Since our official launch in January of 2022, the Horizons’ team has spent the bulk of our time building relationships with the many inspiring organizers, network leaders, researchers, and funders who together are weaving an impressive tapestry of social change efforts in the United States. It has been our honor to learn, strategize, and walk together on this path with so many of you! As our first year closes, we’ve compiled several insights and lessons learned that will inform our organizing work in 2023:
“It’s Both-And!” We have found ourselves saying this phrase repeatedly this year as we engage with different communities and theories of change in the social change ecosystem. For example, we need to raise the heat to bring more urgency to democratic decline in the US; and we need to decrease dehumanization and toxic othering of our fellow citizens. Fighting for racial justice is fundamental to moving forward together as a country; and that involves organizing within white communities to listen with empathy to real grievances and fears for our communities to heal. The Horizons team recognizes the need to embrace this complexity and work on being comfortable with all the dualities and nuances of ecosystem-level organizing. If you want to read more this is a great article on complexity.
Sensemaking together is some of the most important work we do as organizers. When we launched our website, we laid out the many ways that different sectors are diagnosing the most pressing problem(s) in the United States and the tensions those differences can raise. Throughout the year, we’ve made a point of leaning into those tensions by convening small-group salons and (many!) individual conversations to reflect together on our different analyses, perspectives, and priority actions. For example, discussing “what authoritarianism looks like” with a group of bridgebuilders highlighted the importance of intra-group dialogues (notably amongst conservatives) to changing behaviors. This article beautifully describes the importance of sensemaking; and we have learned what an important step it is to build relationships, establish trust, and widen our circle of potential allies. Horizons loved exploring sensemaking practices with a group of impressive women leaders, captured in this article.
Toxic polarization is indeed a problem, but it is more a symptom of systemic challenges we must confront. There are many important conversations unfolding about the nature of polarization in the United States and globally, and hundreds of efforts to address the challenges of polarization within a vibrant bridgebuilding community throughout the United States. Horizons believes in making a distinction between good polarization versus toxic polarization. This is because we view polarization as a symptom of living under the conditions of democratic decline, where political, economic, and social actors are actively working to keep us divided to stay in power and/or to maintain the status quo. Coming together across ideological divides is crucial. And yet, as we seek to humanize one another we must also mobilize more effectively against the forces keeping us divided and stand up as partisans for democracy. That will require a strategy of engagement and pressure to block harmful, anti-democratic practices and build new ways of living together in a pluralistic society.
How we engage with narratives is as important as ever, beyond messaging efforts that only seek to persuade or raise awareness. Building on an explosion of interest and investment in narrative expertise in the social change field, Horizons spent the past year exploring narrative competencies that support more effective organizing “across difference”. One of the most important insights we have gleaned is the need to “embody the narratives we seek to promote” so that we are not pushing out messages as much as living our values and the future we want. Narrative change starts within, and if we are using dehumanizing language in our own messages, we are contributing to a larger narrative where there are some people who don’t belong. We loved this article on the uses of storytelling that highlights how narrative competencies can foster not only power-building, but also connection and healing.
Training, mentoring, and coaching to support intra-movement dialogue, organizing, and conflict resolution deserve much greater investment. Some of the most urgent work needed is not only to bridge across ideological differences, but to address conflict and undermine extremism within groups. Within left and progressive circles, there is growing awareness that toxic movement spaces, weak conflict resolution practices, and unhealthy orientations toward power and authority are diminishing their effectiveness, as this brilliant Maurice Mitchell piece points out. Meanwhile, given the concentration of political extremism on the right, and the many cases of “courageous conservatives” facing harassment or social ostracism, this highlights the need for much greater investment in intra-conservative dialogue and conflict resolution. We need to bring together and build connections with conflict resolution trainers and coaches to embed those skills and provide coaching throughout movement networks to support this transformation (and not focus so much on cross-ideological empathy and understanding). Investing in sustained support for training and coaching is one of the most important investments funders can make to pro-democracy movements. And encouraging learning across different disciplines (organizing, nonviolence, civil resistance, conflict resolution, narrative competency, etc.) is an important way funders can strengthen movement capacities.
Greater connectivity and strategic complementarity between different parts of the anti-authoritarian ecosystem allow us to go on offense. Horizons began the year by reflecting on the historical and contemporary reality of authoritarianism in the US, while making the case that the strongest bulwark against democratic backsliding is broad-based fronts or movements. We ended the year by helping to convene a core group of local, state, and national organizers, activists, scholars and bridgebuilders to discuss how to strengthen our collective efforts to counter authoritarianism in the US. That discussion was informed by this paper highlighting seven key capacities (intelligence, community power-building and resilience, non-cooperation, conflict resolution, etc.) that, if strengthened and better connected, could allow us to proactively target the promoters and enablers of hate, political violence, and authoritarianism at the local, state, and federal levels. We need to build up our collaboration and solidarity muscles within the ecosystem to come together as a “united front” to better connect these capacities and to anticipate and outmaneuver authoritarians while tapping into our collective imagination about what a reimagined democracy of the future could look like. Learning strategies and tactics from organizers and movement leaders from other backsliding democracies around the world is key to that effort.
Strengthening democracy must be pursued in tandem with eradicating racism and white nationalism. Since our founding, the most formidable obstacle to realizing the democratic ideals animating the American experiment has been the creation of a racial hierarchy that has placed white people at the top, while discouraging poor and working-class Americans from finding common cause across racial lines. Authoritarianism and structural racism are inextricably linked. The ideology of white supremacy has historically been propagated by many institutional pillars of support, including corporations and Christian churches. One of the most pressing needs for the pro-democracy movement therefore is to strengthen religious outreach focused on combatting notions of white Christian dominance, while also bolstering more linkages between “bipartisan” institutional reform efforts and the community-level and national movements to advance racial justice such as the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation movement. Building a race-class-democracy narrative and organizing strategy is key to achieving democratic transformation.
We need more political education about what authoritarianism is and looks like within communities, especially to galvanize intragroup organizing. There are plenty of reasons why people go along with harmful behaviors committed by their ingroups, especially when they feel under threat. We hear a lot of “both-sides-ism” when it comes to the problem of authoritarianism in the United States, which indicates the need for more awareness-raising and public education about what authoritarianism is, what is enabling it, and how to stop it. Greater investment and infrastructure is needed to support “courageous conversations” especially among conservatives working against the authoritarian faction within their ranks, as described in this article. Developing solidarity networks (legal, spiritual, financial, public relations support) could make a significant difference in growing the size and influence of people who refuse to aid and abet authoritarianism in their churches, radio programs, small businesses, and professional groups. Meanwhile, strengthening analysis and relationships between racial justice and democracy groups and initiatives would bolster the effectiveness of both.
There is much to celebrate, but we are not “out of the woods” after the 2022 midterm elections. The fact that election denying candidates running for offices that would oversee the 2024 presidential election were defeated in battleground states, and that the midterms were relatively free of election-related violence, was significant and a tribute to months and years of organizing at the local, state, and federal levels, as this report highlights. At the same time, it would be a grave mistake to think that the threats of authoritarianism and political violence have been eliminated. The dominance of the authoritarian faction within the GOP (and Donald Trump’s return to the national spotlight), the persistence of authoritarian enablers in key societal pillars (religious institutions, media, corporations, veterans’ groups), easy access to assault weapons, and the mainstreaming of political violence on the right (and to a lesser extent on the left), including the chilling effects of police violence, continue to pose significant threats to peace and security. Organizing within and across these key pillars of support will be needed in the coming years to counter authoritarianism and political violence and build a pluralistic democracy.
Caring for one another and finding joy together as we organize is also “doing the work.” When we launched Horizons initially, we interviewed Kazu Haga about his book Healing Resistance and we continue to be inspired by his message of centering joy and caring for one another as we organize. Incorporating the arts and beauty into our work, and building our imagination muscles to operate from a place of possibility and hope will carry us through 2023 and beyond. That was the resounding theme of the Mitchell article as well. We take inspiration from our ancestors who led powerful movements for rights, freedoms, and justice in this country – and stand in solidarity with those around the world who are engaged in similar struggles – as we tap into the deep reservoirs of hope and healing in our collective work. As bell hooks reminded us, “To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.”
Happy Holidays from the Horizons Team!