I come from the school of community organizing--often referred to as movement 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.