Right Brain Movement Building
Although Wikipedia and other sites tell me it’s a myth that the left side of our brains control logical, analytic thinking while the right side controls creativity and intuition, what’s known as “brain lateralization” is nonetheless proving to be a helpful construct when it comes to strategies for effective movement building. In a well-attended and well-presented workshop at GEO’s 2014 National Conference in Los Angeles entitled How Can Funders Build the Capacity and Leadership of Movements, two of the presenters, Robin Katcher of Management Assistance Group and Pamela Shifman of the Novo Foundation, each described effective examples that lifted up relational and creative methods for building and strengthen social movements.
In Katcher’s example, a group of leaders from a variety of social justice movements were brought together into a Network Innovation Leadership Lab, a vehicle that gave them the time, space and resources to build relationships across movements, learn about new change strategies and fashion their own innovations for achieving movement growth and change. Grants were provided to these leaders by funders who accepted the high level of risk tolerance that innovation often entails. And Lab participants were given freedom—freedom to create and implement, freedom to fail, and freedom to learn from failure.
Shifman talked about her experience leading the Movement to End Violence initiative, whose objective is to end violence against women and girls. New to work in the US in this area, she went on a listening tour of organizations and concluded that the movement was fractured into silos and riddled with complications based on race and class resentment. Her strategies included intensive relationship building that involved dealing with hard, uncomfortable questions and meeting the self-care needs of the movement’s leaders, many of whom were survivors of violence themselves.
So wait, hold on a sec. Nothing about clear measureable objectives, communications and advocacy capacity, message testing and media advocacy? Nothing about concrete campaign plans and grasstops strategies? Just meeting, talking, thinking outside the box and covering childcare when that enables women leaders to participate without stress? Has the right brain staged a coup?
Well, of course, not. Remember that Wikipedia said that this brain lateralization business is all a myth. What Katcher and Shifman are saying is that successful movement building requires using the whole brain, not just one side. Of course leaders will need all the left brain skills and tactics and, even more than their funders, they themselves will want to be able to measure their success. But these compelling examples are showing us that relationships, freedom and self-care are necessary antecedents that can make all the other stuff both possible and more impactful.
What we’re learning then is that successful movements need to be built upon right brain foundations. And perhaps foundations, and those of us who work within them, need to begin to switch on the neurons of our own right brains.
This piece originally appeared on the website of Southern California Grantmakers.