How to turn a well-intended march into an effective movement.
There was a march yesterday in Washington, D.C. and around the world. A really big march. Millions of women and men speaking their minds and hearts. And that’s a good thing. Regardless of which side of all this you are on, you should support the freedom to march, the freedom to speak, and to protest. It is an essential part of our democracy and our country’s capacity to evolve in ways that align with the needs and concerns of its citizens. The question for me around the act of marching, the act of protest is not a question of means but of ends. To what end? What do yesterday’s marchers and organizers expect from marching and more importantly what do they plan on doing the day(s) after the march? What’s the difference between a march and an effective movement?
In my view a march is a moment, a movement is sustained. A march can get away with fuzzy messaging because it won’t be measured beyond how many people marched. A march can have multiple people leading the way. A movement cannot. Even with sustained effort, absent clear messaging and singular leadership, movements often fail. Remember the Occupy movement?
It was 2011. And it started in New York with Occupy Wall Street. Within a few weeks Occupy protests had occurred in over 951 cities and 82 countries. Everyone was talking about it. But few, including the media, knew exactly what to say. Sure it was clear that it was about economic inequality, the 1% versus the 99%, but okay, so what? What was the goal? What was the desired end? What were the actions being proposed? And who was its leader? There was no leader, there was no simple, compelling message supported by clear and specific proposed actions to “solve the problem”. It was just a bunch of people camped out, talking about something important but not telling the same story with a clear call to action. While it was a movement it actually behaved more like a march. So it failed. Or at least I have no capacity to gauge its impact. Do you?
There was another movement and big march in the 60s. The march happened on August 28th, 1963 in Washington, D.C. It was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was organized by a bunch of civil rights groups in order to put a spotlight on the social and economic issues facing African Americans. And the most resonant moment was Martin Luther King’s culminating “I have a dream” speech. The march and MLK’s impassioned words served as a capstone of sorts for the prior ten-year period of civil unrest and peaceful protest. It was followed by the passage of several landmark pieces of federal legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It also banned racial segregation in schools. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act established protections for the voting rights of minorities. And later in that same year the Immigration and Nationality Services Act was enacted, removing barriers of race and ethnicity.
So that ten year effort, that ten year movement, was effective right? I think it was far from perfect. Sure it was major progress but did it really address the core issues? Fast forward to today and while legal segregation is gone, social and economic segregation remains. While minorities can vote, are their voices really being heard? While non-white people can immigrate to the United States are they actually welcome? Do the majority of Americans believe that black or non-white lives really matter?
The failure of Occupy and the real versus nominal impact of the Civil Rights Movement, point to the need for movements to have more rigorous definitions of goals (the desired ends), singular and sustained leadership, and simple, consistent and compelling messaging that connects with a motivated populace. And the movement’s every effort must point to clear proposed actions and calls to action for members of that populace to engage, to act differently, to make the choices (and sacrifices) that increase the chances that the movement will actually work, that it will achieve the desired ends, that it will be perfect.
To prove these points, consider them in light of the success of the Trump campaign. How in god’s name did a reality TV show host and marginally successful real estate developer become the president of what many consider the most sophisticated and advanced country in the world? He created an effective movement.
Think about it.
The ends: job opportunities for the white downtrodden and an easier go for big businesses to compete and reap. And a return to us being the world’s biggest bully.
The leadership: Trump in all his vainglorious majesty. A king to some, a daddy to others, and a golden calf to many.
The simple and painfully consistent messaging: Make America great again. Every part of America is a disaster or sad, Capitol Hill is broken, and he is the only one who can fix it all. And the king/daddy/golden calf will magically make your life great again just by blowing things up. It’s that simple.
The desperate and motivated populace: white people who are afraid and feel left behind plus business people who are afraid and fixated on getting more.
The call to action: make America great again by voting with your anger and fear instead of your brain. Vote for radical change even though you have no idea what will change, how it will change, and how it will really impact your life.
An effective movement.
And that’s what we need yesterday’s march to become. We must embrace it as a first step towards building an effective movement that gets us all back (and I mean all) back on a path towards shared prosperity, shared understanding and shared values. I get that tomorrow is ostensibly about women’s rights and a collective response to our now president’s inappropriate behavior and remarks regarding women. But really this effort should evolve to be about everyone’s rights. If we want our words and actions to yield change, to both mitigate Mr. Trump’s bluster and capricious ways and to actually impact policy and legislation, I suggest we fill in the blanks to yield an effective movement.
We need to clearly define the ends. And my view is that the ends are about maintaining and growing freedom. Freedom of women in every respect, freedom of non-whites to gain opportunity, freedom of all people to realize their full potential. We need to create clear measures of universal freedom that are more than laws and legislature. They must be exhibited in our social behaviors and individual actions. Any move against our measures of freedom is a move against all of us.
We need a leader. A political party is not a leader. A collective is not a leader. We need an individual to step forward who has the right combination of intellectual chops, compassion for all, and the communications ability to motivate every corner and color of our country to step forward to participate.
We need a simple, compelling message. It’s got to both serve self-interest while being a clarion call for collective action. Make America Great Again implied upside for each of us. Stronger Together did not.
We need to define our target populace. It cannot be blue versus red. It cannot be non-white versus white. Or Democrat versus Republican. To do so would reduce the chance of achieving our ends. The target populace must be all. We must embrace the truth that the fears of others are real, the misunderstandings are legitimate, the disadvantages and inequities are massive hurdles and that we really are all in this together.
And we need a specific call to action. And I believe it to be this: We must all raise our voices until we achieve the ends we seek. And even then we should never shut up. Silence is complicity. And we must make active and ongoing use of the instrument called state representation. Our congressmen and women are our elected officials, elected to represent our needs and desires as individuals and as citizens of our states and country. Their ability to effectively be our voice is predicated on them knowing what we want and the changes we want to see. And the simple act of voting every couple of years is an absurdly ineffective way of conveying what exactly it is we want and showing how much we care.
And ultimately this is about caring. Lip service is just that. If we really care we will raise our voice, speed dial our state representatives and do so every day until change happens. If we care we will change our ways, make different decisions and be willing to make real sacrifices. If we care we will work hard to understand the facts, let go of our biases, and embrace the other person as ourselves.
If we really care we will turn a well-intended march into an effective movement.