In the opening months of 2021 we find ourselves emerging from a chaotic four years of responding to crisis after crisis in a rapidly changing political landscape. As an interdisciplinary team of campaigners, organizers, educators, researchers, and artists with decades of experience in the labor, climate justice, corporate accountability, racial justice, and community organizing movements we recognize that the moment we’re in is one like we’ve never seen before.
Our social movements are facing unprecedented challenges, but we’re also seeing opportunities to win historic victories. If we are collectively going to face down these challenges and take advantage of these opportunities we need to move swiftly, think boldly, and build at a revolutionary scale.
In nature, introducing a catalyst to one or more substances allows them to react at a faster rate or under different conditions than they would otherwise be able to. We believe that introducing a catalyst to our social movement landscape can create new opportunities to allow our movements and campaigns to break through in new ways. That’s why we’re coming together to start Movement Catalyst, a social movement support hub.
What we’re seeing
We’re in the midst of a global pandemic and a massive economic crisis. Unemployment benefits, relief funding, and eviction moratoria are going to run out before the economy gets better. We are also quickly running out of time to respond to the climate crisis. Catastrophic wildfires, super storms, floods, and droughts have become more commonplace , while the fossil fuel industry continues to poison local communities and destroy our natural environment. These impacts get worse every year.
Each of these crises will hit our communities hard, but they won’t impact all of us equally. Because of a legacy of institutional racism and economic violence, it is clear that Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor white communities will disproportionately bear the burden of all of these crises.
Corporate power isn’t backing down either. Companies like Amazon and Walmart took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to consolidate their corporate power at the expense of workers’ health and safety, and they’re continuing to grow. Platforms like Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, and Grubhub are expanding their market share, transforming workplaces, and eroding working conditions. Big banks, asset managers, and private equity firms are continuing to profit from their investments in building poisonous fossil fuel projects, and climate chaos. Developers and landlords are transforming our communities and rebuilding our cities as playgrounds for the rich, while Black, Brown and working class neighbors are being displaced.
The changing landscape
Powered by the tireless support of energetic social movements, labor unions, youth, and most importantly Black voters, Democrats have taken control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress. The Biden administration will quickly roll back some of Trump’s most egregious attacks on our communities, but the interlocking systems of institutional racism, economic violence, and climate chaos did not start with Donald Trump and they won’t disappear after Biden’s first 100 days.
With Democrats in control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress, many on the institutional left will argue that this is the time for the social movements that propelled Democrats to victory to stand down and for party officials and Washington insiders to make compromises and find common ground. Pushing grassroots social movements to the sidelines right now is a recipe for disaster.
The Republican Party is well postured to take on the role of an obstructionist opposition party. Welcomed in by Donald Trump, the far right has firmly entrenched itself in the Republican Party. The loyalty of the hard right wing of the party was on full display as thousands of far right supporters of Donald Trump heeded his calls to lay siege to the United States Capitol in a failed coup attempt. Then, even after that unprecedented and deadly attack on the legislative branch of government, more than 100 Republican members of Congress went ahead with their baseless challenges to the electoral college outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
This far right block in the House and the Senate will certainly be a major impediment to legislative progress. And threats of primary challenges and an unforgiving party rank-and-file will make it incredibly difficult for even the most moderate Republicans to cooperate with a Biden administration. The whole time, emerging news outlets like One America News and Newsmax are replacing Fox News as the outlet of choice among much of the right and creating an alternative reality that bears very little resemblance to any objective version of the truth.
A time for powerful grassroots movements
This isn’t the time to demobilize and compromise, this is the time to fight for serious progress on the programs that matter to our communities — , COVID-19 relief, union organizing rights, defunding the police, end fossil fuel production, a green new deal, student debt relief, healthcare for all, and infinite other priorities. If our movements don’t make real progress on these priorities right now, we will have missed an important and fleeting opportunity to make lasting change.
Many on the institutional left are enjoying their newfound access to the Biden administration. And a Federal Government that is open to implementing programs that improve peoples’ lives is certainly a welcome development. But we must be careful to avoid confusing access with influence. We haven’t been organizing and mobilizing just to get a seat at the table — we’re fighting to build a new and different table that works for all of us and puts people over corporate profit.
To be certain, there is an important role for organizations that want to play the inside game and coordinate policy responses with the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress. But in moments like this, the grassroots is where the real transformative action happens.
Shared social movement infrastructure
Throughout history, we’ve seen social movements ebb and flow, rising and falling in cyclical waves. Through periods of low energy, organizers and activists lay the groundwork and build organizing structures, often grinding out the work through periods of slow but predictable growth. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, often in the aftermath of trigger events like the great depression, the arrest of Rosa Parks, the meltdown at Three Mile Island or the murder of Mike Brown our movements rise up and escalate in ways that never seemed possible.
And in the swell of energy following those trigger movements we push as far as we can and work to absorb the new waves of energy that have come into our movement before the moment passes and the wave of energy recedes. Trigger events aren’t where the organizing starts — there was a labor movement well before the great depression just as there was a movmement to stop racist police violence well before the murder of Mike Brown.
Below the surface, every movement relies on an infrastructure to move their work forward. Social movement infrastructure can be physical — the meeting spaces where people come together or the megaphones and equipment people use in the streets; movement infrastructure can be organizational — regular coordination spaces to engage in consultation and move work forward; and movement infrastructure can be intellectual — power mapping, databases, and contact lists. Social movement infrastructure can be relationships and networks- building alliances, facilitating conversations, aligning around collective demands, running a campaign together, sharing skills, training new organizers.
And more often than not, the strength movement infrastructure that is in place just before those trigger events take place can play an incredibly influential role in how high movements can ride waves of action and how far those waves can carry movements.
A historic set of crises
The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic crisis is a historic trigger moment. To date, more than 25 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 400,000 have died from the virus. With cases still on the rise it is likely that the virus will kill more than one million Americans before the pandemic is over. The pandemic has upended every aspect of our lives — tens of millions of students are studying from home, unemployment is higher than any time since we’ve been collecting that data, and record numbers of families are behind on rent or mortgage payments and facing evictions.
At the same time, the pandemic has escalated system inequalities that existed in our society well before the first COVID case was diagnosed. Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities are among the hardest hit by the pandemic; mega-corporations like Amazon and Walmart are consolidating their power while small businesses are filing for bankruptcy; and in stimulus bill after stimulus bill the government is bailing out the corporations, not the people.
The historic set of crises that we are facing in this moment stretch across communities, organizations and movements, so we will need social movement infrastructure with the same reach to rise up and meet the opportunities of this moment.That’s why we’re launching Movement Catalyst: A social movement support hub.
Movement Catalyst: A social movement support hub
Movement Catalyst is a social movement support hub based in Washington, DC working nationally and locally. We’re an experienced and interdisciplinary team of strategists, organizers, and researchers, who will launch strategic projects to meet the moment, partner with organizations looking to expand their ability to have an impact, and anchor movement infrastructure.
True to its name, and inspired by nature, Movement Catalyst will act as the necessary spark to help social movements increase their overall impact. We believe that when we work together to spur change, we can more quickly win victories that reflect systems that work for us all.
Our team has worked for NGOs and labor unions campaigning for climate, environmental, economic, women’s, and racial justice, but we all come out of, and are accountable to, grassroots social movement spaces. We’re particularly interested in working with organizations across traditional organizational boundaries and social movement spaces.
We’re currently working to identify gaps and opportunities in the social movement landscape, as well as partners who are interested in moving this work forward. There are some areas where we know we can contribute right away. We’ll be building an online social movement calendar and compiling training curricula, as well as updating ‘know your rights’ materials and a local movement directory. We’ll are helping to build national networks around key issues, we’ll be working to active allies on critical issues, we’ll organizing actions to pressure key targets, we’ll also be compiling digital tools like mass texting and email software that grassroots partners in our community can use and developing an equipment library with the types of gear all of our movements need: a PA system, megaphones, art supplies, vests, costumes, and other equipment, as well as creating an interactive map of potential action locations in DC.
But we also want to learn more about what our movement needs!
We’re looking to work in strategic partnership with organizations looking to expand their impact. This can include things like planning actions, providing non-representational legal advice, conducting research for a campaign, or facilitating a strategy process. We’ll also be developing shared movement tools that everyone in our movements can use and rely on. That could mean convening a conversation or taking on a research project.
We want to hear from you!
We’re planning to officially launch Movement Catalyst in the coming weeks. Between now and then we’ll be working to build tools, fill out our team of organizers, campaigners and advisors, and most importantly, listen to what people in our movements want and need out of a project like this. We want to hear from you!
- What are the shared tools, resources, campaigning, and organizing spaces that you think our movements need in the current political moment?
- Where are the gaps in our social movement landscape? How can we fill them?
- How could an organization like Movement Catalyst help your organization take your work to the next level?
Shoot us an email at info@MVMTcatalyst.org, or fill out this quick survey to share your thoughts about this exciting project!
Liz Butler, Abby Henderson, Laura Beth Pelner, Bill Ragen, Beth Yirga, and Patrick Young