Movement Building

14 Characteristics of an Intersectional Mass Movement

Photo: Jaymi Britten via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Jaymi Britten via Flickr (Creative Commons)

As I was walking recently, I asked myself “What would a 21st century intersectional mass movement look like?” and tried to imagine this reality.

What sounds would you hear? What sights would you see? What emotions would you feel? What would life be like while achieving success?

At the heart of this question is the search for the characteristics that compose a mass movement. What would it be like to experience an intersectional mass movement for social change?


What is a mass movement?


What is the difference between a “movement” and a “mass movement?”

In the U.S., the 1950s/60s/70s mass movements (e.g. American Indian Movement, civil rights, and Asian American Movement) continue to serve as inspiration for countless other movements (both large and small).

Mass movements occur when simmering movements grow into inspiring narratives that can, and do, transform societies and cultures.

What I mean by this “inspiring narrative” is a movement’s ability to fundamentally alter our perception of the world (e.g. how we understand justice) and even ourselves (e.g. by increasing communities’ confidence in themselves and identities).

Right now we have a racial and gender justice movement, climate movement, education reform movement, and a host of other movements that endeavor to give more people a chance to succeed to their highest ability.

However, these movements have not morphed into “mass movements” that mobilize a vast number of people and shifted our worldviews.

Currently, those pushing for an intersectionality appear very close to helping create mass movements.


Connecting intersectionality to movements


Intersectionality comes from an understanding that identities, privilege, and oppression are intimately connected and cannot be segmented from each other.

For example as a white male, I have privileges that compound upon each other and equal more than my identities separately.

I cannot just “add up” my privilege, I must multiply. Oppression works in a similar way.

An LGBTQ identified individual with disabilities experiences oppression at the cross section of their identities, and NOT as an LGBTQ identified individual separately from their social disability.

A good example of the importance of intersectionality comes from Occupy..

Occupy emphasized class struggle as the priority above all else.

Rinku Sen notes (in her book “Stir it Up”), for rhetoric similar to Occupy’s, that “The implication here is that class war is universal, but race, gender, and sexual liberation are particular and are not appealing to all of humanity.”

Due to this focus, Occupy has often struggled with issues of member privilege and racial/gender/etc. justice and continues to express in many ways the white male privilege of many of its members.

An intersectional mass movement would explicitly look for change through a kaleidoscopic lens and would itself be composed of many different identities.

This intersectional movement would NOT draw on dominant narratives (e.g. “as American as apple pie,” “everyone has the same opportunity to succeed”, etc.) or just to appeal to a majority base.

There are many pieces to this movement and below are some important ones to consider for this 21st century intersectional movement.


14 Characteristics of an intersectional mass movement


Intersectional mass movements understand the relationship between diverse identities and challenging systems of oppression.

Intersectional mass movements aim to fundamentally shift values.

Intersectional mass movements have resilient hope/confidence and “faith in the future” (The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements).

Intersectional mass movements are composed of a broad spectrum of human identities (e.g. backgrounds, ages, beliefs, etc.) and do not attack “the other” or marginalize groups of people.

Intersectional mass movements address root structures and systems, not just a specific issue.

Intersectional mass movements build capacity with and center on those most marginalized and on the frontlines of injustice.

Intersectional mass movements foster the ability of people working for collective success over individual success.

Intersectional mass movements use inclusive organizational models, instead of replicating privileged leadership structures.

Intersectional mass movements have compassionate unity and “commitment to each other.”

Intersectional mass movements channel emotion and analysis to change the dynamics of power and privilege.

Intersectional mass movements have no one face, and instead have numerous leaders and organizations that truly represent their multifaceted constituency.

Intersectional mass movements are innovative, creative, and dynamic.

Intersectional mass movements intentionally incorporate relationships with loved ones and larger community, otherwise the movement cannot be truly “liberatory.”

Intersectional mass movements have a clear vision of the future.

We will need many smaller intersectional movements before making the changes we seek; we must be in for the long-haul.

What other pieces do you think we need to build a 21st century intersectional mass movement? Leave your thoughts below!

Movement Building

Supreme Court Decisions and the Need for Intersectional Movements

Hopefully Organizing Change isn’t the first place you heard this, but…the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA and dismissed the Proposition 8 appeal!

Countless changemakers have dedicated years to helping make this significant event a reality.

Even amidst the celebrations, people across the nation are already gearing up to continue pushing for marriage equality.

Not only do these organizers show the need to push for the expansion of rights, but they also start to highlight the mixed results of the Supreme Court’s decisions this week.

Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous (BGD) noted both in her important, yet sobering post, 6 Things That Happened While Y’all Were Preoccupied With Gay Marriage and on the BGD Facebook page how the focus on marriage equality has diverted attention from other crucially important issues.

She wrote on the BGD Facebook page

“Yes, queer and trans* people without race and/or class privilege will be able to get married the same as other queers. But that doesn’t mean that we will have the same benefits. If two poor people with no healthcare marry each other, they don’t suddenly get healthcare. And a black queer couple can’t get a break on estate taxes for a property they can’t buy because the owner will only sell to white folks.”

Mia McKenzie illustrates how events that should be a “move forward,” have a vast disparity in impacts depending on one’s privilege.

As Mia McKenzie and others have pointed out, this divergence of justice is one of the biggest reasons we need an “inclusive and intersectional movement” (i.e. one that meets the needs of people of multiple identities and directly address the interconnection between different types of oppression).

The other major Supreme Court cases this week, to me are a clearly demonstration of what happens when we focus solely on single issues (e.g. marriage equality), instead of seeking out this more cross-issue movement with an analysis of privilege.


What this week’s decisions teach us about the dangers of single issues


Photo: RLHyde via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: RLHyde via Flickr (Creative Commons)

While the anticipation around DOMA/Prop. 8 and the excitement over Senator Wendy Davis’ filibuster of abortion restrictions in Texas (which came after a long period of activism from many other Texas legislators) caught most of the attention this week, we have to remember four other cases that pose great challenges.

These four cases show how the issues we strive to address get segmented and, thus, harder to defend as a movement.

1. Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

At it’s core, this case was about tribal sovereignty to decide who it counted among its tribal membership.

In this child custody case the court decided in a 5-4 decision that the child, Baby Veronica, did not qualify under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) “because she is 1.2% (3/256) Cherokee” and thus not Native enough according to Justice Alito. Even though the Cherokee Nation considers her to be a member.

The court decided not to uphold tribal rights and now the father and the Cherokee nation are working to continue seeking custody.

2. Fisher v. University of Texas

This case focused around the constitutionality of race-based university admissions policies that seek to address years of institutionalized oppression.

The Supreme Court’s decision to send the case back to the lower courts left a lot of questions.

However, it stated that affirmative action could still be used, but only in a very strict and rigorous manner.

Since the court did not make a final decision, the threat of ending affirmative action remains ever present.

3. Shelby County v. Holder

With one major decision, the Supreme Court highlighted a sharp divide about the court’s views of contemporary racial injustice. One side believing racism is nearly a thing of the past, and the other recognizing the vigor of institutionalized racism.

The most common description of the 5-4 decision was as the “gutting of the Voting Rights Act,” because it allowed states (mainly Southern) with a history of racial discrimination to change election laws without obtaining federal approval in advance.

This result sets the stage for increased voter disenfranchisement and reduced access to the polls.

4. Vance v. Ball State University

In an extremely regressive outcome, the Supreme Court handed out a decision which effectively decided harassment only counts when it comes from a supervisor who has the ability to fire, reassign, demote, etc.

So it seems that supervisors and co-workers without the option to directly control a job status, such as firing, can conduct harassment without legal repercussions.

This continues the Roberts Court’s history of extremely pro-business decisions at the expense of workers’ rights.

If you want to know about other detrimental Supreme Court decisions recently, check out the roundup of cases over at Think Progress.


Lessons for intersectional organizing after Supreme Court’s decisions


These court cases will deeply impact our initiatives for racial justice, workers’ rights, indigenous sovereignty.

But how would a more cross-issue or intersectional movement help us in our efforts?

For example, the issue of power and white privilege/culture showed up strongly in all of these cases (not to mention colonialism, patriarchy, etc.)

A robust movement that explicitly showed the connections of racial justice, workers’ rights, indigenous sovereignty issues in these cases under the banner of dismantling white privilege would have a much easier time convincing the media and the public of how prevalent these forms injustice remain.

When we break things up into small issues, they become easier to ignore and break down.

Even if the majority of folks wish to dismantle injustice (e.g. ending climate change, ableism), we lose a little of our strength when we spread out.

We have the passion and dedication to bring about this “inclusive and intersectional movement”, we just need to start moving in that direction.

So as we celebrate the accomplishments of the ending of DOMA/Prop. 8, we must remember to keep pushing until we are celebrating the end of the other regressive Supreme Court cases this week and the recognition of intersectional justice.

If you’re interested in “inclusive and intersectional movement building”  make sure to go Like Black Girl Dangerous on Facebook or Follow on Twitter.

Movement Building

How Rinku Sen Successfully Preps Extraordinary Movements that Last

It was a couple of years ago now, when I realized that I was only really pushing forward short-term victories and not efforts for systemic change.

Then I read wise words from Rinku Sen.

Photo: Kris Krug via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Kris Krug via Flickr (Creative Commons)

In her book Stir it Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy, Rinku showed me that if we frame campaigns based on our long-term values and ideas, then we advance shorter-term issues while also clearly stating what we truly believe.

I was completely stunned by that seemingly simple idea.

I had never consciously tied my organizing efforts to my values before, and once I did I could immediately tell the difference!

In a current environment where most nonprofits and community initiatives shy away from stating their deeply held values and just focus on their immediate aim, Rinku Sen’s call for campaigns infused with our beliefs, stands as a powerful counter.


So what’s a campaign centered on its values look like?


The nice thing about Rinku Sen is she not only has good ideas, but she also makes it really easy to show examples of her efforts in action!

Rinku is the President and Executive Director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and the publisher of Colorlines; both stalwarts of racial justice work in the U.S.

One of Colorlines’ most prominent campaigns is “Drop the I-Word.”  The campaign’s focus is to eliminate the use of the term “illegal” when applied to people (e.g. illegal immigrant) since “No human being is “illegal.’”

The Drop the I-Word campaign, alongside the work of other activists, has helped bring about a change in the Associated Press, USA Today, and others to stop the use of “illegal immigrant.” Despite the recent successes, the Drop the I-Word campaign has continued to push other media outlets, such as the New York Times, to follow suit.

While the short-term issue of the campaign is change how journalism, communities, and organizations talk about immigration and civil rights, the longer-term value of the campaign is to change our culture away from intolerance to one of respect and rights for all people.

This campaign’s impact will last far longer than a campaign aimed simply on getting people to not use the racial slur “illegal immigrant.” And that’s because this campaign works to change culture, not just a single word.

If we all worked to shift culture and actions, behaviors, and policies where might we be in making lasting change?


Other ways Rinku Sen shows us how to build strong, long-term movements


You might notice a lot of my writing will reference Rinku Sen’s ideas or the collection of organizing practices she coalesced. The reason I highlight Rinku is that I learned a lot about what it means to be a strategic changemaker from her.

So let’s look at other ways Rinku shows us how to be a 21st century organizer.

A. Center our leadership development and organizing of those most impacted – whether we are aiming for racial justice or gender justice, we must make sure to build capacity of those on the frontlines.

B. Build sustained campaigns – sometimes we have to go against the Alinsky advice for “short-term, winnable campaigns” and instead advocate for issues that will take lots of time and energy to succeed.

C. Increase our use of new research and media – while it can be easy to become frustrated by the mainstream media, we have a chance to build new research/media outlets (e.g. ARC and Colorlines) that showcase our organizing and values.

D. Frame campaigns on large-scale ideas/values – organizations must take a stand (even though most reach toward the center) and conduct political education of their members.

E. Support emerging social movements – building robust organizational capacity can clash with encouraging movements, thus organizations must always remain accountable to the movement.

As I wrote earlier, Stir It Up (which you should definitely check out!) was my first introduction to Rinku’s work; however, I’ve been making sure to keep updated on her incredible ideas through Rinku Sen’s writing on Colorlines (as you should too!). If you’re interested in building movements that last, then Rinku is a person to follow!

So now that you’ve heard about Rinku Sen’s work, make sure to go over and commit to “Dropping the I-Word.”