Book Chat, Part 2: Prisms of the People by Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa

Today, we continue our discussion of Prisms of the People, a new book by Han, McKenna, and Oyakawa on the nature of contemporary activism.

Question #2: Your book is about political organizations and why they succeed or fail. What are the main lessons for activists from your research?

We examine movements that won voting rights for the formerly incarcerated in Virginia, pushed back against the worst excesses of SB 1070 in Arizona (laying the groundwork for the state’s historic shift in 2020), passed universal preschool in Cincinnati, and elected candidates articulating a new vision of multi-racial politics in Minnesota. They won not only by doing things we all know–registering voters, canvassing neighborhoods and so on–but instead by negotiating for power in ways that rejected the false choice between idealism and pragmatism, between working inside the system and outside the system, between articulating a bold vision and making political compromises. 

While there are no clear-cut formulas for success for social movement organizations (particularly those working with race class subjugated communities), the organizations in our study made some similar choices. At the heart of their work was commitment to building a constituency base that had three main characteristics: it was flexible, committed, and independent. Often, organizations are under pressure from funders to focus their time and energy on single issue campaigns or on demonstrating success through metrics like number of voter contacts. Our case organizations, on the other hand, were clear that their primary goal was to build a constituency base; they treated issue campaigns and voter outreach as a means to that end. They strengthened their political capacity over time by focusing time and energy on cultivating an interconnected base. This entailed building relationships, taking action together, and intentional reflection and learning based on their experiences. These practices built the commitment and flexibility they needed to build and wield political power as the opportunity structures shifted.

The other key commonality that we saw was that the leaders of these organizations though very intentionally and strategically about how to exercise their leadership. Coaches, generals, and CEOs recognize the importance of strategy for navigating competitive, dynamic terrain in sports, war, and business. Politics is similarly competitive and dynamic. The study and practice of collective action, however, often underestimates the way political uncertainty conditions the strategic choices leaders make. Our book puts them at the center, to understand how strategic leadership worked in durable, accountable relationships with a committed constituency base to enable these organizations to build the power they need.

Ultimately, the main lesson is that organizations that focus on building a constituency base are able to be flexible (and thus meet the challenges of an ever-changing context) in ways that organizations whose political leverage comes from access, money, or information cannot. Activists should know who their people are and keep the focus on cultivating their base’s organizing capacity through action and reflection. In the book there are many examples and illustrations of what this looks like in practice that will hopefully spark ideas for activists about how their own organizations can empower their constituencies.

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Please check out my books:
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter
A theory book you can understand: Theory for the Working Sociologist
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine.

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