At the beginning of 2015, many feel as though we in the United States are at the cusp of a new movement for social transformation. In September 2014, more than 400,000 people—led by poor and working class communities of color on the front-lines of climate change—took to the streets of New York to demand real solutions to the climate crisis. From Oakland to Ferguson to Brooklyn, many thousands have come together to demand police accountability and confront the racist violence of the criminal justice system. Low-wage workers have begun to organize, and in states and localities across the United States, people have consistently and overwhelmingly voted to increase the minimum wage. Times seem dark—as they often do this time of year—but the sparks of hope seem to be coalescing into something brighter.
While these protests and campaigns may seem spontaneous and temporary, especially when seen through the lens of the mainstream media, each of them is the product of years—if not decades—of patient organizing. How can the oftentimes local and necessarily concrete work of organizing in our workplaces and communities add up to the movement of movements we need if we’re going to build a sustainable society based on solidarity, equality, freedom, and justice? In his previous RLS–NYC study, “Demand Everything,” Steve Williams introduces a powerful model, “transformative organizing,” which insists that effective organizing for social change cannot simply be based on an apolitical and highly specific analysis of what is possible in the short term. We need a vision of a better tomorrow that can structure our organizations, alliances, and campaigns today.
In this study, Williams returns to the topic of transformative organizing, examining what this model looks like in actual practice. Based on case studies of four organizations that have applied and developed this model, Williams distills a set of best practices that can in turn serve as guidance for organizers seeking to build up a movement capable of effectively challenging capitalism, hetero-patriarchy, and white supremacy.
Williams is a coordinator of LeftRoots, an emerging “national formation of social movement organizers and activists who want to connect grassroots struggles to a strategy to win liberation for all people and the planet.” A long-time organizer in the Bay Area, Williams is the co-founder and former executive director of POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), a community-based organization of low-income and working class tenants, transit riders, and workers. Together with NTanya Lee, he co-authored the “Ear to the Ground Project,” a national in-depth survey of left organizing in the U.S.
In “Demand Everything,” Williams points out that societal transformation cannot be accomplished by adhering to the same old authoritarian, undemocratic, white male, middle-class dominated politics. In this paper, he considers several organizations that are working on the ground to move us forward in a truly progressive manner. Each of them has something critical to teach us about how we can better come together to challenge an unjust, undemocratic, and unsustainable status quo.