I've often been struck by something that I've seen occur far too often in progressive organizations. At some point a revelation strikes someone they look up and realize "this organization doesn't reflect the diversity of progressives in America". There is a long history of this from Labor Unions and first wave feminist nearly a century ago, to Yearly Kos (NetRoot Nations precuser) and Occupy Wall St. today. Over and over progressive organization seem to constantly confront this "what's happening" moment. Why?
This being Dr. Martin Luther King Day I thought it would be an appropriate time to revisit this question, I originally posted a shorter version of this diary in Black Kos, but today I wanted to reach a broader audience, that my not feel "comfortable" going there. I also wanted to expound on the issues I raised there more. So the question then becomes two fold: Why do movements that grow out of progressive ideals lack the actual diversity of progressives in America? Secondly what to do about?
1) Why do movements that grow out of the progressive movement often lack the diversity of actual progressives in America?
a) Keep the lines of communication open!
Let's do a thought experiment together. You're invited two different organizations on the same day and time. The first is run my a fellow who always stops by your house and says "hi", he always ask you question on "how things are going", and he always inquires about the organization you run. You and this fellow have little in common, because he lives across town from you, but he always shows this level of respect. The second invitation comes from a fellow who you've heard about because he has a way of always making his voice heard and you agree with most of what he has to say. But he's never before shown up at anything you've done, or given you a personal invitation. Never the less the organization he has run has similar values to the the ones you share.
So which organization do you think you would show up at?
As much as ideas, passion, and hard work are important to building a political movement, so are lines of communication and networking. Martin Luther King was able to get Labor Unions and their important white working class members to march to Washington, because he also was a fighter for the right to unionize (the day MLK was shot he was in Memphis to help the Memphis sanitation workers labor union). As much as the battle for civil rights must have consume all his time, he understood the importance of building lines of communication. King worked with both labor and the antiwar movements.
Relationship matter. If you wait until you "need" someone to show up at your organization it's often too late. Even if folks agree with you, people hate to feel used. The conservative activist Grover Norquist founded something called the "Wednesday Group" for conservatives. Even though Grover is consumed with tax policy, he formed a group that covered an entire spectrum of conservatives. The ability of conservatives to quickly all spout the same talking points is a direct consequence of this. Don't think for a second that a hedge fund manager from NYC, a culture warrior from Mississippi, and a libertarian NRA'er from Idaho on their side have anything more or less in common than a professor at a New England school, a union steward in the Midwest, and a young person of color in LA.
By having open lines of communication conservatives have developed a "language" that ropes all these group together more effectively than those on the left. Make no mistake it was long hard work for them and it will be long hard work for us.
2) So what to do we do about it?
The first thing that I can't emphasize enough is the importance of becoming a member of blogs from groups your not a "member" of. Make it your duty to read at least two blogs or communities that you don't consider yourself a "part" of each week. If you don't feel comfortable at first joining the discussion, just lurk. Learn the "language" of that group, learn what they are concerned about, learn what "terms" enrages them. But most important make it a long term project. As frustrating or aggravating as some heated discussion may become DO NOT LEAVE. Half of life is showing up, and doing so earns you a level of respect.
It's often said that the reason family feuds are so hurtful is because you love the person your fighting with. Try to view the inevitable clashes as family infighting. Try to step back and look at the "big picture" and ultimate goal.
Secondly when building or starting an offline organization don't forget about building a diverse networks right from the groups foundation. Think about whom you invite to the initial meeting. Think about the places you recruit new members. Think about going to HBCU's (historically black colleges and universities) and recruiting there if your primary focus are social issues. Consider recruiting from majority Latino or black churches if the issues are economic.
If you've built online friendships ask people for connections and ideas. Do the work at the beginning where it doesn't seem as "window dressing" make it a conscience effort. Make the effort even if people can't show up they will respect you for the invitation. There is nothing like heartfelt word of mouth, and there is no better way to earn it.
Be a leader in this effort. It's great to be open to anyone joining your organization, but it's better to be active in recruiting. Many people pat themselves on the back because they feel "they're open to everyone" but if your that open you should also be willing to go where you're in the "minority". There is no better way to build trust than to lead by example. If you want others to join a group were they will be in the minority, show them how it's done first.
Many people will say they "have many friends of all races, religions, and sexual orientations" and that they "don't see race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation", That is very noble but I always wonder where "their friends" are at their events. Everyone should believe in "affirmative access" give invitation to everyone, recruit from all sectors of your social network. Your only responsible for the invitation, even if people don't attend, most people like to be asked. Maybe in return they'll invite you to their events. This is the best way to change "aquatints of all races, religions, and sexual orientations" (which is what most people really mean), into "friends of of all races, religions, and sexual orientations" into "partners of all races, religions, and sexual orientations." Because PARTNERS are what we all really need to affect the changes this country so desperately needs.
Also don't fall into the stereotyping trap. Don't try to invite members of different groups only when your organization is doing a special focus on "woman's issues" or "LGBT issues" or "Hispanic issues". Many blacks are committed to environmentalism that goes beyond environmentalism racism, there are people in even deep dark Red States that care about LGBT issues. As elementary as this may seem, it really does bare repeating. It's very easy for ALLl of us to continue to try and recruit from the same areas and groups. Time and money are often scarce but with the power of social networking and a little commitment it's much easier to reach a broader and more diverse social network. Put some real effort into it.
As leaders in the progressive movement think about whom you are inviting to your Netroots Nation Panels. Did you fully tap your networks to reach all the people who are experts in your field? Are your members able to serve as ambassadors to reach a broad spectrum of America? Do you go panels outside your primary areas of interest and broaden your network? How often to you go to events like Blogging While Brown the Convention? What about the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists and Bloggers Association Convention? Does anyone else from your organization go? Do you think members of these organization only blog about "black" or "brown" or "gay" topics? Have you ever bothered to find out?
One of the question that are asked when you apply for a panel is "how do you plan to advertise your panel?" Well let me ask you directly "how do you plan to advertise your panel?" Have you thought of expanding it's reach by advertising to "non-traditional groups". Have you ever googled or searched on Facebook for gay, Latino, woman or black environmental, labor, or progressive groups or blogs? Why not? Whom you reach out to speak more to who you are than who shows up. You only have control over the invitation, have you properly exercised your responsibility?
If these steps are followed the next "organic" progressive movement to spring forth will have a greater likely hood of "looking like America". Progressives are a diverse group and our organization should reflect that diversity.
Make reaching out your Martin Luther King Day resolution there is no greater way to honor him.
HOW ARE YOU GOING TO CELEBRATE DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING'S LEGACY TODAY?