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Quentin Young and Margie Schaps on Building Social Movements

Health & Medicine Policy Research Group (HMPRG)
August 4, 2009

We've been having hallway discussions of late about the different ways organizations messaged and mobilized friends and supporters in the pre-web world and today; and how new media tools like this blog not only provide opportunities, but also present some logistical challenges!

QDY-forpost Quentin- An exampleof an early movement I was connected to: In 1937-39, I was a member of theAmerican Student Union – a national organization of high school youthprotesting   fascism, racism.  The depression was raging.  It was a politically charged time and we were“blessed” (I use the term with quotations) by powerful enemies who served as amotivation force. Hitler was gaining in Europe.Other fascist leaders were rising to power. These events, and later, WorldEvents like Peal harbor were powerful motivators. I wouldn’t say young peoplejoined in droves, this was never a majoritarian movement. Though one dominantforce that moved us to action was the race issue. Discrimination against blacksin housig and jobs. The reality of lynchings. (We tried to pass an anti-lynchigbill in the senate; unsuccessful, but this was a time when there were severalhundred lynchings a year.) As black families moved into white neighborhoods(sometimes with the assistance of movement groups), racist realtors wouldresort to blockbusting (i.e. panic peddling among white families.)  members of movement organizations would bemobilized to protect Black families against real violence that would often takeplace, and to demonstrate for housing and employment equality.

Quentin- We were initiallyrecruited by students from Universityof Chicago.  The proximity of HydePark High School tothe University ofChicago played a role inthe way our  “movement” grew. Collegestudents recruited youngsters, exploited our youthful zeal as they exposed usto the issues of the day.  The org had150 members locally.

Quentin- We connectedlargely via meetings, not unlike today’s meetings they had  fairly versatile  formats: sometimes a  well-known speaker or someone with special knowledgeor credibility about an specific issue, sometimes in large auditoriums,sometimes smaller rooms.  There wereother organizations fighting fascism in the city, and other youth organizationsin neighborhoods on the north and west sides.   Occasionally we joined with them for largerconferences, but we focused on building awareness within our own communities.

Quentin- Wedistributed literature – which was much harder to produce then—one needed tohave type set by a printer, or to have access to a mimeo machine…  We had newsletters. We spoke publicly.  The tools available for mobilization wereprimitive.

Margie-forpostMargie-Thinking aboutthe Women’s Movement in the Sixties, how important it was for us to know that similar actions were taking place elsewhere in thecounty. We used conference calls to touch base with activists in othercities; with organizations like The Boston Women’s Health  Book Collective. It was empowering – made usfeel stronger. In some ways we felt that the Midwestlagged behind what was happening on the East Coast. The calls wereopportunities for us to learn from those east Coast organizations.

Margie- I think aboutthe Obama campaign as the perfect confluence of old and new mobilizationmethods/models: traditional doorbell ringing and buttonholing and face to face relationshipbuilding, combined with powerful viral media.  I think there is a “reality” to  face-to- face relationship-building that is vital and that is possibly not as “real”as the kind of relationship- building that takes place online, but then again, Iknow many of our younger supporters/board members etc. prefer written andonline ways of connecting.  

Quentin-Anobservation of the difference between 21st Century organizing andthe way things happened 60-70 years ago: In the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70saction took place at meetings and demonstrations.  For example, in 1937 there was a strike at one of the smaller steel plants in South Chicago. During a Memorial Day picnic, peoplemarched toward the plant and Chicago Police fired into the crowd, killing 11and injuring many more.  This event,which came to be known as The Memorial Day Massacre mobilized people to act.There was a huge rally at orchestraHall. It is what radicalized me as a young high school student. (Hear Quentin describe theseevents in this excerpt from “Revisiting the Scene: Quentin Young’s Chicago). 

Today’s media (TV/DVDs/MP3 players/The Internet  and now social media) has transformed where people are and live.  People stay in their homes and connect usingthese new social medial tools and channels. That is where they are. There is less physical outwarddirection. Theaction people take now is different.  Therecent demonstration and sit-in over the proposed closing of the RepublicWindows plant attracted attention and resulted in action, but it wasn’tattended by many people and it petered out quickly.

Margie-Today youlearn about an issue online, or from a blog post, or an email someone hasforwarded, and you take action by “clicking here to donate” or by “emailingyour congressman” or by forwarding the link to your friends and mobilizing lots of people to e-blast an organization oran elected official to express your ideas.

Margie-Ourorganization, which Quentin founded in 1981 with John McKnight, used to write longpolicy papers,  really meaty 50 pagedocuments that were read by no more than 50 ofour collaborative partners. These dayswe’re evolving toward much briefer messages, distilling issues and action stepsinto much shorter form/format.

Margie-There is a newmovement building model emerging. As a policy organization, we still use face-to-face meetings to address issues/inequities and develop solutions. Thisdevelopment of policy is not the movement building part.  Movement building takes place as we use newmedia tools to mobilize interested people to make decisions and take action onthese highly specific issues…

Quentin- Theissues that we work on are emblematic of the larger social injustice that needsto be addressed. We  create “smallmovements’ around “hunks of oppression that are mapped onto the larger social and health trendsand issues.  Free standing birth centersare a good example fo what I mean. We worked for 20 years on the issue of giving medicallyunderserved women in Illinoisaccess to choice in childbirth.  It’s a w omen'sreproductive rights issue. There’s a sexual/gender equality dimension. There isa need to oppose vested interests  thatcontinue to oppress the public– in this case the obstetrical specialties. Ittook 20 years to get legislation passed to allow the building of these centersin Illinois.There is now public acceptance of the idea. So the small movement we built within the health policy sphere, toleverage change, is now broadening as we make the next step public, garneringbroader support from the public to demand these options in their communities.

Margie-And by mappingthis small movement onto the larger issues of health access for women and foreveryone, it becomes more than an example of a hard won victory twenty years inthe making, serving as both a motivator andan example of change in process. It really is movement-building on multiple levels. Social media tools  will play a large role in getting the wordout and mobilizing small groups and  the public for progressive policy change.