International Workshop
“Social Movements and Global Crisis:
Coalition & Conflict in Contemporary Social Movements”

Draft Summary Report (10/25/12)

This workshop set out to bring together leading scholars and organizers working on social movement coalitions to discuss the lessons and theorizing that has emerged from both research and practice and develop new syntheses of our knowledge of the work of building diverse alliances. What was initially a secondary aim, to build new networks for cooperation and collaboration between scholars and organizers, became a focal point and a key outcome of the discussions. While we can say that participants gained more clarity on the complexities and nuances of social movement coalitions, they did so in part by working to define and develop a structure for coalition between the United States Social Forum organizing network and scholar-activists. Focusing on the needs of movements and the capacities and constraints of both scholar-activists and organizers, we were able to enhance mutual understanding and trust among participants that should make the network emerging from the workshop—the “International Network of Scholar-Activists” (INoSA) more sustainable and more relevant to social movements’ work than it would otherwise be.

By bringing together a relatively equal number of activists and scholars to converse on equitable terms, the workshop interrupted dominant hierarchies that permeate social relations in our society. It thus helped create a space that was more in line with movement visions of the world we hope to create, enabling new kinds of movement-supporting relations to emerge. Experiencing this kind of space helped demonstrate the importance in coalition work of creating settings or spaces where people can come together in new ways.

A critical insight that emerged from the conversation builds on a point raised by Jerome Scott. He noted that a major impediment for contemporary radical social movements is the limited understanding of our history: What’s lost in the discussion of relationship between scholars and activists is the history of McCarthyism and its long-term effects on separating intellectuals and universities from radical movements. But transformative movements are at their very core intellectual movements. We need the intellectual and conceptual tools and understandings to assess our movements and define where we are trying to go. Anti-intellectualism has been a tool for elites to divide us and separate the intellectual work from other movement work. This recognition early in our meeting helped give focus to the project of developing our thinking about how to work together. It helped us analyze the different roles scholars and organizers play in both mobilization and knowledge-production work. What it helped us focus on in the workshop is the question of: How do we re-think the proper relationships, divisions of labor, and roles that can address our movement’s needs?

The focus in the workshop on the world’s largest and broadest attempt at movement coalition-building, the World Social Forum process, and the participation of organizers who have been deeply involved in the organizing work of the United States Social Forums helped give concreteness to the discussion, which focused on the specific needs identified from the US Social Forum organizing experience, while also allowing the development of models and theorizing relevant to coalition work in other spaces and at other scales. For instance, the need to document and evaluate movement work and to develop strategic thinking and framings of issues is common to all movement efforts—not just the social forums. Work to tell the movement history and to connect that history across time and place is something scholar-activists can help with.

One disappointment some participants expressed was the lack of time devoted to discussing the more intellectual aspects of coalition work. An opportunity to synthesize knowledge coming from academic and movement-based work is still needed. Such an exchange could be organized, for instance, at the Left Forum in New York (18-20 March, 2013), and/or the mini-conference, “Power & Justice,” preceding the American Sociological Association meeting in New York, August 9, 2013 (http://powerandjustice.com/ ). Other such opportunities may present themselves at US and World Social Forum-related events.