Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Relationships Are (the) Work

Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

Lately, I’ve been thinking about relationships. Maybe it’s that my partner just proposed to me. Or maybe it was the time with our Project Team earlier this month working, laughing, and struggling together. Either way, it’s becoming clear how important relationships are in the social change sector.

Relationship building was a theme that came out of our evaluation of the New Bottom Line campaign. The success of the NBL campaign to advance innovative policy ideas and Dump DeMarco was just as important (and was maybe even a lesser accomplishment in some people’s assessment) as the deeper connections that grew between the organizations, staff and members who worked together on the campaign. One of the most telling quotes from the interviews and survey we did with NBL’s stakeholders reflects why relationship building matters:

the long-term commitment to each other has deepened relationships. We’ve hung together through good times and bad, and as a result feel very close to the other organizations and feel like I could bring a critique to these allies, ask for their help and be vulnerable with them.

This quote reflects a surprising level of intimacy. Words and phrases like “commitment,” hanging together through “good times and bad,” and “be(ing) vulnerable” all sound like the things that would be said about an intimate relationship between friends or lovers, not coalition partners. But the reality is that long-term movement building requires that same level of trust, openness and acceptance.

The usual ways that coalition partners talk about and relate to each other doesn’t work in today’s political context. Temporary, transactional alliances between advocates are just not powerful enough to challenge the deep alignment between corporate power and a conservative governing philosophy that only benefits the wealthy. In a sector where scarcity is real and there’s not enough money or credit to go around, a strong relational grounding makes it more likely that activists and organizations will see these bad times as the very times to hang together. Stronger relationships also help activists see the connections between our struggles and deepen commitment to collective solutions.

The old theory that relationships just happen by doing the “real” work is fortunately giving way to greater focus and intentionality on building deep relationships. Here are some ways groups have started the process. Storytelling is one practice that the domestic workers movement drew on to build connections and energize their campaigns, and many other groups are weaving narrative strategies into their organizer trainings to foster a deeper level of connection between movement activists. Some groups have the resources to take retreats and cram as many relationship building activities into a day or two as is humanly possible, and programs like Rockwood’s Art of Collaborative Leadership are very strategically fostering relationships between leaders in particular movements and sectors. Creative “un-networking events” are also emerging where people commit to NOT talk about their professional identities, in order to focus on cultivating authentic relationships first and then figuring out the transactional piece of how they can work together after.

The truth is that relationships have always been important in our movements and social change work. They are the basis of trust, and the foundation of what differentiates movement building alliances from so many other (and necessary) formations. Temporary, transactional connections will always have their usefulness, but the growing recognition of the importance of relationship building is a critical Investment in connecting groups, reaching beyond organizational boundaries, and building the movement infrastructure we need to win lasting social change.

Movement Building alliance building building and practicing trust organizing