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Movement Ecology: Why You?

Many of us find ourselves in movements for justice and it can be helpful to take a moment to step back and reflect on where we fit in the broader ecology of social and economic justice movements.

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The Ayni Institute has some of the clearest work I’ve seen on movement ecology. I recommend taking a few minutes to familiarize yourself with this funders guide by Paul Engler, Sophie Lasoff, and Carlos Saavedra of Ayni as a quick reference (especially pages 15-23). In the guide, they describe three theories of change:

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“These three categories are intentionally broad, and they encompass a variety of differences between groups in each area. Nevertheless, these three main categories — alternatives, personal transformation, and changing dominant institutions — are helpful in grouping a wide variety of organizations by their approach to social change. Although any one given organization may use multiple theories of change in its work, groups most often self-identify as fitting predominantly within one slice of the pie.”

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Social Movement Ecology

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Alternatives

“Alternatives are institutions and cultures that offer a new vision for the future, by experimenting with new ways of doing and being. Examples of alternatives include worker and consumer cooperatives, credit unions, feminist bookstores, urban gardens, cultural spaces, and restorative justice programs.”

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Personal transformation

“Personal transformation is made up of organizations and programs focused on changing lives one person at a time.”

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Changing dominant institutions

“Changing dominant institutions encompasses organizations working to alter or reform the dominant structures that shape society, such as corporations or government bodies.”

Funding Social Movements: How Mass Protest Makes an Impact by Paul Engler, Sophie Lasoff, and Carlos Saavedra

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When it comes to our own arena of concern, I believe we need to draw on elements from each of these three areas.

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Alternatives

We all know that another world is possible. It’s “The Way” in Taoism, enlightenment in Buddhism, the Kingdom and Beloved Community for Christians. Moses and Muhammed and Jesus teach about it and our religious communities aspire to and each actualize it to some extent. Groups all over the world, with or without religious motivation, have created alternative institutions that aspire to to build that world.

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Here are some examples:

Alternative ownership structures

  • Mondragon, a network of Spanish worker-owned cooperatives with 74,000 workers; Arizmendi Bakery in California, and worker cooperatives that have grown and successfully established themselves

  • Employee ownership -- with ESOPs and other structures where employees own the business, but don’t have as much control as they do in worker cooperatives, provide an alternative to the traditional firm structures.

Alternative economic development strategies

  • Community Wealth Building (www.community-wealth.org) as an alternative to mainstream economic development and the work of The Democracy Collaborative (suggested reading: America Beyond Capitalism by Gar Alperovitz)

  • Anchor institutions are community institutions that are not like private sector companies that can pick up and leave a community, close a factory, move to Mexico. Hospitals, Universities, and other educational and health-related institutions are the most frequently referred to examples of “anchor” institutions. Increasingly, this new field of economic development is focused on helping these institutional leaders embracing an “anchor” mission -- (investing in equity and wealth-building for the local community, often people of color, often very exploited).

Alternative finance institutions

  • Investing alternatives like Sustainable Economies Law Center, Boston Impact Initiative, WACIF, UJIMA Notes, NC3 (National Coalition for Community Capital), Slow Money loans, Angel investing with Angels of Main Street networks & informal investing clubs, CNote, RSF Social Finance, Cutting Edge Capital with Direct Public Offerings.

  • New Economy Alternatives including local currencies (BerkShares), Public Banks (North Dakota), Time Banking, Micro Lending -- like Kiva.org and Grameen Bank, Loan Well.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Outside of those three categories, I can also think of the Catholic Worker Movement (Dorothy Day and the network of houses of hospitality), or ecovillages and intentional living communities, or the Slow Food movement and how it creates an alternative to our industrial agriculture and food system.

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Personal Transformation

This includes spiritual practice that grounds us. We must recognize how small and insignificant we are, so we don’t take ourselves too seriously, but also the great power each of us has if we’re in touch with our deeper, inner life. This is the power of the relationships, networks and institutions we’re apart of.

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Personally, I find nourishment in sayings of the Tao, Sufi mystics, Richard Rohr (see: Center for Action and Contemplation), Centering prayer, The Daily Examen, Scripture, poetry, meditation, silence, yoga. I recommend finding a practice each day, even if it starts with a few breaths & a simple Mantra “I am more than enough” -- and screen-free time for 1-3 hours each day away from the interruptions of a phone, computer, or television.

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For me, this grounding in the journey of personal transformation is the basis for my best work It lends me the ability to embrace the emotional labor and fight the “resistance”.

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Changing Dominant Institutions

The relational part of this work is critical. How do we share our story? How do we take risks to invest in each other’s leadership development? How do we recognize leaders, activate them, and build leadership teams?

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Here are some examples of this type of movement building:

  • The Sunrise Movement, with leaders like Varshini Prakash (listen: podcast where she’s interviewed by Ezra Klein), envisions how political alignment, people power, and direct action are essential elements of this work.

  • Faith based community organizing networks like Gamliel, Faith in Action, and the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) take the work a step further by organizing institutions, rather than human beings. They focus on power and long-term change by teaching the essentials of helping leaders--people with followers--get clear on self interest; public vs. private relationships, one-on-one relational meetings; cutting an issue, broad-based organizations; the “third” sector; power analysis: the cycle of listen, reflect, research, act, evaluate.

  • Shana Storm of The Century Foundation observes in her report, “Organizing’s Business Model Problem: “IAF operates perhaps the widest range of large earned-income ventures of any organization interviewed for this report.” Shana describes how because of the decentralized structure, IAF has one of the most developed set of earned income strategies with its healthcare co-op Common Ground in Wisconsin, Real Estate Ventures in NY, Baltimore, DC, fundraising consultant company, and the Community Purchasing Alliance Co-op.

  • Peter Murray (in The Secret of Scale) offers a helpful analysis of the NRA and the AARP and how they’ve built so much power because of their focus on “functional organizing” -- offering tangible member benefits.

  • As we think about power in the US and the waning, yet still important role of unions, it’s helpful to recognize how unions provide tangible benefits to workers, as well as collective negotiating power so employers have to deal with whole groups of workers and not just individuals.

  • Center for Popular Democracy, Partnership for Working Families, United for A Fair Economy, National People’s Action, Union Co-op Initiative in Cincinnati, 1-worker-1-vote, and many unions (SEIU, NNU, AFSCME…) are important organizing groups that are powerful parts of the broader “structure organizing” and “changing dominant institutions” movement ecology.

  • Rev William Barber with the Poor People’s Campaign, the Movement for Black Lives, Occupy Wall Street are less focused on structural organizing and more focused on shifting public perception and shifting the narrative. Each group continues to contribute through mass mobilization: direct action, media-focused work, online organizing, large digital engagement, and visual engagement that often has significant impact in shifting what’s possible or imagined to be possible. For additional examples, consider the impact of 350.org and Bill McKibben in shifting the widely accepted target in the energy sector / environmental movement which originally had a goal of 450ppm and has successfully shifted the target to 350ppm.

  • Or consider the Beyond Coal campaign, which shifted the narrative that was dominant between 2005 and 2010 when there were many “clean coal” advocates to a clear position that if you were serious about meeting climate goals and transitioning to clean energy, we need to move “Beyond coal” -- and the impact by 2016 with more than 300 of 400 coal power plants on their way to getting shut down. Another example is the impact of Occupy Wall Street to really re-focus and reframe the issue of wealth inequality the 99% vs the 1% framing. Similarly #BlackLivesMatter and the on-going work of Movement 4 Black Lives has had a pivotal role in opening up space for conversations about reparations.

Given the range of alternatives, big tent organizations like the New Economy Coalition provide a helpful gathering space to meet, network, and learn about what’s emerging and what’s gaining steam, traction, and having success. You can also join them at their conference, CommonBound, every 2 years.

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What’s your argument for why it’s important to spend time thinking deeply about your cause or movement?

Using this sketch of the different parts of the Broader movement ecology and your own experience, intellectual formation, and convictions.

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Remember this is public work. Getting in touch with “Why” -- is important whether it emerges from your own personal ethic, formative experiences, inner life, spiritual practice, some lessons learned from previous experiences, or an intellectual analysis of the local, regional, national, international movement ecology.

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By Felipe Witchger, October 5, 2019 for CPA Incubator Workshop

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