History is full of cases where the people got active on the big problems of their day by forming affinity groups of 10 to 20 individuals. These groups provide energy, organization, and even psychological support.
It became obvious during the 2012 presidential race that our current political system is incapable of responding to climate change and other urgent problems facing our country. The words “climate change,” for example, were apparently so challenging that they were never mentioned in the presidential debates. So, what’s a concerned person to do? The answer is closer than you think: Knock on your neighbor’s door and start an affinity group.
An affinity group usually consists of 10 to 20 people, often neighbors or people who already know each other. Most come together to take bold action, like engaging in nonviolent protest to promote social change. But they also support one another through mutual aid—sharing food, resources and skills—to increase their resilience, economic security and well being.
Small groups based on social bonds and shared interests are the primary way we humans have always organized ourselves. Think of families, work colleagues, neighbors and social circles. The term “affinity group” for a small community formed around a political cause goes back to 19th century Spain. But small group organizing has been used to build every successful mass movement in history—by the anti-slavery campaigners in 18th century England, the civil rights activists who challenged segregation in the American South in the 1950s, and the feminists who formed small consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s.
I’m a long-time veteran of affinity groups, so I’ve seen first-hand how powerful they can be. Between 1977 and 1979, I was in an affinity group affiliated with the Clamshell Alliance that opposed the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power station in New Hampshire. We trained in Gandhian nonviolent civil disobedience and participated in a variety of protests. While we didn’t succeed in stopping Seabrook, thousands of us got schooled in principled direct action and democratic decision-making.
In 1983, I joined another affinity group to “pledge to resist” a possible U.S. invasion of Nicaragua. This effort engaged thousands of people across the country and helped to contain the Reagan administration’s interventionist impulses. Our affinity group of 15 people, the Five Rivers Organizing Group, remained together for years and was a source of personal support and mutual aid. It was also a place where individuals could join others to think strategically about how to take effective political and social action.
Motivated by the urgency to respond to climate change, I’ve recently joined a dozen others to form an affinity group in Boston. The purpose of our group is to keep our spirits up, sing more, and engage in creative actions around the climate crisis. We have begun to reach out to other affinity groups in the Boston area to learn from their efforts.
I just watched the PBS Frontline documentary “Climate of Doubt” with four members of my affinity group. The film gave me a better understanding how the organized climate deniers worked to kill cap and trade legislation and influence public attitudes about climate change. Watching it alone might just have added to my despair about climate change. But watching the documentary with others allowed me to think proactively about its implications for us individually and as organizers.
The fossil-fuel industry is using its huge political clout to block urgent climate reforms in order to continue its short-term financial gains. As Bill McKibben wrote in “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” published in Rolling Stone, “If people come to understand the cold mathematical truth—that the fossil-fuel industry is systematically undermining the planet’s physical systems—it might weaken it enough to matter politically. Exxon and their ilk might drop their opposition to a fee-dividend solution.”
The day after the election, McKibben and environmental group 350.org launched a “Do The Math” campaign calling colleges, individuals, and religious institutions to divest from fossil fuels. Targeting the fossil fuel industry’s profits is an appropriate strategy and 350’s new campaign looks promising. But we’ve clearly reached a moment when we also need to organize ourselves—whether it’s to convince an institution we’re part of to move its investments or to prepare our community for a “Frankenstorm” (like Hurricane Sandy) most likely caused by climate change.
Imagine, six months from now, the existence of a vibrant new social movement that no longer waits for elected politicians to lead. One that engages in direct action against the outsized lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry. Imagine college students and religious congregations organizing to divest from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in the new economy. Imagine all these efforts pushing Congress to separate “oil and politics” and find real climate solutions.
There are so many of us concerned climate realists out there. We know something must be done, now, and we know how difficult it is for one individual working alone to make a difference. Change has always started with people who made the decision that “enough is enough” and formed small groups for sustained and bold organizing. That’s how the critical mass of broad social movements is formed. Just look at history.
Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It. He is coeditor of www.inequality.org.
You can see efforts to convene affinity group “meet ups,” support new groups, and offer training at localcircles.org/affinitygroups.