How can organization leaders make strategic choices that allow them to exercise power in politics? Our book, Prisms of the People, attempts to answer this question by drawing on several case studies of organizations that have won significant victories for their constituencies. In our “prism” metaphor, organizations are the prisms that refract a group’s actions into political power. When leaders make choices about how to direct resources, which courses of action to pursue, how to develop leadership, etc., those choices shape the internal design of the prism and thus impact the qualities of the vectors of power projected into the world.
The following excerpt outlines one of the main ideas in our book: Strategic leaders make the intentional choice to build an independent constituency. The passage includes examples from organizations in Minnesota, Arizona, Virginia, and Ohio. We find that these leaders’ choices to build constituencies independent of wealthy donors, political parties, and other elite actors result in bases of people that are flexible and committed. These independent constituencies are the source of the organizations’ power.
Social scientists studying political influence often use access to power as a proxy for power itself. Important studies have analyzed things like congressional testimony to identify the groups that are recognized by political decision makers as influential.1→Paul Burstein, “The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy: A Review and an Agenda,” Political Research Quarterly 56 (2003): 29–40.→John Mark Hansen, Gaining Access: Congress and the Farm Lobby, 1919–1981 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). While this approach provides a good look at one dimension of power—namely, who has a seat at the proverbial decision-making table—it does not differentiate between those who can use that seat to challenge the status quo and those who cannot.“One clear pattern that emerged across all of our case studies was the desire by our leaders to ensure that if and when they earned a seat at the table, they could continue to challenge the status quo without risking the loss of their seat.”
We argue that investing in the internal design of a prism is strategic for organizations seeking to build power. Why is it strategic? Leaders accountable to and rooted in an active, engaged, and committed constituency can claim power at the negotiating table that leaders without that constituency cannot. One clear pattern that emerged across all of our case studies was the desire by our leaders to ensure that if and when they earned a seat at the table, they could continue to challenge the status quo without risking the loss of their seat. In part, this was because they recognized that their constituencies were often the kind most likely to get marginalized in political decision-making.2→Katherine Blee, Democracy in the Making: How Activists Form Groups (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
→Daniel Q. Gillion, The Political Power of Protest: Minority Activism and Shifts in Public Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
→Dara Strolovitch, Affirmative Advocacy: Race, Class, and Gender in Interest Group Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). The only way they could maintain an influential position without compromising the representation of their constituencies was to earn their seat by developing what they often called an “independent source of power.” Independent political power is strategic because it allows leaders to influence elite power without depending on it. In other words, with an independent source of power leaders had access to resources that they could use to influence decision makers, without those resources’ existence depending on funders, party leaders, or other external decision makers. The constituency and its leaders themselves controlled that resource.
Doran Schrantz of Minnesota’s ISAIAH described the importance of an independent source of power. In an interview from 2014, she reflected on the growing prominence of ISAIAH in movement circles in the United States. ISAIAH was becoming favored in particular among the large national philanthropies that financially supported much of the grassroots work that organizations like it did. Doran said,
I’m of the opinion that there’s not going to be a significant, people-powered, independent movement funded by foundations. . . . It’s just that [the philanthropic world] has its own momentum and its own set of priorities. . . . The thing that’s depressing is that you take . . . some of your most talented organizers and you turn all their strategic energy . . . on milking that thing [the world of philanthropy]. . . . And then, that thing can also defang you. It turns you into a celebrity, turns you into a commodity. So, I’ve also seen that happen to people—that they do really good organizing that becomes this big thing. . . . And then, you get positioned inside that whole system and all of a sudden you could raise ten million dollars ’cause you’re the new celebrity. So then you build a big national thing and now you’re a hustler. I mean, you hustle—you hustle and broker. But the minute you float up into that thing and you get ungrounded from the base, you turn into something different. And you’re still dependent on the base, but instead of it being an authentic relationship, you’re essentially buying it.
Like the other leaders in our cases, Doran recognized the difference between having access to power that includes the ability to challenge it, and having access alone. In her analysis, once her relationship to her constituency becomes dependent on the money that foundations give her to organize that constituency, she no longer has an independent source of power. She can no longer challenge the donors, because she needs them to give her money.3Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018More Info → She is, in her words, defanged. For an organizer to maintain her “fangs,” she has to be in an “authentic relationship” with her base. In other words, she has to be in an accountable relationship with them, so that leaders and constituents alike remain committed to a shared agenda. With this kind of shared commitment, grounded in mutual accountability, the leader can deliver the constituency in the recurrent ways she needs to in order to influence decision makers.“Many of the leaders in our case studies were part of a group of state-based, grassroots organizations that came into being in the early twenty-first century in an effort to build independent political power.”
Historically, this conversation around the importance of independent political power emerged from a discussion among organizations representing low-income constituencies of color. Many of the leaders in our case studies were part of a group of state-based, grassroots organizations that came into being in the early twenty-first century in an effort to build independent political power. Originally, most of these organizations were grounded in either community organizing or nonviolent direct-action traditions. The community-organizing groups and networks mostly grew out of Saul Alinsky’s work in the 1960s, which had traditionally rejected mainstream, electoral politics in favor of more locally rooted organizing based in existing community structures, such as faith communities. Organizers emerging from nonviolent direct-action work also tended to opt for more “outsider” strategies (mainly disruption), arguing that change was better made from outside, rather than inside, the system.4Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, “Collective Protest: A Critique of Resource-Mobilization Theory,” in Social Movements, ed. S. M. Lyman (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995), 137–67.
Leaders building the idea of independent political organization in the twenty-first century argued that the most powerful constituency-based organizations had to do both: blend both organizing and electoral work, and work both inside and outside. Changing organizational structures reflected this shift in priorities—while previous community-organizing or direct-action groups often did not have paid lobbyists or 501(c)(4) sister organizations, many of the groups in our study did. As Tram Nguyen from New Virginia Majority noted in an interview, she realized the importance of building independent political power:
[In] 2007, in the aftermath of the failure of comprehensive immigration reform, [it was] a time when immigration raids plagued our community much as they do today. A few very smart people realized that if we’re really going to change things, for our community and our people, we had to engage in a much more deliberate and strategic way. It wasn’t enough to attend rallies, or hold actions—we had to include voter engagement as part of the core of our work, and that the notion of citizenship and civic engagement for new Americans was going to be pivotal in changing the political landscape.
Across all of our cases, leaders like Tram recognized the importance of having what scholars might call a simultaneous “inside and outside” game if they wanted to build durable political power. Many of the leaders in our cases adopted a “both-and” approach. As Joy Cushman observed in an interview, “the organizations that are building more power are able to wield different types of power. It’s not all voting, it’s not all civil disobedience.” Leaders in our study recognized both the value in articulating clear, measurable strategies for power and the need to do so in ways that maintained their strategic flexibility. Only with flexibility could they respond to the inevitable ups and downs that accompany any campaign for power.
These strategies for building independent political power were particularly relevant for and rooted in theories developed by poor people and people of color. Leaders from these constituencies have always understood that they have to fight for legitimacy and that they are likely to get blocked along the way. For these constituencies, any access to power has been, at best, ephemeral. These leaders therefore developed strategies that expect unexpectedness. And if they stayed grounded in their constituency, then they had a durable source of power they could leverage, distinct from any momentary attention or access they might get from funders, the media, or other power players.
One leader in Arizona gave us an example of the importance of staying grounded in constituency, as opposed to focusing on access to power: “We’re no longer okay with a person just has to be Latino or have a Latino name or say good things but has no actual platform, no actual agenda and no actual policy ideas. . . .Even when [our allies like Danny Valenzuela] are elected, how are our community orgs, but also community people, involved [in the decision-making]?” Valenzuela was a city councilman and mayoral candidate who had been elected in 2011 with the pivotal help of a group of undocumented young people. Once in office, however, he did not respond to the constituency’s needs in the way they expected. “I remember once we had a roll call protest, where we called all these names,” the interviewee said. “[We yelled], ‘Valenzuela where’s your stance?’ and [afterward] he called and was really mad. He said, ‘Aren’t you loyal to me?’ And we said, ‘No, we’re loyal to our community, not to you.’”
Not all of the leaders from the organizations we studied were people of color or from low-income backgrounds. Yet, even those leaders who were not indigenous to the constituencies they were organizing demonstrated this focus on constituency power as a hedge for uncertainty. AMOS’s Troy, for instance, is a white evangelical Christian who is over six feet tall. He is a former preacher and has a PhD in history from the University of Kentucky. Based on his doctoral work, he coauthored a book about Martin Luther King Jr. Even with this profile, however, he focuses relentlessly on the potential uncertainty inherent in fighting for greater power for his constituents.
In a reflection written on February 7, 2016, that Troy shared with us, he remarks on his experience at a citywide meeting for business, political, and other leaders in Cincinnati:
Most people in the room . . . have power that is vested and determined by their proximity to wealth and power via corporate leadership. They have to make certain trade-offs with their source of power, which means that they have to be careful what they say and how they say it, lest someone get upset with them and upset their career and livelihood. With organizing, our power does not come from networking or proximity and access to people of wealth and influence. It comes from a base, to whom we are accountable . . . that means we can be prophetic and bold in the public arena in a way that most . . . cannot.
Troy wrote these reflections every week, primarily for himself. His reflection from the following week contains a similar sentiment after he describes, in detail, all the business leaders who have power in the city and the origins of their power: “The biggest lesson I’m learning and reminded of week after week is that when your power comes from organized people and organized money, and is not dependent on proximity to powerful people or trading favors or keeping the elite happy, it frightens the principalities and powers way more than a one-off protest action that they can wait out.”“He wants a relationship with the decision maker to have emerged because he has an independent resource that the decision maker wants or needs.”
Three notable points emerge from Troy’s reflections. First, Troy distinguishes between power that depends on relationships to power brokers and power that sits outside that relationship. In his analysis, access is not the primary strategic goal for leaders seeking to build power in a dynamic environment. He wants a relationship with the decision maker to have emerged because he has an independent resource that the decision maker wants or needs. This independent resource would essentially act as a source of power that gives him the leverage and flexibility necessary to be able to negotiate more effectively with the “principalities.” Second, in his analysis Troy recognizes that whatever the source of his power is, it has to be durable over time. It has to be more than something decision makers can simply “wait out.” Because they have institutional power, those decision makers have time on their side.
Third and finally, in Troy’s analysis, that independent source of power comes from “organized people and organized money.” In other words, what matters is not the number of people or the amount of money, but the extent to which those people and that money are “organized.”
Sometimes, an organization gains visibility by getting millions of people to sign a petition or to show up for an event. That visibility can, under certain conditions, grant it access to the corridors of power. But in these situations, the constituency base that helps the organization gain access to power often proves illusory. If political decision makers refuse, ignore, or bargain with the movement’s requests, its leaders lack what Doran called the “authentic relationship” with their base that is required to move them, again and again and again, with the “recurrence” that Hansen argues is necessary.5Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991More Info → Instead, these leaders have to hope that mere proximity to power is enough to get them what they want. When it is not, the millions of names on a petition become mere props rather than collective agents of change. The lists, no matter how large, do not have the flexibility to constitute an independent source of political power.“The leaders and organizations in our study thus complicated the traditional tropes of mainstream politics through prismatic power.”
For all the leaders in our cases, in contrast, a committed and flexible constituency makes up their key independent source of power. Their constituency acts as a self-governing base that has say over the organizational decisions that affect them and, as a consequence, say over the political decisions that affect their communities. The leaders and organizations in our study thus complicated the traditional tropes of mainstream politics through prismatic power. They recognized that power was not simply about having control over lots of some resource—people, access, expertise, or money. Instead, it was about having an “authentic relationship” with an “organized” base of constituents.
Reprinted with permission from Prisms of the People: Power and Organizing in Twenty-First-Century America by Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2021 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
→Daniel Q. Gillion, The Political Power of Protest: Minority Activism and Shifts in Public Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
→Dara Strolovitch, Affirmative Advocacy: Race, Class, and Gender in Interest Group Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).