March 17, 2017

Blueprint for an Unstoppable Resistance

Note: This piece is a reflection of my own experience and position in the world—as a white, able-bodied, gender//queer, college-educated person that has been doing this work for only 5 years. I wrote this in the spirit of an invitation to collaborate, to ask questions, to imagine new possibilities—not to merely criticize the work of those that have been working in a certain type of structure for years and years. As Rebecca Solnit says, “The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end.”

897 Students march in Philadelphia for Power Shift 2016 and the March for a Clean Energy Revolution. (Photo: James Bassett-Cann)

In the weeks and months since the election, dozens of people have asked me: “What do we do now?” There’s a palpable sense of powerlessness running through the air. Since Agent Orange’s inauguration, we’ve seen the new administration already start to make good on many of their threats. Attacks on vulnerable communities are intensifying—both from those in power, and by individuals empowered by the leaders they look up to.

However, in spite of (and because of) this terrifying new reality, many are dedicating themselves in new and deeper ways to the fight to transform our society into one that is for all of us, instead of for billionaire white supremacists. People are finding ways to bring their different skills and interests into the work, and #resistance is blooming.

Networks aren't new

This resistance hasn’t come out of nowhere. Over the last decade, many organizations, electoral campaigns, and grassroots movements have been experimenting with “new” types of organizing (that may be using old ideas in new combinations, as is the case with most things).

For example—the Occupy movement was made up of autonomous occupations of physical sites that were loosely connected through a set of hashtags and other communication structures. These connections didn’t exist to dictate campaign goals, but to share possibilities for coordination and amplify one another’s stories—including the stories of horrific repression faced by encampments when mayors and police chiefs around the country also began coordinating to get rid of “pesky” protestors. And even after the physical sites were long gone, the relationships that Occupy built across organizations and communities continued to flourish and deepen: sometimes in explicit links, like #OccupySandy and #OccupyOurHomes, and sometimes by simply bringing more people into existing organizations.

In that way, Occupy was my introduction to environmental justice work on campus at UC San Diego. At the first weekend of Occupy San Diego, I shared a tent with a new comrade who was wearing a shirt from a racial justice campaign at UCSD; they immediately plugged me into a new network on campus fighting for public education. Our campaign to save a public study space on campus was fierce, albeit unsuccessful—but the relationships I built brought me to my new organizational home at the Student Sustainability Collective, where I learned many of the values and organizing practices that I still use today.

How networks are resisting the Trump agenda

Networks allowed a massive movement against inequality and greed to erupt and then seize national attention over the course of just a few months. So we shouldn’t see it as a surprise, then, that thousands of people have mobilized very quickly for #NoBanNoWall demonstrations at airports, or held emergency demonstrations in solidarity with water protectors in North Dakota when Trump made good on his promise to move forward the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Because of the distributed power that has been built by social movements of the last few years—from Occupy to the Movement for Black Lives to the distributed protests against the Iraq War— and beyond, more people than ever before are connected to others who have already been transformed by and engaged in movement-building work. Activists who live in different parts of the country and who have been involved in those movements on different fronts, from immigration reform to climate justice, are often already connected through informal, social networks. Now, due to our shared outrage over Trump's swift efforts to roll back rights and protections for millions of people and for our planet, those networks have grown more tightly connected—and much bigger. And in a world where political discourse moves at the speed of the President’s Twitter feed, informal connections are enough to inspire people to organize.

Structure and leadership for a networked resistance

It’s important to remember that even at the height of the Occupy movement, the most tangible progress was still anchored by structures like political parties, unions, and long-standing community organizations. Now, more people than ever before are connected to those organizations, and are looking for ways to plug into their work. But due to the structure of “traditional” organizations—based on hierarchies and cumbersome decision-making processes—many groups have a hard time absorbing and effectively empowering a massive number of new activists.

The challenge our movements face now is how to build new structures that can fit the massive numbers that have flooded into the streets and the halls of power in the last few years—and especially in the last few months.

In this critical moment, it’s not enough for organizations to continue working in our issue-based, geographically isolated, funder-reliant siloes. In particular, those of us that have the privilege to work at progressive nonprofits must work to shift our practices and our structures away from transactional, unaccountable power dynamics rooted in access to money and powerful individuals, and toward building collaborative platforms that shift power into the control of our members. After all, if we are striving for the complete transformation of the systems that have led us to massive inequality along race, class, and gender lines, and have brought us to the brink of impending ecological catastrophe, we have to realize that the nonprofit industrial complex as it currently exists won’t get us there (while also being clear-eyed about the need to engage with the infrastructure we have available).

896 Power Shift Network members at our annual meeting in 2017

The network we're building now

Six months ago, after over a year of listening, strategizing and planning, this nonprofit took a first step towards that transition when Energy Action Coalition became the Power Shift Network.

In those six months, we have begun digging into hard, but important questions: what could those new organizing structures look like? How could we connect the resources and expertise of movement organizations with the young people who are leading the fight to create a world that reflects their values?

The day after the election, as we were getting ready to bring 400 students together for the Power Shift West convergence in Berkeley, we made a decision to to invite everyone on our email list to join us on Slack, a communication platform we had were using for staff and network leaders to communicate with each other. For a while, we had been playing with the idea of opening our Slack up to a wider base: having organizers who worked in different locations and for different organizations in the same room together, even digitally, had already allowed incredible projects to start up and new relationships to flourish. How much more important, collaborative organizing might emerge if we opened the doors wider? On November 9th, as our shell-shocked staff team swapped stories of friends calling us to ask, "What do I do now?" we agreed: our friends would find better answers and ideas from our network than from any of us individually. So why not invite them all in?

Right now, Slack is one tool we’re using to move toward our primary goal: to help activists and student groups to connect with each other and with the tools available from organizations in the network—and then to use those new relationships and resources to work together again and again while we achieve victories, endure losses, and build a movement.

Movement Net Lab, a group that studies and works to help build decentralized networks, calls this kind of platform a “living resource system”: “provid[ing] a relationship-based approach to resources: resources are identified, linked, moved, supported, and restructured by everyone in the network so that they fit the dynamic nature of networked movements, reinforce the openness and ‘peerness’ of network culture and enable movements to be transformative.”

As the climate crisis deepens, and as authoritarians continue to consolidate power, it’s going to be more important than ever to use many diverse strategies in different places, while staying connected through accountable relationships. And, to use the words of Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, we need to build “on a deep foundation of solidarity—meaning that even if you don’t experience a particular oppression, it doesn’t matter, because you understand that as ordinary people, our fates are tied together, and that one group’s liberation is dependent upon the liberation of all the oppressed and exploited.” We believe that building a network made up of many different organizations and communities, united in shared principles and values—but not necessarily in a singular strategy—can build the powerful, grassroots movement we need in order to win the world we want to see.

We’re just getting started building the Power Shift Network from the ground up, and we want you to join us. Whether you’re part of a campus group with no connections to larger organizations, or a local chapter of a national group, or the big group overall—we want you and your organization to be involved.

If you’re part of an organization, you can join the Network at this link—and anyone is invited to join our online organizing community on Slack if you’re not already plugged in!