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.”

By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+