Building a Movement: Part 3 of 4

Don’t Look Away: Analyzing Power

By Dustin Washington

In the nonprofit and social justice world, we all too often seek to “fix” oppressed individuals, but rarely do we help oppressed people challenge the power of institutions.

The People’s Institute (introduced in last week’s post) believes that true liberation movements must be grounded in and guided by a critical analysis of institutional power.

The Power of Institutions: A Step-by-Step Look

As anti-racist organizers, we must:

  • Work with our constituencies to understand the history of each institution that impacts their community.
  • Work with our constituencies to develop clarity about how the policies of a myriad of institutions in their community contribute to keeping their community poor and in an oppressed state. (As we analyze systems with our constituencies, they will begin to see how every policy, program, etc. for their community is ultimately controlled by those in systems outside of their community. For instance, how the community is policed, insured, educated, housed, given services, etc. is often set up by outside paternalistic forces in ways that perpetuate exploitation.)
  • Challenge this power dynamic/relationship and begin to give community control over the institutions that govern their lives. This is key to oppression being lifted.

We also believe it’s important for communities to understand that no institution operates in isolation and that the collusion of multiple institutions creates a web of oppression that must be deconstructed.

An Example of Analysis

In Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR), we have spent the past few months analyzing the relationship between corporations and neo-liberal economic policies of our government that serve to economically devastate their communities. Together we have looked at how corporations–in the pursuit of profit–have outsourced high-wage union jobs overseas; pushed for austerity measures, including the cutting of government-funded social services, privatized schools, and prisons; and increased spending on instruments of repression, namely the criminal justice system.

Later this year, YUIR will analyze in-depth the collusion between the food industry and the health care system. They will learn how food industry sales lower quality and how genetically modified foods help create food deserts and over-market fast foods in poor communities and communities of color. YUIR will then explore how these actions create higher levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, lower life spans, and many other race- and class-based disparities in poor communities and communities of color.

This cross-system analysis will prepare YUIR members to do more conscious and transformational organizing work not only now, but for the rest of their lives.

While organizing work is very much an art, we must also try to ground organizing in as much critical analysis as possible. Engaging with our respective constituencies in rigorous analysis of systems and institutions is one useful step in that direction.

Next Up: Skills You Need

In my final blog post next week, I will share traits and skill sets that an organizer should embrace. I will reflect on the skills the People’s Institute says an organizer must have as well as the Noah principles of Van Jones and Kingian Nonviolence principles.

About the Author: Dustin Washington is Director of the Community Justice Program at AFSC and Core -Trainer with the Peoples Institute NW.

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