Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

Numbers Alone Don't Move a Movement

Filed By Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz | October 31, 2010 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: movement

I come from the school of community organizing--often referred to as postes.jpegmovement building--that seeks to connect issues, communities and identities. I engage in organizing from this place because, frankly, I don't know how to do it any other way. It is the way that race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, faith and ethnicity intersects within my own body that drives my approach to organizing. If I didn't organize from this intersectional place I'd have to check major parts of my identity at the door in order to do the work. I don't want that for myself nor do I want others to have to check parts of their identities at the proverbial movement door.

Queers, particularly queers of color, have a long history of doing intersectional organizing. Why? Because our complex bodies provide the road map for organizing strategies that leave no one behind. The whole point of intersectional organizing is to try and achieve universal design. This means that if a movement is built to support and speak to the most marginalized among us everyone benefits.

Queer people of color have always understood this well. We continue to break ground by connecting issues, identities and communities in every movement. Yet we have also seen that as movements become more institutionalized and corporatized they push the most complex bodies, thinking and organizing practices to the margin of the movement. Simplification, expediency and incrementalism have become the standard by which movement success is measured. This has occured at the direct expense of building movements that speak to the multiplicity of issues and identities that comprise our queer communities.

Make no mistake about it; the history and legacy of movement building is strong! Bayard Rustin contributed to this legacy when he organized for racial justice in the pacifist movement of the 1930's. Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga made their contribution when they wrote the groundbreaking book This Bridge Called My Back. Audre Lorde made her contribution when she urged all of us in Sister Outsider to understand that the "master's tools won't dismantle the master's house."

Today we have queer multi-racial organizations such as Queers for Economic Justice, Southerners on New Ground, Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center rooting themselves in and deepening this legacy. Why? Because we know this legacy in our bones. We know it because we live and die as a direct result of the complexities in our bodies.

Important example of this comes from A Black Feminist Statement written in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective--a collective comprised of Black feminists, many of whom were queer. Their groundbreaking statement named why it was so critical for Black women to build political power from their experiences as Black women at the margin of society:

Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else's but because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. [We] realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.

The Combahee River Collective had a complex and intersectional understanding about the lives, identities, experiences of Black women. They connected sexism, classism, ableism and homophobia (remember this was 1977 and biphobia/transphobia were not part of the queer framework) in ways that were nuanced and deeply rooted in the multiple oppressions Black women face. They understood that organizing from their shared identities and oppressions as Black women not only made all kinds of intuitive sense but also that their collective survival depended upon it. A Black Feminist Statement continues to be a call to action for those of us who are committed to intersectionalty as an organizing strategy and as a way of building community.

Movement building at the intersections is not the only organizing game in town. So it's important ground this piece in a little history lesson about the different approaches to organizing and how they have an impact on the queer movement. So let me digress for just a moment.

There is movement building and there is campaign organizing or what is known as Alinsky-based organizing . Across movements these two schools are hard at work and often deep in conflict. In their 1996 article entitled Square Pegs Find Their Groove: Reshaping the Organizing Circle, Kim Fellner and Francis Calpotura articulate some of the basic differences between movement builders and Alinskian organizers when they state:

The definition of Alinsky-based organizing championed by Mike Miller, author of Beyond the Politics of Place, includes: "building units of permanent power, rooted in local communities, led by and accountable to local people." Its goals tend to involve redistributing power away from unaccountable institutions and towards the organization; with a professional organizer who brings the organization into being, and nurtures indigenous leadership from the organization's membership base.

Characteristics of this organizing practice have included a pragmatic focus on issues that are "immediate, specific and winnable," and the dominance of white male organizers, albeit ones of tremendous intellect and energy.

Garry Delgado, founder of the Applied Research Center, proposes that "the ground-breaking work, the innovation, the experimentation, and the motivating livid anger that comes from the truly oppressed is at the heart of the work in immigrants' rights organizations, gay and lesbian organizations, disabled people's organizations and organizations of people of color. It is these formations, compelled always to struggle with the politics of difference, that will force the practitioners of traditional community organizing to move 'beyond the politics of place' to address the cultural dimensions of power in their own organizations, as well as in society at large."

My perspective on this is pretty simple: I believe that both of these approaches to organizing are focused on building progressive political power and could collaborate in more effective ways. Yet, where the rubber hits the road is around deeply philosophical and tactical differences around how to build political power and who will lead.

There is no doubt in my mind that we need the best thinking, strategies and organizing tools at our disposal to work for justice and liberation. Yet I do not believe that the organizing strategies and approaches that are organic to people of color, queer, disability justice and other communities on the margin of society should be less valued because they are not short term and focused on immediate winnable goals. The deeper and more complex the issues of oppression are within communities the longer term the organizing strategies must be.

In other words, layers and layers of oppression are not going to be solved in the context of a short term legislative, ballot measure, electoral campaign. Intersecting oppressions require--even demand--long term strategies. Strategies that funders and mainstream movement leaders don't often believe produce concrete deliverables, winnable campaigns and achievable policy goals in the immediate.

This is where we get into trouble as a queer movement.

We must ask ourselves not only what we mean by "winnable" but also who gets to define the win. Alinskian organizers often define the win by the numbers — the number of doors that were knocked on, the number of legislative votes that were flipped in our favor, the number of volunteers recruited, the number of votes cast. I absolutely agree that we need to have a laser sharp focus on those numbers and the best organizers around the country knocking on doors and flipping legislative votes. Yet, at the same time, we need dedicated and visionary movement builders working before, during and after a campaign on organizing around the following questions: what are we building political power for? Who benefits? How will we cultivate leadership for the long haul so that when the campaign is over a multi-racial and inclusive body of leaders is in place and thriving long after a winning or losing campaign is over?

Perhaps if we engaged in both the numbers game and intentional, intersectional movement building throughout the Prop 8 fight, there wouldn't have been a completely unjustified backlash against communities of color--particularly the Black community. Remember the concept of universal design! If we organize for the long haul by centering the experiences of the most marginalized on our society everyone benefits. If we just focus on the numbers and not the community building the most marginalized always become the targets of blame.

If we just focus on a narrow "winnable" LGBT political agenda that speaks only to a very small portion of our community (like marriage equality) then what happens when this handful of policy goals are eventually won? What will the mainstream national LGBT movement work on while the rest of us are knee deep in a couple of decades worth of work on broad based economic, racial, environmental, reproductive and disability justice issues? How many more times does the queer movement need to replay this old, sad, tired and completely despicable story?

Movement building and intersectionality have been around since the beginning of organizing time. Yet, because it is a form of organizing that is culturally based, complex, non-linear, long term and organic it's often disregarded by people in power who value approaches to organizing that are more in line with the rules and regulations of the dominant culture (linear, numbers based, either/or strategies). Without movement building our movements would not move! Historically and currently, our movements would not be able to reach large scope and scale without the long term vision and the cultural work--meaning the production of art, music, writing, poetry--that has fueled our movements. Numbers alone don't inspire. Numbers alone don't resonate with people's real lives and experiences. But long-term relationships, cultural work and a vision can move people to action especially when individuals and communities build the vision, produce the cultural work and co-create the political agendas!

Gloria Anzaldúa said it best in her book entitled Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras:

We have not one movement but many. Our political, literary and artistic movements are discarding the patriarchal model of the hero/leader leading the rank and file. Ours are individual and small group movidas, unpublicized movimentos--movements not of the media stars of popular authors but of small groups or single mujeres, many of whom have not written books or spoken at national conferences. [Our] movements, like the wind, sweep through the sea of grass in California, cut swaths in Texas, take root in Maine, sway public opinion in North Dakota, stir the dust in New Mexico. Now, here, now there, aqui y alla, we and our movimentos are firmly committed to transforming all our cultures.

If it is transformation we are committed to achieving and if it is broad-based political power we hope to build, than let us honor the legacy of intersectional movement building. Without this approach to organizing we deprive our movements of the necessary oxygen, inspiration and vision they need to really move.

Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales.

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I'm going to channel AndrewW by asking what are you SPECIFICALLY aiming for. I'll give you and analogy to make my point. Suppose a person made the following goals:

1. Stop smoking
2. Drop thirty pounds
3. Exercise an hour per day

To the extent they were successful they'd be more healthy. This method of establishing SPECIFIC measurable goals works well for accomplishing almost anything.

On the other hand if someone said "my goal is to be healthier" most likely they'll accomplish nothing. This sort of generic Kum bay ya approach to progressivism seems to be what you're proposing. It is too vague to accomplish much.

Going out on a non-PC limb of discussion your Kum bay ya approach allows for the likelihood of any group that buys into it to be victims indefinitely. After all it has no guidelines as to what establishes the end of victimization. The nice thing about passing ENDA, ending the DOMA and ending DADT is most gays could call it a day and go about life not being victims due to being gay if these things were accomplished.

What about everyone else? I suggest we focus on employment rights with specific goals in mind. Almost everyone, gay or straight, is a victim of an oppressive system in the U.S.

Great point. I would also note that without any specific goals we simply don't work together.

I think we can define winning. Having a majority of our fellow citizens standing with us would be winning because it would accomplish most of our objectives. The goal is "equality" and having the majority standing for equality would change the politics permanently.

Everyone can do "movement building" by educating, enlightening and enrolling. That isn't complicated - we need to talk to neighbors, friends, co-workers and even strangers.

I think our community continues to suffer by trying to be part of a bigger movement (progressive), instead of simply focusing on our equality or being obsessed with the ever-frustrating "politics."

WE are the solution.

I disagree. I don't think this is, to use the popular term, "black or white." Lisa praises the Alinsky organizers in many parts of this post, even saying we need to have a "laser focus" on the numbers. Lisa doesn't seem to be telling us that campaigning needs to go away--as others on this very site often do. On the contrary, Lisa is saying exactly what I believe: campaigning, political organizing is PART of the picture. No one strategy is the magic pill, folks. And Lisa explains exactly why. We're all so different, and there are so MANY people pushed out to the margins whose talents and ideas are wasted and languish, and whose needs are never met.

I like that Lisa asks "who gets to define the win." This is something I struggle with every day when discussing our political agenda--and let me be very clear that I would be counted in the Alinsky camp. I've often had a problem with how leaders in our community frame winning. I agree with many of the stated goals of the 'movement.' After all, we've established, I'm not very radical, I'm pretty vanilla, I'm not a liberation-activist, I'm quite content with the goal of equality. So my perspective skews what I see as a win. However, even within that perspective, we see lots of marginalization. There are pro-equality transgender folk left out of the picture all of the time. There are people who feel pushed out of the conversation when it focuses on marriage equality on the coasts, or military issues.

Then--even with all of that disagreement and marginalizing--we step outside of that echo chamber, and we find we've still left massive swaths of the community out.

Lisa's point, as I understood it, is not to undermine those of us focused on campaigning for equality, but rather to remind us to refocus sometimes, and remember our limited perspective.

I'll never be someone who is happy with any entity that believes there is one and only one strategy. Any entity that believes its got the authority to prioritize the goals for everyone else. I realize I LIVE within that entity, but that doesn't mean I'm not trying to affect it, and we should all try to expand our perspective.

Just because most of us are liberal, doesn't mean we're not closed-minded. Some of the most closed-minded people I know come from the left. It seems to fly in the face of reason, but I know some really really closed-minded radical liberation activists even. Closed-minded in that they are stubborn and blind and unwilling to entertain any point of view or strategy or perspective other than their own.

Here's what happens with these people: as their slightly more open-minded comrades begin to expand their perspective, they're slowly left behind until they are the shrieking, angry, jaded, out-of-touch loner.

The more we cling to our own ideas as being the only true, correct way, the more we head down this path. I don't ever want to be 'that guy.' Isolated, ignorant, backward.

Lisa has some important things to add to the conversation, and we ought to open our minds up to what she's saying here. It doesn't threaten me in the very least, as a fairly Conservative (well, by comparison to some on this site at least) campaign-focused, politics-obsessed, numbers-crazy organizer and citizen journalist. You have to ask yourself: WHY am I so threatened by it?

You disagree with what part(s)?

All I suggested was that "winning" meant "the majority of our fellow citizens supported our full equality."

I think that's a specific way to determine what it means to WIN. If the majority is with us we will have successfully marginalized those against us and politically neutered them in the process.

You seem to want to repeat the tired and true "there is no magic pill" or "no one organization" and I don't think that's the topic here.

Lisa suggested: "We must ask ourselves not only what we mean by "winnable" but also who gets to define the win."

I think it is imperative to define "winning." I have suggested it means "the majority of our fellow citizens support our full equality."

It may not solve all of our issues completely (and that needs to be focused on) but it does solve most of them.

Do you have another way to define "winning?" Specifically?


There is something I want to raise, you say:

"I think it is imperative to define "winning." I have suggested it means "the majority of our fellow citizens support our full equality." "

My question and what I think Lisa's article asks us to think about is when you say our full equality, who do you mean? And who says what equality looks like for this defined group of "us"?

I really like the example of marriage equality. This is the big thing that LGBT orgs are fighting for at state levels and nationally. This right is important and should be fought for but it only benefits a small part of our larger community.

You only get any benefit if you are an adult, in a relationship with one other person of the same gender. So all this energy doesn't help single people, lgbt teens, people in relationships with more than one person, etc.

So I think keeping the who is us? and who does the work benefit? and most importantly who is left outside when we win? when we do this work is very important to creating the larger change we want to see.

Thanks Kevin.

I look at the treatment of homosexuality (and by extension the LGBT community) as what people believe about us. Those against us believe either we or our behavior are "wrong." They also believe it is a "choice." Those two lies have defined us and created most (if not all) of our hardship.

Many people have gotten over those beliefs. Most young people have. Most over 50 years old never will.

When people extinguish those beliefs we are no longer "wrong" or a "choice." Getting enough people to do that is the goal. They do that by standing with us for our "full equality."

That's what I mean, and I acknowledge it isn't perfect, but it is definitive. Getting "majority" support from our fellow citizens would solve ALL of our political battles. But, much in the same way that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn't end racism, bigotry will not disappear. Today racism continues to infect about one-third of Americans. That LAW didn't end racism, it punished it. The reality is progress was made because racists died. Homophobic bigotry is dying off, too. We can wait and watch that happen or we can expedite that natural cultural conversation process. I want to accelerate it. That's why I believe it is OUR job to create our equality.

Many times this conversation gets unfairly reduced to "priorities." Having a majority of our fellow citizens willing to stand with us will solve most of our struggle. Some of that debate is fueled by special interests that are raising money or fighting for those funds. It's a problem. Amazingly, NONE of those organizations is working directly to demonstrate "changed minds."

Here's the best part - two thirds of our fellow citizens WILL stand with us for our full equality. That means we CAN win.

Most of us are disenchanted and frustrated by Gay Inc. and politics. We NEED "Movement Building" and Lisa did a great job defining it, but we also need to WIN. This struggle has gone on for too many years. I simply suggest that we haven't been seeing the real goal and we have wasted a lot of time, money and energy chasing rainbows.

We can do better. We must do better. THAT is our most important conversation. We will all wake up on November 3rd and feel like it's 1994 all over again. We CANNOT repeat the last 16 years - it didn't work.

I appreciate your comment.

Oh, AndrewW, please.

There's an old saying that more often than true change comes when people act themselves into right thinking as opposed to thinking themselves into right acting,

Changing the law allows for the "acting oneself into right thinking" mode but you, you have a disdain for what laws can and cannot do.

The changed minds can come later (and, as you say, some of it will simply be folks dying off).

It has taken 46 years for racism in America to drop by 50%. You may want to wait another 46 years, I don't. Laws don't change minds, people do.

Where do your numbers come from?

Regarding racism from Gallup polling.

Regarding those that would support us is from Gallup, Pew, ARIS and specific Denomination polling and State polling.

It is important to view support for LGBT-issues on a state-by-state basis. National polling data is useless in the US Senate.

I'm suggesting we look at our struggle as solvable challenge and not a romanticized "fight." That's difficult for many, but it is something we've never done. It's time.

Chitown Kev | November 1, 2010 1:17 PM

Again, you're being evasive AND you totally missed the point.

Racism would not have "dropped" even that much (if at all) if there were not laws in place to penalize racist ACTIONS under many circumstances.

Say what you want about religion, for example, but it was the LAW that criminalized certain sexual activities (though those laws were rarely enforced)...Justice Scalia WAS right, after all about this very point in his Lawrence v. Texas dissent.

And it's people who make the laws, so this winds up being a very circular argument.

There is no evidence that laws changed any racist's behaviors. Those that remained committed racists just learned to avoid those laws.

Racism ends when parents (and others) stop teaching it. They didn't stop teaching it because of those laws, they stopped because they grew up, evolved and matured. The biggest gains we've seen in ending racism come from racists dying and parents no longer teaching it.

Abortion is legal in America. Has that changed fundamentalist Christian minds? You cannot legislate how people think. You can punish bad behavior, but that isn't the solution - education and growth is. Ending bigotry will take the same path - with or without "laws." But, if you give it careful consideration you will conclude having a majority of our fellow citizens standing with us is far better than trying to "order" them to so so.

Chitown Kev | November 1, 2010 2:56 PM

You will NOT end bigotry.

And while fundamentalist Christian minds have not changed about abortion, according to the laws (both state and federal) they cannot deny a grown woman the right to an abortion.

Too much either/or thinking Andrew, it's not an either/or issue and it never is (or was). It involves both laws (for example outlawing segregation) + education (a white person finally working alongside learning that the black/Latino person IS competent or even more compentent than he...which CAN potentially provoke a racist reaction as well, as I well know).

Changing the laws allows that education to happen.

And, as you note, some people just are not going to change.

Also, what do you mean by "committed racists"? (you brought the terminology into play, I'm interested in your definition).

Read my comments again Kev, I never said "end bigotry" but those people can become the minority. That is victory.

Committed racists are simply going to figure out a way around laws. Laws don't change their minds. I don't suggest that laws making "bigotry" wrong are not helpful, but that isn't the goal - equality is.

Again, we need to educate and encourage instead of simply believing laws change minds or end something. They don't protect either - they punish.

It's been 46 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. There is still racism. From two-thirds of America to one-third of America is progress, but look it up - the end of racism has resulted in racists dying and parents that stopped teaching it. I'm a white man and I have two teenage nephews that are partly racist. They got that from their Father, he taughtthem that - in spite of laws against it.

I'm not sure you see "equality" as the goal or how we define "winning."

Chitown Kev | November 1, 2010 4:00 PM

Where did I say that we (and who is this "we" that you speak of) don't need to do the education part?

And you did the correlation yourself Andrew...46 years since a comprehensive law was passed outlawing segregation (it didn't outlaw racism) in many different facets of life.

For that matter I grew up being told all sorts of things about white people by some of my family members. If I lived in a society where black folks ruled, then yes, that would be racism.

But that education was supplanted by what I experienced being around some white folks; both racist and non-racist. If virulent segregation still existed (and I'm from the Midwest so that was never officially on the books in my lifetime) I never would have been afforded those opportunities.

Thanks for the dialogue. I think Lisa's put forward a lot of complex stuff here that many of us that do this work conflate/ oversimplify. This piece lets us take a little step back, but still engage the issues even as we critique the framework.

I appreciate the dialogue thus far and I think the civil way in which folks have engaged the issues and each other is a testament to the way Lisa's laid it out. I would only add that the important point of "defining the win" that many of you have touched on also sets up what gets framed as a "victory" or what gets framed as "selling out" or "throwing someone under a bus." I'm haunted (yes, it's the day after Halloween!) by the question, "What's the difference between compromise and collaboration?" If our enemies (and sometimes even our allies) become more entrenched in their dogmas, does finding common ground mean conceding our own ground?

Thanks again, all.

Defining the "win" as equality accomplishes most of goals. I see no reason for anyone leaving anyone behind.

As far as "compromise" goes none of us should compromise anything regarding equality - it is a simple yes/no position for people to take.

Perhaps, we should be focused more on our fellow citizens, than trying to collaborate politically or otherwise. We are much better equipped to have those conversations with one simple issue - equality.

I also appreciate Lisa's article and the comments here. We need a Movement. We need a way to involve everyone in that effort. Today, less than one-in-ten participates or contributes. I believe that is because we have never been shown a "path to victory" and if we ever are, the majority of our community would participate. That would lead to victory. Most of our community is frustrated and even disenchanted - especially after these last two years of "false hope."