Building a Progressive Movement: Networks and Organizations Basics

How we got here (a brief history): Feel free to fill in details!  After the Trump election, many people around the area become active or re-energized to make sure that Trump’s creepy agenda would not go far.  This is the #resistance.  Also, we realized that we got here due to too much “business as usual” thinking.  So, fighting Trump had to be matched with building something better, more durable, and smart.

Through the Spring, three major developments occurred.  First, a small group of us created ACT- Active Community Training- to help other individuals and groups be more effective.  Second, a core group realized we needed a network hub (for lack of a better term) to coordinate, communicate, and strategize the activity among the new #resistance groups as well as long-standing progressive groups and Democratic party organizations.  Third, PA Together, a state-wide network of activists, launched.

How do we build a social movement?  We need to work on short- and long-term agendas at the same time.  We need to work in several arenas simultaneously: politics at many levels, communities, media spaces, and networks of activists.  This is what a SOCIAL MOVEMENT does.  A social movement is not a single organization, though sometimes a single organization may try to control or spark one.  A social movement is a vibrant network of aligned people and organizations capable of doing collective action towards specific ends.

Our movement needs to work on three things, in three modes:

1)    ACTIVISM. Resistance and protest.  This tends to be short-term, action-oriented, and reactive.  Examples: The ACA defense; Tuesdays with Marino (Toomey, Barletta, etc).

2)    POLITICS. Gaining electoral power.  This is short- and long-term.  It is about institution building and organizational change.  Examples: some of us joined county committees.  We are trying to repopulate these and where needed, make them more active.

3)    COMMUNITY. Changing the “conversation.”  This is about changing the ways people and society talk about and understand issues.  The idea that government “never works” or that Medicaid only helps “people in Philly” reflect the victories of the right in America.  Changing the conversation, also, you can call it winning hearts and minds, is longer-term, it is language and symbol-oriented.  Examples: Health of the Valley Coalition’s healthcare forums; reading the constitution aloud on Inauguration; engaging liberal churches.

The best way to work on all three at the same time is to rely on a NETWORK of PEOPLE who connect a variety of ORGANIZATIONS.

  • Organizations are good at doing one or a few things.
  • Networks are good at sharing information, finding solutions, and coordinating activity.

Being “netcentric” and managing a network:

Networks are always around us.  They are often left to evolve and function organically, without any concerted effort to manage them.  At the same time, the best network managing understands the basically fluid and dynamic nature of networks.  Trying to over-centralize or control them will tend to not work.

We all need to have a common understanding of this reality.  This style of managing is “netcentric” which means it is based on how networks grow and evolve.  If there is a continuum of bureaucracy (or organizing or whatever you want to call it) from super-bureaucratic at one end to chaos at the other, we are trying to hit the mid-point of some structure.  Others call this building a hub.  Same idea.

Three take-away points about being netcentric.

1)    It is difficult for any one organization to work in all three modes without creating uncertainty or confusion among members OR external stakeholders.

2)    Online networks work best when they weave together online and offline activity.  We need to be “clicks and mortar” operations.

3)    The most adaptive network is called a “small world” network.  It can have lots of people, but no one is too far from anyone else because of key intermediaries.

Specific Goals for Building our Network

1)    Create digital/online tools that allow common calendaring, calls to action, and new action to emerge.  This can include plugging in to existing platforms like Facebook or twitter as needed.

2)    Who are we? Do a census of any potential member groups to explain the network and assess needs and interests.

3)    Create a Leadership group/team.

4)    Establish regular meetings at monthly and/or quarterly intervals to share ideas, progress, build community, and evolve.

5)    Open channels of communication with regional and state-wide networks that are doing parallel work in overlapping or adjacent areas (Lycoming area, NEPA, HBurg, Sate College, etc).

Featured Image: Bucknell Students dancing at 2016 annual Solidarity Rally in Hufnagle Park, Lewisburg, PA