Are there alternatives to the failing national reproductive rights organizing model?

My post last week about how national organizations let abortion rights be used as a pawn in the budget fight has generated some interesting questions. Most important and challenging, I think: so what do we do? What’s the answer? If our current organizing model is failing us, what should we be doing instead?

I wish I knew. It’s clear to me the way national pro-choice organizations currently function – existing to exist, not to actually win on our issues – isn’t working. Critique is often easier than visioning something different, and I think it’s going to take a movement’s worth of visionaries to find better ways forward. I don’t know exactly what will work, but I do want to share some ideas, models and questions about a different approach that are floating around right now.

Honest, accurate political guidance from national organizations
First, as I said in the original post, we need honesty about how DC politics work, what matters and what doesn’t. It’s easiest for organizations to use legislation about their specific issue to raise funds and build lists, but this isn’t the best way to actually fight for wins. We need a much more intersectional approach, one that recognizes the struggle for abortion is part of a broad fight, since conservatives are trying to completely destroy the safety net and stop all access to reproductive and sexual health care and information. I really question if this can happen with current leadership – the way abortion was used as a distraction in the budget fight is so similar to how it was used in the battle for health care reform, which makes it pretty difficult to expect this approach isn’t going to continue. Especially after so many folks inside the movement said that what happened in health care reform wasn’t OK and that we needed a new way forward.

Drop national rallies as a tactic
We do need to be engaged in politics at the federal level, and there are certainly better ways. Emily Douglas challenged my questioning the value of national rallies and lobby days. I think constituent lobbying is incredibly important – politicians are supposed to work for us, so we should tell them what we want them to be doing. It’s not actually that difficult to set up a meeting with your elected officials when they’re in-district to share your story, your needs with the people who are supposed to represent you. I do think national rallies and marches for X issue are a pretty dead tactic at this point, though. They don’t really have a political impact any more. I think they used to be a way to get media attention more than to impact politicians, but now they’re mostly ignored by the press. The Tea Party rally got coverage, but that’s because it was pushed by Fox News to begin with, and big media follows the lead of other big media, covering stories because everybody else is. It’s especially illogical to plan a rally and lobby day on the eve of a possible government shut down. At that point politicians were way too busy with internal conversations. And it’s particularly absurd to have a rally and lobby day focused only on abortion and saving Planned Parenthood, when insiders knew the attack in the House wasn’t going to make it through the Senate. Nobody was going to pay attention when all the focus was on the budget. Additionally, the shift to new media needs to mean a shift to new ways of getting media attention. So yes – in person lobbying good, phone calls to electeds good. But political insiders should be offering guidance for this work that’s about political realities, not their own fundraising needs.

Let direct service providers and those personally impacted by issues define the agenda
I’m increasingly turning to those doing direct service work for guidance on a political agenda. I used to think of direct service as a band aid, helping real people in real need but not doing much to change the context. It often seems like a necessary evil that lefties are engaged in direct service instead of broad organizing for change, since our government continues to leave the business of providing for people’s welfare. Folks doing direct service often don’t have the time and energy to do much more than help the people who so desperately need their support. But actually talk with someone who does this work and you’ll often find they have the sharpest, most pointed analysis of the problem, and uncompromising vision for what to do about it. I learned critique of hate crime legislation, the prison industrial complex and its impact on transgender folks, especially trans people of color, from staff at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which provides free legal services to low-income people and people of color who are transgender, intersex, or gender non-conforming. Carl Siciliano of the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBT youth speaks powerfully to the great shame of how our society treats homeless people. I’m learning a critique of the criminalization of sex work and the overly simplistic frame of “child sex trafficking” from organizations like the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, which works with youth impacted by the sex trade and street economy (and which I’m planning to write about on this blog soon). And folks working for abortion access in DC, where Congress has once again barred the use of local Medicaid funds to pay for abortions, are speaking out with a fire and honesty completely unmatched by the larger organizations. I’m interested in building a politics that starts from the perspective of these people who are doing the real, on the ground work, and especially that centers the views of those personally impacted by an issue – young people in the sex trade, incarcerated folks, homeless queer and trans youth, patients on Medicaid who need abortions, etc.

Alternatives to the nonprofit industrial complex
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence is doing invaluable work leading a movement of organizations that feel their mission is best served outside the nonprofit model. Their anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex is a challenging wake up call, presenting ideas and opening up questions everyone doing nonprofit work should have to grapple with. There’s particularly strong vision in local organizations, and I’d like to see their approaches inform national and federal work. But of course there are very real differences between working in a local community and working on politics that impact the nation.

Support individual organizers
I’m also interested in ways to support organizers that aren’t reliant on the nonprofit model. Abortion fund workers are almost all volunteers, and the few that do get paid aren’t nearly compensated enough (been there). I’ve got a personal investment here – I’ve done more to impact the issues I care about in the couple months since I lost my nonprofit job than I did the entire time I was employed there. But I’m broke. As organization staff one’s primary responsibility is to keeping the organization strong, which makes sense. As an individual the responsibility can be to the issue itself, to our actual politics, when we’re not too focused on our own survival. How can we compensate individual organizers making an impact on the issues they care about outside 501(c)(3) organizations? Are fellowships the answer? Individual fundraising campaigns? Speaking tours and book deals, which are a great way to make a hunk of change but are only possible for folks with a certain degree of celebrity and mainstream accessibility? Something new we haven’t tried yet? I think there’s got to be a number of models that could be successful and are worth exploring, and I plan to to be testing the waters in a number of ways in the months and years ahead.

Monetize the social justice internet
I’m also obsessed with monetizing the social justice interwebs. I’m particularly proud to be part of the Feministing team – we have an impressive reach as well as the freedom to write from our own perspectives and even disagree with each other publicly – there’s no organizational voice here. But we’re also not making much money off this work at all – when we say Feministing is a labor of love we ain’t kidding! There is money in the internet, but the blog-type sites where folks get paid anything close to decent tend to be geared towards primarily white straight cisgender male readers and not particularly social justice-y. As Miriam pointed out in discussing the New York Times paywall, access to free content online has led to an assumption we shouldn’t pay for our news, and this is pretty dangerous for real reporting. How do we shift the thinking on internet content, how do we say that folks doing social justice work online should be able to make money off our endeavors, while still keeping content accessible to those who may not be able to pay?

These are a few of the ideas, places of inspiration, and questions bouncing around my head when I look at a national organizing model that’s not working and ask: what’s the alternative? I know the Feministing community is full of brilliant, passionate visionaries with tons of great ideas. So I gotta ask: what do you think? What are the questions you’re asking about doing organizing in a way where we actually win on the issues we care about? In a way that also creates justice in the lives of those people doing the work? Do you have models for alternatives that work, or ways to shift our approach that undo some of the current problems? Where do we go from here?

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4 Comments

  1. Posted April 18, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    In my own experiences, I have found that people aren’t aware of the scope of the problem because they don’t have a personal, emotional connection with someone who makes this issue real for them. For example, it’s easy to hate anything you only know in the abstract, but difficult to hate that which is plain to you on your own life. We’re divided among sharp lines, and so long as those continue to insulate us from the lives and concerns of other people, there will always be issues of inequality and need.

    I think there will always be a need for people to do the hard work amongst average citizens to make them aware of the problems. And I think that is best done by people who have a way of being articulate in how they relate the problem to others. Most people form their allegiances in very specific ways, and don’t think outside those identity boxes.

  2. Posted April 18, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Do you think there’s a way to revamp the basic argument to include all reproductive health services as one monolithic entity? Conservatives are trying to argue against all this shit when they can make it seem bad, and only abortion when they can’t. If there’s a way to refocus everything PP does, for example, as a “you’re with us or against us” type of argument, I find it highly unlikely we’d lose that battle.

  3. Posted April 19, 2011 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    I think that what you started with Jos is great. I’ve done a lot of work in various pro-choice areas over the years and whenever I speak with other activists who are interested in new strategies, I always send them this article by the Labor columnist Harold Meyerson. What is the “pro-choice” equivalent of this UNITE-HERE labor union strategy he describes? I think campaigns like this, but regarding reproductive rights and health, to bring pressure upon Democrats, Republicans, and anyone else in our way of reproductive justice is going to be necessary going forward.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/17/AR2006011700936.html

  4. Posted April 27, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Jos, seriously, thank you for writing this. It’s a seriously refreshing need and I think something we often need to hear and re-evaluate as individuals who seek change. I’ve personally often had an ongoing struggle with what the correct path could be – through the traditional models of NGOs (which is really well critiqued in the INCITE book) to community organising that I’ve seen where the community themselves make the decisions and funded through small donors, not massive donation agencies that come with mandates of their own.
    But how to move forward? I don’t know. I still haven’t figured out where I should be within these choices.
    But, I just wanted to thank you for this post!

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