On Co-Optation And Accountability In Non-Profits And Movement Spaces (Part 2)

Estelle Ellison
5 min readNov 12, 2021

Note: This is an abridged version of a longer essay that can be found here.

At its core, co-optation is simply a reactionary process of selection. It is a form of surveillance that seeks to identify exploitable vulnerabilities of a current of thought or a movement strategy. And it is that process of exploitation that removes components of an ideology or political strategy from its original context and intended goals. In that detachment, the elements that are selected for co-optation are then applied towards reactionary goals and/or counter-insurgency. Put another way, co-optation is the neutralization of threats to dominant power structures. The other major theme that affects our map is accountability.

In the context of revolutionary abolition work, accountability is both a redress of abuses and a recalibration of our behaviors according to our shared values. Accountability is the combination of acknowledgment of harm done and a commitment to ensuring that the same harm does not reoccur. As we will find, co-optation has seen to it that virtually any definition of “accountability”, “harm”, “acknowledgment,” or even “commitments to end harm” are all contestable in certain power dynamics.

This, for the most part, is due to the fact that hierarchical power dynamics are viewed and accepted as just, necessary, and entitled to deference. Non-profits typically have a mission statement that is more binding and less flexible than informal groups, and this is primarily because of the way that the state officially recognizes non-profits as well as the agreements made with funders and fiscal sponsors. The structures of non-profit are intended to be hierarchical and as such, there is a heavy bias towards hierarchical power structures. It is only with conscious and persistent effort to undermine this predisposition that it can be overcome by subversive horizontal power dynamics. Within non-profits, co-optation is a marketing strategy, union-busting, and a method of indoctrination into workplace culture and discipline potentially all at the same time. Progressive or not, many non-profit organizations simply ride the waves of american electoral politics, which involves years of waiting around, activating only when it’s time to tail the democratic party.

So co-optation provides non-profits with an opportunity to see more activity than if they remained in their lane for the entirety of the election cycle. The co-optation of accountability itself has led to a proliferation of committees, action teams, and other half-hearted attempts at meaningful “transparency” within non-profits and other workplaces. In many ways, entertaining a hollowed-out conception of accountability has helped pacify grievances and discontent among non-profit employees when that energy could have just as well fueled a unionization campaign. But, informal and admittedly more radical organizations are not necessarily above co-optation. There are a plethora of different fights against oppression, and radical formations tend to oscillate between specialization in a particular movement strategy and a broader familiarity and engagement with different struggles. Co-optation provides specialized radical groups with an opportunity to present themselves as working from a more well-rounded perspective rather than one that is lacking in certain areas.

In groups with a wider number of projects and spheres of work, co-optation aids in the appearance of depth and expertise where there is only cursory familiarity. Enter accountability. Within abolition circles as well as RJ and TJ networks therein, there is no unanimous and universal definition of accountability. Prison abolition has put “accountability” in the mouths of many people without an understanding of a methodology that succeeds at creating safety and righteous transformation of harmful behavior. Power dynamics inform definitions of harm, abuse, and accountability. It’s important that we pay attention to a group’s impetus for attempting to use and define these concepts. Unless abolition and meaningful accountability are part of the goals and values of a group from the beginning, crisis is oftentimes what prompts a group to bring these concepts up in the first place. Whether internal or public, crisis creates an instability in a group formation that presents a threat to the power dynamics that existed prior to and leading up to that same crisis.

A revolutionary abolitionist approach to a crisis is one that takes stock of a situation and assesses what exactly produced the crisis, whether or not it requires hard and challenging work to stop and prevent the harm from reoccurring. Getting clear on people’s values and identifying when and where they are in contradiction with each other is a non-negotiable part of this process. This means dissolving leadership bodies if necessary. It means supporting workers’ unionization efforts. It means restructuring the entire organization to be more aligned with shared revolutionary values if previous structures have been unable to deliver. Not all of our concepts and strategies make good candidates for co-optation, and some organizing strategies are designed to support accountability when conflict or crisis appears. This escape from co-optation can be because a strategy or use of a concept has not grown to a point that challenges infrastructure on a large scale. Or, it can be because a strategy or concept is simply inapplicable and inherently counterposed to dominant power dynamics in a way that poses a threat.

The map we will be breaking down throughout this series is fairly large and made up of sequences and dynamics that could be researched and discussed at great length. However; if we zoom out and look for unifying themes, we find that co-optation shows up in a large portion of our map. Throughout this map, we will be exploring the ways that language and ideology inform the concrete actions taken by different group formations. Both hierarchical and non-hierarchical formations can end up finding themselves at any point in this map, depending on how power struggles play out. Between each node on this map is an individual battle between opposing power dynamics that will determine where people will arrive next. We will explore some possible outcomes that stem from each situation and the different ways they tend to express themselves in various political environments. As we progress through the map, we will dive into the sequences that tend to be immovable and learn to recognize good opportunities to try redirecting a given trajectory.




Estelle Ellison

Time dissuades us from getting free... Black Trans Disabled Writer (She/They)