Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

Building Our Movement with Heart and Chutzpah

Filed By Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz | November 17, 2010 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics
Tags: Audre Lorde Project, LGBT rights, movement, racial justice, Southerners on New Ground

Movements are supposed to move. They are supposed to be nimble enough to respond to what is happening at the grassroots level. After all, it's been proven that change historically takes place from the bottom up not from the top down. So why, oh why, does our national LGBT Paul-Wellstone-quote.jpegmovement continue to operate as if change occurs at a national legislative and policy level?

Let me digress for a little history lesson that might help to put this question into perspective:

Bayard Rustin started doing racial justice organizing in the 1930's in the pacifist and labor movements. Over the course of 30 years he organized, built strategic coalitions and facilitated racial justice trainings throughout the country.

The insights he gained from his travels, training work, community conversations and organizing efforts eventually became the framework within which the Civil Rights Movement articulated its vision, organizing strategies and values. It took 30 years, but in 1964 Rustin was able to witness his life's work reach mass scope and scale as thousands upon thousands of people flooded onto the National Mall for the 1964 March on Washington.

Rustin spent decades doing what movement builders call base building. He strategically built coalitions and spread an uncompromising racial and economic justice world view across the country using training, leadership development and organizing as his tools.

What we learn from Rustin's story is that base building takes time. Base building is about nurturing relationships, networks and a shared analysis of oppression that moves the most marginalized among us to action. Base building is what allows us to collectivize our resources, thinking and strategies so that we can come up with solutions to the most pressing issues facing our communities. Base building is no joke. It's hard work. It's organic to our communities and, as a result, there is no cookie cutter approach.

I share this bit of history because I believe that our national LGBT movement has lost its way. Our movement has increasingly moved away from rooting itself in the daily lived experiences of queer people by setting political and legislative agendas that push the most complex and marginalized bodies in our communities further to the margin.

Brazilian educator and organizer Paulo Frèire names this power dynamic when he states: "any situation in which some men [women and gender queer people] prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;... to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects." Yes, my friends, we have a national "movement" that is almost devoid of any commitment to self determination and community building. This is antithetical to what we should be doing which is to remain rooted in desire, yearning, sexual liberation and justice in all of its forms.

Rather than building an authentic and accountable base that represents the real breadth and depth of our communities, we now have a corporate and branded national non-profit network that privileges the rights of some members of our community over others. There is no place for input because these are closed systems that do not consult or collaborate with communities in order to set the national political agenda and frame issues. Yet, we are all expected to follow their leadership because somehow they are supposed to represent queer people.

In this branded and corporate approach, success is measured by how much money is raised in order to achieve short term policy and political wins rather than following organizing principles and practices that allow us to win and build an inclusive, sustainable movement for the long haul.

When we stop base building we lose our humanity as a movement. We lose our heart. We lose our passion. We lose the possibility of forging meaningful connections across communities, issues and identities. In essence we are no longer organizing but exerting power over communities we may know nothing about.

Yet, I have not given up hope! Why? Because there are some incredibly effective multi-racial and cross issue organizations in our movement that aren't skimping in the base building department! Not only are they engaging in base building with both heart and chutzpah, but they are injecting life, a commitment to interdependence and vision into our movement that is not coming from the top.

Because of their leadership, our movement has a future! I want to highlight some examples of strong base building by sharing the organizing statements of three organizations that are near and dear to my heart: Southerners on New Ground, FIERCE and Audre Lorde Project.

Southerners on New Ground (SONG), articulates their base building strategy with such depth and insight in the following statement of organizing principles:

If we want to build a broad-based movement for justice, across many different communities we believe we need to articulate clearly what we believe, in that spirit, we believe that: every person is worthy of dignity and respect; We are all part of one another; People are experts on their own lives, and have the right to self-determination. It is through people's stories that we learn the conditions needed for change, hope, resiliency, and survival; Community Organizing is the best way we know to build power for oppressed people. SONG supports organizing that builds collective power and leadership among all involved and that begins with people who are most targeted by injustice.

SONG's statement of organizing principles is such a great example of base building. They articulate a commitment to self determination and organizing in a way that is deeply rooted in the real lives, conditions and experiences of queer communities in the South. Their approach to organizing puts yearning, desire and an uncompromising commitment accountability at the heart of the work.

FIERCE in New York also does its work rooted in base building principles. What is so important to highlight about their base building statement is that they center their work in the languages, cultures and styles of LGBTQ youth. In other words their base building approach is organic to the communities they serve. FIERCE's statement is equally powerful:

In order to create real social change in our communities, FIERCE believes we need to build a sizable membership base. We build our membership base through street outreach, monthly base-building events, and presentations at LGBTQ youth service organizations. FIERCE has developed our own unique style of outreach through established social networks and by engaging other LGBTQ youth in the language, culture and style that is specific to our community.

Another example of intentional base building work comes from the Audre Lorde Project. In their statement of organizing principles they emphasize collective power and the importance of communities defining not only the problems they face but the strategies they believe are needed to address those problems:

ALP's primary strategy is community organizing inclusive of leadership development. We define community organizing as a strategic process for building people's (our communities') collective power to achieve self-determination and justice including: Ensuring that community members (those indigenous to LGBTSTGNC POC communities) are the ones who identify key problems and issues (where inequality is felt most) ALP chooses to work on; Bringing community together to identify solutions based on collective action and response - to build people power; Building a base of community members that understands and strategically uses community organizing to further justice work. We understand that building this base requires ongoing training, skills-building and other opportunities to develop analysis, organizing and leadership indigenous to our communities. This includes ongoing leadership development as well as support of institution-building within LGBTSTGNC POC communities.

All of these examples provide insights into both the history of base building work and the important role that it must play in our movement building work today. Base building challenges us to ask the hard, soul searching questions such as:

  • What is an LGBT movement that does not put self determination and the complexity of the conditions queer people across communities face?
  • What is an LGBT movement that does not put our bodies, desires, sexualities and genders at the center?
  • What is an LGBT movement that does not have a long term vision for building collective power so that we can stand strong together rather than divided across issues, identities and communities?
  • What is an LGBT movement that does not understand the complexity of culture and how it informs how we organize, hold power, define our issues and come up with the solutions that are going to do right by our communities?

My answer to these questions is that it's no movement at all! Base building challenges us to ask these questions. It challenges us to look critically at issues of power and privilege. It allows us to forge relationships and beloved community over time so that we can sustain an ongoing commitment to our collective self determination and vision for a just world.

Base building is no joke. Base building takes time. Yet, base building is what our national movement must return to so that it can move with heart, chutzpah and an uncompromising commitment to the diversity of our queer lives.


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Oh my God! I love this post.

"...is what allows us to collectivize our resources, thinking and strategies..."

I have been talking about this for so long. Unity, Unity, Unity. Cohesive thought,language, message. Not what we have today.

"Rather than building an authentic and accountable base that represents the real breadth and depth of our communities, we now have a corporate and branded national non-profit network that privileges the rights of some members of our community over others."

Sadly, this ethic has percolated down to the community level (at least in my hometown).

Fantastic post, Lisa. I built off yours with a short quip in the post following this one. It really made me think while I was editing it and when I saw that quote, I thought it would really tie in with what you were saying. Check out some of the comments there and join the discussion please. I'd be interested in your take on some of them.

Lisa - you are spot on. as an organizer I have had a very hard time base building because of the existing culture of top down driven 'movement.' What has been wonderful has been that with the blood, sweat and tears I've poured into my organizing efforts, I've seen that the tide can change. It is going to take a lot of work - but we can do this and see our movement return to the hands of those most impacted by the oppression faced against our people. Even broader - that we can see the efforts of us all flourish in a stronger, bottom up movement model.

Thank you very much for sharing this!

Alan