Updated: Jun 9, 2019
by Barbara Peterson May 26, 2019
Imagine being a state government representative and going to work with 20 to 50 activists fairly consistently opposing your efforts; their faces may change, but their numbers are typically the same. If these activists do not vote for your political party regardless of what you do, they are more of a nuisance than intimidating. Even when they do come from your political party, they still are not much of a threat because 20-50 people don’t represent anywhere near a majority of the voting public. Now imagine that every time these activists show up at your work, they are preceded by hundreds of phone calls from a vast number of diverse organizations around the state, each call is from someone who speaks on behalf of their entire group or organization and they are calling to support these 20-50 activists. You are no longer facing a relatively small amount of opposition. Instead, you are faced with opponents so well-organized that each group knows what the others are doing and acts in cooperation with each other. In other words, you are no longer facing a small number of disparate groups; you are up against a massive and united force of opposition.
There are hundreds of grassroots coalitions and organizations in New Hampshire who are working to make improvements in the areas of affordable healthcare, housing, education, and child care as well as equitable education funding, environmentally sustainable practices, gun safety policies, fair livable wages, and human and civil rights for all vulnerable and oppressed socio-cultural groups. Within these organizations there exists subgroups where smaller gatherings of people each focus on only one issue. Working with community organizations in one’s local neighborhoods allows people to form relationships that sustain them throughout the long journey of activism. It’s important to foster smaller group work because it is within these more intimate meetings that each individual can be heard, play a meaningful role in the development of the efforts and goals of the group, and garner the attention they need to develop from others the skills and knowledge to become more adept activists.
Acting locally, in other words, is vastly important. But so is thinking globally. This is true not only in the sense that each smaller group’s goals should work toward the wellbeing of the those in their larger communities and throughout the nation. It is also true in the sense that smaller organizations would each be more powerful if they developed a democratic method of communicating and working together with all other groups who share at least some of their goals. If we are to leverage power against the wealthiest 1% who hold a dominating influence on our legislators, we need to work together. The 1% may have the vast majority of wealth and resources, but we outnumber them 99 to 1. That’s a powerful weapon we must learn to wield responsibly, nonviolently, and effectively.
Often when people talk about different groups working together, they envision a common interest or goal uniting organizations to support a particular event. We saw this in the larger marches in New Hampshire: The Women’s March, and the Marches for Science and for Climate. These examples illustrate how several resistance and advocacy groups can cooperate with one another to organize a protest. What these marches share in common is that they were each part of a national protest. Thus, they were given a great deal of publicity at the national level, which helped ensure that several state groups were interested in supporting the events and that there would be good turnouts at the local protests. Without the aid of national attention, however, state-wide protests do not often get the kind of attendance needed to make protest effective.
One way New Hampshire has sought to build mutual support among the many different groups is through the calendar oneactionnh.org. This site posts all the events going on in New Hampshire by resistance and advocacy groups. Its purpose is twofold: to let individuals know about upcoming events so they can make plans and attend, and to alert other organizations about upcoming events so they help support them. This is a wonderful tool, but it doesn’t always work as well as one would hope because not enough people use it. Many others have talked about building a more fulsome website that not only advertises what all groups are doing, but also gives information on the issues being addressed, troubling bills being considered in the legislature, and specific ways individuals can participate in helping to address the concerns we are facing as a state. This would be great, but it would take a tremendous amount of time to build and keep up – and it, too, would be less than helpful if the majority of people interested in building progressive change don’t use it.
An issue that is most predominant in keeping groups from developing unity is people getting territorial. This is a common problem in movements: people want ownership of the work they’re doing and they don’t want to be taken over or outshined by larger, more powerful groups. It’s a legitimate concern because if we lose the small group, locally run dynamic, we risk losing a democratic process of decision making. Larger organizations can’t give each individual member the high degree of say in the goals and procedures of the group that smaller groups can – thus, there is less buy-in from individual members and participants with larger organizations. Also, smaller groups allow people to work on issues that affect their particular community. Finally, more intimate gatherings allow for stronger bonds to form among members, which can help provide momentum during slower or more frustrating periods in the movement.
Being wary of larger organizations overshadowing one’s smaller group is both understandable and appropriate. Yet, there still needs to be a way for all of us to work together, a way where each group maintains sovereignty and larger organizations are supported in doing what they do well: build coalitions, reach a broader audience, put on more costly events, and gain the attention of the media and national movements.
Perhaps the way to start is in recognizing that all groups have not only a right to exist but a need, and that we don’t lose any of our individuality or unique impact by agreeing to always work with others to achieve common goals. A second step may be to create a networking and communication plan that enables at least one delegate from each group to support others’ events. So, if thirty people from Indivisible New Hampshire, for example, attend a hearing at the State House to support the passing of a particular bill, a delegate from all other (or even a vast number of) groups and organizations who support that bill can call or email their representative and say that they are speaking on behalf of their entire group acting in solidarity with Indivisible New Hampshire. This would enable any action to carry far more weight if our elected officials knew they were not just being approached by a couple dozen activists, but instead an entire network of statewide activists organized to unite in massive support.
We not only need a process for defining goals, working to build campaigns, and articulating strategies within our individual groups. We also need to recognize that our power as the people is in our numbers. Without a massive and coordinated opposition, we stand little chance of persuading our elected officials to act in our interests over those of corporations and individuals with far more resources and influence. To be effective, we must be able and willing to come together as a united force of resistance and advocacy for a future that holds true to more progressive values.