Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History – The Intercept
June 13, 2022
Everyone acknowledged that Zoom was less than ideal as a forum for a heartfelt conversation on systemic racism and policing. But the meeting was urgent, and, a little more than two months into the Covid-19 lockdown, it would have to do.
During the first week of June 2020, teams of workers and their managers came together across the country to share how they were responding to the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and to chart out what — if anything — their own company or nonprofit could do to contribute toward the reckoning with racial injustice that was rapidly taking shape.
On June 2, one such huddle was organized by the Washington, D.C., office of the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rights movement’s premier research organization.
Heather Boonstra, vice president of public policy, began by asking how people were “finding equilibrium” — one of the details we know because it was later shared by staff with Prism, an outlet that focuses on social justice advocacy.
She talked about the role systemic racism plays in society and the ways that Guttmacher’s work could counter it. Staff suggestions, though, turned inward, Prism reported, “including loosening deadlines and implementing more proactive and explicit policies for leave without penalty.” Staffers suggested additional racial equity trainings, noting that a previous facilitator had said that the last round had not included sufficient time “to cover everything.” With no Black staff in the D.C. unit, it was suggested that “Guttmacher do something tangible for Black employees in other divisions.”
Behind Boonstra’s and the staff’s responses to the killing was a fundamentally different understanding of the moment. For Boonstra and others of her generation, the focus should have been on the work of the nonprofit: What could Guttmacher, with an annual budget of nearly $30 million, do now to make the world a better place? For her staff, that question had to be answered at home first: What could they do to make Guttmacher a better place? Too often, they believed, managers exploited the moral commitment staff felt toward their mission, allowing workplace abuses to go unchecked.
The belief was widespread. In the eyes of group leaders dealing with similar moments, staff were ignoring the mission and focusing only on themselves, using a moment of public awakening to smuggle through standard grievances cloaked in the language of social justice. Often, as was the case at Guttmacher, they played into the very dynamics they were fighting against, directing their complaints at leaders of color. Guttmacher was run at the time, and still is today, by an Afro Latina woman, Dr. Herminia Palacio. “The most zealous ones at my organization when it comes to race are white,” said one Black executive director at a different organization, asking for anonymity so as not to provoke a response from that staff.
These starkly divergent views would produce dramatic schisms throughout the progressive world in the coming year. At Guttmacher, this process would rip the organization apart. Boonstra, unlike many managers at the time, didn’t sugarcoat how she felt about the staff’s response to the killing.
“I’m here to talk about George Floyd and the other African American men who have been beaten up by society,” she told her staff, not “workplace problems.” Boonstra told them she was “disappointed,” that they were being “self-centered.” The staff was appalled enough by the exchange to relay it to Prism.
The human resources department and board of directors, in consultation with outside counsel, were brought in to investigate complaints that flowed from the meeting, including accusations that certain staff members had been tokenized, promoted, and then demoted on the basis of race. The resulting report was unsatisfying to many of the staff.
“What we have learned is that there is a group of people with strong opinions about a particular supervisor, the new leadership, and a change in strategic priorities,” said a Guttmacher statement summarizing the findings. “Those staff have a point of view. Complaints were duly investigated and nothing raised to the level of abuse or discrimination. Rather, what we saw was distrust, disagreement, and discontent with management decisions they simply did not like.”
A Prism reporter reached a widely respected Guttmacher board member, Pamela Merritt, a Black woman and a leading reproductive justice activist, while the Supreme Court oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization were going on last December, a year and a half after the Floyd meeting. She offered the most delicate rebuttal of the staff complaints possible.
“I have been in this movement space long enough to respect how people choose to describe their personal experience and validate that experience, even if I don’t necessarily agree that that’s what they experienced,” Merritt said. “It seems like there’s a conflation between not reaching the conclusion that people want and not doing due diligence on the allegations, which simply is not true.” Boonstra did not respond to a request to talk from either Prism or The Intercept.
The six months since then have only seen a ratcheting up of the tension, with more internal disputes spilling into public and amplified by a well-funded, anonymous operation called ReproJobs, whose Twitter and Instagram feeds have pounded away at the organization’s management. “If your reproductive justice organization isn’t Black and brown it’s white supremacy in heels co-opting a WOC movement,” blared a typical missive from one of its Instagram stories. The news, in May 2022, that Roe v. Wade would almost certainly be overturned did nothing to temper the raging battle.
That the institute has spent the course of the Biden administration paralyzed makes it typical of not just the abortion rights community — Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and other reproductive health organizations had similarly been locked in knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations, most often breaking down along staff-versus-management lines. It’s also true of the progressive advocacy space across the board, which has, more or less, effectively ceased to function. The Sierra Club, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives, Human Rights Campaign, Time’s Up, the Sunrise Movement, and many other organizations have seen wrenching and debilitating turmoil in the past couple years.
In fact, it’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult. It even reached the National Audubon Society, as Politico reported in August 2021:
Following a botched diversity meeting, a highly critical employee survey and the resignations of two top diversity and inclusion officials, the 600,000-member National Audubon Society is confronting allegations that it maintains a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color, according to interviews with 13 current and former staff members.
Twitter, as the saying goes, may not be real life, but in a world of remote work, Slack very much is. And Twitter, Slack, Zoom, and the office space, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former executive directors of advocacy organizations, are now mixing in a way that is no longer able to be ignored by a progressive movement that wants organizations to be able to function. The executive directors largely spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of angering staff or donors.
“To be honest with you, this is the biggest problem on the left over the last six years,” one concluded. “This is so big. And it’s like abuse in the family — it’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. And you have to be super sensitive about who the messengers are.”
For a number of obvious and intersecting reasons — my race, gender, and generation — I am not the perfect messenger. But here it goes anyway.
Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
For progressive movement organizations, 2021 promised to be the year they turned power into policy, with a Democratic trifecta and the Biden administration broadcasting a bold vision of “transformational change.” Out of the gate, Democrats pushed ahead with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, funding everything from expanded health care to a new monthly child tax credit. Republican efforts to slow-walk the process with disingenuous counteroffers were simply dismissed.
And then, sometime in the summer, the forward momentum stalled, and many of the progressive gains lapsed or were reversed. Instead of fueling a groundswell of public support to reinvigorate the party’s ambitious agenda, most of the foundation-backed organizations that make up the backbone of the party’s ideological infrastructure were still spending their time locked in virtual retreats, Slack wars, and healing sessions, grappling with tensions over hierarchy, patriarchy, race, gender, and power.
“So much energy has been devoted to the internal strife and internal bullshit that it’s had a real impact on the ability for groups to deliver,” said one organization leader who departed his position. “It’s been huge, particularly over the last year and a half or so, the ability for groups to focus on their mission, whether it’s reproductive justice, or jobs, or fighting climate change.”
“My last nine months, I was spending 90 to 95 percent of my time on internal strife.”
This is, of course, a caricature of the left: that socialists and communists spend more time in meetings and fighting with each other than changing the world. But in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election, and then Joe Biden’s, it has become nearly all-consuming for some organizations, spreading beyond subcultures of the left and into major liberal institutions. “My last nine months, I was spending 90 to 95 percent of my time on internal strife. Whereas [before] that would have been 25-30 percent tops,” the former executive director said. He added that the same portion of his deputies’ time was similarly spent on internal reckonings.
“Most people thought that their worst critics were their competitors, and they’re finding out that their worst critics are on their own payroll,” said Loretta Ross, an author and activist who has been prominent in the movement for decades, having founded the reproductive justice collective SisterSong.
“We’re dealing with a workforce that’s becoming younger, more female, more people of color, more politically woke — I hate to use that term in a way it shouldn’t be used — and less loyal in the traditional way to a job, because the whole economic rationale for keeping a job or having a job has changed.” That lack of loyalty is not the fault of employees, Ross said, but was foisted on them by a precarious economy that broke the professional-social contract. That has left workers with less patience for inequities in the workplace.
“All my ED [executive director] friends, everybody’s going through some shit, nobody’s immune,” said one who has yet to depart.
One senior progressive congressional staffer said that when groups don’t disappear entirely to deal with internal strife, the discord is still noticeable on the other end. “I’ve noticed a real erosion of the number of groups who are effective at leveraging progressive power in Congress. Some of that is these groups have these organizational culture things that are affecting them,” the staffer said. “Because of the organizational culture of some of the real movement groups that have lots of chapters, what they’re lobbying on isn’t relevant to the actual fights in Congress. Some of these groups are in Overton mode when we have a trifecta.”
The idea, in theory, is that pushing their public policy demands further and further left widens the so-called Overton window of what’s considered possible, thereby facilitating the future passage of ambitious legislation. Those maximalist political demands can also be a byproduct of internal strife, as organization leaders fend off charges of not internally embodying progressive values by pushing external rhetoric further left.
“There are wins to be had between now and the next couple months that could change the country forever, and folks are focused on stuff that has no theory of change for even getting to the House floor for a vote.”
But, the aide pointed out, there is legislative potential now. “There are wins to be had between now and the next couple months that could change the country forever, and folks are focused on stuff that has no theory of change for even getting to the House floor for a vote.”
“Sunrise is doing their Green New Deal pledge,” the aide continued, describing the Sunrise Movement-led effort to get elected officials and candidates to sign on to an ambitious climate commitment. “The climate bill is still on the table. … There’s a universe where people are on the outside, focused on power and leveraging power for progressives in Congress. Instead, they’re spending resources on stuff that is totally unrelated to governing. Nobody says, ‘Hey guys, could you maybe come and maybe focus on this?’”
The silence stems partly, one senior leader in an organization said, from a fear of feeding right-wing trolls who are working to undermine the left. Adopting their language and framing feels like surrendering to malign forces, but ignoring it has only allowed the issues to fester. “The right has labeled it ‘cancel culture’ or ‘callout culture,’” he said, “so when we talk about our own movement, it’s hard because we’re using the frame of the right. It’s very hard because there’s all these associations and analysis that we disagree with, when we’re using their frame. So it’s like, ‘How do we talk about it?’”
For years, recruiting young people into the movement felt like a win-win, he said: new energy for the movement and the chance to give a person a lease on a newly liberated life, dedicated to the pursuit of justice. But that’s no longer the case. “I got to a point like three years ago where I had a crisis of faith, like, I don’t even know, most of these spaces on the left are just not — they’re not healthy. Like all these people are just not — they’re not doing well,” he said. “The dynamic, the toxic dynamic of whatever you want to call it — callout culture, cancel culture, whatever — is creating this really intense thing, and no one is able to acknowledge it, no one’s able to talk about it, no one’s able to say how bad it is.”
The environment has pushed expectations far beyond what workplaces previously offered to employees. “A lot of staff that work for me, they expect the organization to be all the things: a movement, OK, get out the vote, OK, healing, OK, take care of you when you’re sick, OK. It’s all the things,” said one executive director. “Can you get your love and healing at home, please? But I can’t say that, they would crucify me.”
Photo: Michael Brochstein/LightRocket via Getty Images
What’s driving the upheaval can’t be disentangled from the broader cultural debates about speech, power, race, sexuality, and gender that have shaken institutions in recent years. Netflix, for instance, made news recently by laying off 290 staffers — a move described by the tabloid press as targeting the “wokest” workers — in the midst of roiling tensions at the streaming company.
“It’s not just the nonprofit world, though, so let’s be clear,” said Ross. “I started a for-profit consulting firm last year with three other partners, because every C-suite that’s trying to be progressive is undergoing the same kind of callout culture. And so it’s happening societywide.” Business, she said, is booming, but the implications have been especially pronounced within progressive institutions, given their explicit embrace of progressive values.
Sooner or later, each interview for this story landed on the election of Trump in 2016 as a catalyst. Whatever internal tension had been pulling at the seams of organizations in the years prior, Trump’s shock victory sharpened the focus of activists and regular people alike. The institutional progressive world based in Washington, D.C., reacted slowly, shell-shocked and unsure of its place, but people outside those institutions raced ahead of them. A period of mourning turned into fierce determination to resist. Spontaneous women’s marches were called in scores of cities, drawing as many as 5 million people, a shocking display of force. (Their collapse in a heap of identitarian recriminations is its own parable for this moment.)
New grassroots organizations like Indivisible sprang up, and old ones were rejuvenated with new volunteers and hundreds of millions of dollars from small donors across the country. The ACLU alone collected almost $1 million within 24 hours of Trump’s election and tens of millions more over the next year. Airports were flooded with protesters when Trump announced his so-called Muslim ban. Fueled by that anger, Democrats stormed back into control of the House in 2018, with a vibrant insurgent wing toppling the would-be speaker, Rep. Joe Crowley, and electing the most progressive freshman class ever.
After that election, incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez teamed with the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats to occupy House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s congressional office to demand a Green New Deal. The protest put the issue on the map, and soon nearly every Democratic candidate for president was embracing it. But it was one of the only examples over the past five years of an organized, intentional intervention into the political conversation, which otherwise has been relatively leaderless and without focus. Presidential campaigns, particularly those of Sen. Bernie Sanders for the left, and midterms provide a natural funnel for activist energy, but once they’re over, the demobilization comes quickly. That emptiness has been filled by infighting, and the fissures that are now engulfing everything in sight began to form early.
In August 2017, when a rising “alt-right” organized a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the ACLU went to court to defend the right to march on First Amendment grounds, as it had famously done for generations. When a right-wing demonstrator plowed his car into a crowd, he killed counterprotester Heather Heyer and wounded dozens of others.
Internally, staff at the ACLU, concentrated among the younger people there, condemned the decision to defend the rally. Veteran lawyers at the ACLU complained to the New York Times that the new generation “placed less value on free speech, making it uncomfortable for them to express views internally that diverged from progressive orthodoxy.”
Alejandro Agustín Ortiz, a lawyer with the organization’s racial justice project, told the Times that “a dogmatism descends sometimes.”
“You hesitate before you question a belief that is ascendant among your peer group,” he said.
National Legal Director David Cole stood by the decision to defend the rally in a New York Review of Books essay. “We protect the First Amendment not only because it is the lifeblood of democracy and an indispensable element of freedom, but because it is the guarantor of civil society itself,” he wrote.
Around 200 staff members responded with a letter slamming the essay as “‘oblivious’ to the ACLU’s institutional racism,” the New York Times reported, noting that 12 of the organization’s top 21 leaders were Black, Latino, or Asian and 14 were women.
Under pressure, the ACLU said it would dial back its defense of free speech. Wrote the Times: “Revulsion swelled within the A.C.L.U., and many assailed its executive director, Anthony Romero, and legal director, Mr. Cole, as privileged and clueless. The A.C.L.U. unfurled new guidelines that suggested lawyers should balance taking a free speech case representing right-wing groups whose ‘values are contrary to our values’ against the potential such a case might give ‘offense to marginalized groups.’”
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, speaks at a conference at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images
An internal dispute over the organization’s absolutist commitment to free speech is to be expected after such a tragedy. But the conflict mushroomed; instead of finding common ground on the question, it became fodder for endless and sprawling internal microbattles.
The Times article on the ACLU infighting was published in September 2021, more than four years after the event that triggered it, and there’s no sign of the tensions easing. Such prolonged combat has become standard, whether the triggering event is a cataclysmic one like Charlottesville or more prosaic, like a retweet of an offensive joke by a Washington Post reporter. The initial event prompts a response from staff, which is met by management with a memo or a town hall; in either case, the meeting or the organizationwide message often produces its own cause for new offense, a self-reproducing cycle that sucks in more and more people within the organization, who have either been offended, accused of giving offense, or both, along with their colleagues who are required to pick a side.
At the ACLU, as at many organizations, the controversy quickly evolved to include charges that senior leaders were hostile to staff from marginalized communities. Each accusation is unique; some have obvious merit, while others don’t withstand scrutiny. What emerges by zooming out is the striking similarity of their trajectories. One foundation official who has funded many of the groups entangled in turmoil said that having a panoramic view allowed her to see those common threads. “It’s the kind of thing that looks very context-specific, until you see a larger pattern,” she said.
Things get very ugly, she noted, and the overlapping crises of Trump, Covid, and looming climate collapse have produced extreme anxiety. Under siege, many leaders cling more tightly to their hold on power, she said, “taking shelter in professional nonprofit spaces because they think clinging to a sinking ship and hanging on as long and strongly as possible is the best bet they can make for their own personal survival.”
Three years of post-Trump tensions crashed head-on into a pandemic lockdown and the uprising following the police murder of Floyd.
Progressive organizations convened meetings to work through their response, and, like at Guttmacher, many of them left staff extremely unsatisfied. A looming sense of powerlessness on the left nudged the focus away from structural or wide-reaching change, which felt out of reach, and replaced it with an internal target that was more achievable. “Maybe I can’t end racism by myself, but I can get my manager fired, or I can get so and so removed, or I can hold somebody accountable,” one former executive director said. “People found power where they could, and often that’s where you work, sometimes where you live, or where you study, but someplace close to home.”
Too much hype about what was possible electorally also played a role, said another leader. “Unrealistic expectations about what could be achieved through the electoral and legislative process has led us to give up on persuasion and believe convenient myths that we can change everything by ‘mobilizing’ a mythological ‘base,’” he said. “This has led to navel-gazing and constant rehashing of internal culture debates, because the progressive movement is no longer convinced it can have an impact on the external world.”
Things were also tense because of Covid. Jonathan Smucker is the author of the book “Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals” and trains and advises activists across the movement spectrum. After the pandemic forced people into quarantine in March 2020, he noted, many workplaces turned into pressure cookers. “COVID has severely limited in-person tactical options, and in-person face-to-face activities are absolutely vital to volunteer-driven efforts,” he wrote to The Intercept. “Without these spaces, staff are more likely to become insular – a tendency that’s hard enough to combat even without this shift. Moreover, the virtual environment (zoom meetings) may be convenient for all kinds of reasons, but it’s a pretty lousy medium once there’s conflict in an organization. In-person face-to-face time, in my experience, is irreplaceable when it comes to moving constructively through conflict. I know this is not the full picture and probably not even the root of these problems or conflicts, but it’s almost certainly exacerbating them.”
The histories of the organizations were scoured for evidence of white supremacy, and nobody had to look very hard. The founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, was posthumously rebuked for her dalliance with eugenics, and her name was stripped in July 2020 from the headquarters of its New York affiliate. (In 2011, I won a “Planned Parenthood Maggie Award for Online Reporting,” which I still have.)
At the Sierra Club, then-Executive Director Michael Brune published a statement headlined “Pulling Down Our Monuments,” calling out founder John Muir for his association with eugenicists. “Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life,” Brune wrote that July, adding:
For all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, I am deeply sorry. I know that apologies are empty unless accompanied by a commitment to change. I am making that commitment, publicly, right now. And I invite you to hold me and other Sierra Club leaders, staff, and volunteers accountable whenever we don’t live up to our commitment to becoming an actively anti-racist organization.
Brune came to the Sierra Club, the environmental group founded in 1892, from Greenpeace and the anarchist-influenced Rainforest Action Network in 2010. He was considered at the time a radical choice to run the staid organization. Brune didn’t last the summer.
The progressive congressional aide said the Sierra Club infighting that led to his departure was evident from the outside. “It caused so much internal churn that they stopped being engaged in any serious way at a really critical moment during Build Back Better,” the aide said.
Then the Sierra Club’s structure, which has relied on thousands of volunteers, many empowered with significant responsibility, also came under scrutiny after a volunteer was accused of rape. The consulting firm Ramona Strategies was brought in for an extensive “restorative accountability process” that The Intercept described last summer as an “internal reckoning around race, gender, and sexual as well as other abuse allegations.”
“Being a ‘volunteer-led’ organization cannot stand for volunteers having carte blanche to ignore legal requirements or organizational values around equity and inclusivity — or basic human decency,” the consultant’s report stated. “All employees should be managed by and subject to the oversight of individuals also under the organization’s clear control and direction as employees. There is no other way we can see.”
The recommendation was the logical dead-end point of the inward focus. Having only employees and no volunteers — or, in the case of Everytown for Gun Safety, asking volunteers to sign nondisclosure agreements — would render moot the structure of most major movement groups, such as Indivisible, Sunrise, MoveOn, the NAACP, and so on.
The reckoning was in many ways long overdue, forcing organizations to deal with persistent problems of inclusion, equity, and poor management. “Progressive organizations are run like shit,” acknowledged one executive director, arguing that the movement puts emphasis on leadership — more often called “servant leadership” now — but not enough on basic management. “I have all the degrees, but I don’t have a management degree.”
In the long term, the organizations may become better versions of themselves while finally living the values they’ve long fought for. In the short term, the battles between staff and organizational leadership have effectively sidelined major progressive institutions at a critical moment in U.S. and world history. “We used to want to make the world a better place,” said one leader of a progressive organization. “Now we just make our organizations more miserable to work at.”
Photo: Dennis Caruso/NY Daily News via Getty Images
Theorists have developed sophisticated ways to understand how political movements evolve over time. Bill Moyer, a former organizer with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign who went on to lead the anti-nuclear movement, famously documented eight stages in his “Movement Action Plan.” (Others have subsequently simplified it to four seasons that roughly map to the same waves.)
Stage one he called normal times, the period before the public is paying much attention to an issue, while only a few activists are working to develop solutions and tactics. Stage two is failure of institutions, as the public and activists more generally become aware of a problem and the need for change. This is early spring, which then evolves into stage three, ripening conditions. To take the civil rights movement as an example, Brown v. Board of Education helped ripen conditions, as did a rising Black college student population after World War II and the return of Black veterans from the war more generally, along with a surge in anti-colonial freedom struggles across Africa. The conditions are set.
Next comes a trigger event that shocks the conscience of the public, allowing the movement activists who’ve been at work on an issue to seize the moment, creating stage four, when social movements really take off. Rosa Parks was by no means the first Black woman arrested for refusing to go to the back of the bus, nor was Trayvon Martin the first Black teen to be shot by a vigilante, nor was Michael Brown the first Black teen to be killed by a police officer. But the events came at a time when the public was primed to see them as symptomatic of a broader social ill that needed to be confronted. Springtime for social movements is a time of great promise, optimism, and surging momentum, when the previously unthinkable comes within grasp. In 1957, Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction.
But before it passed the Senate, it was stripped of its enforcement mechanisms, leaving much of the South still ruled by Jim Crow, helping produce the fifth stage, in which activists confront powerful obstacles and despair sets in. “After a year or two, the high hopes of movement take-off seems inevitably to turn into despair,” Moyer wrote. “Most activists lose their faith that success is just around the corner and come to believe that it is never going to happen. They perceive that the powerholders are too strong, their movement has failed, and their own efforts have been futile. Most surprising is the fact that this identity crisis of powerlessness and failure happens when the movement is outrageously successful—when the movement has just achieved all of the goals of the take-off stage within two years.”
Stage five happens coincidentally — and paradoxically — with stage six: majority public support. This is the period of time during which the movement has won over the public, with surveys showing two-thirds or more of the public siding with it on its question. Some elements of the movement adapt to this new environment and craft strategy to lock in gains, while other elements misread the moment and continue fighting as insurgents and outsiders.
This is the summer and fall period for a movement, followed inevitably by winter. Moyer calls stage seven success and stage eight “continuing the struggle,” but activists have wildly different ideas about the meaning of success, with most seeing nothing but failure, even as they might acknowledge that, say, life was far more free for a Black American in 1977 than 1957.
Where does that put us today? The period since Occupy Wall Street represents the single largest mass mobilization since the 1960s and encompassed the Movement for Black Lives; the Women’s March, #MeToo, and the broader resistance to the Trump administration; climate activism, the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline and for the Green New Deal; Sandy Hook, Parkland, and March for Our Lives; the presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020 of Sanders, topped off by global mass protests in the wake of the murder of Floyd.
Demonstrators protest the murder of George Floyd in Barcelona, Spain, on June 7, 2020.
Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
But summer has turned to fall. Or is it winter? The seizing of a trifecta in Washington by Democrats has coincided with a mass social movement demobilization. Those activated by Trump have stepped back. Democratic leaders spent more energy attacking the phrase “defund the police” than they invested in police reform, which died in the Senate without a vote. Johnny Depp rode the backlash to a $15 million defamation verdict.
In moments of political winter, turning inward or simply stepping out of the movement is common. The year 1968 saw an explosion of activism, capping more than a decade of progress that had been made in fits and starts. The Civil Rights Act of 1968, known as the Fair Housing Act, was signed into law during the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into a police riot, and protests against the Vietnam War surged. The November election of Richard Nixon as president shifted the landscape. Demonstrations against the war continued, but they were never as large as those in the mid-’60s and included more radical elements advocating violent insurrection, further self-marginalizing. In 1969, a faction of activists took over Students for a Democratic Society, shut it down, and launched the Weather Underground in its place, declaring war on the United States and carrying out multiple attacks. The “back-to-the-land” movement saw young people dropping out of society and joining communes. The Black Panther Party was crushed and collapsed.
Mark Rudd, an early member of SDS, helped convert it to the Weather Underground, a role he now regrets. “After the war was over, a lot of the left went on a complete and total dead end,” he said. “We don’t want power. We’re allergic to it. It’s not in our DNA. We don’t like coercion. We don’t like hegemony.”
Winning power requires working in coalition with people who, by definition, do not agree with you on everything; otherwise they’d be part of your organization and not a separate organization working with you in coalition. Winning power requires unity in the face of a greater opposition, which runs counter to a desire to live a just life in each moment.
“People want justice, and they want their pain acknowledged,” Rudd said. “But on the other hand, if acknowledging their pain causes organizations to die, or erodes the solidarity and the coalition-building that’s needed for power, it’s probably not a good thing. In other words, it can lead to the opposite, more power for the fascists.”
Rudd spent seven years as a fugitive after the Weather Underground began to fall apart and later served a prison sentence. (“I was a total nutcase,” he said of his previous politics.) He has since returned to activism, but no amount of history in the movement can immunize anyone from a callout. Asked about the turmoil engulfing left-wing organizations, he said he had personal experience. “I have myself encountered it multiple times in the last years. And in fact, I was thrown out of an organization that I founded because of my ‘racism,’” he said. “What was my racism? When I tell people things that they didn’t want to hear,” he added, saying the disputes were over things like criticism he leveled at a young, nonwhite activist around the organizing of a demonstration. “I mean, it’s normal. It’s what’s happening everywhere.”
What’s new is that it’s now happening everywhere, whereas in previous decades it had yet to migrate out of more radical spaces. “We used to call it ‘trashing,’” said Ross, the reproductive justice activist. The 1970s were a brutal period in activist spaces, documented most famously in a 1976 Ms. Magazine article and a subsequent book by feminist Jo Freeman, both called “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood.” “What is ‘trashing,’” she asks, “this colloquial term that expresses so much, yet explains so little?”
It is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.
Ross, a Smith College professor who helped coin both the terms “reproductive justice” and, in 1977, “women of color,” said that she often hears from people skeptical of her critique of callout culture. “The No. 1 thing people fear is that I’m giving a pass to white people to continue to be racist,” she said. “Most Black people say, ‘I am not ready to call in the racist white boy, I just ain’t gonna do it.’ They think it’s a kindness lesson or a civility lesson, when it’s really an organizing lesson that we’re offering, because if someone knows if someone has made a mistake, and they know they’re going to face a firing squad for having made that mistake, they’re not gonna wanna come to you and be accountable to you. It is not gonna happen that way. And so the whole callout culture contradicts itself because it thwarts its own goal.”
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
The tired online debate over the question of cancel culture has been spinning for years. The question of its existence, however, has become a luxury reserved only for commentators not involved with any organization pursuing social justice. For those actively involved in the collective pursuit of a better world, the question is what to do about it, how to channel it toward its original end. “We must learn to do this before there is no one left to call out, or call we, or call us,” wrote adrienne maree brown, a veteran activist in the harm reduction and abolition space, in an influential 2020 essay. The collapse of progressive institutions is forcing a question most in the movement would rather avoid answering.
It’s become hard to hire leaders of unmanageable organizations. A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that nonprofits were having an extraordinarily hard time finding new leaders amid unprecedented levels of departures among senior officials. “We’ve been around for 26 years, and I haven’t seen anything like this,” Gayle Brandel, CEO of PNP Staffing Group, a nonprofit executive search firm, told the trade publication, explaining the difficulty in finding executives to fill the vacancies.
“The protests for racial equity in 2020 also changed many groups’ and employees’ perspectives and expectations,” the Chronicle reported. “In some ways, it’s an incredibly healthy response to both an opportunity and a set of challenges,” Dan Cardinali, the outgoing CEO of Independent Sector, told the publication. “It is disruptive and, in the short term, inefficient. In the middle and long term, I’m hopeful that it will be actually a profound accelerator in our ability to be a force for the common good, for a thriving and healthy country.”
Executive directors across the space said they too have tried to organize their hiring process to filter out the most disruptive potential staff. “I’m now at a point where the first thing I wonder about a job applicant is, ‘How likely is this person to blow up my organization from the inside?’” said one, echoing a refrain heard repeatedly during interviews for this story. (One executive director noted that their group’s high-profile association with a figure considered in social justice spaces to be problematic had gone from a burden to a boon, as the man now serves as an accidental screen, filtering out activists who’d be most likely to focus their energy on internal fights rather than the organization’s mission.)
“Everyone is scared, and fear creates the inaction that the right wing needs to succeed in cementing a deeply unpopular agenda.”
Another leader said the strife has become so destructive that it feels like an op. “I’m not saying it’s a right-wing plot, because we are incredibly good at doing ourselves in, but — if you tried — you couldn’t conceive of a better right-wing plot to paralyze progressive leaders by catalyzing the existing culture where internal turmoil and microcampaigns are mistaken for strategic advancement of social impact for the millions of people depending on these organizations to stave off the crushing injustices coming our way,” said another longtime organization head. “Progressive leaders cannot do anything but fight inside the orgs, thereby rendering the orgs completely toothless for the external battles in play. … Everyone is scared, and fear creates the inaction that the right wing needs to succeed in cementing a deeply unpopular agenda.”
During the 2020 presidential campaign, as entry-level staffers for Sanders repeatedly agitated over internal dynamics, despite having already formed a staff union, the senator issued a directive to his campaign leadership: “Stop hiring activists.” Instead, Sanders implored, according to multiple campaign sources, the campaign should focus on bringing on people interested first and foremost in doing the job they’re hired to do.
There are obvious difficulties for the leadership of progressive organizations when it comes to pushing back against staff insurrections. The insurrections are done in the name of justice, and there are very real injustices at these organizations that need to be grappled with. Failing to give voice to that reality can leave the impression that group leaders are only interested in papering over internal problems and trying to hide their own failings behind the mission of the organization. And in an atmosphere of distrust, the worst intentions are assumed. Critics of this article will claim that its intention is to tell workers to sit down and shut up and suck up whatever indignities are doled out in the name of progress.
The reckoning has coincided with an awakened and belated appreciation for diversity in the upper ranks of progressive organizations. The mid-2010s saw an influx of women into top roles for the first time, many of them white, followed more recently by a slew of Black and brown leaders at most major organizations. One compared the collision of the belated respect for Black leaders and the upswell of turmoil inside institutions with the “hollow prize” thesis. The most common example of the hollow prize is the victory in the 1970s and ’80s of Black mayors across the country, just as cities were being hollowed out and disempowered. Or, for instance, salaries in the medical field collapsed just as women began graduating into the field.
“I just got the keys and y’all are gonna come after me on this shit?” one executive direct who said he felt like a version of those ’70s-era mayors told The Intercept. “‘It’s white supremacy culture! It’s urgent!’ No motherfucker, it’s Election Day. We can’t move that day. Just do your job or go somewhere else.”
Being Black has by no means shielded executive directors or their deputies from charges of facilitating white supremacy culture. “It’s hard to have a conversation about performance,” said the manager. “I’m as woke as they come, but they’ll say, ‘He’s Black, but he’s anti-Black because he fired these Black people.’” The solution, he said: “I buy them to leave, I just pay them to leave.”
Inner turmoil can often begin, the managers said, with performance-based disputes that spiral into moral questions. “I also see a pattern of … people who are not competent in their orgs getting ahead of the game by declaring that others have engaged in some kind of -ism, thereby triggering a process that protects them in that job while there’s an investigation or turmoil over it,” the foundation official added. Such disputes then trigger broader cultural conversations, with battle lines being drawn on each side.
The same is true on campaigns. Dianne Morales, a woman of color, saw her New York mayoral campaign blown up by a staff uprising, which included complaints of mistreatment, misogyny, and racism as well as a demand that workers be paid while on strike, which Morales noted was illegal given the campaign’s use of public financing. In other cases, mostly white staff have approached local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America to level complaints against candidates they worked or had worked for, including Ihssane Leckey, a Muslim immigrant from Morocco running for a congressional seat outside Boston; Brandy Brooks, a Black woman running for Montgomery County Council in Maryland; and Shahid Buttar, an Ahmadiyya Muslim immigrant running for Congress in San Francisco. When the chapters move to unendorse, citing toxicity inside the workplace, the campaigns are crippled.
The reliance of so many organizations on foundation funding rather than member donations is central to the upheavals the groups have seen in recent years, one group leader said, because the groups aren’t accountable to the public for failing to accomplish anything, as long as the foundation flows continue. “Unlike labor unions, church groups, membership organizations, or even business lobbies, large foundations and grant-funded nonprofits aren’t accountable to the people whose interests they claim to represent and have no concrete incentive to win elections or secure policy gains,” they said. “The fundamental disconnect of organizations to the communities they purport to serve has led to endless ‘strategic refreshes’ and ‘organizational resets’ that have even further disconnected movements from the actual goals.”
Beyond not producing incentives to function, foundations generally exacerbate the internal turmoil by reflexively siding with staff uprisings and encouraging endless concessions, said multiple executive directors who rely on foundation support. “It happens every time,” said one. “They’re afraid of their own staffs.”
Organizations that start out by making significant concessions to staff often get run over in short order, said multiple organization heads who watched the process unfold. “You see it on the micro scale too,” said one former executive director who plans to hunker down in the world of consulting for the next several years, “like when there’s an individual manager who gives up her or his power and just goes belly up and says, ‘Oh, yes, I have to apologize for thousands of years of oppression and I will never be able to make it up to you, but I will try.’ People will just roll all over them.”
Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP
The pendulum may be swinging back. “I have been a part of a bunch of conversations among progressives who have documented the pain that all the progressive groups are under. And there has been some organizing to push back against that,” said one former group leader, saying that a letter — akin to the “Harper’s letter” — was being drafted and organized, “documenting how people are using race or gender, or some combination of issues, as weapons and using it to distract from the mission of many organizations or to fight internal battles, the kind of stuff that you’ve seen, while legitimizing the work that needs to be done in different institutions and across society on race and gender.”
“They don’t think what we’ve been doing for decades has worked. Wanting to burn it down is not irrational.”
The pushback against callout culture, which might be surprising on a surface level, is bubbling up in Black movement spaces. “In the movement for Black lives, there is a lot of the top leaders saying, ‘This is out of control. No one can be a leader in this culture. It’s not sustainable. We’re constantly being called out from the bottom,’” said one white movement leader who works closely with Black Lives Matter leaders. “Nowadays, there’s an open conversation — not open, there is a large conversation — about the problems of this, and it’s being led by people within the movement for Black lives,” he said. “We didn’t have that three years ago, and if we did, they were a minority and were totally isolated. Now it’s so bad that there’s now a growing backlash within our own movements.”
Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, called the phenomenon out in the book “How We Fight White Supremacy,” writing, “People don’t understand that organizing isn’t going online and cussing people out or going to a protest and calling something out.”
adrienne maree brown, an author and the former executive director of the radical direct action-oriented group the Ruckus Society, penned the widely read essay “unthinkable thoughts: call out culture in the age of covid-19” in July 2020. She raised the provocative question of whether collectively we as a people still have a will to fight, or even to live. Indeed, oftentimes, according to multiple group leaders, when they have warned staff that the endless turmoil is destroying their organization, the argument doesn’t land. “They don’t think what we’ve been doing for decades has worked,” said one. “Wanting to burn it down is not irrational.” Brown’s essay is a plea to live again, to care again about the movement as a whole. Capitalization and bold in the original:
the kind of callouts we are currently engaging in do not necessarily think about movements’ needs as a whole. movements need to grow and deepen, we need to ‘transform ourselves to transform the world’*, to ‘be transformed in the service of the work’**. movements need to become the practice ground for what we are healing towards, co-creating. movements are responsible for embodying what we are inviting our people into. we need the people within our movements, all socialized into and by unjust systems, to be on liberation paths. not already free, but practicing freedom every day. not already beyond harm, but accountable for doing our individual and internal work to end harm, which includes actively working to gain awareness of the ways we can and have harmed each other, and ending those cycles in ourselves and our communities.
knee jerk call outs say: those who cause harm cannot change. they must be eradicated. the bad things in the world cannot change, we must disappear the bad until there is only good left.
but one layer under that, what i hear is:
we cannot change.
we do not believe we can create compelling pathways from being harm doers to being healed, to growing.
we do not believe we can hold the complexity of a gray situation.
we do not believe in our own complexity.
we can only handle binary thinking: good/bad, innocent/guilty, angel/abuser, black/white, etc.
it is a different kind of suicide, to attack one part of ourselves at a time. cancer does this, i have seen it – oh it’s in the throat, now it’s in the lungs, now it’s in the bones. when we engage in knee jerk call outs and instant consequences with no process, we become a cancer unto ourselves, unto movements and communities. we become the toxicity we long to heal. we become a tool of harm when we are trying to be, and i think meant to be, a balm.
we must learn to do this before there is no one left to call out, or call we, or call us.
Ross, in an essay for the New York Times, ends with a call for grace, pointing to the suppressed nature of the conversation. “Why are lifelong liberals at universities, newspapers and publishing houses constantly whispering under their breath about the rank Maoism of their younger colleagues?” she asks.
“I say to people today, as a survivor of COINTELPRO,” she told me, referring to the FBI scheme to infiltrate and disrupt leftist movements by sowing internal dissension, “if you’re more wedded to destabilizing an organization than unifying it, part of me is gonna think you’re naïve, and the other part of me is gonna think you’re a plant. And neither one of those is going to look good on you.”
In early June 2021, at the height of the battle over the climate provisions in Build Back Better, Fox News went for one such jiujitsu move, running a story headlined “Left-wing climate group Sunrise Movement torn by internal division.”
The creative director at the left-wing Sunrise Movement claimed Tuesday that he was fired after accusing leadership of ignoring Black members’ demands, generating internal conflict within the group dedicated to youth activism against climate change.
Alex O’Keefe said he was terminated after sending a letter with demands from the “Sunrise Black Caucus” calling on Sunrise Movement to “publicly reckon with the movement-wide crisis we are in [and] dismantle our white, owning-class culture.”
Sunrise has had its share of internal crises, but this one didn’t pan out the way Fox News had hoped. Varshini Prakash, the group’s co-founder, quickly responded to O’Keefe on Twitter:
Alex, I love you and you’ve done incredible work for our movement, but this isn’t what happened.
You haven’t shown up for work in months. Multiple friends and colleagues reached out repeatedly to figure out when you were coming back, and you didn’t engage.
In a movement powered by so many volunteers, we take really seriously the responsibility of being a paid staff member.
I’m not going to say anything else publicly, but I’m always here if you decide you want to talk.
Key to the organization’s ability to move forward, though, was what happened next. The organization’s Black staff unanimously agreed to put out a public statement squashing the situation.
Callouts have always been and will always be a part of any healthy culture. It’s how the community responds to the callout that answers the question of whether it can continue to be a community. If every callout leads a mob to shoot first and ask questions later, we get what we have today. If the callout is examined soberly and judiciously, only those with merit get a hearing.
“When people do this callout stuff, one of the regulatory forces is people around them that they care about saying, ‘Dude, don’t blow this shit up.’ They can’t get that from the front of the room, they can’t get that from the authority in the room. They have to get it through the people that they care about,” said a leading organizer. “The best thing is just saying well, you need to be an organization, and organizations naturally have rank and authority that is respected. It has to function. So you’re leaning on the regulatory forces that are already inherent in community and in organization to limit the opportunity of people to act that stuff out in certain environments.”
If every callout leads a mob to shoot first and ask questions later, we get what we have today. If the callout is examined soberly and judiciously, only those with merit get a hearing.
Priming those regulatory forces requires confident management, backed up by supportive funders, aligned with at least a faction of the staff. “Clarity and strength on both sides seems to work the best. So clarity and strength in saying, yeah, this institution or this movement, or across society, we have work to be done on racial justice, gender justice, economic justice, climate, and so on, and to try to not throw platitudes at that, but to be as specific and insightful as possible,” one former executive director said. “And then to say also: Here’s the mission of our organization, here’s what we’re doing at our institution, company, university, whatever, here’s what we’re focused on, and this — calling folks on whatever bullshit might be happening — is not what we’re doing. To be really clear about the work that needs to be done or the behaviors that are acceptable and not.”
When pressed, even those who were most optimistic about a potential resolution of the crisis acknowledged that the pushback is at best in its embryonic phase. The pendulum is still carrying a wrecking ball through the headquarters of Guttmacher. The post-Floyd probe was the second such investigation in recent years. In 2017, Guttmacher surveyed its state affiliates and found dissatisfaction with the nature of its legislative coalition, with particular complaints directed at its alliance with the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. In the wake of the deadly white nationalist march in Charlottesville, which the ACLU had defended ahead of time in court, progressive staff wanted distance from the organization, while Planned Parenthood was seen as a stand-in for what Prism derided as “white feminism.”
“There were questions about why the group was so abortion-focused and why reproductive justice organizations weren’t at the table,” one staffer recounted to Prism. “We were looking at abortion as a single issue and without making space for the handful of women of color in the room, let alone reproductive justice organizations.”
The resulting report, delivered in 2019, was based in part on extensive interviews with staff and managers, including a survey of 107 staffers, and found a “white dominant culture” that the organization pledged to diversify.
The notion that Guttmacher is too abortion-focused, and ought to be more inclusive of the reproductive justice movement, risks “mission drift,” Ross told The Intercept. “What are they talking about?”
“I would say that Guttmacher is a data collector, a research organization. They play that role very well, in my opinion. I’m not quite sure how Guttmacher could be more reproductive justice-focused,” she said. “Guttmacher’s great in the lane that it’s in.”
Different organizations, and different people, play different roles in the movement, she said, and people should be OK with that. “Guttmacher is good at detailing the biological factors around reproductive oppression,” Ross said. “I would not want Guttmacher to lose its ability to give me the researchable, quotable data that I need to do my activist work. So I don’t necessarily need them trying to redirect themselves into meeting whatever somebody else’s definition of reproductive justice is.”
On the morning of May 2, 2022, employees of Guttmacher announced on social media — Twitter, specifically — the result of an effort that had stretched back months: They had sent a letter to management urging voluntary recognition of a new union.
That very night, a story in Politico rocked the abortion rights world by revealing that the Supreme Court had decided to overturn Roe v. Wade, publishing a devastating draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by four others. It was the moment the reproductive justice movement had been anticipating for years, and protesters immediately flooded the steps of the Supreme Court.
The next morning, the staff, however, was back at work on its union drive, with its first post thanking the public for its support of the effort: “Seeing your messages, likes, follows, and retweets reaffirms our determination as we wait to hear from Guttmacher leadership.”
Reading the room, a follow-up post added that they were “still reeling from last night’s leaked draft of the #SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe,” expressing “solidarity with abortion workers.”
Throughout May, Guttmacher’s staff regularly updated the public on its battle with management over voluntary recognition. In mid-May, workers at the Groundswell Fund, one of the largest funders of reproductive justice organizations, announced that their five-month struggle with management over unionizing had resulted in voluntary recognition.