Symposium | The Missing Progressive Infrastructure

The Need to Let People Fail

By Sally Kohn

Tagged activism

When I was a young progressive coming of age in the identity politics era of the late 1990s, I thought we didn’t need any new ideas. In fact, I thought we had everything we needed—all the organizations, all the strategies, all the campaign models. When people from within the left would protest those strategies, or start new organizations, I was indignant—often impolitely so. When they would say we need to let “a thousand flowers bloom” to cultivate the full bounty of possible change, I would scoff and say something about hothouses and orchids and focusing our energy on what we already know works.

I’ve since changed my mind.

Unlike many people these days, I’m not actually of the opinion that the left is losing. I still believe that, thanks to the yoking of those movements and more, the period we’re in now represents the mostly dying gasps of the backlash to that progress. In fact, what surprises me today is just how resilient the left’s values and norms are in spite of the fact that our strategies and tactics seem equally dated. Culture, media, and especially technology have changed at warp speed and yet much of the left’s ideas about scale and impact resemble the orthodoxies I learned in my youth. Even much of “online organizing,” which can seem all new and flashy, really just transposes our existing ideas about engagement and scale onto new technology.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley and even the Tea Party have shown the value of disruptive chaos, of letting a thousand flowers bloom and seeing what takes root. The left needs to do the same.

What we need, more specifically, is a movement fail lab for the left—an institution that gives big pots of money to progressive leaders and visionaries to stage moon shot-like experiments and innovations. The assumption, baked in from the start, must be that most of these experiments will fail. That’s the whole point. For the last several decades, institutional philanthropy’s focus on measurement and evaluation has reinforced a cautiousness on the left, abandoning risky projects and big change in favor of safe and small projects that can be carefully planned and quantified.

The movement fail lab would seek to instill the exact opposite ethos—the reality that big change is chaotic and unpredictable and true innovation and leadership are often messy. The lab would cultivate a new generation of leaders willing to try new models of virtual organizing, new forms of civil disobedience, new approaches to voter registration and turnout. These leaders would know that not only will they not be penalized for failing, they’ll be celebrated for their “crazy” attempts. The lab would convene annual retreats where experiments would be discussed and dissected—like a mix between a hack-a-thon and TED.

Each year, the movement fail lab would give grants with multiple zeroes to individual movement leaders or teams of leaders based on the experiments they propose—with no promises attached except the promise to learn and reflect and iterate together. Rather than typical foundation grants, which provide less money and less time than most projects need, the movement fail lab’s grants would be bigger and last longer than each project actually required—in effect, building in contingency capacity for unpredictability and further experimentation. And there would be no strings attached. If the leader decided, midstream, to switch directions based on some emerging political moment or shift in the zeitgeist, she could do it. These grants would free leaders to lead, rather than pinning them down to bullet points in a proposal gathering dust.

In a sense, this model would borrow judiciously from the entrepreneurship and risk of the private sector, as well as from the past successes of the right. For example, The Olin Foundation, a now defunct conservative grant-making foundation, followed such an approach, with notable success. According to John J. Miller, its “leaders understood that success is often unplanned, and so they focused on creating the conditions for success rather than thrusting a set of detailed agendas and goals upon grant recipients.” This may explain why, even though its core goals have become increasingly unpopular and marginal, the right has remained surprisingly adaptive, and thus continues to be politically relevant and influential.

And finally, the proposed lab would also have a staff of creatives and technologists available on demand to support the funded experiments—the best and brightest of app developers and graphic designers and writers and game theorists and communications consultants and people from the worlds of tech and science and academia who, like so many in this moment, are desperate to contribute to the greater good. And everyone would make a darn good salary doing it—especially the leaders funded by the project. It’s time we make progressive leadership a glamorous profession, not a hair shirt.

Reserving $1 million per year for the core creative team, the remaining investment would be funneled to the movement fail lab to grant many millions of dollars per year total—plus organize a very lovely and fully funded annual retreat—and keep operating for 20 years or so, ultimately seeding several new ideas or germs of innovations while creating an essential generational cohort of creative, experimental, visionary left leaders. And importantly, in a left culture that has often fetishized the past—especially its movements—the movement fail lab would focus our collective eye on the future, so that we stop merely trying to replicate but, rather, innovate and iterate in new, bold, and big directions.

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Sally Kohn is a progressive activist and writer.

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