Rise Up and Rise to the Occasion after Trump

How should social movements on the left in the United States reach beyond their existing ranks to organize and persuade more and more people across our country?


Since Donald Trump’s election, this has been a germane question for organizers—people who are actively involved in building groups, recruiting people new to activism, and exercising collective power to create change.

For us at the TESA Collective (Toolbox for Education and Social Action), as a team of educators and organizers who value deeply the role that participatory, political education plays in social change—it’s a question that gets right at the heart of the role education plays in our current moment.

TESA is a worker-owned cooperative that creates tools and programs for participatory or popular education. We support other cooperatives, social justice organizations, community-based service providers, and a range of other groups to introduce or more deeply develop a democratic educational practice within their organizations. Examples of our work include creating and overhauling curriculum, facilitating workshops, and creating custom games for groups.

To get a snapshot into some of the strategic discussions happening in the U.S. now, a good place to look is the Women’s March. By some accounts, the Women’s March was the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history, and like every mass mobilization, it brought together people from a wide variety of political perspectives and experiences. That fact was reflected in the conversations that took place leading up to the action, as the march was critiqued for being centered around the viewpoints, experiences, and comfort levels of white women.

Shortly after the march, Alicia Garza—a co-creator of the Black Lives Matter movement—published a piece in which she urged organizers and activists to see the opportunity for growth in large-scale moments like the Women’s March. Garza was speaking to people who have been doing the hard work of building social movements (often long) before Trump came to power, and who see the Women’s March as politically imperfect and weak.

“Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you,” Garza wrote. “Do I believe that to build that mass movement, organizing beyond the choir is necessary? If I believe [that], how do we get there and what’s my role in making it happen?”

Author and professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor gave a similar view in a piece written after the Women’s March. We must build a movement broad enough to address the sweeping attack on people represented by Trump, Taylor outlined, and “to organize such a movement necessarily means that it will involve the previously uninitiated—those who are new to activism and organizing.”

For many white people in particular, Trump voters include members of our families, neighborhoods, or the communities where we grew up. White people elected Donald Trump, and white people have a special responsibility to confront white supremacist ideas.

As Erin Heaney and Heather Cronk of Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a national network focused on organizing white people for racial justice, wrote the day after the election: “White people of conscience need a different strategy for organizing other white people in this country. That strategy must engage millions of white people in a direct and honest conversation about race and the economy in this country.”

The insights offered by Garza, Taylor, and SURJ circle around a deeper strategic question for social movements, one that may have intensified since election day but is far from new: how we grow by absorbing people who are new to activism, and the mix of processes it takes to make that growth strong and sustained. An essential piece of that equation is education.

Under this new regime, we at TESA feel more committed than ever to the importance of social justice education in moving toward a society where every single person and community can live with dignity, and where we honor our responsibility to the Earth.

What is meant by education within a social movement context? It’s political education that’s democratic, participatory, and rooted in participants’ lived experiences of the social systems we study. It’s connected to organizing, which means that it doesn’t consider social problems in an isolated vacuum, but rather in the context of social struggle and the power relationships that define our lives and political work. It could be the local climate justice group mapping out the stakeholders in a proposed pipeline project; an anti-racist organization looking back at the movement to abolish slavery; or union members learning their own movement’s history.

No matter the subject or context—when organizations provide education, they guide participants to understand the deeper purpose to their involvement. Education helps people stay motivated not only through all the difficult, unglamorous work of organizing, but also when the state or other targets retaliate against movements. Through education, we can stay focused on our true adversaries, instead of getting divided against one another.

It is, as the long-time anti-poverty organizer Willie Baptist has said: “the acquiring of the clarity, competence, and commitment” necessary to develop social movements, including going on to support other people in joining movements and taking leadership, just as we ourselves were once supported by someone else.

Finally, the hope is that education can support people previously uninitiated to political engagement, such as the participants in the Women’s March or other recent mobilizations, by encouraging a political vision that is radically inclusive and transformative, beyond the narrow limitations of fighting against attacks that only affect our own identity or community.

One of the educational methods we love most—one we believe has a powerful capacity to teach and facilitate active participation—is games. We have found that games are a unique vehicle to convey ideas or teach specific principles by engaging participants through laughter and play. In 2011, we created Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives, a game for the growing cooperative movement—and this May, we are releasing Rise Up: The Game of People and Power, a cooperative board game about organizing communities and building social movements to confront oppressive systems.

Designed to be used by unions, organizations, and grassroots groups, the game leads people to discover activist strategies and tactics in an exciting, participatory setting. We created Rise Up because we believe that we’ll never have enough power to create the society we urgently need without more and more members of our families, workplaces, and communities joining the fight—and that we’re in need of innovative new tools to reach out to them.

As a team of educators and as individuals, this is an era when we feel called to do more. We need to have countless more uncomfortable conversations with people who have different perspectives from us. If we hadn’t heard it before, Trump’s election screamed it in our faces: we have to push ourselves past our comfort zones and step out of our social bubbles to talk to people with whom we disagree, and create organizations that unite people.

While TESA does not support any party, we believe Donald Trump’s agenda must be recognized for what it is: white supremacist, misogynistic, homophobic, ableist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic.

Seriously addressing the election results means confronting the ideas that moved a sizeable portion of people in our country to support Trump. As community educators, it’s time to rise to the occasion.