Who's Invited? Making Space in Social Justice Coalitions

November 22, 2019

Dr. Eli Coston presented their paper "Who’s Invited? Making Space in Social Justice Coalitions" at the American Studies Association annual conference. A summary, written by Coston, is below.

Coalition work in social justice organizing can propel movements forward by allowing us to draw from the talents, skills, and experiences of different organizations and their constituencies. However, in the work of building coalitions, it is necessary to ensure that that we do not reproduce the hierarchical power dynamics that we seek to subvert; particularly as some individuals and organizations may have long-standing relationships with the institutions that we seek to change or those with the power to enact change. While the coalition as a whole should benefit from those relationships, it is important to balance and distribute access among coalition members; allowing newer organizations or those without professional credentials to have an equal seat at the table.

The Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project (RTAP) was formed in response to local community concerns about the over-policing of minority neighborhoods in Richmond, VA. Through grassroots organizing efforts, community members collected over 700 accounts of negative experiences with police and held several town halls where residents shared their concerns about policing. When the City Council refused to address these concerns, the coalition was formed, bringing together community members, organizers, legal, and policy experts to amass the evidence that City Council demanded before it would consider taking action.

This work has required the coalition to navigate the bureaucracy of city hall and the police department, engage in analysis of police data, and to assess police policies and procedures. While community members and their concerns have always remained a part of and central to these conversations, this has also necessitated that some members of the coalition utilize their professional connections or skills to advance the work. This has also resulted in some members of the coalition being invited to speak with the Mayor or Chief of Police on behalf of RTAP, while other coalition members were not included. This poses the difficult question: How do we advocate on behalf of our coalition and our issues when those in power have the ability to dictate the terms of the conversation and who is at the table?

Dr. Coston's presentation described the challenge of engaging in those conversations while simultaneously creating novel ways for those who were formally excluded to continue participating in drawing from examples of the coalitions' work.