A progressive movement across this country is more aspiration than reality when its members work toward many of the same goals, but apart from one another. If we are not arm-in-arm while marching toward our dreams, we may be moving, but we are not a movement. We all suffer when we turn our backs and say, "That's not my issue."
Today, too many progressive groups still remain disconnected from one another. In my view, coalitions are not optional. They are essential. Without joining hands with each other, we cannot achieve ambitious goals such as reclaiming the full protections of the 14th Amendment against institutional discrimination. We cannot ensure that there will be more Black males in colleges than in prisons. We cannot give our LGBT brothers and sisters the same rights and freedoms to marry afforded to the rest of us. We cannot secure full civic and economic integration for immigrants.
At Equal Justice Society, the practice of coalition building was embedded into our organizational DNA from day one, and remains one of our core principles. We learned this crucial lesson from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, through the urgings of his aide, Bayard Rustin, sought to create the "Grand Coalition," an alliance of groups and individuals who hungered for justice and equality. This meant bringing together women, people of color, union members, peace activists, and environmentalists -- all those who saw the possibility of a better world with equal opportunity for all people. Here are five important lessons we have learned in our efforts to develop coalitions:
Find Common Goals In Seemingly Disparate Issues
When Proposition 8 in California threatened to erode the rights of the LGBT community, many of us recognized that we could not allow others to pigeonhole the move as a "gay" issue. By rolling back the fundamental rights of one group, Proposition 8 cast a threat that loomed over the civil rights of all Californians. Cross-coalition opposition to Proposition 8 took the form of public appearances with LGBT community leaders, media interviews, forums and outreach to communities of color -- all of which contributed to showing the impact of the proposition outside of the LGBT community. Immigration reform, marriage equality and the advancement of equal opportunity may appear to many as issues that have minimal overlap. In reality, success in each of these areas advances fairness, access and equality for all of us.
Learn And Embrace The Culture And Terminology Of Your Allies
Understanding and embracing the culture and languages of our allies demonstrates respect for others and their ideas, and contributes to our collective solidarity. In terms of language, one of the toughest battles today is over the widespread use of the term "illegal immigrant," made popular by conservatives in an attempt to dehumanize undocumented immigrants. Despite the fact that a person cannot be "illegal," the term has been widely adopted in news coverage by the mainstream media and in the lexicon of our courts. By continuing to protest the incorrect use of "illegal" to describe immigrants, we not only embrace the values of our immigrants' rights allies, but we also push back on the efforts of those who seek to use language to frame values in a degrading manner.
Set Aside Differences In Strategy To Achieve Common Goals
In 2003, California's Proposition 54 threatened to amend the state Constitution in a manner that would have prohibited state and local governments from using race, ethnicity, color or national origin to classify students, contractors or employees in public education, contracting, or employment practices. A statewide coalition organized to defeat the measure. Pollsters advised us that success would require employing messages that focused on Proposition 54's negative impact on health care, rather than framing it as an assault against people of color. While voters of color immediately understood the negative impact Proposition 54 would have on efforts to remedy racial discrimination, polling indicated that White voters were by and large not moved by an appeal to racial justice. Although we initially pushed back against the race-neutral focus, the coalition ultimately accepted the polling data and its health-oriented approach. The tactic proved successful. Proposition 54 ultimately was defeated. If we, as racial justice advocates, had not agreed to rely on research-driven messaging, Proposition 54 might have passed.
Practice 'Physical Solidarity'
In the 1940s, Bayard Rustin traveled to California to help protect the property of Japanese Americans who were interned in concentration camps. At that time, the U.S. had forced Japanese American citizens to leave their property unattended or under the watch of others. In a time when Japanese Americans "looked like the enemy" and could count on few supporters, Rustin came to their aid, setting a powerful example for us to follow, especially in today's increasingly virtual world. Today, it is easier for us to avoid physically showing up. We sign online petitions, have Twitter protests and email our elected officials -- all of which are helpful strategies. We must not forget, however, that we can best forge our alliances by being there for others in person, by practicing "physical solidarity." In victory and in the toughest of times, we should be there when our allies call for our presence.
Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You
This last suggestion is the simplest in concept, yet it is often the most difficult to practice: "Play nice." The stakes are so high and the pressure so fierce on many of our issues that the worst of our natures can get the best of us. We become bitter toward an ally over a tactical disagreement; we keep our objections to ourselves and seethe; we cry foul when we think another organization is stepping on our institutional toes. At the end of the day, movement building is all about personal connections. We must learn to be generous, give credit to others even when it doesn't benefit our own organization, and find ways to have open discussions about differences and grievances.
Coalition building is more art than science. It requires flexibility, patience and perseverance. This way of doing business won't come easily. It will require some or more of us taking a step back so that others may step forward. It will also require a collective commitment to staying in the fight over the long haul. Yet, we cannot afford to be poor students at it. Our communities are counting on us.