Spring Cleaning for Occupy

Last week, several dozen nonprofit organizations hosted events across the country to train more than 100,000 Americans in nonviolent direct action. Dubbed the 99% Spring, the training was spearheaded by several national nonprofit organizations. If you didn’t hear about it, you’re not alone. Other than a few anticipatory stories from the Associated Press and NPR, the week’s worth of meetings and actions flew below the national radar. Whether that’s a bad thing depends on what role you expect nonprofit social-movement organizations to play in our current political discourse. 

The so-called nonprofit industrial complex includes organizations that want to change policies and practices for a wide range of social, economic, and political issues—from reproductive justice to foreign policy. Within this broad category is a subset of what I’ll call “social-movement organizations”—institutions that exist not only to advance their own agendas but to support a wider grassroots movement. Examples from the past include the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Organization for Women. Today’s examples from the right include the Christian Coalition and Freedom Works, and those on the left abound, from the long-standing NAACP to the more recent Color of Change.   

The problem with social-movement organizations is that they can ossify, moving away from their original dynamic energy and settling into a routine that can be risk averse and stagnant. Sadly, many organizations that once grew out of and served movements become little more than mausoleums to those movements, the very existence of the institution a symbolic triumph to the victories of the past rather than an active participant in fights for the future. 

What is needed is dynamic, adaptive growth. Doctors tell us that embryonic stem cells are especially valuable because they can morph into other varieties of cells. Put them next to a lung, they become lung cells. Put them next to skin, they become skin cells. They’re classically opportunistic, but not in a bad way—a political consultant might call them "strategic." And keen strategy is just what is needed at this crucial time for social-movement organizations. 

If we believe seismic advances toward justice and equality come predominantly from seismic social movements, the question is: How can more and more social-movement organizations function as stem cells, not mausoleums?  

Two recent examples highlight the challenges.

Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012. On March 8, 2012, Trayvon’s parents launched a petition on the website Change.org calling on prosecutors to charge Zimmerman. By March 14, the petition had more than 100,000 signatures. On March 19, the organization Color of Change put out its first tweet on Trayvon (in the form of its own petition) and at 6:31 p.m. that same day, the NAACP tweeted that its Seminole chapter would hold a town hall meeting about the incident the following day. Ultimately, NAACP head Ben Jealous attended and spoke at the meeting. On March 21, sizable #MillionHoodies marches were organized in Florida and New York by a 24-year-old ad executive. Posters and social media for the rallies linked back to the Change.org petition.

Earlier this summer, long before the word “occupy” became a loaded word in our political vernacular, three social-movement organizations—National People’s Action, Jobs with Justice, and The National Domestic Workers Alliance—were lamenting the dearth of direct-action tactics on the left, particularly ones aimed at corporations sabotaging our economy. They planted the seeds for what would become 99% Spring, last week’s training camp that introduced more than 100,000 Americans to the art and methodology of nonviolent civil disobedience. Somewhere between the conception and realization of the training idea, the Occupy Movement was born and took hold. Occupy affected the organizations’ plan in two major ways.  

First, according to National People’s Action executive director George Goehl, a number of organizations that for years had been reluctant to engage in direct action suddenly warmed to the idea.  

“Progressives had a gap between what they believe and what they were willing to say and do. Occupy closed that gap,” Goehl said.

Second, in the wake of Occupy’s successful branding, the training was christened 99% Spring, an effort to ride the wave of Occupy’s popularity with the base but also a pragmatic acknowledgment of the effective umbrella of the 99% frame. And if that brings more people in to engage in action, says Goehl, that’s not co-optation but movement-building, where the whole is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts.  

Van Jones made the brazen point that groups like his Rebuild the Dream (also involved in the 99% Spring) weren’t co-opting Occupy Wall Street but that, in fact, Occupy Wall Street had co-opted the institutional left. While it’s true that organizations like National People’s Action have advocated for aggressive direct action along anti-Wall Street, corporate accountability lines, focusing on co-optation feels more like an episode of The Real Housewives of Economic Dislocation, not a productive conversation about mass movement building for social change.  

The fact is that we are in a movement moment in the United States, the result of a massive economic crisis combined with the work of nimble organizations that have been laying institutional kindling and a set of independent activists who struck a match at just the right moment to fan the flames of change.  

Historically, I’ve been far less sanguine about the possibilities of social movement organizations to successfully pivot and adapt to this emerging landscape of mass change. But the fact that the NAACP, an organization that under its prior leadership was the poster-entity for mausoleum-like ossification, came on the heels of the much younger (in staff and organizational life) Color of Change in responding to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, gives me great hope. The fact that the United Auto Workers joined the 99% Spring and is training 5,000 of its staff and members in nonviolent civil disobedience suggests a growing cluster of stem-cell-like institutions with the ability to adapt to the movement around them. 

If nothing else, the experience of trying to adapt may breed adaptive behaviors. 

“It’s hard to go back to being the same as before,” 99% Spring organizer Liz Butler said of recent changes. Once organizations’ staff and leaders have built new skills and new relationships on the ground, mausoleum-like tendencies may be co-opted from within.

One of my pet peeves is the overuse of the word “movement.” Social-change organizations of all stripes like to slap the label “movement” on anything they do, which is as asinine as the belief that calling America a “post-racial” nation will make it true. As events here in the United States and around the globe have shown us in the last 14 months, movements cannot simply be started with the flip of a switch, no matter how well intentioned. They require a magical brew of context and catalysts that we can never hope to predict. But what we can do—specifically, what social-movement organizations can do—is lay the groundwork for a mass movement's potential, and when the movement surges, be nimble and self-aware enough to pivot and join in. Effective stem-cell organizations don’t focus on building their own insular infrastructure and branded issue silos but rather prepare themselves to morph when and where the movement needs them.

We need stem-cell-like cooperative action from our social-movement organizations, not mausoleums to house issue silos and old ideas. And while harvesting actual embryonic stem cells may be controversial, I can’t imagine anyone thinking that social-movement organizations should remain entombed in their static roles of the past. 

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