Progressives believe in and value community. Our elected leaders, our pundits, our books and blog posts and tweets all consistently emphasize this idea. Recently, though, I had the privilege of working with Doug Shipman, CEO of the new Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, on his talk for a TEDxAtlanta event last week. Doug is a long-time friend, and we had a blast working out the conceptual framework, stories, and turns of phrase that really made his message sing. It left me pondering, though, what exactly progressives think and do when it comes to this idea of community.
In the beginning of his talk, Doug proposes that people (not just progressives) hold ourselves to a higher standard – not merely community, but what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Beloved Community. Check out the differences between these two ideas:
Most progressives I know would say a hearty “Amen” to each of these, but after the last several years of working in progressive politics, I have seen how often our actions fall short of these ideals.
First, progressives have had a tendency to divide ourselves based on issues. Individuals with a passion for the environment, for example, join environmental advocacy organizations, read specialized media, sign petitions and call their representatives on environmental legislation, and give to environmental causes. The same pattern obtains for individuals who care most about gender equity, reproductive health, worker rights, racial justice, and so forth. Movement strategists call this the “silo” problem. When advancing a particular issue area becomes a defining purpose, then adherence to that purpose becomes the boundary around that community. Fighting on issues outside this purpose is discouraged (it’s called “mission creep”); in fact, these siloed communities end up competing against one another – for funding resources, attention from policymakers, media coverage, and more.
Second, the progressive movement all too often reproduces the race and class divisions that have always plagued this country. Starting around the 1970s, more affluent, college-educated whites began pursuing idealistic campaigns around issues that usually obscured or ignored race and class analysis: climate change, gay marriage, obesity, renewable energy, mass transit, and identity politics. Silo-ization based on issues became a means of protecting privilege, and it translated into marginalization for racial and ethnic minority groups and poor and working-class whites. The leadership, constituencies, and advocacy aims of many large progressive organizations today still reflect this failure of inclusivity.
Finally, we progressives are just as likely to succumb to tribalistic temptations as anyone. American politics are adversarial by design, but the intensity of today’s divide between progressives and conservatives, between Democrats and Republicans, doesn’t just make it hard to get things done. At its worst, we forget that, ultimately, we are all part of a larger tribe called Americans, and part of a still larger tribe called the world. We lose sight of our fundamental interdependence. As makers of the Beloved Community, our job as progressives is not to fight for just our side, but rather to fight for justice for all, including those who today are fighting against us. Listen to Doug’s story about the Rev. C.T. Vivian, and you’ll get a glimpse of what this means.
One of the reasons I am proud to work with NLC is how much we strive to bring the ideal and practices of building the Beloved Community into our work training and developing young progressive leaders. As a select group of talented, well-educated folks, NLC’s Fellows are, almost by definition, a group of great privilege. So, we have to work hard to make ourselves true neighbors to our movement brothers and sisters. We recruit and select individuals grounded in a wide range of issue areas. Their NLC experience helps break down those silos by both introducing them to one another and teaching them about effective strategies for building a movement that encompasses all of their issues. In San Francisco, we also don’t teach “diversity” – we teach intercultural competency, the ability to communicate and work together across differences. Fellows leave our program with a fundamental grasp of the skills and mindset that Doug recommends in his talk. We don’t lose sight of the rough-and-tumble side of politics, but we also emphasize the critical thinking, communication, and organizing skills that help remove tribal roadblocks to progress.
In his talk, Doug notes, “[King said that] in an interconnected world, the only way we would develop the empathy required to actually solve our problems across our differences was by building the beloved community.” I believe it is up to progressives to lead the way in this charge, and I am proud that NLC is doing its part to develop those leaders.