Coalitions, at their best, ensure that we are stronger than the sum of our parts. If a coalition is defined as a set of distinct groups joining together for a shared goal, we might expect that this, by its nature, involves bridging. Indeed, to win, coalitions should be based on inclusion and belonging. And when done well, they should center bridging communities that had not previously come together in order to create a larger base of support.
But coalitional work is not in fact synonymous with bridging. And though coalitions should aim to bridge communities in ways that go beyond the immediate goals of the campaign, they are not always successful in doing so. A coalition without bridging would be one that is sustained only for the strategic purpose of leveraging collective power toward a particular goal that may either be won or lost. Once the campaign has reached its outcome, the different groups that formed the coalition would not continue to be an enduring, meaningful “we.” In contrast, where coalitions become instruments of bridging, it is because members form a longer-term investment in one another– and in one another’s futures–and develop an inclusive, cohesive notion of “we” that is consistent with bringing about belonging and greater social justice.
For organizations and coalitions, bridging can be a time-consuming process, but the benefits outweigh the early investment of time. After years of coalition building–from organizing the annual May 1st march and rally in Los Angeles to CHIRLA’s Statewide California Table for Immigration Reform–I have learned the value of working in coalition toward achieving not only a successful outcome, but also new sets of enduring relationships. This paper shares some of the challenges and questions that must be confronted in bridging across communities and organizations in coalitional work.
Building bridging relationships in coalitions can be complex, and often stretches organizations and communities out of their comfort zones. Each member is pressed to wrestle deeply with and answer these three questions:
(1) Who are we?
(2) Who do we become together?
(3) Who do we want to be moving forward?
These are questions that carry a lot of weight, and require honesty and vulnerability. They can strain us because most organizations have their own mission, culture, and identity in which we are comfortable, not to mention different agendas, perspectives, and tactics. These are all destabilized when working in coalition. But when we are able to work through them together, the result can propel us one step closer to belonging by creating a shared sense of struggle and political identity.
So how do we, in a large coalition where we might not please everyone, create genuine experiences of inclusion and belonging that ensure we all come to a point of working together as equals on common ground? First, addressing any tensions or elephants in the room through clear communication at the outset is critical. To this end, much time is spent on laying down our collective values and overarching goals to ensure that we can indeed work together within a clear agenda that outlines our shared objectives. Through this process, we become clear about who each of us are, down group or organizational lines.
Sometimes though, vision is what carries the day. This is another place where things can get complicated in a coalition.
It can be said that visionary ideas can–and often do–supersede political pragmatism. This is especially true in campaigns for transformative change. Vision creates political space. By presenting an image of where we’re going, it opens up a new possible future. But organizing is what makes that possibility a reality–or at least one step closer to that reality.
The work of visioning and organizing can often be carried out separately from one another, however. This can cause problems, because, while a vision can be a powerful spark, it must be cultivated by a broad base of support that is built on relational trust. This is why a process of trust-building and bridging is fundamental and cannot be skipped.
In fact, to get closer to making a transformative vision a reality, an organizational base of support must be an integral part of the development of that vision. We can have as many grasstops leaders or influencers as we want coming up with great ideas, but without the backbone of a base of support, a vision can become hollow and flat over time. When the vision is being crafted in coalition, this often happens across a collection of such leaders in a way that can be yet another step removed from the bases that the leaders represent. This distance can lead to missing an opportunity for a transformational shift in defining who we are and who we want to become together. Often, what we see play out in different movement spaces is the idea that leaders know better and can speak for an entire community. When it comes time to take action, if we have gone down this road, we may find ourselves alone without having brought more people into our larger “we”. This is why a foundation of trust is essential, and why the input and decisions of our base is critical.
In a coalition, the process of building trust takes time especially between organizations who have no history with one another, or who have completely different philosophies or political frameworks. A “large tent” approach can include organizations who may or may not work with one another effectively. For this reason, building trust is much more difficult than crafting a message and disseminating it through social media. Great ideas abound in our age of highspeed information technology, but their spread is often actually very thin in our collective discourse. With the rise of social media, people now have the capacity to subscribe to something without needing to be convinced or deeply integrating the ideas through ongoing conversation, debate or research for that matter. Those great ideas can appear to spread like wildfire in terms of “metrics,” but without a true influential base of support. The check on making the idea a reality again comes when it is time to take collective action.
This is where a political reality check becomes important. The sum of our parts consist of varying degrees of community engagement, influence, and power. When we look at the process of power mapping through the SCOPE model, we can place individual organizations in relation to other organizations to gauge political spheres of influence on decision makers. This is an important exercise as power mapping can help drive what is politically feasible and still leave room for a longer term vision as part of a continuum.
But in addition to our traditional power mapping, we should engage in frank, strategic discussions about how to bridge across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, ideology and other lines, both within our coalitions and outside of them. Forging consensus and trust, and bridging within a coalition requires us to engage in tough conversations about the different political stands, life experiences, and visions that may be at work. And beyond winning a particular issue or campaign, coalitions should be concerned about long-term narrative change strategies and organizing interventions that can affect the worldview of those we may consider “them”.
And is that not the goal? To create a world where we all belong? From vision to bridging to belonging, we cannot do it alone. Even organizationally, we cannot do it alone. Our parts may be unique, vary in size, and carry more or less influence, but together we can craft and co-construct great ideas that resonate deeply across our bases of support, and put them into practice to get us closer to belonging. I’m quite confident that we can get there together.
Photograph for this paper is by Molly Adams.