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.”


How Creating Your World Vision Can Inspire Action

I feel like I’ve always had a fuzzy picture of what I’d like to see for the world, but it took me until last year to write out what that world would be like. 

Photo: paul bica via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: paul bica via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I immediately saw how much more aligned my work was with my vision shortly after creating it.

It has been an exhilarating experience!

For example, Organizing Change would have looked very different than it does now. Before my vision made me realize the potential of Organizing Change, I was just going to share my general thoughts on organizing. However, now I conduct detailed investigation in order to find thoughtful organizing and activist experiences, insightful analysis, and hard-hitting data to make the case for strategic changemaking.

I realized that for me to be able to contribute to the creation of my vision, I needed to clearly identify the most impactful organizing lessons of the past century or so, showcase institutional barriers to change, the vital nature of strategic visions, etc.

It’s funny that for the amount of time I spent talking about change, I never explicitly imagined what a completely changed world would be like. Now that I have a clear vision, I am much more confident in the actions I take.


Elements of a clear and actionable vision


While I’d written many mission or vision statements, before last year I’d never made a vision that asked me to make a plan to along with it. Then someone asked me what long-term change would look like so I wrote a plan for them.

Many of the steps below may seem familiar to you, the difference is now we are using them to create a vision! I prefer to write, but your way of expressing your vision may involve stories, art, music, etc.

Articulate your vision for a liberated world – think of how people would live in this world you wish to create.

Here’s an example: “A world in which people regularly exceed their highest visions for themselves and the global community.”

Identify your important values of this future world – remember though that these values do not need to be shared by everyone, but rather serve as some key guiding principles for what you wish to work for.

Here’s an example: “This society would prioritize the personal fulfillment/sovereignty of its members (i.e. as opposed to a focus on wealth/destructive growth and assimilation) and resolve the perpetuation of past, present, and future injustices.”

Define intentional systems that would aid your future vision – whether flexible or more structured, think about what would support healthy societies. 

Here’s an example: “A compassionate, cooperative, and mutual aid-based society that allows people to express their potential through horizontal leadership communities (i.e. non-hierarchical and non-authoritarian).”

Plan out short, medium, and long-term goals – now is where things start to get tricky since it can often be challenging to think 50 or more years ahead. What helped me was to plan backwards to figure out potential ways to achieve my vision.

Here’s an example: “The full sovereignty and capacity for self-sufficiency of all those who seek their own self-reliant communities by [X date].

Description of how you wish to contribute to the creation of this vision – so now that you have this clear vision, it’s time to make it actionable! I spent the most time making sure I really knew how I wanted to contribute to my vision.

Here’s an example: “With Organizing Change I aim to give myself and others the knowledge of what it takes to make change (the toolkit) , how to counter obstructors of change (the analysis), and the vision of where change should lead to fulfill the needs of current and future citizens of a whole and thriving Earth (the vision).”

If you cannot imagine a vision AND actionable steps, then its harder to know if you are on the right track to making the change you seek.

So what if everyone passionate about bringing about positive changes to the world created a vision that propelled them to achieve more than they ever expected? 

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