Working Across Difference and Inequality

By Michelle I. Gawerc

This month the Mobilizing Ideas dialogue tasks us with considering how social movements and social movement organizations can work across difference and power asymmetry.

Even though movement organizations in the United States and elsewhere have long faced these challenges in terms of race, class, and gender, (Breines 1982, 2006; Kurtz 2002; Piatelli 2009) and these issues are becoming increasingly relevant as more groups organize transnationally (Nepstad 2001; Smith 2007; Kay 2010), there has been limited research focused on how to effectively work across difference and inequality (for notable exceptions see: Bystydzienski and Schacht 2001; Smith 2002; Bandy and Smith 2004). The lack of attention to these issues is all the more remarkable given that many social movement organizations—particularly, in the peace movement, the environmental movement, and the women’s movement—have long expressed a desire to diversify their memberships and/or have faced conflict and tension due to their inability to effectively work across difference (Bystydzienski and Schacht 2001; Reger, Myers, and Einwohner 2008).

The challenges facing organizations that seek to work across difference and inequality are significant. For starters, these organizations, like all social movement organizations, need to be able to construct a collective identity—a sense of “we”—in order for collective action to occur and be sustainable (see Meluci 1989; Gamson 1991; Snow and McAdam 2000; Flesher-Fominaya 2010). Yet movement organizations, that work across difference, face additional challenges, since the participants, in the words of Gamson (2011, 257), “do not define themselves in terms of their common social location in a class or ethnic group, [thus] the question of who ‘we’ are [becomes] intrinsically problematic.” In addition, the power asymmetry in a range of movements and movement organizations often lead to claims that the more privileged dominate leadership roles and engage identity construction in ways that are paternalistic and condescending, thus producing tension and conflict (Munkres 2008).

For movement organizations working across difference, the literature suggests that the following are critical: a shared neutral space (Wood 2005); developing and maintaining trust (Wood 2005; Smith 2002; Gawerc 2015a); symmetrical relationships that go beyond helping those with less-privilege (Kay 2010); efforts to work equally (Gawerc 2012, 2013); careful attention to meeting the needs and addressing the goals of activists situated differently (Gawerc 2013, 2015a, 2015b); and being able to freely discuss the identities the activists claim (Lichterman 1999).

My research has focused largely on joint Palestinian and Israeli peace movement organizations. In my book, Prefiguring Peace: Israeli-Palestinian Peacebuilding Partnerships, I examined how joint Palestinian-Israeli peace organizations and organizational partnerships were able to survive in the hostile environment following the eruption of the Second Intifada, when most such partnerships did not. I argued that due to the tremendous power asymmetry and the tensions inherent in working across conflict lines, the surviving organizations and partnerships needed to pay significant attention to working equally, meeting the needs, and addressing the goals of the activists situated on both sides of the conflict line. It should be noted that this was not easy for some of the Israeli activists since it required them to broaden their agenda and to take into account what the Palestinian activists deemed to be their priorities. These organizations, like many social movement organizations, were guilty of replicating the hierarchies in the environment that they were determined to fight, and survival following the Second Intifada, required them to manage the asymmetry and pay significant attention to issues of equality and meeting the desires of their Palestinian partners. Indeed, working equally, meeting the needs, and addressing the goals of activists from both communities was critical for building and maintaining trust and respect, being able to manage internal conflicts, and ultimately, in maintaining activist commitment and motivation (Gawerc 2012).

Currently my research focuses on how the two most prominent joint Palestinian-Israeli peace movement organizations—both of which define themselves as Palestinian and Israeli—have been able to foster a collective identity across the conflict lines, allowing them to advocate jointly for an end to the Israeli military occupation and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Rather remarkably, given the profound chasm across which they work, both of these organizations were able to build trust and foster a sense of “we” across the conflict lines through personal storytelling and joint visible moments of activity that met the rational and emotional needs of members from both sides of the conflict line. The personal storytelling, which included one’s relationship to the conflict and the occupation, helped promote trust and enabled the group to recognize their shared issue (and their shared interests) even if from vastly different standpoints (e.g., occupier-occupied). Meanwhile the visible joint actions further enhanced the trust, built the sense of “we,” and confirmed their constructed identity (see Gawerc 2015a).

Notwithstanding the above, I collected data on the same two organizations following the 2014 war in Gaza, and found that during the 50 day long war, joint actions across the conflict divide were not required to sustain the cross-conflict collective identity. Rather, what was required to sustain the cross-conflict collective identity were protest actions by the Israeli participants. This suggests that in more difficult environments that are heavily asymmetric, joint visible action is not required for maintaining a collective identity. Structural and cultural forces can impede the ability of activists to work across borders or conflict lines. In these situations, what may be required to sustain a sense of “we” across profound chasms is the willingness of the dominant group to move forward in activity focused on their own community (Gawerc, in progress).

Thus, how can social movement organizations build a sense of “we” across difference and inequality? The research suggests: create a shared and neutral space, if possible; be attuned to issues of equality; start to build trust through personal storytelling or through some other mechanism; and if possible, engage in joint visible moments of activity that meet the needs of all the members—not just that of the dominant group. And in periods of crisis, in highly asymmetric environments, the dominant group may need to be willing to act alone.

Bandy, Joe and Jackie Smith. 2004. Coalitions across Borders: Transnational Protest and the Neoliberal Order. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
Breines, Wini. 1982. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Breines, Wini. 2006. The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bystydzienski, Jill M. and Steven P. Schacht (eds). 2001. Forging Radical Alliances across Difference: Coalition Politics for the New Millennium. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group.
Flesher-Fominaya, Cristina. 2010. “Creating Cohesion from Diversity: The Challenge of Collective Identity Formation in the Global Justice Movement. Sociological Inquiry 80(3): 377-404.
Gamson, William A. 1991. “Commitment and Agency in Social Movements.” Sociological Forum 6: 27-50.
Gamson, William A. 2011. “From Outsiders to Insiders: The Changing Perception of Emotional
Culture and Consciousness among Social Movement Scholars.” Mobilization: An International Journal 16(3): 251-264.
Gawerc, Michelle I. 2012. Prefiguring Peace: Israeli-Palestinian Peacebuilding Partnerships. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Gawerc, Michelle I. 2013. “Organizational Adaptation and Survival in a Hostile and Unfavorable Environment: Peacebuilding Organizations in Israel and Palestine.” In Research in Social Movements, Conflict, and Change, 36, edited by Patrick G. Coy, 167-202. Emerald Group Publishing Company.
Gawerc, Michelle I. 2015a. “Constructing a Collective Identity across Conflict Lines: Joint Israeli-Palestinian Peace Movement Organizations.” Paper presented at the 2015 Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association, 22-25 August, Chicago, Illinois.
Gawerc, Michelle I. 2015b. “Persistent Peacebuilders: Maintaining Commitment in Israel/Palestine” in the International Journal of Peace Studies 20(1): 35-50.
Gawerc, Michelle. I. in progress. “Solidarity is in the Heart, Not in the Field: Joint Israeli-Palestinian Peace Movement Organizations during the 2014 Gaza War.”
Kay, Tamara. 2010. “Labor Transnationalism and Global Governance: The Impact of NAFTA on Transnational Labor Relationships in North America.” In Reading on Social Movements: Origins, Dynamics, and Outcomes, edited by Doug McAdam and David A. Snow, 87-105. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kurtz, Sharon. 2002. Workplace Justice: Organizing Multi-Identity Movements. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Lichterman, Paul. 1999. “Talking Identity in the Public Sphere: Broad Visions and Small Spaces in Sexual Identity Politics.” Theory and Society 28(1): 101-141.
Melucci, Alberto. 1989. Nomads of the Present. London: Hutchinson Radius.
Munkres, Susan. 2008. “Being ‘Sisters’ to Salvadoran Peasants: Deep Identification and its Limitations.” In Identity Work in Social Movements, edited by Jo Reger, Daniel J. Myers, and Rachel L. Einwohner, 189-212. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nepstad, Sharon E. 2001. “Creating Transnational Solidarity: The Use of Narrative in the U.S. Central America Peace Movement.” Mobilization: An International Journal 6(1): 21-36.
Piatelli, Deborah. A. 2009. Stories of Inclusion? Power, Privilege, and Difference in a Peace and Justice Network. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Reger, Jo, Daniel J. Myers, and Rachel L. Einwohner. 2008. Identity Work in Social Movements. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Smith, Jackie. 2002. “Bridging Global Divides? Strategic Framing and Solidarity in Transnational Social Movement Organizations.” International Sociology 17(4): 505–528.
Smith, Jackie. 2007. “Transnational Processes and Movements.” In The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by David A. Snow, Sarah A. Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi, 311-336. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Snow, David A. and Doug McAdam. 2000. “Identity Work Processes in the Context of Social
Movements: Clarifying the Identity/Movement Nexus.” In Self, Identity, and Social Movements, edited by Sheldon Stryker, Timothy J. Owens, and Robert W. White, 41-67. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Wood, Lesley J. 2005. “Bridging the Chasms: The Case of Peoples’ Global Action.” In Coalitions Across Borders: Transnational Protest and the Neoliberal Order, edited by Joe Bandy and Jackie Smith, 95-120. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.


Filed under Coalition Building, Essay Dialogues

3 responses to “Working Across Difference and Inequality

  1. Do these groups think of themselves as two distinct organizations working in coalition or do they consider themselves to be a single organization with two constituencies? It seems that organizations seeking to form or maintain a coalition across difference face somewhat different challenges than organizations that seek to recruit a more diverse membership.


  2. Michelle Gawerc

    Hi Brian, The organizations studied in my book include both–two distinct organizations working in coalition and single organizations with two constituencies. So the findings described under the book applied to both types. With this said, my current research focuses solely on single organizations made up of two constituencies, and I think you are absolutely correct in your observation that the challenges may differ somewhat. One difference, coalitions themselves may not need to construct a collective identity–a sense of we–in order to generate action, and yet single organizations do.


  3. Pingback: Intra-movement ethnic/racial conflicts – Race, Politics, Justice

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