Big Leap Series: Movements must be big to have real impact — and they need to have depth to create lasting and significant change. This post by Caring Across Generations Director of Organizing Jodeen Olguín-Tayler is the first in our “Big Leap” series inviting movement leaders to reflect on their experiences, struggles, and questions about reaching scale through depth.
Over the course of 15 months, Caring Across Generations engaged a base of more than 1 million people. By our second year we were a leading force in the coalition that won minimum wage and overtime protections for 2.1 million workers. Many of us in the community based organizing field see this scale of engagement and impact as cutting edge for our sector. But, as innovative and exciting as they are, these indicators of scale are an entirely inadequate measure of success.
Our innovations with scale are important. But what is most hopeful about Caring Across Generations is how we situate our work within the entire terrain of social change work. We measure success by the degree to which our “wins” enhance coordination and alignment of progressive infrastructure. In the current political landscape, one goal of all our work must be to transform our scattered, isolated progressive infrastructure into a highly aligned cross-sector fleet.
“Winning” means much more than large scale concrete improvement in people’s lives. “Winning” means transformational and structural change that can be sustained and can birth opportunities for ongoing change and transformation. No social change at scale will be real lasting change if there’s not a movement behind it, demanding and creating that change.
“Winning” — really winning– requires alignment and coordination across multiple social movements in order to create a sea change with the power to reshape the political landscape. Our ability to arrive at a new political landscape — one where we have the power to govern — requires a fleet of well coordinated infrastructure to sustain, lead, and navigate that sea change.
When we launched Caring Across Generations, two catastrophic storms and two tidal waves were rapidly changing our political and social landscape:
The two (corporate sponsored) storms were:
1. Austerity —an agenda masked as an indisputable environmental reality— manifesting in the corporate control of Congress and flooding every aspect of the fiscal and legislative debates in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis, bank bailouts, and the resulting jobs crisis.
2. The surge of (finance capital-backed) nativism and the eruption of the Tea Party, bringing its manifestation of a Right-wing agenda that yanked the entire American political spectrum to the right.
The two (organic) waves were:
1. The majority minority: People of color and immigrants rising to make our country a people of color majority by 2042.
2. The maturing of the baby boomer “age wave”: In our country one person turns 65 every eight seconds—or 10,000 people every day — an aging rate with the potential to spawn a “silver tsunami.”
These were the climate conditions shaping our nation’s political landscape. Polling data from the 2010 midterm elections revealed deep polarization between two key demographic groups: the moderate to conservative (very powerful) aging white electorate and the growing Latino, Black, and youth voting blocks. The contrived alarms about the “fiscal cliff” fueled this polarization. States with the highest percentages of rapidly growing populations among the elderly and people of color became flashpoints for legislative and legal battles. The magnitude of the polarization was tearing apart our social fabric and paralyzing governance.
Sadly, our social movements and political leadership were failing to provide clear direction. One example: in a country of people desperate for jobs and needing care workers, there was no plan to create care jobs. Instead the potential workforce of caregivers and the skyrocketing population needing care were being pitted against each other.
It was a classic “crisitunity.” Without a campaign and organizing plan, the age wave would create a crisis — a tsunami — that would feed and exacerbate the political storms and demographic divisions within our country. Or, with strategic intervention, the momentum of the age wave could become an opportunity to align diverse leadership into a convoy. Instead of drowning, getting hit by, or fighting the wave, a new convoy of leadership could engage the currents and tides shaping the wave, positioning to get in front of the wave. We could ride at its helm to guide the direction and impact. This strategic opportunity to create an alliance between two powerful voting blocks would require not just highlighting intersecting self-interests, but leading our organizing with values that allow people to recognize their interdependence.
Right now, with 50 years of well-coordinated storms beating down on us, we are in disarray. Our infrastructure — barges, sailboats, aircraft carriers, motorboats, submarines, rowboats — are damaged and isolated. Our institutions and organizations are at different levels of functionality. And, we aren’t aligned. We aren’t moving towards a shared vision, nor creating synergy across our demands. We are not sufficiently coordinating efforts to sustain ourselves or engage the potential of the social movements swelling and brewing in the ocean beneath us.
What we need is a fleet of highly coordinated infrastructure that can lead us out of the storms to a new political landscape.
How do we create that fleet? How do we not just “win” some battles, weather the storms, and keep from drowning — but instead create alignment and vision to lead us to an entirely new landscape? How do we really start to align our different issues and the bases of support we are accountable to?
Caring Across Generations engages previously siloed organizations and sectors by using multi-issue values-based campaigns to catalyze alignment and operationalize new strategic partnerships across sectors. The “age wave” coming towards us impacts care workers, seniors, family caregivers, in different ways. We hadn’t aligned our ships before, but we’ve built a campaign that is helping us to do that now. Values-driven campaigns can transform disorganized ships into a strategically aligned convoy moving towards a shared vision. The most significant contribution of Caring Across Generations isn’t what we’ve won so far. Our biggest contribution is cohering this newly aligned political force: a convoy of ships that consists of diverse state partners, national organizations and networks, progressive foundations, and policy shops from various sectors. It is this alignment and coordinated action brought about through our strategic partnerships that made our scale of engagement and impact possible — and transformed conditions and progressive infrastructure. Many organizations have been at the lead of our convoy at different moments. It is strategic for us to be in constant assessment about which organization should be most visibly leading at any moment, while always traveling in a formation where every ship is leading a lane.
Cross-sector multi-issue campaigns are catalysts. They set into motion convoys of ships with the potential to cohere and align with other ships across sectors. These convoys can coordinate to animate an entire fleet moving in strategic formation. That fleet is the infrastructure we need to lead and sustain a diverse progressive movement.
We need to ask ourselves to measure success not just by mobilization or policy change victories, but also by how our campaigns turn the disarray of the progressive ships into a fleet.
We need to know where we are going, not just what we are guarding against. We need inspiring vision to steer towards, to get us out of the storms. Vision needs to be articulated into proactive demands and agendas. For Caring Across Generations, our national and state policy agenda demands a comprehensive transformation of our care system so seniors, workers, people with disabilities, immigrants, and our families have access to quality care that allows us to work and age with dignity. We demand economic and policy incentives to compensate reproductive labor and value care as a social good and responsibility. More simply, we envision: creating 2 million quality care jobs (for a workforce dominated by women, immigrants, and people of color) with a pathway to citizenship in order to provide quality care for seniors and people with disabilities. It’s a vision of a care system that values the full human dignity of both care workers and care consumers.
That’s just one small piece of the vision we need. Each convoy must expand the horizon, giving us more clarity to steer towards.
Let’s be honest about the ships we need to get us there. Some of our ships have massive structural damage. Others have outdated navigation. Some move so fast that others don’t even know they are with us. Some need lifeboats and emergency repair. Some need to transform. Others we will need to let sink.
As we repair ships and learn to navigate towards shared vision, we need to support our deckhands and captains to embrace new technologies and replace rusting tools and out-of-date maps.
In fact, this time we won’t be following a map.
We’ll be using innovation tools to iterate and improve as we grow. The trust we build across ships will be crucial. Trust is what allows us to stay in strategic formation, to lead in our own lanes. Trust is what supports innovation and creates conditions where we can be willing, and supported…to jump ship.
A fleet that can effectively navigate out of storms still won’t reach its vision if it’s always moving against the tide. We also need real scale to propel us. We need to be so much more than our ships. We need to count on the movement of water, waves, and currents to power us.
Ready to get into the water?
It’s okay. Let’s take a deep breath and allow ourselves to really internalize that the ships we are familiar with, the organizations and institutions we’ve spent our entire lives building, are important, but totally insufficient. It’s okay. We can admit that our ships will never be enough to hold the entire ocean. They don’t need to be.
Currents and waves are the power scale at a whole other level. Harnessing that power requires trusting movement without trying to control it. We can dive in to create surges and swells by learning to do the pop culture, celebrity engagement, public art, and cognitive research and communications work to shape values-based narratives. In our first experiment with this scope of work, Caring Across Generations engaged over 13 million people. That’s just the start of the kind of scale we need.
Learning to build the scale we need requires broadening who we are willing to recognize as part of the movement. It means dropping some of our worst movement habits, like jealously guarding territory, casting nets to capture resources, or overly depending on membership models focused on trying to haul everyone and everything aboard our ships.
Let’s learn to lose our fear, try new things, and to be okay with — even celebrate — what we learn from failed experiments.
We can start trusting in the vast sea of people and conditions in motion, the waves, the swells, and tides as collective resources that can power all of us, sustainably. We can learn to navigate out of the storms by moving towards clear, powerful values-based vision. We can catalyze moving into the alignment we need by mobilizing convoys of cross-sector multi-issue campaigns that put us in new and deeper practices of partnership. We can learn to recognize, and cultivate, interdependence. We can build our fleet. We can win — really win.
I’m ready for a new political landscape — one with coordinated progressive leadership, fueled by our movement of movements. We’re going to need the fleet to get us there, and our campaigns will have to work together to align the fleet.
Are you with me?