Intersectionality in Movement Building
By Minjon Tholen
The success of any movement hinges on the amount of people you can engage and the way you define the issues and solutions for your cause. Therefore, intersectionality – the interconnected, interdependent identity dynamics that create unique systems and experiences of both discrimination and disadvantage as well as privilege and unearned advantages – is critical in movement building. Although there seems to be a recognition of the importance of intersectionality and a sincere commitment to bringing this lens to organizing for social justice, the actual reality of putting it into practice proves to be exceptionally challenging. The organizers of the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement attempted to do this and encountered challenges and critique in the process. And most recently, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who turned their grief into action after the mass shooting that took place there, tried to set a new bar for intersectionality as well.
They organized, demanded changes in gun control regulations, and leveraged the media to make their voices heard, while recognizing that their visibility and efficacy could not be understood without explicitly incorporating the dynamics of race. They acknowledged that their identities as primarily white students from a school in an affluent neighborhood afforded them a level of privilege that others did not have – specifically low-income communities and communities of color. They were vocal about how many communities, especially the African-American community, disproportionately deal with the issue of gun violence and tirelessly advocate for more gun control without getting the same attention. By talking about the broader context and complex dynamics of gun violence rather than solely focusing on mass shootings, they engaged people from communities around the country and made room for their voices. In so doing, others not often brought into the spotlight could speak about what their communities are experiencing and diversify the faces of the movement.
The Parkland students capitalized on their privileges to include and empower others – a fundamental pillar of allyship for which they were praised. And yet, students of color at the school and other communities of color have expressed concern that they are still largely being left out of the conversation and media coverage.
Practicing intersectionality is no easy task, as it is complicated by the complexities of human behaviors, including biases, blind spots, micro-behaviors, and uninformed decision-making that can lead to other unintentional exclusions along the way. That is not an excuse to relinquish responsibility for our actions. Rather, staying vigilant, self-reflection, mid-action course correction, and continuous innovation in commitment to the larger vision it is key to the evolution of the practice of intersectionality.
If you’re working to increase intersectionality in your organizing work, consider CPR: context, partnerships and alliances, and reflection and correction.
Recognize that your issue is not isolated to your demographics or to your geography, generation, or other identity. It’s complex and intertwined with other issues. You are likely not the first person to face this issue. Developing an understanding of the history of a particular issue and how other dynamics can exacerbate or complicate a similar experience for a different community is an important starting point. Rather than minimizing the different challenges other communities experience, respectfully seek them out in order to appreciate the complexity of the multidimensional problems and associated solutions. Researching the advocacy and organizing that has happened in the past by others, especially outside of your community, can help deepen an appreciation for the challenges at hand, as well as to identify potential partners to strengthen your movement.
Partnerships and alliances
It is important to build partnerships and relationships with other community organizations and individuals who’ve been working on this issue in their respective communities. Invite those voices to the table and make plenty of room for them. Step aside so that other people can speak authentically from their experience rather than speaking for them or on behalf of them. At the same time, strategically partnering with those who have privileged identities can sometimes be helpful or even necessary to advance progress. It is a tricky balancing act to promote the voices and faces of those who have been traditionally ignored while using your privilege to benefit all, and therefore has to be done in full collaboration with your partners.
Another challenge in movement building is balancing our similarities and differences. While highlighting unique challenges is fundamental to intersectionality, movements are built because there is some commonality amongst all of its participants. Finding common ground, shared experiences, and shared demands is important in creating a strong and cohesive movement. Successful movements speak with a cohesive voice and are mindful of the differential oppressions and experiences of your diverse fellow movement builders.
Reflection and correction
We learn as we go and have to be open to course-correct as needed. This is true for the organizing collective as well as for us individually. Engage in introspection and regularly check in with each other about how everyone is being heard and seen, involved and included, and empowered in shaping the movement. Remember that “wokeness” has its limitations. No matter how woke we are, we all have blind spots and biases, and engage in unintentional micro-behaviors that perpetuate the very power dynamics we are working to dismantle. Always assume you might be missing something, so encourage others to call you out on it and take personal responsibility. You are all committed to a shared cause, so hold yourself and each other accountable to truth-telling. Change and grow together in the spirit of that vision.
Intersectional movement building means co-creating the movement with all those who have a stake in the change you’re seeking. It means starting from a shared commitment and appreciating the diversity of experiences with which people come to the table. Every contributor is responsible for working together to make sure no one is left behind. If we’re seeking social justice “out there in the world”, we have to make sure we’re practicing it within the movement itself. Walking the talk – intersectionally – will help all of us to move forward together.
Do you have any examples of or ideas for effective intersectional approaches? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!