'd have a neoliberal president in the near future, I spent a lot of time teaching my students about the unfurling and the rolling up of the US social safety net over the course of 20th century, understanding the connections between the New Deal and housing segregation, etc. I assumed these cases would be useful moving forward, whether our president was Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio or even Bernie Sanders. But then we ushered in an unlikely 45th president of the United States. And, in the face of his platform, all of the preparation I'd done with my students seemed kind of silly.

As I prepared to teach the course again, I used that platform to build out units on reproductive justice, climate justice, access to healthcare, birthright citizenship, sanctuary cities. I put Piven and Cloward away (for now!) and assigned a great book by Sarah Jaffe to build my students' sense of the possibilities of broadly based social movements in contemporary times. And I increasingly ended my classes with calls to action through resources for resistance – marches, petitions, calls, and popular education events.

The teaching part went well. But how, I've been wondering, should those of us working in advocacy and philanthropy be responding? What makes sense right now? I don't have the answer, but I do think that we are beginning to understand the question better every day, and getting the answer bit by bit.

For instance, suddenly we have the potential of millions of Americans who are enraged, impassioned, and ignited to plug in to save health care and funding for Planned Parenthood, protect immigrants, and hold corporations accountable for climate change. And many of those who marched are new to demonstrations. For example, one study found that a third of the participants polled reported that the Women’s March was their first time participating in a protest ever, and for over half of the participants the March was their first protest in five years.

And (perhaps more slowly than some of us would choose, but still) many of these new activists are working on centering equity within an array of igniting issues. Though just over 60% of respondents in the Women's March study cited women’s rights as a motivation for protesting, the environment (35.5%), racial justice (35.1%), LGBTQ rights (34.7%), reproductive rights (32.7%), equality (25.1%), social welfare (23.1%) and immigration (21.6%) were also representative motivations.

So, we’ve got millions of folks, eager to act, willing to get up off their couches and participate in democracy. We've got many folks more fully grasping structural oppression. Some of them are even starting to understand the basics of intersectionality. Whatever makes sense now, it must take advantage of this moment, and it must do more than react or even resist. Our programs must assume systemic change and work toward a new, better, more democratic future.

Sounds like an organizer's dream come true, but we all know there's a rub: Who knows what next month will bring, or what the political landscape will look like six months from now? Within our own organizations, that means we need to get outside of our comfort zones. We talk the talk of being "nimble," but many of us, advocates and funders alike, have a narrow view of innovation and resist short-term experiments. We tweak programs that aren't working, hating to throw out our hard work of years gone by, or we under-value our most successful work and keep the scale small. Or we worry about losing our organizational power and so don't share our best practices.

In my mind, the best course of action for advocates right now is to think about what we can accomplish at the medium-to-large scale level in this political context with these new assets of millions of mobilized Americans and the assets we already have within very short time frames – three months, five months, eight months – so that we do not waste energy and resources on longer-term initiatives that won't make sense three months, five months, eight months, or a year from now. And we need to get comfortable with short-term indicators of success, ongoing evaluation, and frequent course corrections. And that those course corrections are going to include some off-roading as well. In mud. There may be some river crossings too.  

No problem, right? You got this.

Oh, right -- and then there's one more piece, a crucial piece to figuring out what makes sense now: We need to get it together to work together, and not over a period of years, but over a period of weeks. We know from experience that the most is gained in formal or informal coalition, but every advocate, organizer, and evaluator I know has more stories about miserable, failed coalitions than they do stories about coalition success.

Over the last couple of years, I've had the pleasure to engage directly with amazing coalitions and learning communities that very clearly accomplish more together than they do apart. I'll try to lift up some of that learning in future posts.

For now, I leave you with one last tweet of wisdom from Senator Harris: "When every voice is heard, when every voice is valued, when we are unified, we can succeed."


Laurie Jones Neighbors is an independent consultant and educator who specializes in developing, implementing, and assessing programs and educational experiences in support of equitable political representation and local, regional, and national decision making by low-income communities and communities of color.