Tips for Building Coalitions

By Joyce S. Herman /
Sep 1, 2017
Tips for Building Coalitions

How do we build alliances across our varied agendas so as to have the greatest impact? And how do we involve what I call TWANYAS (Those Who Are Not Yet Activists) -- those who care, but have-not yet come forward?

I will address two aspects of building a strong progressive movement -- how we deal with agendas that differ and how we treat each other.

As progressives, we maintain an overarching agenda that takes into account the vulnerability of the individual and of our planet. We see that government has a role to play in protecting the health and safety of its citizens. We want to erect a big tent, but that can cut both ways: when we do not align on particular issues, we can get fragmented.

What can we do about it? The National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), an organization I have been involved with since it¹s inception twenty years ago, trains grass roots activists in coalition building. Cherie Brown, its founder and director, writes that the following principles will allow groups to build effective coalitions:

1. Encourage goals that unite groups, while acknowledging differing agendas.

2. Foster an open, non-threatening atmosphere, in which individuals are free to express feelings about their relation to the larger society and their own groups.

3. Encourage individual groups to maintain their identity and autonomy as they participate in achieving common objectives.

4. Appreciate the agendas of others, separating compatible from incompatible objectives, and framing issues in a way that many groups can identify with them.

5. Don¹t insist on unanimous support for every step before the coalition takes action.

6. Anticipate the inevitable clashes of opinion, verbal and non-verbal communications styles, values and attitudes, and work to minimize their divisive potential.

7. Think in terms of power and influence (Cherie R. Brown, The Art of Coalition Building: A Guide for Community Leaders, The American Jewish Committee, 1984).

When we come together, if we focus only on our issues, we lose the power of the larger picture.

As we pursue a progressive agenda, we must never forget that at the core of both our vision and how we get there is the concept of connections.

1.We need to make strong, positive human connections within and across our organizations. People will be drawn to us if they feel valued, accepted, and deeply appreciated. It is up to us to remember that all the folks on this planet share a common vulnerability -- bodies that can experience pain and psyches that know suffering. This means treating one another with more than civility -- but with large doses of kindness, appreciation, and, authentic, not cynically promoted fake compassion.

2. Listening is perhaps the most revolutionary act we can engage in. A universal principle is that people can not listen well until they have been listened to. And when they are listened to, they can often think better. Just asking questions about how people feel about what¹s happening and what they want to see happen in the society makes a powerful intervention.

3. We activists need buddies. Because it¹s easy for our outrage and grief to turn into self-defeating bitterness and hopelessness, we need to be with folks with whom we feel safe enough to let our hearts break and to express our rage.

4. We then need to remind one another about the positive vision we have and to keep that message clear for ourselves and for those whom we want to align with our larger purpose.

5. As progressives, we get to call people, starting with ourselves, to our higher selves. We need to abandon our self-righteousness, and any traces of arrogance about being better than those with another point of view.

To sum up: Keep focused on a positive vision of how we want things to be; treat one another with love, appreciation and compassion; listen well both to those who agree with us as well as to those who disagree; build diverse and inclusive coalitions; and prepare for and face inevitable conflicts with optimism.

Human connections are central to our vision and to how we make it happen.

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