Listening Process (Section 8) - What does base-building look like in antiwar organizing?

United Healthcare Workerse union marches against the war at the Capitol, January 27, 2007. Photo Diane Greene Lent

United Healthcare Workerse union marches
against the war at the Capitol, January 27, 2007.
Photo Diane Greene Lent

As the term implies, base-building means building a social base of support that helps an organization accomplish its goals. A classic base-building model involves identifying a key constituency, bringing people from the constituency into a base that identifies with the organization’s goals, and then facilitating the base’s participation, supporting members to invest themselves and step into leadership roles that help the organization grow and accomplish goals. So why is this model—which is regularly utilized by labor and community organizers—so rarely utilized by peace and antiwar groups? We asked interviewees what base-building means to them, and what it looks like—or could look like—in antiwar organizing. Some organizers revisited a constraint from earlier—that war seems abstracted from most U.S. people’s immediate lives, and it is difficult to build a base around an issue that people feel so much distance from. Given that, some suggested that peace groups focus more on engaging existing organized bases—like religious and community centers—than on trying to build their own distinct base and infrastructure from scratch. On the other hand, some saw military veterans as a constituency with a direct relationship to war that is doing important base-building work. Others consider engaging students, parents and teachers around military recruitment as a worthwhile base-building opportunity.

Base-building is giving community members a chance to take the message of their organization to individuals that want to see a change happen, giving individuals who are not yet involved a chance to participate. Given the idea of strength in numbers, you bring in as many people as possible. Lasting change is made by people who are affected by an issue, giving those persons a chance to take a demand, make it theirs, and act on it.

—Marty Aranaydo, Ruckus Society, Indigenous Peoples’ Power Project

Base-building has to be a key focus. It takes a lot of work. It doesn’t have immediate payoffs. It’s less rewarding in the short term, but more effective—if it works—in the long term. It’s about getting people who are most affected by an issue or struggle more involved than just signing a petition or showing up to a demo. Getting them equipped with skills. It’s reaching out to folks who are not “activists”—particularly, supporting them in familiar places like schools and community spaces.

—Rami El-Amine, Coalition for Justice & Accountability

U.S. Labor Against the War has a pretty good model. They have a core of activists. They work within the institutions that define that sector, unions. They organize at the base level as well as get bigger-name endorsements so they have an opening to talk to people. They do certain campaigns that appeal to that sector. They bring Iraqi trade unionists to speak out here. They have a sector that is by definition already organized, because it’s labor.

There’s African-American, campus, women’s, religious formations and forums of antiwar organizing, different models to consider. You can initiate an organization, do a map of your sector, and decide you’re going to work on this for a few years. It’s not going to happen short-term. You have to ally with existing organizations, participate in the ones you can. You operate differently in different constituencies. If you’re driven by the logic that’s popular in the funding world—what numbers do you have? what concrete plan do you have?—that’s a non-starter, because what you’re talking about is building a real movement and consciousness, which takes time. You’ll have some tangible results—X number of people at a demo, you got this elected official to do Y—but it’s not going to be the kind of thing that looks good on a funding proposal.

—Max Elbaum, War Times

Building grassroots organizations in the United States should mainly be centered on leadership from oppressed communities that are continually fighting for change. We’re not necessarily always winning on this issue or that issue. So a lot of our resources are committed to political education and leadership development. I see the current period we’re in in the United States and globally as more of a reactive period; we’re often not advancing or winning key struggles, even at the very local level. Most of our energy goes into building up our organization as an institution in the community, building up leaders who will be aligned with an anti-imperialist politics. We should always be building up our basis and capacity to fight, for decades to come.

—Monami Maulik, Desis Rising Up & Moving

I think strategic base-building intentionally and consistently profiles those who have lost the most or who have the most to lose, because there’s a moral value that people respond to there. You’ve got a lot of people who know the war is wrong but it doesn't affect their daily lives, and there isn't infrastructure in place to bring forward leaders from communites who can speak personally and with conviction about the real cost of this war. I don’t mean that that’s not happening. I see it happening. In fact, it’s starting to reach a national level, where those folks are commanding the attention of broad swaths of the American people who oppose the war.

—Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn

People think that to have a movement against the war, you just have to show up on a certain day and do something, and don’t realize all the work that goes into organizing and planning. It doesn’t get you on the news—you can’t make a headline every day if you’re serious about building a movement.

Chapter building is really key in growing our membership, because it’s tough when you are just one or two isolated individuals in your small city or state (which is a lot of our at-large membership). So it’s important to connect the people in our network to have others to talk and plan with; at least get together for a social event and hang out together, that’s really important for where we’re at now.

—Kelly Dougherty, Iraq Veterans Against the War

The key is relationship-building, really meeting people. I’ve been meeting and talking with parents of young people who have been affected by violence in the community, and it’s just about listening. Sometimes they come by and just want to talk about where they are at or what’s going on in their neighborhood. You just have to put that into your work plan; we get really busy and have all of these tasks from A to Z, but base-building is slow and you have to hear people out and spend time with them, invite them to an event where we have a meal together and share stories. Sometimes I feel like as an activist we get used to doing things a certain way and take for granted that you have a base—“Let’s just get the base out” or “Let’s just outreach to such and such community or neighborhood”—but it takes a real commitment of time and energy to build trust with people. And it is crucial.

—Xiomara Castro, Ella Baker Center

I think you also have to make it fun, you have to make it something that people feel adds enjoyment and meaning to their lives; not just work that will drain you until you’re frustrated and disillusioned. You have to give people opportunities to use their skills and talents. If we meet a musician trying to get their name out there we say, “Hey we’re having this event, do you want to play at it?” Maybe they bring some friends out, and we talk to them about what we’re doing. Supporting and connecting with people in their own activities motivates people to feel they have something to contribute, that they have a place and are being appreciated.

Sometimes activists approach people with “Do you want to sign up on our list?” They think, “I did a great job cause I got these ten names.” But if you don’t make a personal connection you’re not going to see any of them again; sometimes people just sign it ’cause they want you to go away or they feel bad saying no. You have to (at least) make that two-minute friendly conversation. That conversation is really necessary to make people want to connect and participate.

—Katrina Plotz, Anti-War Commitee

Internal training, skills building, is key. I think back to my work in the environmental movement: We were doing media trainings for grassroots activists all the time. I’ve been shocked by how few people in the peace movement even know how to write a press release or when you should send it out. There’s basic trainings—facilitation, media, anti-oppression, nonviolent direct action—that need to happen. But we’re always in emergency mode, so there’s no time… “I’m just gonna do the press release, cause no one else will.”

We need organizations willing to take on a focus on skills building—as well as facilitating strategy. You talk about power-mapping for a campaign, and some people have no idea what that is. I think that explains some of why we don’t have any long-term strategies; we don’t even have the tools to do short-term skilled work. It’s been talked about for a long time, that we should have something where there’s trainers who travel around; this needs to be a priority.

—Kelly Campbell, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

If smaller radical groups don’t engage with broader-based organizations, then we are having a circular conversation that is very privileged and self-indulgent—kind of ridiculous. It can feel self-gratifying, like movement is happening. But if you look back over the years at policy and if people’s lives have been impacted through the work, you find there’s little to show for it.

We should be finding ways to partner with big nonprofits and mainstream direct-service organizations that have a broad vision to help people be healthier families and communities. I think that base-building through these institutions could happen in a powerful and exciting way—sort of infiltrating, rather than seeing the mainstream as the enemy. We all know nurses or teachers we could connect with. Many of these institutions provide support for people today so they can participate in making systemic changes tomorrow.

—Maryrose Dolezal, Fellowship of Reconciliation

Counter-recruitment workshop
Counter-recruitment workshop at MEChA's
Chicano high school student conference,
UC San Diego. Photo courtesy of Project YANO

Something we’ve been focusing on is being active within the community and already existing organization, because Lancaster is small enough that it’s feasible to do that well. A lot of us came out of the same church and have a place where we’ve met for a long time and thought out our political beliefs. Religion has become taboo to many groups, when really it’s an important space to work in because they already have a supportive community that all know each other—if you plug into it, it’s a lot easier than creating your own group.

I’ve been taking steps to be more integrated into what’s going on in my high school so people see me not … well, people still see me as a hippie kid who’s into politics, but now it’s more like people come to me saying, “Okay, I don’t understand what’s going on with Iran,” and I can talk to them. And they’re willing to listen and take my opinion. And teachers kind of tokenize me, but in a more positive light than “you’re a radical crazy feminist,” but instead, “You know what’s going on—tell your classmates about it.” Building up that respect accomplishes a lot. And not being rude if someone doesn’t agree with you, actually sitting down and talking with them and not just brushing them off.

—Becca Rast, Lancaster Students for a Democratic Society (War Resisters League affiliate)

Our primary target audience—our natural allies—are people who are opposed to the war but aren’t doing much about it, just assuming, “If I occasionally hold a sign or put a bumper sticker on my car, that’s good enough.” Our goal is to get those people to move to the next level, to figure out where someone is at on the continuum of involvement and move them one step further down. If you’ve never held a sign, hold a sign. If you’re tired of holding signs, go to your congressperson’s office. If you’re tired of doing things legally, occupy their office and get yourself arrested. We’re trying to create space for all of those people within our same organization.

—TJ Johnson, Port Militarization Resistance

Fighting for reforms build people’s power and engagement, especially if you’re building the power of oppressed people. It develops skills to understand power, to understand what it means to hold power in certain moments, how you can use it and abuse it. Once you win a campaign victory, as small as it may be, you’re faced with the opportunity to capitulate in some way on whatever other demands you were hoping to get, or go the next step. Base-building organizations that have a long-term vision for systemic change aren’t organizing around revolution in this moment. They’re organizing around reform struggles that change material conditions so that people feel a sense of their own power and that teach people about organizing and fighting.

This is actually an opportune political moment. The war is the wedge issue that can help shift the overall landscape. The left wants to be present in a stronger way. At SOUL, we feel like we’re part of the social movement left, the communities of color left. It is challenging, to translate how to throw down around antiwar struggles while simultaneously doing this base—building work that tends to be focused on local issues.

—Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, School of Unity & Liberation

We were doing local work around police violence; after 9/11, we realized we couldn’t do that work in the same way, we had to broaden out. There was so much manipulation around gender happening, all these mainstream feminists actually supporting the war on Afghanistan—it was horrible. So Incite! Women of Color Against Violence intervened in the messaging nationally with these great posters about how imperial wars won’t liberate women. As a grassroots organization, Sista II Sista took that up locally. We had a community gathering around this in a neighborhood high school in Brooklyn. We held actions weekly (street theater, vigils, etc.), and that’s how we recruited new people.

We did actions, citywide as well as in our community, creating a real buzz in our neighborhood against the war. It was always very grounded—if someone we knew had a cousin that got killed in the war, we’d connect to those real stories so that more people would identify. And we did these solidarity vigils for Iraqis being killed, with blown-up photos down the streets of Bushwick. People would pay attention, be like “What is that?” Nobody ever gets to see those pictures on TV or really talk about what’s going on; we created a chance to talk to people in our community and all engage about the war.

—Paula Rojas, Sista II Sista

Many antiwar activists spend too much time trying to get access to and connect with people who don’t want to build with them, instead of pouring our support and energy into groups already doing local work organically. They might be against the war, but it’s not their primary issue. Yo! the Movement in Minneapolis, Campaign Against Violence in Milwaukee, 21st Century Youth Movement in Selma, Alabama: Though war is not their primary issue, they’re all working against violence in their communities. They’re already educating, organizing, using the arts in exciting ways. Other activists could sit down with these kinds of groups and support them with resources to add or build an antiwar piece of whatever they’re already doing. To work it into their analysis, to work it into their training, to help figure out alternatives that can be developed in their community.

If you support groups already organizing they get stronger and their base gets bigger. We’ve tried it both ways. We’d go in, I’d give a big old speech and then sit down with people afterwards. Those groupings didn’t last very long because there was no organic process. Once I was gone, they didn’t have that energy or glue because I was the one who was really passionate. But the times where I sat down with organizers who were already on the ground, those groups are still around. They’re doing great. They’re bigger than ever. If you go to that community, people know who they are and what they’re doing, and they want to be part of it.

—Adrienne Maree Brown, Ruckus Society

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