Friday, January 15, 2010

Skills Building: Coalition Building as a Critical Tool

As organizers on campus, students often face a unique set of circumstances that can make it challenging to take on large-scale campaigns and efforts. Between funding shortages, small membership numbers, and balancing of work/school/extracurricular/sleep (ha) schedules, organizers find themselves spread thin. Sound familiar? Probably. All of these factors make taking on a large-scale campaign difficult, but there's a solution: coalition building.

Toward the end of my college career, I dove into a major coalition-based effort on my campus, and the experience forever changed my attitude toward activism. The added value brought to our initiatives (in my case, HIV prevention, treatment, and policy) by our feminist group working with a coalition of other organizations was incredible - and since then, I've been a big believer!

For the purposes of this post, I am going to run through some basic tips regarding coalition building, and then talk about a specific example of a coalition-appropriate initiative - Earth Day and Climate Change.

Some Basics:

1. The coalition has to fit the campaign, not the other way around. When approaching other groups that you would like to work in coalition with, it's important to be open to their ideas and input, but not at the expense of the campaign losing cohesion or wasting anybody's time working on a huge project that won't actually benefit them in the long run.

2. Partner buy-in. This is different than any old event you plan on your own and then ask other groups if you can use their logos on your flyer or if they can forward it to their listserve. Coalitions require DEPENDABLE participation by each member organization, and this can be very tricky. The best tip I've ever been given is to make it clear, up front, what is expected: each organization joining the coalition needs to bring one of the following to the mix: time (person-hours for planning & execution), people (to come out to your events or meetings), or money (to support your campaign's material needs). This may seem awfully abrupt, but it's best to lay it out up front. Preferably, everyone would have a little of each, but in reality, that's rarely the case. This way, groups with a lot of people but no money can participate. Groups with a lot of money but a full calendar of events to plan on their own can still chip in, and so forth.

3. Strength in numbers. If you're going to go to all the trouble to build a coalition, don't sell yourself short reaping the benefits. Some of the key advantages you need to be sure to avail yourself of are:
  • Money - coalitions as a whole can usually get far more monetary support than any individual actor could. Ask your student government for a special grant. It's easy for them to nickle and dime one organization, but a collective of 20 orgs will make it far more difficult - together, your organizations represent a LOT of students, and you shouldn't be afraid to remind them of it. Other sources of support to look into are community sponsors, inkind donations, or departmental grants.
  • Press - Same with money, it's really hard for your campus and local press to ignore such a big contingent of students. Put together a press release about what you're doing, and ask each member organization to ask among their members to see if anyone has any good connections you could take advantage of.
4. Give yourself time. Because there are so many more actors, you need more time to plan these efforts than you would if you were doing it by yourself. You'll need to put in the ask for special grants or support (see above) sooner rather than later, you'll want to have your key events put on every participating group's calendar so that they can plan their other activities around it. You need time to approach coalition partners and give them time to run the idea past their e-boards and membership. It will take time to get quotes for event spaces and the requests completed. If you're going to have a rally or demonstration, you'll need time for a permit. You need time to advertise. In short? You need time.

5. Leadership. This can be tricky, but the key to a successful coalition is coming up with a form of leadership that works for you. In my experience, one organization generally takes more of a leading role, which has a lot of pros and one really big con: that organization has to work really hard to give every partner a chance to be involved, while still getting things done. If that doesn't seem doable, you need to choose up front how decisions will be made and how people will be held accountable. Consensus? Majority rules? Subcommittees for each event? Lay it out there.

6. Diversity of both types of activity and perspectives involved is important. Because you're working in coalition, you can (and should) be doing things bigger and better than you would on your own. Plan a series of events culminating in something truly huge. Try for a week or month of action. Depending on your subject matter, you may need to start small and start building momentum by pulling more and more people in.

Case Study: Earth Day and Climate Change

To wrap up, Earth Day, which is April 22, is a perfect opportunity to pull together a coalition to work on Climate Change issues. You have enough time, if you start soon, and you have the benefit of a well known national day of action to work toward. Finally (and most importantly!), this is a subject that has a very broad appeal. Many groups on campus will likely have an interest in participating, so why not join forces and work smarter, not harder?

Some possible partners to reach out to are: your feminist/women's group, conservation initiatives, sustainability groups, fair trade orgs, progressive student unions, agricultural clubs, multicultural groups, global or international student groups, public health groups, and much, much more.

There's a lot of different types of activity that you could incorporate, which makes this a great topic. Because climate change is a global issue with local implications and causes, your work can include local, domestic, and international activities. There are direct actions, campus wide 'green' or sustainability efforts to initiate or strengthen, and relevant political initiatives to support. The breadth of possibility here gives it a lot of potential for coalition-based work, and leaves you with a lot to gain. Your organization will bolster its name on campus, you'll gain new members, and be able to magnify your impact greatly.

Some possible actions you could consider include a climate-change carnival, host a campus wide reduce/reuse/recycle campaign, host a teach-in on climate change and its disproportionate effects on various populations, do a film screening of Flow or a similar movie, host a bike-powered concert to promote alternative energy. Check out FMF's Women and Water Toolkit for some great action ideas to get you started.

So, go forth and build a coalition! It'll be a great experience that will truly breathe new life into your activism. Get in touch with us if you need anything, and we're happy to help!

Sources: FMF's Women and Climate Change Campaign, Sierra Club's Global Population and Environment Program, WEDO's Online Action Kit, Earth Day Network

This article was featured in our January 2010 monthly Choices eZine. Sign up for our alerts to stay up-to-date with the latest feminist news and to receive the monthly eZine.

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