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.