Michael Warner notes that here in the U.S. “[being] normal probably outranks all other social aspirations” in the Disability Studies Reader. I know I often want to fit in with my communities and participate.
But does this desire to participate also force conformity and exclusion? Through seeking “normalcy” does U.S. culture also diminish and stigmatize those who do not fit the traditional ideas of “being normal?”
It probably doesn’t take you too long to think of how true this sentiment is, that our “culture of normalcy” demands people to meet many unrealistic expectations. In addition, those who have this view also believe everyone wants to meet the norm and if they don’t meet it, must be “suffering” or have a “difficult life.”
This directly connects to ableism, which is the idea that what a person can achieve or their ability to live a fulfilling life is determined by their disability. Thus anyone who is disabled lives “less of a life” than those who are nondisabled.
In particular this “culture of normalcy” perpetuates the oppression of disabled communities by “othering” people and viewing them as individuals outside the norm.
Changing our language (e.g. saying “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled”) means little if we resist changing our actions, institutions, and broader culture.
I’m going to look at what some incredible activists point out as the core attributes of this “culture of normalcy” and what we can do to promote a new narrative of disability that seeks justice and inclusion of difference instead of trying to force assimilation/conformity.
Ok, so I still don’t quite get what “Normalcy” is…
Well below I’ve got a list of the core attributes of our “culture of normalcy” and how it contributes to negative actions and injustice. So let’s go ahead and get started!
The “Culture of Normalcy…”
Creates the illusion that a “normal” way of living/acting/being actually exists
What’s considered “normal” today is completely different from the norm 100 years ago and even just 10-20 years ago. It will also continue to change.
Lennard Davis notes that “[normal] is a configuration that arises in a particular historical moment. It is part of a notion of progress, of industrialization, and of ideological consolidation [of power].” This means, our definitions of normal support those in power and the dominant worldview, rather than being based in any intrinsic attributes.
Human difference is so vast that it’s impossible to say there’s only one way to live/act/be in this complicated world. This is one reason we have so many attitudes of ableism (i.e. oppression towards those with disabilities), heteronormativism, and sizeism (i.e. oppression towards those of certain body sizes).
For example, many in the Deaf community view themselves as part of a linguistic minority rather than having a “disability.” These communities note that they don’t feel “cut off” from the rest of the world, but rather just speak a different language.
We must NOT deem any life “abnormal” just because they have a different way of learning, communicating, or moving.
Forces compulsion to be “like everyone else”
If an individual or group is different in some way, then I see so many examples of people wanting to “help” them “fit in.” Why can’t they just fit in by being who they are?
One common sign of this is for school photos that involve students in wheelchairs. Parents or staff will often setup photos so that they hide the wheelchair and, thus, makes the kid seem “normal.”
It seems to me that this is clearly about making everyone else more comfortable, not to make the student feel more included.
If our society didn’t have such a fear of difference, then it wouldn’t matter whether someone used a wheelchair, communicated differently, etc. or not.
To continue the example in the last section about Deaf communities, U.S. society has often forced the Deaf to not learn sign language and communicate “normally” (e.g. which has some similarities to how the U.S. forced Native Americans to speak English and not speak their tribe’s language).
So whether it’s with the “helpful” mindset or through force, the “culture of normalcy” makes some think they have a duty/responsibility to make every “fit in” even if they just included them as they are, then they wouldn’t need to do anything else.
Puts emphasis on people to “overcome a disability” rather than seeking societal changes
How many stories do you hear about people with disabilities who “overcome their disability” and are considered heroes? What does that mean?
Does it mean they are a “hero” because they are now “like everyone else?”
The phrase “overcoming a disability,” Simi Linton notes in Reassigning Meaning, puts a huge emphasis on the disabled to work harder rather than focusing on what our society needs to do to change.
This also steers those with disabilities to internalize oppression by thinking they must “do more” to “overcome their disability,” even if that shouldn’t be the message we send.
I’ll look more in-depth at some of the societal changes we need to push for, but for now just remember how the phrase “overcoming a disability” makes people feel OK about accepting the status quo. Instead, we still have a long way to go before reaching a truly inclusive society.
Makes people believe that everyone wants to be “Normal,” because their life must be full of suffering
Marsha Saxton in The Disability Studies Reader writes “the stereotyped notions of the ‘tragedy’ and ‘suffering’ of ‘the disabled’ result from the isolation of disabled people in society.”
Marsha Saxton goes on to write that impairments (e.g. mental or physical) are an inconvenience, however “It is discriminatory attitudes and thoughtless behaviors, and the ensuing ostracism and lack of accommodation, that makes life difficult.”
These statements highlight that most people with disabilities suffer most because of oppression, discrimination, and lack of opportunities. Even those with painful disabilities would be better served if people focused less on their pain, and how to treat them as human.
Last month I attended the New Organizing Institute’s RootsCamp. It was rejuvenating to see folks I hadn’t seen in years and those I have been working with for a while, but had never seen in person like Althea and Chris from the ReStrategizing Team of the Leading Change Network.
There were a ton of important sessions I attended, but since it is the start of the new year and the time of resolutions I thought it would be a perfect time to share about what I learned at Heather Booth’s session on “Organizing for the Long Haul.”
The heart of this session was about figuring out how to continue being an activist without “burning out” or feeling like you couldn’t emotionally/spiritually/physically/etc. maintain your contributions to the social change movement.
Heather Booth facilitated a rich discussion with tons of incredible tips and ideas, but let’s start with her main principles first.
4 ways to live in this movement for the long haul
1. Our work needs to be based in love
Anger is a part of us and shouldn’t be ignored; however, in terms of making sure we can do this work for many years we need to make sure our efforts are grounded in love for people, places, and the world around us.
In Paula X. Rojas’ article in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded she writes political involvement/movements must intertwine with “our relationships with loved ones and the larger community” in order to be “truly liberatory.”
2. Invest time in that relationship
Heather Booth noted “Time is not renewable.” Though this may seem obvious when you take time to think about it, but I know for myself I sometimes have trouble taking the time “when there is so much left to do.”
The work will get done, so I should enjoy the time I have with those I love and not worry about what “I could be working on.”
3. Think strategically about love in this work the same way we do for our campaigns
Yes! A way to apply what we love about organizing to relationships! If it’s helpful for you, the very same tools we do in our social change efforts can just as easily apply to the rest of our lives.
Heather Booth noted 2 key pieces to this concept is to have the following:
Have a strategic plan (e.g. goals, visions, etc.) Have a strategic schedule/timeline
In particular, use these strategic plans/schedules to spend time with kids. But for me, since I don’t have any kids (except those I teach chess to) I’m going to think of how to strategically think about how I invest myself in my partner and those around me.
4. Be gentle with ourselves
One of the biggest lessons I’ve been trying to learn over the past few months. It can sometimes be dangerous to continually criticize yourself even if it is to work on “self-improvement.”
While there are times when we must also commit to changing some aspects of ourselves (e.g. because of oppressive thoughts/actions/ideas), in general we have to remember to avoid allowing “guilt to overcome.”
Heather Booth noted that one of the best ways to achieve this gentleness with ourselves is to “seek out community…They will be there for you…and you will do the same for them.”
Other key ideas to living as an activist
I noted at the beginning that Heather Booth did an excellent job drawing out the experiences of the group, so here are a few of the other ideas that resonated with me the most.
1. Be intentional about time – Every minute is precious to me so I’m increasingly trying to protect my time. This means knowing how I want to spend my time. This goes back to Heather Booth’s idea to strategize a plan/schedule for our relationships.
2. Alone time – I need time to myself to journal or think. The degree each person needs obviously varies, but the idea is the same…take time for yourself. You deserve it!
3. Require vacation time – Organizations should mandate their members take some time off and ideally should support them in this endeavor (i.e. providing funds). Whenever I take a break, even if I really really don’t want to, I know I always come back with much better energy.
4. Say no to protect time – It can be tempting for us to support everyone around us, but that limits the amount of time/energy we put into each project. Think of it this way, you’re still supporting people by letting them know what you can/cannot do at the moment. They’ll be glad to know!
These don’t quite go together as nicely, but they are extremely important!
5. Be clear about values – I know many times we are making choices about what to share about ourselves or our ideologies based on the situation. However, it’s important to have a community that you do feel comfortable sharing with and being clear about your values both for yourself, and your growth as an organizer.
6. $ matters in order to support each other – I have trouble with this one since I would rather not have to worry about money. However, right now it has to play into our thoughts of our work and relationships. Otherwise, a lack of funds may lead to other stresses. Unfortunately, remedying this idea (i.e. finding a position that pays what you need) is not easy.
7. Non-movement friends – Some folks at the workshop mentioned how energized they felt by having different conversations than they had in their work. Also, they noted that having people to talk to who weren’t embroiled in a campaign or intense planning/acting was extremely valuable.
8. Have mentors – Throughout my [...]
“Patriarchy has no gender.”
― bell hooks in Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom
bell hooks’ quote is a clear reminder that patriarchy does not just describe male actions of domination, but also how some organizations and cultural narratives function.
Patriarchy, like most forms of oppression, has a way of trying to convince us that, in the words of the Crunk Feminist Collective “things are the way they are because they have to be, that they have always been that way, that there are no alternatives and that they will never change.”
From Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde, people have been resisting this mentality and pointing out another path away from unjust power systems.
Through the rest of this post I’m going to summarize intersectional changemakers’ ideas on:
The current state of patriarchy The frames that perpetuate the acceptance of patriarchy Examples of patriarchy in our current institutions The main long-term efforts we can take to combat patriarchy
We’re lucky that that numerous changemakers have already clearly demonstrated what we need to do to dismantle patriarchy. Now we just all have to integrate these actions into all of our organizing efforts.
The core attributes of patriarchy
Patriarchy is a system that has many elements associated with it. Below are some of the key expressions of patriarchy:
Holds up the traditional male qualities as central, while other qualities are considered subordinate. The attributes of power, control, rationality, and extreme competitiveness are examples of these traditional male qualities. Emotional expressiveness, compassion, and ability to nurture are examples of subordinate qualities in patriarchal systems.
Dualistic and gendered thinking of roles. Within this structure, men and women both have their own specific roles (e.g. men leading, and women supporting). Even though this view may appear to be fading in some areas, it’s clear that certain careers historically associated with women (e.g. childcare and teaching) have disproportionately lower salaries.
Male domination. Men often occupy the most important and visible roles (e.g. executives, politicians, public leaders, etc.). Women who do hold these positions are expected to subscribe to male norms.
Protection of traditional patriarchal social structures. If a person or group challenges patriarchy in any form, then the patriarchal response is to increase control. In particular, this means increasing control over oppressed or marginalized groups.
Reinforcement of other types of oppression. Patriarch contributes to racism, sizeism, and homophobia. Third Wave feminists, such as Rebecca Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, and Cherríe Moraga, are the major voices to articulate this truth. All of the manifestations of patriarchy mentioned above, magnify for those with other oppressed identities.
However, one other important point to remember is, as described on the Daily Kos, “patriarchy is generally not an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women. It is a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously.”
This means, that people of all gender identities can perpetuate patriarchy, even if it is mainly male-identified individuals that reap most of the societal benefits.
For a powerful succinct description of patriarchy, check out bell hooks’ article Understanding Patriarchy.
Frames that perpetuate patriarchal ideas
“Boys will be boys.” This idea that men are biologically “programmed” to behave certain ways, against all scientific evidence, is one of the biggest cultural narratives that continues our current patriarchal systems.
Celebrating “macho” or “alpha” men.
Jackson Katz, in his book The Macho Paradox, discusses how society often promotes violent and controlling aspects of male culture. From lifting up the “strong” hero to denigrating “sissies,” our language and media foster this image of what “real men” look like.
Men believing they should be silent, instead of challenging other men on patriarchal and sexist ideas/actions. One of the most insidious characteristics of patriarchy, as mention above, is that it seeks to protect traditional male traits and actions. Even of some men would never subscribe to certain actions/ideas/language, they ignore when their peers commit those very same things.
While there are countless other frames that prop up patriarchy, these are a few of the most prominent.
How patriarchy manifests itself in current society
There are numerous ways the mass media accentuates patriarchal ideas and thoughts.
The media amplifies patriarchal viewpoints through:
Negative coverage of sexual violence (e.g. the commentary of the Steubenville rape case – focused on how a guilty verdict would impact the young football players, rather than on the survivor’s life) Promoting gender binaries Unceasing discussion of women’s appearances and body image Objectifying “transgender women’s bodies by focusing on their physical transitions”
In addition, the journalism industry itself reserves most senior analyst and producer positions for men. Further, both men and women that do have these jobs must make sure to spin their stories that subscribe to dominant patriarchal narratives, instead of challenging them.
Men disproportionately occupy top leadership positions, often because they exhibit those very same traditional male traits (e.g. outspoken, “rational,” and individual-based leadership).
In addition women often have “lower salaries, appointments at lower ranks, slower rates of promotion and lower rates of retention, and less recognition through awards.” This trend continues despite widespread recognition, which to me indicates that we still need to address the root causes (i.e. patriarchal culture).
Bruce Kokopeli and George Lakey write “Patriarchy tells men that their need for love and respect can only be met by being masculine, powerful, and ultimately violent.” This viewpoint also contributes to the high amount of male bystanders who do [...]
Normally on Organizing Change my focus is on what’s going on in the world of social change and what we should be taking the time to learn about. However, this week I thought I’d share a little bit about what I’ve been up to and what’s in store for Organizing Change.
Though my posts on Organizing Change have been pretty sparse over the past month or two, I’m still adding new ideas to my “Future Posts List.” Whenever I find a new skill-building resource or strategy to dismantle injustice, I think of how best to share the information with others here on this blog.
So here’s a life update and what I’ve been learning about.
Education Organizing Landscape
I recently moved to Delaware and have been taking a bit of time to get oriented in this new place and explore the area. I’m slowly starting to get in a great rhythm here and now I’m seeing how I can get more involved in organizing here.
One of the key parts of organizing is relationships, so it often takes a bit of time to get a “lay of the land” and know what efforts are already going on and how you can contribute at a local level.
For example, there’s a big commitment to increasing the ability of Delaware’s education system to support all students. Concurrently, there’s also a specific interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education.
As is generally the case, government and nonprofits are taking a leading role and there’s little true engagement from the grassroots. These institutional entities have important roles, but we still must find ways to include those outside of the established organizations.
Already I’ve talked to so many people who want to participate in making a better education for kids…they just don’t know exactly how to get involved. The main reason for that is there isn’t a ton of opportunities to get involved.
Even if a nonprofit advocacy group conducts “community organizing,” it’s generally just on the scale of getting people to speak at hearings or sign petitions. Very few closely involve those most impacted in planning and implementing projects/campaigns.
So what this means for me is that I’ve been thinking of ways to create truly grassroots campaigns that involve all constituents here. Interestingly, the one that has the most promise is a chess-in-the-schools initiative.
Whether people have read the studies or not, that show how helpful chess is for increasing academic abilities, many families and schools all seem to enthusiastically support chess.
Now I am wondering how we can use this interest in chess to create a campaign that builds a base of people that can also work on other issues of addressing institutional injustices. This work is still in the formation stage, but I see how many want to get involved so it’s time we find a way to get them a chance.
Leading Change Network
I joined the Leading Change Network (LCN) last July at their Global Event, because I was immediately interested in their efforts around learning, resource sharing, and identifying best organizing practices.
Since then I’ve started working with an incredible team on researching how to “restrategize” (i.e. what do you do once you create an initial strategy, but then have to modify it) during a campaign.
We’re also getting the chance to investigate strategy from a variety of fields (e.g. business, military, and education) to see what else our social change work should consider or at least be prepared for. We’re even comparing strategy from across the social change world (e.g. Marshall Ganz’s frameworks and the work of the Midwest Academy).
Basically we’ve set ourselves up with the ambitious goal of identifying the key elements of “restrategizing” and laying out the core baseline of “strategy” from numerous disciplines. Though, it’s pretty cool to have the chance to compile best practices for an important aspect of our campaigns.
This “restrategizing working group” is also the highest functioning digitally-based group I’ve ever got the opportunity to be a part of! We have tall aspirations, but I feel that this team is going to keep on surprising folks with how much we get done.
Similarly, I’m also working on LCN’s Network Resource Center to highlight valuable organizing articles, videos, workshops, and guides. Eventually we’ll have an easy-to-use online repository to showcase some of the most important documents on social change.
Both of these projects I currently have the opportunity to work with are especially enlightening for me because I hoped to do similar things with Organizing Change, but now I don’t have to wait!
Organizing Change Next Steps
Organizing Change has been publishing for about 7 months now and its actually about where I was hoping it would be!
I wanted the first year of Organizing Change to be about clearly identifying important organizations and their work, along with improving my own writing skills. Both of these I feel like I’ve definitely accomplished (though with some further goals to work on!).
Now over the next year I really want to finalize my “cornerstone content” (i.e. the core information I think all changemakers should be aware of). While I hope to make most of my posts here informative, I aim to compile the key essentials that would be useful for organizers in any field.
One of my first forays into this endeavor was my post on The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism. I used this post as a way to bolster my capacity to delve into the details, but also summarize information in an easily accessible format.
Here’s my 5 main pieces of “cornerstone content” I’m going to be working on over this next year:
Changing the Narrative of Dominant Culture Strategy Development for the Long-Term Organize for the 21st Century (i.e. organizer skills – the “toolbox”) Injustice We Must Fight – Solutions We Must Create Movement Building
This is going to be a gradual process, but I’m already looking forward [...]
I’ve been asked a few times about the books I’ve read that shape my thinking about social change. Everytime I think about it, I’m always amazed by how much these books influenced my own views over these past few years!
Below is my short list of my top 6 books for social change. In the comments, make sure to leave your favorite books or if you have thoughts on these books!
Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy by Rinku Sen
If you’ve been following Organizing Change, you know I’ve mentioned Rinku Sen and this book a few times (e.g. her ideas on long-lasting movements, leadership development, the importance of a values-based ideology, and organizational development).
Rinku Sen’s perspective is the perfect framework for the 21st century, as opposed to relying on the previous Alinsky-tradition. Her analysis demonstrates the need for cross-issue strategies and pushing for long-term culture change over shorter-term victories.
To me the critical message and sentence from the book is that those pushing for social change need to start “increasing our organizing among the people affected and then addressing their issues with sustained campaigns and the addition of research and media capacity.”
While the book is laid out a bit more densely than something like Organizing for Social Change (described below), you will find the core skills and analysis we need to make concrete and impactful results through strategic organizing.
Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision by George Lakoff
This is a great addition to George Lakoff’s other book on values-based framing. Don’t Think of an Elephant.
This book builds on those framing discussions and really delves into how we can create a long-term and resilient strategy for creating a positive progressive future.
George Lakoff looks at effective ways to communicate our vision and values that truly represent what we believe and avoiding deceptive/poor tactics and phrasing. He also describes, and gives detailed examples for, the need for cross-issue campaigns (which he calls “Strategic Initiatives”).
It’s a short read, but packed with the essentials on how to authentically communicate for the common-good.
De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century by Elizabeth Martínez
When I first picked up this book, I had no idea how much it would fundamentally influence my efforts here on Organizing Change.
Elizabeth Martínez’s book has not got nearly the attention it deserves. This description of progressive activism and history in the 20th century highlights key movements, while at the same time offering wisdom on better strategies we can take in this century.
For example, Elizabeth Martínez notes that the aversion to incorporating spirituality in leftist circles “has opened the door wide to right-wing manipulation of spiritual hunger.” She offers as a counter, that we should be allowing room for faith and other affirmations of the heart instead of suppressing these essential parts of ourselves.
So if you’re looking to learn from past social change organizing and how we can grow/shift these efforts, then check out this incredible book!
Organizing for Social Change by Midwest Academy
This manual is perfect for understanding the fundamentals and advanced practices of organizers in any field.
The Midwest Academy’s book offers an in-depth look at tactics, meeting with decisionmakers, coalitions, recruiting, leadership development, etc.
Once I combined this book with Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up (which has a bit more analysis of intersectionality/power dynamics), I felt like I had the essential knowledge to take on any organizing situation.
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
I wrote more in-depth about this book and its implications in my post The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism; however, I think it is critically important to understand how our organizing connects to global structures.
I know I get caught up in a few issues from time to time, but Naomi Klein demonstrates how neoliberalism is a force impacting pretty much everything.
Also, if you read this book and some of the ideas listed in my post above you’ll have a clear idea of some real steps we can take to preventing the spread of the neoliberal ideology and creating a more positive economic framework.
If you like history and detailed journalism, you’ll love this book! If not, well then maybe you can skim a few of the 720 pages!
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE!
INCITE!’s book on the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC) was truly groundbreaking since it was one of the first attempts to gather a range of perspectives on why nonprofits (as a system) were not achieving the desired aims.
Here are a few of the main points I took away from this book:
Nonprofits now focus most on providing social services, not social change, because that would mean challenging those institutions in power (e.g. government, business, and foundations) Activism cannot be simply “a career,” we must find ways to integrate into our lives Nonprofits often siphon away activists to just become “part of the system,” instead of challenging it to change Foundations and government agencies strived to use the structure of current nonprofits to create/maintain control over social movements/social change work (i.e. so grassroots movements wouldn’t get “antagonistic”/”disruptive”)
Even if you don’t work in a nonprofit, you’ll still should be acquainted with this anthology since its analysis hits on all areas of society.
2 EXTRAS!!! For community organizers!
Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing by DeFilippis, Fisher, and Shragge
A must-read if you’re involved in community organizing. It lays out some of the main faults of most community organizing (e.g. being non-ideological and resisting connecting local work to national or international efforts), while also presenting some ways for improvement (e.g. pushing for long-term social change and understanding the limits of community organizing).
While it leans toward the heavy-duty academic side, you’re definitely going to [...]
As I was walking into a store recently someone was there running up to people and handing out coupons. She had a huge smile and seemed so excited to share this opportunity with people.
She just came right up and asked “would you like to hear about our latest deals?”
I couldn’t help but be more interested in what she was handing out and her attitude made my day that much brighter.
Then I realized “how come I don’t act like this when I’m talking to people about my own projects/campaigns?”
If our organizing for social change really is as critical as we know it to be, then we need to be out there on the streets or calling people up to let them know.
I know I still get nervous or quiet when I’m publicizing an event or initiative in-person or over the phone`.
Ideally I would love for people to come over to me and ask what I’m doing and then I would be totally comfortable sharing! Unfortunately for my ideal setup, this doesn’t happen too often.
However, now I believe it’s much better that I should be the one to start the interaction with others. Shouldn’t I be stoked to be letting folks know about this important campaign that they really would love to hear about?
Even though I know this positive outlook is true, it will still be hard for me to work up the resolve from time-to-time.
What I need to keep in mind is that making the “ask” is essential to the success of our campaigns.
So how can we go about making sure we have strong “asks?” Well let’s take a look at a few tips.
Stand in front of the table (if you have one) Go up to people, don’t wait for them to come to you Pick up the phone and call. Email should be your last option. Keep at the front of your mind why this is so important to you and why you think others would find it important It’s up to the campaign leadership to make sure to take the time to train and make sure everyone feels confident Remember if you value the work you’re doing, others will most likely value it too so you’re supporting them by telling more about your efforts Be energized! Remember to listen and not just talk! Engage people in a conversation
These are are just a few ideas to keep in mind. However, the most important is just remember why you are doing this and that your efforts matter.
If you’re like me your “asks” may not be the smoothest at first, but if you keep it up then you’ll be sharing so many new opportunities with folks to get involved or support the campaign that may never have had the chance before.
What helps you make the “ask?” Give your thoughts below!
“The creation of today’s market society was not the result of a sequence of spontaneous events but rather of state interference and violence.”
- Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine
Liberty! Human Rights! Choice! Prosperity! Freedom!
These seemingly familiar words are how neoliberals see their movement for the expansion of the “free market.”
Advocates see the “neoliberal agenda” (i.e. freeing the market from constraints such as regulations and tariffs) as going hand-in-hand with freedom, even when the results across the world tell a very different tale.
We barely have to look before finding new new waves of protest (e.g. Turkey, Brazil, and Slovenia) against the intimate connection between neoliberalism, corruption, authoritarianism, and austerity measures.
Those pushing for free market “reforms” will say these connections are “exceptions” and “not true expressions of neoliberalism.”
This neoliberal myth of a “liberating free market economy” is one we must dismantle and replace with the truth as the Naomi Klein quote illustrates above that neoliberalism is the result of “state interference and violence.”
This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of how we can prepare to organizing against neoliberalism including:
Key elements of ways neoliberalism becomes entrenched in our systems Core beliefs that frame how neoliberals envision their movement The main long-term efforts we can take to combat neoliberalism
With the collective wisdom of those who have dedicated their lives to diverting the oppressive framework of the “free market,” I’ve worked to make this guide represent current activist thoughts and strategies.
If as you’re reading this you find yourself saying “but what about…?” or “I know a great resource/example to share!” then I’d love for you to leave a comment at the end of this post or send me a message.
So here we go, “The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism.”
So what is neoliberalism exactly?
At it’s core, neoliberalism is an economic system working on eliminating government regulations, trade barriers, and tariffs (and possibly government altogether) along with privatizing as many aspects of society as possible.
Naomi Klein, one of the most articulate and investigative-oriented activists against neoliberalism, illustrates the “3 trademark demands of neoliberalism” in practice as:
Privatization – e.g. turning the operation of education, roads, and health care over to companies Government deregulation – e.g. removing environmental protections, workers’ rights, and monitoring the financial industry Deep cuts to social spending – e.g. cutting food stamps, access to family planning services, and mental health programs
These demands are about shifting responsibility from the government to the private sector to handle improving peoples’ lives.
At a deeper level neoliberalism is really all about making, as Barnard Harcourt writes, “the ordered market as the model of social interaction… In other words, to extend the model of natural order beyond economic exchange to crime, divorce, punishment, illicit drugs, adoption, and so on.”
So what this means for a neoliberal is we need to structure our entire society, family, government, relationships, etc. around the idea of the “market”.
One reason neoliberalism is a confusing concept is that many people and institutions accept its starting points (e.g. growth is always a good thing and it will help everyone over time) without even digging into whether these “foundational precepts” are actually true.
Neoliberal economists promote these concepts as “common sense” and “necessary,” and by-and-large have entered our everyday language with little analysis of their underlying impact.
Along with “normalizing” our vocabulary under neoliberal precepts, Elizabeth Martinez and Arnoldo Garcia note neoliberals also aim to switch our values of the “public good” and “community” to a value-system based on the “rule of the market” and individual responsibility.
It’s a very black-and-white world for a neoliberal. One in which every person has sole responsibility for their success, and corporate expansion is good for all.
The photo above shows a photo of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former US President Ronald Reagon, both of whom were integral to implementing neoliberal policies and ideas.
For an in-depth analysis of the forms of neoliberalism in economic terms, check out this great resource.
So to recap in a sentence…neoliberalism seeks to privatize, deregulate government, cut social services, and shift values from the public good/community to values based on “rule of the market”/individual responsibility.
Neoliberal frames and views of their own ideology
Now that we’ve gone over some of the main aims of neoliberals, one important question remains…Why do neoliberals view a completely free market as the ideal system? How do neoliberals truly view their movement? What motivates or influences them to force their policies on the rest of the world?
These neoliberal worldviews are based in the unwavering belief in a “free market.” Even though many of these ideas lack any kind of scientific evidence in their favor.
Neoliberals will rarely call themselves “neoliberals” by name, so these frames below will help you identify narratives based in questionable logic.
Neoliberals believe the market economy is “natural” and “self-regulating” (i.e. “the invisible hand of the market”). Adam Smith, one of the founders of capitalist thought, saw the “natural laws of the economy” as exactly that…“natural.” He believed that a totally free market would tend toward balance on the whole.
Economists tend to use these assumptions that the market will “self-correct,” even lacking any scientific validity. People control the market, and those with the most power will often make sure the “invisible hand” benefits them.
There is a clear distinction between individual greed and corruption. The neoliberal model structures itself around individual vice and greed pushing forward economic growth. However, they believe corruption happens in only a few cases and is not related to a systemic problem within neoliberalism.
I don’t think it will take you very long to think of a few cases in these last few years where corruption was very apparent in our capitalist institutions. With the increasing role of the business community in government decisionmaking, it’s no wonder [...]
A few weeks ago Heath Mitchell asked to co-write 42 Errors Changemakers and Humanitarians Make (which ended up being one of the most popular posts here), and now he got me thinking again by asking about the people/organizations that have influenced my ideas of activism and organizing.
Anytime someone asks me to write a post on a certain topic I try my best to do so, even if it takes a few months! I’m especially stoked when I get to write about those folks who’ve fundamentally impacted my life through their own words/actions.
The names that follow are a few of the main individuals and groups who I consistently learn from and wish to share more about.
Author of De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century and 500 years of Chicano History, Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez has been called one of the 20th century’s most important activists and progressive historians.
When I read De Colores Means All of Us I thought it had some of the most insightful strategies for social change that we still have not adopted some 15 years later.
So if you’re looking for a clear picture of 20th century progressive activism and unrealized pathways for change, then check out Betita’s work.
Marshall Ganz/Sierra Club
One of my first direct experiences with organizing training was with with the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), an organization that grew out of the Sierra Club. Much of the SSC’s trainers were based on Marshall Ganz’s frameworks and research for the Sierra Club.
Marshall Ganz was a volunteer with the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, served with the United Farm Workers, created the dominant curriculum for training Obama’s campaign organizers, and now is working to develop the Leading Change Network (LCN).
Check out Marshall’s online module on organizing and the LCN to learn more about values-based changemaking, leadership, and campaigns.
Yuri Kochiyama is one of the most intersectional activists to grace the changemaking world and doesn’t appear to be showing any signs of slowing down. She’s organized around the rights of political prisoners, Puerto Rican Independence, and reparations for Japanese Americans forcibly held in internment camps during WWII.
Not only did Yuri Kochiyama show me how to integrate a range of activist efforts, but she also demonstrated that one can begin to organize at any age and while taking care of family.
There’s a great film called Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice which details her accomplishments and what she has done for cross-issue movement building.
Naomi Klein’s journalist and activist endeavors serve as a beating heart of the opposition to neoliberalism in all of its forms.
Her book The Shock Doctrine fundamentally altered my understanding of just how pervasive neoliberalism had become in all parts of our society (e.g. education, government, and international relations).
I’m currently working on a post inspired by much of Naomi Klein’s work that focuses on neoliberalism frames, ideas, and policies along with ways activists can combat this entrenched ideology.
I’ve mentioned Ella Baker a few times before, in particular about her contributions to leadership development in any type of organizing.
Ella Baker throughout the civil rights movement (e.g. through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) continually pushed for increasing opportunities for multiple leaders and criticizing those that were held up as the only focal points for action.
Now the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is making sure to honor her legacy and contributions, and remind us to look to Ella for ideas on how to build up strong cohesive leadership systems.
Bill McKibben and 350.org
Bill McKibben and the rest of the 350.org team constantly mobilize some of the largest and most impactful demonstrations for taking action against climate change and the Keystone XL Pipeline.
When the issue of climate change keeps getting pushed back to the edges of the news, 350.org and its partners keep finding ways to refocus attention.
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
Though conservative attacks/lies forced ACORN to cease most of its operations to register voters, increase homeownership, and counter powerful banks, ACORN’s still has made a huge impact on social change organizing.
Right now the absence of ACORN’s local-regional-national organizing structure leaves a void that is hard to fill. How many other organizations could bring together so many hundreds of thousands of people to bring forward constructive anti-poverty solutions? Or really any issue?
I recently read John Atlas’s book about ACORN called Seeds of Change and if you’re looking to find out more about how ACORN operated, that book is a great place to start.
Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta
The founders of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta showed how to develop new leaders by going door-to-door and being persistent.
Dolores Huerta exemplified this attitude that every person had important contribution to make when she said “Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk.”
INCITE! is a “is a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and our communities through direct action, critical dialogue, and grassroots organizing.”
One of their most well-known and influential publication is the The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.
This book taught me a ton about the differences between social services and social change, how activists can get diverted into professionalized careers, and the role foundation/government grants have in shaping social change.
Rinku Sen is probably the organizer that has had the biggest impact on my personal outlook on social change.
After reading her book Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy I immediately felt a clearer sense of my own purpose.
I’ve written many posts [...]
One common refrain I hear in the empowerment/leadership development realm, is that we need to “let people develop their own potential.”
The implication is the individual knows best how to grow their own abilities.
How often is this actually true though?
I know I’ve had the opportunity to grow into the organizer and person I am now because I had numerous people at different stages in my life pushing me to exceed even my own expectations.
This idea of “the learner knows best” also fosters an individual-centric model, instead of a community of teaching where everyone contributes to personal development.
I think it’s time our social change training modules take a cue from those dedicated folks in the K-12 education sphere.
What K-12 education can teach us about supporting changemakers
What I’ve discovered, through my incredible partner who teaches 1st grade, is that exemplary K-12 educators are those who both push for and support a culture of excellence.
In this case “excellence” means to demonstrate a high level of mastery of a certain topic (whether it be reading or facilitating a meeting) independent of test scores, comparisons, or statistical averages.
This model also acknowledges that people will have different background experiences and may need more coaching to reach “excellence.”
Also, in this context we should take into account each person’s needs and aspirations at the moment. Maybe they need just a bit more time to reach where they want to be, but they should know we will always seek to push for and support them to achieve excellence.
We don’t need to be mean and punish people if they don’t reach a state of excellence, but instead we need to dedicate more of our energy to making sure they can.
We must never “give up” on someone and think they cannot achieve something because “they just aren’t good at X [e.g. public speaking or coordinating].”
If either the individual themselves, or the people around them, have this mentality of “I’m just not good at X,” then it’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Remember, not everyone has had a mentor, family member, or friend who consistently encouraged them to do more than what they believe even for themselves.
That’s why we have to create a culture of excellence where everyone expects that they will push themselves AND have the support of those around them to help them in this pursuit.
Whether this is in our trainings, our campaign teams, or with the community members we work with, we must remember that we don’t know what someone’s capabilities will be so we have to aim to stretch their skills.
I may wish I consistently had this mindset of not expecting the extent of someone’s capabilities, I know sometimes I haven’t given every person I’ve worked with the chance to exceed what I think they can do.
I may believe I’m open to someone beating my expectations, but if I don’t give them the resources or have challenging conversations about where to improve, then I’m short-changing both of our potential.
I’m lucky that I have a very supportive teacher in my life who has taught me the value of always “pushing for the best” out of every person, including myself.
Have you ever been in a position where you aimed for excellence yourself or supported others? Or maybe a time looking back you might have wished to do more? Leave a comment below!
I know I’m constantly looking for ways to improve the effectiveness and joyfulness of meetings.
Judging from the amount of times I hear people talking about how they try to avoid meetings, I think there’s a few basics we need to keep in mind to have those great meetings we all seek.
Ok so close your eyes and imagine (so make sure to have someone read this out loud through this section).
Unfilling meeting example
You just sat down for your organization’s weekly staff meeting and you are super excited to share some new ideas and make important decisions for the “big project.”
However, the meeting starts with finding out people had many unfinished tasks and by the end of the meeting you are frustrated because you feel like you had a lost voice in the discussion.
Also, since the group had unfocused conversation, the meeting ran out of time with no decisions on moving the project forward.
You walk away thinking “meetings are a waste of time.”
Productive meeting example
The next week you come into the meeting already resigned to another unproductive hour, but you see that there is a facilitator sitting across the the table.
The facilitator starts by asking the group to take the first 10 minutes of the meeting to create shared group norms and you think “here we go again, just more talking.”
Then the facilitator got the meeting going and you saw that people listened, made amiable consensus decisions even if there was not unanimity, and had productive and inclusive discussions.
When the meeting ends early, you are feeling pretty high energy and a little bewildered by how the group was able to start getting stuff done.
You walk away thinking “meetings rock!”
8 Elements of Great Meetings!
So what happened? This facilitator follow some facilitation basics.
Below are the primary reasons that the 2nd meeting was much more successful.
1. Share intentional group norms! Crafting a set of norms (i.e. group agreements or expectations) about how meetings will function will address a lot of issues before they even arise.
Norms, whether you make time to create them or they happen without as much thought, form the basis for group functions. Basically all the following ideas are norms.
2. Have a facilitator! The individual guiding the meeting (NOT leading the meeting) should be focused on drawing out the ideas of the group and making sure the folks at the table listen to each other.
Facilitators should not merely share information, but also ensure a smooth meeting process.
3. Create an agenda! Agendas are structured talking points with meeting outcomes/objectives and suggested times for each section.
Make sure you have an idea of what you need to accomplish since you only have a bit of time during a meeting to get everything done.
4. Take notes and keep track of tasks! Make sure someone takes notes who is not the facilitator (so they can focus on the process) and that they keep track of tasks in a way that is easy for participants to find later (when they look for their tasks from the meeting).
5. Have meetings with varied processes and styles! Meetings should be more than just discussions since folks operate and work in different way so your meetings should too.
For example you could have breakout conversations, places for folks to draw their ideas, sections to move around the room, use games, etc.
6. Decide upon a decision making process! Having a predetermined system (e.g. consensus or majority rules) for making decisions means that the group can agree on a course of action for going forward, without talking back and forth.
Just make sure that your group is not always dominated by a few voices.
7. Set process for having discussion! Since discussions will be the primary mode of communication during meetings, it is crucial to know how the group will communicate. This can be using hand signals or how the group will contribute ideas or proposals.
For example you can create a norm around raising hands in a “stack” (i.e. having an order of those who raised their hand) or “sparkles”/”spirit fingers” (i.e. silent agreement – to save time by making sure people do not need to raise their hands to say “I agree”).
8. Differentiate between “work” and “decisional/informational” meetings! Everyone does not need to be at each meeting.
Sometimes having a smaller “work” meeting (i.e. getting together to actually accomplish tasks/projects) as opposed to a “decisional/information” meeting (i.e. a place to decide what work needs to be done and any relevant information) can be a great way to jumpstart complex or large tasks/projects.
Also, consider having some meetings being a mix of these different types.
With these main elements in place, any meeting can go from being disruptive/boring to action-oriented/fun!
So what are some ways we can build on these fundamentals? Check out this newly released resource from the AORTA Collective about Anti-Oppressive Facilitation.
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