Caleb Christen: Creating an Inter-movement Community

by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess for Caleb Christen

December 15, 2022

As the Beyond Intractability and its ongoing Hyper-Polarization Discussion have tried to pull together what we know about strategies for more constructively handling the deep divisions that are tearing apart our societies, we have been really encouraged by a large number of really creative projects that are being undertaken to help meet that challenge.  We have, however, been disappointed by the degree to which many of these projects are being pursued in relative isolation with insufficient attention being given to finding ways in which they can reinforce one another. Fortunately, we are now starting to see increasingly vigorous efforts to address this problem.

In this regard, we have been impressed by three articles that Caleb Christen wrote for the Bridge Alliance's online publication, The Fulcrum that have done much to encourage this kind of big picture thinking. 

Organizing for Collective Impact: The Making of a Mass Pro-Democracy Movement

This was Caleb's first Fulcrum article. He started out by saying:

Legions of citizens across hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations are dedicating their lives to making American democracy more just, representative and sustainable, but so far, their efforts have yet to translate into a mass mobilization of concerned citizens. A more immediate concern, however, is whether the diverse field of democracy-promoting organizations and movements is prepared to coordinate, support and scale the actions of a mass movement. Although I argue the answer is “not yet,” the time is right for the field to take the next steps towards cohering into a generative change community ready to guide the sleeping giant of concerned citizens when it awakens.

He goes on to say that the field is showing an increasing awareness of the limitations of isolated efforts and is beginning to realize the "compounding value of collective action. … Coalitions and associations are proliferating. More cross-organizational relationships are being established. Collaborative efforts are being pursued. The energy trajectory is pointing towards a genuine desire to organize for collective impact." Examples he points out are the Bridge Alliance, the Partnership for American Democracy, The Bridging Movement Alignment CouncilRepresentUs and CitizenConnect.Us. But, he concludes creating a mass movement will require more from all of us--from funders, who can support projects that cross boundaries; from organizations, which can partner with others and prioritize participation in "inter-movement spaces; and leaders who can "cultivate a culture of collective impact."

Organizing for Collective Impact: Transforming American Democracy Together

Caleb starts out this second article with a quote from John Adams: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” In order to avoid such an end, Caleb says, democratic structures and processes must adapt and change.  But, as long as things are going reasonably well, people tend to be apathetic.  It is only when things get really bad, when democracy is really "on the brink," that people will be attentive and engaged enough to work for meaningful change.  (This is the "sleeping giant" he is referring to above.  But it is going to take more than awakening the giant.  There needs to be an image of what the giant should be working for — it can't just be chaos with each individual and organization working for something different.

[R]estoring power to a civically literate and empowered citizenry requires updating the entire system. No single issue holds democracy’s silver bullet, which means that reforms in one issue area are, to some extent, only as successful as efforts in other areas. Analogizing the ecosystem of democracy and civic-health-promoting movements to a single body, each part is important yet they all are also interdependent with each other, required to work in harmony to support each other in fulfilling the greater body’s goals.  

He elaborates on this theme by saying:

Transforming democracy is an adaptive challenge requiring flexibility, adaptability and intentionality in organizing to enable organizations and millions of Americans to work in unison. Upfront discomfort in expanding focus and resource allocation to organizing for collective impact is an investment in individual organizations, the inter-movement community of democracy and civic-health-promoting movements, and, most importantly, transforming the entire system. We cannot control when an apathy-eradicating moment in society will occur, but we can be prepared to cohesively and effectively guide a mass pro-democracy movement when the moment arrives – after all, it’s what democracy craves.

Organizing for Collective Impact: It Takes and (Inter-Movement) Community

Caleb starts his third article with a quote from Rob Hopkins: “If we wait for governments, it will be too late. If we act as [individual fields], it will be too little. But if we act as a [inter-movement] community, it might just be enough, and it might just be in time.”   Caleb goes on to say:

Community is a fundamental unit of shared life that we organize to advocate for change. If “community” then is the ideal unit to organize for driving social change, and the democracy and civic health ecosystem needs to organize itself to drive social change, then shouldn’t it try to become a community?

This is what Caleb and a large group of other people are trying to do: create an "inter-movement community."  

The inter-movement community is the aggregation of the non-hierarchical network of relationships and interactions that occur across all fields and movements and the aforementioned intra-movement relationships and efforts. Think of it like the democracy metaverse. It is a recognition that all entities and efforts are interdependent with each other across the ecosystem. It is a systems approach to collectively responding to a systemic challenge. …

The inter-movement community, however, is neither a super-coalition nor a higher level umbrella organization but an evolving organism that each cell plays a role in moving and expanding. When cells work in unison, the entire organism moves and grows more effectively and each cell benefits and accomplishes more than it could individually. As a result, the inter-movement community becomes a community of purpose, of learning, of practice, a political home, and a place where hospitality is both given and received.

He further points out that the core of these communities is the relationships between the people and and organizations in them:

Inter-movement community effectiveness is a function of the qualitative and enduring nature of member relationships. The inter-movement community thrives when member relationships are trust-based, meaningful, and embracing of altruistic humility. Being a good community member requires adopting cross-field and cross-organizational ethics of care: “Neighbors” are responsible for and accountable to each other and to the inter-movement community as a whole.