A Think Tank That Acts

I’m excited to be embarking on this innovation stage of Future Forward, the heart of our project which we’ve been working toward for many weeks. For me, preparation started last fall when I was just beginning to learn about Forward Together and the reproductive justice movement. Stories from Ferguson, New York, Cleveland were warning all who would listen that the justice of a society is not for the privileged to judge. How a society enables or oppresses its most fragile members is the test. I saw the connection. Change was happening and Forward Together’s work was a part of it. I was awed to be working with this fierce group of changemakers.

Forward Together’s website meta description says it “leads grassroots actions and trains community leaders to transform policy and culture in ways that support individuals, families, and communities in reaching our full potential.” In this work Forward Together is a network builder. According to MAG’s Network Leadership Innovation Lab case study, one of Eveline Shen’s innovations in network building is her deeply strategic and relational approach. Eschewing ‘big tent’ approaches, Eveline’s strategy has been to create the space for a small group of mission-driven leaders to think strategically and then take action—in her words, “a think tank that acts.”

In 2005, Forward Together, then known as Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (ACRJ), released A New Vision for Reproductive Justice. A New Vision did not invent reproductive justice—the term was first used in 1994 by a Black women’s caucus at the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance—but it would be instrumental in building the movement by helping to define a shared language. The paper outlined the strategies and limitations of the related frames of reproductive rights and reproductive health, and articulated how the intersectional lens of reproductive justice reveals opportunities for network approaches to address the roots of injustice through real, meaningful agendas and leadership development for women and communities at the margins. The response to the analysis was tremendous, so much so that by 2006, EMERJ was founded, and the small strategy team including Moira Bowman (then with Western States Center) began the strategizing and development that would lead to the Strong Families initiative.

imageStrong Families is a “10-year national policy initiative to change the way people think, feel, and act in support of families.” The network organizes more than 160 organizations across multiple social justice sectors around issues from affordable childcare to mass incarceration to marriage equality to immigration policy. Strong Families works to change the story of American families through creative charges like Mamas Day which uses original art e-cards to lift up alternative motherhood narratives and advocate for policy change. Mamas Day is an innovative base-building effort that produces real policy wins: A California bill featured in the 2012 campaign that allows parents who are detained or arrested to make childcare arrangements was recently signed into law. This was just one story highlighted in MAG’s case study.

Another of Eveline’s critical innovations has been Forward Stance, the movement-for-movement-building training that integrates four elements—stance, energy, rhythm and awareness—into a practice for holding power and directing action. Developed with Zen master, activist, and strategist Norma Wong, Eveline says Forward Stance “cultivates fierce individuals, effective organizations, and powerful movements for social change.” The organization practices Forward Stance every Wednesday, they incorporate Forward Stance exercises into their convenings, and they even use it as a diagnostic tool for assessing group alignment. The practice was critical in reenergizing the organization in 1999 and has become a keystone of its culture.

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