Intersectional Human Rights Organizing: A Strategy for Building Inclusive and Transformational Movements

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, August 24, 2015 to Friday, August 28, 2015
Conversation type: 

Although the terminology may be new to some, intersectionality is not a new concept. As long as people have faced multiple threats to their dignity and humanity, they have experienced intersectionality. But it is U.S.-based Black women, other women of color, and women of the global south who have developed our present understanding of how our social identities—race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. function; how the systems that maintain these identities—racism, sexism, capitalism, heterosexism—work together to compound our oppression; and, therefore, how we must work collectively to eradicate these systems. Thus, intersectionality not only boldly claims the value of the lives of marginalized and oppressed peoples by centering our experiences and strategies, but asserts the need to work collaboratively towards our collective liberation.

Through an online conversation on Intersectional Human Rights Organizing: A Strategy for Building Inclusive and Transformational Movements, the Organization for Human Rights and Democracy (OHRD) and the New Tactics community had sought to develop a collective understanding of intersectionality, the challenges to implementation, share successful implementation models and OHRD’s model of intersectional human rights organizing. 

Defining Intersectionality: Beyond Single Issues and Identity Politics

Intersectionality is both a lens for seeing the world of oppression and a tool for eradicating it. Its operation as a tool lies in this understanding of how oppression functions and who it impacts. Intersectionality (as a pathway, tool, or method for analysis and action) has confronted the overlapping effects of multiple forms of discrimination and oppression, including (but not limited to) those based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, color, sexuality, and ability.

Intersectionality also supports the need to build alliances and engage in cross-movement work that strengthen separate issues/movements but also gives the collective power required to dismantle the institutions that maintain systems of oppression. The problem with many non-profits and unions, for example, are that they are too focused on just one issue or one form of oppression. When combined with the human rights framework, intersectionality is a tool that helps us overcome the blind spots that occur in silos and forces us to understand how issues connect through the communities and peoples we serve.

The specific application of an intersectional approach looks different once it is "imported, transported, exported, and translated". Issue of context namely the historical, geographical and contemporary contexts, matter and should be taken into account. People are comfortable dealing with intersectionality as an analytical tool for dissecting identities but stop short of using it to unearth and confront the structures of power. In its most radical dimensions, intersectionality then, is about recognizing the structures of power, their origins, and their operation.

Participants discussed in detail the role of men in achieving collective liberation.

Applied Intersectionality: Challenges and Methodologies

Solidarity is necessary for building alliances and movements. For this, personal and political work is required. Intersectionality requires people to confront personal and political trauma, share power, step back/decenter themselves if they are the privileged ones, and to center people and communities that have been historically marginalized. This requires vulnerability, flexibility, openess to critique (this is a hallmark of feminist and racial justice praxes), sit with hurt and reflect on it, and a true understanding of the issues and struggles of other people and groups. It means doing self-study and not always expecting marginalized and oppressed people to educate you.

Organizing must be centered on those most affected by an issue, who paradoxically are often the people least organized, with very little resources to correct the problem. Organizing with these communities means taking time to build democratic and equitable relationships which means not using people as props or just multitudes to be mobilized. It is important to resist the pull of crisis mode mobilizing to think strategically with intersectional human rights framework.

The benefit of engaging in intersectional human rights organizing is that it focuses on people at the very heart or nexus of oppression. People at this location/intersection carry the weight of multiple burdens, but they simultaneously hold the power (if organized) to topple unjust power. Historically, movements that had the most marginalized at the center, making decisions, and empowering themselves, often created the deepest and most fundamental changes.

Organizing educates, raises consciousness, strengthens bonds, and builds stronger movements. It is transformational. Mobilizing, on the other hand, may fix a short-term, narrowly defined problem, but it is not transformational in the way organizing is. In fact, it can reinforce oppressive structures and domination. An intersectional approach must be used to create a space to pause, think, and create new institutional organizing models that are driven by a power analysis and strategy.

Sometimes organizing is not authentic to the desires and needs of the communities. One of the issues with human rights work (within an NGO structure) is the prevailing focus on structures and losing sight of the people and their complexities."Organizing an organization" is fundamentally about relationship building.

Because traditional NGOs, non-profit organizations can be suffocating in their approach to embodying an intersectional approach to doing human rights or social justice work, oppressed peoples need to and have been applying alternative structures in order to eradicate oppression. A "people-centered model" as discussed here is a great example of what it means for movements to come from, center on, and address multiple prevailing forces of oppression:

Resourcing and Supporting Intersectional Work

It is difficult to obtain funding for intersectional work as the current social, political, and economic systems are not designed to make it easy for the marginalized to coalesce. Therefore it is necessary to develop methods to fund directly from the grassroots or the people most impacted.  In order for intersectional human rights organizing to realize its full potential, the most affected must be at the center of not only the organizing, but also the resourcing of the work.

Building individual donor network of supporters and crowd funding platforms are other methods to obtain funding. Social media, personal and professional networks present great opportunities for cultivating these donors.   It may also be useful to consider providing services for compensation and non-financial resources.

To cultivate donors, it is important know the targeted audience and what appeals to them and also utilize the opportunity to educate these donors on the issue(s) they care about and how they are connected. This can be done by teaching in classrooms and working in small community based groups. Also the processes for outreach to real and potential friends and allies should also be democratic and justice-oriented. Resources such as contact lists and ideas ought to be shared among organizations.

Tactical examples shared


Ella Taught Me: Shattering the Myth of the Leaderless Movement- Barbara Ransby

Intersectionality: A Tool for Realizing Human Rights

Linda Burnham's essay, "The Wellspring of Black Feminist Theory

Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism

Kimberly Springer's Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980 (Duke University Press, 2005)

Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith, (Eds.)

Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks, with Barbara Smith (SUNY Press, 2014)

Linda Burnham's Interview with Loretta Ross (March 18, 2005)

Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement (book)

Grassroots Policy Project

Crenshaw, Kimberle W. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review 43(6): 1241-1299

Map the Terrain (Toolkit)

Tactical map tool

Spectrum of active allies to active opponents


Grassroots Policy Project

Power Analysis

Conversation Leaders

Yolandet's picture
Dr. Yolande M. S. Tomlinson
Organization for Human Rights and Democracy
sjawea's picture
Sacajawea Hall
Cooperation Jackson
MThandabantu's picture
M. Thandabantu Iverson, PhD
US Human Rights Network
m adams's picture
M Adams
Freedom Inc
James Ross II's picture
James Ross II
Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
Terence Courtney's picture
Terence Courtney
Organization for Human Rights and Democracy
vreer's picture
Vreerwerk and Transgender Europe
paulmc's picture
Paul McLennan
Organization for Human RIghts and Development