Erin Muzurksy (USA)

November 20, 2018

Connecting at the Margins: Mobilizing at the Intersections

Applying Lessons from the Candlelight Movement in South Korea to Movement-Building in the U.S.

Issue-based movements in the U.S. have been breaking new ground over the last decade. Each movement has built on lessons of others and adapted their strategies over time, using new and different avenues for political, cultural and social change. The sum of their efforts has been an ongoing reexamination and redefinition of the meaning of democracy in the U.S. and who has the right to it.

Many issue-based movements have been at the forefront of the generational struggle for recognition and rights in the American political system. The marriage equality movement that began in the early 2000s used personal stories and person-to-person engagement as a central tool in order to shift the national culture and ultimately the Supreme Court in 2015. The Dreamers movement to naturalize 11 million undocumented immigrants started their push to pass the Dream Act in Congress in 2001. When this failed ten years later, they pivoted towards changing public understandings of immigrant rights to influence elected officials to understand that their freedom is a priority. The climate justice movement, one of the oldest and most well-resourced movements, has recently pivoted to a more localized strategy to fortify state and local environmental protections, in light of setbacks at the national level.

Today’s U.S. movements have increasingly shifted their focus from defining their victories around political wins and incorporating cultural and behavioral change as central to their goals. These movements have also improved strategies centering the voices of those most impacted by injustice at the core of their movements. Movements are a vehicle for transformational change because they build relationships, strengthen civil society and model what society could look like. Without those most impacted representing their experiences, movements risk modeling new ways of being that still exclude the most vulnerable.

U.S. movements are embracing a more intersectional strategy and, while still a work in progress, new, movement models have begun to emerge as a result. The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) has not only been at the forefront of changing public perception of racial justice and police brutality but also pioneered a new organizing model for how to decentralize leadership and allow those most affected by racial injustices to lead. By centering queer female leadership, the movement models how to ensure that the most disenfranchised and underrepresented minorities are included in the vision for our future society.

The March for Our Lives, a movement against gun violence, took shape after 17 students were shot by a lone gunman at their Florida high school in February 2018. While there were other gun control initiatives that came before them, organized by mayors and parents, March for Our Lives is student-led and -driven. The students managed to mobilized an unprecedented number of people around their issue in ways that no other group possibly could. Their passion and direct experiences powerfully brought people together. These majority-white and middle-class students also recognized that they got more attention because of their privilege—had the shooting took place in a low-income community against people of color, the response may have been different. As a result, the students worked to intentionally create space for youth of color, who have been advocating against gun violence for years, to speak and help lead the movement. Together, they have found common ground, merged discourse, and worked to uplift each other’s experiences in complementary, rather than in competing ways. Where the Movement for Black Lives has focused on cultural reform, the March for Our Lives has combined a cultural strategy (of building an electorate that does not believe in unregulated gun laws) with a political will of youth voters to elect pro-gun reform candidates and registered thousands of new voters for the November 4th midterm elections.

While each of these issue-based movements have proven powerful forces for societal change, the efforts remain relatively separate, and the result of their cumulative efforts remain yet to be seen. Yet, the Candlelight Revolution in South Korea presents an interesting case study for what might be possible for U.S. movements. In March 2017, South Koreans successfully impeached corrupt president Park Geun-hye through what came to be known to the world as the “Candlelight Movement” and to most Koreans as the “Candlelight Revolution.” The first 30,000 people notably came out in November 2016 for the first of 23 rallies in 20 weeks, but the beginnings of the successful movement derived years earlier. Farmers and union workers, organized groups began coming together over four years before the formal impeachment, to demand higher wages and better trade policies. Like in the U.S., the efforts of the farmers and workers was a separate movement from the Candlelight Revolution that ultimately culminated with sweeping political change.

One of the most notable aspects of the Candlelight Revolution was the 2300+ civil society groups that ultimately came together to call for President Park’s removal. They managed to mobilize over 30% of the country (16 million people) at the apex of the movement, people from across the political spectrum. Rather than perceiving their victory as simply the impeachment of one corrupt official (and ultimately her party’s loss of power), people regard their collective actions as the fifth democratic revolution for Korea in which the people took back their government.

Perhaps the true effects of the movement are yet to mature. The movement did gain major political victories, but the movement’s staying power will be determined by the cultural and societal changes that follow:

  • Youth have expressed an improved understanding of the importance of political action and people’s ability to collectively make change;
  • Politicians on all sides of the political spectrum feel a renewed sense of accountability towards the people;
  • The revolution outlined “100 tasks” to mark victory, 60 of which have been accomplished, but sometimes it is in the setting of the vision itself that helps usher in more systemic change in the future;
  • Perhaps most importantly, while much of the organizing and ongoing action of the majority of the participants has dwindled, the movement gave birth to a women’s movement that continues to organize and call for women’s rights as a critical pillar of their democracy. In many ways, the revolution brought them closer together and more determined to achieve this unfulfilled mission.

People in the U.S. remain largely divided—not just politically, but also in terms of race, class, and gender—identities that often feel at odds with each other. With the origins of U.S. democracy with landed white gentry, minorities have always struggled for the right to inclusion in American society. Yet, the country has never felt this crisis as collectively as they do today. While movements in the U.S. stand on the forefront of ingenuity and intersectional organizing, the question of these movements’ ability to work together beyond their single issues remains uncertain. Perhaps by taking some lessons from the Candlelight Revolution, U.S. activists will be able to unite around the common cause of the promise of democracy and build a country that is a reflection of the intersectional movements forging new ground on what a democracy can and should look like.

About Erin:

Erin Mazursky brings over a decade of experience in movement-building, technology and advocacy to her work. She has worked with close to thirty social and political movements around the world. Formerly she’s served as a Youth Advisor with USAID, organized with the Obama ‘08 campaign, and co-founded STAND, a student-led organization dedicated to the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities.