The dynamics of movement success

A good friend of mine, Veronica Bayetti Flores, wrote a blog post today for Feministing about what movements are deemed successful.

In the past few years I have heard over and over – usually from straight women – that the reproductive health movement should look to the marriage equality movement as a model for success. With the recent Supreme Court decisions around marriage equality, I expect to hear this now more than ever.  And yet every time I hear this, I shudder. Not just because the marriage equality movement – one that has largely been led by wealthy, white gays – has been so problematic, but because it is being said in the face of an extremely successful movement led by undocumented youth, the overwhelming majority of whom are people of color, many of whom are also women, and many of whom are also queer.

She goes on:

It’s time that we paid attention to the forces behind movements’ political successes, and what that says about whom they are ultimately serving. It says a lot about the ways that racism plays out in progressive communities when a movement that has been led largely by wealthy white folks gets consistently named as the one to model – even when the demand is conservative, even when queer and trans folks of color consistently call out its racism, even when a successful movement led by those who are some of the most distinct targets of injustice in our society is under way. In mainstream reproductive health and rights circles, undocumented youth might get a few kudos, maybe some “they’re so brave.” But from there it moves on quickly, without further analysis, as though there were nothing there from which we could possibly learn. This has incredibly deep implications that go beyond just perceptions of success, but cut into reputability, access to funding and resources, and ultimately movements’ progress, sustainability, and survival.

I’ve had a lot of similar thoughts about witnessing the undocumented movement in the US these past years−the DREAMers, the NYSYLC, undocuqueer, the NIYA and many, many more. I’ve become friends with some of the folks involved, but mostly I’ve been in awe of their savvy and political influence. The fact that a group of young people, most of whom are not even constituents of the elected officials they influence (because they cannot vote because of their status) have been able to influence policy and political dialogue to the degree they have has been incredible. And this without most of the resources flowing to the more mainstream groups working on immigration. While there are a few non-profits set up to support the undocumented movement, the resources are minuscule in comparison to most. And let’s remember, of course, that many of the folks involved in this work can’t get paid to work legally in the US, which means that they likely aren’t getting full-time non-profit salaries while they are putting themselves into detention to help other immigrants inside. (To learn more about this aspect of their movement, last week’s episode of This American Life chronicled it.)

A few things that I think about this, in addition to the amazing analysis by Veronica.

One is that I question whether our current non-profit centered model of organizing and activism can ever truly fuel the kind of major change we know we need on many fronts. These organizations, while well-meaning and mission-driven, are in many ways simply tax-shelters for the wealthy. They allow people with resources to give their money away tax-free. The vast majority of the resources coming to non-profit organizations comes from private foundations whose wealth was accrued through private business (Ford, Hewlett, Gates). I question whether these funders actually want to do much to change the status quo—at least not in the more extreme ways some activist groups would want to. So the model of professionalized activism—still relatively new in many ways—may be fundamentally opposed to the kind of changes our movement wants to see. I realize this is not new thinking. So it’s no surprise that the movement with little to no institutional support is the one that actually has evidence of being successful.

The second thing I think a lot about is how the success of the undocumented movement has been based on the willingness of the individuals involved to put themselves on the line. Many of their actions center around civil disobedience, knowingly putting themselves at risk of arrest, and even in recent years purposefully entering detention centers as detainees to help the immigrants inside.

Remember, the vast majority of the folks doing these things are undocumented. Which means that a simple arrest for protesting, or taking over an elected official’s office, could mean deportation and the inability to come back to the US, ever. Talk about putting it all on the line. Now obviously these folks are smart, they work with good lawyers, and they know what they are doing. They take calculated risks, and many of the activists who’ve been arrested have also stayed in the US. But the possibility is always there. It’s why their work gets the much-deserved attention.

Are you willing to risk deportation, possibly to a country you haven’t lived in since you were a baby, for your movement? I don’t know that I would be willing.

The moments that we see the most effective activism, the most inspiring acts of courage and resistance, are often in the face of extreme challenge. What happened in Texas last week. What’s going on in North Carolina today as I write this.

It’s at times a crippling reality, this sense that change will never come from the institutions I hope can be responsible for fighting for justice. It makes me question my choices, where my time lies, how I make a living and what I think about my own activist contributions. But when I’m feeling hopeful, when I take a note from folks like Veronica, I think maybe we just need to be learning the lessons of our history. Maybe we can transform our world, inside of institutions and outside of them. Maybe we can learn how to be brave enough to take real risks, to put it all on the line, because even if we feel our little slice of life is protected, we know that it wouldn’t take much for us to lose it all.

I’ll leave you with another incredible video from the folks at SONG, who inspire me everyday with lessons about what transformational activism can look like (even within a non-profit org).

Queering Immigration from Southerners on New Ground (SONG) on Vimeo.

Producer: Southerners On New Ground
Director, Cinematographer, Editor: Sowjanya Kudva

[ Ngowo Nuemeh / Itai Marshall Jeffries / Ashe Helm-Hernandez / Vanessa / Taryn Jordan / Paulina Helm-Hernandez ]

Queering Immigration #queerimmigration

We offer this video as a love letter to our Immigrant communities, LGBTQ communities, and communities of color about our inter-connected destinies. On the Fourth of July, SONG knows real independence is inter-dependence. Real independence requires community beyond citizenship. For all those who live between and beyond borders of all kinds, this one is for you.


What movement are you married to?

Marry the Movement from Southerners on New Ground (SONG) on Vimeo.

Closed Captioning Available
[Producer] Southerners On New Ground [Director, Cinematographer, Editor, GFX] Sowjanya Kudva #marrythemovement

This is a video Southerners On New Ground (SONG) made as a love letter to the LGBTQ movement and our allies. We want to encourage the promise and commitment of love for each other as LGBTQ people, beyond any one issue or win.

What a week.

This video made by SONG did a lot to bring me back to the essence of all this media, rulings, celebrations, explanations. What movement am I married to? Whose movement is it? Who is funding that movement?

The marriage wins at the Supreme Court this week feel big. But I’m not sure that they feel like mine. Marriage is not an institution that I personally am particularly interested in joining, nor do I think inclusive marriage will be the site of our collective liberation. Gay marriage means there are now benefits available to me if I’m willing to join this particular vision of a legal contract for my romantic partnership. And don’t get it twisted−these benefits are huge and vastly important in our world. They are difficult to survive without.

In the context in which we understand marriage as a fundamentally conservative value or entity, in that it encourages the formation of families and romantic partnerships in a particular way that benefits a particular view of society, of family, of economics and capitalism, then it’s not so hard to understand how these marriage rulings came down from the same court that also gutted the Voting Rights Act, dissolved a Native man’s legal rights to his biological child, and refused to make a ruling regarding Affirmative Action.

Radical Doula, over these almost 7 years I’ve been posting here, has morphed many times. In the last few years I’ve written almost exclusively about things that are birth activism related, mostly because other writing I did went elsewhere−often places that paid me for my writing. But that has meant that this space no longer truly encapsulates the breadth of my political perspective–the picture of my true movement–because I’ve limited myself to one box.

No longer. After four years as a self-employed writer, consultant and speaker I’ve accepted a full-time job beginning in September. You can read more about that journey and decision here. That means a lot of things for my life, but what it means for this space, and for Radical Doula, is that it can once again be a home for all of my political writing, not just what fits into the “birth activism” box, or more honestly, fits into the “no one is going to pay me for this so I’ll publish it at RD.”

While getting paid to write has done much for my ability to pay my rent, and has also given me access to audiences broader than this one, it’s also limited me in different ways that I’m excited to let go of.

So, dear Radical Doula readers, I hope you’ll indulge me in my political musings beyond birth activism exclusively. It’s all, however loosely, tied to this bigger vision, this bigger movement that I’m searching for and craving and waiting for−one that won’t ask me to choose or prioritize or wait for my turn.