Support Constituencies

Dear All,

The question of organizing what might be described as “support” constituencies has come up along with how that may differ from organizing “primary” constituencies, terms that I find more useful than “privileged” and “oppressed” as these terms depend very much on perspective, especially when many of us might find ourselves “privileged” in some ways but “oppressed” in others.  See the questions below.

The first point to be clear about is that people in general organize more readily around injustice than around inconvenience. It was not the inconvenience of sitting in the back of the bus that prompted the Montgomery bus boycott, but the offense to the dignity of black bus riders of being consigned to the back of the bus. Workers organize far more readily in response to arbitrary treatment by management, favoritism, and discrimination  — getting less for a given job than someone else is getting for the same job — than low wages as such. “Moral economy’ research showed that peasant revolts in Europe were prompted not by inequality — that was a given — but a kind of “line” that was crossed with respect to basic dignity, even in those circumstance, that could no longer be tolerated. And people organized across England in the late 18th and early 19th century to end slavery because its practice, to which their countrymen were central as traders, shippers, and owners, because it stood in deep dissonance with their religious beliefs (many of them Quakers) about humanity, God, and their relationship.

Self-interest has always been a much more compelling argument for sustaining the status quo than for changing it simply because, by itself, and narrowly understood, it lacks the moral force to inspire the sacrifice, risk taking, and hope that setting out to change the status quo that “being David” requires. The preponderance of resources — and thus power — almost always stands opposed to change which is why greater commitment, courage, and resourcefulness is demanded of those who would challenge.

In fact organizing support constituencies has played an important role in most of the major social movements since the Anti-Slavery Movement documented so well in Adam Hochchild’s “Bury These Chains”. In the United States, Abolition was itself such a movement, interestingly intertwined, and in tension with, the early Women’s Movement, at times, aligned, and, at times, in deep divide. Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence counted on organizing public opinion in the UK (social scientist Kathryn Sikkink called this the “boomerang strategy), the South African struggle against Apartheid counted on a very strong divestment movement around the world, the Civil Rights Movement of the US counted on support in Northern cities, the Farm Worker movement could not have succeeded without organized boycotts of grapes across North America, etc. etc. etc. What most, if not all, of these example have in common is that they were organized in support of people who were themselves organizing, had, in most cases, called for the support, and, perhaps most importantly, played a strategic role in the struggle based on resources of the support constituency that would be used to maintain the status quo if they were not being used to change it. In other words, if consumer in Boston bought grapes, that sustained the status quo. If they didn’t, that helped to change it. And if they organized to get others to stop buying grapes as well, that changed it even more. But its not as if they were not involved in the first place. And that fact — the fact of involvement — is even clearer today than ever before — not as a “guilt” thing, but as a real opportunity to use one’s resources to create the power to make a difference.

So who’s in charge? Well, this can be tricky. Organized support constituencies at times may become confused as to just what the fight is about, whose agency is in the balance, and who makes decisions about what. But, I have to say, working that out goes with the territory and is part of a bigger challenge of negotiating relationships with allies, coalition partners, sand collaborators in general.

Insiders and outsiders? Well, that is one of the things I like about Moses – a man of the oppressed, raised in the house of the oppressor — conscious of the pain, aware of an alternative – and very confused by the tension at first, turning to rage, to judgement, and only after years of “work”, finding  a way to integrate them in successful leadership, and, even then, engaged in almost constant  struggle, learning, and adaptation. “Outsiders” working with “insiders” do well to understand the meaning of self-respect, respect for the other, listening, asking questions, learning, avoiding assumptions, being present. . . and, for that matter, the same goes for “insiders” working with “outsiders”. I don’t mean to make light of this. It is challenging to cross boundaries of power and powerlessness whether rooted in race, gender, religion, class, nationality, age, whatever, but it is not otherworldly and can be enormously creative. In fact, it is hard to find instances of social movements that were not, in some way, products of exactly such border crossing.

One more thing. When De Tocqueville wrote about “self-interest properly understood” he wasn’t talking about organizing but, rather, about how, in a democracy facing the threat of radical individualism, which was his major concern, a broader understanding of the “common interest”, which, in his French experience had been rooted in traditional institutions, could be arrived at. He saw civic associations as venues in which people could be drawn out of their narrow understanding of self-interest to a broader understanding as a result of the learning hat would grow out of relationships with others, consideration of common problems, etc. This makes a great deal of sense and the lack of such venues in the US is a major problem. But this is not the same thing as asking what moves people to organize to change the world, to fight for new understandings of dignity and what it means and who is entitled to it.  Venues of common deliberation are important for a healthy democracy, but so are the social movements that move it forward, drive it to take on new challenges, and adapt its institutions to a changing world.

I hope this helps.

Marshall Ganz


Key questions

  • How do you organize a constituency of privileged people to best support the work of historically oppressed communities?
  • How do you define a problem that an allied group is addressing and create a sense of urgency when the allied group is not directly affected by the issue?
  • What challenges do you need to be sensitive to?


General suggestions from the group on how best to organize allies

  • Help allies find a compelling personal interest in the issue beyond the idea that it is the “right thing to do” or a “moral issue”.
  • We should ask two questions:  “What is the problem? Why do you care?”  As allies, we have to understand how the problems/issue effects others directly, and then we must understand our personal connection to the issue.
  • Listen to the affected group and choose your course of action based on their best thinking and stated interests.
  • Build strong relationships so that the affected group trusts you enough as an outsider to actually tell you the truth about what they are facing.


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