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The Scholar & Feminist Online is a webjournal published three times a year by the Barnard Center for Research on Women
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Issue: 8.3: Summer 2010
Guest Edited by Mandy Van Deven and Julie Kubala
Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert

Transforming Ruckus: Actions Speak Louder

Adrienne Maree Brown

I am going to tell you a story about one organization's transformation from good intentions to good practice. The setting is the U.S. social and environmental justice movement, and the story is relevant to anyone who feels that the world can be better—or rather that it must be improved.

We are facing a crisis of inaction in our organizing work. Those of us trying to transform our country need to evolve into the movement the world needs right now. The opportunities are all around us, but we are still hesitant to deeply engage in the type of personal transformations and collaborative work that raises expectations around what humanity can be. We must identify the needs that emerge from our shortcomings, focusing in on the tangible solutions with which we can drastically shift from where we are currently—largely disconnected from the communities that need to be centered in our work—to the type of movement needed to answer the call of a world (people, planet, animals) that wants to survive.

We have lived through a good half-century of individualistic organizing (led by charismatic individuals or budget-building institutions), which intends to reform or revolutionize society, but falls back into modeling the oppressive tendencies against which we claim to be pushing. Some of those tendencies are seeking to assert one right way or one right strategy; most believe that constant growth is the only way to create change.

There are new strategies emerging, or being remembered—collaboration, storytelling, and culture, honored as a way to share analysis, deep small transformations that pick up and echo each other towards a tipping point, organizing based in love and care rather than burn-out and competition. This is not an accident—this is an evolution of how we practice the world we wish to see in the current landscape. Many would describe this as a shift from a masculine to feminine (or patriarchal to feminist) leadership.

I was the executive director of The Ruckus Society for four and a half years, starting in 2006. Ruckus has historically been the kind of organization that wouldn't be described as feminist in any way. Founded in 1996 on the model of Greenpeace action camps—get 100 activists in the woods and show them how to do non-violent civil disobedience in an effective way—Ruckus was rooted in a masculine action culture.

The best way I can explain this culture is penetrative. Rather than forming long-term partnerships with communities, Ruckus was in and out with mind blowing creative actions. This was in line with a model of action grounded in spectacle. The politics were radical and the actions historic, but there wasn't a sense of community ownership or engagement in the work—which meant that at a fundamental level the power dynamic wasn't changing. The communities still come to rely on someone else to change their situation.

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