Netroots Nation 2011: Power and privilege within movements

PhotobucketThe LGBT pre-conference at Netroots Nation focused largely on issues excluded from the mainstream national gay agenda (ie: not marriage) and barriers to effective organizing. I have much more experience working in the reproductive health/rights/justice movement, which despite being full of queer and trans folks often fails to work intersectionally. So I was struck by the immense overlap with the problems and critiques myself and many others have brought up in regards to the mainstream national reproductive rights movement.

Problems raised included divisions along lines of identity and power. Folks spoke about predominantly white leadership in the larger, more well funded organizations and the exclusion of people of color’s voices and issues. Generational divisions and lack of communication with faith communities were brought up. Folks from the south and conservative states also talked about being left behind and ignored. A number of us spoke about exclusion of trans issues and the problems facing some of the poorest and most marginalized in our communities. These very issues were sometimes replicated in the room, where the voices of cis white gay males with more power and access within the movement dominated, though the rest of us certainly spoke up too.

There was also some discussion of problems with the nonprofit organizing model. I had a number of smaller conversations where folks talked about frustration with national organizations focusing on federal work and lack of funding and action on some of the more dangerous and impactful battles that go on in states. There was some broader discussion around the way funding drives issues and how difficult it can be to bring attention to more marginalized issues in this climate. Folks questioned how strategic nonprofit leadership is and whether it focused on some of the most urgent issues.

Noticing the large amount of overlap with problems in another movement got me thinking about how structural and systemic these issues are. Even within organizing communities broader dynamics of power and privilege play out. Folks who are relatively privileged get to dominate, and their concerns get to rise to the top. I really struggle with problems with the nonprofit model. I think it’s incredibly important for people to get paid to do social justice work – it needs to be sustainable. But big picture issues with organizations speak to the difficulties of working for justice within a fundamentally unjust capitalist system. Nonprofits are the way we know for this work to fit within capitalism, but they often seem to hurt our ability to genuinely fight for justice.

I think it’s vitally important to struggle with these questions and try to vision new ways to make change – organizing strategy can’t be aloud to stagnate or we won’t be moving our movements forward. I’m a big believer in moving the margins to the center. I don’t just mean those with power working on the issues of the most marginalized folks. I mean lifting up the leadership of those who are traditionally excluded, who are facing the brunt of specific systems of oppression, and following their agenda. How do we move to this sort of model when broader hierarchies so easily replicate themselves within our movements?

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4 Comments

  1. Posted June 16, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m writing my master’s thesis on these same issues–how power and identity impact solidarity within feminist non-profits. Trying to establish a broad and diverse collective movement/collective identity is always going to be difficult, but social justice motivated non-profits often desire to use collective decision making as though power imbalances don’t exist. Saying “we all have an equal voice” doesn’t translate into everyone actually having an equal voice. As you say, leadership that comes from people whose voices are most often sidelined or marginalized has the potential to address power differences. So we can’t abandon all hierarchies, but we need to build structures that actually create more equality. This was great to read–thank you!

  2. Posted June 16, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Friends are supposed to be anti-hierarchical by design, and yet how easily hierarchies reassert themselves in sometimes surprising ways.

    What I will say is that, regarding collective decision making, Quaker process works on the basis of the consensus model. I can say both good things and bad things about it. The good thing is that it does strive to make sure that minority points of view are valued, but the bad thing is that it takes forever to reach actual consensus. Sometimes Friends fail to understand that standing aside, and letting the process move forward, while still registering significant reservations is absolutely essential. Everyone has a right to a voice, not a right to bring the entire process to a standstill.

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      What I will say is that, regarding collective decision making, Quaker process works on the basis of the consensus model. I can say both good things and bad things about it. The good thing is that it does strive to make sure that minority points of view are valued, but the bad thing is that it takes forever to reach actual consensus.

      My experience, from over 25 years as an active Quaker, is that the main reason Quaker process works for Quakers (to the extent it does) is that (USA) Quakers as a group are so homogeneous. And one reason that they are so homogeneous is that those who don’t fit in to the culture and mind-set of the majority find themselves marginalized and ignored.

      I have seen things as extreme as clerks minuting “unity” in the face of voiced objections, but it is more common to see the insiders simply going on with what they had planned to do, either explaining that they know better than those who disagree with them, or else saying they appreciate the concerns and then doing nothing with them.

      I’m not saying that this is intentional. But in my experience, US Quakers are mostly white, middle-to-upper class, with at least a college degree and professional jobs, and because of this, they have a really hard time taking seriously the perspectives and concerns of people who are different from them, however good their intentions may be. A large part of what attracts most people who become Quakers is the opportunity to be with people much like themselves.

      From what I can see, the same sort of stuff happens in other “progressive” groups. I remember reading a blog posting by someone who worked with various feminist groups that wanted to become more diverse (usually meaning more welcoming to non-whites.) Most of the time, they failed, because for many of the people running the groups, a large part of the value was spending time with people who shared their way of life, culture, and attitudes.

  3. Posted June 16, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Jos, thanks for this piece. I found your thoughts about whether the typical large non-prof model is really the best for accomplishing our goals really interesting. Your point about how the money drives priorities is so important, and one that’s been frustrating to me in the repro justice field. (That and how relationships with major donors reinforces our tendency to work in silos rather than in collaboration.)

    I would disagree that it keeps us from working on the most urgent issues. Instead I think the national non-prof structure keeps us from working on the harder, longer term, more intractable issues. We will happily gear up the machine to beat back a fundamental assault on Roe, but how much time have the large national organizations spent trying to dismantle the Hyde amendment, which has such a daily impact on poor women an women of color? What about sick leave and fair pay? Add the donor-driven projects, and it definitely feels like the bigger organizations are less focused on the big picture.

    @nazza, thank you for your points about consensus. I really being a part of a consensus-driven organization in college, and it was an incredibly powerful and life-changing lesson. That said, it also taught me that consensus only works if everyone plays by the rules (having carefully discussed and agreed on them, of course!).

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