Alliances and Social Movements

By Anahi Morales Hudon

Social movements are represented in various ways: through their spokespersons, their actions and their demands. Less visible is how they organize. One element that is key for social movements is to mobilize support from individuals to attend their marches and rallies and sign their petitions, as well as from allied movements or organizations to show support through public statements or invite their own members to participate in solidarity. To create these connections, social movements develop alliances and partnerships.

Alliances and other forms of solidarity have received increasing attention from activists and academics. Debates within social organizations and on social media raise key issues about engagement and representation. What does it mean to be an ally? Who speaks on behalf of whom? Who benefits from alliances? Are they always positive? These questions reveal the gap that often exists between the discourses and practices of solidarity. Beyond good intentions and self-proclaimed allyship to a certain cause, how do our actions and discourses contribute to a movement—and to what extent?

While alliances are critical for successful mobilization, they may also have negative impacts on the development of a social movement’s organizational structure. Indeed, some alliances can both facilitate and become obstacles for social movements: for example, when ally organizations want to be at the forefront, or use their alliance to gain legitimacy without turning their support into action, or use the groups with whom they collaborate for their own agendas. This can have a long-term effect on the organizations’ capacity to strengthen their organizational structure.

In one of my research projects, I analyzed the struggle of Indigenous women to create spaces to organize and coordinate. In three different regions of Mexico—Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca—they created autonomous organizations so they would have a space to meet, voice demands, organize actions, create networks, and so on. However, this process was filled with obstacles.

The research revealed how power relations affect the process of creating autonomous spaces, and particularly how colonial relations impact collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous women’s organizations. In some cases, alliances opened the door to opportunities to mobilize, while in other instances, colonial relations between social actors prevented the leadership development and autonomy of indigenous women’s organizations. Alliances became barriers as other actors took the lead and prevented the emergence of Indigenous women leaders.

It is critical that we better understand how power relations affect the organizing processes of social movements, as well as how organizations and individuals respond to and challenge power relations. In other words, it is not enough to say that we are supporters or allies: we must also question our own actions and analyze how our organizations contribute (or not) to the causes we endorse.

Anahi Morales Hudon is a professor at the Elisabeth-Bruyère School of Social Innovation at Saint Paul University.