From civil rights to environmentalism, movements for social change have relied on coalitions that bring together diverse groups to increase their influence and resources. Yet, building and sustaining these coalitions is no easy task: it requires people and organizations take action on issues beyond their primary interests and create alliances across racial, class, and national lines.
To understand how these coalitions are created and sustained in day to day interactions, UCLA sociologist Laura Enriquez examined the contemporary immigrant rights movement and, in particular, a Southern Califonria, university-based coalition formed to help pass the DREAM Act (a federal law providing undocumented youth a path to citizenship). Enriquez found that having shared political beliefs and values motivated people to join the coalition and sustained collaboration and open discussion as the organization matured.
Enriquez found that the DREAM coalition was successful in navigating social, class, gender, and nationality-based tensions by emphasizing a common commitment to social justice rather than trying to create a single unified identity amongst the diverse group. Focusing on shared beliefs quickly mobilized people’s commitment – 25 student organizations joined the coalition in a few weeks – and provided a way for people to take on roles and tasks based on their individual identities. Thus, undocumented students often provided public emotional and personal appeals for the DREAM Act, while citizen students leveraged their voting power.
Coalitions are important. They provide a venue for sharing ideas and working through problems. Members of the DREAM coalition actively addressed social privilege and power within the group, which helped them rise above imbalances between documented and undocumented students and turn different legal statuses into an asset for the movement. Maintaining the coalition depended on having a space for sustained discussion and day-to-day interactions that helped participants overcome stereotypes and assumptions and reflect on their own privileges.