PRA Roundtable on Movement Building

"There are no short cuts."

That statement by academic activist Andrew Leong sums up the insights of 13 of Boston's best and most engaged local thinkers who were part of a PRA-sponsored discussion October 11 on challenges to progressive movement building.

Andrew Leong,
UMass-Boston Professor

Such discussions are happening across the country since the 2004 election debacle. This roundtable, facilitated by PRA Executive Director Katherine Ragsdale, was frank and aired problems often not discussed in public. It thus contributed to all of our strategic thinking.

Fragmentation within the movement

For instance, Marlene Fried, a reproductive justice activist and Hampshire College professor, recently returned from India, where she saw far less fragmentation among movements than here. The activists speculated that the United States ends up with a splintered collection of movements because organizers are issuebased, and not sufficiently engaged in cross-issue or multi-issue work.

We see that fragmentation in organizing around urbanissues, for instance. People aren't making connections between the money going to the military and war, and the money not going to local city budgets, said Chuck Turner, an organizer and Boston City Councilor. Similarly, those active in challenging lack of affordable housing and quality education don't do enough to focus on the lack of jobs. "It's such a strange dichotomy," Turner said. "We should encourage dialogue about why we forget that aspect of people's lives [i.e., joblessness]."

"We become complacent doing our work in isolation," agreed Nadine Cohen, of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association. One sign of hope was the sense that young people are often more comfortable with a multi-issued approach.

Loss of Grassroots Structure

Another big problem identified by the group was the professionalization of advocacy, shifting the focus away from grassroots organizing. "You need people-to-people [connections]," said Penn Loh, the environmental justice advocate.

Chuck Turner,
Boston City Councilor

Groups are too outcome-driven, whether due to funder demands or by working in isolated silos. Many folks noted other missing elements of successful progressive movement building —an inspiring movement ideology/culture, a critical mass of people, and the ability to seize the political moment. When movements are robust it doesn't matter if there isn't a lot of money. But money is critical when movements are fallow. "We don't have a movement," community development activist May Louie said bluntly.

The Need for Big Picture Thinking

"The strength of the Right is the vacuum that progressives have created around the fundamental contradiction they are feeling," said Turner. Progressives must overcome their fear of dealing with values and tackle them head on, particularly calling out the misguided values linked to a market-based economy. "The cosmic thing is the role of government," said academic activist Chris Tilly. "I spent the 70s attacking everything the government did and since the 80s defending it. It's a hard line to walk."

While some argued there is too much information and analysis, others felt a greater need for accessible political analysis that could be readily applied to movement building.

Donna Bivens, Co-Director of
Women's Theological Center

The Need to Address Race and Class

"Racism is a piece of denial that allows people not to see all other social justice issues," said Donna Bivens, Co-Director of Women's Theological Center. There also is the ongoing need to deal with the other "isms," and with creeping conservatism within progressive movements.

"I don't think the immigrant rights movement has been very good about making alliances with people of color— or with the history of the civil rights movement," said Paromita Shah of the National Lawyers' Guild's Immigration Project. That is vital to get more people to care about the erosion of due process and the criminalization of immigrants, what Shah called "the whole law and order paradigm and collaborations between state and local police."

The Role of Research

Participants were intrigued by the role research could play in both movement building and challenging funders' presumptions which guide their influential deployment of money. They want to see research itself as a "player" and a catalyst in progressive movements. By building partnerships with movementbuilding organizations, research centers can contribute to the vision and knowledge needed to revive their influence.

We were inspired by the energy and creativity of this Roundtable. In the future, we plan to organize other convenings to generate new strategic thinking. Watch for these events on our website, www.publiceye.org. We plan to place more of the content of this discussion in a multi-media format on our website as well. Stay tuned!

Pam Chamberlain,
PRA Researcher


Fall/Winter 2005

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