A few years ago, Manuel Pastor and his colleagues put out a report, Connecting at the Crossroads documenting the emergence and importance of alliances as a key movement building strategy. Today, the interest in alliances has expanded, and we see more high-profile alliances being forged between organizations. Looking back on this report, I’m struck that one of the five themes they used as the foundation for their research was “trust to transformation” – the idea that when groups create a culture of trust they move from “being disconnected social change organizations each with its own separate mission and agenda to becoming ‘social movement organizations’ connected through a shared vision and a commitment.” This foundation of trust really is a key part of what differentiates alliances from so many other (and necessary) formations.
The benefits of trust are usually obvious. Trust is a virtuous circle; as it deepens it reinforces the relationships between organizations. It allows groups to work together in more profound ways and enacts the adage the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Trust is often challenged by the imperative felt by leaders: organizational survival. After all, it is our duty, our job to make sure that our organizatons keep going and thrive. That usually means showing our unique contributions, distinguishing ourselves from others, making sure we demonstrate our effectiveness to make sure we are receiving the support we need. Social change nonprofits are thinking about the ways to succeed within our market place just like every other group, and we have similar constraints – figuring out new revenue sources, raising money while getting the work done, selling our vision and showing our successes.
But those of us working for social justice know that real change takes a movement and that the tension between supporting the movement and keeping our organizations alive and thriving is one we live with all the time. Alliance building gives us a language about the necessity of trust, the building of relationships, and acting with the “we” in our minds. We know too that trust takes time to build, forms between individuals, and is often easier to talk about than enact. It means conversations about the dynamics of power and difference between us, and being willing both to listen and change. But it is also trust that pulls us through the second important part of alliance building: transformation.
Transformation is a word we use a lot in movement building but here it is explicitly related to power. We often start with our own personal transformations – as leaders and activists. But in the end it is the transformation of power that needs to be constantly in our vision and that paves the road ahead. Alliances provide a venue for the deep relationships that can lead to sharing of resources, people, approaches, and strategies that make it possible to make significant advances.
So trust, transformation… and power. They will guide us in our actions and strategies so we can start building the world we want.