Unity Meeting, Boston, Mass.

The organizations represented at an anti-war “Unity Meeting,” held at the 1199SEIU union hall on July 6, 2006, seemed to capture all the hopefulness, dedication, and hard work that is best about progressive movements today. The meeting was an attempt to pull the many fragments of our movement together into something resembling…well, unity. The Unity Meeting in Boston was held in the aftermath of the April 29 anti-war demonstration in New York City, which enjoyed significant participation from the labor movement. When mass mobilizations lead to participants going home and finding a way to connect up with each other to deepen and extend their movements, they are well worth the energy. What happened on July 6th in Boston was an example of how the momentum from a mass mobilization can potentially carry over to build a stronger, more cohesive movement.

Working towards a stronger and more cohesive movement is arguably the most important work that progressive social change activists can be doing right now, and for that reason I am going to focus on Boston’s Unity Meeting and see what lessons there are to learn from it.

If you’re like me, though, you’ve been to dozens of unity meetings in name-the-city regarding name-the-issue. You’ve labored to develop coalitions and networks. You’ve spent hours, weeks, even years, coming up with Principles of Unity and mission statements. And over the years, you’ve developed a really bad case of what I call going-around-the circle fatigue. (More on that later.)

In fact, you may be rolling your eyes right now and intoning the “been there done that” of the understandably movement-weary. But wait. Past run-ins with attempts at unity — no matter how painful — are not a reason to give up nor to retreat to single-issue activism in an effort to feel like at least you’re doing “something.” Retreating to single-issue activism is better than doing nothing at all, but not by much. There will be no real social change movement without all of us putting our heads, hearts, and souls together for the long haul and attending to the crucial questions of unity, strategy, and movement building.

So stay with me while I break down what happened at the July 6th Unity Meeting in Boston, and look for lessons that might benefit others engaged in this kind of work or thinking about engaging in it. I’ll start at the beginning.

Going Around the Circle

If there’s any one ritual that captures where our movements are at, it’s “going around the circle.” It’s a process that can be both inspiring and exhausting. On the one hand, you get a glimpse of the impressive work people are doing. On the other, each packet of information, each chronicle of achievements, each set of connections seems unrelated to the next. They are all there, arrayed in the circle. We listen respectfully and nod in acknowledgement but beyond that, we have no collective way of making sense of what we do.

At the beginning of the Unity Meeting, we were asked to introduce ourselves, say something about the work we do, and what we hope to get out of the meeting. We debated briefly whether people should take one minute each or two. There were 25 of us in the room, after all, and the introductions alone would take almost an hour. We settled on one minute each. The result was a fleeting kaleidoscope image of amazing people and efforts. Attendees listed their organizational affiliations, the campaigns they are involved in, their hopes and dreams for the meeting. The acronyms, achievements, and ambitions flew like brightly colored shards in an arbitrary arrangement.

Boston neighborhoods and demographics took shape. District 7 Advisory Committee, Veterans for Peace, Dorchester People for Peace, South Boston Residents for Peace, Jewish Voices for Peace, Newton Dialogs for Peace. The Catholics (Pax Christi), the students (United Students Against Sweatshops), the environmentalists (Boston Climate Action Network), labor (SEIU, United Electrical Workers, Mass. Teachers Association, the Worker Education Program), the women (WILPF, Code Pink), the immigrants (Centro Presente, the May Day Coalition), the welfare rights advocates (Survivors, Inc., publishers of Survival News), peace and justice groups (United for Justice with Peace, American Friends Service Committee, Boston Mobilization for Survival).

It was a dazzling array of groups and individuals, each one representing enormous dedication, years of hard work, and enough creativity and hard-won experience to overcome seemingly anything.

Challenge #1: Can we overcome our own fragmentation? Can we get to the point where going around the circle is less dizzying? Can we begin to make sense of all our pieces and align them more carefully into something less accidentally impressive and more purposefully so?

Feeling Beat Up

All this and more percolated to the surface in the course of “going around the circle.” In addition to people’s credentials and backgrounds, we heard more personal information.

“I am feeling beat up,” says the welfare rights activist, whose mother needs full-time care, who has children, a job, and a long list of organizing responsibilities. “I’d like to know why they call it the sandwich generation,” she says. “It feels more to me like the mammogram generation.”

Therein lies challenge #2: Is it possible to leave a Unity Meeting feeling less squeezed than when you arrived? We have to acknowledge that people feel beat up in both their personal and their activist lives, and they should leave each meeting feeling more solidarity and less stress.

Noting Our Victories

“We haven’t stopped the lab yet,” says one activist who’s been working against the level-4 bioweapons lab that is slated to be built adjacent to two urban neighborhoods — Roxbury and the South End.

“But they haven’t broken ground yet either,” chimes in another activist on the same campaign. He reminds us in this short exchange that not having won yet doesn’t mean you’ve lost. Furthermore, if fighting the lab helps to ally the anti-war movement with the environmental justice movement, then that right there is a significant gain, whether the lab is built or not.

Challenge # 3: Can we remember to note our accomplishments — not because we deserve soothing pats on the back, but because our accomplishments are real and will inspire us on to more gains? Even when we lose, if we’ve done our organizing well, we’ve helped build a movement in the process.

“No planet, no trees, no amphibians.”

“People involved in climate activism are not attaching much priority to the war in Iraq. We’re against it. But we’re concerned there might not be a planet in fairly short order. We’re talking about millions of people displaced, no trees, no amphibians.”

“But,” says someone across the room. “The military is one of the biggest polluters.”

“I know,” says the climate activist.

“Let’s not start a dialogue across the room,” says the chairperson. “We’re supposed to be going around the room.”

Challenge #4: The “dialogue across the room,” risks redirecting the agenda, but at some point we’re going to have to engage in exactly that. And those engaged in the dialogue will have to make a commitment to gaining common ground, not protecting turf. The climate activist says that soon we may not have a planet capable of supporting life. The anti-war activist thinks that the planet is just as at-risk by a U.S. empire run amok. The challenge, finding bridges across the circle, is what brought these activists into the room together in the first place, and they are to be commended for being there.

Common Frames

The Boston area anti-war group, United for Justice with Peace, is itself an impressive kaleidoscope of neighborhood based organizations, coalition members, and task forces. In addition to opposing the war in Iraq, UJP does counter-recruitment, has an active Israel-Palestine task force, lends organizational support to environmental justice groups opposing the building of a level-4 bioweapons lab in Boston, plays an integral role in the Fund the Dream coalition, and works in conjunction with decentralized, autonomous neighborhood activist groups intent on opposing the war at home and abroad. This is not just a yawn-inspiring laundry list of campaigns and issues. UJP clearly has a track record that indicates an effort to connect the dots between the various crucial reforms on the progressive movement’s agenda. These are not randomly aligned shards. The UJP kaleidoscope indicates some purposeful design.

Challenge #5: Can we become even more purposeful in our design. Many organizations are working (and have worked for years) to build bridges across issues, but the challenge remains: we need more and better bridges. Even the most narrow, single-issue progressive reform would benefit from figuring out how to develop common frames with other progressive reforms. Just as the “dialogue across the room” between the anti-war activist and the climate change activist indicated, our agendas have much in common. Wars kill people, destroy communities, and leave the planet less inhabitable for whoever is left. If we could get together and identify approaches that would be mutually supportive, we could help each other grow stronger rather than compete for attention.

Thus single-issue activists could stay on track with their work — but do so in a way that bolstered a wider movement-wide agenda — one that was determined at, oh, I don’t know, maybe a Unity Meeting, for example.

“Next Steps”

On July 6th in Boston, the Unity Meeting ended with the establishment of a small working group to do further outreach and to propose next steps. The meeting yielded a calendar of events and proposed events — giving folks the chance to be aware of other actions and to work together or at least not compete. Attendees also made a commitment to return to our organizations and constituents to determine their interest level in participating further in this movement-building effort.

Boston has its own history with movement building. Many of us in the room have tried various versions of Unity Meetings many times in the past. In other pockets of the city, there are still more efforts. Each time we enter into the process, we have slightly different people in the room and a slightly different context. But the urgency is the same. We can’t really win substantive change until we move beyond single-issue campaigns and build a movement powerful enough to address what is fundamentally wrong with the way institutions work in our society. We are getting more experienced every time we try. We’re learning. We’re trying to create a more purposeful design for the brightly colored shards that are our campaigns and our people. We’ll go around the circle again and yet again. We’ll figure it out eventually.

Thanks to Tim Dean (1199SEIU) and Susan Lees (United for Justice with Peace) for the inspiration and the legwork that pulled the July 6th meeting together. Thanks to all the activists in Boston and elsewhere who struggle daily to meet the challenges of movement building. Keep on.

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