It’s time to transcend issue-oriented politics and build community
Last summer I participated in Camp MoveOn, an experimental training for organizers put together by America’s most influential progressive advocacy organization, MoveOn.org. Based on the work of Harvard lecturer Marshall Ganz, a longtime associate of labor organizer Cesar Chavez, the workshop is designed to develop participants’ capacity to build relationships and motivate people, primarily through the art of storytelling.
Over a three-day period we were challenged to tell “the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now.” We met in hotel function rooms packed with more than 150 people and broke into small groups to share our personal experiences.
When I was first recounting my story, which revolved around the particulars of my parentage and place of upbringing, I noticed that listeners would lose interest long before I finished. Then, in the third round, I tried placing my tale in the context of the events of the 1960s. I talked about the sense of hope and possibility I felt when JFK challenged Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” and the despair and futility that came over me when Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Suddenly, my listeners, even the twentysomethings, appeared fully engaged and invested.
I felt that I was glimpsing the future of community organizing in America—organizing based not on hot-button issues, but on building relationships through deep personal sharing and active listening. This led to a vision that I hope the folks at MoveOn, which has more than 5 million members, will be inspired to follow.
Since Barack Obama was elected president, MoveOn’s leadership has made it their mission to “be a strong, outside voice to keep Congress and the president honest” while simultaneously advocating for Obama’s legislative agenda. So far, things have not gone well: Obama’s health care reform initiative stalled, green jobs czar Van Jones was driven from office, the war in Afghanistan escalated, and the Copenhagen climate conference fizzled.
Many progressives are now suffering from burnout, which I believe is due in large part to the issue-oriented style employed by MoveOn and other progressive groups. People are routinely recruited with equal zeal to get involved in every urgent issue. This technique helped MoveOn mobilize more than 100,000 members to make 2.14 million phone calls for the Obama campaign, but now, unless people feel passionately about a subject, they tend to lose interest and, as a result, the entire movement loses focus.
I’m not suggesting that MoveOn abandon campaigns driven by policy initiatives, but we can’t rely on this strategy alone. In the immediate wake of his victory, Barack Obama, a former community organizer on the South Side of Chicago who cut his teeth on the teachings of legendary organizer Saul Alinsky, was justifiably tagged the nation’s “community organizer in chief.” MoveOn should follow his example and lead a community organizing movement across America.
Several grassroots initiatives are already pioneering this approach, including the Transpartisan Alliance and the Green Tea Party. MoveOn could take these budding initiatives to scale. Thousands of members could be trained via Camp MoveOn to help kindle the fire.
MoveOn could kick off the movement by hosting stadium-sized events, harking back to 19th-century chautauquas and tent shows. Attendees would sit together according to particular affinities: parents of young children, schoolteachers, health care workers, clergy, small-business owners, elders. Like-minded participants could share their ideas about particular issues, like clean, green energy and single-payer health care. Or, if seating were assigned based on zip code and postal route, people would meet their neighbors in a positively charged environment.
All this would be interspersed with musical entertainment, stand-up polemic, and perhaps a Jumbotron visit from Obama himself. Consider it an extended-family/neighborhood reunion in which participants would meet some long-lost relatives for the very first time.
After the event, attendees would all receive lists of the 20 other participants who live closest to them. House parties would follow. Instead of discussing issues, we would simply get to know each other by telling each other our stories of “self, us, and now.”
This could be the start of an earthshaking nationwide movement. If you like this idea, and if you’d like to meet MoveOn members in your community, let the folks at MoveOn.org hear from you.
Eric Utne is a MoveOn.org member.