Cynthia Kaufman is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action, where she also teaches community organizing and philosophy. Her most recent publication, The Sea Is Rising and So Are We: A Climate Justice Handbook (2021), provides an analysis of the causes of the climate crisis and insights into how it can be tackled. In the following extract she discusses how people can find a place within social movements where they feel most comfortable, effective and supported and how organisers can help them to feel so.
It is important that we keep in our minds the reality that we are a part of a team of hundreds of millions; that when we act smartly we are adding our grain of sand to the pile that is transforming society; that the movement is a grand ecosystem made up of a wide variety of elements, all working together in unpredictable and not always knowable ways. Deciding where to engage for yourself, and how much of yourself to dedicate to this work, is a very personal choice. – Kaufman, 2021
Book Extract – Finding Your Place and Welcoming Others
Often when people join movements, they begin with something very small that seems like it isn’t worth the time. But along the way they may form relationships, learn the terrain, and then slowly find a better place to put their energy. As you begin that process, there may be so many choices of where to put your energy that you end up feeling overwhelmed by the possibilities. That can lead you do to so much that your work finding your people and your practice is not personally sustainable. Or it can lead to paralysis where you don’t do much because no choice feels like it is the right one.
A part of doing organizing work is finding a healthy and sustaining place for yourself within the vast ecosystem that is the movement. That process may be slower and more frustrating than you wish, and it may take more time than you hope. But the destructive patterns that are embedded in society have developed over centuries, and have built into the social fabric mechanisms for reproducing themselves. The world was not constructed to make transforming it easy.
Feeling guilty that you are not doing enough or doing the right thing is not helpful to the movement. That guilt is likely to make you want to stop doing anything. And for organizers, it is deadly to the movement to try to motivate people by pressuring them and making them feel that they need to do more than they feel comfortable with. It is crucial that you focus on developing a sense of accomplishment, for yourself and others, that comes from engaging in climate justice actions.
It is helpful to remember that you are part of a larger team and that your joy in the work will help bring others to the work. Feeling that joy is actually a productive part of the work. Martyrdom is very unattractive. People who try to be the most righteous activist are actually counterproductive to the work. People who try to pressure others into doing more than they are ready for are also counterproductive to the work.
If you are very busy and already overwhelmed with life but feel compelled to contribute to the transition to a sustainable society, it is possible to volunteer a few hours a week from home. Many organizations have small jobs that they can peel off for you. Hopefully what you get from that is a sense of purpose and you are truly helping. One thing you may miss out on, though, is the sense of connection that comes from being part of a movement. A well-run organization might be able to find ways to give a volunteer who does a few things a sense that they are appreciated and that their work is a significant part of the larger whole. But it is difficult to gain that sense of being a part of a movement without really working in community with others.
Any movement work is very personal and the qualities of the relationships really matter. I know people who are very conflict averse who find their home in organizations that are very well run and offer a lot of appreciation to their volunteers. I know other people with a thicker skin, who can forgive an organization that forgets to thank volunteers, that changes the plan a lot, so that a person sometimes does work that then ends up not being used.
It is important that you really reflect on what your own personal needs are in terms of the kinds of people you like to work with, and what you need to feel good in your work. Finding your place in the movement involves that sort of personal reflection on the kinds of things you like to do and the kinds of cultures you want to be a part of.
It is also a good idea to think about the impact the work you are embarking on is likely to have. For those of us who love the thrill of action when it gets a bit chaotic and risky, nonviolent direct action can be a great tactic. But it is important to see it as a tactic rather than as a strategy. Some people chose to do it because it can feel like you are being strong and brave and setting a firm limit on what is wrong with society. But it is good to engage in tactics because we think they will make a difference, rather than just because we like doing them.
A tactic is the tool you use to achieve a larger goal. A strategy is the overall path of using a variety of tools to achieve a larger goal. Having a demonstration is not a strategy. The work done to get ExxonMobil to lose its political power is a goal, a particular divestment campaign is an issue to organize around, and organizing around that issue requires a strategy, which will involve a variety of tactics. Sometimes when people find a tool that really works for them, such as nonviolent direct action, they begin to want to use that tool for everything. It is always important to keep your strategic hat on and ask how what you are doing is supposed to achieve the goal you have set out, and to pick your tactics accordingly.
To find out more Cynthia Kaufman’s work and to obtain a copy of The Sea Is Rising and So Are We: A Climate Justice Handbook visit the publisher’s website.