To Be Unified, We Have to Learn How to Build Unity

After the devastating results of the November elections, there’s a lot of talk about how now is the time to be unified. Unity is both a principle value and tactic that has seen our social justice forbears through some of our darkest days. But if you’ve worked in coalitions or alliances you know that being unified is easier said than done. So to help, I’ve put together this set of suggestions, tips, and lessons that we who want to build unity should know as we walk that path.

Working together in groups and coalitions is difficult and requires effort. Here are some things you can do to make that effort worth it.

Learn to be uncomfortable. Working with new individuals and groups exposes you to situations and ideas you might not be used to. People will propose tactics or actions you think won’t work. You may doubt your new comrade’s experience or intentions, or question their commitment. Your reflex/instinct might be to discount them or criticize their ideas or distance yourself immediately. Doing so could keep you from understanding where they are coming from and what experience they have to bring to the table. Notice those urges and allow yourself to feel them. Just because you experience the urge to criticize does not mean you have to act on the urge. Make space for the urge and act in the direction of understanding and patience.

In addition, you may be exposed to people who have different backgrounds, cultures, or life experiences than you or that are not of your same race or ethnic group, and you may not be immediately comfortable being around them. You might come up against your own prejudices or realize your lack of understanding/awareness of the issues members of their group face. It may make you feel out of place or like you can’t be a true comrade with people of that group.

Begin to learn about social groups you’re unfamiliar with even before you start. If you need to build alliances across social groups, start learning about the issues those social groups generally face. If you foresee joining efforts with Arab or Muslim groups, find and follow some Muslim thought leaders on social media, starting with following Linda Sarsour on Facebook. If you’re going to work in a coalition with LGBTQ folks, read up on South Carolina’s bathrooms bill or the issues facing trans folks of color. Follow #BlackLivesMatter founders @osope, @opalayo, and @aliciagarza on Twitter. It’s not going to make you an expert, but it will begin your own path toward solidarity with folks in those social groups.

Take the lead of those directly impacted. Undocumented folks know more about the impacts of our outdated immigration system than any immigration expert. Trans people of color have a deeper understanding of state and interpersonal violence than perhaps any other group. People who are directly impacted know about their community and know what is needed to address their issues and to mobilize their community members. Don’t assume leadership roles that those directly impacted are able to take. And if you are already in a position of leadership, make sure you are working to build up the leadership of those directly impacted so that they are able to step into positions of leadership.

Set common goals. When building a coalition, keep the agenda short and values-based. Keep the target simple and have a goal. Don’t get stuck in the rut of trying to write an academic manifesto that includes everyone’s theory of oppression and customized vision for utopia. Set goals and go after them.

Encourage the use of acuerdos/norms. Organization and coalition meetings can get out of hand fast. There’s nothing like an unorganized meeting to turn people away from organizing and ensure nothing ends up getting done. Acuerdos, when they are created and agreed upon collectively, can be a powerful way to maintain order in meetings while at the same time enriching participation and building unity (opens a PDF doc.). Acuerdos aren’t a substitute for strong relationships with the folks you’re organizing with, but they do help maintain organizing spaces as spaces of mutual respect — ask long as they are adhered to.

Address prejudices and discriminatory behaviors. Don’t give someone’s misogyny, homophobia, paternalism, etc. a pass in the name of unity. Unity is build on solidarity and trust and our individual acts of discrimination undermine both of those. If someone truly wants to contribute to the unified effort, they will be open to improving on their shortcomings and changing their detrimental behaviors.

There are good ways and there are bad ways to address the behaviors that undermine unity. Learn to do so in a positive and productive way, but don’t shy away from putting your foot down and kicking someone out when they fail to keep their prejudices and discriminatory behaviors in check. Not doing so could have far greater consequences.

Examine your own prejudices. We all bring prejudices to the table. Not a single one of us is outside the socialization and dominant ideologies of our society and all of us have learned prejudicial thought processes. But that doesn’t mean that our prejudices have to impact our actions. The key is learning how to see thoughts for what they are — just thoughts.

We can challenge the assumptions that underline prejudice by learning about the different social groups toward which we have prejudices. At the same time, we can learn to identify the thought patterns that reinforce our prejudices so as to take away the power they have over us. Acceptance and Commitment Training is a powerful and simple (but not always easy) way to identify our own prejudicial thought patterns and set them apart so as to not allow them to direct our actions.

Learn to take criticism. Working together with new people often means learning that some of your ideas or actions are considered unacceptable, damaging or offensive to others. Often times it’s behavior you don’t consider disrespectful and no one’s brought to your attention previously. Criticism can trigger our fight or flight response and our initial reaction is often to become defensive. But defensiveness is not a very useful quality for building relationships of solidarity.

So in the face of criticism, recognize that it’s okay to feel defensive, but don’t let your actions be driven by defensiveness. Remember the tips above on learning to be uncomfortable and allow yourself to feel defensive, but practice constructive ways of responding to criticism.

Consider your audience. In your organizing work, learn all you can about the groups of people that you need to move to achieve your goal. You have to meet people where they are, not where you want them to be. You hone messaging that connects with people where they are and then shows them a path to where you need them to be and invite them to journey down that path.

In mass media and social media organizing, this means using communications techniques that start with what we have in common, moves toward the problem and what can done to fix it, and ends with an action your audience can take to help fix the problem. A powerful example of this is the Opportunity Agenda’s Values, Problem, Solution, Action messaging framework.

In face-to-face organizing, meeting people where they are means asking questions more than giving answers. You don’t tell them why they should care. They tell you why they should care. It means learning about their lives and hardships and THEN showing them (not telling them) how their involvement in a movement can lead to the change they need in their lives.

NO: “If you care about protecting our community, you’ll join us.”
YES: “We’re hoping that if the people like you in our community can work together, we can change x, y, z.”

Another communications tip: write in first person plural, i.e. “we.” YES: “When we unite together we have the power to make our leaders listen and make the change we want.” NO: “Join us so we can win.” It’s a deceptively subtle difference, but an important one.

Know when to walk away. Coalitions are rarely permanent. Allies are not forever. Not all alliances are healthy. If you are in a coalition that has passed it’s point of being strategic, if you see that group dynamics are unhealthy and not improving, if your group has lost its way and is no longer working in the best interest of the community, don’t feel bad about cutting your losses and moving on.

When you can’t work together, at least coordinate. One of my biggest frustrations with coalitions is the assumption that if groups are not working together under the banner of the coalition, they have to work independently of each other. Often times this causes groups working toward the same cause to not communicate and share plans and strategies with each other, sometimes resulting in conflicting plans and strategies.

In practice, groups who are not working together can still coordinate. This can be as simple as sharing with each other the dates of major events so as not to create conflicting events. But it can go farther. For example, during Texas’ legislative session a few years back, two statewide coalitions and a coalition from one of Texas’ major cities coordinated the timing of their legislative activities around immigration so that lawmakers were hit with three different days of action spread a month or so apart.

Don’t give up easily. Working with others is hard, there’s no doubt about it. But struggling against oppression and winning victories for social justice has never been easy. We have all come up against hardships in our lives and overcome them. Draw strength from your personal struggles and victories, and remind yourself how capable your are. If you are strong on your own, imagine how much stronger we will be together?

If you have additional tips for building unity or working for justice in trying times, leave them in the comments section.


Help advocate for refugee families, no matter where you’re from

I’ve been getting asked how people outside of the Valley can help the refugee crisis. Besides making monetary donations, there are a number of other ways you can help where you’re from.

Connect with legal aid and immigrant rights groups in your area

The refugee families released from Border Patrol custody with their notices to appear are only passing through the Valley to unite with family members throughout the US. As Salvadorans are now the third largest Latino minority group in the U.S., and migration from these nations has been constant since the late 80s, there is a chance that some of them will be heading to your area of the country. Besides showing general support for them and their efforts to escape violence and grinding poverty, you can try volunteering with the organizations in your area who are probably taking on extra work in light of this crisis.

Many states have a network of legal aid service providers. Also check out the Catholic Legal Immigration Network to find an immigration legal office in your area. Many states also have an immigrant rights network. If there is no network in your area, join one of the campaigns here.

Call your congressional representative

It will take all of us if the rights of refugees are protected.

It will take all of us if the rights of refugees are protected.

In terms of advocacy, the congressional reps from your area probably need to get more calls and actions supporting protecting refugees, not sending them to their deportation (and likely their death). Chances are they are getting more calls from people fearful of a lawless border with terrorists pouring across than from people concerned with the welfare of these children.

Find out who represents you in congress and get contact information on this nifty map.

Educate people around you

Along that vein, you can help educate the general public in your area about the reality of the situation. There is a lot of disinformation being perpetuated by right wingers supporting border militarization and expediting the deportations of these kids. Arm yourself with knowledge from the US Committee on Refugees and ImmigrantsCommittee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (on Facebook here) and La Union del Pueblo Entero. Then write a letter to the editor of you local newspaper, call your TV news outlet, and comment on the publications of your congressional representative’s Facebook page.

Learn about the root causes of the crisis

This crisis is not going to go away unless we address the root causes in the countries that these children and families are fleeing: stark economic inequality, US-backed neoliberal economic policy and US foreign military aid. There are a number of good articles online, including this analysis of Neoliberalism in El Salvador (opens a PDF). We need a wider sector of the public to be familiar with the broad strokes of these root cases if we are going to move forward and not just repeat past mistakes.

If you want to donate toward helping the refugee families, check out

[Update] Wendy Davis is basically calling for the refugees to be quickly deported back to the extreme violence they’re fleeing

UPDATE: We just got word from reps from the Wendy Davis campaign that Wendy has called on President Obama, in the form of a letter, to provide attorneys guardian ad litem for unaccompanied minor children immediately. This would be a major improvement and would be absolutely essential granted that the Obama administration is going to send more immigration judges to speed up these people’s deportation proceedings. Read more on the website here.

Original post follows below.

This is disturbing. When I heard the news that Wendy Davis was going to address the humanitarian crisis of the refugees arriving to the RGV, I was hopeful she would draw a clear line between Rick Perry and Greg Abbott’s “secure our borders, Obama’s not enforcing the law” political grandstanding. I never would have received her to join their charge.


“Federal border agents and facilities are overwhelmed trying to address this human crisis instead of focusing on their first priority to secure our border from drug smugglers, human traffickers and terrorists,” the democratic candidate for governor wrote in a letter to governor Rick Perry.

Wow. So you’re back tracking from your previous stance on Abbott and Dewhurst’s DPS border surge, opening yourself up to “flip-flop” criticism. Plus you used Abbott’s call for border security in the RGV to rally border Latino voters to your side, so your flip-flop makes you look like you’ve abandoned us.

But there’s more.

“I agree that this is a federal issue. While I believe it is imperative for the state to act in the short-term, we need the federal government to do its job — including sending more immigration judges to the border,” she continued in the letter.

For those who don’t know, more immigration judges is fine, but only if there is more legal aid. In refugee crisis situations such as these, the minimum the U.S. should do, to comply with international law and basic human decency, is to screen for asylum and refugee status. The federal government does not have to give legal aid, which would help refugees make their case and have a shot at winning and staying in the U.S. So basically a call for more immigration judges without a call for additional legal aid means a faster deportation process. So she wants to deport them back to the extreme violence they’re fleeing. WTF.

Then, in possibly the most ridiculous move, she called for a special legislative session to address the crisis.

What the heck? What does Wendy Davis expect to come out of a legislative session on immigration and the border? A special session would open the legislature to a flood of anti immigrant bills. We’d see a repeat of 2011, when more than 90 anti immigrant bills were introduced, many just as bad as Arizona’s SB 1070, others a lot worse. Back then, the anti immigrant bills had a whole slew of regular bills to compete with for attention and fortunately we were able to keep them from getting passed. But with a special session just for border and immigration issues, we wouldn’t stand a chance against the vitriol and filth coming from racist republicans like Debbie Riddle (Tomball, TX).

All this while advocating for these refugees to be processed and deported faster with no call for legal aid to help them with their asylum and refugee cases.

On Wednesday, Wendy Davis will be celebrating the one year anniversary of her historic filibuster for women’s rights and women’s health with filibuster anniversary parties throughout the state. I for one will not be attending. I will be in mourning of the death of her campaign’s integrity.


I’ve gotten some feedback and need to correct that a special session would not necessarily open the legislature to a flood of anti-immigrant legislation. Possibly more likely would be a few key anti-immigrant bills slash the inclusion of anti-immigrant provisions into the bills passed to address the crisis.

Also, I spoke to an immigration lawyer who told me that only people who have been harmed based on specific grounds under the law–race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group or political opinion–are entitle to asylum/refugee status. Those refugees that have viable claims to asylum/refugee status need lawyers, so we would need pro-bono or government paid attorneys (which is not a right of immigrants) for these refugees to have any shot at winning their case. But Humanitarian or Temporary Protective Status type relief would be essential in this crisis, since immigration courts are hostile to claims of gang violence as a basis for asylum.