MLK Day/Inauguration Day: The Power of Alliance-Building

Students discuss Dr. King’s views about alliance-building; consider these in light of Obama’s inauguration; learn about the alliance-building work of Ai-jen Poo, founder of Domestic Workers United; and think about things in their own lives that they might want to build alliances to change. 



Students will:
  • Define the term "alliance" and explore the idea of alliance-building and working together across differences
  • Discuss Dr. Martin Luther King's views about alliance-building
  • Consider the question of alliance-building in light of President Obama's inauguration  
  • Read an article about a modern-day alliance-builder, Ai-jen Poo, founder of Domestic Workers United
  • Think about the issues in their world/lives today that warrant the kind of alliance building Ai-jen Poo and Dr. King talk about

Social & emotional learning skills:
  • Alliance-building across differences
  • The power of nonviolence
  • Critical thinking
  • Dialogue
  • Empathy
  • Assertiveness



• Today's agenda on chart paper or on the board
• Chart paper and markers 


Read the following quote and ask a few students to share their thoughts and feelings about it:

"Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war."
Next, ask students who they think may have said these words about half a century ago. If no one guesses provide students with another quote:
"Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.  Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method, which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."
Again ask students to share their thoughts and feelings.  Ask them how relevant they think these words are in today's world, considering they were said quite some time back.  And ask them again if they now know who might have said these words. 
If they still don't know, tell students it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
On Monday, January 21, we celebrate Dr. King's life. That day will also be inauguration day for President Obama's second term in office.
Explain that in today's lesson, we'll take a look at Dr. King's ideas about organizing diverse groups of people for change - and especially his idea of alliance building with love and tenacity.  Then we'll consider how Dr. King's ideas are still alive today, through the exciting work of New York-based organizer Ai-jen Poo. 


Defining Alliance 

Ask students to define the word alliance.  Then, compare it to the definition from Merriam Webster online:



1. a : the state of being allied : the action of allying b : a bond or connection between families, states, parties, or individuals  ... 

2 : an association to further the common interests of the members; ...



Dr. King: benefits of alliance-building

Tell students:  King advocated the creation of alliances of many kinds - political, social, religious, intellectual, economic, and cultural.  He supported alliances not only among African Americans but among workers through their unions,  and among different political groups.  

We're going to consider five major advantages King saw from alliance-building.  (The list draws from a piece by Network Times contributor Art Jonak and the book Martin Luther King, Jr. on Leadership by Donald Phillips.)
Ask five volunteers to each read one of the five advantages below. After each quote, help students think about  what it means by asking questions such as:

  • What do you think King means by that statement?
  • Does it resonate with you?
  • Have you ever experienced this in your own life?

1. When people band together, it creates energy, enthusiasm and courage.  King said: "We shall have to have people tied together in a long-term relationship instead of evanescent enthusiasts who lose their experience, spirit and unity because they have no mechanism that directs them to new tasks."
2. People gain more power and strength in formal organizations than they do working alone. King said:  "Through group identity, determination and creative endeavor [people of color] have gained power... Negro solidarity is a powerful growing force which no society may wisely ignore."
3. Major social change is best achieved in groups.  King said: "To attempt social reform without adequate organization is like trying to sail a boat without a rudder... The future of the deep structural change we seek...lies in new alliances."
4. Alliances help build our democracy.  "Many segments must band together... to create a consensus and a political force for the democratization of this nation... The only true responsible consensus will emerge when grassroots people know the issues, articulate their demands, and become a part of the democratic process."
5. Alliances allow more results to be achieved. "We begin to glimpse tremendous vistas of what it might mean for the world if [we] succeed in forging an even wider alliance of today's awakened youth."


Are Dr. King's ideas still relevant in 2013?

Tell students that President Obama will be sworn in for his second term in office on January 21, 2013:  Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  It's a time of many challenges, and opportunities. 
Ask students to read the following excerpt from The Nation magazine from an article by Deepak Bhargava, which was written just before Obama's reelection. (Why Obama?, October 2, 2012) 

Student Reading 1:  Our 'hope fix'

"If 2008 was a time for the audacity of hope, the years ahead are a time for sobriety, determination, patience and resilience. The problems we face are deep enough that there will be no quick fix. ... The real crises facing the country are barely being discussed inside the Beltway [Washington politics], and rarely are the solutions proposed commensurate with the problems at hand: more than 106 million people—one in three Americans—are facing material hardship (defined as living under 200 percent of the poverty line); 20 million are living in extreme poverty; 12.5 million are officially unemployed; and wages and working conditions are in decline for a majority of Americans. ...
"If we ever thought that an Obama presidency would by itself produce dramatic change, we are wiser in 2012. Our progressive history is a history of getting our hope fix from movements, not just from individuals. ... There are signs of movement right here at home—in senior centers in Akron, in housing projects in Charlotte and churches in Phoenix, where ordinary people are coming together to talk about how we got into this mess, what it has meant to them and the people they love, and what we can do to get out of it." 
Obama himself echoed some of these ideas in his acceptance speech on November 6 when he said:  "The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote.  America's never been about what can be done for us; it's about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self- government.  That's the principle we were founded on." 

Discussion questions:

  1. What does the author consider President Obama's past four years in office to have been a time for?  What about the years ahead? 
  2. Do you agree with the author's take on the Obama presidency so far?  Why or why not?
  3. The themes of Obama's first campaign in 2008 were about hope and change.  Today, the author says, we can get a true "hope fix" in a different way.  How?  
  4. What does President Obama believe the role of citizens in our democracy to be?  How does that relate to the beliefs of Dr. King?



New organizer, new alliance

Tell students that we're now going to learn about a community organizer named Ai-jen Poo.

Explain that Ai-jen Poo is a 37-year-old organizer based in New York City. She is the founder of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a group that waged a successful campaign for landmark legislation in New York state recognizing the labor rights of nannies and housekeepers. These days she is spearheading an even more ambitious effort, a campaign called Caring Across Generations, which is designed to address the crisis in how we care for our children, our elders, and the disabled in this country.  (For more , see the profile of Ai-jen Poo in Yes Magazine by TeachableMoment curriculum writer Mark Engler.)

Ask students to read the following excerpts from an article in The Nation magazine published on October 2, 2012. As they read the article, ask them to keep in mind the kind of organizing Dr. King advocated back in the 50s and 60s. 

Student reading 2:  A Politics of Love

"... I would offer that there is a broader base for an economic justice movement than ever before. Despite political polarization, just below the surface, more and more Americans are feeling deep pain around their jobs, homes, health, security and future opportunities. From immigrant domestic workers and their families in California, to aging white boomers in deindustrialized Pennsylvania, to African-American teachers in Alabama and young veterans in Iowa, there is a continuum of anxiety and suffering that connects us. Regardless of election outcomes, this may be the greatest opportunity for us to unite in generations. To seize the opportunity, we must pay attention to the connective tissue needed to build and hold a broad movement together.
"We must create a culture that welcomes people from all walks of life and creates opportunities for everyone to participate meaningfully. And that starts right now. ..   We need to embrace the direct-action spirit of the Occupy movement, and we need to broaden that spirit by offering the millions of people who are hurting ways to connect and participate. We should claim the significant voter protection, registration and mobilization work that was done to promote democratic participation in this election cycle. We can embrace the many ways in which people are coming together already to support one another and meet their communities' growing needs.
"We need to engage in massive efforts to change the culture, both within and beyond our movements. We need to engage in politics from a place of love and care; we must challenge the tendency toward individualism and self-interest that has dominated our politics for several decades. We need to reaffirm our humanity and spirit, emphasizing the importance of building emotional connections between people in local communities and identifying where interests overlap across constituencies.
"We need to come together to write a new story for our changing nation, one that places equity, care and human connection at its center.
"When we do all of those things, we adopt a more powerful stance with which to face the future. And once we have reached a space expansive enough to see them, we will recognize that we already have many of the solutions we need."

Small-group discussion
In small groups, ask students to discuss:

  1. What are your thoughts and feelings about the Ai-jen Poo piece?
  2. How is Ai-jen Poo's approach to organizing similar to that of Dr. King? How is it different?
  3. Is there anything else that stands out for you about Ai-jen Poo's approach to organizing?
  4. As you look at the title of the piece, how does that relate to Ai-jen Poo's approach to organizing?
  5. What do you know about Dr. King's ideas on "the power of love"?

Ask students as they reflect on the historical work of Dr. King and that of Ai-jen Poo today, to think about something in their lives that would warrant organizing and building alliances to bring about change. 
Encourage students to think about their school: Are there problems they could address by working together for change? (For example, bullying, school budget cuts, unhealthy food in the lunchroom, the need for a better recycling program?)  Are there issues in the news that they want to address (for instance, working to stop gun violence in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting)?



In closing, ask students for their reactions to the two quotes below from Dr. King and Ai-jen Poo about what both consider to be the most powerful force in bringing about change: love. 

Ai-jen Poo: "I believe that love is the most powerful force for change in the world ... I often compare great campaigns to great love affairs because they're an incredible container for transformation. You can change policy, but you also change relationships and people in the process." 

Martin Luther King: "Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.  Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."