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Criticism Part II: How to respond March 8, 2009

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In my last post, I talked about criticism of social movements-in this post, I’ll go more into answering criticism towards your movement and dealing with counter-movements since I didn’t really go into that enough in my previous post.

No-one would probably believe me if I told them that our little movement had an actual counter-movement. As one person who signed a postcard as part of our letter-writing campaign put it, “do you hate homeless kids?”
No-one hates homeless kids (or at least, nobody will admit to it in public). Even the critic at our movie event who said she wasn’t convinced that she should vote for the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth act because she thought that Runaway youth were responsible for their own situation made sure to say that she agreed that homeless youth needed help and that she hoped to become a foster parent someday. But I think that, in her statement, we see how counter movements to movements with even the most benevolent intentions justify themselves.
“Responsibility”-sure, just as nobody wants to say that they don’t like homeless youth, nobody wants to say that they oppose building a responsible society. And so, opposing the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the minor tax hike necessary to fund it) becomes a matter of “responsibility”. It’s a classic example of using framing to your advantage: one cannot oppose the act on the grounds that it helps homeless youth, so you change the argument so that it’s about “responsibility”-and opposing the act becomes the duty of all those who want a responsible society.
This can be seen at its most ridiculous form in the anti abortion and pro abortion movements, or, as they love to call themselves, the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” movements. No-one can really claim to be anti-life or anti-choice-and that’s not what the argument is really about. People who aren’t pro-life do not go around spreading death as far as possible (in fact, people who ARE pro-life are more likely to kill people over abortion than those who aren’t). People who aren’t pro-choice don’t follow others around when they’re doing their shopping and try to prevent them from choosing between blue and red shirts. It’s a ridiculous use of language, for people to label themselves “pro-choice” or “pro-life”. And yet, they do it, hoping that a few twists on language will make their position seem more palatable to the predictably simple and gullible public.
In order to work against counter movements, and to defend yourself against criticism of your movement, you will have to make sure to debate on your own terms: you need to call out the critics (I still stand by what I said about them being necessary, btw) when they try to warp the issue so that their side of the debate looks better. In the case of the woman who wasn’t convinced to support the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth act, we needed to point out that this wasn’t about responsibility-this was about helping homeless youth, who, as they are under 18, cannot be held responsible for their homelessness.

-Alex

A Conundrum of Mobilization March 6, 2009

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Today, each movement presented their experiences over the term.  Our class of eighteen held a total of six “social movements.”  For me this was a bit overwhelming and I left class experiencing a bit of unease.  This unease, I believe, came from two issues—the realization at how many possible movements there are and the question of how effective is the way we approach movements.

Each group described how it went through the process of selecting a topic.  Though each group started with a specific topic—Darfur, women’s rights, LGBT rights, immigration issues, environmental issues, and peacekeeping and conflict resolution—each group went through the process of further specifying their topic.  My unease was caused in this: if there are such a variety of issues, and in order to deal with any one of these issues we have to specify, how do we manage to deal with all the issues? Of course to some extent we cannot deal with all the issues but nevertheless, this unsettled me.  I think this is primarily because of an issue I brought up in an earlier post about the specification of movement issues.  I discussed how there were no organizations above the local level that were really dealing with both homelessness and LGBT issues.  In most cases these bridging issues fall between the cracks and never directly dealt with except by those interacting with the actual people in need of help.

This same issue of movement specification came up in a discussion I had about the intersections between the feminist movement and the civil rights movement.  In discussion someone brought up the example of the movie Iron Jawed Angels.  This movie focused on the women suffrage movement in the early 20th century.  While organizing a march is support of women suffrage the black women suffragists were required to march in the back.  This was primarily because the white suffragists did not want to have to deal with issues of race as well, lest it hinder their primary goals.  The LGBT movement undergoes the same issues in incorporating transgender issues into legislation and programs.

To me this seems short sighted.  Yes, incorporating movements may mean slower short- term results, but it would mean less work in the future in mending the gaps between movements.  It also has a less risk of leaving groups behind which will later need to be remobilized.

At the same time, usually a movement needs specific goals to mobilize people around.  Are the two compatible?  Is there a way to specify the goals without specifying the issue and the movement itself?  I do not know the answer.  I am not sure there are many examples to refer to, but I pose the question as something I have been considering.

Ruth

Results and Retrospective March 6, 2009

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Monday we had our last event which marked the end of our official “social movement.”  This movie showing was the culmination of a series of events including a weeklong letter-writing campaign and a volunteer day.  The success of our events varied.  In my opinion the volunteer day was the most successful.  For this event we were only looking to recruit between six and eight people.  However, though it was the event that involved the least number of people—between finding a location to volunteer at, coordinating dates, organizing transportation, organizing lunch, and all the other little details that go along with this—it took the most time to organize.  Even with all the stress of organization, the satisfaction of spending a few hours to help out a shelter made this event by far the most rewarding.

Our letter-writing campaign was also pretty successful.  We got over a hundred letters signed and send to different Minnesota representatives and senators—this made for a sizable stack of papers. However, the problem with a letter writing campaign is that we cannot be sure what the impact will be.

Our movie showing was less successful.  In a large part this was because it was out last event and was on a busy Monday night.  We had started advertising earlier the week before for the volunteering event and by the time this event came around our movement had lost steam.  It is hard to sustain advertising and momentum at Carleton.  There is so much going on that events can be easily overshadowed if there is not a final push.

Primarily because of our volunteer event I would call our movement a success.  It was not a broad event—only three other people aside from us came—but these people formed a much stronger attachment to the movement and received a greater personal benefit than if they had only come to see a movie.  For example, one of the volunteers asked if the shelter would be interested in hosting a performance by his improv group sometime next term.  As Jeff Blodgett informed us, there are three options—fast, broad, and deep—and you can only pick two.  By design we had to organize the volunteer project quickly, but it seems that we were able to mobilize a few volunteers who are excited to participate in the future.

In regards to the future of the movement, I hope we will be able to continue to some extent in future terms.  We have already done the work of establishing a contact with one of the shelters and they said they would happy to have us back.  Hopefully this will make organizing a volunteer event easier in the future.  I have also been talking to people in Carleton’s GSC to suggest expanding the GSC volunteer work and community involvement.  If we can create a group of volunteers who is really interested in doing this in the future, and gain some institutional support for the GSC or ACT then maybe we can make something more sustainable.

If I were redoing this movement one thing I would change was how we organized the movie.  I think it would have been best if we had the movie during the week we were tabling and before the volunteer day while the advertising momentum was stronger.  I think this ordering would have better served the flow of the momentum.  This was our original plan but due to scheduling issues we had to shift the order.  The other thing I plan differently would be to establish a better division of labor.  Part of the inequality in the division of labor was due to an underestimation about the amount of work some tasks would take, but we also did not establish clear responsibilities.

On a separate note, today were the class presentations of our movement experiences.  As one group discussed how they had dealt with the possibility of counter movements, I realized that this was a discussion our group had never had.  In some ways that is surprising because movements around LGBT issues can be so contentious.  However, in other ways it makes sense.  For starters, we were organizing primarily at Carleton College.  While there is by no means 100% support for LGBT issues, the overall campus climate supports these issues.  A countermovement would have been more surprising then the lack of one.  Secondly, though our original issue was LGBT issues, because of our work with shelters and the MN Runaway and Homeless Youth act, our topic gradually because more centered on homelessness.  “Homelessness” as an issue is unlikely to spawn a direct countermovement.  While people might not support funding homeless support programs, rarely are people pro-homelessness.  I just mention this because I find it extremely interesting to note that we were organizing in an environment where I never even considered the possibility of countermovement until another group suggested it.  This is a dramatic reflection on the type of climate we were mobilizing in.

Ruth

Criticism and Critics March 4, 2009

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This Monday, we did a presentation in the college library on youth homelessness, showing a ½ hour long documentary on homeless youth in Minnesota. Afterwards, we had a discussion…and honestly got a little surprise.
One of the (very few) people who attended the presentation stated that she wasn’t convinced by our presentation that she should support the runaway and homeless youth act. This was, quite honestly, a pretty major surprise for the 3 of us-of all the reactions we were expecting to get, “this isn’t worth my time” honestly wasn’t one of those.
What are we to think of naysayers and critics? Well, honestly, I think movements need them very badly. Movements without internal criticism, or who do not listen to external criticism, will fail. Because they will not be able to refine their counterarguments, the movement will end up looking foolish in any public debate. Possibly, they will lose touch with their audience and sympathizers, as they will not be able to change their message, goals, or methods when it becomes necessary because they lack the ability to respond to constructive criticism. Without critics and naysayers, movements would be in a very sorry state-and impartial observers who see the movement ignoring the concerns of those who question its agenda will probably conclude that the movement is totalitarian. Movements need their criticism.
Of course, this does lead to the question of which arguments to take seriously, and which to not take seriously. Many criticisms of the environmental movement come from think-tanks that are obviously working on behalf of corporations who stand to lose a lot of profit if the environmental movements have their way. It’s obvious that the think-tanks are following an agenda that could be quite rightly described as nefarious. But what if they make some valid criticism? Simply dismissing them out of hand for having a “corporate agenda” may make the movement miss some vital and necessary change their argument will have to undergo for them to succeed.
The only answer that I can really give is that there is no one easy answer-no movement can waste energy answering every question or criticism leveled against them, particularly criticism from quarters that will never side with the movement, but ignoring all criticism can be just as problematic for the movement in the long run. Many left-wing movements need to shed the illusion that every critic they have is nothing but the tool of a vast right-wing conspiracy, and must learn to defend their agenda. Martin Luther King Jr., in response to public letters from Southern clergy criticizing his movement, took their criticism seriously and responded quickly and clearly to their points in his famous letter from the Birmingham jail. He emerged from jail and criticism with his movement strengthened, his actions against the status quo justified, and his opponents humiliated by his icily polite but extremely powerful reply.

-Alex

A Couple Cool Things Courtesy of WordPress’ Blog Stats February 25, 2009

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First of all, there’s a weird quirk with our view statistics – we’ll have one day with 15 views and the next day with 2 … and this is a repeated pattern, sustained almost perfectly throughout our existence, which began January 27th, blog-wise.

Secondly, our most viewed post/page is Contacts and Calendar, then Emotional Responses, then the Welcome Post.  Interesting – the earliest posts have had the most time to gain views, I suppose.

Our main referrers (sites which link to us) have been a wordpress search for posts tagged Carleton, and something called Condron.us, which seems to produce random blogs every 6 seconds for your perusal.  If anyone knows this better, let me know.  Seems awesome, and like something I should definitely NOT remember if I hope to ever get work done.  Others include my admissions blog, our class’ Moodle site, and a wordpress search for “gay and lesbian” (lots of searches are on this list, but the two above are the biggest).

The most exciting stat, though is Search Engine Terms – what people Google to find us.  Carleton out on the streets is a big one, predictably.  The cool thing?  4 out of the top 5 Google results are either links to this blog, an event we have planned, or a link to my admissions blog, which talks about, and links to, this blog.  The next two are “figures facts on homelessness,” and “Minnesota youth advancement act.”  For the facts figures one, we are nowhere in the top … 50?  something like that, so people are really searching.  For the MYAA, however, Ruth’s post “A Fragmented System of Organizations” is the third independent result.

That’s super exciting that our little blog has gotten so high on Google – now if only more people would search those terms and then click our link …

How did you find us, if you’re not just in our Political Science class?

Ecologies for Mobilization February 25, 2009

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So know that we have our events planned and contacts lined up, our focus has turned back to Carleton.  For the first few weeks of this project all our focus was learning about the issues, contact people in other organizations, and coordinating with our contacts.  But now that we have the events we need to mobilize Carleton students.  Currently, we are in the middle of the mobilization process I have become really fascinated with how the ecology of the college enables us to quickly mobilize people.

As we planned, we made posters and distributed information through the main email lists on campus, and I started getting responses the day we sent out the emails.  In some ways I think we over advertised our first event, the volunteer day.  I was worried when we sent out the emails that we would not get any responses because volunteering would involve sacrificing a Saturday during 8th week.  However, I did not fully consider that these emails reach hundreds of students and that there were likely to be a few willing.  Email lists like this are really unique to places like college campuses.  For most organizations in “the real world” any email lists would be of people who had been mobilized or interested enough to sign up for my email list.  At Carleton the list is already set up for me.

One of the other major ecology based factors is that we all live and interact in such a small space.  From an article I read I learned some Beijing universities are surround by a brick wall. Though Carleton does not have a brick wall, its location in a small town and the fact that students rarely leave campus has a similar effect. There are certain areas on campus like Sayles, dining halls, and some dorms and class buildings that hundreds of students, faculty, and staff pass through every day.  When I think of postering in “the real world” I think of posters on telephone poles or on the occasional community board in a liberal coffee shop, which rarely reach a large audience.  However at Carleton, I may see the same poster multiple times a day in different locations and eventually it sticks in my mind.  If I want to get information about what is going on or if I want to advertise information I know exactly where, and the places I look and advertise are the same.  This convergence, and ease of distributing and accessing information is not as available outside our college ecology.  Advertising has to take a different form.

The campus ecology affects the tactics we can use.  One resource available to us is tabling in Sayles: a place hundreds of people pass through per day.  We are going to try to use this to our best advantage.  The other feature of Carleton I have been considering utilizing are the mailboxes.  If we do not get as many people who write or sign letters as we want, I think we could just put pre-printed postcards in their mailbox with directions to return to one central location.

Colleges are set up so that students can easily get information to one another and this dramatically effects how we can mobilize.  In this situation our ecology and some of the structures set up within the ecology allow us to be able to avoid using personal contacts and networks structures as much.  I am interested how much mobilization would change if I were trying to do the same time in “the real world.”

Ruth

Democracy: It’s really weird if you think about it February 21, 2009

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I have a new job for the project: get the names and contacts of Minnesota State representatives and senators, for the purpose of bothering them until they agree to fund the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which will provide funds for shelters (there are so many homeless youth on the streets that shelters cannot provide them all with shelter-in December 2007, 156 young people were turned away from shelters). This won’t be an easy fight-Pawlenty is a “fiscally responsible” republican who consistently refuses to raise taxes, no matter what. Unfortunately, given that Minnesota currently has a deficit, and the economic problems, it’s unlikely that Pawlenty will sign it-but if we bug enough senators and representatives, we may yet get the Act funded.

However, there’s something about this process that’s far more interesting than Minnesota state politics-it’s the fact that, as part of a school project, we are going to bug, harass, annoy, and flood political leaders with phone calls and letters, asking them to vote our way, based not on our influence or kinship with the senators, but on the fact that we are voters in their constituencies and they owe it to us to represent us. This is completely amazing.

I suppose that people who’ve lived all their lives in the US may fail to appreciate what a bizarre and rare situation a working democracy like this is. But I assure you, it is. When I “signed” an e-mail created by STAND to President Bush requesting him to do something about Darfur, I got a form e-mail in return-I was ignored, in other words. But when my family first moved to Kenya, about 10 years, and I had done something similar to President Moi (the president of Kenya at the time), my family may have been harassed by the police-and that would be getting off lightly, due to our status as foreigners. We came to Kenya during the twilight years of Moi’s rule, but only a short time earlier, during the early 1990’s, people had been arrested and tortured for speaking out against the regime-some people had even been killed. People who annoyed powerful people were in danger in those days in Kenya.

But in the US, we can do this-we can annoy the powerful, and get away with it. There are laws protecting us. The powerful aren’t even particularly annoyed or threatened by us asking a lot of questions. It’s routine. And although the members of the Federal government hold the most power on earth, they give it up easily every election cycle or two. This is rare-America is in a small minority of countries in this regard.

A democratic government makes activism a lot easier and more pleasant, really. Groups looking for political change can work through elected representatives who given the right incentives (i.e. votes) will gladly work to pass the laws the activists want passed. Of course, there are limits-working with politicians means that you have to obey political rules, which some activists find constraining. And getting laws changed isn’t the same as changing societal attitudes, as we’ve seen in California with Proposition 8. Despite the shortcomings it does have, however, democracy opens up many avenues for political activists, and gives many social movements a great opportunity to succeed.

-Alex

A Publicity Update and Definition February 19, 2009

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We have a couple events scheduled now (which are described on the Calendar page), and we have sent some posters to the copier (aka Dev).  Anyway, our posters follow two major themes – DID YOU KNOW? and HOME … We are pretty excited about them because they are simple, direct, and striking visually.  We think they will be on bright yellow paper, and probably everywhere (we’re getting 50 of them!), so keep an eye out.  The DidYou Know? posters detail some startling facts about the issue of LGBT homelessness, suchas that 26% of LGBT youth are kicked out of their homes when they come out, up to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT, and that around one-third of homeless gay youth engage in survival sex.

Survival sex is not always a familiar concept to people, so I will quickly define it for you.  It is especially overlooked in the U.S.A., where our government takes such a normative approach to sexual pleasure and sex work.  I do not endorse sex work, but the paranoia around “promoting prostitution” demonstrated in HIV/AIDS policies and the lack of support for sex workers, who I view as victims, is a disservice to this often vulnerable population.  Anyway, survival sex is when people, in this case LGBT homeless youth, prostitute themselves in order to afford food, shelter, or drugs to numb the pain.

Some people may say drugs don’t count as survival, but numbing the pain is sometimes a necessity if you are rejected from home (many are even physically assaulted when they come out), homeless, and forced to sell your body for food.  Anyway, that could be a completely different post.  My point is that while the government treats the people who engage in survival sex as deviant criminals, they should be treated as victims of systemis and cultural failings, and supported so they can remove themselves from a psychologically and physically detrimental mode of survival.

As for our events, we will be tabling Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon of next week, the 24th-26th, and we are volunteering that Saturday, the 28th.  We may or may not have a speaker, since the group we were working with on that had to back out because of other commitments.  We will have a film we can screen about homeless youth if the speaker doesn’t work out, though, and so the backup plan makes me much more comfortable about our prospects.

Additionally, I was doing a lot of the organizing early in the process due to my status as contact person with the shelters, but now Alexandre and Ruth have both taken on a lot more logistical details – getting transport, tabling, a script for legislation, designing posters, etc.  I have really enjoyed getting knee-deep in this issue and my compatriots have been great so far, really keeping me grounded when I go off on crazy or overly ambitious ideas.  I am so excited for next week, now that things are finally falling into place.

– Jane

Mobilization and Framing February 18, 2009

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So we have finally gotten to the point in our movement where we have actual dates and times for activities.  We have scheduled a volunteer day for the Saturday of 8th weekend and we are now working on organizing transportation and the other organizational details.  We had someone who volunteered to speak at Carleton as well, however they have not been in contact with us and so we have not been able to confirm.  Our original goal was to focus most out activities in one week; so in preparation for volunteering we booked a table is Sayles and plan to start our letter writing campaign to support the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth Act.  Now that we have activities we face the challenge of selling in to the Carleton community.

To start, of course, we need to advertise so people know these activities are happening.  Carleton offers many ways to get information and event dates out to students: the NNB, the all-campus emails, and centrally located postering opportunities.  I also plan to email existing Carlton groups that might have an interest in our topic: the GSC, MPIRG, and maybe WHOA.  One of the advantages of having activism on a college campus is we have these communication resources available to us, however though we have all these resources we have to compete with the myriad of other activities and issues at Carleton.  How can we present this issue in a way that will make students willing to sacrifice a part of their Saturday to come up to the cities; what will make them willing to sign a letter or call their representative as we table; and, if we have a speaker, what will make them willing to sacrifice a Monday or Tuesday night to hear them speak?

Our goal is to make students notice not just our events, but also our issue.  In order to achieve this we would like to start with some posters.  Our plan is to have a few different posters around campus that begin with, “DID YOU KNOW” and then are followed by some fact about LGBT Homeless youth.  We simple posters with little text that people can read as they walk by, but that have a message.  The goal being that when they see our ads for a speaker, volunteering, and letter writing they will be more likely to stop and take notice.  My psychology professor would call this priming.

We also want to convince people that something like going to a speaker, writing a letter, or volunteering once can make a difference.  I have found that if people feel like what they will be doing will not help anyone then the probably will not participate, and of course on the reverse, increased efficacy leads to increased participation.  I have talked to people in the organization we contacted that are very excited that we want to help support the MN Runaway and Homeless Youth Act and have assured me that some letter writing and a few calls could go a long way, so while we still have to convince Carleton students of the same thing, this is a start.  Convincing people to volunteer may be more difficult because it is a greater donation of time, however we are not trying to recruit as many people to participate in the volunteer work and hopefully we can use the social networks at Carleton to convince people already interested in these sort of issues to come a long and bring their friends.  But even to recruit these people, we still need to make the not-particularly-glamorous volunteer work sound a like a good use of time.  We probably will not really be interacting with the kids at the shelter because unless there is some sort of organized activity just socializing often makes the kids uncomfortable which is obviously not what we want.  Instead we will probably be helping sort through the clothes that are donated to the shelter.  It is something the shelter needs but might not be something that will inspire people to action.  I have never really tried to organize people that were not already interested in an organization and I am very interested to see how it goes.

Ruth

The Importance of Communication, Branding, and a Mea Culpa February 13, 2009

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First, a little parable to start this blog: the Mars Climate Orbiter is a notorious NASA project that went famously haywire, diving into the Martian atmosphere. The cause of the problem was apparently a mixup of units-the ground station controllers of the Orbiter measured the force of its thrusters in metric units, while the software controlling the Orbiter (which was designed by Lockheed Martin) measured power in the Imperial system. The result was that the thrusters pushed the Orbiter with far greater force than the ground team anticipated, and the 125$ million spacecraft was destroyed. The NASA and Lockheed Martin people learned the importance of communicating clearly to each other.

Earlier this term, I e-mailed the Rainbow Families Family Outreach and Education manager Abby Riskin, asking if they could send a speaker down to Northfield to talk about the issue of LGBT homeless. She e-mailed me back saying that her organizations could not send a speaker, but she recommended that I talk to Raquel (Rocki) Simões, the manager of the LGBT Host Home program run by the Avenues for Youth homeless shelter. Upon getting that e-mail, however, I thought “Ah, Jane’s running that. Don’t need to worry about it, it’s in capable hands”.

Imagine my surprise on today when I talk to Jane about the progress she’s made, and learn that she’s been working with the BRIDGE for Homeless Youth program, not the AVENUES for Homeless Youth program. What’s more, she’d gotten referred to Ms. Simões, and unlike me had actually bothered to e-mail her and was working with her on getting volunteer opportunities for Carleton students.

Jane, you’ve accomplished much and have done work that I should have done 2 weeks ago. I don’t have an excuse-I should have paid closer attention to which groups we were supposed to e-mail, and because I didn’t I put an additional burden on your already busy term. I am sincerely sorry-I will make more of an effort from now on to understand who is responsible for what.

I think that this incident at least illustrated an important concept for me in the context of social movements: the importance of brand recognition for formal organizations involved in social movements. If organizations proliferate, and develop similar names, the result is confusion as to which organization is which, leading to cases like this. As non-profit organizations arguably compete for the charity and time of volunteers and donors, sticking out from the crowd is important for the organization’s ability to gain these resources. My father is the regional director of a non-profit organization in West Africa, and he’s spoken to me several times about the need for brand-name recognition for non-profits. I now understand why that’s so important for him.

-Alex