As progressives, we have a huge job in front of us in the fight for economic justice. But our leaders are trying to do their work with one hand tied behind their backs. The better ones may often do quite well fighting with one hand; many cannot. The problem and solution are more obvious than they think: People become active in social-change movements because these movements speak to deep longings for meaning, recognition, relationship, and agency, as well as for economic survival and justice.
The civil rights movement demanded basic economic and political equality. But it also spoke to a hunger to be connected to something bigger than the self. The institution that provided the base of this movement, the black church, grew and thrived on its power to provide meaning and recognition in dozens of way to its members. It provided meaning, in part, through the intense spirituality of its congregations, but also because it was wedded to a vision of social justice; recognition was afforded through the extensive social life in and around church life. The four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 were on their way to give a performance, one of the many public ways that the church honored and recognized people in its community.
The women’s movement initially based itself on the relational power of small groups. Pay equity and glass ceilings were important, yes; but second-wave feminism argued that personal relationships, and the needs, pleasures, and suffering they embodied, should also form the basis of a political agenda.
The highest periods of member engagement in the life of a labor union occur when people feel a sense of agency in standing up to a boss or during the height of a campaign. As Cesar Chavez observed, “The picket line is the best place to train organizers. One day on the picket line is where a man makes his commitment. … The picket line is a beautiful thing because it makes a man more human.”
Survival needs aren’t always primary