You Can Lead a Horse to Water: Reflections on Movement Building & Collaboration, by Christine Petit

Hi everyone. Long Beach Forward’s new Executive Director, James Suazo, and our communications team asked me to write a blog to share some reflections on movement building as I transition out of the organization. Oh, and who am I? I’m Christine Petit, the former Executive Director for Long Beach Forward.

So, I'm not doing exactly what they asked though I am very grateful for the opportunity to provide some reflections. But you may have noticed, I haven't actually written a blog for about three years and the last time I wrote, it was right before we rebranded our organization, significantly expanded our work and the initiatives that we support, doubled, and then tripled, our staff, undertook strategic planning and organizational restructuring, and finally transition planning. So, it's just been a busy time and I haven't had the energy that I would like to sit down and focus and write. My shortcut for that today is that I'm audio recording a message with some reflections and we'll make sure to get this transcribed and translated for those who'd like to read it in English or Spanish on our blog.

I have been thinking a lot about what reflections I wanted to provide and I actually came up with a few concepts. “The six C’s of movement building” was one. Another was “a recipe for collaboration” …

I’ll share the concepts with you in brief, but each ingredient or idea could really be its own blog or conversation. And, you know, I’m happy to continue the conversation. I will be around.

When I thought about the six C’s for movement building, I named collaboration, clarity, communication, commitment, care, and celebration (the ever-important but often forgotten celebration).

And then I also jotted down what I would say are the ingredients for collaboration:

  1. Willing participation;

  2. Relationship and trust building;

  3. Being grounded in purpose (or the why behind what we’re doing);

  4. Having a clarity of vision (the what--What are we moving toward?);

  5. Clarity of roles;

  6. Resources and infrastructure to support collaboration;

  7. Inspiration; and

  8. Leadership.

So, that’s it—eight easy ingredients and then you have an awesome collaboration. I’m just kidding. There’s nothing easy about this work.

As I was reflecting, clarity really rose to the top for me--having clarity on the purpose of collaboration or the purpose of a particular action or even the purpose of a particular law that you're trying to change or get passed. Really understanding the why. And having a clarity of vision--the what: What are we moving toward in coalitions and collaborative spaces? Having clarity around roles--who's doing what? What is the organizational role? if there are multiple organizations. I think also a recognition that not everybody plays the same role and that's okay. What is needed is clear communication about who's doing what or what role folks will play and that needs to be agreed upon.

I also think clarity, you know, we set ground rules or ways of working with one another and sometimes we just kind of stop at the surface level and don't define what we mean. So, for example, “respect one another.” Okay, well, what does that really look like in practice? What's an action that signifies respect? In any collaboration or collaborative space, I really would encourage people to go beyond the surface and define what it means to respect one another, or to be accountable to one another, or transparent, or what clear communication looks like. Having the actual actions that signify what that means kind of mapped out and agreed upon is so important.

Leadership, of course, is important and it can take many forms. It doesn't need to be “leader out front.” It doesn't need to be one leader. The thought that I was really reflecting on is the importance of self-leadership and what that means is showing up to places in a really grounded and healthy way. There's a lot of work that it might take to do that. I encourage people to do that work so you can show up in a way that is grounded in purpose and is calm and confident and open to other people, open to collaboration, and to come from a place of wellness. For each of us, our journeys may be different around that. But it's something that is really important and something that I like supporting people in and, and put a lot of attention on myself.

Connected to that and the concept of clarity too, is how important it is to set aside personal and organizational egos for the collective good. Again, you know, it's easier said than done. It definitely requires reflexivity. It requires commitment. And none of this is easy.

In my reflections though what I kept coming back to was the importance of collaboration. (And I also always, when I think of the word “collaboration,” I think about this kind of joke or reframing that James and our former staff member Laura would say. You know, there's this quote, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.” And they kind of shifted that or switched that to say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it collaborate.” That goes back to that “willing participation” ingredient that is so important.)

Ultimately, when it comes to movement building, and local movement building in particular, the key piece that underpins all of our work is collaboration. Collaboration is called out as one of Long Beach Forward’s organizational values and we define it in the following way: “We are stronger together and building relationships among diverse residents, organizations, and decision-makers is key to achieving our vision of a healthier Long Beach.” And then the way that we define a healthier Long Beach is that race and income don't determine one's future in Long Beach—that it's a community where everyone is safe, connected, and healthy. (Whew! I think I got that right!)

So, instead of a piece on movement building in six (or eight) easy steps, I’m just here to share a few sources of inspiration that have helped me along the way and shaped the way that I think about collaboration and also highlight the messiness of it all.

I'm an anti-racist intersectional feminist and much of how I understand the world and my position in it I have to credit to Black women, to Black feminists, and the way that they've articulated intersectionality through their activism, art and speaking, writing, scholarship—all of these different ways. Some of these women include Kimberlé Crenshaw, lawyer and critical-race-theory scholar. They include Patricia Hill Collins. Black Feminist Thought is a book of hers that was a really important book to me in graduate school—especially the way she talked about replacing either/or thinking with both/and approaches and in understanding the ways we all carry penalty and privilege in this world. And when I think about coalition politics--a key part of collaboration and movement building--I think of Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Dr. Reagon is a Civil Rights activist, a singer, song composer, scholar, and more. One of her speeches was printed in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith. It was published in 1983 and the speech was called “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century.*” It was obviously the last century but still very relevant.

She said, “You don't go into coalition because you just like it. The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you is because that's the only way you can figure you can stay alive.”

This quotation always stuck with me because it highlights what’s at stake and the risk that working for justice and collective liberation entails. In that piece, she talks about the difference between coalition and home. And she says, don't get it confused--coalition is not home. It's not always a comfortable place. You need home. Home is important. Go find home, find the people like you. Find the people who nourish and understand you, who inspire you. Coalition is not that though. I mean, sure, you can be inspired in coalition, but coalition is different. Truly impactful coalitions are diverse. And that means they’re sometimes not the most comfortable. It's the community members in all their diversity. It's the decision makers. It's the groups and organizations with different perspectives and approaches--all trying to forge a different and better world.

You don’t go into coalition to go home. You go because you believe in collective liberation and that we are interdependent. There’s another quotation that’s often cited by Lilla Watson*. She’s a Murri artist, activist, and academic. She said, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This quotation is often used in our work to remind us of our interconnection and also to move away from that kind of charity mentality of helping. It reflects an important recognition that our futures are bound up with one another and we are inextricably linked.

This is something I truly believe but just because we’re connected doesn’t mean it’s easy. Another quotation that comes to mind is one I included in my last blog. It was on the wall in my office for several years. The author, Linda Christensen, writes, “Community isn’t always synonymous with warmth and harmony. Politeness is often a veneer for understanding, when in reality it masks uncovered territory, the unspeakable pit that we turn from because we know the pain and anger that can dwell there. It is important to remind ourselves that real community is forged out of struggle. This is the crucible from which a real community grows.” While this quote pulls from the author’s observations from the high school classroom, it is a good reminder to us all that the world needs our full participation–friction and all. That's something that I wrote three years ago and it’s still as true today as it ever was.

A lot of times you might not know where to start when it comes to community, when it comes to movement building. And so that’s what I want to speak to as I wrap up my thoughts. Maybe you're listening to this and you're trying to figure out where you fit in movement building for justice. I often encourage myself when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world, and I encourage others as well, to “do what you can, where you are.” I realized recently that I probably derived this from a Desmond Tutu quotation where he says, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”

The idea is to put your piece in--to do what you can, where you are. So, first you gotta find out where you are. What are the movements happening in your community? Where can you take action around the issues that you care about? Are there key organizations that you can get involved in? And then from there, okay, you kind of get the lay of the land: How do you want to contribute? How can you? Are you a writer? Are you someone who’s willing to knock on a door or pick up a phone? Can you help fundraise? Can you tell your story? Can you write a poem or song that inspires action or connection? What are the ways that you can contribute? You definitely have a way.

And for those who have already found your place in movement work, I encourage you to make space for others in all their diversity, eagerness, and human imperfection. And give yourself the same grace to learn and grow and be.

So, I know I was asked to reflect on lessons I’ve learned in movement building and I just can't help but connect it back to the human level. I feel like there's so many people who write amazing pieces on organizing and movement building. And this is me, today, putting my piece in. And really my last time putting my piece in as Executive Director of Long Beach Forward.

But I'll still be around contributing in other places. And I encourage you to do the same. Do what you can, where you are.

Thanks for listening or reading and thanks to the Long Beach community for the opportunity to serve, to learn, grow, and fight alongside you.

Until soon!

*Apologies for not getting the title or Lilla’s name totally correct in the audio recording.

About the Author

Blending creativity, mindfulness, and a commitment to social justice, Dr. Christine E. Petit (she/her/hers) engages her whole self and the humanity of others for positive change. With nearly 20 years years of impact in nonprofits and community- and labor-organizing, Christine is an organizational founder and leader; consultant to nonprofits, philanthropy, and government; and certified life and leadership coach. Connect with Christine at

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