S&F Online

The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 8.3: Summer 2010
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.

Over years of amazing work coupled with critiques about the approach, Ruckus went through what could perhaps be called labor pains to bring forth the model and structure we currently have—which includes an all-female team at the staff level.

The frustrations folks had with Ruckus are very much the frustrations alive in our movements right now—we had a vision for the kind of world we wanted to see, but we weren't modeling that internally. We wanted strong local economies where communities feel responsible for their neighbors' well being, but Ruckus wasn't actually developing local direct action know-how.

Out of this moment in our history, a new program was born that transformed how we worked. It was called the Indigenous People's Power Project (IP3). The model was to build a body of indigenous organizers who became action experts within their own communities. In the process of getting this project off the ground, Ruckus was challenged to grow into something we couldn't have even imagined.

We have grown an immense amount.

I have been honored to be a part of The Ruckus Society during this labor, this awakening, watching over a transition born of frustrations and critiques as well as an instinct that something better was possible.

We had to begin to practice deep, authentic collaboration. This meant a shift in how we move financial and human resources—there are enough people out there to support the movement(s) we need, but currently, organizations are pitted against each other to access money (less and less money), rather than creating and investing together to maximize a diversity of resources from money, to people, to spaces, to skills. Because we are not investing in a shared network of resources, it is easy to let structural and ideological particularities create deep splits throughout the non-profit sphere, rendering much of our work useless.

We couldn't continue that—we had to figure out what humility looked like on all sides in order to truly collaborate. This included making room on our board for folks in the IP3 program, shifting timelines to meet community needs, with folks on all sides being able to say we didn't know how to do this, and recommitting over and over, even when it seemed too hard to continue.

One thing that was highlighted for us was that in the direct action realm, it's not unusual to see time and energy poured into actions that are more interesting/funny/creative than they are compelling to those we are trying to reach and/or life-changing to the communities taking action. To be clear, we are moving in a good direction in being funny and creative—we want to engage people—but our standards for communities taking the risks associated with direct action must be that the experience and the results are compelling, even life-changing.

We also learned a lot about breaking down the walls between different issue areas. Indigenous communities present a clear case of economic and environmental hardship, with residents highly recruited for the military, dealing with high levels of drug and alcohol dependence and a high rate for suicide. Through this lens it's easy to see that just coming with one piece of analysis wouldn't serve the big picture.

For successful movements, we need to develop strong, action-oriented communities that understand that their analysis and work cannot be limited to one struggle. Together, we must be advancing the frontline of our vision for a sustainable, just world. Our strategies must be more sophisticated and engaging than those of our opposition.

We learned that every member of the community holds pieces of the solution, even if we are all engaged in different layers of the work.

We learned to look for telltale signs that actions were community-based. One indicator that things are off is when impacted communities and people of color get involved, are put in the role of "performing the action," for example, having their photos taken, being spokespeople, or being asked to endorse or represent work they don't get to lead, etc., while most of the background organizing is still dominated by the folks who aren't impacted and won't be around long-term to sustain the campaign or to be held accountable.

At its worst, this approach builds up hope and encourages local communities to take risks, and then abandons them with the results.

At its best, there is a moment of victory. But too often, in spite of their best intentions, those who aren't directly impacted only see the surface layer(s) of the impact, and thus come up with surface solutions that don't address the deep seated multi-pronged need in the community.

We learned that in organizing and relationships, accountability is key for building a lasting base; when folks see change, they feel their own investment is worthwhile. We need actions that build our base, because we must reach a tipping point of folks who are on the side of justice before we reach the peak of what our planet can provide.

To be transparent, while Ruckus was in the midst of this transition, I didn't think of it as a transition from a patriarchal organization to a feminist organization any more than I thought of it as a white organization becoming an organization for people of color. I thought of our story as moving from a reactionary, surface-change direct action organization to vision-based, systemic-change-oriented direct action organization.

Along the way we began to practice principles that felt necessary and powerful to articulate:

  1. Ruckus comes where we're called, respecting local work and building long-term relationships of support. We reach out to and build relationships with groups we respect, to lay the groundwork for being called to frontline work. We do not insert ourselves into people's political or community work.
  2. Ruckus supports action when the community most impacted by a political, social, economic or environmental injustice is the leader of the strategy, vision, and action.
  3. Ruckus supports action that builds strength and holds space for a strong community vision.
  4. In a successful Ruckus action, the visions and solutions are deeper and more compelling than the injustice. (We are calling for a movement-wide shift away from action that isn't grounded in a vision of deep systemic change, as that ultimately is a misuse of our time and energy.)
  5. We submit that no social movement in history has successfully transformed its society without direct action, and we at Ruckus recognize our historical significance and the need for our work in the movement at this time. However, the actions that have had the most impact were uniquely suited to the time, place, and political conditions. We feel the movement has gotten stuck in a tactical rut and that it's time to leap out with actions that address our current political conditions directly (Gulf oil spills, SB1070 in Arizona, global economic and climate crisis).
  6. "Transform yourself to transform the world." —Grace Lee Boggs. We aim to be an organizational model of the change we call for in the world.

Now in hindsight I can see how we have transformed ourselves in a way that makes our work much more relevant as a living resistance to the dysfunctional social system in which we live. Within our small organization we have grown from a kickass, majority white, male-led environmental-issue centered network into a kickass, female-led, multicultural, justice AND environment-centered network.

We lovingly embrace those who brought the skills before us and those to come as part of the same fierce family of fearless activists with lifelong commitments to societal transformation. We are intentional about living our vision in terms of how we operate as a community in order to bring vision-based support to the movement we love. We opt for self-determination and sustainability in everything from our structure to our budgets to our programs.

We have learned that such a fundamental shift requires many small steps—having massive visions and making them attainable with specific goals that can be measured and felt both internally as well as by those who participate in the network and in our trainings.

We have also learned that we had to lay out our operating beliefs. Each person has a set of beliefs with which they move through the world. These are formed by their cultural, social, economic, and environmental (amongst others) experiences from birth, and they change as more experiences are added to the whole.

A group brings their beliefs together into a set of named or unnamed ways in which they operate. We have made our beliefs very transparent at Ruckus. What we landed on was that for the next period of history, we need to place an emphasis on:

  1. impacted leadership (the leadership of communities directly impacted by economic and environmental injustice)
  2. privileged support (the intentional support for impacted leadership from communities/people that can identify their privilege and want to see a rebalancing of power)
  3. feminine leadership (not just women leaders, but leaders who shift our understanding of how power can be held)

In part, these beliefs are grounded in the reality that leadership from these spheres is directly opposite to the leadership we've experienced for the last century and it's time for balance, and in part because the most exciting organizing happening today is coming from communities directly impacted by oppressions and injustices.

As an organization, The Ruckus Society's operating principles include the Jemez Principles and the Environmental Justice Principles. These principles mean we move towards our vision of sustainability and self-determination through organizing that values natural operating systems, understanding the power of uncovering the root causes of problems, and asking, "What are the root problems in my community, and what do deep, foundational, rooted solutions look like?" To me this is thinking from a place of healing, more than dominating others with our beliefs.

It is not enough to adhere to these values, however—we want to see our beliefs in practice.

Now, how does it feel?

Being a part of this team has been incredible. We have experienced what it's like to release any assumption that one person has all the skills needed to lead and support the work. That release—a huge relief to me personally—allowed us to begin to really weave together our strengths, rather than facing the limitations of relying on one leader to hold the vision, coordination, fundraising, and programmatic work of the group. It has allowed us face our own personal limitations with transparency and curiosity, noting where we want to grow and not being afraid to ask for feedback.

On an average day, it feels like an extremely functional organization working for change. On the best days, it feels like the world we are trying to create, and it is marvelous.

Return to Top       Return to Online Article       Table of Contents