Building Prisms of the People

BY Michelle Oyakawa

It is already very clear that the forces Trump unleashed will not go away just because he lost the 2020 election. Furthermore, the deeply entrenched social problems that Trump exploited and exacerbated are also not going away. Extreme inequality, racism, climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic continue to drive social instability and political violence. 

Most of our current leaders in government, business, academia, and the nonprofit sector are not equipped to solve these problems. The “solutions” to social problems that elites fund and enact through corporations, foundations, think tanks, and nonprofit organizations tend to prioritize preserving and enhancing elite power. And it is the concentration of power among elites that underlies many of our social problems in the first place.

So if no one is coming to save us all, what is the solution?

To quote the authors of the brilliant Combahee Collective River Statement: “the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.” The true solutions to our problems will come from regular people who are organizing and learning together through repeated collective action. 

Our upcoming book Prisms of the People (March 2021, University of Chicago Press, by Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna and Michelle Oyakawa) draws on six case studies of social movement organizations across the US that have shifted power. We outline characteristics that were common across these organizations. We contend that peoples’ organizations can function as a prism, cultivating relationships and collective action that results in real changes to the power dynamics underlying politics.

We wrote this book in a spirit of hope, hope that perhaps our democratic system of government could be a tool, not only for the super rich to enact their will, but also for regular people to exercise power to improve their lives and fight for justice. The result of our endeavor is a breakdown of dynamics that must be built, like fractals, on a massive scale to shift power so that we can address the major problems we face. It is not a formula per se; local contexts differ greatly and we do not try to identify a set of frames or actions that will be effective everywhere. Instead, we look at patterns of culture and practice within organizations that allow them to be flexible, strategic, and accountable to their base instead of to elites. 

Our findings indicate that activists and organizers should be deeply engaged in the work of relationship building—both peer to peer relationships amongst constituents, but also relationships of accountability between leaders and constituents. Leaders in relationship with and accountable to a connected base of people can wield power more strategically than leaders who depend on outside decision-makers, not their people, for access to the halls of power. A base of people that are connected to one another, who have built trust with one another and move together regularly can accomplish a lot more than disconnected individuals responding to marketing designed by consultants. Unfortunately, the latter is often the dominant model among establishment parties, unions, and other major organizations that stand against Trump. Of course, one major obstacle here is that often elite funders do not recognize the kinds of practices we identify as legitimate activities, in part because you cannot always directly measure their impact in terms of the metrics funders prioritize (e.g. voter turnout). Thus, those who want to build prisms of the people within the nonprofit sector may face an uphill battle.

Our study measures power in several ways that may be of interest to social movement scholars who want to fight Trumpism. We can see how the insurrectionists at the capitol are linked to one another via social media and to their communities through the often prominent roles they inhabit, as police officers, business owners, real estate agents, and so forth. In Ohio, we found out that one of the members of our state school board helped organize the insurrection. In Prisms of the People, we look at the evolution of social networks among activists, religious leaders, politicians, organizers, and show how peoples’ organizations can strategically leverage those connections to win unexpected victories for racial and economic justice.

For instance, one of our case organizations passed a ballot initiative funding universal preschool in a conservative area by developing and leveraging relationships with political, religious and business leaders. Another organization built on their major victory re-enfranchising formerly incarcerated people to help advise and organize Democratic state legislators, continuously pushing them to back a progressive agenda that addresses racial justice. While victories on issues are important, we find that the relationships built and lessons learned during campaigns were valuable for building the long term social movement infrastructure. This is important for shifting power on the major structural issues that underlie Trump’s victory and the harm he has done.

The leaders in our case organizations often experienced the Democratic political establishment as their primary obstacle to winning on progressive issues, especially racial justice issues like immigration and criminal justice reform. Thus, a Biden administration is no guarantee that progress will be made on important issues like income inequality, racism, and climate change. In fact, lessons from the Clinton administration indicate that Democrats can and do pass right wing policies that hurt the poor and people of color. This history makes the work of building prisms of the people that much more urgent so that elected officials can be held accountable to working for the people rather than their corporate donors only.

As many have pointed out, it is a mistake to think that Trump is the source of America’s problems. Activists and organizers have a lot of work to do in the coming years. They must build enough power to break the stranglehold the super wealthy have on US political institutions, and that is no small task. We believe that our book is one small step toward reckoning with this reality in a rigorous and systematic way, and it is our hope that both scholars and activists will benefit from the lessons that the leaders in our cases learned while organizing for justice. 

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