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Youth Organizers Build Alliances to Win the World We Need

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Group shot of a convening by Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing

In a rigorous process of mapping and making alliances, running and assessing campaigns, youth organizers are amplifying their power to drive transformative change.

Throughout modern history, young people–particularly young people of color, young women, working-class, queer and trans youth–have been at the forefront of movements for justice and equality. From the sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement to the anti-apartheid struggle to the recent uprisings against police brutality, young people time and again have taken actions to spark movements.

The  Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing’ (FCYO) has launched GenPower Labs to sharpen youth organizing’s power-building practices to meet our moment of overlapping crises. The GenPower Labs are built on the assumption that significant shifts around power and strategy will help youth organizing groups drive transformative change, To develop methods that meet our unique circumstances, we must commit to a continuous cycle of experimentation, reflection, and assessment. It is because of this need for experimentation and learning that we call these programs “labs.”

One key tool for our labs is the creation of hypotheses. You may remember the scientific method from seventh grade: observing the world around you, making educated guesses about how to shift things and running experiments to see if your hunches were correct. Whether you were right or not, you still learned something. We have applied this lens to power-building and organizing practices. In part we learned this methodology alongside our partners Youth United for Change, who demonstrated the application of this methodology to organizing work in their book “Y’all Tryna Win or Nah”.

On May 18th, FCYO and our partners in the field will be releasing the Power to Win Framework. Informed by years of shared learning and experimentation, the framework lays out a set of capacities necessary for the youth organizing field to move beyond its growth edges and build the sort of power that can advance lasting structural change. It is filled with our best guesses on how to unlock the sector’s potential.

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Guided by the framework, the third tier of the GenPower Labs, Praxis for Power (P4P), is the cohort most advanced in the capacities, and is collectively testing a hypothesis. While the hypothesis has many components about how they will build organizations more capable of wielding power, one key piece is mapping and engaging in strategic and tactical alliances.

Their “nested” hypothesis is: if the groups in the P4P cohort attempt to identify strategic and tactical alliances for their campaigns, engage those alliances in their campaign work, struggle with the cohort about their assessments and practices in building those alliances, and document their processes THEN  they will build more powerful alliances, advance their short and long-term goals, and create a guide for the field on how to engage in strategic and tactic alliances. 

For reference, strategic alliances unite “different constituencies and organizations around a shared strategy for social transformation.” Tactical alliances only share a short-term interest. For instance, many short-term alliances were built to defeat Donald Trump in 2020, despite very different visions of the steps to come after.

Christopher June Zizzamia, FCYO’s program director, sat down with leaders of three organizations in the Praxis for Power cohort: Viri Hernandez, co-founder and strategy director for Poder in Action; Jonathan Bix, co-founder and executive director of For the Many; and Lukas Brekke-Miesner, executive director of Oakland Kids First. They delved into the growing pains and possibilities of practicing strategic and tactical alliances, and what it means to be in this together.

For the Many organizes in New York State’s Hudson Valley. They work in English and Spanish, across age and race, to build power through fights around housing, energy, jobs, and immigration. They’ve taken advantage of the state’s Democratic trifecta and veto-proof majorities to push the left edge of the possible and shift the balance of power. In the last year they’ve won the first city-mandated rent reduction in US history. In alliance with the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, they elected the first socialist and DSA member to the state legislature. “This milestone didn’t come from a major city like Buffalo or Rochester, but from one of the rural battlegrounds we most need to build power in to continue transforming New York,” Jonathan Bix said.

In a city plagued by charter schools, Oakland Kids First (OKF) stays focused on organizing students at five of the six “OG public high schools,” as Lukas Brekke-Miesner calls them. OKF’s student members work in school-based chapters and participate in city-wide coalitions as well. To find out what mattered most to young people and crystallize a vision of what they were fighting for, OKF members put together a survey that went out to about 1,500 high school students. The Student Justice Platform that came out of this survey and deep listening campaign prioritized health and wellness, community-centered schools, and essential life skills. Developing the platform “allowed us to more clearly see what lined up around possible strategic and tactical alliances and what differed,” Brekke-Miesner said.

A new generation of organizers rose up after the 2010 passage of Arizona’s infamous “show me your papers” law, SB1070. Some of those young organizers started Poder and its sibling, Poder in Action; they work in West and South Maricopa County. They organize around the polimigra, the intersection of the police and immigration systems. “Not only is our work very directly tied to the most obvious and clear form of state violence, but we’re also diving into all of the other invisible ways that violence from the state shows up from food deserts, access to quality food, access to air and the quality of our air,” Viri Hernandez said. In its electoral work, Poder has sent members to the Phoenix City Council and school board and to the state legislature.

Christopher June Zizzamia: What are the main threats you’re seeing in your terrain?

Jonathan Bix:  It’s very clear that careerist Democrats are holding the state back. The working class and Left have a lot more organization and power in NYC (and the other biggest cities in the state) than rural upstate. That’s reflected in the fact that the careerist Democrats in the Hudson Valley are some of the biggest obstacles in the state legislature. And that’s because they haven’t been primaried and beaten from the left, or shifted to the left in response to their colleagues being primaried and beaten from the left, as DSA and WFP have done in NYC.

We need to win stuff statewide and the real estate lobby and their relationship to the careerist Dems is one of the biggest roadblocks. We have seen rising evictions following the pandemic, seen people put storage lockers up for rent as “studio apartments 0 baths,” seen AirBnB run rampant buying up housing and pushing people out. When we win legislation on a local level like the Good Cause eviction laws we have won alongside partners in Poughkeepsie, Albany, Newburgh and other places, big money rolls in to support landlord fights against it to strike it down.

Lukas Brekke-Miesner: We are fighting two types of fights, and both have pretty similar main threats to those Bix outlined. We have our school-based fights, and obviously there is a big charter lobby here in California, folks trying to continue to gut public schools. And then in things like our youth vote fight, we find ourselves facing off against careerist Dems. Youth Vote would bring in a huge young electorate, voters of color, and these folks have been historically disenfranchised in so many ways including voting. And the machine here can be so convoluted, so stubborn, and so intentionally complicated that moving from a historic city-wide win to the actual implementation of that win has been a grind. And in it, we have gotten so see shifting terrain on who our tactical allies are.

Viri Hernandez: In Arizona the Right has so much power to govern over many jurisdictions and over many of the decisions that are impacting our wellness on a state level. All the work that organizations including Poder have been doing for over a decade, led by young people, has made Arizona a battleground state, and the success of what we’ve done here has now had ripple effects nationwide. And we saw that in the last presidential election and the mid-terms.

Even with that, we are still contesting for the power to make these decisions for ourselves. Our work has helped people get into office, at a state level, people that are less harmful, less hateful, potentially, but still are not trying to govern for our communities. Outside the folks we have elected from our membership, who are trying to experiment with how we govern. But until we got there LGBTQ youth, specifically trans youth are being attacked. Our education system is still being gutted and defunded. Our right to abortion, our right to our bodies is still something that we’re constantly fighting. Arizona just reverted in this last year to a law from the 1800 around abortion access.

So much of our threat is the urgency of fighting the Right, while trying to actually build organization, build towards governance so that the solutions aren’t more jail, more privatization, but actually our communities’ vision.

CJZ: Moving to that vision, building something bigger, how do you see that work linked to the P4P hypothesis? What role do you see strategic and tactical alliances playing in defeating the key threats and moving towards what you are building?

JB:  We’re pursuing an inside/outside strategy with our overlapping electoral and legislative organizing with a very clear, defined analysis of social power. Our universes are electoral districts. We’re organizing people in those electoral districts across race, gender, age, and language based on a shared class self-interest. Our targets are elected officials whose self-interest is in being re-elected. And our constituents have objective power over those targets through their ability to organize voters and to vote themselves (and we organize a lot of undocumented people who still wield power through their ability to organize voters even though they themselves can’t vote). Our ability to endorse, be neutral to, or primary elected officials in this context is the carrot and stick we have to wield real power.

Way too often organizing outside of a workplace completely lacks a structure like that in which it’s building real power. The hypothesis pushes us to define a constituency using race/class/gender and place-based power analysis to build this kind of power. Then it asks us to identify alliances based on this power analysis.

And strategic and tactical alliances for us have meant building with party-surrogates like DSA and WFP; statewide coalitions like Housing Justice for All, Raise Up NY, Public Power NY, and NY Renews; and many different unions. These are what makes our work add up to something bigger. We can’t have a serious impact locally, much less at the state level, if we’re not partnering with complimentary organizing projects in ways that mean we’re all adding up to something more than the sum of our parts. And the ability to work in not-currently strategically aligned coalitions that are doing impactful work is just as important if not more important to us than working in coalitions where there’s full alignment. Because part of the contribution we can make is organizing within the coalition with like-minded people in order to sharpen it.

LKB: Particularly when we’re in these defensive stances it can feel like you’re getting further and further from building something. Not just tearing down the old but building. Instead it’s more like holding ground that is eroding around you, and even the wins feel like losses. Because I’ve been so conditioned by that experience, each passing year, it’s almost gotten harder for me to hone in on what we’re ultimately trying to create. That’s an ongoing struggle for me.

P4P not only asks us to try and collectively assess the primary threats of the moment, and then pinpoint then key issues to address them, but to think about five years, 10 years, and who we need to build with to get to the things not only in the Student Justice platform, but the vision that gets built out as we win those demands with partners and take on bigger fights.So strategic and tactical alliances have pains and struggles, but they also are what get us to the bigger shit.

VH: Building these alliances, especially now, feels so urgent and necessary to win. A lot of alliances and tactical alliances in the last few years have led us to shift the voting conditions. and the demographics of voters.  It wasn’t always getting us our ultimate vision but it was getting us closer Arizona as organizing shows us a blueprint of defense work, and how to defend ourselves against the state and against the right-wing forces.

To take on the Right we need to make sure that we’re able to have these alliances with organizations, like unions, with different scopes, different bases, and a shared interest whether that’s short-term or long. Poder’s work is very critical and very important, and it is also limited. That’s been for us just the honest assessment: even though we’re winning campaigns, we’re not winning our vision. 

As we engage in what can be hard, frustrating work on building shared alignment, returning to the P4P space is grounding.  We’re able to have honest conversations and honest assessments of our practices, to dig into each other’s work, and also learn or hear about what other states are experiencing. It’s helping us feel like we’re going to be able to prepare for what might be coming if we flip Arizona, based on the experiences of Oakland Kids First and For the Many. Being able to be in this process and think about this hypothesis, and think about these conditions together has been just really critical to honing in.

CJZ: I get genuinely so excited when I hear about what you all are building, and grateful to be in struggle about it. And also we know strategical and tactical alliances aren’t all smooth processes.  What roadblocks do you see to building these alliances?

JB: So I’d say the Left’s biggest threats (which also apply to For the Many) are the problems internal to our organizations and sectarian attacks on groups we have differences with. Individuals often attack groups over inevitable contradictions that come with scale and power, and for filling different (and usually complimentary) roles to the groups those individuals are invested in.  

LBM: I think it is genuinely hard for folks to be honest about their conditions in coalition or alliance-building space. Like in Youth Vote, we have student groups, we have adult allies. Every group has their members, every group has their interests, some groups have different organizational forms.  As Bix said there are differences in scale, and power, strategy, all sorts of things. And for us the main thing is where are our members at?

The adult allies will be frustrated sometimes ‘cause the things our young people want seem granular—like access to bathrooms. And they want them to instantly connect it to privatization, ‘cause that’s their shit right? Or they want me to steer the org, separately from the decision-making of our young people. But that’s not what we do, and I’m gonna back my members.

At another table, you’ll get adult figureheads who’ll say, “We’re gonna talk to our young people.” And because we haven’t actually dug in in this space I don’t necessarily know if you’re talking to 200 young people or four young people. But orgs are so used to puffing our chests up about the scope and scale of our practices in funding spaces, in organizing spaces, that we gotta bring that in to how we struggle with each other.

I think what we ultimately come back to is, we’re stronger together even when things get a little dicey, or I don’t like how you’re facilitating this shit, or I don’t appreciate when you come at it like this, or this is triggering. All that stuff comes up on a regular basis. But I think we understand that if we splinter, then this shit never happens. And if we all agree to that then we can return to each other, even when we have differences.

VH: We are experts on certain things. Even with that expertise, we still have a certain lens. Our membership is majority Latinos, Latinas, majority immigrants. We speak to a certain demographic and community. We have a limited geographic reach as well. We are not an organization that organizes in communities where Latinos, Latinas and immigrants don’t exist.  And so you bring other organizations with their own expertise but their own blind spots together, there is gonna be some struggle.

But there’s this inability to be in conflict together. Everyone I know is asking how do we be in conflict? How do we create space for generative conflict?

You can call out a behavior in a principled way, and ‘cause of individualism someone still takes it personally. Suddenly you can turn around and be like “I was harmed I was hurt. Fuck you.”

In the individualism and defensiveness we lose that sense of the larger vision and the larger collectiveness that says “Alright, I was wrong, let’s figure this out” or tackles “How are we going to shift so that this doesn’t happen?” It also doesn’t mean you’re going to stay in a place where you’re constantly hurt and harmed and violated but right now, there’s a total lack of ability for people to even have discussions after conflict, or an understanding that conflict  is inevitable if we wanna grow, and sometimes it’s a misunderstanding sometimes it’s confusion, or lack of clarity, sometimes it’s about the work sometimes it is not. 

Recently we showed up to the same municipal meeting with some folks who we see as a huge part of our long-term work, but who we don’t currently have much trust or connection with. For the whole three-hour meeting we were speaking opposite, like we were not even talking to each other. It’s one demand versus the other and we’re just back and forth. And on some level we felt confident we didn’t need them right now for what we wanted. So in the past, caught up in our purity and in our ego, we would have been like, “Oh, wow, fuck y’all.  Y’all don’t have the power, you lose.” Right? And we win and we move forward. But in this moment we are actually like “No in the longer vision for the world we’re trying to build, we need them.”

So we invited them into a meeting together. And it isn’t easy. But it is needed. We need these alliances, not just to win a campaign but we’re trying to win power to rebuild a society that was built on slavery and genocide. And to undo that is gonna take a lot.

Pointing forward

The work to transform our practices and build the organizations and movements that can win is not easy. It will be hard work taken up over many, many years. It will require us to face and transcend our current limitations with honesty and vulnerability. We at FCYO are honored to be on that road with incredible organizers like Viri, Lukas, and Jonathan as they try out the P4P hypothesis.

Featured image: Participants in a convening organized by the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing, courtesy of FCYO

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