Applied Intersectionality: Challenges and Methodologies

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Applied Intersectionality: Challenges and Methodologies

I want to begin be thanking all of the Conversation Leaders for volunteering their time, effort, and knowledge to this very important conversation on Intersectional Human Rights Organizing. Please take a moment to click on individual Conversation Leaders' profiles to learn more about the work they do and support the organizations and causes they represent. A stronger human rights community can be built through the support and encouragement of an engaged network of activists and practitioners.

In particular, I want to thank the Organization for Human Rights and Democracy and Yolande Tomlinson for their effort and dedication to putting together this conversation.

The following questions serve as a framework for this discussion thread on 'Applied Intersectionality': 

How do you/your organization operationalize intersectionality in your work? Why? What particular challenges do you encounter in doing this work?

What does solidarity and allyship mean in the context of doing intersectional work? And how can we practice them meaningfully?

What does intersectionality look like in a global context? What are historical and contemporary examples?

Resource on Solidarity & Allyship

Yolande Tomlinson's blog post, Intersectionality: A Tool for Realizing Human Rights does a great job of covering the topic of solidarity and allyship -- a great resource for the topic.

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Solidarity is hard work, but you have to stay committed

One of the things I tried to articulate in the blog entry posted above is that solidarity work is hard work, but we have to be committed to the process to make it meaningful and effective. Let's face it, intersectionality asks us to confront personal and political trauma, share power, step back/decenter ourselves if we are the privileged ones, and to center people and communities that have been historically marginalized and that we have been taught to devalue. So to engage in true solidarity, which is necessary for building alliances and thus building movements by connecting our work, we have to do the personal and the political work needed to shift and share power. It means we will have to be vulnerable, flexible, and open to critique (this is a hallmark of feminist and racial justice praxes), sit with hurt and reflect on it, and truly understand the issues and struggles of other people and groups. It means doing self-study and not always expecting marginalized and oppressed peoples to educate you.


Applying Intersectional Human Rights Organizing

It's deeply challenging to operationalize intersectional human rights organizing. For starters, you have to really change how you think about building power.  Organizing must be centered on those most affected by an issue, who paradoxically are often the people least organized, with very little resource-wise to correct the problem  Organizing with these communties means taking time to build democratic and equitable relationships, which demand that we not use people as props or just multitudes to be mobilized.  And so, one interested in organizing for change is forced to resist crisis mode mobilizing - that reactionary force that sometimes makes organizers believe that they must forgo deep strategy development in order to "respond" quickly or frenetically.

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 place carry the weight of multiple burdens, but they simultaneously hold the power (if organized) to do enormously more to topple unjust power.  Moreover, those most affected often inspire more privileged groups, and so create a cascade of transformative power that improves our ability to right historic wrongs.  This was seen in the so called Civil Rights Movement, where working class Black women in Montgomery, Alabama set in motion a chain of events that led to movements focused on black people as a whole, workers, women, and war.

More recently in our own experience, organzers involved with OHRD were able to win significant victories for environmental, transit and worker justice by centering our organizing on transit dependent bus riders (mostly working class black women) and transit workers.  We brought these communties together to protect worker's rights and the rights of people with disabilities, as well as to stop neoliberal austerity measures from being implemented.  These victories had an enormous impact, especially when one understands that Atlanta public transit moves between 500,000 and 1 million people per day.





I so appreciate your thoughts on this. I've seen a tremendous amount of what you refer to as crisis mode mobilizing in various movements. I definitely agree that the people most impacted must be centered and would go even beyond that to say they should set the agenda. 

What happens often is that the organizing is not at all authentic to the desires and needs of the communities. In criminal justice, for example, victim organizing has often pitted people against the communities in which they live, where the deliniations between "victim" and "offender" are less clear than imagined. Yet, this organizing is so burdened with issues of race and class as well as the priorities of outside "tough on crime" organizers, that local communities suffer.

Crisis Mode Mobilizing

Many decades ago, revoutionaries like Ella Baker and Kwame Toure understood and described the difference between "organizing" and "mobilizing".  They recognized that organizing - the process of building equitable relationships with those most affected by an issue, and involving them in the decision making process about resolving the issue- sometimes required that we mobilize (as in, for direct action).  However, they also realized that, "mobilizing" -the process of simply gathering a crowd for some event or thing- did not require that those mobilized be involved in decision making or related to in any way as equals. Organizing educates, raises consciousness, strengthen bonds, and builds stronger movements.  Its 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.

And so, "crisis mode mobilizing" contextualizes a kind of frenetic, impulsive mobilizing that simply reacts -unstrategically- to the constant assaults by white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy.  People are expected to just show up to the next action "in solidarity" without thinking or asking the questions "what is the goal and strategy"; how is this relevant to what's happening to me"; "is this right way to solve the problem"?  I'm saying that crisis mode mobilizing is not intersectional, because, though those mobilize may be diverse, the mobilizing is not centered on them as people to be involved in decision making.  And as we have said, intersectionality is more than diversity or multiculturalism.

Moreover, when we examine the last two decades, we see a lot of crisis mode mobilizing happening, in fact it seems the norm.  Every so often, something bad will happen, and then there are frenetic bursts of marches and demonstrations.  Most of it is ineffective at making even the most modest and reformist changes we want.  Sure, "wins" happen here and there, but for the most part, we lose.  And to question those driving crisis mode mobilzing, can bring denunciation and ostracization.  I believe that we have to learn from the past.  We have to use intersectionality to create a space for us to pause, think, and create new institutional organizing models that are driven by a power analysis and strategy.

That's not easy, though.  We have to resist the pull of the ubiquitousness of "crisis mode mobilizing" to think strategically with our intersectional human rights framework.  We have formulate some real meaning behind the word "solidarity".  I don't think this is just theoretical either.  When we look at history, though past movement organizers did not think of themselves as using intersectionality, what we see clearly is that movements that had the most marginalized at the center, making decisions, and empowering themselves, often created the deepest and most fundamental changes.

Solidarity v Alliance Building

Saki, I wonder if you can elaborate on this comment "I also see intersectionality as important because I think it supports moving beyond solidarity to understanding the need to build alliances and cross movement work that strengthens each of our issues/movements" specifically the distinction and connection between solidarity and alliance building.

I ask because I see solidarity in its truest form as alliance building where it's not a superficial show of support or turning up to each others events, but an undersntading of the issues and where those issues overlap with our own and the shared roots of our oppression.

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Solidarity, Alliance Building, Coalitions

I honestly don't have a theoretical answer :-) or i'm not basing it on definitions, so I'd love to hear how other people define alliance building, coaltions, solidarity and any other types of cross work. Is there a theory or lived experience that informs your definition?

I see solidarity as a first step, maybe its because of how I see it practiced, which is not a criticism as much because I think the sheer number of issues, who and what we have to confront, the hustle and bustle along with the non-profit industrial complex being a barrier. You need to develope the understanding, connect the dots, and them work in collaborative, coordinated ways. Often solidarity stops at understanding the issues and supporting who you show solidarity towards. To be fair, in practice I do see it also moving beyond understanding to recognizing the overlap and shared roots of oppression in our analysis, but to me, it doesn't neccessarily lead to or mean that action is taken or that groups/people take on incorporating other groups/communities/peoples in their every day work. Maybe it is not realistic/practical, maybe it is not one groups place to take on another's work?

True Solidarity, as you called it, means you realize that you can't win without others, can't be free/sef-determing when others are not, like we've said in previous post.

When I say move beyond solidarity, I mean It has to be demonstrated solidarity shown through building alliances, and building coalitions, creating some shared strategies through verious means like the growing popular people assemblies.

I guess actively fighting, say the police state/violence, in one community and being in solidarity with another means you collectively are challenging oppresion and actively fighting it/trying to dismantle it. I think it is different or has a different impact if we don't increasingly move towards the (challenging) alliance and coalition work to struggle for some shared vision, coordinated action, campaigns making the same demands, etc.?

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Operationalizing intersectionality

Thanks to everyone who has been participating in this terrific exchange on intersectionality!

I wanted to bring a piece of the conversation that was floated in the twitter exchange yesterday regarding how to operationalize intersectionality.

Some components I want to highlight regarding intersectionality are critical and require deeper analysis for operationalizing intersectionality. The potential of developing or adapting tools that assist groups/organizations to include intersectionality discussions and analysis for advancing advocacy efforts would be a tremendous contribution to the entire human rights field.

I wanted to share some tools from New Tactics and other organizations in hope of sparking ideas for adapting or developing intersectionality analysis tools for advocacy work. These include:

  • Context analysis

A tool which engages people to “Map the Terrain” by exploring their context in terms of human relationships. The tactical map tool helps people develop this view this from the face-to-face, community, national and international relationship levels.

  • Solidarity / Alliance Building:

A tool which engages people to explore the human relationships identified in their context in terms of their position on a spectrum of active allies to active opponents.

  • Power analysis

Generally, New Tactics explores “power” as it relates to tactical choices in relation to where relationships occur on the tactical map and the spectrum of active allies to active opponents. There are also a number of tools for stakeholder and power analysis. I shared this resource in the twitter exchange - I found this training resource that looks to me to be an adaptation, combining a type of “spectrum of allies” with an analysis of power. It is attributed to Agenda/SCOPE in Los Angeles, working with the Grassroots Policy Project - this is a faciltiation guide adapted from their work for power analysis.

I am very curious, and interested, if a tool could be developed that might combine elements or ideas from these kinds of tools above, for operationalizing intersectionality. I look forward to getting others' thoughts.

What about Unnoticed Interplay??

In thinking about how to more effectively analyze and act intersectionally, one real challenge for me is how to actually talk about the intersections that are going on around me. I don't think that we have yet developed language to always adequately describe our experiences; and this leads to us being less than fully equipped to think and act as we would hope to think and act. In an organizational setting that I am now working in, it's very challenging t apply intersectional understanding when I am still learning how to be more thoughtful and explicit about the ways that race, class, sexuality, and gender actually interact, with one kind of discriminatory principle shaping others, and being shaped by them. When my working-class co-worker enter the room, I know that he is Black and working-class, and that these factors are operating such that he is now talking out of experiences of both. Yet his being gay is also in play. And so is my heterosexuality. These factors don't just become important when we explicitly bring up issues of sexuality--they continuously impact how each of us understands "being Black" and "being oriented toward working-class realities." I am conscious of tensions around these interdependent factors, but I am not yet confident that I know how to effectively understand the interplay between these factors of unequal power effectively enough to really build my relationship with my co-worker(s). One danger here is that I will overlook the very factors that do not seem to be salient at a given point. That's not something I want to do, but it is something that I'm anxious about learning not to do. Forgive any confusion here. I'm raising a complex matter that I think I am only beginning to be equipped to handle. I will appreciate any insights anyone might have!!