“Curing” What Truly Ails Us: Reflections on Movement Strategy in the Time of Coronavirus

“’COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation,’ said Jones, who spent 13 years at the CDC, focused on identifying, measuring and addressing racial bias within the medical system. ‘This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance…’”


You already know that organizing, which was already hard, is now bananas.  COVID-19 exacerbates the impact of racism and patriarchy on our bodies, on our livelihood, on our lives in ways we never imagined.  The most oppressed are the most at risk.  Our old tactics of showing up and showing out in numbers puts our people at risk.  And the “essential” workers best positioned to throw a wrench in the machine are either mostly unorganized or health workers who cannot ethically engage in work stoppages.  A notable, potential exception, of course, is the current organizing at Amazon.

There are those, including this country’s Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who have attempted to frame the impact of the virus in terms of individual responsibility.   The dramatically disproportionate rate of COVID19 related death among Black and Latinx people is because of interlocking, unjust and failing systems that place profit over everything.  Racism cuts across the entire continuum – from why we are way more likely to have the underlying conditions that make the disease more deadly, to whether or not we can afford (time off, access to insurance, etc.) to engage with the health system, much less be in regular relationship with a physician that monitors and advocates for our care.  Add to all that the well documented racism in treatment (whether people of color will receive proper care in a timely manner once we seek it) and it’s clear that the higher rates of death is more about systemic racism than individual choices.  

When folk like the Surgeon General ask Black and Latinx people to “step it up,” it is an attempt to obscure how racism, and its attendant separate and inequitable infrastructure, makes us highly vulnerable.  Millions are without running water in this country with indigenous nations and rural communities hardest hit. However, cities are not immune. There are an estimated 9,500 homes currently without water in Detroit and 141,000 people have had their water shutoff in the city since 2014More than 3,000 urban hospitals have closed since 1990More rural hospitals closed in 2019 than in any year last  decade and one in four rural hospitals are at risk for closure.  These closures, and the accompanying shortage of health care workers and services, did not happen because of lack of need but because addressing these communities’ needs is not considered “profitable.”  In spite of efforts to blame our communities for our death rates, we keep raising the ways in which COVID-19 reveals the fundamental limitations of a profit driven healthcare system, and that it is a truly damning example of how capitalism kills. 

Yet, in the face of it all, we are doing amazing things.  We are bringing our intersectional lens and lifting up how the impacts of the pandemic are amplified by racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism and nation status.  We are fighting to make sure our people are seen and served by state systems while developing mutual aid and alternative care structures. We are opening up people’s clinics, setting up worker funds and food distribution,  fighting for kids with special needs and working to address the growing education gap as families try to navigate this new online schooling reality with old, inadequate technology.  We are organizing rides to test centers, fighting for more and more accessible testing and treatment and so much more. There are incredible examples of great, replicable work in places like Detroit (a city well practiced in building alternatives in the face of state abandonment), New Orleans, Chicago and elsewhere.    

We are creating strategic policy openings to get our folk out of cages, passing moratoriums on evictions and utility shutoffs, and pushing for expanded testing and treatment for our communities.  There is more focused conversation and policy advances around universal basic income, ranked choice voting and expanding voting access and ways to vote in the wake of physical distancing and sheltering in place.  Even the conservative London based Financial Times is pushing for a more active government role in the economy and greater investment in public services.  In short, there are openings we haven’t had in decades.

There are also the ways we are spreading joy and hope and reminding each other of our interconnectedness.  The funny political memes, the DJ sets, the dance classes, the poetry are all a part of our movement work, too.  They are a powerful counter to the partisan hype, and the conspiracy videos designed to convince people that nothing can be done.  The first job of an organizer always is to inspire hope that by working together we will make a difference for the better; that change is worth our time.

And then there are the gaps, the big movement challenges that we must address if we hope to rise to the level of work to which we are called.  This is what has me up at night and I need some company 😊 So here are my current seven issues I believe are game changers (in no particular order).   As always, I look forward to your thoughts.  May you and your beloveds be safe and well.

Getting serious about actual mass organizing. No surprise here but note I’m talking about mass organizing in connected, distributed networks.  Not 300 members.  Not 3,000 members.  We have to build movement architecture to support the coordinated activism of millions.  Coordination does not necessarily mean getting in lock step.  It certainly does not mean consolidation into just a few organizations.  It does mean rethinking how we coordinate and support local leaders to engage with their folk and each other in new ways. 

The basic units will likely need to be small so that we can engage in the deep political education and listening it will take to build the trust and capacity this work requires.  Politicized mutual aid circles are wonderful foundations for mass work, but whatever the local framework, the work will need to add up/connect so that our people feel the energy and inspiration of being part of a larger whole.  This will take intentional design, intentional alliance building, and the intentional development of open networks with shared baseline values and flexibility in supporting a range of issues and tactics. 

Networks will not only require technical re/thinking but a different level of emotional re/thinking as well.  In addition to warding off state repression and provocateurism (no small feat), we will need to confront our own turfism, and our discomfort with older, younger, or any kind of people who are “different” or we don’t know well even though they share our desire to be free. 

Connect and scale up our communications infrastructure.  Some of you know that I have been writing about this for decades 😊.  And by infrastructure, I am not talking about an army of consultants, or polling or data right now.  I am talking about connected platforms and places where whatever we have to say gets heard, gets repeated, gets held and becomes institutionalized as at least part of the official story.  After all, what’s a message, a narrative, or a cool cultural intervention if only a few folks see it?  Or if millions see it and then it disappears into the background of the dominant narrative that is dominant NOT because it’s compelling but because it is produced by the apparatus that controls the “pipes,” the infrastructures for communicating and communicating what “should be” valued.

This is not that messenger video with the note that says NOW MAKE THIS VIRAL 😊 but a broad set of interconnected networks that connect directly to our folk at scale.  Part of this will happen through more significant, long-term support for progressive media and connecting that media into networks (a strategy articulated by Tracy Van Slyke and Jessica Clark more than a decade ago).  Some of this will happen as we figure out how to more effectively leverage social media in ways that break through corporate control and protect privacy.  I am so appreciative of Alfredo Lopez and Mayfirst for lead thinking on this.

Of course, narrative is still important.  Let’s be clear.  The Administration is framing the impact of the pandemic as largely an economic one.  This strategy is, in part, to focus on “stimulus” funding as the “solution” and financial impact as the primary concern to be addressed.  The frame also provides a neat distraction from the rising suffering and the thousands who have died unnecessarily as victims of the President’s narcissism, and systemic racism and greed.  The funding package itself is a huge public subsidy to the corporate sector and falls way short when it comes to addressing gaps in care.  Add to that the billions companies are getting in unemployment funds by laying off workers instead of providing paid leave and you see the cluster we are in.  They are clear that the virus is an opportunity to advance their “money is what really matters” values.  My personal favorite was the test message they tried last month that elders are willing to sacrifice their lives so that business could go on “as usual.”  This clip from Fox News captured  what some conservative politicians and pundits were echoing before the considerable blowback in response.    

I love the fact that we are developing a collective, global story that we are meeting this challenge with kindness, consideration and love.  We are asserting our interconnectedness in so many powerful ways.  This is a critical foundation for creating the world we are dreaming.  As organizers, we also need to develop clear “narrative” interventions that embrace the love and connect the dots.   This means bridging “we are all we’ve got” from a message of self-help and mutual aid to helping people imagine a broad, inclusive we and that this “we” can compassionately govern together; that we deserve policies and practices that ensure we all have what we need. 

This “bridge” will not build itself.  We will have to be intentional about leveraging this “we” moment by talking about what this crisis really is, connecting the dots to system failings, and offering our great solutions in clear, compelling ways.   There are so many tools at our disposal – memes, videos, games, music, standup comedy, visual art, paid advertising on venues like CNN where 45 cares what’s said – but again, without infrastructure to reach people at scale, none of it will make the kind of difference we need. 

Study and learn from the past while not losing our ability to dream up the new.  Our movements globally have had quite a lot of experience organizing in the wake of disaster.   Our folk have set up clinics that have served tens of thousands of people, organized food programs, established national communications networks, developed political education programs that have helped to shift whole nations.  What can we learn from our comrades here and around the globe?  How can we respectfully engage and learn from one another in the service of transformation?   There’s so much more that has been done than many of us realize.  Beautiful Solutions is a great place to start a learning journey.  And this Boston Review discussion does a good job of looking back at lessons from history (from a western lens). I know many of us are looking ahead, prototyping and experimenting with ideas to see what creates more opening.  It would be great to find more spaces to share our testing, our questions, our puzzlements just as they are and see what sparks fly.  We should also consider putting questions to our communities more broadly – maybe in the form of conversations or even in the form of “contests” that emphasize participation over competition but offer incentives for sharing their ideas.   It is not hyperbole when it’s said that this changes everything.  We will not be the same.  Our economies will not be the same.  It might all break wide open into the crashing of cash and credit systems and the rise of barter and hyperlocal trade, or Mad Max or Whoville.   Whatever it is, we must remember that our people are brilliant and that we will need all brains on deck as well as our [washed] hands.

Integrate political education into everything we do.  The best conversations happen when people know what they’re talking about.  My brother Robin often says this and it’s so true.  It’s hard to talk about things, much less strategize about them, if we don’t know much about them.  There are good reasons why.  It’s hard to elevate study when so many of us have been traumatized by an education system that shamed our people and showed little value for our cultures and ways of knowing.   Rarely are study and politically grounded members considered deliverables for our grants.  Political education can also feel cumbersome when there are so many other priorities – especially if you’re starting from scratch.  Fortunately, we have rich global histories of effective popular education on which to draw, and incredible work in the present. I see you Dream Defenders, Red Planet Comics, Center for Cultural Power,  Intelligent Mischief, US Department of Arts and Culture, Culture Shift Creative,  and Design Studio for Social Intervention just to name a few. And while we’re here, let me shout out Design Studio’s fire paper Social Justice in a time of Social Distancing.   

We need accessible (i.e., low literacy, visually and sonically rich, multilingual) content to support very necessary conversations about racial capitalism, monopoly, patriarchy, etc., and how they got us here.  And we need thoughtful, participatory processes that build our people’s sense of agency and trust in their own voice and knowing and model respectful debate and discussion.  Ending one-way zoom calls where we talk at folk, ensuring every session agenda includes time for questions and small group discussion, and a clear education plan that includes methods that do not require meetings at all would be a good start.  With millions of our folk looking for resources to support their new “home schooling” responsibilities, this is a good time to curate and develop teaching resources including fresh takes on math and science that affirm all kinds of families, gender expression and racial and ethnic identities.

Understanding and developing strategy around building power.  It seems that power is just about the least understood concept in organizing.  Few organizations have a clear sense of what it means to build power outside of an election or a policy campaign; to have a vision of what it looks like to have enough power to govern, to define reality, or as my friend Pancho Arguelles says, “To be the weather, not just make waves.”  Before Corona, we mostly relied on mass demonstrations of strength as a way to show that our demands had public support.  Unfortunately, these tactics become significantly less effective when confronting targets who really didn’t care what we thought or needed.  The virus has rendered these tactics even more irrelevant.  If there was ever a time when we needed to re/think what it means to build power, it’s certainly now.  And it will take more than uploading old tactics to online.  We’re going to have to do the hard work of mapping the political landscape, identifying points of leverage and imagining tactics from very different perspectives.

Invest in addressing our movements’ emotional and mental health challenges.  Like everyone else, we’ve got issues and these issues can get extra triggered under these conditions.  We are also rising and finding strength within to push past the hard and get great work done.  Some of us are getting through it with mindfulness practice, loving networks, chocolate and/or grateful that 420 delivery is considered an essential service 😊.  Others are really struggling.   Many of us were already suffering from a deep sense of fragility.  A conversation.  A disagreement.  An adjustment in a relationship would take us over the top.  Of course, there are good reasons for our fragility.  We need community care, self-care, respite and recreation.  And we need to have systems of care and support that does not have us fending for all of this on our own.  Fortunately, more and more organizations are building this into their core work and you can see the difference.

I’m also here to say that we are not as fragile as some of us might imagine. 

We can practice resilience not only by what we do for ourselves but in the grace we offer one another.  When there’s disagreement, breathe and visualize the content of the disagreement as a separate bubble from the person.  You want to logically, clearly engage what’s in “the bubble,” not write off the entire person.  Ask yourself, what did they say?  What did I hear?  What am I saying to myself that is relevant to this conversation?  What am I saying to myself that is about past triggers?  Is this an opportunity to organize/engage/educate them?  What is really worth my time?  Is there a question I can ask or statement I can make that will help build clarity and calm?  Tension and disagreement are a part of movement work.  It’s why folk call it struggle 😊.  In this period (and really any period), we need each other.   It is so much easier to be in relationship when we can reimagine ourselves as powerful and self-determining and not fragile and easily triggered.  As powerful, self-determined people we say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard.  With respect and grace.  We remember that we’ve got this – even if it means getting help when we need it. 

Freeing the money.  I’m so glad to see so many funders stepping up – establishing rapid response funds, shifting grants to general support and other initiatives to support grantees in these times.  This is important work and I appreciate their leadership.  And, we know, there’s also more that must be done. 

Everybody is learning and retooling in this period.   Groups need space and flexibility to identify how and what they need to learn and retrofit.  Given all of the new challenges, the demands on grantees to navigate all these uncoordinated funder calls, webinars, meetups, online convenings, etc., can get pretty overwhelming.  Funders can work to better coordinate amongst themselves how and how often they are in contact with grantees.  They can also engage in their own learning communities.  It seems that some of the issues to explore include: developing strategy for how foundations will manage the impact of market losses on future giving; exploring opportunities for expanding program related investments (PRIs), which actually performed better than the market and helped foundations who relied on PRIs better weather the storm; and developing more mechanisms for coordination, accountability and transparency for the sector.   

For now, groups mostly rely on investors to fund their work even as they strive to “diversify” their resources.  However, the real game changer is what would it look like to free the billions built from our communities’ labor and indigenous lands?   How might we engineer a way to move resources out of the bastions of accumulated, capitalized privilege and created more democratic, people centered funds?  There are some incredible initiatives underway to do just that. I believe they will change the game.   Stay tuned.

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