There is no simple formula for successful social movements, but they all share a few characteristics. First, they embrace an “inside/outside” strategy, mobilizing people to protest, boycott, lobby, and vote, while simultaneously working closely with allies in government. Second, they don’t expect to bring about change overnight. They are long-distance runners, not sprinters. They try to win stepping-stone victories that lay the groundwork for further reforms. Third, while they work on separate issues, they recognize that they are part of a broader movement that requires building coalitions and developing trust. In this mosaic of movements, activists draw strength from each other as they work to change public opinion and policy policy on many fronts.
Every generation of activists confronts new challenges and seeks to move the country in a new direction. But all social movements involve an overlap of generations. Older activists recruit and mentor the next generation. Younger activists learn from the successes and failures of their older counterparts. Barack Obama (born in 1961) learned his community organizing skills from older mentors, and then found others who helped him learn the ropes when he decided to run for office. Jon Stewart (born in 1962), who was “very into Eugene Debs” in high school, began his career as an actor and stand-up comic before gaining popularity, Emmys and influence as the iconoclastic host of The Daily Show.
As the generations of progressives shaped by the Depression, the Cold War, and the ’60s hand the baton to the new cohort, they don’t just fade away. They continue to be part of the chain of change. So, not surprisingly, many of the people included in my new book – The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame — including Pete Seeger, Barry Commoner (who died last month), Rev. James Lawson, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, Bill Moyers, Bob Moses, Tom Hayden, John Lewis, Joan Baez, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Billie Jean King, Michael Moore, and Tony Kushner — were born in the early- or mid-20th century, but have remained engaged in struggles for change in the new century.
But the future belongs to those born after 1960. The 50 individuals listed here represent a new generation of activists, artists, thinkers, and politicians who have already become leaders of exciting movements for social justice. They offer hope that the 21st century will witness dramatic changes toward greater equality and democracy.
Key to any progressive resurgence is the growing wave of innovative community organizing. Among the most effective young organizers are Cheri Andes (Greater Boston Interfaith Organization), Aaron Bartley (People United for Sustainable Housing in Buffalo), Deepak Bhargava (Center for Community Change), Jeremy Bird (formerly with Wake-Up Wal-Mart, now running Organizing for America), Joy Cushman (New Organizing Institute), George Goehl (National People’s Action), Kirk Noden(Ohio Organizing Collaborative), Ethan Rome (Health Care for America Now), and Amy Schur (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment).
The labor movement is making a comeback, developing new strategies and coalitions, as seen in recent efforts to mobilize Walmart workers and others in the burgeoning “service” sector of big-box stores, hospitals, and fast-food chains. Helping to lead this new upsurge are organizers like Fred Azcarate and Liz Shuler (both with the AFL-CIO), Lucas Benitez (Coalition of Immokalee Workers), Leah Fried and Armando Robles (United Electrical Workers), Sarita Gupta (Jobs with Justice), Mary Beth Maxwell (founder of American Rights at Work, now a top Department of Labor official), Ai-Jen Poo (National Domestic Workers Alliance), and Roxana Tynan (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy).
Since being chosen as its president in 2008, organizer Ben Jealous has helped reinvigorate the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Teresa Cheng, born in 1987, has helped lead several successful campaigns by United Students Against Sweatshops.
Young leaders of the burgeoning immigrant rights movement — including Marissa Graciosa (Fair Immigration Reform Movement), Pramila Jayapal (One America), Christine Neumann-Ortiz (Voces de la Frontera), Carlos Saavedra (United We Dream), and Angelica Salas (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles) — will continue to make waves as the century evolves, as will a new generation of environmental activists, such as Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins (Green for All), Van Jones(former Obama adviser and founder of Rebuild the Dream), Erich Pica (Friends of the Earth), and Phil Radford (Greenpeace).
Writers Naomi Klein (author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine), Ezra Klein (Washington Post columnist), and Tamara Drautand Heather McGhee (both of the think tank Demos), television news analysts Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, media critic David Brock of Media Matters for America, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker (coauthor of Winner-Take-All Politics, among many other books), New York University historian Kim Phillips-Fein (author of Invisible Hands), Rinku Sen (editor ofColorlines), sportswriter Dave Zirin, and singer and musician Tom Morello have been provocative interpreters and advocates for the progressive movement.
Robin Brand (Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund) and Jennifer Chrisler (Family Equality Council) represent a young cohort of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender leaders. Eli Pariser of MoveOn has been a pioneer in the fast-changing world of netroots activism. Simon Greer, a former community organizer and then head of Jewish Funds for Justice, is now reshaping progressive philanthropy as president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
U.S. Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Tallahassee City Commission member Andrew Gillum, South Carolina state legislator Anton Gunn, New York City Council member and former community organizer Brad Lander, and activist Darcy Burner of Seattle are among the many young politicians who serve as the progressive movement’s key allies inside the world of politics.
Born in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, these 50 people inherited an America that seems to be holding its breath, trying to decide what kind of country it wants to be. Many of them are not well known to the general public, but each of them, as part of organizations and movements for change, has already shaped the contours of American society in the 21st century, and each is destined to keep reshaping it in the coming decades.
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. This article draws on the last chapter (called “The 21st Century So Far”) of his book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, published by Nation Books in July.