Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis
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Author: Maurice Mitchell
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Executives in professional social justice institutions, grassroots activists in local movements, and fiery young radicals on protest lines are all advancing urgent concerns about the internal workings of progressive spaces. The themes arising are surprisingly consistent. Many claim that our spaces are “toxic” or “problematic,” often sharing compelling and troubling personal anecdotes as evidence of this. People in leadership are finding their roles untenable, claiming it is “impossible” to execute campaigns or saying they are in organizations that are “stuck.”

A growing group of new organizers and activists are becoming cynical or dropping out altogether. Most read their experiences as interpersonal conflict gone awry, the exceptional dynamics of a broken environment or a movement that’s lost its way. A “bad supervisor,” a “toxic workplace,” a “messy movement space,” or a “problematic person with privilege” are just some of the refrains echoed from all corners of our movements. Individuals are pointing fingers at other individuals; battle lines are being drawn. Identity and position are misused to create a doom loop that can lead to unnecessary ruptures of our political vehicles and the shuttering of vital movement spaces.

Movements on the Left are driven by the same political and social contradictions we strive to overcome. We fight against racism, classism, and sexism yet battle inequity and oppression inside our movements. Although we struggle for freedom and democracy, we also suffer from tendencies toward abuse and domination. We promote leadership and courage by individuals, but media exposure, social media fame, and access to resources compromise activists. We draw from the courage of radical traditions but often lack the strategy or conviction to challenge the status quo. The radical demands that we do make are so regularly disregarded that it can feel as if we are shouting into the wind. Many of us are working harder than ever but feeling that we have less power and impact.

There are things we can and must do to shift movements for justice toward a powerful posture of joy and victory. Such a metamorphosis is not inevitable, but it is essential. This essay describes the problems our movements face, identifies underlying causes, analyzes symptoms of the core problems, and proposes some concrete solutions to reset our course.

Roots of the Crisis

This moment is one of multiple, overlapping crises: a global pandemic, rising authoritarianism, climate emergency, political violence, unprecedented economic inequality, and general precarity all exacerbate interpersonal tension points. Like the rest of society, our movements exist within a general climate of anxiety, despair, and anger without the necessary support to process such massive emotions, individually or in community. Recognizing the challenging terrain on which we struggle and grow can allow for more compassion for our comrades as well as clarity about the urgent mandate at hand.

Our current movement is ideologically underdeveloped and uneven. History can help us understand why. There has been a one-sided, often government-initiated effort to defang movements for justice: the brutal terrorism following Reconstruction, the Red Scare following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the dismantling of Pan-African nationalist movements in the 1920s, McCarthyism in the ’50s, COINTELPRO in the ’60s, and the war on militant Black liberation organizations well into the early ’80s. Leaders have been jailed, killed, or co-opted; organizations have been invaded, dismantled, or neutralized. We have inherited this traumatic and often bloody legacy.

As a result of this rupture, over the past 50 years, many of our leaders have prioritized hard skills and pragmatism over developing their ideological orientation or running transformative campaigns. Other organizations have an ideological analysis but lack the skills to develop an effective strategy and execute a campaign in a way that builds large bases.

Current conditions also contribute to the organizational tensions under which we operate. These include but are not limited to:

Common Trends

Here are some common tendencies that flow from the larger conditions we find ourselves in and the fallacies underlying those tendencies.

I.         Neoliberal Identity


Using one’s identity or personal experience as a justification for a political position. You may hear someone argue, “As a working-class, first-generation American, Southern woman…I say we have to vote no.” What’s implied is that one’s identity is a comprehensive validator of one’s political strategy—that identity is evidence of some intrinsic ideological or strategic legitimacy. Marginalized identity is deployed as a conveyor of a strategic truth that must simply be accepted. Likewise, historically privileged identities are essentialized, flattened, and frequently—for better or worse— dismissed.


To be clear, personal identity and individual experience are important. And while it is true that the “personal is political,” the personal cannot trump strategy nor should it overwhelm the collective interest. Identity is too broad a container to predict one’s politics or the validity of a particular position. There are over 40 million Black folk in the US. Some have great politics, some do not. One’s racial or gender identity, sex, or membership in any marginalized community is, in and of itself, insufficient information to position someone in leadership or mandate that their perspective be adopted.

People with marginal identities, as human beings, suffer all the frailties, inconsistencies, and failings of any other human. Genuflecting to individuals solely based on their socialized identities or personal stories deprives them of the conditions that sharpen arguments, develop skills, and win debates. We infantilize members of historically marginalized or oppressed groups by seeking to placate or pander instead of being in a right relationship, which requires struggle, debate, disagreement, and hard work. This type of false solidarity is a form of charity that weakens the individual and the collective. Finding authentic alignment and solidarity among diverse voices is serious labor. After all, “steel sharpens steel.”

Neoliberal identity politics strips from identity politics a focus on collective power or a political project and demand. What’s left is a narrow tool used as a personal cudgel or, as Barbara Smith has said, “It’s like they’ve taken the identity and left the politics on the floor.” It should be noted that we have already seen this tactic used against us on the Left and the Right in the fight for racial and economic justice. Identity in this context reaffirms the individualistic principles of neoliberalism instead of challenging them.

II.         Maximalism


Considering anything less than the most idealistic position as a betrayal of core values and evidence of corruption, cowardice, lack of commitment, or vision. Relatedly, a righteous refusal to engage with people who do not already share our views and values.

Maximalist arguments may present themselves as debates around principles, tactics, and language or as the performance of solidarity with individuals, identity groups, and other movements. Maximalism demands that allies embrace certain tactics or positions as a test of alignment.


Maximalism ignores the fact that the value of any tactic  — or the appropriateness of any demand — must be evaluated within a larger strategy grounded in a power analysis. Sometimes tactics and demands help build power and sometimes they don’t. Taken alone, they are not an adequate tool to test for alignment.

The simple reason is that there are not enough people who are already 100% aligned. Our organizations and movements need to grow. Holding on to tactics and overly idealistic demands that keep us small but pure ignores the basic strategic imperative of building power. We should of course be skeptical of those who demand too little and tell our movements to set their sights too low. But we should not mistake putting forward anything less than our most ambitious aspirations for an act of cowardice. In fact, it might reflect a sober assessment of our own power or advance a longer term strategy.

Maximalist thinking is particularly pernicious when it is used to justify not doing the basic work of organizing: talking to lots of different kinds of people on the doors, in their homes, and in their workplaces. We need to meet people where they are, build relationships, and move them into action. The work of organizing and base building also disciplines our tactics by grounding them in the needs and demands of our people.

Our opponents are formidable and dangerous. We must assess the power we actually have at all times and in every circumstance so that we don’t either leave power on the table or overreach and come up empty. Sometimes, our assessment will reveal the need for us to build tactical and strategic coalitions that share broad — though not identical — goals to fight our opponents. That requires us to sharpen our skills at debate and internal democracy so that we are in a position to lead a united front against rising authoritarianism. When we organize and win material change with and for our people, we expand our base and create more power. In this way, the demands we make tomorrow can be more ambitious than the ones we make today.

III.         Anti-Leadership Attitudes


Holding skepticism of leadership as a rule. Questioning the authority, legitimacy, and competence of those with positional, perceived, or other forms of power. Therefore, all decisions made by leadership are subject to broad-based skepticism and mistrust. Valuing expertise and experience is challenged as potentially elitist. Professionalization is cited as a problematic aspect of how leadership and power are meted out. Anti-intellectualism is promoted as an egalitarian appreciation of more informal forms of skill or knowledge. This is not to be confused with a healthy skepticism of authority and leadership, including within movement spaces.


To be clear, abuse of authority, corruption, and the arbitrary concentration of power are real problems that have gone unexamined in years past. We should credit those people—many of them newer and younger to the work—who are shining a light on systemic issues and the deep harm they cause to individuals and the power we seek. However, a reflexively anti-leadership orientation is an overcorrection that doesn’t make room for the existence of principled, responsive, accountable, and democratic leadership or for the ability of anyone in a leadership position to build strong movements, organizations, or workplaces.

Social change work requires experience, rigor, and study. It can take years of development to grow into a skillful organizer, strategist, communicator, campaign manager, or facilitator. Although talented people can rapidly develop skills, many capacities only develop over time. For example, judgment, relationship building, emotional maturity, and landscape awareness (including the knowledge of what you don’t know) deepen with experience.

“Professionalization” and experience are two different things that should not be conflated. Most organizers historically and globally have not been developed through professional pipelines. However, all skilled organizers—professional or otherwise—have rigorously honed those skills over time through study and practice.

Pretending formal leadership doesn’t exist can obscure hierarchies and create centers of informal power. Formal leadership, when healthy, provides clarity and transparency, which leads to greater accountability. This in turn fosters more avenues for support to develop new leadership.

Finally, there is a very real intellectual component to this work. The idea that working people do not or cannot engage in intellectual work is truly elitist and has not been my experience.

IV.         Anti-Institutional Sentiment


Reflexively disdaining institutions and organizations as inherently oppressive and antiquated, including the institution one may be associated with. This point of view casts institutions themselves as the problem, even those with a social change mission.


We all have examples of bloated, aimless, top-heavy, or simply irrelevant institutions that take space, hoard power, and demonstrate little impact. Even institutions that begin as disruptors of the status quo can slow-walk toward conservatism, disconnection, bureaucracy, irrelevance, and inefficiency. In fact, given the system of capitalism our institutions are navigating, if we are not mindful of these realities, we risk falling into them.

Despite those common pitfalls, we need institutions for a powerful and durable movement. Organizations and institutions are political vehicles. They are also spaces where individuals develop skills, connection, and ideological alignment. Institutions transmit knowledge, hold strategy, and cultivate power. Atomized individuals that loosely assemble cannot do this at the scale needed to take on entrenched power.

Arguing for doing away with political vehicles without offering a viable replacement demonstrates a lack of a power analysis. The most organized forces can leverage crisis, so how can our movements win in moments of crisis if we relinquish our organized vehicles? When our opposition possesses disciplined and organized institutions at the ready to fill power vacuums, what does it mean to unilaterally disarm?

Instead, movement institutions should have a self-aware practice of mitigating the worst impulses of institutional drift while maximizing the strengths of people-focused infrastructure.

V.         Cherry-Picking Arguments


Using incoherent or decontextualized arguments and perspectives to add perceived legitimacy to a position or oneself.

For example, using the term “intersectionality” to, let’s say, defend edits to a press statement. Or employing the Audre Lorde quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence…,” to give gravitas to a desire to stay home from an action or take off time that you’ve earned and deserve as a worker. Or arming yourself with the concept “small is all” from adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy framework—outside of its global fractal context—to resist taking responsibility for a larger scale intervention or growing your community group into a mass organization.

This tendency presents itself in language as well. Certain phases and words carry cultural currency and cachet. We often find words like “revolutionary” employed non-ironically in the service of bourgeois individualistic demands. Decontextualized or uncritical use of intellectual material, like the Tema Okun essay on white supremacy culture, has at times served to challenge accountability around metrics and timeliness or the use of written language. Yet metrics and timeliness—and the ability to communicate in writing—are not in and of themselves examples of white supremacy.


It’s easier to use language and cultural references that signify an ideological inclination than to actually study and practice a particular framework. However, such loose ideological signaling can lead to incoherence. This practice can devolve legitimate frameworks, concepts, and language into tools for individuals to virtue signal or provide weight to an argument that does not stand on its own premises. It should be noted that it is popular to borrow catchphrases and quotes from Black feminists, theorists, thinkers, and collectives in particular. This is especially pernicious when the arguments those thinkers developed are hijacked and flattened by those seeking  personal benefit or legitimacy.

The profligate and unexamined use of social media has amplified this particular trend. These platforms—owned and controlled by megacorporations—reward us for our ability to articulate or reshare the sharpest, pithiest, pettiest, most polemic, or most engaging “content.” There is no premium on nuance, accuracy, and context. There is little room for low-ego information sharing or curious and grounded political education. These platforms are ideal for, and give immediate reward to, uninformed cherry-picking, self-aggrandizement, competition, and conflict.

We are learning the damaging lesson that the performance of profundity can supercharge our arguments and points of view while obscuring scrutiny or accountability. In the worst cases, such practices weaken our work. At the same time, the instinct to reach for a high-minded theory when a simple request will do can overlook the power we have to set personal boundaries. For example, “I need to take personal time” is a complete and worthy statement. We are enough, and our desires and boundaries matter on their own.

VI.         Glass Houses


Insisting that change on an interpersonal or organizational level must occur before it is sought or practiced on a larger scale.


This point of view does not adequately consider the possibility that internal contradictions are the byproduct of external forces or that efforts to address internal and external challenges can run concurrently rather than sequentially. Both/and thinking is key here.

A glass houses approach prioritizes perfection (usually of a small group of people) over progress (on a societal level) by establishing unattainable tests that can consume individuals and organizations in a journey toward personal or organizational perfection at the detriment of broad and urgent change. This fixation with small utopianism can be both frustrating and unfulfilling. I would argue that “doing the work” should be viewed as ongoing day-to-day practice. This requires deep commitment to sharpening internal practices and culture as well as to improving and evaluating on a continuum.

VII.         The Small War


Elevating the power dynamics at play among actors internal to a movement over the larger power dynamics in society. In nonprofits or social justice organizations, this often takes the shape of focusing on tensions playing out between junior staff and leadership. In social movements, it may show up as conflicts between movement formations, sectarian ideological groupings, or movement leaders.

In prioritizing the small war, one accepts the notion that all sites of struggle are equal and that “making change wherever you are” includes addressing the demands placed on you as a functionary of a small nonprofit or a local activist in a community group. Refusal to wage the small war may therefore be seen as shirking a vital responsibility to maintain egalitarian power relations. Because proximity becomes the most important factor in deciding where to take action, this thinking often lacks a structural and systemic analysis of oppression and can feed or be fed by disproportionality (or the inability to identify the scale of the problem, further defined below). Small war thinking draws false equivalencies and teaches misassessments of power. The small war puts the “glass houses” framework into action.


The most accessible and manageable action is by no means the most consequential. A key part of strategy is assessing the relative impact of an intervention. The small war ignores that crucial step and can therefore lead organizers to prioritize a relatively small internal quarrel over, say, a corporate campaign or structural power fight. Some may even halt a structural power play by a movement or organization to pursue an internal power struggle.

These battles can implode and rupture institutions, leaving constituencies with less institutional power to wage the broader struggle.

Both/and is again a key concept here. We can address issues and challenges close to us while prioritizing the larger fight. This means making a commitment to broader objectives and the viability of the political vehicle even as you critique and improve that vehicle.

To be clear, we must not ignore problems or conflict simply because they are small, internal, or relatively parochial. In fact, I would argue that fighting for larger change is the most compelling reason to advance shifts to the internal workings of an organization. Small problems become large when unattended or dismissed. However, we must put them in proper context and stay focused on our north star. In other words, engaging in small internal debates for the larger fight.

The principled struggle framework, beautifully articulated by N’Tanya Lee of Leftroots, is a more productive approach to managing internal differences. Grounded in a shared power analysis, north star, and commitment to a political project, we can sweat the small stuff in ways that maintain focus on the larger constituencies we’re accountable to.

In short, we should seek to steadfastly protect the viability of our organizational vehicles and courageously confront internal challenges in ways that allow us to wage the fights we need to wage.

VIII.         Unanchored Care


Assuming one’s mental, physical, and spiritual health is the responsibility of the organization or collective space. The onus is on the organization to deal with the harm, burnout, or psychological stress one may experience through the work. An organization or movement should prioritize addressing individuals’ feelings and healing any harm they encounter. Collective projects, campaigns, and efforts can and should be interrupted in service of this priority.

Additionally, the scope of care a movement space, organization, or group is responsible for is sprawling—potentially addressing all or most personal triggers and traumas experienced in and outside the work.


Discerning what is yours to hold and what is the collective’s is an essential life skill and fundamental to organizational work, collaboration, and meaningful engagement of others. Organizations generally do not have the specialized skills to provide emotional or spiritual healing. Workplaces can provide a salary, benefits, paid time off, and other resources to help individuals access the support and care they require. Workplaces can also promote a culture of care and encourage individuals to care for themselves. Workplaces and colleagues cannot replace medical professionals, spiritual supports, or other devoted spaces of care. 

This is also true for non-professional spaces. Your comrades can provide support, foster a caring environment, or help you out when you’re in distress. They cannot heal you or salve long-standing traumas. It is natural for us to turn to those closest when we’re in pain. It is an indictment of the larger systems in our society that abundant mental health and healing resources are not available to most of us. There are several groups now filling that void in a culturally competent manner, such as, and

Emotional intelligence is a capacity an organization can and should embody. But no organization can take on the emotional labor that is squarely in the domain of the individual. This distinction is critical. Additionally, discomfort is part of the human condition and a prerequisite for learning. Violence and oppression are to be avoided but not discomfort. The ability to discern the difference is a form of emotional maturity we should encourage.

IX.         Disproportionality


Being unable to interpret the scale of a problem. For example, discomfort is not only unacceptable but “violent.” Any mistake committed by the organization or an individual is an example of failure or corruption.


Disproportionality can be a byproduct of uneven training on concepts like power and power analysis as well as a misunderstanding of strategy. This tendency ultimately weakens meaning, dulls analysis, and robs us of the ability to acknowledge and process instances of violence and oppression. If everything is “violent,” nothing really is. If every slight is “oppression,” nothing is.

X.         Activist Culture


Acting on individual and personal impulses rather than the mandate laid out by one’s role or organization. Desire to elevate one’s individual brand or cultural cachet as a function of one’s work. A desire to make an organization or movement visible in a manner that either disregards or undermines process, protocol, or culture.


Although it may be personally fulfilling and individually empowering to do and say the things you desire when you desire, institution- and organization-building requires the discipline to advance a collective strategy. That often means sublimating your impulse or ego for the greater good and leveraging your personal capacities for collective goals. This flies in the face of activist culture.

At its very worst, activism absent the disciplining force of accountability to the whole or a guiding ideology is a dangerous venue for narcissism shrouded in “Left speak.” It can become the performance of principle without the headache of accountability.

We all have a role to play if we are to transcend these tendencies. Leaders of institutions -having more positional power- hold responsibility for their own behavior, the stewardship of their organizations, and a broader duty to facilitate movement-wide progress. At the same time, we cannot hold out for saviors in these roles. One leader or even a group of dynamic leaders cannot solve something that is very much “in the water” everywhere. It would be inconsistent for me to diagnose a problem as structural while pointing to solutions that can be executed only by a handful of individuals. We must adopt a more comprehensive understanding of leadership that recognizes that leaders and leadership exist at all levels of our organizations and movements. And importantly, the mass leadership of the working class -while unrealized- is a form of leadership with the potential to mitigate some of the tendencies outlined above, keeping our focus outward and on the main struggle.

All of us — union stewards, field managers, text bank leaders, cultural workers, political educators, neighborhood block captains, members, donors — have opportunities to lead and choices to make about our behavior. Concretely, that looks like each of us wrestling with the ways we exhibit some of these destructive tendencies and making corrections. It could also look like a large group of leaders, across a number of organizations and sectors, joining forces to advance a collective shift in our practices.

From Problem to Solution

What can we learn from our errors and our attempts to correct these errors in service of sustainable solutions? How can we shift from a posture that simply analyzes the problems into one that is working to solve them?

Rather than reacting to myriad symptoms, we must build resilient organizations that can weather internal conflict and external crises. Resilient organizations are structurally sound, ideologically coherent, strategically grounded, and emotionally mature. The dimensions of resilient organizations include:


Various tools exist to help clarify decision making, including DARCIMOCHA, and Interaction Institute’s decision making framework. No one tool is ideal for all contexts. However, having one is critical.





A Vision of Joy, Power, and Victory

In this paper, I have laid out a diagnosis of our current predicament and sketched out some ways forward. Building the movement of our dreams can at times feel like a utopian fantasy. Our myriad problems and conflicts can make that project feel like an impossible puzzle to piece together. This framework and my recommendations are designed so that our freedom dream can begin to translate into a practical and urgent charge of our day.

I believe our people deserve mass movements that exude joy, build power, and secure critical victories for the masses of working people. Such movements would be irresistible. People associated with these change projects would themselves exhibit liberatory values, including the practice of radical compassion and humility. They would work from a grounded understanding of power. Leaders would invite accountability, act with rigor, and speak with clarity. Problems and contradictions would be met with curiosity instead of judgment and finger pointing. Harm would be addressed with seriousness and an eye toward reparation, remediation, and healing. And we would build power with relish and let our successes and failures breed innovation.

We are closer than we think to such a reality. We must go through a humbling but necessary period of change to achieve it. We must learn how to synthesize lessons from the past and observations in the present. That means sitting in an awkward both/and place. We must call out fallacies that weaken us, even when it’s hard and we face criticism for it. And we must meet our problems with grounded solutions that are drawn from a sober assessment of the larger time, place, and conditions we find ourselves in. None of this, of course, will be easy. In fact, much of it will cause great discomfort. However, on the other side of the uncomfortable journey is an abundant, playful, and powerful home for our freedom dreams. Will we choose it?

Convergence is pleased to be co-publishing this article with Nonprofit Quarterly and The Forge. We’re sharing it across our platforms as a small step towards the collaboration the movement needs to build in these challenging times.

[Maurice Mitchell is a nationally-recognized social movement strategist and organizer for racial, social, and economic justice. Raised by Caribbean working-class parents in NY, Maurice began organizing as a teenager. After graduating from Howard University, he went on to work as an organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition, downstate organizing director for Citizen Action of NY, and Director of the NY State Civic Engagement Table. After Mike Brown was killed by police in Missouri, Maurice relocated to Ferguson to support work on the ground. Seeing the need for an anchor organization to provide strategic support and guidance to Movement for Black Lives activists, Maurice co-founded and managed Blackbird. In 2015, he helped organize the Movement for Black Lives convention in Cleveland. In 2018, Maurice took the helm of Working Families Party as National Director where he is applying his passion and experience to make the WFP the political home for a multi-racial working class movement.]


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Some Additional Reading & Exercises 

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