As our movements transition to a new, post-Trump era, we took some time to reflect on where we have been —and where we are going.  Brian Kettenring joined Cristina Jiménez, co-founder of United We Dream (UWD), one of the largest immigrant youth organizations in the country; Manuel Pastor, director of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California; DaMareo Cooper, the director of place-based power at the Center for Popular Democracy; and Christina Livingston, the executive director of ACCE in California to talk about how the field has changed, the biggest challenges facing us today, and what the agenda for organizers should be moving forward.


Brian Kettenring: What are your reflections on where organizing has come over the course of your work in the field? What are the major changes you've seen? 

Cristina Jimenez: So I'll just start by sharing three things that I think have been very transformational in organizing work. Number one, the shift [to having the] people directly impacted by injustice being in the front lines, driving decision-making around our campaigns and our movements. I think that shift has been transformational. We're having a completely different conversation about race, racism, and racial justice in this country. Also, the level of risk and creative organizing that's happened from direct action, from the courage of lots of folks putting their bodies on the line to force this country to have a completely different conversation on many issues. 

As a youth organizer, I can't [help] but bring out the role of young people in all of these movements. When I think about immigrant justice work, climate change work, Occupy, a lot of young people were at the vanguard and have been at the vanguard of these movements, really pushing us to continue to be braver, more courageous, and facing the forces of white supremacy, white nationalism and racial capitalism, and doing the work to be sober about what we're up against. [They’ve also been] driving the strategies and the work that get us to a completely different scale as a movement, to a completely different way that we're talking about immigration and to some concrete policy wins. The role of young people has been huge in defining and building the power that our movements hold in this moment. 

The last piece is the role of technology and digital tools to do our organizing. When I started organizing, there were cool things happening online, like being part of social networks or writing blogs. A lot of activists that play leadership roles within the immigrant youth movement were organizing via blogs. That was an entry point that allowed us to grow to scale and sustain our organizing in the middle of a pandemic. 

Manuel Pastor: I want to mention six things that are very different in the current era. One is the emergence of a much more sophisticated electoral strategy through integrated voter engagement, the idea of community organizing doing GOTV in a way that helps to build organizing and helps to really change the electorate. In the era in which I grew up, we were not engaged in electoral politics, because we thought it would be a complete time and energy suck, and not understanding how that can actually build organizing capacity along the way.

Second, there is a much more sophisticated united front strategy and an understanding of what it means to actually work with Democratic politicians and have an inside-outside game about moving them, but not believing that they're going to rescue us; not having faith in political leaders but having faith in the political capacity of the grassroots. 

Third, there is much more sophistication around narrative, and really trying to move people with tales about the Dreamers, with the Black Lives Matter movement — which, when you think about it, Black Lives Matter is just a value statement from which so many other things flow. 

Fourth has been the ability to center race and class to talk about white supremacy, racial capitalism, and inequality in the economy — all in the same breath. Twenty years ago, people were trying to figure out, are we going with a class argument first? If we're stressing race, what happens? We've all gotten much better about this. 

The fifth thing is that organizers and movements are not afraid of scale, not afraid of getting big. I mean literally. In my day, we thought you were much more authentic if you were small. Sometimes you were just small, you weren't even that authentic. But understanding that the problems are big, you need to be able to organize at a massive scale, and although that runs the risk of organizations becoming big and occupying too much space, you need to be big enough to actually tackle things. 

Last thing, which I think is fundamentally different, is that our movements are paying much more attention to the healing of organizers and communities, [particularly when it comes] to mental traumas and the stress of racism, capitalism and all the other systems of oppression. I came up in an era in which burnout was a sign of pride; you could just work your way through it. Young people are raising the really key issues of needing to heal. That's one of the most welcome turns in the last few years.  


BK: What are some of the areas our organizations still need to work on?

Christina Livingston: While there has been a concerted effort to have more people who are affected centered in the work, that has been put into a particular space. That's the space for people to tell stories, it's a space for people to move hearts and minds. But when it comes down to the crafting of policy and the last minute decisions and what's the right compromise to make, people who are deeply impacted are still very shut out of that process. And it continues to be done in a way that is patriarchal, like, "You all don't understand all of the technicalities behind this, you all are not clear about all of the other political considerations that we are taking in, we're coming up with the right solution that can actually be passed and impact more people." Some of that is absolutely true and that's mainly because there hasn't been enough work done to make sure that the folks who are deeply impacted do understand all of those considerations. [But] they will still make the best decisions, better than anybody who's actually not in their shoes. So that's one place that we have to continue to push, push, push. 

A second piece is that, right now, everything is politicized. Vaccinations are politicized, wearing a mask is politicized, what color t-shirt you have on, how you look is politicized. So I think that we actually lose some of our ability to build the mass base if we stay in that continuum, if that's the only orientation by which we are engaging in our conversations. 

DaMario Cooper: I would add that one of the shifts we saw was growing these independent political organizations, [which can contest for] governing power, instead of just trying to push an issue or influence a set of decision makers. We have not figured out how to make the transition from organizing into electoral cycles as smooth as we need it to be. Whole organizations become electoral engines in these seasons and then, what happens to the organizing? I think that also goes [for] base building. Base building in general is an add-on. People do base building so that they can run better electoral programs or run campaigns. [We need to stay] centered and grounded in the fact that base building is the primary goal: bringing people into the organization, building a culture of collective movement and work. That’s the primary goal; campaigns are ways that we express [that] power. Somehow it feels like that's a little bit flipped right now. That is also a problem with the way that resources are brought into organizations — normally based off of a particular issue. Most organizations are trying to figure out how you meet a campaign deliverable that may not actually be concerned about building the power base of [the] organization. And how do you meet that deliverable while at the same time focusing on what is most important, which is deepening the relationships, growing the base, leadership pipelines, developing organizers. 


BK: What is on the agenda for organizing into the future? What's on your list when you think about what we need to tackle or wrestle with in the period ahead?

MP: I'll say three things quickly. The first is, those of us who are positioned [to] have been able to work with foundations to make sure that they understand the centrality of organizing. However, in the philanthropic world, they still think about organizing as instrumental rather than fundamental, in terms of winning a campaign or on an issue rather than creating people who are able to respond to any issue, build alliances, and actually change their communities. So I think that's a task for those of us who are navigating that space. 

Second, despite some progress on things like the care economy, our alternative economic paradigm is very loose. We know that there needs to be a bit more justice, but we don't have it spelled out. I think that we absolutely need an alternative economic vision that takes race seriously, that takes inequality seriously and provides us some guidance going forward. 

Finally, looking back to 2016, when Trump got elected, the next day I came in to talk to my staff; as an older guy, they were looking to me for inspiration. And I shared with them, I think it's going to be worse than you think. That prediction was absolutely correct. Today, after the insurrection on January 6, I came into the staff and I said, I think it's going to be better than you think. I think things are breaking open in really fundamental ways. I think because we're in the middle of it, we don't even realize how much of a mind shift has taken place. And I think there's a big moment and we need to really take advantage of it. 

DC: In some ways, [we’ve] become very academic and intellectual — we need to go back to getting into people's gut in our conversations with them. What we have with technology right now does give us the ability to train more directly impacted people so that they can actually be a part of strategy development and implementation.

CL: I think we have to get much more comfortable and clear in the contradictions of the organizing. We need to be big and we need to be small. Big efforts will crumble if we don't have really solid, small places where people can feel connected, where they can feel powerful and where they can be powerful. Those are not mutually exclusive things. We have to get comfortable and clear in terms of having structured organizations and leader-full organizations. We need everybody to really feel empowered to make moves. People will not always make the moves you want them to make, but as long as there's some real scaffolding and structure around us that's about the values and the principles, we have to release our fear of letting more people run more things. And then we need much more continuity between our c4 explicit political work and our c3 work, not just about the election cycle/non-election cycle, but [where] we have a clear agenda on who we want to get in and how we want them to get in. So I think we have to push ourselves, to push our funders, and to push our funding strategies to make that possible.

CJ: One point I want to raise is radical solidarity. The most radical solidarity I have seen in the progressive movement in the last 15 years [was] under the Trump administration. The biggest opportunity that we have is to actually keep that radical solidarity and intersectionality moving forward. I'm really worried because I'm already seeing that’s not happening as we are dealing with a new Biden administration. When everybody took a stand against kids in cages, what are we doing about the kids now that the Biden administration is turning away and is still putting them in camps? Where's the outrage? How is our movement holding the line together?

The second thing is that I don't think that we have gotten to the best that we can when it comes to governance. I guess we're winning elections, we’re kicking people out, we're holding people accountable. However, we are not at a place where we're really leveraging the power and the level of accountability from elected officials. I'm seeing that right now with the Biden administration on immigration, on minimum wage, on what was included and not included in the COVID package that just passed. So, I think the question is about winning elections but then doing the work of co-governing and not being afraid to hold people we endorse accountable.

We are doing so much better with the conversations around race, class, gender, immigration status, and healing in our movements and that is encouraging. [But] I would also say that in our movements and our organizations, we're still perpetuating misogyny and patriarchy and racism and all of the isms that we're trying to fight. To the point that Christina was raising, folks are still not making decisions, even if they are brought [up from] our base, developed, empowered. Who's driving decisions but also what does it take to support people impacted in our communities to be able to move up in leadership in our organizations? Are we as organizations investing the resources, the time, the coaching, the mentoring for all of that to happen and to become real? I think the hope is a generation of folks in our organizations who are wrestling with it, working through it, and bringing up these issues. 


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