Towards Building a Transformational Movement

Thoughts from Daniel Hunter, the author of Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow
offering strategic wisdom and a framework for building a transformational,
not merely reform, movement.

 Download full Word version
 Download full PDF version

In the last chapter of her book Michelle Alexander challenges readers:

Those who believe that advocacy challenging mass incarceration can be successful without overturning the public consensus that gave rise to it are engaging in fanciful thinking, a form of denial. Isolated victories can be won – even a string of victories – but in the absence of a fundamental shift in public consciousness, the system as a whole will remain intact. To the extent that major changes are achieved without a complete shift, the system will rebound. The caste system will remerge in a new form, just as convict leasing replaced slavery, or it will be reborn, just as mass incarceration replaced Jim Crow.

This challenge calls us to build a transformational movement – a movement beyond policy changes to a revolution in values such that the idea of caging people is unthinkable. Such a revolution in values means our struggle must move beyond transactional interactions with policymakers and the public. We must take the time to move people along the spectrum of allies, to connect them to groups and networks that challenge fundamental assumptions, to build relationships that mirror the society we wish to see – where each person is treated with dignity and full personhood.

This mirrors Dr. King’s passion for creating the beloved community. “The aftermath of nonviolence,” Dr. King spoke, “is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle’s over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.” In this vision of a beloved community love for all people informs how we create policies, write laws, and treat each other.

Building a transformational movement requires hard work and inner reflection, and it does not have easy answers. Yet if we do not try to answer the tough questions, we may one day find ourselves in a situation where we have removed enough pillars of mass incarceration for it to fall, only to see it replaced by a new form of racial casting, perhaps just as devastating.

One model for thinking about creating the conditions for transformation comes from environmental and civil rights activist, George Lakey. He looked at past movements around the world to see what helped them make radical changes that rippled out through all of society, as opposed to merely winning policy reforms without impacting the rest of society. He came up with five core steps:

  • Personal and cultural preparation;
  • Organization-building and networking across issues;
  • Confrontation with unjust authority;
  • Mass political and economic noncooperation;
  • Parallel institutions.

He writes about them as sequential stages, but since they overlap in reality, they can be thought of as different principles for building a transformational movement. Let’s look at each in turn, not in a spirit of knowing with certainty what we need to do, but of exploring about what we can use in our movement.

Want to read more? Download the Word version or PDF version now.