How we can build the movement for social justice before, during and after this election

We need to be thinking about what happens after June 8th – not just who gets elected but how we can organise our movement for the longer term

Kat Wall
3 May 2017

Flickr/Roger Blackwell. Some rights reservedWe need real change in this country – an end to austerity and cuts to social security, good jobs at a living wage, less insecurity and more control over our lives, an end to oppression of people based on the colour of our skin, our sexuality, gender, ability and class, and a concerted effort to stop the destruction of our planet.

A general election provides a chance to elect a government who believes in these things.

“The key question is how can we do this campaign with an eye on what comes next – in a way that identifies leaders, that builds power?” asks Elly Baker, national organiser with the National Union of Teachers.

Over the next few weeks we need to be thinking about what happens after June 8th – not just who gets elected but who in our workplaces and neighbourhoods we could meet again and connect with, who we think are the possible leaders and what experiences people have that will move them to act.

“When the public is won and activated, politicians will be forced to react and policies will change” – this is how change happens according to US movement organiser, Carlos Saveedra.

“There is really good stuff happening, then people scratch their heads because we are not winning – we are just a bunch of people doing something together for a while, not a movement,” adds Elly Baker.

To build a movement to the kind of scale at achieved transformational social change like civil rights, Indian independence, the abolition of slavery and votes for women, we need to get organised.

This means pulling together through networks those who are already working to create a more socially just society and reaching out to those who don’t consider themselves ‘progressive’ or ‘left wing’ or ‘political’ to build the base of support.

For Jane McAlevey, US trade union organiser, organising “places the agency of success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved.”

So it’s about more than changing people’s minds, it’s about getting people to take action together, people who weren’t previously active in politics – that’s where the power comes from, that’s how the movement grows. To organise takes a lot from the organiser.

Tatiana Garavito, organiser for migrant and refugee communities with Hope Not Hate , says:, ‘‘What it takes is us being able to open ourselves up to build those connections with people – that’s how we build community.” We have to be vulnerable, to trust, to develop deep connections with people, to identify and develop leaders, to raise our expectations of what we can achieve together.

Mobilising is essential to social change – getting large numbers of people to act. But unless our mobilising is organised, within a strategy that builds power, gets more people involved in the movement, develops leaders and encourages further collective action, for a broad program of for change we won’t win in the transformational way we need to.

Tasha Adams, a freelance organiser who has written about the tensions between mobilising and organising, has said “there is a lot of energy but not a lot of strategy.”  

To give an example of how this might work in practice: the Cosecha/Harvest movement in the US is currently organising for permanent protection, dignity and respect for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Through building the power of the immigrant community, changes are already being seen in the US with legal victories against the Trump administration. (For more on this approach, I recommend this YouTube series.)

Here in the UK there are examples of organisers winning. From the Justice for Cleaners campaign that adopted an organising approach to win a living wage to the Deliveroo riders who have come together to form a union, take collective action and demand a fair deal, to Sisters Uncut who are organising with survivors of domestic violence and allies to defend support services, refuges and survivors.

In his new book, Jonathan Smucker offers some concise advice on how to do this: “Develop a core and a broader base; build a culture and a system of plugging new members into meaningful and capacity-building roles; maintain an outward focus so as to avoid insularity, and engage with existing infrastructure [and networks] rather than constantly starting from scratch.”

To do this we need to “learn the craft of how we build power in a meaningful way” – according to George Woods, Head of Organising at the New Economics Foundation.  So how can we learn?

Get trained.  There are some great training programmes in the basic principles of organising from the Company of Community Organisers, and (shameless plug) ‘Organising for Change’ – organising training Tatiana, Tasha and I are running this summer.

Get involved in a union. As Elly Baker said “Unions have a big role. If you think you have power in your day to day work you feel like you have some power… It’s the easiest place to show people the strength of collective action.”

Get involved in your community. There are community organising efforts taking place in different parts of the UK like ACORN that go door to door to build community power for collective action.

Get ready for the long haul. It’s going to take a long time to achieve the kinds of change we want to see. Organising approaches help us build strength through relationships, through “collective care” as Tasha Adams describes it, and working to support each other to make change.  

Get involved in these campaigns and use them to build the movement. We can use the election to get as many progressives elected as possible; to continue to build the movement by building relationships, identifying leaders, and joining forces with allies who share our values and our vision and our hope; to create the kind of society we want to see.

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