Get Intersectional! Or, Why Your Movement Can’t Go It Alone

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” –Audre Lorde

Here’s the scenario: This year’s epic drought devastates agriculture in California. Water use is rationed, so the cost of grain goes up, and, because cattle eat grain, the cost of beef goes up too. To cut expenses, the owners of a fast food restaurant cut a worker’s wages and benefits by a couple bucks an hour. Next month he won’t be able to send money to his wife and kids back in Mexico, where the same drought is also decimating farms—and may be contributing to even more northward migration.

What’s the origin of the restaurant worker’s predicament?

Is it climate change, which makes droughts more severe and more likely to persist? Is it the labor policies that allowed the worker’s wages to be cut? Or is it that NAFTA has flooded the Mexican market with cheap, U.S.-grown corn since 1996, forcing him to leave his family’s farm and migrate to California in the first place?

The likely answer is that it’s a little bit of everything. “People don’t have one dimensional identities as human beings,” says Brooke Anderson—a Labor Fellow at the Oakland-based nonprofit, the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project—and the issues that affect them aren’t one-dimensional, either.

There’s a word for this kind of thinking: “intersectionality.” And while the word has been around for more than 25 years, it’s being used more and more frequently all over in social justice movements today, from climate to reproductive rights to immigration. It’s a way of thinking holistically about how different forms of oppression interact in people’s lives. More recently, it’s also led to a more collaborative form of organizing that reflects that, rather than taking on one issue at a time.

“Intersectionality” has become a buzzword in activist circles, at conferences, and in progressive media. Google searches for this term have gone up 400 percent since 2009. Last year’s Power Shift youth climate conference featured a workshop called “Why the Climate Movement Must Be Intersectional.” It’s a trendy word in academia, the subject of countless papers and panel discussions, and in the feminist blogosphere.

But is it more than that? Does adoption of this concept signal a sea change in social movement thinking away from single-issue platforms and toward a more holistic worldview, one that fosters strong alliances and therefore might help build a movement broad and complex enough to take on the myriad forms of economic, racial, and gender oppression we face?

Possibly—but first, it’s important to understand what intersectionality really means. The term has evolved since Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University, first coined the term in a legal article published in 1989. In the article, she tried to contextualize a 1964 lawsuit against General Motors, in which five black women sued for discrimination. They were prohibited from working in the factory, they claimed, which was reserved for black men. But they were also prohibited from working in the front offices, which were for white women.

The workers’ case was dismissed, Crenshaw says, because the discrimination they faced didn’t apply to all women, or all blacks—just to black women. It was a loophole in legal protection. But for Crenshaw, it also revealed a larger pattern: that individuals have multiple identities, and the oppression they experience is the interaction of all of those identities.

Crenshaw was able to articulate what so many black women already knew: You can’t tease these identities apart, or prioritize one over the others. We are all of these things. A “single axis” approach to social change, then—advocating just for women’s rights, or just for racial equality—only addresses part of the problem.

Intersectionality grew out of black women’s lived experience, became a flashpoint in academia (where it is still heavily debated), and has since trickled back out into the world of organizing. The meaning has expanded over the years from a concept specific to black women to something applicable to all types of marginalized identities—Asian, queer, immigrant, trans, low-income, Muslim.

Bringing it to the movements

Some call intersectionality “divisive,” because they believe it highlights the differences between people rather than the similarities. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The meaning of the term has evolved from a way of describing the problem—the interactions between different forms of oppression—to a way of describing the solution.

The challenge now seems to be to take the complex analysis of those problems, and create a movement that reflects that complexity. For Anderson and her colleagues at Movement Generation, intersectional thinking has been part of the analysis from the beginning. Of her work with labor unions, she says:

We can either keep fighting for the five cents here and the ten cents there … or we can view this as an opportunity to pick our heads up from those very small contract fights that we’re struggling so hard on and look around and say: What’s the broader system, the reason why our … wages are going down?

Maura Cowley, executive director of the youth-based Energy Action Coalition, says environmental groups across the spectrum are realizing that not only does climate change disproportionately affect certain groups—predominantly low-income people of color—but “the same disproportionate impacts that we see in climate change … are prevalent across a whole spectrum of issues.” There’s a recognition that “simply advocating on any single issue doesn’t really solve the full spectrum of problems.”

Examples of issue organizing across issues abound: National Nurses United lobbying to stop Keystone XL; The Black Women’s Health Imperative taking on the myriad ways in which the bodies of women of color are put at risk; “Undocuqueers”—undocumented, LGBTQ immigrants—lobbying for citizenship rights for same-sex couples.

Imperfect intersections

Anderson and Cowley make a good case that Intersectionality can help movements think in new ways about long-term solutions to social and environmental problems. But the idea has been around for 25 years—why is it catching on now?

For one thing, this might just be how young people think. “This is not a generation where people care about one issue or feel impacted by one issue,” says Cowley. Millennials don’t join one organization and read the newsletter every month, she says; they’re affiliated with multiple organizations. And, they’re on social media, a terrain upon which ideas converge. She says people scroll through their news feeds and think, “Wait a second. It’s not just climate, it’s also prisons, it’s also immigration, it’s also food justice … down the line.”

Another factor might be the Occupy Movement that began in late 2011, which brought citizens and activists from all sectors together in the same space. Many stayed for weeks or months, and regardless of the movement’s outcomes, those tent cities provided a physical intersection at which different people with different ideas converged.

Anderson and her colleagues at Movement Generation caution against giving too much credit to millennials, however. She points to a long, creative tradition of intersectional organizing. She also points out that the term intersectional might not be the best way to capture the complexity of systems thinking: “There’s two lines that cross, and there’s only one small point at which they intersect, which I think shrinks our vision of what’s possible,” she says, which is “to build social movements that are based not just on that one intersection but on an entire system.” The risk, she says, is that you focus on that one point of intersection “rather than a shared vision for a solution.”

She also emphasizes that intersectionality isn’t something that you can slap onto the surface of a particular campaign. “At worst, it’s symbolic and it’s transactional,” Anderson says—as in, “we’ll come out to your thing and you come out to our thing.” Solidarity is crucial, but “it has to go beyond the transactional … and become deeply transformative.”

The Cowboy Indian Alliance, for example, has spent years building personal relationships between members of two infamously opposed groups: white, western ranchers and Native American tribal groups. Later this month, when they lead a five-day action to oppose Keystone XL in Washington, DC, it won’t be a one-off event but rather the result of intentional alliance building that goes beyond political convenience.

One way to take alliance building a step further is to reframe issues so that they’re no longer issues, which can be divisive, but values, which have more power to unite.

Eveline Shen is the executive director of Forward Together, an Oakland-based nonprofit that originally worked with Asian Americans around reproductive justice, but has since shifted toward a broader framework. Shen and her colleagues brought together leaders from different organizations and asked, “What are the core themes that intersect all of our work?” The answer was clear: families. Thus, the Strong Families Initiative was born—and it has since gone from 10 to more than 100 organizations and eight different sectors, each working to support strong families in their own ways, united not around an issue but around a value. This, Shen points out, is something that the Right has been doing well for decades.

But Shen also sees real structural barriers to this kind of organizing, the largest of which is funding. Recently, the Strong Families Initiative began work on a guide to the Affordable Care Act for LGBT people. When she tried to raise money from LGBT funders, they said, “We’re not working on health care.” When she turned to funders that do work on health care, they said, “We’re not funding LGBT issues.”

Since funders control the purse strings, they also to some degree control how social change organizations go about their work. And as long as funders are driven by single issues, Shen says, the work of social change will also be that way. Furthermore, short grant cycles of one to two years “keep us from thinking holistically” because the goals are by necessity short-term.

The movements for social justice are at their own sort of intersection. The nonprofit models that have flourished over the last half-century—foundation-funded, membership-based, and focused on tackling a particular issue in a particular place—are ready for a reevaluation, especially in the context of issues like climate change that are fundamentally global and intractably connected to diverse social problems.

Intersectionality may be a guide as organizers and activists muddle through the messy process of change. There’s a lingering idea, though, that intersectionality is divisive because it breaks up some long-held ideal of a “united front”—of women, of people of color, or of immigrants, each group fighting its own battles. It’s possible, however, that these united fronts never really existed to begin with, and that by erasing diversity, they also erased the complexity that gave them strength.

The task now is to create movements that reflect not just the complexity of issues, but of people’s lives. It may be that, as movements become more nuanced and interconnected, their strength will come not from a pretense of unity that erases difference, but an embrace of difference that makes their points of unity stronger than ever.