Are you in a job or a Movement?

Crowds surrounding the Reflecting Pool, during...

In the world of social justice there is a frequent reference to “The Movement.”  For those weary of being characterized as a “Lefty,” they may still refer to “a movement” or “movements” in recognition of ideas taking hold at a grassroots level and changing the consciousness of the nation.

But what sparks a Movement?  What catalyzes an issue that goes viral in the streets?  We can’t have structural changes unless those sparks are traveling through some sort of structure as well.  Movement structure differs from government structure.  We think of government as “Top Down,” even if democracy is (in theory) “Bottom Up.”  Government officials tell you they want to “run it like a business” and flaunt their corporate experience, not their grassroots organizer experience.

Football Team StructureConsider the structure of a football team, where the direction of the team travels from owner down to the very last player.  Some owners are more involved than others, some more knowledgeable, but ultimately their job is to put the coaches in position to win.  Coaches must direct the quarterback, who in turn must micro-manage each play and enable his backs and receivers to score.  Others will block for the backs and receivers and, ultimately, the entire team wins.  Certain members of the structure get glory or blame, deserved or not, and the owner can fire people at will.

The football team is a classic top-down corporate structure, although the coach and quarterback are given significant discretion.  We understand it and accept it.

Bad Movement StructureNow consider what some may consider the current Movement structure, since the professionalization of social justice that occurred in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s.  After radical leaders were murdered and imprisoned, and the era faded into history… for mainstream America insulated or disconnected from social justice issues such as poverty, failing schools, imprisonment, and police brutality.

It is not a terrible thing that there is funding for organized (and individual) work in the social justice sphere.  It is not a bad thing when government is enlisted to join in the development of strong and healthy communities, particularly when using their enforcement power against those who are exploiting the most vulnerable.  But although there are exceptional funders and members of government, they too recognize that they are exceptions.  Many people in these powerful positions are either inadequately informed, disconnected, or elitists who “know better.”

Many parts of this “[m]ovement” are only willing to strive for changes that the government is willing to allow, and the funders have declared is their focus area.  In this scenario where affected people in the field are so disconnected from the coaches and quarterbacks calling the shots, the brain trust is not always moving the movement.  Complicating matters is the struggle for people to collaborate and coordinate the further up the chain you go.  People reinvent the wheel, and fail to gain momentum with others’ success.

Proper Movement StructureConsider another model for a Movement.  Consider that, even in a “top down” structure we can put the grassroots at the top.  Each supports the one’s above. Movement lawyers, for example, are there to support the Plaintiffs, who are there to support and represent a broader group of people and problems in need of attention.

Funders, academics, and government actors play a foundational role for the entire team to win.  They serve, along with the affected people, as the base for their resources to support the work of those above them.  But the key is that they take their cues from those above them.

In order for a Movement to be an honest depiction of people’s needs, the ideas and actions need to be produced by the people in need.  People on all parts of the spectrum need to have a form of checks and balances that works for them.  There is no room for elitism, and we have no time for leaders whose followers are just following the money.  If  heart and soul are not pushing your actions- regardless of how you pay the bills- then you are not in a Movement.  You have just another job in a corporate structure.

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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