New generation activists build bridges
A traditional organizing approach makes opponents into 'enemies,' but a new crop of union and other activists is using love and empathy to create alliances and new possibilities.
Saul Alinsky is called the father of modern community organizing. His 1971 Rules for Radicals is like a political version of The Art of War merged with street fighting tips from a boxing coach—the tone is gruff, aggressive, and blunt. For Alinsky, the ends justify pretty much any means. But a new crop of activists is forging a different path—and turning organizing orthodoxy on its head.
In the traditional Alinsky approach, opponents are “enemies” and strategy involves concepts like “pressure” and “attack.” Alinsky’s final rule is “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Don’t just target institutions, he says—go after individuals and make it personal and painful. This is the advice that helped shape modern political organizing—not always the most effective approach for alliance building and mass public appeal.
The new generation of community organizers is adapting the antagonistic politics of the past and building bridges instead of burning them—not necessarily abandoning old-school, Alinsky-style organizing altogether, but reimagining orthodoxies of organizing to create new alliances, innovations, and possibilities.
Ai-jen Poo is the founder and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a membership organization of housekeepers, nannies, and home health assistants, most of whom are undocumented immigrant women. These are the workers who are at the furthest margins of our economy. In 1938, they were explicitly excluded from initial labor standards as a concession to segregationists in Congress, and these workers, who do the work that makes all other work possible, are to this day excluded from basic wage and safety protections. But the central theme of Poo’s politics? Not revenge. Not protest. Not polarization.
“The way we try to think about it and the way the world is, we’re all interdependent and interconnected,” says Poo of her organizational philosophy. “Those connections are fairly invisible to most people most of the time. We’re taught not to see those connections. What organizing with love does is organizes ways for people to see their interconnections and harnesses that connection as a source for change.”
It’s not that Poo’s “political love” is conflict or tension free, a saccharine “Kumbaya” holdover from the ’60s.
“Conflict and tension are as much a part of the human condition as interdependence is,” Poo says. “There are times we have to have conflict, and tension has to exist to bring something else into being. But they have to coexist with a deep sense of connection and shared destiny.”
While the natural “enemy” of domestic workers might be their employers in a traditional Alinsky-style power analysis, through Poo’s prism, most employers mean well and love their home aides and nannies—and want to do well by them—but maybe don’t know how or face hurdles to doing so because of existing policy. So instead of fighting employers, Poo organized them—inspiring the launch of Hand in Hand, an association for employers of domestic workers.
Saru Jayaraman has used this model in her work. As co-founder and director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), Jayaraman organizes low-wage workers in the restaurant industry—the servers and dishwashers and bussers who often make as little as $2.13 an hour and get no benefits or sick days. In Jayaraman’s work, calling restaurant owners “villains” isn’t just a figure of speech—ROC United has organized campaigns against specific restaurant owners for wage theft and other employment violations.
And yet after a very brutal public campaign that recouped $1.15 million in overdue wages for workers at one of celebrity chef Mario Batali’s top restaurants, Jayaraman extended her hand. She welcomed Batali into a group of “high road” restaurant owners that ROC United convenes. This might seem like a variation on another Alinsky mantra, “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies,” but it goes beyond a superficial tactic to a philosophical mindset. Jayaraman isn’t just moving targets like chess pieces. She isn’t burning opponents to the point where relationships are permanently charred. She’s building long-term alliances with partners that have recently been her opposition.
“We’ve evolved to think that nobody is evil at all,” says Jayaraman of her organizing philosophy and approach. “It’s different from how we thought about organizing even just 10 years ago—as bosses versus the rest of us. That’s not how we think about it anymore. We actually understand how hard it is to run a restaurant and be profitable. And at the same time, we think we can all do better. And we’re working together to do better.”
In fact, soon Jayaraman and her organization will launch a new association for restaurant owners who want to treat their workers responsibly, a competitive alternative to the anti-worker Restaurant Industry Association. “We’re willing to work with anyone,” Jayaraman says.
This new generation of bridge-building organizers isn’t just connecting unlikely allies but unlikely issues as well.
Take the work of Eveline Shen, head of Forward Together, a multiracial grass-roots organization that traditionally focused on reproductive justice issues within communities of color. Shen broadened the mission of the group and launched Strong Families, a nationwide campaign that is connecting women’s rights organizations, immigrant groups, queer activists, and poverty rights organizations to advocate for the full range of America’s families, the vast majority of which no longer fit the traditional mom-and-dad-and-kid, white-picket-fence norm of yesteryear.
Shen gives an example around identity: “When a queer Vietnamese American woman in New Orleans faces job discrimination, it may be difficult to disentangle whether it was due to racism, sexism, or homophobia, or a combination of these factors.” And it’s the same for issues: “We don’t experience climate change on Monday and economic hardship on Wednesday.”
A generation ago, organizers strategized about how to “cut an issue”—how to break an issue down and focus on the right bite-sized piece around which to organize an advocacy campaign.
The new generation strives to connect issues more and more. “In our work, we lift up the leadership and needs of communities that sit at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression to demand policy and culture change that reflect the reality of our lives,” says Shen. Her approach has led to a groundbreaking Strong Families coalition in New Mexico, which includes Native American, Latino immigrant, and gay rights organizations all at the same table. They have worked together to stop harsh anti-abortion legislation and juvenile incarceration proposals—issues these conventionally disparate groups would likely never take up on their own. It’s a model Strong Families is spreading to other states.
For Marcy Westerling, who founded the Rural Organizing Project to advance social change in rural Oregon, bridge building was a cultural necessity. “Small towns and rural communities lack anonymity,” Westerling says, so more conventional antagonistic organizing methods don’t make sense there—especially when it can lead to grass-roots leaders losing their day jobs or their kids being ostracized at school.
“There is a need to frame topics from some shared starting point,” says Westerling. It’s an approach that has worked for the Rural Organizing Project, winning support on issues such as gay rights and immigration reform from some of the most traditionally conservative parts of the Northwest.
Westerling notes that conservatives now use Alinsky as their playbook. Groups like Freedom Works, one of the parent organizations of the Tea Party movement, handed out copies of Rules for Radicals as a training manual for new leaders.
“The modern right uses the language of war when describing their assaults,” says Westerling. At this moment in history, she argues, the left must play a different role—not only disrupting and upending the status quo, but also pointing toward and building constructive alternatives. “Now it is more incumbent on us to be the keepers of calm, as we both acknowledge tense issues and offer reasonable ways forward that are fair to all sides.”
“Deep down, our organizing today doesn’t reflect a different value system,” Jayaraman says. “It’s not about being less radical or caring less about workers. It’s about being effective.”
“The traditional us-versus-them framework is limiting,” adds Poo. “There are moments when it should be utilized, when opposition is important to dramatize an issue—but ultimately, in the long term, we should be building shared destiny and a collective sense of humanity. That should be the driving force, even underneath moments of opposition.”
Westerling agrees. Leading with bridge building doesn’t mean abandoning the edge of protest or softening demands. Rather, says Westerling, it means trying to move beyond current dynamics and aim for shared analysis “to imagine a just future for everyone.”
In fact, Shen notes that under the traditional model, Alinsky discouraged organizers from “challenging issues” in favor of “short-term, winnable campaigns.” But the greatest need is often in the stickiest issues, which, if approached right, also hold the greatest promise for powerful bridge building—and for big change.
And yes, Westerling adds, that often means strange bedfellows “who confess their own surprise at walking with us.” But if the goal of progressive organizing is to achieve change, it makes sense that the strategies of organizing—as well as the alliances—should also change.
One of Ai-jen Poo’s role models is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who understood very well the advantages of combative organizing models as well as the power of joining with your one-time enemies to build bridges toward change. Now, in the shadow of the civil rights era, as opponents of fairness and justice rev up with increasing hatred and vitriol, a new generation of organizers—notably led by women of color—is innovating new approaches to organizing that borrow from these deep and old notions of community and love. They point the way forward toward a future that is better for all through a politics and practice that potentially engages everyone in achieving change.
• Sally Kohn wrote this article for Love and the Apocalypse, the Summer 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Sally is a writer, activist, and television commentator. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, More Magazine, USA Today, and elsewhere.