ThesisPDF Available

Portraits of Women Leaders: Solidarity and Social Division in Progressive Social Movement Organizations

  • The Fruition Coalition

Abstract and Figures

Social divisions related to gender, class, race, age, lead to inequities in organizations and society. Women leaders face unique challenges in the workplace, even in progressive social movement organizations (SMOs) that work to ameliorate division. The literature demonstrates that progressive SMO leaders develop collective identity based on similarities and also address differences in their solidarity work. While explored theoretically, the ways that women engage both similarities and differences as they construct and experience solidarity remains underexamined empirically. Additionally, there are limited empirical studies about solidarity in the social movement and leadership literature. This portraiture study explored how women leaders within progressive SMOs iii engage social division vis-à-vis similarities and differences as they construct and experience solidarity. The study included six women leaders in one Mid-Atlantic city. Through semi-structured interviews, observation, document review, and a questionnaire, the participants in this study shared their perceptions and reflections related to the topic. The findings suggest that women SMO leaders construct, practice, and interpret their experiences of solidarity in diverse but complementary ways. The actors in this study emphasized relationships, interconnectedness, inclusion, and engaging both similarities and differences in their solidarity work while resisting the concept and practice of unity as well as hierarchy. The ways that the women in this study engage social division in their solidarity work can be summarized in five leadership practices: 1) recognizing and appreciating differences, 2) seeking connections and commonalities; 3) convening people; 4) using power and privilege; and 5) working through conflict. These findings have several implications for practice and scholarship. Solidarity can be constructed and investigated as a non-binary, dynamic, and context-responsive phenomenon. Furthermore, women leaders within progressive social movement organizations experience the social division they are working to eradicate within their organizations and employ a flexible repertoire of leadership practices to facilitate solidarity both as part of and beyond direct activism.
Content may be subject to copyright.
A dissertation submitted to the
College of Business and Leadership
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree Doctor of Philosophy
St. Davids, Pennsylvania
December 2021
Jessica Rachel Dreistadt
has been approved by the
College of Business and Leadership
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez, PhD, Committee Chair
Christa Lee-Chuvala, PhD, Committee Member
Elizabeth Currans, PhD, Committee Member
Signed by:
Kenton L. Sparks, Ph.D., Interim Dean
© Jessica Rachel Dreistadt 2021
All Rights Reserved
Portraits of Women Leaders: Solidarity and Social Division in Progressive Social
Movement Organizations
Jessica Rachel Dreistadt
PhD, 2021
Eastern University
Advisor: Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez, PhD
Social divisions related to gender, class, race, age, lead to inequities in
organizations and society. Women leaders face unique challenges in the workplace, even
in progressive social movement organizations (SMOs) that work to ameliorate division.
The literature demonstrates that progressive SMO leaders develop collective identity
based on similarities and also address differences in their solidarity work. While explored
theoretically, the ways that women engage both similarities and differences as they
construct and experience solidarity remains underexamined empirically. Additionally,
there are limited empirical studies about solidarity in the social movement and leadership
This portraiture study explored how women leaders within progressive SMOs
engage social division vis-à-vis similarities and differences as they construct and
experience solidarity. The study included six women leaders in one Mid-Atlantic city.
Through semi-structured interviews, observation, document review, and a questionnaire,
the participants in this study shared their perceptions and reflections related to the topic.
The findings suggest that women SMO leaders construct, practice, and interpret
their experiences of solidarity in diverse but complementary ways. The actors in this
study emphasized relationships, interconnectedness, inclusion, and engaging both
similarities and differences in their solidarity work while resisting the concept and
practice of unity as well as hierarchy. The ways that the women in this study engage
social division in their solidarity work can be summarized in five leadership practices: 1)
recognizing and appreciating differences, 2) seeking connections and commonalities; 3)
convening people; 4) using power and privilege; and 5) working through conflict. These
findings have several implications for practice and scholarship. Solidarity can be
constructed and investigated as a non-binary, dynamic, and context-responsive
phenomenon. Furthermore, women leaders within progressive social movement
organizations experience the social division they are working to eradicate within their
organizations and employ a flexible repertoire of leadership practices to facilitate
solidarity both as part of and beyond direct activism.
Numerous people have supported and inspired me through this journey, from
politely inquiring ‘how is it going?’ to providing in-depth guidance. Each of these
interactions has been precious to me. There are a few people, in particular, that I would
like to acknowledge for their contributions to this dissertation.
To my chair, Dr. Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez, lovingly known as “Dr. H.,” you have
been in this with me for the long haul. I am grateful to you for bringing out my best work
and for all that I learned from you as a student, research assistant, and teaching assistant.
I feel very fortunate to have had such a super smart, interesting, and helpful dissertation
committee. Thank you, Dr. Christa Lee-Chuvala and Dr. Elizabeth Currans, for serving in
this capacity and sharing your insights. Together with Dr. H., you helped me make sense
of a plethora of ideas, make assumptions explicit, and illuminate details–resulting in more
clarity and precision.
This dissertation would not have been possible without the six women who
generously shared their insight–and several hours of their time–with me. I learned so
much from each of you and am inspired by your work. I am grateful for your openness
and candor. Thank you for allowing me to share your story.
I would also like to thank the many colleagues and comrades who have taught me
about solidarity–and so many other things–over the years. I hope that the findings of this
study are helpful to our organizations, communities, and movements.
Several teachers have contributed to my educational journey–and since this is my
fifth degree, I have had a lot of them! To Dr. Faith W. Ngunjiri, thank you for creating a
solid foundation for me in the Ph.D. program and for introducing me to the portraiture
method. To Dr. Heewon Chang and Dr. David Greenhalgh, thank you for your
leadership, guidance, and support to the Ph.D. program and to me personally. I would
also like to thank Mrs. Gessler, my sixth grade language arts teacher, for teaching me
foundational research skills and for being so kind to me. I am also grateful to the faculty
in the Sociology program at Lehigh University–a program that gave me a huge head start
in this program, as well as entire faculty of the Ph.D. program in organizational
leadership at Eastern University. A special thank you to Hallie Jensen, Amy Schreiber,
and Jaclyn Favaroso for making sure we had tea and coffee at 8 a.m., answering all of my
questions, and doing so much behind the scenes to help our program run smoothly.
Cohorts 1, 2, and 3 deserve a special thank you for paving the way for the rest of
us. To Cohort 4, you are and will always be a very special group of friends. I am so
fortunate to have learned alongside such amazing people. I am also grateful to my
‘adoptive’ cohort and to other students in the program who have supported and
encouraged me and each other.
Thank you to my family and friends for your patience, support, and interest in this
project over the years. Now you will finally find out the answer to that ever-persistent
question–‘what are you going to do when you finish?’
Lastly, I would like to thank everyone who has contributed their time, energy,
ideas, heart, soul, and life to progressive social movements organizations. I look forward
to continuing to learn from and with you.
Table of Contents
Abstract ........................................................................................................... iii
Acknowledgments ..................................................................................................... v
Chapter Page
1. Introduction ................................................................................................... 1
Statement of the Problem .............................................................................. 2
Rationale ....................................................................................................... 5
Purpose of the Study ...................................................................................... 6
Research Questions ........................................................................................ 7
Conceptual Framework .................................................................................. 7
Definition of Terms ....................................................................................... 9
Significance of the Study ............................................................................... 11
Organization of the Dissertation .................................................................... 12
Summary ........................................................................................................ 12
2. Literature Review .......................................................................................... 14
Social Division ............................................................................................. 15
Social Division and Society ..................................................................... 16
Social Division within Progressive Social Movement Organizations ..... 19
Borders ..................................................................................................... 25
Leadership within Progressive Social Movement Organizations ................. 26
Leadership and Social Division ............................................................... 26
Chapter Page
Women’s Leadership in Progressive Social Movement Organizations .. 28
Collective Identity ......................................................................................... 33
Construction of Collective Identity ......................................................... 35
Ontology and Epistemology of Collective Identity ................................. 36
Critique of Collective Identity ................................................................. 38
Solidarity ....................................................................................................... 38
Mechanical Solidarity .............................................................................. 40
Organic Solidarity .................................................................................... 46
Integrative Solidarity ............................................................................... 57
Gaps in the Literature .................................................................................... 62
Summary ........................................................................................................ 63
3. Research Design ........................................................................................... 65
Research Questions ........................................................................................ 65
Methodological Approach ............................................................................. 66
Role of the Researcher ................................................................................... 70
Participant Selection ...................................................................................... 72
Study Participants .................................................................................... 75
Data Sources and Collection Procedures ....................................................... 77
Questionnaire ........................................................................................... 77
Document Review ................................................................................... 78
Interviews ................................................................................................ 78
Observation .............................................................................................. 81
Chapter Page
Data Analysis and Interpretation ................................................................... 81
Transcripts ............................................................................................... 82
Memoranda .............................................................................................. 83
Coding ..................................................................................................... 85
Portraits ............................................................................................... 89
Rigor of the Study .......................................................................................... 91
Triangulation ........................................................................................... 92
Accountability ......................................................................................... 93
Authenticity ............................................................................................. 95
Member Checking ................................................................................... 95
Reflexivity ............................................................................................... 96
Ethical Considerations ................................................................................... 97
Anonymity and Confidentiality ............................................................... 99
Power Dynamics ...................................................................................... 99
Delimitations and Limitations ....................................................................... 101
Summary ........................................................................................................ 103
4. Allison .............................................................................................. 105
Allison: The Actor and Her “Worlds” ........................................................... 105
Solidarity Story: Solidarity as Self-Sacrifice ................................................. 109
Themes ........................................................................................................... 110
Miss Johnson Doesn’t Get to Take a Break ............................................ 111
Feeling Gross and Jaded .......................................................................... 114
Chapter Page
Connecting through Motherhood ............................................................. 115
Noticing Difference ................................................................................. 116
Softening and Moving toward Each Other .............................................. 119
5. Elena .............................................................................................. 121
Elena: The Actor and Her “Worlds” .............................................................. 122
Solidarity Story: From Tears to Empowerment ............................................ 125
Themes ........................................................................................................... 126
Organizational Solidarity ......................................................................... 126
Unity and Common Goals ....................................................................... 128
The Benefits of Difference ...................................................................... 129
6. Jeanne .............................................................................................. 131
Jeanne: The Actor and Her “Worlds” ............................................................ 131
Solidarity Story: A New Park ........................................................................ 133
Themes ........................................................................................................... 135
The Suburban Mall Chick and Black Lives Matter ................................. 135
Quietly Knitting from the Center ............................................................. 137
Widening the Circles ............................................................................... 139
Solidarity Takes Time ............................................................................. 141
Place Divides and Connects .................................................................... 142
7. Lola .............................................................................................. 144
Lola: The Actor and Her “Worlds” ............................................................... 144
Solidarity Story: Stepping up and Sitting out ................................................ 148
Chapter Page
Themes ........................................................................................................... 149
Ripping off the Bandage .......................................................................... 150
Illusions of Solidarity .............................................................................. 151
Keep the White People Happy ................................................................. 153
Collective Leadership Rooted in Love .................................................... 155
8. Natalie .............................................................................................. 160
Natalie: The Actor and Her “Worlds” ........................................................... 161
Solidarity Story: That’s What It’s Supposed to Look Like ........................... 164
Themes ............................................................................................... 165
Diversity in the Labor Movement ........................................................... 165
We Need Our Brothers ............................................................................ 168
Playing in The Red Zone ......................................................................... 170
9. Valerie .............................................................................................. 175
Valerie: The Actor and Her “Worlds” ........................................................... 175
Solidarity Story: Trans Name Change Cases and Clinics ............................. 177
Themes ........................................................................................................... 179
Including but not Limited to Identity ...................................................... 180
Rowing in the Same Direction ................................................................. 186
Robust Solidarity ..................................................................................... 187
10. Discussion of Findings .................................................................................. 191
Recognizing and Appreciating Difference .................................................... 193
Rejecting Calls for Unity ......................................................................... 194
Chapter Page
Expanding Strategic Repertoires ............................................................. 196
Creating an Inclusive Environment ......................................................... 197
Resisting the Reinforcement of Social Division ...................................... 198
Seeing the Fullness of Others .................................................................. 200
Seeking Connections and Commonalities ..................................................... 202
Sharing Similar Experiences ................................................................... 203
Sharing Similar Social Location .............................................................. 205
Using Umbrella Identities ........................................................................ 207
Working toward Common Goals and the Greater Good ......................... 209
Convening People .......................................................................................... 211
Sharing Space and Interacting with Others ............................................. 211
Facilitating Dialogue ............................................................................... 214
Building Trust .......................................................................................... 219
Using Power and Privilege ............................................................................ 221
Benefiting from Privilege ........................................................................ 221
Sacrificing Privilege ................................................................................ 222
Helping Others ......................................................................................... 225
Creating a Seat at the Table ..................................................................... 227
Working through Conflict ............................................................................. 228
Breaking down Barriers ........................................................................... 229
Resisting Donor Control .......................................................................... 230
Summary ............................................................................................... 232
Chapter Page
11. Conclusion ............................................................................................... 234
Summary of Findings .................................................................................... 234
Limitations of the Study ................................................................................ 239
Implications for Practice and Scholarship ..................................................... 240
Recommendations for Further Research ....................................................... 244
Reflections on the Research Process ............................................................. 246
Summary ............................................................................................... 248
References ................................................................................................................. 250
List of Tables
Table Page
1. Characteristics of Actors ................................................................................ 76
2. Data Sources and Data Collected .................................................................. 77
3. Hierarchy of Codes ........................................................................................ 85
4. Leadership Practices Women Leaders Used to Engage Social Division as
They Construct and Experience Solidarity .................................................... 192
5. Key Takeaways from Actors ......................................................................... 241
List of Appendixes
Appendix Page
A. Cover Letter–Initial Contact ......................................................................... 288
B. Prescreening Phone Call Guide ..................................................................... 290
C. Cover Letter–Participant Guide ..................................................................... 293
D. Participant Guide ........................................................................................... 295
E. Frequently Asked Questions .......................................................................... 301
F. Consent Form ............................................................................................... 305
G. Questionnaire ............................................................................................... 310
H. Semi-Structured Interview Guide .................................................................. 313
I. Observation Protocol ..................................................................................... 320
Black Lives Matter Global Network is a woman-led, decentralized, inclusive,
intersectional progressive social movement organization (SMO) engaged with multiple
social justice issues (Joseph, 2017; Smith, 2020). As such, they “acknowledge, respect,
and celebrate differences and commonalities” (Black Lives Matter, 2020, n.p.). After
Minneapolis resident George Floyd was murdered by a police officer on May 25, 2020,
activists around the world mobilized in connection with the Black Lives Matter
movement. This resulted in “the largest and most numerous public demonstrations for
civil rights seen in generations” (Smith, 2020). These protests brought people together in
a public display of solidarity across the lines of race, gender, class, age, and geography
(Buchanan et al., 2020; Smith, 2020). Thus, the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 both
revealed social division–the multiple ways that people are organized into groups and
ordered such as through race, gender, age, or sexual orientation–as well as new
opportunities for solidarity.
To an observer, such practices of solidarity may seem straightforward: people
with diverse experiences coming together to support a particular shared concern or goal.
Yet, feeling solidarity with a group and participating in embodied solidarity practices are
indeed complex. Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, has suggested
that solidarity encompasses much more than unity–it is an intentional act that engages the
complexity of difference:
Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors
when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete
differences in context, experience and oppression. In other words, some want
unity without struggle. As people who have our minds stayed on freedom, we can
learn to fight anti-Black racism by examining the ways in which we participate in
it, even unintentionally, instead of the worn out and sloppy practice of drawing
lazy parallels of unity between peoples with vastly different experiences and
histories. (Garza, 2014)
Black Lives Matter is just one of many progressive SMOs in the United States.
Through six portraits of women leaders within progressive SMOs in one Mid-Atlantic
city–representing diverse organizations, communities, and movements–the complex ways
that SMO leaders engage social division vis-à-vis similarities and differences through
their relationships and actions with others are revealed. Their work illustrates the nuances
of how solidarity is constructed and experienced as well as the multiple ways that leaders
resist binary ways of thinking, cross and transform borders, appreciate
interconnectedness, and take diverse reflective, intentional actions to facilitate solidarity
through their work.
Statement of the Problem
In organizations, social divisions such as gender, class, and race result in inequity
related to power, decision making, compensation, and opportunities for advancement
(Acker, 2006). For example, women leaders face unique challenges in organizations
including pay disparities, bias, and discrimination (American Association of University
Women [AAUW], 2016). A recent study found that 45% of men–and 28% of women–are
prejudiced toward women leaders (Hoffman & Musch, 2018).
In progressive social movement organizations (SMOs), women are often
“silenced, sidelined, and gender stereotyped” (Trigg & Bernstein, 2016, p. xii). Even
SMOs that are intentionally inclusive can exhibit dynamics of exclusion, oppression, and
marginalization (Acker, 2006; Ostrander, 1999; Rose, 2000). Difference in class, race,
gender, and other factors can lead to conflict within, and splintering of, social movements
which limits their success (Ferber, 2012). Although the overall purpose of progressive
SMOs is to connect and organize people in solidarity to resist and transform social
divisions such as those related to race or gender, they are paradoxically also reflected and
reproduced through organizational practice as well as through relationships between and
among women within SMOs (Choudry, 2007; Lawston, 2009; Mahrouse, 2014; Mohanty,
2003; Spade, 2013; Tingting, 2010; Zald & Ash, 1966).
Generally, movements organize around one particular identity or group–for
example, women, people of color, or people with disabilities (Gandhi & Shah, 2006).
SMOs strategically employ identity categories to co-create solidarity as they pursue
movement goals (Alcoff, 2000; Elliker et al., 2017; Weir, 2013). In this work, identities
are sometimes articulated in overly simplistic ways that do not reflect the multiplicity and
complexity of SMO leaders’ experiences and beliefs (Bernstein, 2005; Spivak, 1987).
Thus, movements that base their solidarity practice on a singular identity–particularly
when identity is articulated as a category–may promote “homogenization, essentialism,
fragmentation, or separatism” (Ortega, 2016, p. 146). In addition, movements that are
based on a singular identity risk promoting factionalism and reflecting systematic social
divisions if they do not intentionally attend to also building broader alliances (Brown,
2013). Yet, while there may be an unexplored assumption that it is “hypocritical” to make
claims of being inclusive while also articulating boundaries that distinguish “us” from
“them” (Yukich, 2010, p. 173), it would not be possible for activists to illuminate the
injustice experienced by a particular group of people and to claim or demand a particular
change without constructing solidarity on the basis of a specific identity (Alcoff, 2000).
Furthermore, the critique of organizing around identity “works to suppress historically
oppressed groups that aim to craft independent political agendas around identities”
(Collins, 2009, p. 121). Thus, SMO leaders face “strategic dilemmas…when the identities
around which a movement is organized are also the basis for oppression” (Bernstein,
2005, p. 49).
While sameness or similarity forms the basis of solidarity for many, others
believe that differences related to social division are a resource that enriches relationships
within movements (i.e. Davidson, 2017; Steans, 2007; Tucker, 2014). Thus, many
scholars have explored how women within social movements acknowledge and engage
difference through their solidarity practice (i.e. Cole & Luna, 2010; Coley, 2014; Ospina
& Foldy, 2010). Working across difference can be difficult in SMOs as there are
differences related to social location, priorities, and strategic approaches (Beamish &
Luebbers, 2009; Garza, 2017; McCarthy & Walker, 2004; Pastor & LoPresti, 2007).
While much research suggests that solidarity based on similarities and solidarity
that addresses differences are two conceptually distinct practices as described above,
several feminist scholars (i.e. Bhattacharya, 2018; Keating, 2013; Weir, 2013) have
articulated a solidarity practice that is inclusive of both the heterogeneity of groups and
the multiplicity of individuals within those groups. In other words, these approaches
recognize that social movement groups are composed of people who are different from
each other and that each participant has multiple identities. These approaches to solidarity
suggest the possibility that women can simultaneously engage multiple similarities and
differences as they construct and experience solidarity–or that they can strategically
employ unique solidarity practices at different times. Thus, mechanical and organic
solidarity–that which is based on either similarities or differences (Durkheim,
1893/1969)–are not necessarily mutually exclusive in practice; they can be concurrent,
overlapping, and hybrid (Thijssen, 2012). The unique ways that women engage
similarities and differences as they construct and experience solidarity remains
underexamined empirically.
Because solidarity creates and sustains engagement in social movements (Hunt &
Benford, 2004), understanding this phenomenon is central to effective leadership
practice. In addition, using a “gender-sensitive lens” to examine leadership practices in
progressive SMOs contributes to “progress toward a fairer and more just distribution of
power and opportunity for women and men alike” (Trigg & Bernstein, 2016, p. ix). This
research might be helpful to progressive SMO leaders by revealing an expanded
repertoire of solidarity practices that can be used in developing coalitions, growing
movements, and sustaining commitment over time–as well as strategies to effectively
engage social division in solidarity practice. It may also inform nonprofit sector efforts to
engage social division through equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives.
Much leadership research is based on binary concepts–two mutually exclusive
ideas that are in opposition to each other–for example, leader/follower (Alvesson, 2019;
Collinson, 2005, 2014). Solidarity is often understood in this way: as connections that are
either based on similarities or differences. In classical sociological theory, these concepts
are known as mechanical and organic solidarity respectively (Durkheim, 1893/1969). As
Bopari (2015) explains, “in solidarity, there is an element of “we” and a corresponding
element of “they”…the “we” and “they” are oppositions” (p. 5). Some theoretical
research (i.e. Thijssen, 2012; Keating, 2013; Weir, 2013)–largely though not exclusively
in the feminist literature–has explored how solidarity practices blur these boundaries
within the context of progressive SMOs. SMO leaders draw from multiple, sometimes
conflicting identities and affiliations as they practice solidarity (Ortega, 2016). In
addition, because SMO leaders “experience multiple and overlapping solidarities,” they
are entangled in a web of “competing obligations” to various groups (Hooker, 2009, p.
31). Based on this theoretical literature, this study addresses an empirical gap by
exploring how women leaders within progressive SMOs engage social division vis-à-vis
similarities and differences as they construct and experience solidarity. Articulating a
more nuanced understanding of solidarity within SMOs opens up possibilities for leaders
as they connect and organize.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this portraiture study is to explore how women leaders engage
social division vis-à-vis similarities and differences as they construct and experience
solidarity within progressive SMOs in a Mid-Atlantic city. Social division is generally
defined as the historical, material, philosophical, affiliative, and geographic differences
that are used to distinguish “us” from “them.”
Research Questions
This study was guided by the central research question: how do women leaders
within progressive SMOs engage social division vis-à-vis similarities and differences as
they construct and experience solidarity?
The study was further guided by two subquestions:
1. What meaning and significance do women leaders within progressive SMOs
ascribe to the phenomenon of engaging social division vis-à-vis similarities and
differences as they construct and experience solidarity?
2. How is the leadership practice of women leaders within progressive SMOs
influenced by the phenomenon of engaging social division vis-à-vis similarities
and differences as they construct and experience solidarity?
Conceptual Framework
The conceptual framework for this study is grounded in feminist methodology.
While feminist methodology has many diverse iterations, it typically centers the
knowledge and experiences of women, connects with feminist theory, is relational and
non-hierarchical, and has the goal of consciousness raising and social transformation
(Fonow & Cook, 2005; O’Shaughnessy & Krogman, 2012; Ramazanoglu & Holland,
2002). Feminist methodology was employed in this study in several ways. Feminist
scholarship was woven throughout the literature review, revealing existing knowledge
about this topic based on a feminist perspective (i.e. Acker, 2006; Alcoff, 2000; Keating,
2013; Ortega, 2016; Mohanty, 2003; Steans, 2007; Weir, 2008, 2013). The sampling
frame was gender-based, which centered the knowledge, perceptions, and experience of
women. Such an approach acknowledges the complex connections between gender and
epistemology while also recognizing that context and subjectivity may be significant to
the ways that women construct knowledge (i.e. Belenky et al., 1986). Feminist
methodology informed data collection and analysis as well as relationships with actors.
Because the study focuses on solidarity in progressive SMOs, the findings will contribute
new knowledge to efforts that resist and transform existing social and economic
Specifically, two concepts rooted in feminist scholarship were used in the
organization of the literature review and analysis of findings: 1) threshold theorizing
(Keating, 2013) and 2) “world”-traveling (Lugones, 1987). Thresholds are “complex
interconnections among a variety of sometimes contradictory worlds” and this approach
to theory reveals “fresh connections among distinct (and sometimes contradictory)
perspectives, realities, peoples, theories, texts, and/or worldviews” (Keating, 2013, p. 10).
Threshold theorizing flexibly engages diverse epistemologies which includes but also
goes beyond oppositional or conflict-driven approaches to critical scholarship that often
emphasize duality, solidify boundaries that separate groups, and diminish the importance
of differences. It is based on the concept of interconnectedness and views differences as
“catalysts for personal and social change” even when they seem “permanent and
impossible to span” (Keating, 2013, pp. 38-9).
“World”-traveling is the process of crossing a physical or metaphorical border
and experiencing other “worlds” in a way that extends beyond co-presence. According to
Lugones (1987), a “world” is a space inhabited by multiple people and ideas; each
individual simultaneously inhabits multiple “worlds.” Traveling is “the shift from being
one person to being a different person” (Lugones, 1987, p. 9) when engaging in other
“worlds” with a “playful attitude” (Lugones, 1987, p. 17). “World”-traveling is “cross-
cultural and cross-racial loving that emphasizes the need to understand and affirm the
plurality in and among women (Lugones, 1987, p. 3). Weir (2008) explains that “world”-
traveling requires “an imaginative and empathic engagement that goes beyond
recognizing how we are the same, and beyond "putting oneself in the other's place"” (p.
125) as well as “an openness to transformation of the self” (p. 64).
The feminist concepts of threshold theorizing and “world”-traveling informed the
research process in several ways. First, engagement with actors was approached as
“world”-traveling to facilitate curiosity and openness to learning. Secondly, consistent
with “world”-traveling and threshold theorizing, the multiplicity of these worlds was
recognized and the ‘search for goodness’ included looking for the transformative
potential of borders in actors’ stories (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Finally, as
data was analyzed and interpreted, complexity was embraced by seeking connections
among ideas that at first seemed disparate. The final portraits reveal each actor’s
complexity as well as the multiple “worlds” in which she is situated. Thus, by integrating
threshold theorizing and “world”-traveling into relationships with actors and the
collection, analysis, and interpretation of data, the feminist principles of resisting
hierarchy in relationships and concepts, centering relationships, and contributing new
knowledge related to social transformation were integrated into the study.
Definition of Terms
Guidance about the use of words is provided to facilitate sense making of the
content in the following chapters. In alignment with the conceptual framework, the
approach to understanding and using these terms is rooted in interconnectedness and
multiplicity. Thus, the researcher remained open to learning about how the actors in this
study interpret and use these words. The following working definitions were used:
Actor was used to refer to participants in the study, drawing broadly from the
social movement literature as well as from Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis’s
(1997) conceptualization of the portraiture method. The use of this term
demonstrates the performative nature of social movements (della Porta & Diani,
Leader is an inclusive term in progressive social movements defined not by
position or organizational affiliation but by recognition by others in the movement
and the public (DeCesare, 2013). Social movements cultivate broad-based
leadership to create shared identity and mobilize resources (Ganz, 2010; Jetten &
Mols, 2009). Thus, this study conceptualized leaders as those who are accepted
and known as such by people who are involved in that SMO regardless of the
actor’s formal role.
A social movement is “collective action that challenges societal powers; are
centered on common goals, beliefs, values, and/or identity; and operate on
interpersonal, structural, cultural, and institutional levels” (Liu, 2017, p. 1). The
purpose of social movements is to “abolish a relationship of domination, to bring
about the triumph of a principle of equality, or to create a new society which
breaks with the old forms of production, management and hierarchy.” (Touraine,
2000, p. 92). A progressive social movement is focused on creating change in the
areas of civil rights, human rights, disarmament, peace, gun control, the
environment, women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, labor rights, and economic
justice (Allen et al., 2017).
A social movement organization (SMO) is an entity organized to pursue social
movement goals (Zald & McCarthy, 1979). In the United States, such
organizations may be designated as 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) by the Internal
Revenue Code (26 U.S. Code § 501) while others are informally organized.
Solidarity has multiple meanings and is sometimes used interchangeably with
collective identity (Fominaya, 2010; Steans, 2007; Thörn, 2009). It can be
experienced at the social, group, or individual level and involves emotional
connection, shared identity, mutual obligation, similar goals, and/or economic ties
(Currans et al., 2012; Derpmann, 2014; Durkheim, 1893/1969; Hunt & Benford,
2004; Laitinen & Pessi, 2014; Steans, 2007; Walhof, 2006).
Significance of the Study
This study centered the experiences and knowledge of women SMO leaders to
highlight a group that is often less visible both within these organizations and in the
social movement and leadership literatures (DeCesare, 2013; Ganz, 2010; Morris &
Staggenborg, 2004; Motta, 2013; Trigg & Bernstein, 2016). Using portraiture (Lawrence-
Lightfoot & Davis, 1997), six unique portrayals of women leaders within progressive
SMOs were created to illuminate how they engage social division vis-à-vis similarities
and differences as they construct and experience solidarity.
Portraits communicate complex ideas in relatable ways so that those outside of the
academy, particularly women leaders within progressive SMOs, can access and use the
findings of this study (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). The lived experience and
perceptions of women leaders within progressive SMOs provide insight to expand ideas
about solidarity that limit its conceptualization to either mechanical or organic (i.e.
Durkheim, 1893/1969) to one that recognizes the complexity of this phenomenon. This
exploration of the diverse ways that women leaders engage social division as they
construct and experience solidarity reveals practical strategies that SMO leaders can use
to effectively engage social division and to invite and sustain engagement in their work
through solidarity practice.
Organization of the Dissertation
This dissertation is organized as follows. Chapter 1 provides an introduction to
the topic, the problem to be explored, research questions, conceptual framework,
definition of terms, delimitations and limitations, and significance of the study. Chapter 2
provides a review of the literature organized into four parts: 1) social division; 2)
leadership within progressive SMOs; 3) collective identity; and 4) solidarity. Chapter 3
describes the research design. In addition to providing an overview of portraiture, this
chapter discusses the role of the researcher, participant selection, data collection and
analysis, rigor of the study, and ethical considerations. Chapters 4 through 9 present
portraits of the six actors who participated in this study. Chapter 10 discusses significant
findings and interprets them using the extant literature. Chapter 11 offers conclusions and
recommendations for further exploration of this topic.
The diverse and conflicting ways that women leaders within progressive SMOs
engage social division vis-à-vis similarities and differences as they construct and
experience solidarity has not been thoroughly explored in the literature. While solidarity
is typically conceptualized as either organic or mechanical, practices are more complex
and can simultaneously engage similarities and differences (Thijssen, 2012). Using
portraiture, this study illuminates the unique experiences of six women leaders within
progressive SMOs in a Mid-Atlantic city related to engaging social division as they
construct and experience solidarity, the meaning and significance of these experiences,
and how these experiences have influenced their leadership.
The purpose of this portraiture study is to explore how women leaders engage
social division vis-à-vis similarities and differences as they construct and experience
solidarity within progressive SMOs. Because the purpose of SMOs is to address or
transform social division, social movement scholars (i.e. Jetten & Mols, 2009; Kuepers,
2011; Taylor, 2013; Zald & Ash, 1966) claim that strategically engaging these divisions
is an important role for SMO leaders.
This review is grounded in feminist methodology and, in particular, threshold
theorizing (Keating, 2013). The review uses threshold theorizing to organize the
discussion in a way that reveals the complexity and interconnectedness of concepts and
experiences related to solidarity. The discussion integrates the propositions and findings
of feminist theorists and researchers, empirical studies of feminist SMO leaders, and
scholarship that offers critique of how patriarchal structures and practices both provoke
and are reflected in solidarity work. Furthermore, the review examines the gendered
aspects of leadership and solidarity work within SMOs.
The chapter begins with a discussion about social division in general as well as its
specific impact within SMOs. Next, the ways that social division interconnects with the
purpose and actions of SMO leaders–particularly women–are discussed. Because
collective identity and solidarity are strongly related–and are often used to describe the
same phenomenon (Fominaya, 2010; Steans, 2007), this chapter explores and critiques
the literature related to both. The review demonstrates how conceptualizations of
collective identity, and approaches to engaging similarity and difference, interplay with
the construction, practice, and experience of solidarity. Following a review of theory and
empirical evidence related to mechanical and organic solidarity, three integrative
approaches are explored through a threshold theorizing lens–intersectionality,
multiplicity and “world”-traveling, and interconnectedness and assemblage. The chapter
concludes with a discussion about how this research addresses the gaps that were
Social Division
In a seminal 1954 book, Allport explained the concept of prejudice using the
concept of in-groups and out-groups. According to this theory, people identify with, and
have feelings of connection to, people who are similar which creates a boundary between
“us” and “them.” While Allport suggested that in-group affinity does not necessarily
mean that there is animosity toward other groups, Hooker (2009) argues that there are
persistent distinctions between individuals and others who are perceived to be different in
some way. According to Brewer (1999), these distinctions can result from associating
positive characteristics with one’s own group or from perceiving other groups to be a
threat. Taken together, this work suggests that feelings of empathy, reciprocity, and
accountability to an inclusive, greater good can be worked toward when these distinctions
are noticeable.
This section explores how social division influences experience, opportunity, and
relations between individuals and groups in society at large. Next, the impact of social
division within social movement organizations is discussed. This section concludes with
a discussion about how border or boundary construction creates social division as well as
how SMOs engage with and transform such borders.
Social Division and Society
Division shapes social life in the United States, where social groups are divided
by gender, race, class, political affiliation, ability, and other characteristics (Dallmayr,
2015; Institute for Policy Studies, n.d.; Vandermaas-Peeler et al., 2018). Scholars have
suggested that the current political climate has promoted divisiveness. For example, Park
et al. (2017) claim that there is a newfound “permissiveness for widespread and open
expressions of White supremacy, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia,
and misogyny” (p. 8). The increase of 31% in the number of hate crime victims in the
United States between 2014 and 2019 illustrates this point (Federal Bureau of
Investigation). These are just a few of the social divisions that are resisted and
transformed through the work of progressive SMOs. There are several lenses that can be
used to illustrate social division including globalization, privilege, and culture; these
concepts relevant to understanding the work of progressive SMOs are explored in this
Globalization has reduced the distance between social groups, resulting in more
diverse societies, increased intercultural communication, and heightened awareness of
differences. Yet, decolonial scholars (i.e. Cruz, 2012; Dussel, 2002; Quijano, 2000) have
suggested that globalization, neoliberalism, and capitalism are an extension of colonial
practice and thought. They propose that the colonial system, and the thought process
underlying it, created and maintains a racialized and gendered periphery by: dividing and
ranking people, places, and ideas; separating complexity into dichotomous concepts;
centering one epistemology and ontology; and claiming to be natural and/or superior
(Arvin et al., 2013; Fanon, 1963; Lugones, 2010; Maldonado-Torres, 2011; Mignolo,
2000, 2018). Thus, globalization has created new opportunities for interaction but has
also maintained inequitable social arrangements while also making these divides more
Social division has also been conceptualized through the lens of privilege, which
is typically ascribed to White heterosexual able-bodied men. Privilege has been defined
as “the unearned benefits and advantages that accrue to members of dominant groups as a
result of…ongoing exploitation and oppression” (Monahan, 2014, p. 73). In a renowned
1989 essay, McIntosh described the many things she is able to do as a White American
woman that may be taken for granted if not examined through the lens of race, such as
purchasing a bandage that matches her skin tone. This article shifted the academic
conversation about racial relations by examining the advantages that people who are
White have rather than pathologizing disadvantages experienced by people of color.
Some scholars have critiqued the use of privilege as an analytical lens within
SMOs and beyond. For example, Monahan (2014) proposed that what is conceived to be
privilege represents the rights and opportunities that ought to be available to all people.
Others have suggested that conversations about privilege can be perceived as accusatory
and objectifying, foreclosing opportunities for reflection, dialogue, and change (Manji,
2019; Valerio, 2002). Thus, focusing on privilege may normalize and re-center the
experiences and perspectives of people who are privileged (Monahan, 2014; Pratto &
Stewart, 2012). Yet, Kang (2014) suggests that disparities based on race, gender, and
other factors may continue without being noticed or examined if they are not
acknowledged. Privilege, then, is a complex construct that both illuminates social
division and provokes critical appraisal of its employment to understand those divisions.
Social division can also be examined through the lens of culture, in particular,
language. Scholars have explored how social division is maintained, upheld, understood,
and transformed through cultural practices. For example, Medina (2010) suggests that
language can reflect and also reproduce social division by inadvertently including,
excluding, centering, or marginalizing particular groups. On the other hand, Adichie
(2009) warns that speaking about others can exclude important details or produce
stereotypes, which reifies power. In addition, Irshad Manji (2019)–the director of Moral
Courage College, a program of the Initiative for Global Ethics and Human Rights at
Oxford University–explains that categories or labels can be used as a “substitute for
understanding” other people (p. 33). Thus, while language may be intentionally used to
facilitate social division, there are also several ways that language unintentionally
underrepresents or misrepresents perceived others.
These frameworks for understanding social division suggest that there are both
macro and meso elements. In other words, social division is produced and reproduced by
political, economic, and relational structures and practices. As they work toward the
transformation of social division and the creation of solidarity, SMOs intentionally
engage with, but also reflect, social division. While the next section will explore this
phenomenon within progressive SMOs, discussion about social division will be
integrated throughout this chapter as it interacts with the topic in multiple ways.
Social Division within Progressive Social Movement Organizations
In her published lecture to Sociologists for Women in Society, feminist
sociologist Acker (2006) explained that gender, race, and class are connected to
inequities in organizations related to power, decision making, compensation, and
opportunities for advancement. Her description of “inequality regimes” integrates these
three types of social division, suggesting that they are both conceptually and
pragmatically interconnected. Although the overall purpose of progressive SMOs is to
connect and organize people in solidarity to resist and transform such social divisions,
several scholars (i.e. Choudry, 2007; Fuchs, 2006; Mahrouse, 2014; Spade, 2013) claim
they are paradoxically also reflected and reproduced through organizational practice and
relationships. Thus, divisiveness is engrained in both the purpose and the practice of
SMOs. The following sections will explore four dynamics related to social division
within progressive SMOs and solidarity work: 1) diversity and inclusion; 2) race and
privilege; 3) tokenism; and 4) relationships among women activists.
Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity and inclusion are distinct yet interconnected constructs. Generally,
diversity refers to the composition of a group and efforts to reduce the homogeneity of
groups in terms of race, gender, ability, and other factors. Inclusion brings people
together across these differences through practices or policies. While diversity is related
to representation, inclusion facilitates equitable opportunities for engagement (Roberson,
SMO activists’ social networks are often homogeneous, limiting exposure to
varying ideas, attitudes, and experiences (McPherson et al., 2001). Because SMO leaders
rely on their networks when recruiting supporters, Spade (2013) claims that people from
other groups may be unintentionally excluded. In addition, Keating (2005) suggests that
many activists have not had the opportunity to develop the skills needed to work
collaboratively with allies from other groups. Thus, without intentional effort,
progressive SMOs’ base of support may reflect and maintain divisions based on social
Yet, there are benefits to working across the lines of social division in SMO work.
Diverse SMOs benefit from an expanded network of supporters as well as access to
multiple ideas and skillsets, which contributes to capacity and impact (Morris &
Staggenborg, 2004; Tanyas, 2019). For example, through interviews with 94 activists,
Beamish and Luebbers (2009) found that a peace and justice coalition formed to stop a
federal defense project was able to achieve some of its goals by intentionally bridging
differences in race and class between people who lived in the neighborhood targeted for
the project constructed and those who lived outside of this community.
While working across difference is beneficial, several studies (i.e. Beamish &
Luebbers, 2009; McCarthy & Walker, 2004; Pastor & LoPresti, 2007) have shown that
diverse groups can have conflicting priorities, ideology, and preferred tactics. In the
aforementioned case study about a federal defense project (Beamish & Luebbers, 2009),
the authors attributed these differences to social division. For example, the neighborhood-
based group, which included mostly poor people of color, felt the project would have a
negative impact on their community. This group saw the proposed project as another
example of government disregarding their needs and thus their approach was
oppositional. In contrast, the outsider group–which included mostly White, higher
income activists–did not want the project to proceed because of their pacifist views. This
group pursued legislation as an avenue to reform the project. While the local group
protested government, the outsider group worked with government. Thus, while social
location can influence how actors engage in SMO work, diverse groups also have more
expansive repertoires for addressing movement goals.
Some scholars (i.e. Ferber, 2012; Haraway, 1991) have suggested that social
division can lead to conflict within, and splintering of, social movements which limits
their success. In addition, others claim that progressive SMOs that are intentionally
inclusive can still reflect the exclusion, oppression, and marginalization that they are
seeking to transform (Choudry, 2007; Ostrander, 1999; Rose, 2000). As Kwok (2005)
explained, many diversity and inclusion initiatives do not challenge the power structure
that created categories of division in the first place and limit understanding of “others” to
the perceiver’s ideas and social location. For example, feminist ethnographer Ward
(2008) interviewed fellow employees of a well-known LGBT organization. The
organization demonstrated a commitment to racial diversity in several ways. More than
half of employees were people of color, the organization held an annual diversity day,
and they developed a diversity initiative to: 1) improve the representation of people of
color in positions of leadership; and 2) develop stronger partnerships with other
organizations that serve people of color. Yet, the non-White employees reported that
these initiatives did not include them in a meaningful way. Ward found that the people of
color who were employed by the organization felt its use of tactics to promote diversity
actually reinforced White normativity by using practices associated with White
professionalism such as measuring outcomes and best practices, having guest speakers
teach White staff about people of color by employing stereotypes, and suggesting that
people of color were outsiders to the organization when in fact more than half of the staff
were non-White. This example illustrates that diversity and inclusion projects can reify
hegemonic employment of categories, rather than transforming them, while also
minimizing the value of difference.
Race and Privilege
Sociologists define race as a “human classification system that is socially
constructed to distinguish between groups of people who share phenotypical
characteristics” and is used to assert and maintain power over perceived others (Ray &
DeLoatch, 2016). In societies where the majority of people are White, race can serve as
the basis for societal privilege–the “unearned benefits and advantages that accrue to
members of dominant groups” (Monahan, 2014, p. 73). SMOs are located within
complex relational networks and systems that reflect these dynamics.
Scholars have suggested several ways that race and privilege undermine the
inclusiveness of progressive SMOs and replicate the relations of power that they attempt
to change. When SMOs engage in coalitions with other SMOs representing a different
group, the dominant group may assert their values and norms (Jetten & Mols, 2009).
Medina (2003) adds that members of privileged groups may usurp the values, goals, and
messaging from within an identity-based SMO because they are accepted as “valid
interlocutors with the rest of society” (p. 669). In addition, Appel (2003) claimed that
White supremacy is propagated in some progressive SMOs through “paternalism,
reformist politics, romanticizing struggle and violence, exotification and exceptionalism,
and neocolonial divide-and-conquer tactics” (p. 81). Others (i.e. Bilge, 2013; Smith et al.,
2017) have suggested that movements may be perceived as a threat by those who are
invested in the systems or culture being addressed when they gain momentum toward
their goals, resulting in attempts by those with power to control the actions of SMOs.
Thus, race privilege can be reflected within, and reified by, progressive SMOs.
Zajicek (2007) suggested that White activists can work toward a strategic goal of
many progressive SMOs–to change the systems that uphold racism–by being aware of
their privilege. While Manji (2019) explained that provoking such awareness through
conversation can sometimes feel accusatory and threatening to White activists–a
phenomenon that is sometimes called “White fragility,” others have willingly engaged
with privilege in SMO work. For example, in an ethnography of a feminist abolitionist
SMO which included 15 interviews and observation over three years, Lawston (2009)
found that White, middle-class activists acknowledged their privilege and recognized
how they are differently impacted by marginalization related to their gender. Their lack
of first-hand knowledge of how women prisoners might experience race and gender
oppression was perceived to be a barrier to solidarity. They also questioned their
legitimacy to work on behalf of the women prisoners. While these activists recognized
their privilege and how it influenced both their relationships and SMO goals, it did not
preclude them from doing work with and on behalf of the women prisoners. Yet,
privilege may be a barrier to solidarity in multiple ways within SMOs.
Members of disadvantaged groups may be offered an opportunity within SMOs
on the basis of their membership within that group. For example, a person may be asked
to serve on a board of directors or to speak at an event because of their gender or race.
Scholars have suggested that this practice creates space for participation but also reifies
the privilege of those in power to make such choices while also promoting competition
among those in the disadvantaged group (Gordon, 2016; Lazzari et al., 2009; Mohanty,
2013; Ortega & Busch-Armendariz, 2013). In addition, Weisinger et al. (2016) claim that
including people because of the groups to which they belong without also changing the
processes of communication and decision making can limit the potential benefits of
diversity–such as creativity and improved performance. Thus, as Holloway (2010)
suggests, the objectification of perceived others may limit the ability of SMOs to
transform social division.
Relationships among Women Activists
Several feminist scholars (Lawston, 2009; Mohanty, 2003; Tingting, 2010;
Weldon, 2006) have suggested that women’s relationships within progressive SMOs have
historically been and are still fraught with division. For example, the women’s suffrage
movement excluded women of color and poor and working-class women (Davis, 1981).
More recently, the women’s movement of the 1970s also sidelined the ideas and priorities
of these groups (Ferber, 2012). In other words, mainstream women’s activism has largely
reflected the needs and values of White middle- and upper-class women–as well as those
who are cisgender, able-bodied, and heterosexual. In her experience, feminist scholar
Gordon (2016) has noticed that women activists sometimes direct their anger at women
from different backgrounds which eclipses their efforts to address patriarchy, racism, and
other forms of injustice. Thus, differences among women can be a source of conflict
within SMOs.
Borders are the constructed social, affiliative, economic, geographic,
philosophical, and symbolic boundaries that create social division within the context of
progressive SMOs (Lamont & Molnár, 2002; Mignolo, 2019; Swarts, 2011). As
Anzaldúa (1987) explained, “borders are set up to define the places that are safe and
unsafe, to distinguish us from them” (p. 25). Scholars suggest that these borders–which
can be viewed as natural and permanent or as permeable and open to interpretation–
influence relationships among groups and individuals and help people make sense of their
environment (Agnew, 2008; Anzaldúa, 1987; Giudice & Giubilaro, 2015; Yuval-Davis et
al., 2017; Lamont & Molnár, 2002; Van Houtum et al., 2005). Thus, as suggested by
Alcoff (2000), it is possible that social categories are not just historically formed–their
boundaries and meaning may be continually negotiated.
Both the areas created by borders and the borderlines that create these areas are
relevant sites of analysis and action in SMO work (Jones, 2009). Cole and Luna (2010)
suggest that leaders clearly delineate between those who are contributing to or colluding
with oppression and those who have been impacted by oppressive systems or recognize
and are mobilized around this injustice because social movements are organized in
response to injustice. Thus, differences between groups are often emphasized in SMOs
and managing these boundaries to shape collective identity and promote solidarity is a
function of SMO leadership (Giudice & Giubilaro, 2015; Hunt & Benford, 2004; Jetten
& Mols, 2009).
Borders delineate social groups, but they can also indicate that there is a point of
connection or relationship (Löw & Weidenhaus, 2017). Border thinking is one
framework used to conceptualize borders in terms of dwelling along, and being part of,
both sides of borders to transcend the dichotomization created by boundaries (Mignolo,
2000). In other words, each side can be viewed as complementary parts of a greater
whole rather than separate (kumar, 2015; Mignolo, 2000). Consequently, borders can be
viewed as spaces that promote “the possibility of radical perspective from which to see
and create, to imagine alternatives” (hooks, 1990, p. 150). Thus, borders may in fact be
spaces where SMO leaders reconceptualize collective identity–both who belongs and
what it means to belong to that group.
Leadership within Progressive Social Movement Organizations
Leadership, particularly that of women, is underexplored in the social movement
literature (DeCesare, 2013; Ganz, 2010; Ganz & McKenna, 2018; Morris & Staggenborg,
2004; Motta, 2013). This section explores how leadership within progressive SMOs
intersects with social division vis-à-vis similarities and differences as well as the unique
challenges women leaders face within these organizations.
Leadership and Social Division
Leadership within SMOs is distinct from other types of organizations. SMOs are
often decentralized in practice (Ganz, 2010); however, the recognized leaders who serve
as spokespeople are sometimes thought of as heroes (Nørholm Just & Muhr, 2019).
Although SMOs often have a visible charismatic leader, leadership operates in more
nuanced ways within these organizations (Ganz, 2010; Ganz & McKenna, 2018). Leaders
are not necessarily defined by position or organizational affiliation but by recognition
from others in the movement and the public (DeCesare, 2013). In progressive SMOs, the
practice of leadership is not just an individual or dyadic practice–this work is embedded
in networks of other organizations taking collective action toward a shared goal (Wilson,
2004). Thus, leadership in SMOs is often relational and collective rather than formal and
hierarchical (Delisle et al., 2017; Kuepers, 2011; Mehrotra et al., 2016).
Leadership and solidarity are interconnected within SMOs. Charlene A.
Carruthers, director of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), explained that “no single
leader is coming to save us. Only collective action can bring about the transformation our
world needs” (Carruthers, 2018, p. 138). She further described how leadership connects
to sustaining movement work:
Charismatic leaders who fail to build relationships and foster more leaders are
setting themselves up for martyrdom, and their work may grind to a halt after they
are no longer able to perform it. Where we lack a strong base of leaders we will
also find points of weakness and lack of depth to the work. (Carruthers, 2018, p.
Thus, Carruthers suggests that decentralization is an indication of leaders’ success in
progressive SMOs as it facilitates the continuation and expansion of movement work.
However, Spade (2013) suggests that, since the 1970s, the work of progressive
social movements has increasingly been carried out by formalized organizations that have
paid staff and ties to elite networks which intertwines the interests of communities
impacted by injustice with those who benefit from the maintenance of the systems that
produce this injustice. Spade differentiates between these organizations, which are often
staffed by people who are White and have board members with access to resources and
power, and grassroots SMOs which are community-driven, volunteer-led, and organized
by people of color. The former type of organization focuses on system reform, such as
through legislation, while the latter works locally to analyze and address the root causes
of oppression. Formalized organizations have more resources and their messages are
palatable to a wider audience while the work of grassroots organizations is often
unnoticed by the general public. Similarly, Payerhin and Zirakzadeh (2006) suggest that
there are two types of SMOs: those that are highly decentralized and diverse in terms of
both the people who are involved and their perspectives, and those that have strong
leaders and are more aligned with widely-accepted ideals. In contrast to Spade and
Payerhin and Zirakzadeh, della Porta and Diani (2016) suggest that “a plurality of
organizational models co-exist within any social movement” (p. 161). Thus, there are
multiple, complex manifestations of leadership practice within progressive SMOs which
may be connected to social division.
Women's Leadership in Progressive Social Movement Organizations
Women have served in community leadership roles for thousands of years (Trigg
& Bernstein, 2016). In the United States, women have held leadership roles within social
movements since the beginning of the nation (AAUW, 2016; O’Connor & Yanus, 2010).
Women leaders in progressive SMOs have many opportunities, yet they also face several
challenges related to both their gender and patriarchal culture embedded within their
organizations. These will be explored in the following sections.
Although women have greater leadership opportunities in the nonprofit sector
than in business, they are still underrepresented (AAUW, 2016; Thomas, 2019). While
about 75% of employees in the nonprofit sector are women, less than half of executive
directors or chief executives are women (Stiffman, 2015). Women are more often in
positions of leadership in smaller nonprofit organizations than in those with larger
budgets (AAUW, 2016). For example, in organizations with an annual budget of less than
$250,000, 58% of CEOs were women in 2018; in contrast, only 25% of CEOS were
women in organizations with annual budgets of more than $50 million (Candid, 2020).
Other factors, such as race and age, intersect with gender in the opportunities
available to women within organizations. Women leaders are typically paid less than
men, and leaders who are women of color are paid less than White women (AAUW,
2016). A program manager for the Young Women in Leadership initiative of The
Association for Women’s Rights in Development reflected that young women, in
particular, may lack sufficient opportunities to develop and practice their leadership skills
in SMOs due to ageism combined with sexism (Wilson, 2004).
Rao and Kelleher (2000) claim that the professionalization of the nonprofit sector
has reinscribed gender inequality within its organizational policies and practices. For
example, through interviews and focus groups with 18 leaders in the immigrants’ rights
movement, Milkman and Terriquez (2012) found that it may be more difficult for women
to become leaders in older, more established SMOs with formalized structures that have
historically been led by men. In a comparative study of two feminist organizations that
included 10 interviews, Boucher (2018) concluded that government-funded SMOs may
compromise the more radical components of their agenda to maintain these relationships
and preserve their organizations’ capacity to serve communities. These studies
demonstrate that professionalization may both limit opportunities for women within
SMOs and change the nature of SMO work.
Barriers to Women's Leadership
A recent American Association of University Women study (2016) found that
several barriers stand in the way of women becoming leaders including bias,
discrimination, and family responsibilities. In fact, in an experiment that included 110
MBA students, both women and men tended to show a preference for male leaders–even
when women leaders use masculine styles of communication (Walker & Aritz, 2015).
Implicit bias can impact the way women leaders are perceived and treated (Braddy et al.,
2020). In a phenomenological analysis of 11 women leaders, O’Neill (2019) found that
women’s bodies are objectified and otherized in leadership–in contrast to men’s bodies
which are associated with leadership in a normative way; thus, women are “often the
focus of judgment, prejudice or discipline by others” (p. 315). In her feminist analysis of
the animal rights movement based on participant observation and interviews with
multiple women leaders, Gaarder (2011) found that they were sometimes harassed by
counterprotesters and even called vulgar names when they participate in direct actions.
To address such negative attention, Thomas (2019) suggests that women leaders use time
and energy–that might otherwise be directed toward organizational goals–to manage
others’ expectations and impressions of them related to their gender. Thus, gender bias
impacts not only individual women leaders, but also their organizations and movements.
Scholars have suggested several ways that women are “silenced, sidelined, and
gender stereotyped” in their work with SMOs (Trigg & Bernstein, 2016, p. xii). In the
aforementioned study, Gaarder (2011) found that women leaders are often less visible in
SMOs because their labor is devalued. Unlike men, women leaders may be expected to
be modest and lack confidence in their abilities and performance (Braddy et al., 2020).
Thus, women SMO leaders sometimes seek legitimization and get attention for their
cause by performing in accordance with gender stereotypes (O’Brien & Shea, 2010).
Fine (2009) claims that masculinity is centered within leadership which is
reflected in both the lack of representation of women and “the construction of leadership
as comprising masculine characteristics” (p. 181). Leadership styles that are considered
to be “feminine” do not necessarily correspond with or reflect biological differences but
rather reflect socialization (de la Rey, 2005). While the way women lead is not
biologically predetermined, some scholars (i.e. Sawer & Andrew, 2014; Themudo, 2009)
suggest that women leaders may be more likely to be empathic, altruistic, and
community-minded than men–drawing them to nonprofit or SMO work where these
characteristics can be employed. On the other hand, Sawer & Andrew claim that some
women in progressive SMOs have avoided leadership as is it associated with masculine,
hierarchical approaches to organizing and relating which are opposed to progressive
ideals. Thus, while feminine constructions of leadership may be more present in SMOs
and the nonprofit sector, they are not necessarily the norm.
Women SMO leaders also confront stereotypes in their work. In her study of
women leaders in the animal rights movement, Gaarder (2011) found that they carefully
balance their feelings and intellect when interacting with others within the movement and
when representing the SMO to the public to be recognized as legitimate because they are
expected to be emotional. Through 10 interviews with Black women leaders working
toward justice for people with HIV/AIDS in a phenomenological study, McLane-Davison
(2015) attributed the burden of proving that they were “legitimate” to both their gender
and race. This shows that, while women experience particular challenges within SMOs,
gender and race may intersect to uniquely disadvantage women of color in such
Feminist Approaches to Leadership
Morris (2002) posits that the lack of women in formal leadership roles in SMOs
merits examination as it mirrors relations of power in society. Yet, Weisinger et al.
(2016) claim that a focus on representation alone can be objectifying and does not take
into consideration the relations of power that impact the opportunities to which women
leaders have access within SMOs and the nonprofit sector. Similarly, Elliot & Stead
(2008) argue that while several studies of leadership explore feminine characteristics and
leadership practices, they often do not critique such structural inequality.
In contrast, feminist leaders work to critique and change the systems, policies, and
culture that privilege patriarchal culture, structures, policies, and practices (Mitchem,
2009; Rao & Kelleher, 2000). According to Thomas and Davies (2005), feminist
leadership has multiple manifestations; it can be reformist, revolutionary, or reinscribing.
These three frames of feminist leadership are distinct in both their philosophy and
practice. Reformist feminist leadership is focused on addressing stereotypes and
discrimination, which emphasizes the rights of individuals. Revolutionary feminist
leadership addresses structural inequalities through collective action. Reinscribing
feminist leadership challenges duality and transforms meaning. Thus, there are different
types of feminist leadership practice which correspond to different values, goals, and
Fine’s (2009) concept of a “feminist ethic of care” bridges leadership approaches
associated with feminine characteristics with feminist approaches to leadership. Such an
ethic emphasizes “collaboration, community, and care” as well as contributing to the
wellbeing of leaders’ communities (Fine, 2009, p. 195). Other scholars (i.e. Sawer &
Andrew, 2014; Trigg & Bernstein, 2016) suggest that feminist approaches such as
inclusiveness, expression of emotions, and dispersion of power have influenced the
concept and practice of leadership in progressive SMOs. A phenomenological analysis of
10 Black women leaders in HIV/AIDS organizations found that a relational, non-
hierarchical approach to leadership can facilitate trust which enhances feminist leaders’
influence and ability to successfully address social problems (McLane-Davison, 2016).
Thus, feminine leadership styles are not necessarily concurrent with, nor or they in
opposition to, feminist leadership styles. Rather, they may be complementary and
intersect in unique ways within an SMO context.
Collective Identity
Collective identity and solidarity both have multiple meanings within the context
of SMOs and are sometimes used interchangeably (Fominaya, 2010; Steans, 2007).
Although collective identity and solidarity are distinct phenomena, they are
interconnected both conceptually and in practice (Hunt & Benford, 2004; Rupp & Taylor,
1999). While the primary focus of this study is solidarity, an understanding of collective
identity will facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of the construction and
experience of solidarity within progressive SMOs.
Collective identity construction has been a central goal for many progressive
social movements over the past 50 years and is a primary task of leaders (Blühdorn,
2006; Jasper, 2011). It has been defined as “an individual’s cognitive, moral, and
emotional connection with a broader community, category, practice, or institution…a
perception of a shared status or relation, which may be imagined rather than experienced
directly” (Polletta & Jasper, 2001, p. 285). Collective identity has intellectual, affective,
moral, and contextual components (Hunt & Benford, 2004). It represents ideas about who
belongs in a particular group and what the group believes (Tanyas, 2019). Collective
identity reflects connections with others based on shared values, beliefs, socioeconomic
or geographic location, history, affiliations, lifestyle choices, rituals, and/or goals (della
Porta & Diani, 2016; Fominaya, 2010). It is both influenced by, and expressed through,
materials such as artwork, clothing, published writing, symbols, and photographs
(Holland et al., 2008; Polletta & Jasper, 2001). Thus, collective identity is a complex
phenomenon unique to the SMO context that integrates social and geographic location,
values, culture, relationships, beliefs, and emotions.
Collective identity serves several pragmatic purposes in SMO work. Scholars (i.e.
Holland et al., 2008; Snow, 2001) have suggested that it can motivate people to get
involved by facilitating a sense of shared connection as well as opportunities for joint
action. In addition to engaging people, collective identity can promote solidarity and
encourage continued involvement with movement work (Polletta & Jasper, 2001; Sbicca
& Perdue, 2014). This involvement is sustained through collective identity as it helps
actors withstand the risks and conflicts inherent in such work and can also sustain
feelings of connection to the movement over time as priorities and goals shift (della Porta
& Diani, 2016; Gongaware, 2011; Polletta & Jasper, 2001). Conversely, Poletta and
Jasper suggest that a lack of alignment between collective identity and movement actors
can result in a termination of their involvement; thus, continually rearticulating collective
identity in response to actors’ interactions and dialogue calibrates it with current values
and beliefs.
Construction of Collective Identity
According to Taylor (2013), collective identity develops through three iterative
processes: boundary construction, awareness of belonging to the group, and
“politicization of a group’s commonalities and differences through the negotiation and re-
creation of new self-affirming identities” (p. 39). Scholars claim that collective identities
are developed in response to ascribed identities to create empowering new meanings of
identities which have been assigned by others and may be incomplete or laden with
inaccuracies or stereotypes (Cole & Luna, 2010; della Porta & Diani, 2016; Harding,
2006; Taylor, 2013; Weir, 2013). Pirc (2015) argues that conceptualizations of self, and
the groups to which we belong, are always developed in binary opposition to an “other”
and these understandings are developed through interaction with the other. Similarly,
Weir (2013) explains that collective identity is not just influenced by a sense of
connection or belonging, it is also shaped by these “misidentifications” which are “the
experience of not belonging to a group to which one is assigned that opens up questions
of who I am and who I want to be” (p. 27). Thus, collective identity is developed and
negotiated through both similarities and differences within, as well as external to, the
Social movement actors can potentially align with multiple collective identities
that represent some aspect of their values, goals, and different life domains such as work,
religion, and family (Ganz, 2010; Weisinger et al., 2016). These multiple collective
identities may be conflicting (Harding, 2006; Weir, 2013). Abes et al. (2007) claim that
people may split their identity affiliations, such as religion and sexual orientation, as a
result of social conditioning. Actors’ decision to engage with certain collective identities
can be influenced by the relative importance of that collective identity or by the image
they wish to project (Weisinger et al., 2016). Thus, collective identity represents not just
who actors are, but who they are becoming (Hall, 1990).
SMO leaders construct and manage collective identity to engage and motivate
activists as well as to structure their claims and tactics (Jetten & Mols, 2009; Kuepers,
2011; Rupp & Taylor, 1999; Taylor, 2013). Scholars claim that collective identity is a
prerequisite for involvement in social movement organizations; actors get involved
because a particular collective identity aligns with their actual or idealized self-perception
(Jetten & Mols, 2009; della Porta & Diani, 2016). Having a sense of shared identity,
values, and goals also promotes psychological safety and sustains the engagement of
actors through the emotional challenges of social movement work (Taylor, 2006). Thus,
collective identity intersects with leadership practice in progressive SMOs.
Ontology and Epistemology of Collective Identity
These complex and multiple approaches to conceptualizing collective identity are
grounded in ontology and epistemology (Esteban-Guitart & Moll, 2014; Howard, 2000).
There is a tension between modernists that focus on collective identity categories that are
natural, stable, and/or ordered and others that are focused on the construction and
meaning(s) of collective identity. For example, Weir (2013) explains that in SMO work
there is often more of a focus on objective identity categories than on the subjective
process of identification. While Weir critiques essentialism in the construction of
collective identity, others (i.e. Kumsa et al., 2015) argue that this exercise does not
necessarily reflect the realities of people’s lived experience.
Medina (2008) argues that the two common orientations to collective identity–
modernism and postmodernism–consider individuals and the contexts in which they live
to be discrete. Because identity categories may be too restrictive–but constructions of
collective identity can be too fluid, Brubaker and Cooper (2000) suggest that categories
should be understood, instead, as a “contingent, emergent property” (p. 30). Thus,
collective identity can alternatively be reconceptualized to “confront the dualism between
structure and meaning” (Melucci, 1995, p. 42). Similarly, Harding (2006) suggests that
identity is neither fixed in relation to social structure and history, nor is it an effect of
individual free will; rather, it is a complex, negotiated phenomena that integrates both.
Thus, category and meaning are not necessarily disconnected; they intertwine in SMO
Pragmatists such as Mohanty (2003) claim that modern and postmodern
approaches to collective identity construction alone are insufficient given the complexity
of political and social life–both are relevant. In other words, collective identities are both
constructed and based in the realities of social structure and history. Weir (2009) adds
that collective identity is shaped not just by social structure and meaning-making, but
also through interaction and relationships. According to Weir (2013), the way activists
make meaning of their collective identities is influenced by the categories to which they
belong while their understanding and ability to transform categories is influenced by the
extent of their epistemological flexibility and meaning-making capacity. This
demonstrates that diverse epistemologies related to collective identity need not be in
competition–they can instead be integrated as part of a greater whole.
Critique of Collective Identity
Both the concept and practice of collective identity have been critiqued by
scholars. According to Jasper & McGarry (2015), collective identities never fully reflect
the problems, values, and ideals of the group. They further claim that collective identities
can falsely project group unity or homogeneity for the purpose of making political claims
on behalf of a group; in addition, personal identities may be in conflict with the collective
identity of an SMO with which an actor is involved. Similarly, Moon (2012) argues that
each individual may uniquely conceptualize what it means to be part of a particular
group; this perspective can be quite different from others who share one or more social
locations. Because social movement groups are often heterogeneous, Taylor (2013)
suggests that developing a coherent and inclusive collective identity can be difficult.
Kang (2014) adds that aligning with a collective identity may create “a binary logic of
we–they” that is too simplistic to fully represent all members of the group (p. 47).
Both Touraine (2000) and McDonald (2002) question the relevance of collective
identity and instead suggest that each individual’s ability to choose the life they would
like to live is paramount. In fact, McDonald (2002) claims that collective identity is a
“conceptual liability” because it does not reflect the realities of a globalized, highly
networked, and emergent world (p.124). These arguments suggest that collective identity
typically does not take the agency of actors into account and that this concept may not
fully represent the multiple organizations, contexts, and structures that are involved in
SMO work.
Like collective identity, there are multiple meanings of solidarity in practice and
scholarship (Steans, 2007; Thörn, 2009). These meanings include social or economic
bonds, emotional connection, recognition of shared values or identity, and obligation to a
community (Currans et al., 2012; Derpmann, 2014; Durkheim, 1893/1969; Hunt &
Benford, 2004; Steans, 2007; Walhof, 2006). Solidarity can be conceptualized at the
societal, group, or interpersonal level (Laitinen & Pessi, 2014). SMO leaders are situated
within complex networks of organizations, alliances, and coalitions (Diani, 2004). To
Bauder (2016), solidarity is a means through which actors connect within and across
these networks to jointly take political action. Solidarity, then, is a multidimensional
construct in SMO work with affective, relational, and strategic components.
Many scholars emphasize connection and relationships in their discussion of
solidarity. They suggest that solidarity develops as actors interact and sustains
commitment to, and engagement in, SMO work (Steans, 2007; Walhof, 2006; Weir,
2013). For example, after facilitating an “Engage Community of Practice” gathering,
former executive director of The Ruckus Society, activist, and author adrienne marie
brown (2017) noted that connections with the group continued through “close daily
personal contact, occasional opportunities for mutual support, noticing and supporting
each other’s work and growth from afar, and being more intentional about bringing this
practice into the way we hold all of our relationships” (p. 193). Thus, solidarity can
develop through continued engagement and relationship building over time.
Durkheim (1893/1969) theorized that there were two forms of solidarity:
mechanical and organic. According to this seminal theory, mechanical solidarity is based
on commonality or similarity whereas organic solidarity occurs between groups and
individuals that are different. Within the context of progressive SMOs, mechanical
solidarity is known as identity politics or unity whereas organic solidarity is typically
called bridge building, coalition building, or solidarity across difference. In the sections
that follow, mechanical and organic solidarity are explored as well as approaches to
solidarity that are integrative, transcending the mechanical/organic binary.
Mechanical Solidarity
Mechanical solidarity is based on similarities. In 1983, Combahee River
Collective suggested that “the most profound and potentially the most radical politics
come directly out of our own identity” (p. 212). Progressive social movements often
organize around a common categorical identity as a strategic maneuver to make claims
on behalf of a group that has experienced marginalization (Alcoff, 2000; Collins, 2009;
Elliker et al., 2017; Weir, 2013). Such identities may be related to race, gender, class,
ability, sexual orientation, or other characteristics and social locations; movements
typically organize around one particular identity or group (Gandhi & Shah, 2006).
While the aforementioned scholars suggest that there is politically strategic utility
in mechanical solidarity, others (i.e. Gandhi & Shah, 2006) have proposed that groups are
often unable to acknowledge and engage with the multiple identity affiliations of group
members due to limited capacity. In addition, Medina (2003) suggests that groups focus
their efforts on one particular identity because attempts to change multiple forms of
oppression simultaneously–even if they are interconnected–is complex and beyond the
scope of most SMOs. This indicates that the use of mechanical solidarity in SMO work
may be a necessity, rather than an intentional or strategic choice, due to resource
Progressive movements based on identity are commonly referred to as identity
politics. While some SMOs may organize around a single identity, the definition and
nature of movements based on identity is not commonly agreed upon by SMO
practitioners (Bernstein, 2005). Kang (2014) defines identity politics as “constructing a
claim in the name of a particular group that presupposes group membership and certain
political positionalities” (p. 43). To Brubaker and Cooper (2000), identity politics
constructs identity around similarities such as a common history or experience. Adams
(1989) adds that identity politics is a “celebration of a group's uniqueness as well as an
analysis of its particular oppression” (p. 25). To Alcoff and Mohanty (2006), identity-
based movements are based on the belief that “identities are often resources of
knowledge especially relevant for social change, and …oppressed groups need to be at
the forefront of their own liberation” (p. 2). Thus, the similarities that serve as the basis
for mechanical solidarity are not limited to membership in a group alone; this practice
also uses shared history, experience, and values in the performance of SMO work.
Identity-based movements such as the civil rights movement and the women’s
movement emerged in the 1960s, following a shift in focus from economic class to
identity, meaning, and culture, and remain the predominant organizing frame in
progressive SMOs (Bernstein, 2005; Hunt & Benford, 2004; Zugman, 2003). More
recently, there was a renewed focus on class, such as in the Occupy Wall Street
movement, which Wieviorka (2005) claims is the result of increasing globalization and
income inequality. Some scholars (i.e. Burgmann, 2005) suggest that identity and class
are sometimes in competition within progressive social movements while others (i.e.
della Porta & Diani, 2016) propose that there is an interactive, rather than mutually
exclusive, relationship between economic inequality and identities in SMO work. Brown
(2013) adds that SMOs can strategically integrate both class and identity. As these
disparate claims suggest, there is some disagreement about the relevance and integration
of class as the basis of mechanical solidarity in progressive SMOs.
While there are limited empirical studies of mechanical solidarity, Hoston (2009)
offers one such example. Using available phone survey data from 441 Black respondents
who lived in four U.S. cities–two with mostly Black residents and two with mostly White
residents, Hoston performed ordinary least squares regression to estimate the relationship
between Black solidarity and racial context. The findings indicate that respondents were
more likely to express Black solidarity when living in a majority White context. In
addition, higher levels of education and younger age had an inverse relationship with
expressions of Black solidarity. This study demonstrates that context–in particular that
related to race, as well as other demographic factors, may also impact the way
mechanical solidarity is constructed and expressed.
Scholars have suggested that there are several reasons why SMOs organize
around identity. To Manji (2019), categories help people make sense of the world and
promote belonging and social safety. Similarly, Pilcher (2016) suggests that naming by
category can be a useful practice that links embodied experience with a recognizable
social identity. According to Bourdieu (1991), identity categories create an opportunity
for members of a group to discover their similarities without splintering. Using identity
categories may also help activists “resist the pressure to assimilate” (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.
59). Scholars suggest that identity-based SMOs create opportunities for people to affirm
identities that have been subordinated without judgment or condemnation from dominant
groups, heighten members’ political conscience, and change relations of power (Carter,
2013; Collins, 2009; Jetten & Mols, 2009; Kang, 2014). Within progressive SMOs,
basing solidarity on identity thus facilitates recognition of similar others, group cohesion
and resolve, and political action.
The experience of activist Charlene A. Carruthers illustrates the possibilities of
mechanical solidarity and organizing around similarities; however, her work is
intersectional and includes but is not limited to such practices. In response to the
dismissal of a case against a police officer who shot and killed a 22-year-old woman,
Carruthers partnered with the Movement for Black Lives, the #SayHerName campaign,
and local leaders in Chicago to create systemic changes that ensure that “Black women
and girls became less of a footnote and more front and center in the dominant
understanding of how much is at stake for Black people in the struggle to end policing”
(Carruthers, 2018, p. 125). Their joint effort resulted in more local participation, “more
complete” storytelling, and the emergence of new possibilities for change (Carruthers,
2018, p. 125). This story suggests that coming together in solidarity on the basis of shared
identity and experiences can result in the achievement of SMO goals. Nonetheless,
scholars and practitioners have critiqued mechanical solidarity. This is explored in the
following section.
Limitations of Mechanical Solidarity
Scholars have described several conceptual and practical challenges related to
mechanical solidarity. For example, feminist theorist Keating (2013) offers six critiques
of identity-based movements: 1) they reinforce binaries such as us and them; 2) they use
identity categories that were created to divide people which reinscribes rather than
transforms them; 3) their narrow focus makes it difficult to notice similarities and points
of connection; 4) to create unity, they suppress ideas that do not align with the group’s
vision; 5) because the importance of difference is minimized, it is difficult to work in
coalition with other groups; and 6) they rank the claims of people and groups that have
been oppressed, turning people against each other. She suggests that identity politics
plays a critical role in society; however, to overcome these challenges, SMOs can instead
define identity in an “inclusionary” way (Keating, 2013, p. 96). Keating’s thorough
critique illuminates the paradox that mechanical solidarity, while commonly used in
SMO work, can also contradict the values and goals of many progressive SMOs.
Other scholars echo and add to Keating’s (2013) critique. According to Bernstein
(2005), identity-based movements may ignore the complex “relationships among identity,
institutions, and political economy” (p. 50). Several scholars claim that mechanical
solidarity emphasizes individual agency, rather than structural critique and change, and
promotes internal hierarchy (Blühdorn, 2006; Burgmann, 2005; Holloway, 2010;
Lakämper, 2017; Weldon, 2006). Others suggest that mechanical solidarity extends the
practice of dividing and fragmenting people and recenters privileged identities (Laker,
2016; Leve, 2011; Swarts, 2011). In addition, scholars have suggested that SMOs
sometimes position their struggles as not only discrete but also in opposition to each other
(Butler, 1990; Carbado, 2013; Collins, 2009; Keating, 2013; Manji, 2019). Thus,
mechanical solidarity may position individuals and groups within SMOs against each
other while also increasing competition between SMOs within movements or coalitions.
Because mechanical solidarity is typically based on one identity (Gandhi & Shah,
2006), the multiple identities of people who are involved may not be represented in SMO
work (Bernstein, 2005; Elliker et al., 2017; Ortega, 2016). When solidarity is based on
sameness, actors may suppress important parts of their identities, histories, social
locations, values, and beliefs that do not fit with group norms to preserve the integrity of
the group (Kilgore, 1999; Lugones, 1994; Olwan, 2015). Thus, as Bernstein (2005)
suggests, focusing on a singular identity may minimize intragroup differences and make
it difficult for members to participate as their whole, integrated selves.
Differing uses of the term identity may be at the root of some critique of
mechanical solidarity, as categorical identity and constructed identity are sometimes used
in mutually exclusive, rather than interactive, ways (Ortega, 2016). According to
Mohanty (2003), identity can be strategically used to make claims on behalf of a group,
but it can also represent shared history and experience. In fact, Alcoff (1988) describes
identities as positions from which actors construct meaning and engage politically rather
than attributes or characteristics which essentialize the experiences, values, beliefs, and
goals of a group. Alcoff (2000) later framed identity politics as a reflection of actors’
“positional consciousness,” which informs how they understand and engage with social
problems. She further suggests that positional consciousness can serve as a resource
which sustains commitment to social movement goals. Thus, identity-based movements
can employ identity as a standpoint in addition to using identity categories in their work.
Keating (2013) proposed that there are multiple ways to think about identity in a
progressive SMO context and suggested that identity be used in an “expansive” way (p.
96). Similarly, Medina (2003) suggests that different parts of individuals’ identity are
mutually constitutive and interconnected. He further claims that difference may be a
necessary part of identity, rather than its opposite, which suggests that solidarity cannot
exist without diversity. Collins (2009, 2010) offers that both identity-based and issue-
based SMOs have strategic value. Thus, similarities and differences may coexist as part
of a greater whole in social movement work.
The next section explores how SMOs engage in organic solidarity, or solidarity
based on differences, to conceptually distinguish this phenomenon from mechanical
solidarity and identity politics.
Organic Solidarity
The preceding discussion about identity politics revealed the strategic value of
solidarity related to commonalities, but also the limitations of this approach. Thus, many
scholars have explored how women within social movements acknowledge and engage
difference through their solidarity practice (i.e. Cole & Luna, 2010; Coley, 2014; Ospina
& Foldy, 2010). SMO leaders work through differences as they create solidarity both
within their own groups and as they build bridges with other groups (Cervenak et al.
2002). This section explores the ways that actors connect across differences in SMO
work. Such work is often called border crossing, bridge building, coalition, solidarity
across difference, and alliances within the context of progressive SMOs.
Bopari (2015) suggests that social structure and relations of power create groups
that are marginalized or “other.” In addition, Mohanty (2013) and Steans (2007) claim
that the words other and difference are sometimes used in a way that upholds White male
normativity and the power structures that SMOs address. In this section, these terms are
used to mean “other than” and “different from” so that privileged groups are not re-
centered. In addition, the use of these terms does not imply that there is one other group
or one difference as these are multiple (Ortega, 2016).
Several scholars have argued that, like mechanical solidarity, organic solidarity
has strategic value. Specifically, they suggest that solidarity that engages difference and
reflects the interconnectedness of social movement goals, the multiple identities of SMO
actors, and the diversity of SMO networks (Harris, 2013; Min, 2005). In addition,
scholars claim that engaging difference expands movement networks, increases access to
resources, reveals new perspectives on the issues being addressed, and expands
repertoires of SMO tactics (Groggins & Ryan, 2013; Magis, 2010). In a longitudinal
narrative inquiry of 40 social change leaders across the United States, Ospina & Foldy
(2010) found that SMOs’ ability to work across difference is also related to their
effectiveness. Collectively, these findings suggest that engaging difference in SMO work
may benefit both organizations and movements.
Organic solidarity can be motivated by other factors as well. Scholars have
suggested that SMO actors form solidarity across difference because of empathy, the
recognition of important commonalities or shared goals, and admiration of others’ work
(Currans, 2014; Gadamer, 1999; Horowitz, 2017; Steans, 2007). In a comparative
ethnography that examined solidarity among women in feminist organizations in
Germany, Guenther (2009) found that working across difference was based on mutual
care, sharing emotions, and making sense of feelings. Thus, emotional connection also
plays an instrumental role in solidarity practice.
The remainder of this section will further explore the literature related to five
aspects of organic solidarity: 1) organic solidarity and leadership; 2) conflict and organic
solidarity; 3) border crossing; 4) coalition work; and 5) challenges of organic solidarity.
Organic Solidarity and Leadership Skills
There are a few studies that explore solidarity in connection with leadership
within SMOs. These studies emphasize self-awareness and personal development,
leadership characteristics and practices, relationships, and organizational practices.
Scholars have explored how specific leadership characteristics and practices
facilitate solidarity across difference. For example, The Asian Pacific American Legal
Center [APALC] (2003) identified four characteristics of leaders who work across
difference: 1) a perspective that appreciates the interconnectedness of people and issues;
2) an understanding of systemic issues; 3) a history of creating connections with multiple
groups; and 4) a commitment to developing the skills needed to continue creating
inclusive groups. Using interviews and existing organizational information with a sample
that included organizations from across the country representing work on multiple issues,
Ospina and Foldy (2010) identified five specific leadership practices used within social
change organizations to create “bridges across difference” (p. 298): 1) broadening or
shifting the way organizations articulate their purpose; 2) making social locations visible;
3) talking about difference and making space for people and ideas that may otherwise be
excluded; 4) ensuring the governance structure is inclusive in terms of composition and
practices; and 5) developing meaningful relationships. These studies suggest that
solidarity across difference involves certain skills, knowledge, experience, and practices.
While the findings do not neatly overlap, the different methods used perhaps reveal more
exhaustive and complementary findings.
Other studies have focused on organizational, rather than leadership, practices.
For example, Dobbie and Richards-Schuster (2008) identified five interconnected
organizational practices for creating solidarity across difference based on four case
studies of SMOs that organize and engage youth. Specifically, these SMOs expanded
their capacity for organic solidarity by: 1) attending to difference through inclusive
policies and practices; 2) creating opportunities for bridge builders to develop their
leadership skills; 3) creating opportunities for education, reflection, and dialogue around
difference as well as points of connection; 4) organizing informal opportunities for
people to interact across difference and develop a group identity; and 5) working in
coalition with other groups and organizations to address issues. Along with the findings
from the studies related to leadership practices, these findings suggest that recognition of
differences, inclusion, and relationships are salient aspects of solidarity across difference.
This study further suggests that SMOs can facilitate the development of leadership skills
and practices related to organic solidarity.
Through an oral history project involving 10 intersectional feminist SMO leaders,
Cole and Luna (2010) suggested that engaging difference in solidarity practice
strengthens SMOs by developing transferrable skills and deepening relationships. They
found that when practicing solidarity across difference, women SMO leaders engage their
memories and experience while also creating a vision based on their imagination of what
is possible in coalition with others. This study reveals how progressive SMO leaders
actively construct identity while also simultaneously engaging differences to strengthen
the group’s capacity to achieve its goals. Thus, identity may be a salient component of
organic solidarity as well as mechanical solidarity.
Theorists have suggested additional skills and characteristics relevant to organic
solidarity. They suggest that working through difference can reveal what activists did not
previously know or understand, new connections with “others,” and reinterpretation of
the worlds in which one lives (Ortega, 2016; Nash, 2013, Walhof, 2006). Thus, scholars
claim that engaging differences in SMO work in a meaningful and transformative way
should be based on listening, vulnerability, learning, hope, curiosity, and seeing the
wholeness of the “other” (Anonymous, 2002; Courville & Piper, 2004; Keating, 2013;
Manji, 2019; Yukich, 2010). This work suggests that while organic solidarity has
strategic value to SMOs and their movements, it may also contribute to the personal
development of SMO leaders.
Conflict and Organic Solidarity
Several scholars have explored the conflict that occurs when SMOs practice
organic solidarity and engage differences. Some propose that conflict occurs within
groups which include multiple viewpoints and experiences, influencing group learning
processes and the development of collective identity (Kilgore, 1999; Weir 2013). Others
have also suggested that conflict can be beneficial for SMOs. For example, Cervenak et
al. (2002) suggest that working through conflict related to differences deepens activists’
connections to others. Reflecting on her collaborative work with other activists, adrienne
marie brown (2017) noted that “my best work has happened during my most challenging
collaborations, because there are actual differences that are converging and creating more
space, ways forward that serve more than one worldview” (p. 159). Thus, SMO leaders
can create meaningful connections with others by recognizing and learning from their
intersecting perspectives (Ortega, 2016).
While conflict can be beneficial, it may also create tension and undermine
movement progress. In their ethnography of an anti-war movement in California, Currans
et al. (2012) found that the activists who came together for this cause were diverse–not
only demographically, but also in terms of their relationship to, and beliefs about,
government institutions. While some of the activists felt it would be beneficial to work
closely with the police, others viewed this as contrary to their goals as it limited the
public spaces available to them. A veterans’ group that participated in the movement–
which had mostly White and male members–framed the issue in a way that reflected both
their relationship to the military and their privilege. The behavior of student activists was
policed not only by the general public but also by this veterans’ group. While the
protestors shared common goals, their background, relationships, political beliefs, and
preferred tactics created internal conflict. Thus, conflict related to difference in SMOs is
not always resolved in a way that leads to positive outcomes.
Yet, scholars have also suggested that avoidance of conflict can negatively impact
SMO outcomes. In a longitudinal ethnographic study of an interracial SMO–which
included interviews with 13 women and 12 men who were 44% White, 44% Black or
African American, and 12% Latinx, Beeman (2015) found that, regardless of race or
ethnicity, activists sometimes employed color-blind narratives and denied the existence
of racism within the group to promote solidarity at the expense of developing new skills
and trust. In other words, similarity was emphasized in order to avoid conflict and create
unity; however, this tactic limited the organization’s ability to develop leadership. Taken
together, these studies suggest that conflict is not unilaterally employed or resolved in
relation to organic solidarity in SMOs.
Border Crossing
As previously discussed, SMO work often distinguishes between “us” and
“them.” SMO leaders cross the borders that divide “us” from “themwhen they engage
with other groups. These borders can be physical, political, or metaphorical (Agnew,
2008). Scholars have identified several types of borders that are relevant to SMO work:
social location (i.e. race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, immigration status);
geographic location; sector; and scale (i.e. connecting the work of organizations or
reaching out beyond the local community) (APALC, 2003; Sites et al., 2007). Fuist &
Josephsohn (2013) add that SMO leaders also negotiate the meaning of boundaries in
addition to crossing them. As suggested by Anzaldúa (2015), continually engaging in
border work can produce identities that are creatively developed–rather than externally
imposed–through novel experiences and reflection.
Several studies have explored multiple dimensions of border crossing in SMO
work. Through observations of Women in Black vigils in the United States and the
United Kingdom combined with interviews of participants, Currans (2014) explored how
emotional bonds between and among women transcend borders as women activists
perform solidarity to create awareness. At these events, the Women in Black activists
expressed solidarity with women in areas impacted by political conflict. As Currans
(2014) explains, “one feels solidarity and engages in an imaginative relationship with
others based on empathy for their experiences and an identification with them caused by
a sense of shared response to injustice” (p. 109). Thus, SMO actors may be motivated to
cross borders–while also challenging the legitimacy of dividing people through
geopolitical and other borders–because of emotional connections.
Working across geographic borders can reveal complex relations of power. In a
historical analysis that included 34 interviews and observation over four months,
Andrews (2010) explored how Zapatista activists in Mexico negotiated relationships with
allies from the United States. Since the Zapatista movement began in the 1990s, its
relationship with allies has transitioned from one that was based on the U.S. allies’
attempts to control the movement’s goals and messaging in exchange for resources to a
more equitable and reciprocal solidarity that acknowledges and elevates local control
within the movement. More recently, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza
reflected that she purposefully engaged across difference while also critiquing the views
and practices of the dominant group when participating in the Women’s March (Garza,
2017). These findings suggest that when SMO leaders engage difference based on
empathetic or strategic connections, their differences in social location remain salient. In
addition, although working across borders can result in tangible changes, doing so may
reinforce, rather than disrupt, relations of power.
Other studies have explored how mechanical and organic solidarity can coexist. In
her ethnography of White, middle class women abolitionists’ work with incarcerated
women, Lawston (2009) found that activists grounded relationships in their similar
experiences, such as a history of abuse or caregiving, as a strategy to establish credibility,
promote more equitable relationships between groups that were different in terms of race
and class, and bridge differences in priorities. Thus, a common identity–in this case,
woman–can be used as a point of connection to bridge differences in class, race, and
other areas when working toward solidarity.
In a grounded theory study, Coley (2014) explored how a campus-based SMO
worked to build bridges between the LGBTQ and conservative religious communities.
The SMO’s activism on campus created opportunities for dialogue and understanding
that would otherwise not have occurred. Through this intentional bridge building work,
activists constructed their identity in generative and integrative, rather than oppositional,
ways which aided in the development of positive working relationships with the targets
of their activism. Their findings suggest that bridge building is not just a process that
occurs within SMOs as they work toward their goals but can also be a primary goal of an
organization. In addition, this illustrates how organic solidarity can facilitate the
development of more “expansive” collective identities as suggested by Keating (2013, p.
Coalition Work
Social movements are composed of networks and coalitions of diverse groups and
actors (Meyer, 2005). Through coalitions, multiple organizations and actors negotiate and
articulate their collective beliefs as they work toward a common goal such as policy
change (Sabatier, 1988). Opportunities to work across difference in coalition often
emerge from what is happening in communities and movements. For example, after the
Rodney King verdict, the civil unrest in Los Angeles brought diverse groups together to
work toward solutions (APALC, 2003). Occupy Wall Street is another example of
coalitions emerging due to circumstances. Reich’s (2017) historical analysis of this
movement found that SMOs with diverse perspectives and areas of focus interacted in
new, unforeseen ways during the protests and these engagements led to long-lasting
collaboration. While coalitions may emerge in response to specific opportunities for
collaboration, these relationships may continue after the need for the coalition has passed.
As previously discussed, working across and through differences can be
rewarding to SMO leaders. For example, when participating in the Occupy Wall Street
protests, activist adrienne marie brown (2017) felt a “surge of energy…realizing that
there were so many people wanting change, people who had walked completely different
pathways to reach the same conclusion that they were willing to give their precious
lifeforce to changing the systems of our time” (p. 111). However, coalition work can also
be complex and difficult. In a case study of a coalition that developed in opposition to a
federal defense project, Beamish and Luebbers (2009) examined how social and
geographic location influence relationships when diverse groups work in coalition toward
a common goal. They found that the two groups had different values, goals, tactics, and
understandings of the issues they were addressing. Actors were able to overcome these
differences as well as a lack of trust by affirming their shared purpose, proactively
minimizing conflict, and identifying a common target of their activism. As the result of
working in coalition, actors were exposed to “new causes, concerns, and deeper
commitments that they had not formerly embraced” (Beamish & Luebbers, 2009, p. 668).
Thus, similar to the findings related to border crossing, coalition work exposes SMO
leaders to new funds of knowledge, resources, and repertoires for collective action.
Challenges of Organic Solidarity
The previous discussion about organic solidarity suggested that it can be
rewarding to SMO leaders, but also challenging. Scholars have identified several
differences that make such work difficult including social position, cultural processes,
priorities, ideology, access to and use of resources, and preferred tactics (Beamish &
Luebbers, 2009; Lugones, 1995; McCarthy & Walker, 2004; Pastor & LoPresti, 2007). In
addition, scholars have suggested several limitations to organic solidarity. For example,
Cervenak et al. (2002) claim that–similar to identity politics–working across difference
can be an oppositional practice that minimizes human complexity, limits understanding,
and stunts possibilities for engagement and solidarity. Others (i.e. Manji, 2019; Walhof,
2006) have suggested that there can be a tendency to force agreement or to suggest that
one person or group should adopt the goals or way of thinking of the other which limits
possibilities for joint goals and actions.
Several scholars have attributed the challenges of organic solidarity to power
differences. While some (i.e. Ospina & Foldy, 2010) have suggested that addressing
power relations is important when working across difference, others (i.e. Keating, 2005)
have noted that a critical analysis of power differences does not always occur in organic
solidarity work. While Meyer (2005) suggests that allies from more privileged groups
serve an important purpose within SMOs as they have may access to, and knowledge
about, the political system, Manji (2019) claims that they are sometimes “valued only for
their usefulness to the cause, not for their intrinsic humanity” (p. 270). Thus, there is not
a clear pathway to effectively address differences in power and privilege when working
across difference in SMOs.
For example, Rose (2000) suggested that SMO activists who build bridges across
difference, even when they do so in a way that challenges structures of power, can be
accused of compromising the integrity of their group. Other times, SMOs with more
power use that to their advantage when working with other groups. In their grounded
theory study of two SMO coalitions in Miami, Pastor and LoPresti (2007) explored how
power asymmetries impact the work of SMOs working across difference. They found that
the more powerful group excluded the other group from decision making and overlooked
their needs. They also found that the two groups used different methods of engagement
and prioritized different issues which resulted in conflict. Thus, the possibilities for
working across difference in SMOs may be constrained by social location–even when
those different social locations are beneficial to the SMO or the movement.
Integrative Solidarity
The previous sections on mechanical and organic solidarity reveal that these two
articulations of solidarity are not necessarily mutually exclusive; they can be concurrent,
overlapping, and hybrid (Thijssen, 2012). As Mohanty (2003) claims, differences and
commonalities may in fact be relational, rather than discrete, concepts. In fact, Keating
(2013) defines commonalities as “intertwined differences and possible points of
connection” (p. 54). As such, there are several conceptualizations of solidarity that
transcend the mechanical/organic and us/them binaries proposed by Durkheim
(1893/1969) and Allport (1954). These alternative approaches to solidarity suggest the
possibility that women leaders within progressive SMOs can simultaneously engage
multiple similarities and differences as they construct and experience solidarity, and/or
that they can strategically use multiple forms of solidarity at different times. The
following sections explore how SMO leaders engage similarities and differences as they
construct and experience solidarity through the lenses of intersectionality, multiplicity
and “world”-traveling, and interconnectedness and assemblage.
Privilege and oppression are sometimes approached not only as binaries, but as
discrete absolutes rather than continua in SMO work and practices of solidarity (Laker,
2016; Poster, 1995). According to Collins (2009), “a matrix of domination contains few
pure victims or oppressors. Each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and
privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone’s lives” (pp.
306-307). Intersectional theorists claim that identity categories are not inherently
problematic–it is the way those categories are interpreted and employed that reflects the
operation of power (Crenshaw, 1991; Mohanty, 2003). Thus, an intersectional approach
can reveal the different ways that actors are socially situated within a particular group or
organization as well as the heterogeneity of groups that are connected by a common
history, experience, ideal, or goal in SMO work (Bernstein, 2008; Cho et al., 2013; Nash,
2008). As Carastathis (2013) and Chun et al. (2013) suggest, this may create new
possibilities for building coalitions in SMO work based on interconnectedness.
For example, a survey of 174 women activists found that the perception of group
unity can be negatively impacted when that group is diverse. However, when activists
have a strong “intersectional consciousness,” solidarity is not diminished by the
heterogeneity of the group. In other words, diversity and solidarity are inversely related;
however, this relationship is moderated by individuals’ orientation to intersectionality.
While this study found that solidarity is strongest in homogenous groups where members
have a “singular,” rather than intersectional, political consciousness, “the presence of
singular consciousness, rather than intersectional consciousness, may undermine group
cohesiveness and group commitment in diverse groups” (Greenwood, 2008, p. 43). While
this survey is limited in scope, it demonstrates that the political perspective of SMO
leaders and members may influence if and how intersectionality is articulated and
practiced in each organization’s work.
Another quantitative study (Weldon et al., 2018) explored intersectional
conceptualizations of solidarity by determining that Twitter-based activism related to
#SayHerName did not diminish support for Black Lives Matter but in fact strengthened
participation. In fact, the co-occurrence of these two projects expanded the number of
people who got involved as well as the level of activists’ involvement in both
movements. However, in the long run, these benefits diminished. This study
demonstrates that intersectional movements may complement and expand support for
those that are based on a singular identity.
Multiplicity and "World"-Traveling
Several social movement scholars have integrated concepts of multiplicity in their
work. According to Gordon (2016), identity categories are “abstractions” because
individuals blend together multiple identities in a personalized way (p. 8). As Ortega
(2016) suggests, the multiple social locations embodied by activists creates opportunities
to use difference as a mechanism to confront oppression. In addition, Anzaldúa (2015)
proposed that the ability to see people and situations from multiple, fluid perspectives can
be valuable to building relationships in SMO work. Bannerji (2005) claims that
integrating multiple aspects of identity as part of a greater whole may lead to movements
that are more effective. Yet, Carastathis (2013) claims that SMOs often fail to fully
appreciate the wholeness and multiplicity of actors.
“World”-traveling is a particular form of boundary work first described by
Lugones in 1987. It is a “cross-cultural and cross-racial loving that emphasizes the need
to understand and affirm the plurality in and among women and central to feminist
ontology and epistemology” (Lugones, 1987, p. 3). By crossing boundaries and traveling
to each other’s “worlds” to see through the eyes of the “other,” SMO leaders can embrace
plurality, interconnectedness, and ambiguity. This approach recognizes the
interdependence and interconnectedness of women. A “world” is a physical, figurative, or
imagined place that represents some aspect of social relations. Individuals can
simultaneously inhabit multiple worlds. According to Lugones, people who identify as
“world”-travelers engage with multiple worlds, either voluntarily or out of necessity, and
as a result are personally transformed. They seek to learn about and understand others’
“worlds” with curiosity, compassion, creativity, and empathy, and not to control or
destroy them. Weir (2008) added that “world”-travelers appreciate the value of
understanding others’ perspectives and incorporate these ideas into their own ways of
seeing and interacting in multiple “worlds.” In addition, Tucker (2014) claimed that
playfulness can lead to creative practices of solidarity that transform the borders that
divide people through experimental ways of communicating and interacting. Solidarity,
then, can be conceptualized as learning and becoming through relationships with “others”
as differences become opportunities to define collective identity more expansively (i.e.
Keating, 2013).
Interconnectedness and Assemblage
The constructs of interconnectedness and assemblage provide a third way to
conceptualize integrative solidarity. Several scholars have suggested that viewing
relationships through a lens of interconnectedness benefits SMOs. For example, Keating
(2013) and Weir (2013) agree that by recognizing the interconnectedness of people–
whether on a spiritual, pragmatic, or scientific basis–SMO leaders can transcend the
dualism of similarity and difference that limits the transformative potential of
movements. Keating (2013) explains that through this lens, SMO leaders can recognize
how people and groups are “economically, socially, ecologically, emotionally,
linguistically, physically, and spiritually” interconnected (p. 47). Thus, this approach
makes it possible to see and reinterpret the connections among the emotional, intellectual,
relational, social, economic, situational, organizational, and historical aspects of SMO
work–in particular collective identity and solidarity–discussed in this chapter.
Most studies of social movements focus on one level of analysis such as the
personal, institutional, or social (Nulman & Schlemback, 2017). According to Basari
(2013), focusing only on social structure negates the importance of shared experience,
emotional connection, communication, meaning making, and action in social movements.
Alternatively, several scholars (i.e. Ahearn, 2001; Alexander, 2005; Einspahr, 2010) have
suggested that structure and agency are interconnected; the ability to take action and
make change is constrained and enabled by social and economic structure while structure
is produced through the agency of individuals and groups. Because solidarity interacts
with social location, viewing this phenomenon in a more multi-layered, integrative way
may reveal nuances of the phenomenon.
Assemblage is one such way to think about solidarity to reflect this complexity.
Assemblage has many meanings but is typically understood to be an “acentered,
nonhierarchical…system” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980/1987, p. 20) that demonstrates
interconnectedness, multidirectional contingency, and fluidarity. An assemblage reflects
the continual interaction and transformation of “human and nonhuman, organic and
inorganic, technical and natural” elements (Anderson & McFarlane, 2011, p. 124). As
DeLanda (2006) explains, multiple levels of analysis are all a part of a greater whole.
Thus, assemblage reveals ways that physical and social location interact. For example,
Blackwell (2015) suggests that when SMO actors inhabit a shared space, the particular
way they interact with and feel connection to that space may vary because of their social
location. Puar (2007) claims that conceptualizing collective identity as assemblages may
open up new possibilities for political organizing, solidarity, and action. Thus,
assemblage offers a model to demonstrate the interconnectedness of the multiple
dimensions of solidarity work.
Gaps in the Literature
There has been limited empirical research related to solidarity and the
engagement of social division vis-à-vis similarities and differences within the context of
progressive SMOs in the United States over the past 20 years. The knowledge base
related to solidarity–in particular, integrative approaches to solidarity–is largely
theoretical; however, those theories are often grounded in the experience and
observations of scholar-activists.
In empirical studies of solidarity, the greatest emphasis is on solidarity across
difference. Some work identifies the challenges inherent in working across difference in
SMOs, such as differences in background, ideology, goals, and tactics (i.e. Beamish &
Luebbers, 2019; Coley, 2014; Lawston, 2009; Pastor & LoPresti, 2007). Others focus on
specific strategies used by leaders and organizations within this context (i.e. Cole &
Luna, 2010; Dobbie & Richards-Schuster 2008; Ospina & Foldy, 2010). These studies
explore the relational, affective, and strategic aspects of solidarity. Because most research
about solidarity is qualitative and therefore context sensitive, the findings cannot be
generalized to other actors, organizations, and communities. While two studies directly
investigate intersectional approaches to solidarity (Greenwood, 2008; Weldon et al.
2018), they are both quantitative and thus do not provide in-depth insight about the topic.
Inclusion of the topic within the leadership literature is limited.
As the preceding discussion has demonstrated, solidarity across difference is
privileged in the empirical literature, as most studies investigate this practice as opposed
to basing solidarity on similarities. This may be because solidarity is often presumed to
be synonymous with unity or sameness (i.e. DeLanda, 2006), or in other words, solidarity
requires a shared collective identity–and thus mechanical solidarity is not a phenomenon
which merits systematic investigation. In addition, there are very limited empirical
studies about integrative approaches to solidarity. Overall, sufficient attention has not
been paid to the ways activists engage both similarities and differences as they construct
and experience solidarity in empirical studies.
SMOs both respond to and reflect social division. Social division influences the
way SMO leaders align and engage with movements, organizations, and other actors. The
meaning of solidarity develops with practice–through engagement with others in SMO
work (Steans, 2007). Each experience of solidarity may be unique as it reflects different
relationships, goals, and context (Bopari, 2015; Gray, 2011; Hooker, 2009; Scott, 1998;
Walhof, 2006). Thus, solidarity is contingent, emergent, and transitory.
Practices of solidarity interact with actors’ beliefs about collective identity. SMO
leaders engage similarities and differences as they construct and experience solidarity in
multiple and contradictory ways–all of which have strategic value. Yet, there seems to be
an unresolved tension about the “best” way to approach solidarity. Such arguments
produce a hierarchy of solidarity that divides SMO actors and does not consider the
possibility that different actors, situations, social arrangements, and movements require
distinct approaches in order to be effective. In addition, strategic and relational identities
are not always differentiated in SMO theory and work. The existing empirical research
does not fully explore how similarity and difference can be simultaneously engaged, or
how SMO leaders draw from a repertoire of approaches for strategic impact, as solidarity
is constructed and experienced by women leaders within SMOs.
This study used portraiture (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997) to explore how
women leaders within progressive social movement organizations (SMOs) engage social
division vis-à-vis similarities and differences as they construct and experience solidarity.
This chapter describes portraiture as well as the methods that were used for participant
selection and data collection and analysis. In addition, this chapter describes the role of
the researcher and the practices that were employed to ensure rigor.
Research Questions
This study was guided by the central research question: how do women leaders
within progressive SMOs engage social division vis-à-vis similarities and differences as
they construct and experience solidarity?
The study was further guided by two subquestions:
1. What meaning and significance do women leaders within progressive SMOs
ascribe to the phenomenon of engaging social division vis-à-vis similarities and
differences as they construct and experience solidarity?
2. How is the leadership practice of women leaders within progressive SMOs
influenced by the phenomenon of engaging social division vis-à-vis similarities
and differences as they construct and experience solidarity?
Methodological Approach
Portraiture is a research method that blends art and science in a rigorous yet
flexible approach to explore, share, and continuously interpret ideas about particular
phenomena (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). This is achieved through the creation
of a written portrait, rich with complexity and contextual details, that reveals the
portraitist’s interpretation of a social actor. Portraitists create representations that are
multi-layered, nuanced, and reflective of the uniqueness of each actor and the “worlds”
they inhabit (Bloom & Erlandson, 2003; Chapman, 2005; Dixson, 2005). Six portraits of
women leaders within progressive SMOs were created.
Portraiture was designed in response to the deficit-based approaches that have
been prevalent in social science research (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Thus, it is
“an intentionally generous and eclectic process that begins by searching for what is good
and healthy and assumes that the expression of goodness will always be laced with
imperfection” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9). Searching for goodness does
not mean that portraitists create an “idealized portrayal” of actors, but rather they
compassionately reflect the nuances and complexity of each actor (Lawrence-Lightfoot &
Davis, 1997, p. 141). Portraits are authentic in that they represent actors in a “probing,
layered, and interpretive” way rather than merely reporting observations (Lawrence-
Lightfoot, 2005b, p. 5).
Portraiture recognizes the interactive nature of relationships and environments
(Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Each portrait describes the actor, the organizational
and/or community environments relevant to their salient experiences of solidarity, and
each actor’s physical space as the text explores and analyzes their ideas and experiences
related to solidarity. The portraits illuminate the uniqueness and complexity of each
individual actor while also investigating the political, social, economic, physical,
relational, and other contexts that have enabled and constrained their construction and
experiences of solidarity. Portraits integrate each actor’s past, present, and future–
incorporating both reflection and imagination (Bloom & Erlandson, 2003; Calder-Dawe
& Gavey, 2017)
Actors’ ideas and experiences related to solidarity are presented as provisional
sketches that continue to interact as part of each actor and within our relationship as
portraitist/actor. Portraits are intentionally incomplete; the portraitist selects a particular
storyline and perspective on reality that connects to the whole without universalizing
(Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Portraits reflect the relationship between the
portraitist and actor, and portraitists demonstrate care and compassion for each actor
(Bloom & Erlandson, 2003; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2005b). By making their presence
visible as a co-creator, portraitists illuminate the agency, voice, and experience of actors
(Dixson, Chapman, & Hill, 2005).
Portraitists invite audiences outside of the academy to read and interpret their
written portraits. Such an invitation “awakens and activates the imagining process in
readers” (Anzaldúa, 2015, p. 43). The subjectivity of portraiture inspires an intellectual
and emotional response in the audience and can also provoke them to do something new
or different as a result of this response (Bloom & Erlandson, 2003, p. 891). Thus, the
interpretive process is forever incomplete as portraits are viewed and discerned through
multiple lenses and put into action by readers over time. To engage audiences, portraits
are written in a language that is eloquent yet accessible and inspiring (Lawrence-
Lightfoot, 2005b).
Portraitists have the flexibility to draw from other disciplines to design a study
that reflects the multiple contexts of a particular phenomenon (Anderson, 2011).
However, this places responsibility on the portraitist to conduct research in a way that
reflects scientific methods–without significant instructions about how to do this
effectively (English, 2000). Yet, oversimplifying methods may lead to
“overgeneralizations of findings, decontextualization of research, and claims that may
actually disempower those whom research purports to benefit” (Koro-Ljungberg &
Mazzei, 2012, p. 728). While portraiture claims to invite interpretation (Lawrence-
Lightfoot & Davis, 1997), portraits may offer limited opportunity for interpretive
dialogue as they are a static, written text that is not revised as the result of such
conversations (English, 2000). Yet, this is true of any written text in the social science
canon, including qualitative studies–thus, such criticism may be unfair. As with other
literature, ideas are interrogated and expanded through further study. Portraiture attempts
to address this by directly revealing the voice of the portraitist and by using accessible
and engaging language (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). In addition, member
checking allows actors the opportunity to amend or clarify their portrait and reflexivity
ensures the portraitist remains accountable to the actor (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis,
1997). While some claim that portraiture is inauthentic in its use of positivism and
essentialism (i.e. English, 2000), such critiques may be based on a literal, rather than
interpretive, reading of Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis’s work. For example, the word
essence is used in an aesthetic, rather than ontological, sense (Lawrence-Lightfoot &
Davis, 1997). Portraiture reveals complexity and nuance while being provocative,
dialogic, and transformative; in other words, it does not promote a singular, stable
essence as the only representation of the actor–or the only one that matters. Despite these
limitations, portraiture has several merits as described above. It includes but extends
beyond rigorous scientific method by integrating aesthetics which opens up new
possibilities for interpreting, understanding, and talking about social phenomena
(Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2005a). Because portraiture in practice is often blended with other
qualitative traditions, its limitations can be acknowledged and actively addressed by the
researcher (Brooks, 2017).
Portraiture is well suited to this research topic as it illuminates goodness, reveals
complexity, and traverses boundaries (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). As discussed
in Chapter 2, the solidarity literature is largely conflict-driven both in terms of the actual
phenomenon and discussion about it. Yet, solidarity is desirable as it reflects a core goal
of progressive SMOs. The ideals being worked toward can get lost in political struggle.
Because solidarity is relational, affective, and strategic, its practice reflects the people,
organizations, situations, and contexts involved. Portraiture, through the story of a
particular actor, illuminates how these converge and interact in unique ways. Solidarity
always involves borders–whether working within, across, or through them–or
transforming them. Similarly, portraiture challenges borders and responds to the
limitations that separation creates (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997).
To create portraits, portraitists engage “in an iterative process of data collection,
interpretation, and analysis,” frequently documenting reflections and ideas in a
memorandum called an impressionistic record (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p.
214). These processes are more fully described in the data sources and collection and data
analysis and interpretation sections of this chapter. Because portraiture integrates
“multiple research tools” (Anderson, 2011, p. 112), complementary methods were used to
collect, analyze, and present data.
Role of the Researcher
In qualitative studies, researchers often share their beliefs, values, social location,
affiliations, and life story as they collect, analyze, and interpret data (Berger, 2015;
Grbich, 2013; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). These characteristics influence the
research process as well as relationships with participants (Berger, 2015; Denzin &
Lincoln, 2011). Sharing the researcher’s positionality also engages readers by helping
them “more comfortably enter the piece, scrutinize the data, and form independent
interpretations” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 96). Thus, I shared relevant
aspects of myself with actors and with readers of the portraits to contextualize my
observations and ideas.
I am a White, middle-aged, working/middle class woman who lives in a small city
in the Northeastern United States. More specifically, I’m a Pennsylvania Dutch Jew of
Celtic, English, French, and Shawnee descent. I have a non-visible disability, but this has
served as a resource more often than a detriment by enriching my perspectives. My
family and community have always been diverse, and at times seemingly polarized, in
terms of race, class, ability, political affiliation, and other characteristics. Thus, I have
multiple points of connection from which to draw when engaging with others.
I sometimes locate myself at the center and other times at the margin; more often,
I find myself somewhere in-between “worlds” that seem disconnected. I have been
confronted and labeled in multiple activist contexts for expressing ideas that do not
conform to the collective identity of the group. I have searched for common ground to
communicate and contribute, and also for different language that better reflects the
complexity of who I am as part of my own search for meaning and my purpose to
contribute to communities.
Several life experiences have influenced my current understanding of, and interest
in, this research topic. For much of my career, I have worked in and with programs that
were created as the result of the civil rights movement. In addition, I have volunteered
with a few progressive political organizations. These diverse experiences have included
moments of fruitful solidarity but also paternalism, authoritarianism, tokenism, policing
of boundaries, and expectations of conformity. Thus, I have observed and experienced
how social division interacts with solidarity in SMOs. These experiences have provoked
a curiosity in learning more about the topic.
As a researcher, I acted as both a student learner and a “cognitive activist” (Earl,
2017)–a scholar who contributes to social change by sharing research with movement
actors. I viewed the actors who participate in this study as the experts and my teachers
(Caretta, 2016; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). As a student learner, I was
consistently aware of my belief system, social position, and the experiences that have
formed my perspective–and remained open to questioning myself, personal growth, and
transformation as I engaged with actors (Bhattacharya, 2015; Brand, 2015). As a
cognitive activist, I shared both “political emotions and the activist identity” (Petray,
2012) with actors while remaining open to transforming my own beliefs and perceptions
with humility, curiosity, and gratitude (Kara, 2017).
I employed the conceptual framework of this study–threshold theorizing (Keating,
2013) and “world”-traveling (Lugones, 1987) throughout the research process. My
positionality is informed by interconnectedness and multiplicity, and thus includes
“flexible epistemologies and ontologies” that allow me to hold “contrasting beliefs in
tension” (Keating, 2013, p. 16). Thus, I flexibly moved in and out of paradigms to create
space for understanding unique perspectives and experiences as well as the imagination
of possibilities (Guttorm et al., 2016). This standpoint is based on the idea that people
have “multiple intermeshed identities that serve as horizons from which to interpret and
experience worlds” (Ortega, 2016, p. 169), and these multiple identities are in
relationship with each other as part of a greater whole (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980/1987).
Because a multiplicitous approach includes the whole person, it is a generous way to
demonstrate compassion and empathy for actors in alignment with the portraiture method
(Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997).
Participant Selection
The term actor is used to refer to participants in the study, drawing broadly from
the social movement literature as well as from Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis’s (1997)
conceptualization of the portraiture method. This reflects the agency of participants as
well as the performative nature of SMO work (della Porta & Diani, 2016). Six women
leaders were selected for this study. According to Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis, there is
not an ideal number of participants for a portraiture study; however, a smaller number of
participants allows the researcher to create in-depth portraits. There is not a
straightforward way to determine the best sample size before engaging with actors–the
depth and detail of the research is more important (Morse, 2015a, 2015b). Through the
six actors who participated in this study, six unique perspectives and approaches to
solidarity are presented which reveals the complexity of this topic.
I used a purposeful sampling method to identify prospective participants using
publicly available, online information. Women leaders within progressive SMOs in one
Mid-Atlantic city served as the sampling frame for this study. Excepting gender, the
sample was intentionally selected based on actors’ experiences rather than their affiliation
with particular types of progressive SMOs to create a rich understanding of the topic
being explored (Blee & Taylor, 2002; Kristensen & Ravn, 2015). I recruited six actors
who met the following criteria:
self-identify as a woman;
are currently recognized as a leader, either formally or informally (see DeCesare,
2013), by at least one progressive social movement organization in this location;
have had at least two meaningful experiences of solidarity in their work within a
progressive SMO where meaningful is defined as being either pleasant or painful,
rather than neutral (Murphy & Bastian, 2019).
I initially identified prospective actors by reviewing the websites of SMOs that
have been funded by a progressive foundation in the city. When researching these
organizations, I came across online directories of progressive SMOs in the city which
expanded the sample as the foundation only funds a small percentage of these
organizations. One actor referred me to two prospective participants; however, neither
chose to participate.
I contacted prospective actors by email to introduce myself and the project
(Appendix A). When people responded to my email that they were interested, I followed
up with additional email correspondence and/or an online video conference to review and
ensure they met the participant criteria and were comfortable committing given the time
that was involved (see Appendix B). I shared Murphy and Bastian’s (2019) definition of
meaningful experiences to ensure confidence that each actor met this criterion before we
explored these experiences in depth. I also asked if the organization she represents
needed to give their consent for her to participant.
Each prospective candidate who expressed an interest in participating was sent a
follow-up email with a Participant Guide (Appendix D) and Frequently Asked Questions
(Appendix E) (see Chambliss & Schutt, 2010; Fortier, 2017). These documents included
information about the topic, data collection methods, dissertation committee, background
of the researcher, time commitment required, and how the information collected will be
used. This provided detailed explanations to address potential questions that actors may
have had and also demonstrated my openness to sharing information (Anthony &
Danaher, 2016; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). I also provided a copy of the
dissertation proposal and the consent form so that they had time to review it before our
first meeting.
At the first interview, I reviewed the Participant Guide as well as the consent form
(see Appendix F). I encouraged each actor to ask questions to ensure that she was
completely comfortable about her choice to participate before committing to the project.
Once the consent form was signed, the first interview began.
While it can be difficult to establish relationships when not embedded within a
particular community, demonstrating empathy, allyship, and openness to personal growth
can bridge such gaps (Roger et al., 2018). At every step in this process, the relationship
between each actor and me was at the center of how decisions to proceed were made to
consistently create an emotionally safe environment (Mayorga-Gallo & Hordge-Freeman,
2017) that promoted “trust, reciprocity,…comfort, balance, honesty, and authenticity”
(Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 135).
Study Participants
Six actors participated in this study. Table 1 summarizes their demographic
background and the type of movement in which they are primarily involved. Names have
been changed to protect the identity of each actor. The actors are presented in
alphabetical order based on their pseudonym.
While all actors are women leaders within progressive social movement
organizations, they are otherwise demographically diverse. Five actors are White or
White-presenting, one is Black, and two are Latina. All of the women who participated in
this study are married, two of them have children at home, two have adult children, and
two do not have children. Two of the actors were born outside of the United States–one
in Polynesia and the other in North Africa. Only one participant was born in the city that
ties them together.
While the sampling frame included informal leaders, all of the women who chose
to participate hold formal leadership positions within their organization. Five of the
actors are executive directors and one serves as an officer on a board of directors. For
those who are executive directors, they are responsible for directly supervising a small
staff. While all of these organizations are recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3)
organization, they range in their level of bureaucracy and formality. Four of the
organizations have annual budgets under $350,000 and the other two have budgets of
more than $1 million.
The social movements in which the actors are involved are also diverse. Two of
the organizations are involved in the environmental movement and the others are focused
on racial justice, economic justice, reproductive justice, LGBTQIA+ rights, and labor;
however, the work of each organization intersects with other movements. In addition,
each actor is involved with multiple organizations through coalition and committee work
which bridges their work with other movements and types of organizations. All of the
organizations are involved in advocacy and/or activism; however, they also create
tangible social changes through community organizing, direct services, neighborhood
beautification, and/or education.
Table 1
Characteristics of Actors
Race/ Ethnicity
Place of Origin
Age 3, 5
Racial and
Economic Justice
Adult (3)
North Africa
Suburb of city
Adult (1)
Age 1, 3
LGBTIA+ Rights
Data Sources and Collection Procedures
A variety of methods were used to acknowledge, listen to, and learn from and
with actors and their multiple “worlds” (Ingold, 2018). These methods–a questionnaire,
document review, three in-depth interviews, and observation–together yielded
comprehensive and in-depth insight to be analyzed and interpreted. The data sources and
collection procedures are summarized in the table below and further described in the
sections that follow.
Table 2
Data Sources and Data Collected
Data Source
Data Collected
Personal history of actor
Work history of actor
Organizational history, purpose, culture, and goals
Social movement history, purpose, and goals
Actors’ involvement in social movements
Detailed description of actors’ experiences, ideas, and feelings
related to the research topic
Sensory details about the context
The ways actors present themselves and interact with others
Each actor completed a questionnaire (see Appendix G) to share her relevant
personal, work, and volunteer history. The questionnaire was given to each actor prior to
the first interview. The information collected on the questionnaire included contact
information, work history, involvement with social movement and other nonprofit
organizations, educational history, and places where she has lived. Each actor also
attached a copy of her current resume to the questionnaire. The questionnaires were
completed using an online form.
Document Review
To prepare for preliminary meetings with prospective participants, I reviewed
publicly available information about each actor, organization, and associated social
movements. This information included websites, biographies, documents such as reports,
social media accounts, and news stories. These resources provided me with insight into
the language used by the organization and social movement to expand my understanding
of their culture, how they are intentionally presented to outsiders–including potential
supporters or allies as well as opponents, and how meaning might develop through the
creation and distribution of written materials (Holland, Fox, & Daro, 2008; Lawrence-
Lightfoot & Davis, 1997).
I saved an image of all documents that were reviewed. Information gleaned
through document review was documented in an impressionistic record (Lawrence-
Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). These were be used to capture pertinent details as well as my
emotional and intellectual response to the resource.
I facilitated three in-depth semi-structured interviews with each actor; however, in
one case the first and second interviews were combined. Using in-depth interviews
created an opportunity for actors to develop and re-create their stories while also
empowering participants to choose the direction of the conversation and to share detailed
reflections and responses that were of personal importance (Blee & Taylor, 2002;
Chaitin, 2004; Sabar & Sabar Ben-Yehoshua, 2017). The interviews provided actors with
an opportunity to interpret their experiences in a meaningful way through discussion,
reflection, and talking through how these memories have influenced their ideas about,
and experiences, of, solidarity (Gemignani, 2014; Wolgemuth, 2014). Each interview
created collaborative space for the actor and me to co-construct knowledge (Broadhurst,
2015; Pezalla, Pettigrew, & Miller-Day, 2012). Scheduling multiple interviews allowed
time for further conversation after reflection (Koetzee & Rau, 2017; Witz & Bae, 2011).
All interviews were held using an online videoconferencing platform and were
recorded. Interviews took between 45 minutes and one-and-a-half hours. I took sparse
notes while maintaining eye contact with each actor as she spoke (Jacob & Ferguson,
An interview guide (Appendix H) was used to ensure important questions were
not unintentionally omitted (Jacob & Ferguson, 2012). Each interview began with
introductory questions that are fairly easy to answer and noncontroversial (Castillo-
Montoya, 2016). Questions not included in the guide emerged through conversation.
These were included in the interview when they did not veer too far from the focus of the
study and had the potential to generate meaningful data (Blee & Taylor, 2002; Fraser &
MacDougall, 2017; Jacob & Ferguson, 2012). I was simultaneously mindful that our
conversation remain centered on the research questions to ensure there was not an
overwhelming amount of information to analyze (Morse, 2015a). Actors were asked if
they would like to share anything else that is important to them at the end of each
interview (Patton, 2001).
Simple, conversational questions using non-academic language were used to
explore the research questions (Castillo-Montoya, 2016; Jacob & Ferguson, 2012).
Poland and Cohen (2017) suggest that social movement scholars ask questions such as,
“Why is it important for you to tell this story?…What do you want listeners to take away
from your story?…What do you hope to learn by telling and dialoguing this story?” (pp.
14-15). These questions were used to facilitate reflection and meaning making.
Two prompting strategies were used to verify, clarify, and add depth to actors’
responses. The first is mirroring, or repeating the actor’s words, which “allows the
participant to hear what she or he has said as it is expressed by another person” (Way et
al., 2015, p. 725). Secondly, I noticed and inquired about inconsistencies and gaps in
statements to provide actors with an opportunity to describe or elaborate on their
assumptions and beliefs. These discrepancies reveal the actor’s multiplicity; making them
visible invited actors to explore and make sense of their complex identifications
(Hartman, 2015).
Because participants may have responded to questions based on their allegiance to
a group, cultural expectations, negative prior experiences, perceptions of what the
researcher is looking for, or how they wish to be seen (Foucault, 1972; Roer-Strier &
Sands, 2015), I assured each actor before the first interview that each question could be
answered in many ways and explained that my goal is to understand, rather than to judge,
her–providing her with the flexibility to freely explore her ideas without being limited by
these possible constraints (Gomes Pessoa et al., 2019).
The final interview took place after all other data was collected. During this
interview, we reviewed the information each actor shared, my impressions, and my gaps
in understanding. Each actor had the opportunity to “signal agreement, suggest changes,
disagree about the interpretation, supplement information, or clarify obscure points”
(Gomes Pessoa et al., 2019). We discussed what is most important to each actor, in terms
of the topic, and reflect on her experience throughout this process. They each had the
opportunity to specify information that they wished to exclude from the written
Using an observation protocol as a guide (Appendix I), I was attentive to noticing
visual and auditory details when facilitating interviews and observing each actors’ home
or office environment. These details helped me to understand each actor’s perceptions
and the intertwined political, economic, and social contexts in which they are embedded
(Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). My sensory immersion into actors’ “worlds”
facilitated more meaningful analytic insights (Denzin, 1983). The video recordings
served as memory aids as I documented these sensory experiences in an impressionistic
record (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997).
Data Analysis and Interpretation
Analysis and interpretation employed several processes, grounded in curiosity,
imagination, and appreciation of the actors, which were intentionally scaffolded to reveal
continuously deeper and more nuanced meaning. These processes included creating
written verbatim transcripts with notes about pauses, laughter, and other cues,
documenting my observations and impressions throughout the research process, coding
transcripts and memoranda using three schema: 1) portraiture coding (Lawrence-
Lightfoot & Davis, 1997); 2) dramaturgical coding (Saldaña, 2009); and 3) found poems
(Richardson, 1992); drafting a portrait of each actor; and coding each portrait and
reviewing all codes through the lens of the conceptual framework and research question.
While all codes were eventually entered into NVivo to discover connections and themes,
transcripts and portraits were also coded using pen and paper to assist with interpretation.
By using multiple processes, or “thick analysis,” the analytical process was enriched; I
was able to explore and integrate multiple perspectives and possibilities, and
interpretative stances were triangulated (Evers, 2016). In this section, I explain how I
created and interpreted documentation of my interactions with actors and their
environment using transcripts and memoranda which are called impressionistic records in
portraiture (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Next, I describe the processes I used to
organize, analyze, and interpret the data that I encountered. This section concludes with a
description of the portraits that were created.
Each interview was recorded and transcribed using an online program. I then
reviewed each transcript while listening to the recording to make corrections. I also
created an impressionistic record to note memories or ideas that occur to me and to
explore my emotional responses, adding vibrancy to my impressions and expanding my
thoughts and perceptions (Goldstein, 2017; Revsbaek & Tanggaard, 2015). I returned to
the transcripts and recordings throughout data analysis and interpretation to refresh my
memory and clarify meaning.
Transcripts made note of ‘noise,’ pauses, and filler words. Silences can be
meaningful, suggesting hesitation, uncertainty, struggle, fear, embarrassment, or
uncomfortable power dynamics, for example (Bengtsson & Fynbo, 2018; Greenwood,
2012; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Each transcript included notes about pauses,
laughter, bodily movements, interruptions, and other occurrences that may have been of
Using member checking, I shared the verbatim transcripts and my impressionistic
records with each actor, allowing her to suggest additions, withdraw information, and
change wording to better reflect her thoughts and feelings (Fortier, 2017). None of the
actors rescinded information after reviewing the transcripts; however, in some cases,
information was clarified.
An impressionistic record is “a ruminative, thoughtful piece that identifies
emerging hypotheses, suggests interpretations, describes shifts in perspective, points to
puzzles and dilemmas (methodological, conceptual, ethical) that need attention, and
develops a plan of action” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 188). I created an
impressionistic record after each interview and analytical or interpretive action. This
documented my changing thinking about the topic as well as practical decisions that were
made during the research process. This helped me document and clarify my feelings,
insights, and ideas about the topic as they developed (Birks et al., 2008). The
impressionistic records also documented what was done as well as how and why things
occurred as they did (Birks et al., 2008; Tuval-Mashiach, 2017). I scheduled time to
create an impressionistic record after each interview so that my memory of what occurred
was fresh (McClelland, 2017; Phillippi & Lauderdale, 2018).
Each impressionistic record included a description of the setting, including details
that seemed insignificant at the time (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). They included
details such as the weather, other people who were encountered, clothing, and other
things or occurrences that were noticed (Phillippi & Lauderdale, 2018). I attended to the
“aesthetic properties of the scene,” promoting an “affective vitality when it appears on
the written page” (Frogett et al., 2014, p. 18).
Impressionistic records also included diagrams or sketches of emerging ideas,
speculation about how the audience might interpret what I would later attempt to
describe, connections between or among actors’ experiences and ideas, emerging themes
and patterns, questions to be further explored, and concerns about the research process
(Bloomberg & Volpe, 2008; Gilgun, 2015; Phillippi & Lauderdale, 2018; Saldaña, 2009).
I also noted how each actor responded to me, gauging their comfort and openness
(Wolgemuth, 2014).
Because “the body responds physically, emotionally, and intellectually to external
and internal stimuli, and writing records, orders, and theorizes about these responses”
(Anzaldúa, 2015, p. 5), a significant portion of each impressionistic record was written in
first person to express my embodied experience. I included my sensory observations
(sights and sounds), my physical, intellectual, and emotional responses, and “how people
seem to be responding to my presence” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 50).
Each impressionistic record created after interviews included a reflection on what
was discussed. This section of the impressionistic record included my ideas, thoughts,
and feelings with a link to the original text for context (Berger, 2015). This helped me to
locate relevant text, if needed, at a later date and also assisted with differentiating my
voice from that of each actor.
Transcripts from interviews and impressionistic records were coded by hand and
using NVivo; codes that were created manually were also entered into NVivo. Through
an inductive process, emergent themes were identified and organized into a hierarchy of
codes. Two coding systems were used. The first is based on portraiture (Lawrence-
Lightfoot & Davis, 1997) and the second is dramaturgical coding (Saldaña, 2009). In
addition to coding, found poems (Richardson, 1992) were used to elucidate how social
division interplays with actors’ experiences of solidarity. These coding systems are
summarized in Table 3 and further described in the sections that follow along with found
Table 3
Hierarchy of Codes
Code Category
Type of Code
Hierarchical Level
Portraiture Coding
Focused Themes
Portraiture Coding
Emergent Themes/Dimensions
Portraiture Coding
Evidence: Metaphors
Portraiture Coding
Evidence: Repetitive Refrains
Portraiture Coding
Evidence: Rituals
Portraiture Coding
Dramaturgical Coding
Dramaturgical Coding
Dramaturgical Coding
Dramaturgical Coding
Dramaturgical Coding
Dramaturgical Coding
Impression Management
Portraiture Coding
Using the methods described by Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997), I
reviewed all transcripts and impressionistic records to reflexively provide structure to all
of the data that was collected. To begin, emergent codes were constructed in vivo, or in
the words used by actors (Saldaña, 2009). Themes emerged through an iterative process
of identifying metaphors, repetitive refrains–words or phrases that are repetitively used,
and rituals. Each theme had multiple dimensions. For each dimension, I identified
evidence as well as ideas that were dissonant, or those that diverge from the others. After
portraits were drafted and member checking interviews were completed, the portraits
were also coded using a similar process to identify connections and divergences in the
actors’ constructions and experiences of solidarity. After each round of coding, I
reviewed the code hierarchy to identify relationships and overlaps in the codes selected.
Codes were renamed, merged, and split as additional coding was performed. After
reviewing the initial code structure from both portraits and the interviews, I again
reviewed all documents and perform focused coding (Saldaña, 2009) to reflect
connections that were not made during the first round. Through focused coding, I
identified the main themes or storylines in the data as the portraits and discussion were
As I coded, I resisted the tension between “the researcher’s desire for control and
coherence and the actors’ reality of incoherence and instability” (Lawrence-Lightfoot &
Davis, 1997, p. 192) by embracing ambiguity. “Aesthetic order” Lawrence-Lightfoot &
Davis, 1997, p. 185) guided my choices rather than a desire to control and define actors’
relationships, feelings, and perceptions. The themes and dimensions used are not intended
to be labels that masque complexity; they instead provide the language needed to
communicate and promote understanding (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). I also
explored and described connections between and among themes rather than viewing them
as discrete objects (Staller, 2015).
While this well-defined process of analysis has not been expanded upon by other
scholars, researchers have creatively shaped the portraiture research process in alignment
with their scholarly interests, positionality, and voice (Dixson, Chapman, & Hill, 2005).
Thus, I also used dramaturgical coding (Saldaña, 2009) and found poems (Richardson,
1992) to complement this process.
Dramaturgical Coding
Before the coding process associated with portraiture was completed,
dramaturgical coding (Saldaña, 2009) was used. This method of coding captured how
solidarity was performed and the relationships actors have experienced. Dramaturgical
coding is well suited to understanding how actors engage conflict (Saldaña, 2009). The
first step was to identify particular stories, or experiences of solidarity shared by actors.
After that, a coding system with roots in the theater were used. The coding system
identified the conflicts experienced by actors, in particular those related to social division.
Next, each actor’s motivations–as well as the actor’s perception of the other person or
group’s motivations, emotions, and tactics used to address the conflict were identified.
Finally, actors’ attempts to manage others’ impressions were identified. Each of these
aspects of the story were coded with the type of code followed by a specific descriptor–
for example CON:race for a race-related conflict or EMO:joy to represent the emotion of
joy. Using these components of the story, I then constructed a vignette–a story about
what happened as if I were the actor (Graue & Walsh, 1998). The vignette was later
transformed into third person and provided structure for the solidarity stories included in
each portrait. Using a vignette amplified the voice of each actor in the completed
Found Poems
Found poetry is a method developed by Richardson (1992) to reveal deeper
meaning in research participants’ words by using them to construct poems. Poems “can
make us feel through rhythm, alliteration, line breaks, and punctuation, and…spark our
imagination through metaphor, symbolism, and irony” (Colby & Bodily, 2018, p. 164).
By using poetry, I make visible the complexity of each actor’s experience, intellect, and
emotions (Butler-Kisber, 2002; Park et al., 2016). This opens up and expands interpretive
spaces for readers of each portrait (Hill, 2015).
I created poems by locating pronouns in interview transcripts and constructed
each actor’s ideas and experiences in relation to these pronouns. Narratives that use “we
and “they” demonstrate group affiliations and normative agreements (Tollfesen &
Gallagher, 2016). This reveals how they engage social division by identifying as part of a
group or by identifying another group. “I” poems contrast associated thoughts and
feelings with those of the group, revealing tensions and nuances in collective identity. I
adopted an approach described by Butler-Kisber (2002) when creating poems,
approaching this process with a playful, experimental attitude and freely changing the
order of words and the rhythms and intonations their arrangement creates. I read poems
out loud and shared them with each actor for feedback.
To create the found poems, I opened each verbatim transcript in a word
processing program. I then searched for and highlighted all pronouns in yellow. I then
scanned the text to identify words that were associated with each pronoun. These were
highlighted using a contrasting color. Using the remaining words, I constructed poems,
with most lines beginning with a pronoun, to describe the actions, thoughts, and feelings
of each actor in contrast with the other person or group. For example, each line of the
poem typically begins with phrases such as “I feel” or “they need.” These poems are
presented in the beginning of each portrait to succinctly introduce each actor and
illustrate key points.
Based on the themes and stories identified in the coding process, I created a
written portrait of each actor. The portraits tell the stories constructed through the
dramaturgical process, details from the portraiture coding process, and found poems to
illustrate key ideas. In addition to telling each actor’s stories, the portraits offer a rich
description of the spaces in which actors’ stories take place as well as the social and
political contexts (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997; Tamboukou, 2015). The process
of creating each portrait was an iterative process that connects and gives life to each
actor’s stories in a harmonious way–what Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis (1997) call “the
aesthetic whole” (p. 247).
The portraits describe complex concepts using simple language (Saldaña, 2014).
Portraits were created in an accessible way that creates space for “multiple
interpretations” (Cole & Knowles, 2007, p. 67). Thus, knowledge of academic language
is not needed to interpret them (Jackson, 2015; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997).
Actors’ own words are woven throughout each portrait to “privilege participants’ voices”
(Danso, 2015, p. 583)–both through found poems and through longer interview excerpts.
Portraits both reflect and provoke negotiation of meaning that includes participants, the
researcher, and the audience; thus, portraits facilitate the “expression of truth, insight, or
beauty in a unique and powerful way” rather than producing objective descriptions of
experience (Bloom & Erlandson, 2003, p. 876).
When reviewing the data and writing portraits, I exercised reflexivity in several
ways. Using my “analytic imagination,” I situated “particular narratives within the
broader social context,” connected my emerging ideas to “wider empirical and theoretical
understandings,” and engaged my own “repertoire of implicit knowledge” (James, 2012,
p. 574). I was aware of how individual and social aspects of my identity influenced how I
listen for and interpret actors’ voices (Hartman, 2015; Matthias & Petchauer, 2012). I
allowed myself to “seek uncertainty and risk, and get lost” in the "worlds” that actors
shared with me (Koro-Ljungberg, 2001, p. 377).
When creating each portrait, I was mindful of Pointon’s (2013) observations
about the power dynamics of visual portraits. Portraits connect individual experience to
social circumstances in a particular time and setting, affirming or contesting predominant
interpretations of history. Creating a portrait simultaneously exposes implicit assumptions
about identity and relevant power relations. The status of the subject/actor and the
purpose of the portrait can influence the portraitists’ choice to reveal or to conceal
authenticity. Portraitists exercise many choices about what to include or exclude. Since
portraits are created with the knowledge that they will likely outlive both the
subject/actor and the portraitist, they are created with anticipation of a presumed future in
which they will be viewed or read and interpreted. Interpretation of a portrait by an
audience is influenced by the space in which it is presented. All of these dimensions are
relevant to portraiture (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997) and were taken into
consideration as portraits are created and shared.
Rigor of the Study
Consistency among elements of the research design demonstrate rigor (Carter &
Little, 2008; Ravenek & Rudman, 2013). For example, there is consistency among the
research question, data collection and analysis methods, and conceptual framework. This
“synergy” is particularly important in qualitative research as the procedures are flexible
rather than prescriptive (Levitt et al., 2017, p. 9).
Several steps were taken to ensure dependability and credibility. Dependability
was established by creating an audit trail (Tuval-Mashiach, 2017). Using impressionistic
records, I documented all of the decisions I made throughout the research process with an
explanation of the considerations that were evaluated and the reason why each particular
decision was made. Credibility was assured by conducting a document review and
reviewing questionnaires to prepare for the first interview, asking probing questions,
recording research reflections in memoranda, using thick description, evaluating findings
in light of the extant literature, and scrutiny of the research process and final dissertation
report by the dissertation committee (Shenton, 2004).
In addition to these steps, the rigor of this study was ensured through
triangulation, accountability, authenticity, member checking, and reflexivity of the
researcher. Each of these aspects of rigor are described in the following sections.
Triangulation promotes credibility in participant selection, data analysis, and
interpretation of findings. Including six actors from different SMOs in this study reveals
multiple perspectives and experiences related to this topic which can be compared and
contrasted to add depth to the study’s results (Shenton, 2004). Portraitists triangulate data
by comparing actors’ biographic information, interview transcripts, and impressionistic
records to find areas that overlap. (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). This was done by
using a uniform coding structure for all sources of data and then evaluating the data
contained in each code. Portraiture also promotes triangulation by integrating art and
science (Anderson, 2011). Data was also triangulated by using “two or more sets of data
or methods to answer one question” (Morse, 2015b, p. 1216). Specifically, by using
portraiture and dramaturgical coding, along with found poems, similar themes as well as
discrepancies were identified. These discrepancies were then reconciled by exploring
different interpretations and making decisions about how to change or connect them.
Integrating multiple methods and perspectives “adds rigor, breadth, complexity, richness,
and depth to any inquiry” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011, p. 5). Thus, using multiple means of
data collection and analysis create a “more holistic and comprehensive understanding” of
the topic (Kerwin-Boudreau & Butler-Kisber, 2016, p. 967). In sum, data were
triangulated by: 1) including multiple actors representing different backgrounds,
neighborhoods, organizations, and movements; 2) cross-referencing transcripts with
memoranda and background information about each actor and their organization; 3)
collecting data using multiple means–interviews, observation, a questionnaire, and
document review; 4) using three types of coding–portraiture coding, dramaturgical
coding, and found poems; and 5) using uniform codes to identify themes and dimensions
across cases.
I balanced my own intellectual curiosity with compassion and care for each actor
who participated in the study, the organizations and social movements with which they
are involved, and their communities (Ingold, 2018). The research process fostered
solidarity between me and actors by infusing the research process with inclusivity,
collaboration, mutuality, and reflexivity (Brem-Wilson, 2014). While the researcher
creates and becomes an integral part of portraits (Anderson, 2011), I created a climate of
caring, trust, and openness that respected and created space for the positionality,
intentions, voice, ideas, and feelings of participating actors. I did this by practicing active
listening, being reflexive and addressing my biases, allowing each actor to explore
experiences and ideas that are important to them, and by using member checking (Way et
al., 2015). By doing so, I created relationships based on “respectful negotiation, joint
control, and reciprocal learning” (Lincoln & Guba, 1986, p. 76).
The researcher’s voice is present in portraiture as an active and acute witness to
the story being told, in the underlying assumptions guiding interpretation, through
integration of her own life story, and by revealing her relationship with the actor
(Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2005b; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Being the research
instrument requires continual awareness and reflection. While my voice is present in the
text, it is not centered (Berry, 2015). A portraitist aims to “avoid narcissism” so that her
story does not “obscure or overwhelm the inquiry” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997,
p. 96). Rather, the researcher’s voice “accompanies the subjects–it adds to and enhances
the themes, insights, and articulations” (Dixson, 2005, 117). I carefully reviewed all
written portraits to ensure that the voice of each actor is most visible and vibrant with
mine used to offer contrast, context, and perspective that illuminates the actor (Lawrence-
Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). In addition, I reviewed each portrait with actors in the third
and final interview for member checking and asked them if they recognize their voice in
the text and feel that it is the most forward voice to the story being told.
Berger (2015) suggests two strategies to ensure that the researcher is not eclipsing
the perspectives and stories of participants with her own. The first is to create a
memorandum after each encounter with participants. This memo includes three things: a
verbatim excerpt of the participant’s interview; speculation about what that might mean;
and the researcher’s intellectual and emotional response. Through impressionistic
records, these three things were documented. The second strategy suggested by Berger is
to review transcripts again at a later date, reading them with fresh eyes to discern how
interpretation has been influenced by the researcher’s perspectives, experiences, and
social location. This, too, was done before each portrait was finalized and documented in
an impressionistic record.
I also demonstrated responsibility and accountability to actors’ social movements,
organizations, and communities by “communicating beyond the walls of the academy”
(Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9). Sharing research with groups that are
positioned to translate those ideas into action is particularly important for activist
research; in fact, the intellectual work of research is a “necessary part of movement-
building and learning” (Earl, 2017, p. 133). Thus, the portraits are written without
academic jargon so that they can more easily be interpreted and used by social movement
Authenticity is closely related to accountability and it is often used as a quality
standard in qualitative research in place of validity (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997;
Lincoln & Guba, 1986). In portraiture, authenticity results from the process of searching
for goodness, acknowledging dissonance, revealing complexity, and transforming
boundaries–it is not the creation of an ideal or even immediately recognizable portrayal
of reality (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Appreciating people in their multiplicity
promotes “dignity” by “positing a more expansive version of the self, and thus allowing
for a broader range of expressions considered resonant with, rather than alienated from,
that self” (Hartman, 2015, p. 35). Authenticity grows from a trusting relationship between
researchers and actors, and it takes time to build this trust (Morse, 2015b). Thus, I spent
several hours with each actor over the span of four months. This allowed the relationship
time to grow so that actors felt comfortable sharing incomplete, conflicting, and evolving
stories and interpretations of their experiences of solidarity.
Member Checking
Member checking promotes credibility by ensuring that the findings resonate with
each actor (Saldaña, 2014). Through member checking, actors validated my interpretation
and representation of their stories. Actors had the opportunity to revise, add to, or detract
from what they shared throughout the research process. In addition to providing
transcripts of interviews, I met with actors toward the end of the data collection process
to share my ideas and get their feedback (Birt et al., 2016). Each actor had the
opportunity to review their final portrait and to provide corrections to errors in the text
(Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). When an actor and I disagreed about a particular
component of her portrait, we discussed our mutual perspectives until we arrived at
consensus about how to proceed. I also ensured that actors were able to hear their voice
in the text and that they were comfortable with their voice’s presence in the document.
To be reflexive, I was open to changing my approach with actors and personal
perceptions and beliefs as the research unfolded. I continually questioned myself and the
rigor of the study to ensure accountability (Gemignani, 2017). This included choosing to:
“acknowledge…epistemological limitations; embrace uncertainty, contradiction, and the
possibility of error; and engage in intense self-reflection” (Keating, 2013, p. 55). To hold
myself accountable to this task, I recorded my shifts in understanding in impressionistic
I was aware of how my social location influences my interactions with actors and
my interpretation of their experiences, stories, and perceptions (Herland, 2017; Mao et
al., 2015; Patton, 2001), noting my reflections in impressionistic records. In addition,
actors may have judged or interpreted my character based on differences in social
location (Mayorga-Gallo & Hordge-Freeman, 2017). Mayorga-Gallo & Hordge-Freeman
suggest focusing on “credibility and approachability” as researchers reflexively use or
diminish aspects of who they are to gain access and trust (2017, p. 390). I selectively
articulated shared identifications or political goals that I would otherwise not accentuate
and intentionally selected casual clothing, already in my closet, to wear during interviews
(Petray, 2012).
I was also mindful of my intentions and the possible impact that the research will
have, responding with actors to reflect my responsibilities to them and their organizations
and communities (Fortier, 2017; Gilgun, 2015). Because “writing determines not only
whose voices and knowledge are prioritized, but how those voices and knowledge
operate in social, historical configurations that exceed any one way of voicing or
knowing the world” (Harris, 2016, p. 112), I critically reviewed the text I created to
ensure that the language I chose was in alignment with the conceptual frameworks
guiding this study (Learmonth & Morrell, 2017; Shalhoub-Kevorkian & Roer-Strier,
Ethical Considerations
Before proceeding with participant selection, I obtained approval from Eastern
University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). To prepare for this approval, I completed
an ethics training module and took a quiz to demonstrate my knowledge of ethical
practices in research. I prepared and submitted an application to the IRB. This application
described the purpose and objective of the research, research design, methods, participant
selection, and risks and benefits of the research. The application also included the consent
form, verbal consent script, cover letter, and semi-structured interview guide. This review
ensured that the project is fair and will not cause harm to actors.
When I approached prospective participants, I was open and transparent about the
project. I provided them with a copy of the full proposal as well as a condensed
participant guide and frequently asked questions document that included information
about me, the study, the time commitment required, and the project timeline. Before
asking a prospective participant to commit to participating, I made sure she met the
criteria established for participant selection.
I reviewed the informed consent form (Appendix F) with interested actors. The
form explained the purpose of the research, procedures, steps that would be taken to
assure confidentiality, risks and benefits of participating in the study, and contact
information for me and the dissertation chair. The form emphasized that participation is
voluntary and that she can terminate her involvement with the project at any time. I did
not conduct any interviews before a signed consent form was in place.
Because solidarity has strong affective components (Hemmings, 2012), dialogue
with actors involved sensitive personal experiences and reflections. This was addressed
by demonstrating empathy to create a safe and comfortable environment, allowing
participants to stop, pause, or change the course of conversation to explore experiences
relevant to the topic but outside of the interview protocol, and having referral resources
available, such as Healing for Activists and The Fireweed Collective, in case an actor
would have indicated that she was in need of additional support (Bengtsson & Fynbo,
2018; Klenke, 2008). None of the actors expressed the need for such support during our
Consistent with my conceptual framework, I honored my relationship with each
actor in a way that transcends dualistic, hierarchical relationships that often exist between
researchers and research participants (Gillan & Pickerill, 2012; Gray et al., 2015; St.
Pierre, 2017). Actors’ feelings, experiences, and ideas were viewed holistically (Fraser &
Michell, 2015; Gerrard et al., 2017). Their stories were told in such a way that reflects
their multiplicity and complexity (Sacks, 2015). Particular attention was paid to
anonymity and confidentiality as well as power dynamics.
Anonymity and Confidentiality
Actors’ names, the names of their organizations, and the names of the people and
organizations we discussed were not disclosed. In some cases, specific details about
actors, their organizations, and the areas where they work were described in general
terms to protect the actors’ identity. Using real names can be personally inconvenient if
not invasive; doing so can also make the identities of participants’ associates known
(Lahman et al., 2015). Anonymity may also result in more openness so that actors feel
comfortable discussing their ideas and experiences (Vainio, 2012). Thus, each actor
selected a pseudonym to be used in her portrait. I also presented descriptive details in a
way that would reveal the “worlds” and contexts of each actor without making the
organizations with which she is involved known.
Throughout the research process, I had access to sensitive personal information
and materials. All electronic files were kept on a password-protected computer and
backed up to a password-protected server. Video recordings were also kept on this
password-protected computer. All electronic and paper files will be destroyed three years
after the completion of this project.
Power Dynamics
Bhattacharya (2016) argues that power dynamics between researchers and
participants are “inevitable” in research and that not making these relations explicit can
“threaten the validity and quality of research” (p. 711). Many communities have had
negative experiences with researchers who take and objectify local knowledge, claiming
it as their own and gaining professional credibility as a result, and who have conducted
research that did not provide a direct benefit to those communities (Scheurich, 2018;
Tuck & Yang, 2014). Social movements and social researchers can have conflicting
interests based on different experiences with institutions and group identifications. A lack
of awareness and willingness to be reflexive and negotiate these differences can result in
research that further privileges the researcher’s motivations and goals at the expense of
actors (Brem-Wilson, 2014).
To avoid unintentional “complicity in the tangled webs of inequitable power
relations” (Kumsa et al., 2015, p. 428), I honored each actor’s desires and choices
throughout the research process, inviting their input into data collection, analysis, and
presentation of results (Ross, 2017; Sabar & Sabar Ben-Yehoshua, 2017). My intent was
for actors to be “co-researchers who are an active part of the process” rather than
“subjects who are passively being investigated” (Park et al., 2016, n.p.). I welcomed
personal questions from actors, sharing my own experience and ideas with vulnerability
and humility to reduce any perceived hierarchy in our relationship (Caretta & Riaño,
2016; Ross, 2017). My hope was that actors felt my “full intention” and “deep
engagement” so that they would “leave the encounters feeling safe and whole”
(Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 141).
My respect for each actor and their community was always as important as my
own ambitions and research goals. As Scheurich (2018) notes, “it is the denial of the
human and planetary community that lies at the heart of oppression” (p. 138). Thus, I did
not distinguish myself from actors as an independent researcher but rather endeavored to
connect with them and their communities in solidarity as a “world”-traveler (Lugones,
1987) and to work with them to co-create and communicate ideas that are helpful to their
movements (Aldridge, 2014; Dixson, 2005; Earl, 2017; Gillan & Pickerill, 2012). This
intention was articulated and reiterated to build trust.
Delimitations and Limitations of the Study
There are some limitations to the design of this study. Actors were identified
using publicly available, online information. This information may have been out of date
and might have excluded people or organizations who could have been included in the
sampling frame. The time commitment required to participate in this study may have
deterred otherwise interested actors from choosing to participate. Actors were selected
from SMOs in one Mid-Atlantic city. Several prospective participants declined to
participate because they construct their gender identity in a nonbinary way, which may
have excluded valuable perspectives. Each of these factors influenced the selection of
actors and, consequently, the findings that emerged.
The topic is focused, but complex. The researcher struggled to articulate this topic
in a way that was clear, simple, and easy to understand. Despite the researcher’s best
efforts, prospective actors may have misinterpreted or have been confused about the
intent or purpose of the study. In addition, the method of portraiture may have been
unfamiliar to prospective actors. These limitations were addressed by using language that
resonated with actors in conversation, which may vary from that used in scholarly
writing, adjusting the language used in response to feedback received from prospective
actors, and answering questions about the study as honestly and thoroughly as possible.
The researcher also created a simple project overview (i.e. Chambliss & Schutt, 2010)
and a Frequently Asked Questions document (i.e. Fortier, 2017) to facilitate
The coronavirus pandemic impacted the researcher’s ability to meet and interact
with actors in their work or community environment. While meetings were done
virtually, and relevant neighborhoods were explored using online tools, online data
collection limited the researcher’s ability to engage her senses and completely describe
and interpret the environment. The absence of smells, background noises, and other
contextual elements yielded a less detailed and compelling description of the
environment. The researcher asked actors to share these details so that the researcher
could create a more complete picture.
There are several possible limitations that occurred when collecting data. Actors
articulated thoughts about social division and solidarity in ways that were new to the
researcher which could have resulted in difficulties with communication and
understanding. Consistent with the conceptual framework, the researcher was open to
these differences–viewing them as an “invitation” to learn (Bhattacharya, 2017, p. 109).
The researcher explored perceived discrepancies in impressionistic records (Lawrence-
Lightfoot & Davis, 1997), minimized judgment in interactions to remain approachable to
promote a comfortable environment (Mayorga-Gallo & Hordge-Freeman, 2017; Miller,
2016), and practiced active listening to ensure that the interview stayed on track (Patton,
2001). Many actors had difficulty recalling specific details of experiences of solidarity
that occurred in the past; two of the actors shared that living and leading through the
pandemic impacted their focus or ability to construct stories in our meetings. Actors
might have also withheld important experiences or specific details because they did not
feel comfortable talking about them. The researcher gently probed for additional details
or clarification (Blee & Taylor, 2002; Patton, 2001). The researcher reflexively adjusted
the approach with each actor to promote a positive relationship or to explore emergent
topics (Jacob & Ferguson, 2012).
There are also several delimitations. This research is focused on how women
leaders engage social division in their solidarity practice which may exclude other aspects
of solidarity which SMO leaders deem salient. While the researcher remained focused on
the topic, complementary ideas that emerged were shared in the findings to reflect each
actors’ ideas and priorities. The study engaged women leaders within progressive SMOs
in a Mid-Atlantic city. This delimitation ensured that the researcher had access to actors,
due to proximity, and may also have also revealed trends that are unique to this
geographic area. The findings of this study reflect the unique experience and perspectives
of the six actors who participated and are not generalizable to other SMOs or leaders. By
including only six actors, the researcher was able to explore and share their experiences
and perceptions in an in-depth way. Each of these delimitations is required to ensure that
the study is manageable and focused. They will not limit the rigor of the study but rather
suggest opportunities to replicate the study with additional actors or in other
This chapter described how portraiture was used with complementary methods to
explore the research topic in a way that is consistent with the feminist conceptual
framework which includes threshold theorizing (Keating, 2013) and “world”-traveling
(Lugones, 1987). Six portraits explore the inner and outer “worlds” of six women leaders
within SMOs in a Mid-Atlantic city to illuminate how they engage social division vis-à-
vis similarities and differences as they construct and experience solidarity. Portraiture is
well suited to this research topic as it illuminates goodness, reveals complexity, and
traverses boundaries (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997).
Data was collected through three in-depth, semi-structured interviews,
observation, a questionnaire, and document review. The data was coded using methods
from portraiture, dramaturgical coding, and found poems (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis,
1997; Richardson, 1992; Saldaña, 2009). The rigor and integrity of this study was
ensured by triangulating data, being accountable to actors and their organizations,
communities, and movements, practicing authenticity, member checking, and exercising
I want to belong
I hold all these privileges
I try to give them up
The structures or the systems that I fit into still exist
I become aware of the barriers between me and humanity
We are all caught in structures and systems and traditions and ways of being in the world
That are constructed and illusory
We have ideas of things and other people that aren’t fully true
I desire for us all to be more curious
To look at the world, other humans, problems, and situations
And wonder a little bit
To see a truer, fuller, realer picture
That requires us to do some slowing down
I really long for all of us to do that somehow
We would be less afraid of what we don’t know
Allison is the executive director of a faith-based social justice organization. She
describes it as “a small neighborhood organization, working together to be really present
neighbors, and building a neighborhood that we can be proud of and supporting our
neighbors to find ways to thrive and flourish.” They provide food assistance, tend
gardens with neighbors, and organize community gatherings in addition to hosting
spiritual seekers who want to live as part of an intentional Christian community.
Allison: The Actor and Her "Worlds"
Alison sits in her home office. She is casually dressed, in a baby blue hooded
sweatshirt and then a grey cotton cardigan, with her hair pulled back in a carefree
manner. Her voice is calm, measured, and expresses the inflections of her native country
in Polynesia. She is a thoughtful speaker, pausing and looking up as she actively ponders
her response, who openly shares deeply personal reflections about her life and leadership
Allison lives across the street from her workplace and often works from home,
juggling responsibility for her two young children–ages five and three–with her husband.
Her husband is from Missouri and they met in a city in the South while she was living
and working there. Her home office space is pleasant and inviting. The bright yellow
walls are adorned with artwork, posters, photographs, and a rainbow-colored Namaste
sign. The bookshelf immediately behind her holds a collection of books, photographs,
and three-ring binders.
The neighborhood where Allison’s organization is located is well-known for both
its history of organized crime and the conspicuous availability of drugs, particularly
heroin. The neighborhood is comprised of row homes and a variety of small businesses as
well as churches, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings. Recently planted trees and
vibrant murals add lushness to the urban landscape of mostly concrete and brick. The
organization’s building is located on a corner and has a modest but welcoming presence.
The organization began as an intentional community of White, privileged students
who chose to live alongside poor people of color as an expression of their Christian faith.
Relationships are the cornerstone of the work the organization does in this community.
As Allison explains, “we build connections and relationships…we connect people to
resources beyond the ones that we have, and grow partnerships with other organizations.”
While the organization is focused on building community in solidarity with its neighbors,
the founder–and thus the organization–is internationally known. The organization
therefore has a “large following” that draws resources, but also complicates the
messaging. Allison explained that “over the last five years, we’ve been trying to move
out from underneath the founders’…voice.” Allison is working to redefine the
organization’s purpose and future direction.
Allison first encountered the organization when her best friend invited her to
move into the neighborhood. They were not officially affiliated with the organization at
the time, but soon Allison was using her skills to provide care for her new neighbors. She
joined the board of directors and then was asked to serve as the interim director. She has
been executive director for six years.
This was the first of two times that she would be asked to assume leadership of an
organization that was in crisis because the former leaders, both men, had made what
Allison described as “poor decisions around their relationships with women.” The second
time, her organization assumed leadership of the other. During these transitions, she tried
to figure out how to “take care of people” as she had done during her childhood. Allison
indicated that she has been feeling resistant to continuing on this path. “If someone asked
me to fix something for, like, an organization for them, like, I’m not doing it anymore….
I can’t do it again…. It’s just tiring, you know? I’m just tired.” She is feeling a tension
between her “own tiredness and the desire to see people thriving.” While Allison
appreciates the importance of leading an organization through change, she also
recognizes the toll it takes on her both physically and emotionally.
Allison recalled how she initially developed her leadership skills and presence in
childhood. “I have a really strong personality…some of that comes out of growing up as
the youngest of three for my mom and seven for my dad.” Her father died when she was
five, and she lived with her mother as well as a sister who is 18 months older than her and
a brother who is eight years older. This influenced her in multiple ways. Reflecting on
her childhood, she shared that “when you’re the youngest, it’s easy to demand what you
want and when your dad has died when you’re young, a lot of people give you what you
want.” After her father died, Allison’s mother became depressed. This presented an early
leadership opportunity for Allison. As she recalled, “a big defining part of my identity
development has been around being a person that people rely on to sort of help them
figure out what needs to happen.” Thus, trauma in Allison’s early family life prepared her
for being a leader in later years.
Born and reared in a Polynesian country, Allison grew up in a poor, ethnically
diverse outer suburb where people were filled with what she described as “toughness and
pride.” As a White woman, she recalled, “my experience in that neighborhood was…this
awareness that we’re different, we have different kind of skin, we have different, like,
um, family traditions, those sorts of things. But what unites us is that we live in this
neighborhood.” Her sense of connection with these neighbors was also related to
financial struggle and being part of a single parent home.
Allison’s mother has influenced her approach to leadership and understanding of
solidarity. While her mother didn’t particularly like the neighborhood they lived in, she
made the most of it by getting involved in the community. Allison shared that her mother
“got involved because she knew that her life and our lives would be better if she did that.
And I think that’s what I’ve really tried to do in my life is, like, whatever I’ve seen is to
be fully present to it.” Allison believes her mother’s involvement in the community
stemmed from her suffering, loneliness, and a longing for connection. “I really respect
the fact that my mum decided to, like, try and help herself by helping other
people…doing something out of your own pain to help someone that may be in pain is
totally solidarity.” From her mother, Allison learned that “you just work hard, and you
Solidarity Story: Solidarity as Self-Sacrifice
Sixteen years ago, Allison left behind her job, family, home, culture, and way of
life in Polynesia to live in solidarity with people she perceived as quite different from her.
Allison was a teacher at private Christian schools in her native country until she was in
her mid-20s. As a single woman without responsibilities such as children and a mortgage
payment, she–like many other young women in her country–began looking into
opportunities to work overseas through Christian organizations after having completed
three international mission trips.
After considering teaching in England, Allison was first introduced to the idea of
working in America through a speaker at a music festival. At the time, she was inspired
by the idea of deeply connecting to and living out her faith through self-sacrifice.
Reflecting on what this speaker said, Allison shared that “at the end of his message, it
was kind of like, if you really are serious, then drop everything you’re doing, go to [this
city], and help the poor Black kids.” Allison shared that she feels “horrified by…that
language and, like, being motivated by that now.” Today, Allison views this perspective
as “patronizing.” Allison further described how she was motivated to relocate to the
United States at the time:
I would say that my motivation to come was that I thought that I knew what I
believed and why I believed it, and that my life was, like, I was doing all the right
things. Um, and that I needed to come and help people who…were struggling… I
would have said back then that God was telling me to do that. But I don’t know if
I believe that anymore.
As she has developed meaningful relationships with poor people of color and lived
alongside them, Allison now views these relationships in a mutually beneficial and
interconnected way. Through experience, maturity, and her ongoing journey of self-
discovery, Allison’s ideas about her faith and developing relationships with others have
Once Allison decided to move to the United States, she quit her teaching job, sold
all of her possessions, and moved to America for what she thought would be one year.
She put a lot of thought into this decision, watching videos and reading the organization’s
handbook before making a commitment.
While Allison’s belief in social justice remains strong, her motivation and
understanding of solidarity has shifted. Through spiritual discernment and her life and
work experience in this community, her understanding of solidarity–like her spirituality–
has grown to be more layered and complex.
Five themes emerged through Allison’s reflections of engaging social division
vis-à-vis similarities and differences in her constructions and experiences of solidarity: 1)
Miss Johnson doesn’t get to take a break; 2) feeling gross and jaded; 3) connecting
through motherhood; 4) noticing difference; and 5) softening and moving toward each
other. Each of these themes is explored in the sections that follow.
Miss Johnson Doesn't Get to Take a Break
Allison has come to realize that her race is deeply intertwined with privilege.
Earlier in life, Allison felt a sense of difference in her home country related to her
Christian faith and being part of a single parent family. Today, she distinguishes herself
from her childhood neighbors in a different way. She explained that “as I’ve become
more aware of my identity as a White person, I think I can look back and understand that
we had levels of privilege that people around me didn’t.” Through reflection, Allison
now recognizes the ways that race has shaped her life experience.
When she decided to move to the United States, Allison constructed solidarity in
way that she now describes as “patronizing.” She further described why she feels this
I would have said that solidarity is, like, rich people or White people giving up
their money and their privilege to move towards poor people and all people of
color, but that still puts the White middle-class person in a position of power.
Thus, Allison’s ideas about solidarity now reflect a recognition of systemic issues and a
desire to change relations of power.
Allison’s growing awareness of her privilege and systemic issues has led her to
question her organization’s practices. Allison’s organization benefits from the privilege
of its past and current leadership. Allison conveyed how this makes the organization’s
work possible, but also undermines its ability to effectively address social justice issues:
We stand on our privilege…we get so much of our financial support from people
who look just like us that think…”I couldn’t do what you do, I’m glad you’re
doing it.” And this idea of like, “someone should live with the poor and help the
poor, so I’ll give you money to do it”…. It is giving us in so many ways the
ability to live in solidarity and come alongside people in solidarity…. Do we keep
doing that? Do we keep drawing on, is it good to be in…philanthropic kind of
work, and, and perpetuate systems of oppression? Because that’s what it feels like
a little bit at times.
Thus, Allison is negotiating her organization’s transitioning purpose of addressing
systemic issues with the organization’s dependence on people with access to resources to
continue their work.
Allison also problematized this reliance on ‘outsiders’ in the ways that others
construct solidarity. She explained how she often encounters people who share her earlier
views of solidarity through her work:
People would always come to me and be like, “I’m so tired. I really need a break
from this.” And I’m like, “a break from what, your life?” And that was when I
started realizing like, oh this, like, living in solidarity isn’t really real life, like,
because people can take a break from it. And I’m like, “Miss Johnson down the
street doesn’t get to take a break–she’s got nowhere else to go.”
This articulation of privilege is similar to those that Allison has noticed in her current
organization. Part of their work is hosting spiritual seekers who are interested in applying
their faith through their work. They used to facilitate an experience where their guests
would learn about homelessness by “pretending to be homeless.” Allison recalls, “it was
always this jarring awareness that, like, this was really patronizing to someone that
actually experiences homelessness.” Allison no longer believes that giving up privilege,
pretending to be like people experiencing oppression, or “changing people’s lives to be
more like mine” facilitates solidarity. “There’s still a power dynamic…because you can
always leave it.” While she recognizes that certain organizational practices recenter
privilege, Allison has not yet fully developed alternative approaches to engaging people
who want to be involved in their organization.
Allison is now constructing solidarity in more expansive ways that acknowledge
privilege, creating opportunities to generously share her time and emotional resources.
She articulated how she thinks about solidarity today:
It’s about paying attention to what makes people come alive, and what helps them
thrive in the life they have, and helping people to move towards that…. You get
to live your life, um, as yourself in the ways that feel most true and authentic to
who you are, your culture, and all of those things…where you have all of the
things that you need to do that, and you, you aren’t perpetually scared, or you
aren’t, like, perpetually hungry…. Solidarity, you know, isn’t equality. It isn’t
making everyone the same. It’s moving, it’s like making sure that while you’re
thriving and other people around you are thriving.… What do I change in my life,
what can I offer in my life, that would mean you get to do that a little more?
This construction of solidarity recognizes difference in two ways. Firstly, Allison notices
that differences exist, and that many of these differences are related to relations of power.
Secondly, Allison believes that differences are not necessarily bad, and solidarity entails
sharing with and supporting others as they live their own lives according to their values
and choices.
Allison’s solidarity practice integrates these concepts. She illustrated how she can
use her privilege to benefit others without being patronizing toward them:
Something that shifted for me is, like, not being ashamed of, like, being a middle-
class family. And it being okay that we’re a middle-class family living in a poor
neighborhood and finding meaningful ways to engage with people around our
resources and access to them and sharing them versus, like, hiding it to live in
solidarity…. What’s changed in me is this desire to be fully myself and fully
authentic in all of my relationships…. It’s become more real to me to be the same
person with whoever I’m with instead of, like, trying to become like them.
Thus, Allison is learning to be more authentic in who she is as she practices solidarity by
recognizing her privilege rather than hiding it or trying to move away from it.
Feeling Gross and Jaded
While Allison once felt committed to taking action based on what she had been
taught about living her faith, she has now developed her own views about solidarity in
relationship with her coworkers and neighbors. Allison described why she now perceives
the way she used to think about solidarity as “gross:
The work that I’m a part of is sort of founded on this idea that, like, some people
should relocate to live alongside poor people.… I have found it harder and harder
to be okay with the ways that people, like, think that I’m doing something
special.… Fifteen years ago, I would have been like, “yeah, I really am…. I’m a
good person, because, like, I don’t live in the nice neighborhood that I could live
in. I live in this, like, tough one,” you know, and like, it just feels really gross to
me now, to think about that because I would never say that to someone that’s
indigenous to this neighborhood. I would never say that to my coworkers that
grew up in this neighborhood.
Through her relationships and solidarity practice over time, Allison has developed respect
for people who are different from her in terms of race and class; she expresses this
through the way she thinks about them and engages them.
Allison also feels “jaded” by the premise of her organization and the faith
teachings that underpin it. She is unsure about how the work they do, and the way they
talk about that work, “fits what I’ve come to, like, really believe about God.” She
acknowledged that while the founders’ intention was to “be good neighbors and to help
people,” the neighbors are still in need. Social structures continue to maintain economic
and social inequities. Allison reflected that “our presence hasn’t really changed
anything.” Allison sometimes questions if the work they are doing is “worthwhile,” but
she feels “proud” about their accomplishments. As she explained, “we’ve given out
250,000 pounds of food to people this year…. I feel really glad that we can be present to
people who are in really desperate situations.” Allison now recognizes that addressing
systemic issues as well as the immediate needs that emerge in communities that are
adversely impacted by those issues can be part of a greater whole.
Connecting through Motherhood
When she began her work with this organization six years ago, Allison did not
have children. She felt a sense of difference from her coworkers based on race and class.
When her first child was born, a coworker opened up to her about her experiences raising
five children. Reflecting on this experience, she shared that “being in solidarity is like
sharing her story with me…feeling her happiness of being a mum.” Becoming a mother
created a new point of connection for Allison and her neighbors.
A few years ago, in the middle of a night that was hot enough to open the
windows but not so hot that the air conditioner was needed, a shooting occurred just
outside Allison’s home. She sat on her bed with her crying three-year-old and nine-
month-old children. Allison described how this experience changed her construction of
It's more this wonder, like, I'm wondering, do other people feel this way until you
actually experience it together? You know, when you're talking about it. And so,
that was, like, that was a pretty big moment for me. You know, I, I’ve been doing
this work for some time. But this awareness of like, I'm not a hero for living here.
Like, everybody's scared. You know, no one wants their kids to get shot. Like,
you know, no one wants the kids to experience, like, violence and, like, and all of
these mums around me, are feeling the same thing.
Thus, this shared experience of adversity related to protecting her children from violence
in the neighborhood created a strong feeling of solidarity with other mothers.
Noticing Difference
When she first arrived in the United States, Allison felt deeply vulnerable and a
profound sense of difference. At 27, she was several years older than her four roommates.
Yet, she lamented that she “felt like all of my adulthood had been stripped away.” After
traveling for 29 hours, she spent her first night with a stranger who picked her up at the
I go…to get in the shower, take like, all of my clothes off to get in the shower and
go to turn the shower on, and I couldn’t figure it out…so it was like this moment
where I had to, like, go and ask someone I didn’t know to turn the shower on for
me. So, it was experiences like that, that very quickly turned into me realizing that
there was a lot of stuff that I had assumed I knew or understood about the world
that began sort of…being deconstructed…. I realized that life was just so much
bigger than that.
By noticing her difference from others, Allison began to question her assumptions and
what she believed.
As the oldest person in this program, Allison felt not only a keen sense of
difference–but also responsibility. She recalled that “when you’re the older person in the
situation, people kind of look to you to sort of help them figure out what to do next…I
found a lot of worth in being that person that people need.” Although she only planned to
stay in the United States for one year, Allison felt the need to explore both what America
was like “outside the bounds of a program” and the possibilities that opened up for her as
her worldview expanded.
To Allison, her differences from others, as well as the ways that others are
different from her, are both significant. While Allison described similar feelings among
mothers related to neighborhood violence, she also explained that shared situations do not
necessarily mean that different people experience it in the same way. Reflecting on the
COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, she noticed that “the
country and the world is definitely feeling something; I don’t think we’re all having the
same experience.” She further discussed why people experience similar situations in
different ways:
If you just believed what people said when they talked to you about pain or loss or
oppression, like, instead of, like, saying, “oh that can’t be true because I’m not
having that experience,” how would this [COVID-19] have changed sooner, you
know…it’s like the police shootings and the racial violence and most of the
things, like, it changes when you know someone that’s had that experience, you
know, and so much of like, White middle-class America has never even interacted
with anyone that’s had those real true experiences.
Exposure to difference, in Allison’s view, develops people’s capacity for understanding
others. Alison believes that these different experiences can add richness to our
understanding of others and the practice of solidarity.
Thus, Allison believes it is important to trust what other people say about their
life experiences in order to practice solidarity. This perspective frames her understanding
of solidarity. “I think that’s what solidarity is, just trusting…what people are saying about
their life and who they are instead of needing to understand it and improve it.” To
Allison, solidarity does not require having the same experience or the same
understanding of an experience. It can be practiced by “just being with people in their
experience.” Thus, while understanding is important to Allison, she also recognizes that it
is not always possible to understand how others are thinking and feeling. To Allison, this
does not need to prohibit the practice of solidarity.
While Allison recognizes the value of difference, she also feels that how
difference is interpreted can be a barrier to solidarity. She articulated how society
influences and limits the construction of difference:
I think we’re set to segregated. And society, I think in general, we determine our
value and our worth, and, like, other people’s value and worth and, like, we like
separate ourselves out to find our identities...I get that we need these containers to
understand everything, but all of those things actually make it harder to move into
this idea that like, difference is not threatening. And like, I think solidarity invites
this idea that, like, we could learn something from somebody and their life could
impact ours, but we’ve like, set up so many systems that make it so difficult to,
like, really move to living our lives truly in solidarity.
To Allison, difference should be welcomed rather than feared as it is an enriching
resource that can be beneficial.
Softening and Moving toward Each Other
To Allison, resonance and reciprocity are significant relational components of
solidarity. She believes that looking for commonalities and recognizing shared humanity
can benefit not only relationships but society as well:
I do think wars would be different and, like, conflicts would be different if we just
slowed down and asked, why or how did you leap to that conclusion? Or, yeah, I
think we, I think the desire would be that we would be less afraid of what we
don't know. And, and see that, like, that there's resonance between us. And that if
we paid a little more attention to the resonance in us it would soften our hearts
towards each other. That's what I desire in our work.
Allison’s use of the word resonance suggests that differences and similarities can
peacefully co-exist in relationships. This perspective is a departure from her earlier
constructions of solidarity, which she now believes reinforce social division. For
example, she shared how she desires for her coworker “to care for me, and to come,
move towards me, because I longed for meaningful relationship. And, like, I don't just
want to live in this neighborhood. And I want to belong and, like, belonging only comes
when there’s, like, a reciprocation.” Thus, solidarity to Allison has transitioned from
sacrificing her material belongings to feeling a sense of belonging in relationship with
To see the fullness of other people, Allison is transparent about who she is as she
practices solidarity. She revealed how she does this through her work:
I just want to, like, talk about what’s happening for me, what emotion I’m feeling,
what I’m balancing at home…. People relate to me in one particular way. And so,
it’s like fully seeing our whole selves with each other. And I think when I do the
work of doing that, like with my handful of friends, or with myself, or even with
my family, that allows me to interact with, with, other people with this awareness
that this is not the full story here.
Thus, by sharing her own story with her coworkers and neighbors–as well as others,
Allison is able to see the fullness of other people. Allison now constructs solidarity as “a
place you’re asking question from,” “a lens that I live my life through,” and “a filter for
my decision making.” Solidarity, to Allison, is not a series of discrete actions; it is a way
of authentically being with others in a complex and perplexing world. She integrates
solidarity into all of her decisions and relationships.
They said, ‘you can’t be doing that’
They wanted everything completely separate
We were stunned
I was in tears a lot
I talked to someone
They connected me to a group in the same situation
We got together
I’m not alone
We wrote a lot of letters, we did a lot of protests
It was empowering
We’ve gotten really close
We’ve created something really strong
We don’t have big networks
We don’t have big budgets
We don’t have big staff
We can ask questions that we would be too embarrassed to ask somebody else
We can ask for support
It’s wonderful to be able to trust
Elena is the executive director of a place-based organization that facilitates
learning about social justice, art, culture, and sustainability as well as the development of
youth leadership skills. Elena’s organization recently laid off an employee due to the
COVID-19 pandemic and Elena, now in her 60s, has more work responsibilities now than
she has in the past. The organization, which once had 18 employees, now has only four.
Before Elena began, there was no director for a year after having two different directors
in five years. As she recalled, “when I came on, the board had been rolling up their
sleeves and trying to keep the group afloat.” The organization is undergoing a strategic
planning process to figure out its future. Elena reflected that “It’s been really tough. And
now the pandemic has really not helped. But we're still here. And hopefully, you know,
we're gonna hopefully keep going.” Elena’s work in this resource-constrained grassroots
organization has created new opportunities for solidarity.
Elena: The Actor and Her "Worlds"
Elena and I met during the week in-between Christmas and New Year’s Eve,
when she was able to fit our conversation into her busy work schedule. Elena sits in her
office, in front of brightly lit windows with white woodwork–her shoulder-length grey
hair sparkling in the sunlight. She is wearing maroon glasses and a grey sweater. Her
office is in an older building, revealed by the plastic placed over a window to prevent a
draft from chilling the room. Elena is friendly and smiles frequently. While many people
take vacation at this time of year, Elena is equipped for a full day of work with her
matching blue lunch bag and thermos. Although she has a busy day ahead of her, Elena
has an easygoing, helpful nature.
According to Elena, the organization where she works began as a “nature center
for inner-city youth…. They did a lot of work focused on teaching the kids all the names
of the trees in the park and taking them camping and canoeing.” Over the years, the
organization evolved. Along with increasing drug abuse and violence in the
neighborhood, several vacant lots became dumping grounds for tires and other garbage.
A group of Puerto Rican women who lived in the neighborhood got together to clean up
the lots, create award-winning gardens, and organize community vigils to preserve the
beauty of these reimagined spaces. A mural of these women overlooks one of the
Elena describes the organization as “a jewel of a little place.” Today, the
organization continues to beautify the neighborhood and maintain the gardens by
engaging high school students and neighbors through gardening activities and community
events. The gardens preserve precious green space in the neighborhood, celebrate Latinx
and West African culture, and facilitate opportunities for neighbors to connect with each
Most of the people who live in the neighborhood have historically been Puerto
Rican; however, it is becoming increasingly gentrified. While the new neighbors are
getting involved in the organization’s work as volunteers, this economic shift is making it
financially impossible for many longtime neighborhood residents to remain in their
homes. The number of youth in the neighborhood is declining as people relocate. The
older youth who are involved in Elena’s organization are moving out of the neighborhood
as they enter adulthood because of the lack of affordable housing. Due to these changes,
Elena shared that one of the organization’s original volunteers is “on a mission to
teach…the farming ways, their cultural heritage to our kids. Because…they're moving
out and they're not going to be in a place anymore where it's concentrated like this.”
While the organization’s new neighbors are involved in their work, the organization’s
goals of cultural preservation and celebration are being compromised by the exit of many
Puerto Rican families.
Elena, who has Cuban, English, and Irish heritage, has lived all over the world
and enjoys engaging deeply with people from different backgrounds. She speaks English,
French, Spanish, and a little Italian and Arabic–enough to communicate to a cab driver.
She spent most of her childhood in two countries in North Africa. She attended
elementary school for one year in the United States and then returned again for college.
Elena has what she described as “a lot of attachment to a lot of different places and
people.” She has four siblings who all also live in the United States now and they
maintain a close relationship.
Elena’s father was a pilot in the United States Air Force. Elena recalled that “he
was super patriotic and very proud to be serving his country.” Despite being a military
family, Elena described her parents as “bohemian.” Her father had a deep appreciation
for languages and the arts, particularly opera. While living in Africa, her parents sent her
to an Italian school and later a French school, rather than the American schools available
to them. As Elena recalled, “they were just constantly exposing us to a lot of different
cultures.” Her parents were “very socially minded” and influenced Elena’s choice to get
involved in social justice work.
Elena described her mother as a “vivacious” woman who “drank rum and Coke
every night” and led a very active life, traveling internationally on her own after her
husband passed away. Her mother’s spirited engagement with life is an inspiration to
Elena and her siblings; she remarked that “we’re all trying to emulate that.” From her
parents, Elena learned that “it's only as big a deal as you make it.” She grew up believing
that activities which many people might consider to be dangerous are what in Elena’s
view are “just the way it is.” Like her parents, Elena has an adventurous spirit which
comes across as she speaks about her life experiences and the place-based work she is
While working in Miami, Elena married who she described as a “farm boy from
Illinois.” His family background was quite different from hers. Elena explained why she
liked this about him. “I was very attracted to the fact that everybody in his family was
very stable and no one traveled, and they all knew each other and stuff. And wouldn't you
know, he had the travel bug.” Before settling in their current city with her husband–a
holistic health practitioner–13 years ago, they lived in Taiwan, Singapore, and then
California. Elena and her husband have three daughters, all in their 20s, who live in
California. “Even though we may not be able to see each other that much, obviously,
they're together… That makes me happy.” Elena has learned how to maintain strong
family ties despite differences in geography.
Solidarity Story: From Tears to Empowerment
Elena’s organization receives about half of its funding from city and state
government. Both of these funding sources were used for their youth programs for about
five years. About a year before we met, Elena received a brief questionnaire from the
state which she filled out, not thinking anything of it. Soon after, a state representative
convened a meeting with her and representatives from about 11 other organizations at a
city office building.
At the meeting, attendees were taken by surprise by the state’s decision to enforce
a policy of which they had previously not been informed. Elena reflected on what
happened. “The state said, ‘wait a minute…you can’t be combining the monies.’…We’re
like, ‘really? No one’s noticed it before. We’ve never hidden it’…and there was just no
way.” Elena was devastated. As a small organization located in a low-income
community, they relied on this funding to educate youth about social justice, art, culture,
sustainability, and leadership.
While many of the other organizations had established relationships, Elena was
new to the group. Elena reached out to one of her former colleagues from an organization
where she ran a program for Latinx older adults. This colleague connected her to the
other organizations that were at this meeting and also facing this predicament. The other
organizations were much larger and had greater capacity to organize advocacy
campaigns. The organizations started meeting every two weeks and worked together to
address the state policy–which was circumstantially rescinded due to the COVID-19
pandemic within a few months.
While the group came together because of shared adversity, seven of the
organizations continue to work together in solidarity to support each other months after
the situation that brought them together was resolved. They have been collaborating to
advocate for the needs of youth and teachers with the city and local school district. They
are also jointly organizing summertime education projects.
Three themes emerged through Elena’s reflections of engaging social division vis-
à-vis similarities and differences in her constructions and experiences of solidarity: 1)
organizational solidarity; 2) unity and common goals; and 3) the benefits of difference.
Each of these themes is explored in the sections that follow.
Organizational Solidarity
Elena views solidarity between funders–such as government agencies and
foundations–and nonprofit organizations as an important component of social change
work. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, funders have shifted priorities and changed their
funding schedules–often without communicating with organizations on the ground. In
addition to the challenge with state funding, Elena’s organization was also negatively
impacted by a city decision that cut their funding in half. To effectively educate funders
about “what the needs are, how things are changing,” Elena believes organizations need
to develop strategic alliances. Through her partnership with other organizations in
response to this circumstance, Elena has been able to influence city and state decision
making. Her organization would not have been able to accomplish this on its own.
The pandemic has created other opportunities for organizational solidarity. Elena
now finds herself on several new committees focused on issues from fundraising to youth
development; each of these engages multiple partners. She has also invited directors from
other organizations in the neighborhood to gather in one of their gardens for dialogue and
mutual support. Elena feels fortunate that her organization has the ability to provide safe
gathering spaces for other organizations during the pandemic. She believes it is “good for
our visibility and also good for the community.” According to Elena, self-interest and the
greater good can be complementary.
Elena shared that she has “seen a lot of solidarity in the community” over the past
year. Organizations are working together in new ways to address emerging community
needs, particularly related to food access. For example, Elena shared that “the church
across the park has been doing big time food distribution for months and months.”
Elena’s board of directors is working alongside the church to distribute food. They have
also extended a hand to an organization that rents their third floor and has been
distributing food to undocumented immigrants.
Solidarity between and among organizations has several benefits, according to
Elena. Bringing together “so many different people from so many different, from a range
of, nonprofits, right? The big, the small, the new, the older ones, more established”
enhances the power of each organization that participates in such a coalition. According
to Elena, the group can “all get together and help each other build really strong cases” so
they can have their “voices heard and make change.” Being connected to a network when
times are difficult can, according to Elena, also help leaders “keep your sense of
purpose.” Elena values her relationships with other organizational leaders, but also
recognizes that these relationships result in tangible benefits to her organization.
Unity and Common Goals
Elena’s construction of solidarity emphasizes common goals. When asked how
her understanding of solidarity is different from other people, Elena noted that she does
not construct solidarity in terms of being “united” in a professional context–with the
exception of gender. However, when thinking about her family and early experiences of
solidarity, unity was important to her. Because Elena’s father was in the military and the
family moved often, they were exposed to a lot of change and uncertainty. While
reflecting on her relationship with her siblings, Elena noted “we just have a core that just
brought us together sort of united against everything, everything around us and all the
change around us.” The constancy of her family relationships formed the basis of
solidarity within the context of external change.
Elena’s understanding of solidarity includes but extends beyond specific political
and social change contexts. She constructs it in what she describes as a “more general”
sense, encompassing “connections,” “togetherness,” and “common goals.” As a self-
described “quiet leader,” Elena does not think of solidarity as a “fight for change.” To
Elena, solidarity means “being with people who want the same things, or have the same
goals as I do, and we would just do anything to, to help each other out.” She illuminated
why she values the process of working in solidarity along with others:
When it's occurring, I'm thinking about how lucky I am to be part of that. And it
is, it's empowering. It's uplifting. It's, it's such a rush when you look around and
see oh, well, you know, we're all doing this together, we're all solving this
problem together. It’s just, it's a fabulous feeling.
To Elena, solidarity results in meaningful change–but also feels rewarding.
The Benefits of Difference
Elena’s focus on organizational solidarity and common goals allows space for
difference in terms of age, gender, race, affiliation, and other characteristics. These
differences have benefited Elena’s organization as they navigated unanticipated
challenges. Through her work with youth and younger leaders and activists, Elena has
noticed generational differences. Elena describes herself as “more old school, softer” than
the younger generation who might be “much more direct and hard hitting.” Elena
explained this observation in a non-judgmental way. “I think it's, it's so important to be
able to have these differences and know that you want to work through it again, because
of the common goal that we have.” Differences, to Elena, create an opportunity to
articulate values, goals, and common understanding through dialogue. Elena shared that
the challenge lies in figuring out “how you could make it, to work together as a
partnership, to see if it could work as a partnership.” Thus, Elena suggests that creating
solidarity across difference requires intentional effort.
Elena feels that solidarity is “particularly important” for women leaders in
grassroots nonprofit organizations. In contrast to other forms of difference, Elena feels it
is important for women to come together based on that difference. She values and
nurtures these relationships.
We’re all experiencing such division
Everyone has just been enraged
We’ve got to give a little
To get a lot
Solidarity is kind of like an energy and a color in the room
When people feel good
When the energy rises
People are more comfortable talking to each other
That’s when great ideas emerge
The barriers drop in-between folks
The politeness goes away
That’s the only way things get done
Jeanne has been the executive director of an environmental organization for the
past two-and-a-half years. The organization connects people to natural spaces along 10
miles of a river while also engaging the community in restoring and protecting those
Jeanne: The Actor and Her "Worlds"
I first met Jeanne on a cloudy day as she sat on a cozy, peach-colored chair in her
brightly-colored suburban home adorned with yellow walls and red curtains. Dressed in
black, Jeanne has chin-length, brown hair parted on the side and blue eyes. She smiles
easily and has a soft but engaging presence. Jeanne lives with her husband, who had just
started to work from home and was walking back and forth in the background, as well as
four rescued pets–two dogs and two cats.
As an introvert, Jeanne has embraced working from home since the pandemic
began. She reflected that she has “found that in some ways, it's helped me be better as a
leader, because I can give myself the space to not react and be a little bit more measured
and intentional.” While working from home has been beneficial to her leadership, Jeanne
misses her hobbies–cooking and baking–because the pandemic has made it difficult to
share with others.
Jeanne’s organization was started by a member of the United States Congress
with a multi-million dollar federal grant. The previous executive director was what
Jeanne described as “really good, and a nice guy,” but was also an engineer who “did not
have an interest in any sort of community alliances.” Thus, before Jeanne was hired, the
organization was seen as an “extension of the city” that did physical improvements to
natural areas and fundraising. When Jeanne arrived, she found that many people in the
neighborhoods closest to the spaces cared for by the organization did not know they
existed. The organization never reached out to and organized its neighbors to engage
them in planning or stewardship.
Under Jeanne’s leadership, the organization has expanded its purpose. In addition
to creating public spaces, they engage and connect people who live near the river to each
other and the land in meaningful ways–changing the way people perceive and interact
with each other and natural spaces. The organization has traditionally been and continues
to be grounded in the environmental movement; however, its current work also deeply
intersects with racial justice.
The river is separated from the surrounding neighborhoods by an interstate
highway as well as large warehouses and manufacturing sites–many of which are
abandoned, garbage dumps, chain link fences, rusting dumpsters, cracked pavement
overgrown with weeds, empty trailers scribbled with graffiti, locked gates, and signs
warning people to stay away. Jeanne describes the neighborhoods immediately beyond
the industrial area as “the more working-class, White, conservative part of the city.”
Manufacturing jobs and affordable housing have drawn immigrants for generations.
While immigrants have historically been European and White, today they are primarily
from Southeast Asia and the Caribbean which has resulted in “tension” according to
Jeanne. She shared that one of the neighborhoods just outside of the area engaged with
Jeanne’s organization has “the highest opioid addiction and crime rates in the city.”
Jeanne describes the White, working-class neighbors of her organization as “feeling kind
of under siege.” The residents who live just beyond the White, working-class
neighborhoods are predominantly African American. Although they live close to the
parks, they would have to have to pass through not only the highway and unwelcoming
industrial areas–but also a hostile, racist environment in order to enjoy them.
Solidarity Story: A New Park
Jeanne is currently intentionally facilitating solidarity between and among
neighbors, community groups, artists, and local businesses as her organization creates a
new 10-acre park. She described the work that they have been doing. “We've been
devoting a lot of resources and energy to just getting people excited, talking about what
they want, all of that stuff.” Jeanne has assembled an advisory committee of community
residents. Jeanne shared that they are creating a new park ambassador program and
providing mini grants of $500 to community leaders and organizations to “do cool
projects and bring people out.” This project has resulted in some positive momentum.
Yet, the neighborhood residents who are involved have “a very strong sense of
this is our park, we have to protect our park” and many have grown skeptical of the
project. In other parks along the river, what Jeanne calls “disruptive uses” such as
garbage dumping, partying, loud music, drug use, and/or prostitution have taken place.
Jeanne shared that these residents have the perception that such disruptive uses are “only
perpetuated by people of color, and/or people who are from outside of the area.” She
further explained that, “there's this tremendous fear that this park is coming. And it's
going to bring all those people who don't look like them coming to their riverfront and
doing bad stuff.” In addition, the police have recently responded to disruptive uses in
other parks by closing the gates and putting up physical barriers. This prevents people
from using the parks for parties and dumping, but also creates a barrier for local residents
who want to enjoy the parks.
The civil unrest that occurred over the summer of 2020 sparked a shift in
neighborhood residents’ attitudes toward the new park. Jeanne described how this
There's somehow become this transference of thought that this new park…is
going to be a magnet for every single bad behavior that has happened in the
city…And that's something new and it's surprising to us. I mean, who would have
expected that? Because we, before all of this happened, people were kind of like,
“Oh, really? I didn't know this was coming. I'm excited,” you know. And now it
just totally turned with a bunch of people. So, we have a lot of work to do.
These shifts in attitude have led Jeanne to change the way she is engaging people and
facilitating solidarity through this project.
Given her organization’s history of not including local residents in planning and
decision making, resulting in parks that are underutilized by local residents, Jeanne is
dedicated to ensuring that this new park is valued by local residents and offers a space for
them to create connections across their differences. Solidarity is a prerequisite for the
success of this project.
Five themes emerged through Jeanne’s reflections of engaging social division vis-
à-vis similarities and differences in her constructions and experiences of solidarity: 1) the
suburban mall chick and Black Lives Matter; 2) quietly knitting from the center; 3)
widening the circles; 4) solidarity takes time; and 5) place divides and connects. Each of
these themes is explored in the sections that follow.
The Suburban Mall Chick and Black Lives Matter
I entered this conversation with Jeanne fully aware of the racial tensions in this
community. Nearly 20 years ago, I did door-to-door work in several of these
neighborhoods. In one instance, a White man greeted me at his front door by saying,
“you’re lucky you’re not Black. Because if you were, I would kill you.” I shared this
story with Jeanne and she later shared it with a funder as an example of the tensions in
the neighborhood. While Jeanne realizes that she may not be able to change the deeply
embedded racism and xenophobia in the neighborhoods, she is dedicated to building and
transforming relationships–and facilitating solidarity– through the parks.
Jeanne has empathy for the people her organization engages yet recognizes that
some of their beliefs and behaviors are what she calls “disturbing.” Several people
affiliated with Jeanne’s organization have overtly and publicly expressed racist beliefs.
About a year ago, one of Jeanne’s advisory council members advocated for redlining–a
now illegal practice of housing discrimination–in a published article. Jeanne describes her
as “a really lovely human, but just has not really educated herself around racial issues.”
The racial tensions in the neighborhood near the new park reached what Jeanne
describes as a “crisis point” in 2020. After George Floyd was murdered in May, several
incidents occurred. Some of the White working-class residents of these neighborhoods
organized as counterprotesters–people who organized against the Black Lives Matter
protests–which Jeanne describes as “vigilante groups” who physically and verbally
assaulted protesters and reporters without consequence from police. Through
conversations with women on her organization’s committees, she learned that “their
husbands went out on street corners with baseball bats to guard their houses against the
looters, which seems, like, appalling to me.” Differentiating herself from the people
involved in her organization, Jeanne remarked “I feel like a suburban mall chick.”
Although she is White, Jeanne clearly distinguishes her identity from the White working-
class people involved in her work.
While Jeanne did not participate in the Black Lives Matter protests over the
summer, she supports their cause. In her view, “it's sparked a…conversation that has
been long overdue…I think it's great that so many people have had the courage to take to
the streets and express what they are doing.” Jeanne articulated why she feels that this
moment presents an opportunity for dialogue, learning, and connection:
If you can have these conversations authentically, and you know, be fairly
vulnerable in your own learning and your own bias,…connect as humans, and
listen, you know, maybe to things you don't want to hear, then, you know, you
can make some progress.
While Jeanne recognizes the racial tension that has been further revealed over the
summer, she remains hopeful that engaging with an open mind can lead to positive
Jeanne is excited about facilitating these conversations and working toward
solidarity among neighbors with different backgrounds; however, she shared that she is
uncertain that her organization is “adept at navigating” these relationships. The board of
directors is predominantly White and many of them also live outside of the city in the
suburbs. This is an organizational characteristic that Jeanne inherited–and one that she is
working to change. Jeanne shared that a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant is
working with the organization to “set some goals around whatever barriers we might
have towards building a more diverse coalition around these spaces, and then ultimately,
having our organization reflect a little bit more diversity.” Thus, Jeanne is working to
address systemic racism both within her organization and in the broader community
where they work.
Quietly Knitting from the Center
Now 50, Jeanne has spent most of her career working in fundraising which has
included several jobs where she was expected to be subservient. Jeanne mused that “I
used to do galas for, like, ladies who lunch” as she reflected on her work with a
performing arts education organization. She describes it as a “very Upstairs Downstairs
type of environment,” referring to a British television show from the 1970s about people
who work as staff in the house of an aristocratic family that is often compared to the
more recent Downton Abbey. These experiences, along with Jeanne’s introverted nature,
have contributed to her current style of leadership. She revealed that “I tend to prefer to
ask questions and think, and then come back…. I’ve been told that sometimes what I
think is a very direct thing comes across as too subtle.” She recognizes that her subtle
approach can be used “as a crutch, when sometimes I just kind of need to be like, really
direct and assertive.” Jeanne has worked on becoming more assertive while also retaining
her contemplative approach to leadership.
Jeanne describes this leadership style as “knitting.” When she finds herself at the
center due to social location, professional role, or circumstance, she uses this as an
opportunity to bring people together from all directions based on their shared connection
to humanity and the land. This approach connects people across differences in race,
neighborhood, and beliefs. She described how this style of leadership both resonates with
her introverted nature and leads to results:
It suits my style, you know? I'm not very aggressive. So, I find kind of being able
to negotiate that way, you know, it just works. We normally can get somewhere if
I'm in the middle. Although I do respect the folks who just go in with a
sledgehammer too–it's just not the way I work.
While Jeanne’s approach to leadership is more subtle, she also has respect for those who
lead differently from her.
The organization serves as a bridge that connects neighborhood residents to the
city based on their historical relationship with local government. Jeanne shared that “the
city sometimes makes decisions for the spaces…that are not at all communicated to the
community. They'll just drive up and see a gate closed, and don't know why.” She feels it
is important to amplify the voices of residents in the neighborhoods around the riverfront
because she has what she describes as “a seat at the table that they don't with certain
conversations.” Jeanne sees this as a way to “show solidarity with the community.” Thus,
Jeanne uses her position to negotiate change as a demonstration of solidarity.
Jeanne hopes to replicate a recent success in facilitating solidarity as the park
project evolves. After another park was closed down by police with no community
conversation, she convened users of the parks with the Town Watch, police, and city
representatives. These groups had not previously talked to each other in this context and
Jeanne shared that the park users felt “disenfranchised.” Before the actual meeting, she
reached out to each individual to discuss their concerns and needs. She reflected that at
the meeting she “just kind of gave a space for folks to kind of talk about where they were
coming from. You know, the police kind of rationalized their lack of involvement. The
motorboat guy said, like, ‘hey, this sucks.’” Since this initial meeting, she has continued
to meet one-on-one with the police to develop more responsive strategies going forward.
Widening the Circles
Jeanne shared that she cultivates relationships among people and organizations to
“widen the circles” of her organization and create new opportunities for solidarity,
benefiting not only the park project but all of the organization’s work. For example,
Jeanne is partnering with other community-based organizations to engage city residents,
primarily people of color, who live just outside of the area immediately surrounding these
natural areas. She sees this as the most effective first step for “reaching out” because they
do not yet have established relationships in these neighborhoods. Along with a
representative from this community, she is organizing fun events during the warmer
months of 2021 to bring people together and build trust. This will promote understanding
and respect to ground more difficult conversations likely to occur in the future, such as
those about race.
To address the disruptive uses of public spaces, Jeanne is also planning to talk to
the people who engage in these practices as the weather gets warmer. Jeanne believes that
talking to people who are misusing the spaces will be more effective than the police
closing the parks and putting up physical barriers. She recognizes it is a “large and
complex problem” but hopes to understand “why these things are happening” while
creating boundaries “that might ease some of those tensions.” Jeanne is facilitating
dialogue and listening to understand why these disruptive uses are occurring so that she
can reduce their frequency and positively impact the community.
As she works toward the goals of her organization, Jeanne acts in solidarity with
other organizations directly as well as through several coalitions. Jeanne explained that
they connect with “other organizations and other folks to help us with…goals as much as
we can.” According to Jeanne, each of these coalitions has a “very specific agenda” such
as water quality, trails, birding, or biking. While Jeanne values partners, she has
experienced challenges in coalition work including different work styles, prolonged
conversations that never result in action, lack of communication, and “people kind of
flaking out.” Although she feels that partnerships can be “painful” and “take so much
time,” Jeanne shared why she recognizes their value:
That's where the good ideas happen. And they're not going to come right from us,
you know, like, they have to be led by people who do other things better than you
or people who actually live in the community and like, have ideas about what they
want to see…. While there has been times where I’m like, “what are we even
doing in this room?” There's been some cool outcomes.
While Jeanne has experienced challenges with being a part of coalitions with diverse
actors, ways of working, and agendas, she also recognizes the importance of facilitating
solidarity to achieve organizational and movement goals.
Solidarity Takes Time
Jeanne’s solidarity work with this organization is just beginning. To Jeanne,
solidarity around the new park is “iterative” and “a work in progress.” She recognizes the
importance of projects that result in what she calls “small, incremental” change. Jeanne is
cultivating solidarity over time through what she describes as “gentle persistence.” Thus,
Jeanne believes that change takes a long-term commitment to bringing people together.
In Jeanne’s experience, city-managed projects not only have poor public
communication and community engagement–they also take a great deal of time. She
acknowledged that “anything happening within three years within the city is on the fast
track.” This has compounded local residents’ skepticism. Jeanne shared that her
organization, as the connector and bridge builder, is “in the line of fire for that, more than
the city. The city doesn’t care.” Because of this, the organization’s social media updates
often get negative comments. Jeanne described how she uses this as an opportunity to
engage people in their work and connect them to each other and to the parks:
There's just one guy who just follows around every single post that we have, no
matter when, and he has, like, something really horrible to say. And I just decided
that when we have that ribbon cutting, I'm going to invite him and put him, like,
right next to the mayor. And I'm gonna give him a bottle of beer. And I'm like,
“congratulations…enjoy your new space, curmudgeon” [Jeanne laughs
Through her leadership, Jeanne is engaging and building bridges with people who do not
share her recognition of the time it takes to develop solidarity and achieve other
organizational goals.
Social distancing due to COVID-19 has made it difficult for Jeanne to use the
parks to bring people together across differences. She is using this time to plan what she
describes as “more intentional activity with, like, people from other types of
neighborhoods and backgrounds into these spaces together with, you know, our
predominantly White and, frankly, racist neighbors.” While Jeanne values the big picture
and long-term goals, she also shared that “sometimes you just have to act your way into a
plan.” Thus, Jeanne balances careful planning with spontaneous engagement with people
and issues as she works toward solidarity. This reflects her construction of solidarity as a
process that takes time.
Place Divides and Connects
Compared to other places where Jeanne has worked, she describes the area as “its
own universe.” Understanding the dynamics of these neighborhoods has been one of the
biggest challenges in her work. She shared that she is learning “this whole different type
of way of speaking to the community.” Jeanne recognizes that there are differences
related to neighborhood and is working to bridge them by being flexible in her leadership
When she arrived at the organization, Jeanne recognized the injustice of local
residents being disconnected from public spaces right in their backyard. They were not
involved in planning or making decisions related to the spaces and therefore were not
aware of them. In addition, they were separated from these natural areas by both physical
barriers and prejudice. Jeanne is responding by mobilizing people and community groups
at the grassroots level to transcend these physical and perceptual barriers.
Jeanne views the public spaces her organization stewards as essential to the local
ecosystem. She pointed out that the residents of neighborhoods surrounding the riverfront
“have nowhere to go” as there are few natural areas. According to Jeanne, the parks
“have a wonderful impact on your ability to kind of press the reset button, both physically
and mentally.” Jeanne shared how she plans to integrate what she learned through her
work at a botanical garden as the park project proceeds:
People kind of relaxed once they saw other families doing the same things that
they were doing, even if they didn't come from the same neighborhood, or from
the same backgrounds. And that just really helped route things more into positive,
more community-based types of things.
Thus, while place can create differences that divide people, Jeanne will also use place to
bring people together.
While the land can facilitate solidarity between people, people can also have a
sense of solidarity with the land which, in turn, connects people to what Jeanne calls
“kindred spirits” and to something greater than themselves. Jeanne believes that “there's
an inherent need for people to be in nature, and to see that they're part of a larger
picture…people are kind of feeding their souls when they go out there.” To Jeanne, place
can facilitate a sense of connection to both shared humanity and spirituality.
I’ve been complacent
I don’t want to cause conflict
I don’t want to hurt their feelings
It would make me feel bad
We who have access to privilege
We bend
We yield
We make accommodations
We support their needs
We need to stick our necks out
We should be uncomfortable
Lola has been the executive director of a reproductive justice organization for
three-and-a-half years. With a background in social work and counseling, Lola has
worked for a variety of healthcare, Latinx, and LGBTQIA+ organizations–working with
people seeking abortion, Black and brown men living with HIV, adults living with HIV
and a substance abuse or mental health diagnosis, and gay and transgender youth.
Lola: The Actor and Her "Worlds"
On a cold but sunny day, Lola invited me into her home office via Zoom. It is a
small, white room with brown wood trim around the window and doors. There is a
ceiling fan and framed pictures adorn every wall in the room. Lola suffers from seasonal
allergies but is comforted by tea and oatmeal. She is wearing a black, long-sleeved t-shirt
from a well-known 1930s horror movie. A simple tattoo peaks out from her right
shoulder. Her dark brown hair is pulled in a loose bun on top of her head and later into
two long braids which rest on her shoulders with her face framed by striking bangs.
Lola is an engaging storyteller who is exceptionally transparent about her beliefs,
personal background, and choices. She ended our meeting apologetically by saying, “I
feel like I've talked my head off. I hope I didn't ramble too, too much.” Lola speaks
freely, unconstrained by linearity, and talks openly about sexuality in a way that might
make ladies at church blush.
When Lola first heard about the executive director position at her current
organization, she wasn’t interested. As she disclosed, “I didn't really see myself reflected
in the work. It felt very much like a White woman organization.” As a Latina, Lola
resisted becoming part of an organization that represented the perspectives of people who
had a different social location.
After she was encouraged to apply by “four different circles of people,” Lola
reached out to the previous executive director to learn more. She described how their
conversation sparked her interest:
She was leaving because she knew that the work of the movement…was
transitioning and that it needed to be a lot more focused on, and centered on race,
and that she needed that work to be led by…a woman of color. So that excited me
and interested me.
After Lola understood that the organization was open to changing its practices to be more
inclusive, she was able to see herself within that organization.
Lola shared that once she stepped into the executive director role, she felt “very
much at home.” She expressed how the work of the organization is core to her belief
system. “It doesn't feel forced. It doesn't feel like I'm, like, just performing a job. It feels
like something I need to be doing.” Thus, there is an authentic alignment between Lola’s
values and her work with the organization.
Now in her mid-40s, Lola has always felt strongly about her progressive beliefs
and did not intentionally choose to become an activist. She shared that “as hokey as it
sounds, I think I was just sort of, like, born this way.” Lola uses the word ‘like’ often as
she composes her thoughts, a habit she is working to change. While Lola’s worldview has
become more “radicalized” over the years, it is still “very much rooted…in the
oppression of somebody based on their gender and their gender expression.” Ethnicity,
race, and gender are all significant to Lola’s sense of purpose.
Lola grew up in the Rocky Mountains. Through her parents, particularly her
mother, she was exposed to progressive activism. Lola’s mother was involved in Chicano
and farmworker rights movements and her father “tagged along.” She reflected on how
her mother’s activism influenced her:
There's a photo of my mom and…two other women, and they're all holding their
babies. And like, behind them is this giant fabric poster, if you will, of Che
Guevara, you know. So, it felt kind of…by proxy, or, like, through osmosis that I
just kind of picked up this, like, fiery spirit about…fighting against injustice.
From an early age, Lola differentiated herself from others based on this family
background as well as her radical beliefs.
For example, Lola was raised Catholic–but she actively resisted some of the
church’s teachings. One day, she prepared for church by dressing up as the singer and
dancer Madonna. Her mother demanded that Lola change her clothing. Lola explained
why she felt this was unjust:
It shouldn't matter what I'm wearing, like, if I'm, you know, there to like, pray, or
whatever…. I just felt, like, such a sense of injustice, because I felt like…the
church and the institution was just so paternalistic and patriarchal and
hypocritical… And I think that that vibe, like, courses through my veins to this
day…how do you possibly have the audacity to think that you have the ability and
the right to control another person's body and another person's being?
This story illustrates Lola’s developing resistance to authority as well as her belief in self-
determination which influence her work today.
While in college, Lola planned to be what she described as “the next Dr. Ruth,”
referring to renowned sex educator Dr. Ruth Westheimer. At 30, she was living on the
East Coast and moved to a city not far from where she now lives to pursue a doctoral
degree–with the intent of becoming a sex therapist. After enrolling in this program, her
advisor suggested Lola transfer to a social work program. She disclosed why she felt
repelled by this idea. “Social workers are those people who, like, take people’s kids
away. And yeah, no, I don’t have any desire to do that.” After a lengthy and life-changing
discussion, Lola changed her mind. She reflected that she “was so grateful for that
because…that was a moment in which my paths, you know, diverged and could have
gone a different way.” Instead, she completed a master’s degree in education and the
following year a second master’s degree in social work.
Lola is now married to her best friend. Lola described her relationship with her
wife. “She absolutely is the reason that I feel like I am able to, like, differently fly
now…she’s my hype girl.” They met through a previous job. Lola proposed at a pride
parade. Lola describes the experience as “super amazing.” When Lola stepped out to get
some tea during our interview, her wife asked her, ‘what are you doing? I heard you
talking about church,’ Lola shared with me as she smiled.
Solidarity Story: Stepping up and Sitting out
A few years ago, Lola’s organization decided that they would not participate in a
march. This was in response to the event organizers informing participants that police
might search them at this major protest event. Lola described how staff, volunteers, and
other activists revealed a growing resistance to this event:
Folks who are Black or gender non-conforming and trans would say…”this march
is harmful. This march harms our people. The organizers are working and inviting
and happily working in collaboration with the police. The police harm our people.
Like, we cannot do this.” And at the time, both volunteers and staff who were,
you know, some of the Black and trans and gender non-conforming folks, were
saying, “I don't feel safe, I don't feel safe.”
Despite her organization’s past support of this event, Lola’s recognition that this event
felt harmful to people of color informed her decision making.
At a staff meeting, they collectively decided to issue a statement. The statement
said that the organization was not participating in the march but that others should make
their own decision about whether or not to participate. Lola sent the statement out
through email. She did not speak with her board of directors in advance.
Lola was fairly new in her role as executive director and the organization was, as
Lola pointed out, “still very much rooted in its White feminist roots.” Lola reflected that
this decision was significant because it was “the first time that we listened to Black and
brown communities over second wave white liberals.” Lola recalled that this decision
took the board and donors by surprise. “It was just obvious that we were going to
march…we had done it the year before.” There was a lot of backlash to this decision.
Lola shared that “it was all this drama…people, like, literally lost their minds.” While
Lola’s intent was to demonstrate solidarity with people of color, many people close to her
organization felt this decision was a barrier to their solidarity.
They held an emergency board meeting to discuss what had happened and next
steps. After explaining why she did what she did, Lola left the room. The board was
divided. Lola reflected that she was “glad I wasn’t there…apparently there was a lot of
tension.” Lola’s decision was contentious and resulted in a lot of reflection and dialogue.
In response to this division within the organization, Lola decided to convene three
community conversations with donors to share her perspective–but also to listen. She
reflected that the “first one was brutal…I emotionally bubble wrapped myself.” During
each of the meetings, Lola sat back and listened without being defensive. This created an
opportunity for the donors to have dialogue from multiple perspectives. Lola explained
how this was beneficial to her as a fairly new leader. “I got to be like a fly on the
wall…and watch these White women talk about why this issue was so nuanced.” Lola
believes that taking the time to bring everyone together “gave people, like, an inside view
into me that they wouldn’t have had if I was just, like, in a one-on-one conversation with
them.” While the organization lost a few donors, they gained many more.
Four themes emerged through Lola’s reflections of engaging social division vis-à-
vis similarities and differences in her constructions and experiences of solidarity: 1)
ripping off the bandage; 2) illusions of solidarity; 3) keep the White people happy; and 4)
collective leadership rooted in love and pleasure. Each of these themes is explored in the
sections that follow.
Ripping off the Bandage
While a graduate student studying sexuality, Lola had a professor who exposed
them to people who were involved in illegal sexual activity such as zoophilia or
pedophilia–without warning. While Lola shared that she was “somewhat traumatized” by
this experience, she also reflected upon how it provoked her to be a more critical thinker:
[The professor] forced us to consider, like, what about this is taboo?… And
caused us to just peel back the onion and peel back the onion and peel back the
onion. And I appreciated that because I don't think up until that point we had been
taught at all in our academic institutions how to be critical thinkers…. And this
was the first time that I felt like…I had to really explore and assess my values and
to distinguish my values from the values that, like, maybe my parents gave me or
that I got from society at large.
This formative experience influenced Lola’s values and perceptions as well as her
leadership practice.
For example, when Lola was hired to be the executive director of her current
organization, it was this courageous approach to engaging with challenges that resulted in
her being hired. Lola recollected how a “semi-friend” who was on the board at the time
later shared details about the final two candidates:
It came down to me and another person who I later found out was like, like, a
White woman… very connected and very much embedded within [the
organization], like, had been a supporter had, like, volunteered. Like, all these
things…. This person said, “we have a decision to make. We have these two
strong candidates. We have this person who I think would do a fine job,
but…[Lola] I think is gonna rip the Band Aid off. She's just gonna rip it off.”
Lola was hired because a member of the board recognized that she would not only be a
critical thinker–she would also take action to expose injustice.
When a bandage is ripped off, it hurts. It exposes wounds that were hidden. It
looks ugly. But it can also promote healing when the timing is right. When the
organization decided not to participate in the march, Lola ripped off the bandage. Lola
explained how this was a turning point for the organization. “It was through that rupture
that I think helped to carve out the past of where the organization both needed to go and
then subsequently has gone.” Although this decision was initially painful to some in the
organization, it eventually promoted reconciliation and healing.
Lola believes that it is time for leaders in reproductive justice organizations and
the nonprofit sector to rip off the bandage. She is coming into her power, being bolder
and taking greater risks. Lola feels that leaders need to “stick our necks out more…even
if doing so is going to be perceived as…being divisive.” Lola recognizes that her
approach to leadership, which includes being a critical thinker and exposing injustice, is
not always welcome within progressive SMOs.
Illusions of Solidarity
In Lola’s experience, solidarity is often conflated with unity. According to Lola,
this presumes that “you need to conform to what the majority, or people in positions of
power and authority or those with, like, power and privilege…want us to do.” Lola
shared that solidarity should be constructed in an “opposite” direction.
Lola believes that discomfort is often confused with divisiveness. To Lola, this
discomfort is part of “getting in touch with our own stuff” and learning how to work
together. She illustrated the value of discomfort:
To get to a place of recognizing that disagreement is part of the work–and that's
through conflict and working ourselves through conflict or confrontation–is, like,
the gems. That's where, that's where the good stuff lies. It teaches us about
ourselves and other people.
To Lola, working through conflict resists illusions of solidarity and creates opportunities
for learning and more meaningful relationships with others.
She is practicing and developing the ability to work through challenges. When
reflecting on her leadership, Lola now recognizes that she has not always fully engaged
in difficult conversations, which she feels is “just so self-motivated.” She describes her
prior behavior as being “complacent” and recognizes the responsibility she has as a
person with privilege to provoke and facilitate dialogue.
In her work with the LGBTQIA+ and Latinx communities, Lola has recognized
what she calls specific “illusions” of solidarity. She has noticed that “cis gay White men
reign supreme” in the LGBTQIA+ movement and are “unwilling to…do anything that
would compromise their status.” Similarly, in the Latinx community, she feels that “there
is a need, I think, to, like, lump people together and attempt to say that our values and our
beliefs and our goals are the same, just because of this semi-arbitrary connectivity of
Latinidad.” In both cases, the larger group identity both conceals internal differences and
suggests that there is unity where there is not.
Keep the White People Happy
When Lola became executive director of her current organization, the board, staff,
and donors had all historically been White. She recognized this when she made the
decision not to participate in the march; however, she described how she would later
realize that she was being unintentionally complicit in maintaining White privilege:
I can't lose any of the donors. You know, the former executive director was there
for 14 years–older, White lady, wealthy, wealthy, wealthy lady, connected to
wealthy, wealthy people. Here I am–this no name, like, queer, Latinx person with
all these tattoos…. I was approaching it with, like, keep the donors, keep the
donors, keep the donors, which meant at the time, which I didn't realize, keep the
White people happy.
Through continued reflection, Lola has recognized that her difference is a resource rather
than something to suppress in order to maintain the status quo.
While she once led from what she describes as “a particular lens of gender and
gender oppression,” Lola’s leadership now reflects the intersection of race and gender–
with race “taking the front seat.” Lola believes that leaders in social movements need to
“interrogate the way in which we continue to perpetuate and uphold White supremacy,”
though she feels that as an executive director others expect her to “rub elbows and, like,
be nicey nicey with legislators.” Lola is skeptical of using the political system to create
change because she believes it is “rooted and thrives off of White supremacy.” Instead,
she is focused on “efforts that really reimagine new systems that from its root are
grounded in, like, seeing people as fully human, you know, that are led by, you know,
Black, brown and indigenous people of color… and are anti-capitalist.” To Lola, race
cannot be separated out from gender in the way she thinks about leadership in the
reproductive justice movement.
Lola has seen solidarity, when interpreted as unity, used to suppress people who
are not White. She explained that “anybody who would be trying to go against, like, the
mainstream, like, whatever that mainstream beliefs might promote, I think is seen as
being, seen as divisive and dismissive. And therefore needs to be, like, silenced.” She
further articulated this perspective:
Solidarity has been used as a guise to keep White folks in positions of power and
authority, even if they don't see themselves in power and authority. And that
solidarity means that other folks have to compromise everything, like language,
beliefs, culture, religion, food–all of that…. I think that there's been a complete, a
conflating of, like, assimilation and acculturation with solidarity…. [There is] this
wrong notion that to be in solidarity means that you have to subscribe to this, like,
White mainstream way of being.
In Lola’s view, differences related to social division are integral to the construction and
practice of solidarity; therefore, solidarity does not necessitate assimilation or unity.
As a White-presenting Latina, Lola has not always been fully aware of the
complexity of her racial identity. She has been on a journey to learn more about her
family background. She outlined how her identity has changed over time:
Growing up, I just thought I was Mexican American. Earlier on…more, like,
Chicano kind of identified. And then as we got older, my dad's like, “you know
that your, your, your people aren't from Mexico. They're from Spain.” And I had
this whole heart attack because I, I was adamantly opposed to being associated in
any sort of way with, like, being a White person.
This growing understanding about how her Whiteness has influenced her own and others’
perceptions of who she is has brought up feelings of being an imposter throughout her
career. When she previously worked for a Latinx organization, she shared that felt like
she “wasn’t Latina enough.” As she recalls, “I didn't feel like I brought anything to the
table. I didn't speak Spanish. I didn't listen to reggaeton.” She was hired by her current
organization “because they knew they wanted, like, a woman of color to lead the
organization. But like, I'm White, look at my skin. My experience has been primarily
White.” Lola has been “intentionally trying to unpack that” for the past two years and
form solidarity based on “that place of, like, vulnerability and authenticity and trying to
figure out who I am as an individual.” Thus, Lola’s complex identity–which includes
multiple social locations–is integral to her leadership as well as her construction and
practice of solidarity.
Collective Leadership Rooted in Love and Pleasure
While Lola gathered her staff and collectively decided not to participate in the
march, she did not include the board of directors in this collaborative process. She now
realizes that this was a mistake. She recalled that it “was not cute. Not because I needed
to ask permission…but in order for them to have my back…we need to be a team. And I
didn’t give them that opportunity.” Lola now recognizes the value of working in
solidarity with her board of directors.
Lola and her board are now working together more closely, along with staff, to
make decisions and respond to injustice within other organizations. In late 2020, Lola’s
organization endorsed a call for the executive director of another local reproductive
justice organization to resign due to racist and transphobic actions. Lola’s organization
issued a public statement. This time, it was the board’s idea–and the statement was
written by Lola and two board members. She described the transformation both within
herself and the organization:
If I…hadn't been on the journey of, like, really feeling more firmly planted in
knowing who I am–and then therefore knowing more firmly who we as an
organization are and are continuing to try to be–there's no way that we would
have been able to write that letter…. It's such a, such a steep departure and
progression from where we were when [the march] happened…. We are so much
differently aligned now as staff and board and volunteers in knowing who we are
and knowing what our role is.
To Lola, the collective leadership that her organization is now practicing would not have
been possible without actively addressing conflict related to social division.
Lola actively resists leadership styles that she describes as “rooted in a
paternalistic, capitalistic, kind of perspective.” In her prior role as an executive director,
she recalls that some of the men on her board were “unjustly critical” of her, leading to
her termination. She shared how the board fired her”
Nobody on the board reached out to me to say, like, let's go ahead and talk to her
and like, hear her side. Let's, you know, tell her that, you know, she has two
weeks, you know, to pack her bags. They fired me as though I was stealing money
from the organization.
The way that this board fired her was humiliating, but also revealed to Lola how she did
not want to lead as well as a desire for more connection in the way she leads and
practices solidarity.
Lola believes that building relationships in social movement work should be
“front and center and not something that just accidentally happens.” In Lola’s experience,
relationship building too often “gets devalued and seen as not work, when in fact
allowing people to feel, like, a sense of belonging, to seek to be seen, to be validated, to
share their stories with one another is kind of what it's all about.” To Lola, being in
“intentional relationship” means “being authentic, vulnerable, holding one another
accountable, owning up to your mistakes, you know, owning up to your privilege, and
doing it in a place that's rooted in, rooted in love.” Thus, Lola’s constructions of
solidarity and leadership are interconnected.
Although Lola believes it is important to be inclusive and bring people to the
table, she is also growing more careful and protective. She acknowledged that “it’s
probably not healthy…but I have no problem cutting people off if I feel like they’re, like,
being toxic or…overtly negative and an energy suck.” She feels drawn to people who
“feel like there's hope and power and beauty, and love and action, joy, because that's
what feels fulfilling to me.” Lola recognizes that some relationships within a progressive
SMO context are counterproductive while others can be mutually enriching.
Lola defines solidarity as a “collective vision towards liberation that's rooted in
love.” She illuminated how this collective vision values interconnectedness and
recognition of other people, organizations, and movements:
I think capitalism has forced us to fight against one another. But I think that when
I see it working, and I see it working well, it's when folks understand that our
work is connected, and that in order to actually advance we have to be able to see
each other's issues, to see each other's communities, as equally deserving of and
equally able to fight for liberation.
To Lola, the issues that progressive SMOs work on are intertwined which creates
opportunities for solidarity across difference.
Lola cultivates this vision of solidarity through pleasure, joy, and “goofiness.” To
Lola, pleasure is not “an afterthought” or “something that you do as a reward;” she
describes it as “foundational to the work.” Lola believes that “lightheartedness…helps
people feel relaxed and comfortable” and “allows us to be able to have those tougher
conversations about race” while also inspiring connection and engagement. She
explained how this benefits progressive SMOs:
It can't just be, “oh, my God, this is so hard and painful, and we're losing”….
Nobody wants to be part of that. And so, I think the kind of solidarity that I hope
to create in our communities, and that I feel myself drawn to, are ones that are,
again, like, rooted in pleasure and love and healing and community.
Thus, Lola resists paradigms of SMO work that position people and groups against each
other in favor of those that celebrate relationships, love, and pleasure.
To Lola, collective leadership needs to be intentional and clear. She was recently
involved in a coalition where she recalled that “nobody wants to be a leader because they
want to, to be, like, collective.” The group got together to save a community mural of a
local LGBTQIA+ leader from being painted over by a developer. A few weeks after our
conversation, this beautiful artwork and tribute to Lola’s friend who passed away from
cancer several years ago was destroyed. For collective leadership to be effective,
according to Lola, “there needs to be some direction for where we're going.” Otherwise,
SMOs and coalitions will not make progress as this example illustrates.
We need to be at all the tables
We need to be in all the rooms
We need to be everywhere we want to be
And we need our brothers in the union to help us get there
We can move the flag,
but we can't move that flag as an individual
I’m not the only one
Them over there
Those folks over here
We got to come together
Where are you gonna be without solidarity?
Where are we gonna be?
We’d be in 1962, or 32
When you come together
We have teams, we have help, we have backup
You don’t have to do everything and
You can get things done
You can’t do anything without solidarity
Natalie is the executive director of an organization that supports the labor
movement through professional development and advocacy. While working for the
organization in another position, she became a close friend of the previous executive
director who persuaded her to take on this new role. “She talked to me for nine months
about taking her job–and she wore me down,” Natalie laughs. “And here I am.” Natalie
has a small staff with one other full-time person and two part-time employees.
Natalie: The Actor and Her "Worlds"
Natalie and I met on a sunny day. Birds were singing outside as I entered her
home office space via Zoom. Natalie, who is working from home due to the COVID-19
pandemic, wears glasses and is dressed in a bright maroon sweatshirt with a cowl neck.
Her head is wrapped in a multi-colored scarf. Natalie comes across as decisive and
pragmatic, yet warm and friendly. She smiles often.
The small room with white walls is brightened by green plants and a colorful
butterfly painting that hangs on the wall. Natalie later tells me that she collects butterflies.
In the background, a small mirror with a bright green frame reflects a window and the
casual comfort of a home workspace.
Natalie grew up in a large Midwestern city. She relocated to her current city with
her then boyfriend, now her husband, nearly 15 years ago when she saw an opportunity to
live outside of the community where she had spent her entire life. While it took her some
time to adjust to the density and higher cost of living in the city, she loves being so close
to other Mid-Atlantic cities where there is always something to do. Her favorite thing
about the city is the food. She mused that she “gained almost 40 pounds when I first got
here…. Yeah, it was not pretty…. Friends and family come here just to go eat.” Natalie
has a great sense of humor and jokes frequently.
At her current organization, their state funding was cut in recent years–and
Natalie believes that further reductions in this core support will happen in the future.
They also recently lost a federal grant that the organization had since 2007. Natalie
explained how this has both positive and negative aspects:
It's twofold. It's a bad thing, because that was pretty much, like, 50% of our
budget. But it's a good thing, because now it will force us to look for other means
of funding and not be a slave to the federal government, so to speak. It allowed us
the opportunity to learn a lot…[and] also to expand our strengths. So, you know, I
can't complain about that.
While the loss of funding resulted in a reduction in staff, it has also created an
opportunity for the organization to redefine itself.
While a young woman in the Midwest, Natalie worked as a laborer in the building
trades and was an active member of her union. Natalie recalled that there were few other
Black women working in her trade alongside her in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Man,
please…. You didn't see women. If you did, it was very, very, very, very, very few and
far, you know, or they were related to the boss,” Natalie chuckled. Natalie ran for
election, although she hated the pressure of running for office. She remarked that, “it was
not fun,” emphasizing the word not. Natalie was also a representative for the Employee
Assistance Program.
Natalie first got involved in the labor movement through her mother. Her mother
started off as a laborer and by the time she retired had a job working in an office doing
employee safety work. Natalie feels that “union is pretty much in my blood.” As a child,
Natalie helped her mother and others in the movement. “I used to help her make posters
and stuff when she would run for election or help other folks do the same.” Natalie
attributes her strong work ethic to her mother. She taught her, “how to be independent,
take care of yourself. Because you may have to…And she was right. There were times
where I had to.” Thus, Natalie’s mother was highly influential in her interest in the labor
movement and the leader she has become.
Natalie’s mother has also lived in the Mid-Atlantic city for the past five years.
Natalie has one son, now in his 30s, who still lives in the Midwest. “My mom and I are
really close. My mama.” Natalie says her special name for her mother with obvious
adoration. “And my son and I are truly really, really close. Because I was a single
parent…it was basically my mom and me raising my son…. Kind of cool, I think.”
Although her mother understands Natalie’s contributions to the labor movement, she
doesn’t understand why she has to work long hours and on weekends. “But she's proud of
me. She tells me that often, which is a big deal for me.” Natalie’s husband is a member of
a union, but according to Natalie he doesn’t have any interest in the labor movement.
Although her father was not involved in the labor movement, he influenced
Natalie’s work tremendously. “He would let you do anything, no matter how crazy it
sounded…. And in some cases, he would help.” As an entrepreneur, Natalie’s father
created opportunities for her to earn money and develop skills by mowing grass, doing
janitorial work, and helping out on construction sites. She has always been a bit of a self-
described “tomboy.”
Natalie played sports in high school, but her time as an athlete ended in college
when she had problems with her foot. Today, she enjoys watching sports and going to
games. She is not loyal to any particular team. Natalie tried tailgating once but will not do
it again. “Everything on me was cold except for my feet. Why? Because I wore Ugg
boots. I told my husband, ‘you don't have to worry about ever asking me to go again.
Because the answer's no. I'm good.’” She prefers warmer weather sports like baseball,
“especially if there's beer and hotdogs involved. And if you're with a good group of
people you can have fun at a baseball game.” Natalie plans to move to a warmer climate
when she retires in a few years.
Solidarity Story: That's What It's Supposed to Look Like
As a longtime active leader in the labor movement, Natalie is involved in multiple
coalitions, alliances, and constituency groups. She is active in the Coalition of Labor
Women and is an officer in the local chapter of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute. Natalie
and her organization partner with local farmworker, restaurant worker, and environmental
worker coalitions, Jobs with Justice, a local youth worker program, and all of the local
labor unions in the city.
One group that is especially important to Natalie is the Labor Council for Latin
American Advancement, (LCLAA), a constituency group of the AFL-CIO. LCLAA,
which is pronounced like ‘laklah,’ was started in the 1970s to organize, educate, and
advocate along with Latin American workers. At the local level, Natalie rolls up her
sleeves to help with their food drives, voter registration drives, get out the vote
campaigns, and other activities.
Although she is Black and does not have a Latinx background, Natalie values this
group’s role in the labor movement. She generously shares her time, wisdom, and
connections so that this group can be successful. People sometimes question why Natalie
is involved in a group that does not represent her background. “People go, ‘Why are you
a member of that group?’ Well, that's what it's supposed to look like, you know, so we
can go and learn and, you know, teach each other.” Natalie’s involvement in LCLAA
reflects her working definition of solidarity.
Coming together for the better of the people. In a nutshell, that's what that means
to me. You know, we are working for a much bigger picture. It's not about these
individuals. It's not about our organization as the one organization. It's about the
people, the working folks. That's what solidarity means.
Thus, Natalie works across multiple differences to benefit all working people who are a
part of the labor movement without privileging the needs of one particular social location
or organization within that group.
Three themes emerged through Natalie’s reflections of engaging social division
vis-à-vis similarities and differences in her constructions and experiences of solidarity: 1)
diversity in the labor movement; 2) we need our brothers; and 3) playing in the red zone.
Each of these themes is explored in the sections that follow.
Diversity in the Labor Movement
In the Midwestern city where Natalie grew up, most of the unions are within a
particular industry. When she relocated, she was exposed to many different types of
unions that were new to her. She acknowledged how this has been a challenge:
I was just used to, to the protocols and processes of [one union] and then I moved
here. Oh, my…. I was back in school…. It took me a long time to learn, like, the
different structures and how they operate. And you know, how to maneuver
within their worlds, so to speak. So that was, that was different–very different.
Um, I still haven't quite mastered it.
In her current role within an organization that works with the entire labor movement,
understanding these differences is important to Natalie’s ability to effectively work with
multiple groups.
In addition to different unions and industries, there are other significant
differences within the city’s labor movement. While the labor movement may be
perceived by outsiders to be what Natalie describes as “all together and Kumbaya,”
Natalie recognizes that there are “tons of layers in differences” which can sometimes lead
to conflict but also opportunity.
For example, there is tension between LCLAA’s goal of working for immigrant
rights and the building trades unions. In Natalie’s experience, the building trades tend to
“be prejudiced toward Latinos in particular just because you know, you would have day
laborers, and they would think, oh, they're stealing our jobs.” A few years ago, when she
worked for but was not yet the executive director of her current organization, Natalie was
at an event where the head of a building trades union and a Latina restaurant owner were
both being honored. Natalie described how this particular building trades leader often
argued with the woman who was then executive director:
She was just explaining, you know, the work that we're trying to do. And then she
would always, you know, end it with, “well, why don't you organize them, if you
have a problem with it?” You know, like, and “they can't take your job. The
employers are giving them that job because they'll work for less.”
The former leader of Natalie’s organization was attempting to build bridges across
difference and promote understanding.
While at this particular event, Natalie recalled that she and the executive director
saw this building trades leader and the Latina restaurant owner “sitting at a…little table
over, like, hors d'oeuvres and drinks, talking…. We were like a nervous wreck.” They
were quite surprised by the outcome of creating an opportunity for two people to share
space and an honor together. Natalie painted a picture of what happened at the event:
They talked for the rest of the evening when they weren't up, you know, giving
their speeches or whatever. And he thanked my director. He's like, “you know, if
it hadn't been for, like, this program, I probably would never have sat down with
this young lady specifically and talked to her”…. Before he left, you know, he
told her, she has his full support. You know, if she ever needs anything, or
whatever, reach out. We were like, oh, my, did we just see history made? It was
Thus, when Natalie’s organization created an opportunity for two people who were in
conflict due to social location to share space and speak with each other, they planted the
seeds for solidarity.
Natalie believes that unions are getting better about appreciating differences in
gender, race, and ethnicity but “we still have a lot of work to do.” She shared how some
unions are more open to difference than others as their membership diversifies:
Different unions, their memberships look a lot different. For instance, building
trades. For years, it's been, you know, White guys. Young, old, whatever. Just
White guys. But now you're starting to see more people of color, more females,
yay! That's my passion right there. Um, and it's, it's more of a welcoming
environment versus, well, you're just here, because of this, this, and this, you
know, we have to check off boxes, that's why you're here, so I'll tolerate you. But
now it's more like, oh, hey my co-worker. There's no distinction between, you
know, their race or gender or anything like that.
Thus, in Natalie’s experience, people affiliated with the labor movement are beginning to
recognize this as a point of connection despite differences related to gender, race, or other
aspects of social location.
At the same time, Natalie has noticed more complacency within the labor
movement when it comes to organizing and activism in recent years. This was disrupted
in 2020. Natalie illustrated how her hope was galvanized as she experienced group
responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest related to racial injustice:
Folks from all walks of life, ages, colors, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientation,
just everybody is just coming together for the fight. And that, that gives me hope.
One, because it means this is the time to, for us to organize. It's gonna look a lot
different than it did in 1962…. It's a shame stuff like this has to happen for that to
happen–to be the reaction, but hey, I'll take it any, by any means. I just wonder
how long that's gonna last before we're right back to where we were–or stuck.
As a leader who has been active in the labor movement for decades, Natalie is inspired by
recent activism–through which people came together across their differences–but is also
realistic about movements’ ability to sustain levels of engagement over time.
We Need Our Brothers
Now in her late 50s, Natalie has seen a lot of changes in the labor movement
throughout her career. As she explained, “when did you see women as leaders of their
union? When did we start saying that? You know, for years, it was always men.” Natalie
believes that focusing on gender representation is limiting and is dedicated to facilitating
the inclusion of women in decision making. “It's one thing to be in a role, but another
thing for people to listen to you and accept you and invite you to the table.” As a leader,
Natalie uses her power to facilitate such connections.
Two years ago, Natalie co-founded an initiative to help women learn about and
start jobs that have been traditionally held by men such as construction and
manufacturing. The project started when she unexpectedly had a conversation with a
local tradeswoman and a representative from the local Workforce Investment Board at an
unrelated meeting. She asked the Workforce Investment Board representative to invite
people to their first meeting. “I said, if you send a meeting notice, people will come, if I
send one, they'll go, ‘Who is she?’ So she did that for me.” The group set a goal to
increase women’s participation in the building trades by 30%.
Through this group, Natalie met a young woman who is an electrician. Referring
to the groups’ building trades goal, this woman said to Natalie, “No…. That will never
work…. That will cause a division, because then they will think that they’re being forced,
basically, to meet a quota.” Through this conversation, Natalie realized that she was not
taking the men’s point of view into consideration. She reflected that “if it hadn't been for
her talking about how that's gonna create issues and division with her coworkers, we
wouldn't have thought about that. Because we're looking at it from our perspective.”
Through conversations with leaders in the building trades unions, Natalie will be able to
reposition her goal so that they can reach it. While she is uncertain how well received her
ideas will be, she shared with a wink in her voice that “we're gonna find out because
we're not changing that goal. That's just between us.” Natalie recognizes that her goal is
ambitious but is taking steps to develop the solidarity needed to achieve it.
Some building projects require companies to document the number of women
workers. Natalie shared that some companies have difficulty hiring women for these jobs
“because there aren’t enough women.” She offers her assistance to help companies
address this need. “We were like, we can help with that. You know, we talked to them
about changing their marketing, how they do outreach, and there was no pushback.”
While Natalie recognizes that women need men, she also believes that men need women
to reach their goals within the labor movement.
While she has not personally experienced adversity related to being a woman in
the labor movement, she knows that women face challenges. She uses her skills to
address these issues with who she describes as the “macho men.” Natalie shared that she
has “a good knack for maneuvering” and that she knows how “to operate around the
guys.” As a woman and a fellow member of the labor movement, Natalie empathizes
with others who have experienced challenges related to their gender and uses her unique
skills to support them in solidarity.
Playing in The Red Zone
Natalie told me that the Red Zone is “the only way” that she can watch football.
Because I know very little about sports–especially football, Natalie had to explain it to
So, you know how long football games are.… the 20-yard line is, like, the Red
Zone. 20 yards to the goal…. So, they only show you clips from all other games
that are in the Red Zone…. It's awesome because you don't care about all the
other in-between stuff. You just want to know points. How many points did he
get? How many yards did he run? How many throws did he make? So Red Zone?
In other words, the Red Zone is the most exciting part of the game. To Natalie, solidarity
can be like a sport. She explained that “you got to maneuver and, you know, you got to
make certain plays.” Natalie finds herself in the position of coach, team player, and
referee in her work–whether she is in the Red Zone or working to get there.
The nature of labor movement work is highly competitive. As Natalie pointed out,
“management knows how to pit workers against each other, you know, which is a tool
they've been using since the beginning of time.” While labor leaders work to unite
workers, there are often complex negotiations between management and workers. The
unions can also be in competition with each other because of their different industries,
membership, and goals. Natalie described this phenomenon. “What's really helpful and
beneficial for this union might really hurt you know, another union.” These differences
can lead to what Natalie describes as “knockdown, drag out discussions on why this
union feels like they should have this and not worry about the other workers or other
unions.” Natalie discussed how the political environment in which she works make the
sport of solidarity not only exciting, but necessary:
There's a lot of politics involved…. That's the one thing I do not like, but I've
learned how to deal with it. What I don't like about it is, I think people forget, the
whole reason for us being in the first place is to help workers, help our members.
We're there at the mercy of the members for the most part. And I think when you
get into the politics of it all, and the egos and the power trips, and people forget,
like, it's not about you. This is not about you. It's about something much bigger
than you. But I think folks forget that once they get a small taste of power. It
destroys people sometimes.
Although Natalie enjoys playing the sport of solidarity, she also recognizes that it can
lead to infighting and power struggles.
While Natalie embraces challenge and maneuvering, she acknowledged how she
sometimes gets discouraged by the politics:
I really got to see the bad side of it, the good side, too, but the bad side really
stood out. And I was like, oh, my, do I really want to do this? And you know, I
still have those moments. Every now and then. But then I remember why I'm
doing what I do. So, I have to just suck it up and wade through the water.
Natalie’s belief in the greater good for the labor movement motivates her to continue
when the politics within the movement become challenging.
Natalie employs her skills and personality when engaged in the sport of solidarity.
Like her father, Natalie naturally has strong conversational skills and a sincere interest in
other people. She described how she employs these skills in her work:
I have a knack to just talk to anybody. But that's because I just talk to them like
they are normal human beings. I don't talk to them like they're this Almighty God
or this big superstar. They're just like me–no different than I am. Need to get up,
brush your teeth, walk the dog, feed the dog, make some coffee. Same, same
thing. So, you know, I would laugh and joke with the CEO, just like I would
laugh and joke with my trainer.
Thus, equity is important to Natalie as she develops relationships and works toward
Natalie believes that this ability comes naturally to her but has also been
developed through practice and adversity. She recalled that “I was always put in
environments or situations where it was like…swim or drown. I would force myself, it's
very uncomfortable, but I would force myself to feel like I own the room. I'm supposed to
be here.” Natalie indicated how she has, at times, struggled to recognize herself as a
leader. “I always looked at it on a really high level.” After going through an “intense”
leadership training a few years ago, Natalie started to see things differently. “I looked at
the responsibility that comes with that…maybe I just wasn't ready and I didn't want to
accept it. Because then if I accepted it, it's like, okay, so now you have to do something,”
Natalie laughed as she reflected on her journey. Today, Natalie has accepted this
responsibility and works to change relations of power through her work.
While Natalie can be easygoing, she also has a tendency to be what she describes
as “bossy.” She shared that she feels it is important to take action and then learn from
mistakes. “That's a pet peeve of mine. It's like, just make a decision…. If it's wrong, we'll
figure it out.” She described why she feels it is important for others to take action and
follow through on their commitments. “Don't appease me or, you know, patronize me,
any of that. If you say you're gonna do something, just do it. If you can't do it, let me
know. I can find somebody else that can.” Natalie is focused on not only taking action but
also on achieving goals and making progress. Drawing connections to sports, she shared
her thoughts:
We should do whatever we need to do. We can make a difference, even as an
individual, you know, we can move the flag–football reference–but we can't move
that flag as an individual. Because sometimes we get caught up in our own thing,
or in our own head and, like, I’m not gonna make a difference. Well, you
definitely aren't if you don't do anything.
Natalie works through this self-doubt so that she can facilitate solidarity and effectively
take action on behalf of the labor movement. To Natalie, it is important to make
decisions, take action, and follow through on commitments.
You’re there because you care
We’re not leaving good ideas off the table because somebody has an agenda
Everybody’s really thinking together
Everybody’s opinions are taken into account
Everybody’s voices are heard
Everybody’s voices are melded together to make a workable goal
We’re all working toward a common goal
That’s when things get done
I want to see things get done
I love when solidarity happens
Solidarity makes me happy
Valerie is an attorney who is involved in several organizations as a volunteer. Her
example demonstrates that “it doesn't necessarily have to be your full-time job in order to
have an impact in social justice.” Valerie is on the board of three nonprofit organizations
and was selected to participate in this project through her involvement as an officer of a
national LGBTQIA+ advocacy and education organization located in the city. She is also
on the board of directors of an urban farm and her children’s preschool.
Valerie: The Actor and Her "Worlds"
My first meeting with Valerie had a rocky start. It was towards the end of a
workday in December, when the sky gets dark early and the days feel short. Technical
difficulties prevented us from immediately connecting via Zoom. Our scheduled time
together had already been reduced because Valerie had an unanticipated work deadline.
Valerie quickly rejoined the meeting using her phone and we began an insightful
Although we only had 30 minutes to talk, we got through all of the first interview
questions and started on the questions planned for the second interview. As a corporate
attorney who has learned the skill of billing in six-minute increments, Valerie talks fast
and cuts to the chase. Valerie is focused, articulate, measured, and speaks with an assured
confidence that inspires trust. Although her speech is succinct, Valerie’s responses to my
questions were deep and thoughtful. Dressed in a black and white striped sweater with a
bright t-shirt underneath and her brown hair pulled back, Valerie radiates warmth and
kindness. She ended our conversation with enthusiasm, sharing “I'm happy to help you
out on this. It's really exciting.” Valerie is both precise and friendly.
Valerie is in her home office, which is “right off” of her roof deck. She tries to get
outside for a bit when the weather is nice. Her office has white walls and is neat. A ledge
and black bookshelf behind her hold an interesting variety of books, an hourglass, and
other unique objects. A formal brown leather chair is next to the bookshelf. It looks like
something that I would expect to see in a lawyer’s office. In her mid-30s, Valerie is
balancing work, volunteering, and family.
A native of the city, Valerie moved to a state in the south for college where she
enjoyed playing field hockey. She returned to the city for law school and continued her
interest in sports by playing through recreation center leagues and also coaching. With a
wife and two sons aged one and three–as well as a busy work and volunteer schedule–
Valerie doesn’t have time for sports right now but hopes to return to it one day.
Both of her parents have inspired Valerie’s activism. She recalled that her mother
“has regularly been involved in, you know, community efforts. She’s…a very strong
person, but also a very empathetic person…. Seeing how she kind of marries those things
together has been very helpful for me.” Her father was involved in political party
activism. She describes him as soft spoken and “able to maintain leadership positions,
while again, you know, not being heavy handed.” Valerie was raised in a Catholic family.
While she has a loving relationship with her family, they have different views when it
comes to sexuality. As a lesbian, she has benefited from having a gay uncle who “fought
that fight for me.”
As a teenager, Valerie participated in what she calls “kid-style volunteering.”
While in law school, Valerie’s activism flourished. She served as the president of
campus-based environmental organization and organized a successful fundraiser that
resulted in 300 carbon credits being retired in California. Through this experience, she
learned how to effect change while also having what she describes as a “a super good
Solidarity Story: Trans Name Change Cases and Clinics
When she began her career at a private law firm, Valerie was searching for an
opportunity to integrate social justice into her work. She reflected upon the beginning of
her work doing name change cases for transgender people:
One of my friends had been doing trans name change cases, which were really
novel at the time.… You know, pro bono tends to be a little bit vanilla. It's a
bunch of lawyers and they kind of do what's available. So, she hooked me up with
that, and I am licensed in [two states], and I ended up being the only person doing
trans name changes in [one state]. So, I did a ton of those.
Through her relationship with a friend, Valerie discovered an opportunity to use her
education and skills to benefit the broader LGBTQIA+ movement.
Valerie has represented transgender people in name change cases and organized
attorneys to participate in name change clinics in two states for nearly 10 years. These
services, which are provided at no cost, help people who are changing their gender
navigate the complex legal aspects of changing their name, reduce the possibility of
discrimination, and make it possible for them to apply for identification, jobs, and
benefits. Valerie shared that “these are very, very happy days in courts. You know, folks
are finally–their legal name is matching their gender identity, and it's how they’ve viewed
themselves forever.” Valerie takes pride in her volunteer work and recognizes the
positive impact it has on the people who benefit.
While name changes are typically granted in the city and neighboring counties,
Valerie recalled that there has been “disparate” treatment and results in more rural and
conservative areas of the state. “Whether intentional or not, despite my communications
with the clerk, [there was] tons of misgendering [and] exclusive use of the legal name as
to the preferred name.” In addition, Valerie would always ask that the requirement to
publish the name change be waived due to “the inherent dangers associated with
discrimination, harassment, and violence against trans folks.” This request was nearly
always denied in the rural communities whereas in the city it was not. At the time, there
was discussion about lobbying to change this requirement; however, Valerie then
transitioned into doing clinic work.
Valerie now focuses on name change clinics in the city that are organized by a
national organization. At the clinics, which are held between two and four times per year,
attorneys work in teams to prepare complaints and exhibits, put the files together, and
deliver the files to the court. The majority of people who benefit from these services are
low income and people of color.
Now an attorney with a public utility, she has recruited other in-house attorneys to
participate in these events. This leverages the resources of her employer while also
creating tangible change. Last fall, 17 attorneys from her company spent an entire day
assisting people at a clinic–including her “boss” and the general counsel. She has found
that it is easier to recruit attorneys to work for a full day at a clinic than to ask them to
handle court cases which can be drawn out over months:
There are ways to get people to buy into the mission, and to actually give their
time, not just give lip service to it…. There's a lot of people on this list who
they're paying good money to do other stuff. And, you know, there are ways to
get it done. Because, you know, at the end of the day, it’s, it’s the right thing to
Valerie has leveraged her relationships to recruit other attorneys to participate in trans
name change clinics as an expression of solidarity as both part of the LGBTQIA+
community and as allies.
Three themes emerged through Valerie’s reflections of engaging social division
vis-à-vis similarities and differences in her constructions and experiences of solidarity: 1)
including but not limited to identity 2) rowing in the same direction; and 3) robust
solidarity. Each of these themes is explored in the sections that follow.
Including but not Limited to Identity
Valerie described why identity is necessary but insufficient for effective activism.
“It's something that defines us and it's something that should be celebrated. And it's
something that's important. But you know, if it becomes…too much, I think the insularity
can be prohibitively limiting.” She recognizes that people have multiple identities and
that these opportunities for connection can be missed if groups are too “inward looking.”
To Valerie, similar experience based on social position or community can be the
basis for solidarity. She suggested that opportunities for solidarity are not limited to these
There's a lot to be said for folks coming from that same background to kind of be
able to work together. Obviously, I do not discount for a minute straight allies, I
really think they're very important to the calculus of success for the LGBT
community. However, you know, I think that, I think that there's something to be
said about coming from that common place.
In Valerie’s view, appreciating commonalities does not preclude the opportunity to
partner with people who do not share similar social locations or experiences.
Three aspects of identity were particularly relevant in Valerie’s work: gender,
race, and age. These dimensions are explored in the following sections.
Gender Privilege and Ways of Working
The LGBTQIA+ community has historically privileged the experiences of gay
men. Until just a few years ago, transgender people were especially marginalized in this
community. Valerie believes that social justice work is more effective when “all of the
folks that fit under the umbrella work together.” She explained why, as a lesbian, she
feels it is important to advocate for others in the LGBTQIA+ community:
There was a time not long ago, when, even in the social justice communities I was
involved with, you know, trans folks were viewed as very much on the outs, you
know, and it was–I really thought that was totally inappropriate, particularly in a
group where we…come from a place of shared adversity. It made no sense to me
whatsoever. Don't get me wrong, I'm not contending that my experience as a
lesbian is, is at all the same or similar to the experience of a trans person, but that
doesn't mean that they are excluded from the community because they come from
a different place within that community. I think that's insane.
Thus, Valerie drew upon connections to a larger group identity–the LGBTQIA+
community–when facilitating solidarity with transgender people, a distinct group within
that larger community. It was her “feeling of solidarity with the trans community as part
of the LGBT community” that compelled Valerie to take on pro bono name change cases
and to not only participate in but recruit other attorneys for name change clinics.
This marginalization of transgender people motivated Valerie to get involved in
doing name change cases and later name change clinics. Valerie shared that she “made a
concerted push to resist the othering of trans folks in the LGBT community.” She
reflected on how things have changed since she began this work after leaving law school:
That's really what pushed me toward a lot of my pro bono work–supporting the
trans community. I wanted to do what was within my power to bring that group
into the fold. And now I think they know because of efforts, you know, like that,
but efforts of folks that did a lot more work than I did. Now, I think if you ask any
given person in the LGBT community, I think they would say that trans folks are
welcomed with open arms. You still have your TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical
feminists] and, you know, your, your super traditionals, but …I think that today,
people will be like, yes, no, definitely. They're in. Whereas before, and I'm not
even talking about that long ago, I mean, I was just out of law school–we're
talking about 10, 12 years ago–where it was, it was a different landscape.
Thus, Valerie’s work is part of a larger effort to promote gender inclusivity within the
LGBTQIA+ community.
Valerie described how this effort has led to discomfort, but also positive change
for transgender people:
We've really brought the issue front and center, and I think it made some people a
little bit uncomfortable, but that never bothered me. And we got a lot of petitions
out there. So, it has made a couple of waves. Almost all of the feedback I got was
universally good. So, I think people like being, you know, pushed a little bit–not
just doing the same old stuff.
Although Valerie noted that some people in the LGBTQIA+ community have resisted
this work, overall, she feels it has been successful.
Valerie believes that her gender may influence the way she approaches her work
with the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly in comparison to men who are also
corporate volunteers. As she pointed out, “I doubt my male compatriots would view
solidarity as collaboratively as I do, I think they may see it as a kind of buy in wholesale
type activity.” Valerie is analytical, but also listens before she speaks and “tries not to
drive the agenda” when participating on a board of directors. Valerie feels that this
approach may lead to more positive results. “I feel like, you know, you catch more flies
with honey.” Thus, Valerie’s gender interacts with the way that she leads and works
toward solidarity.
Race Marginalization and Inclusion
Valerie has noticed the marginalization of people of color in the LGBTQIA+
community. As she explained, “you can kind of put a little exclamation point on it.”
Valerie described why she feels it is important to elevate the perspectives of people of
color within the LGBTQIA+ community:
A bunch of White LGBT people in a room, you know, solidarity probably feels
different than if you have people that also come from other backgrounds of
adversity, right, you know? People of color in the LGBT community have a way
different perspective on what solidarity means, and why it means something
different. And I think it's really important to give those voices a platform and, you
know, ensure that folks are listening and that it's not just the voices that have the
easiest access to the platforms that get to speak.
To Valerie, race and constructions of solidarity are interconnected. In addition, she values
the inclusion of different perspectives and approaches related to social location.
Through her board experience, Valerie has noticed a lack of people of color
among her colleagues in this volunteer leadership role. This is something that she would
like to see change. “I continually work toward trying to get there. I wish it was a bigger
part of the conversation.” Valerie is taking action to develop solidarity so that people of
color have a stronger voice within the LGBTQIA+ community.
Generational Differences
Valerie shared that assisting minors with name changes has been “particularly