Why Don’t We Build A Movement?

What if all organizations in Oakland who work for social justice put down their egos and worked to create a COLLECTIVE work-plan for the next 10 years? Not just deciding to work together on 1 campaign for a year. Actually built integrated workplans that allow us to still do what each of us do best, but with a grand strategy of how we’re all contributing to the same change? What if nonprofits stopped their turf wars? What if nonprofits stopped feeding into the capitalist, individualistic mentality of this culture and took the idea of movements and collaborations seriously? What if we told all of our funders that after spending down our current grant, we’re all gonna change directions slightly and start to work together for real? What if….

I posted that a few days ago on Facebook, and have been thinking about it since.

I’ve been employed by various nonprofits and grassroots organizations for the better part of 13 years, and have been involved for a few years longer than that. Over the years, I’ve participated in many campaigns, been through several strategic planning processes, helped to develop countless workplans.

And through all those years of experience, I feel like I’ve only gotten a glimpse of what it feels like to be in a Movement. Every issue has it’s own “movement,” but I’m talking about Movement with a capital “M.” Not a coalition, not a network, not a collaborative campaign, but a Movement. The kind that captures the imagination of the masses, the kind that creates significant policy change as well as cultural change that can be felt for generations.

When I was organizing for justice for Oscar Grant in the early months of 2009, it felt like we were onto something big. The early months of Occupy felt like it had the potential to change the world. The life of Trayvon Martin looked like it was going to spark a Movement. And what’s going on now in Ferguson seems to have that potential too.

And all of those moments grew outside of the structure of a nonprofit. AND, I believe that nonprofits can have an important role in building and sustaining a Movement. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been re-watching the “Momentum vs. Structure” webinar that my friends Carlos and Paul put together (it’s a long 4-part series but definitely worth watching).

Part of our challenge is cultural. We live in such an individualistic culture (thanks capitalism), where we all need to have our own house, our own car, our own back-yard, our own business, our own iPhone, our own, our own, our own. And that individualistic approach oozes into our attempts at building movements. We all need to have our own nonprofit, our own workplan, our own strategy, our own theory of change, our own campaign, our own movement.

The development and growth of the nonprofit industrial complex hasn’t helped, as organizations are shepherded into running more and more like a business, becoming obligated to short-term workplans that don’t allow for genuine collaboration or organic emergence, spending significant amounts of time fundraising and competing against each other for funding, members, recognition.

The individuals who work in these social justice nonprofits are amazing people. But I sometimes wonder if we’ve gotten so used to the status quo that it has taken us away from our ability to create Movements.  I wonder what it would take for all these organizations to come together, open up our books and our internal workplans, and build a collective, integrated 10-year strategy?

What If…
What if we organized a meeting with the leaders of a bunch of nonprofits to talk about this? What if we all agreed to have transparent conversations about our budgets, our capacity, our resources, our funding, our short-term workplans?

What if we all agreed to spend down our current grants and finish up our current workplans that  have already been submitted to our funders over the next couple of years, and agreed to essentially start from scratch, but together? What if we all put down our egos and agreed to sacrifice and shift some of how we do our work for the sake of a collective? What if we spent those next few years building a real, integrated workplan with a common vision, a common theory of change, a common grand strategy that encompasses the different skills we bring to the table, but unites us and helps us move towards the same change?

I’m not talking about organizations coming together to collaborate on a campaign. I’m not talking about coming together to build a new coalition. I’m not talking about organizations merging.

I’m talking about mapping out a real Movement, getting together to dream bigger than any of us dare to do on our own, and actually figuring out a strategy to help us move in that direction. I’m talking about building an integrated, 10-year strategy that is about more then a few groups coming together to work on a few projects every once in a while before going our separate ways.

None of the workplans or strategic plans I’ve ever worked on has happened collaboratively with other organizations, never mind with a bunch of organizations. None of them have been integrated with others working on similar changes.

What if we came together to build a grand strategy for how we’re going to change a community like Oakland, then all built our individual workplans based off of that?

What if every organization working on restorative justice and conflict reconciliation came together to create a city-wide network of conflict mediators that are available to the other organizations at the table and to their members?

What if a different organization offered a day-long workshop on their piece of the puzzle every month, and every other organization committed to turning out their members to it?

What if every organization working on organizing labor and small businesses agreed to prioritize hiring youth and formerly incarcerated people that work with organizations working with those communities?

What if every origination working on food justice could come together to donate free organic food on a regular basis to members of organizations that have nothing to do with food justice?

What if organizations actually built these things into their workplans and into their programs?

What if funders and intermediary organizations worked with individual organizations less so they can help facilitate this process?

What if each organization was okay with having fewer resources individually so we could funnel more to the collective?

What if larger organizations that work on policy collaborated more with smaller organizations working to build a base with the hardest hit communities instead of trying to do everything by themselves?

What if organizations had joint fundraising events?

What if smaller organizations shared resources more, like shared office space or even shared administrative staff?

What if when one organization has a surplus of resources, instead of figuring out how to spend it on their own we agree collectively on what other organization needs it most and shared it with them?

All these ideas would allow us to still do what each of us does best, but within the framework of a common strategy.

I recognize that these types of things are easier said then done, that similar efforts have been made in the past, and that some of this is ongoing now. But sometimes I get frustrated working in the Bay Area, where there are so many activists and nonprofits. It presents us with a huge opportunity, but also a lot of challenges. I get sick of the turf wars between nonprofits, and sometimes feel like there are too many activists in the Bay for there to ever be a real movement.

But I also feel like if we can change the culture of how we work in nonprofits, these organizations can serve an important role in the long-term and short-term changes we need to build.

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