The Power of Coalition

Why history shows us a broad coalition is necessary for lasting social change to abolish the registry regime

 by Emily Horowitz, sociologist and Amber Vlangas, activist

The importance of coalitions to social movements is illustrated both by research that documents how coalitions influence success, as well as by social movement theory. Mobilizing large numbers of people and demonstrating widespread support for an issue is one of the few ways social movements exercise power…research provides multiple examples of cases where a movement was unsuccessful because coalitions failed to materialize. [When] activists formed broad coalitions, movements were more successful (Van Dye & Amos, 2017).”

What is a Coalition?

A coalition is a group of organizations that come together for the purpose of gaining more influence and power than the individual organizations can achieve on their own. A coalition, as social movement scholars have outlined, is one of the most effective ways for movements to gain power and create change.

A coalition must share a common goal. In our case, our overarching goal is to abolish the sex offense registry regime. This regime includes, of course, the registry, as well as the other collateral consequences associated with sex offense convictions, including but not limited to such things as excessive sentencing, community notification, residency restrictions, proximity laws, and domestic and international limitations. 

The purpose of our coalition is to build an alliance of existing organizations, not create another organization. The coalition isn’t competing with member organizations for membership, funding, activity or status. The coalition supports the work of the organizations involved and makes each stronger. As the quote above emphasizes, organizations, in fact, are less effective and less likely to achieve power and success when they exist alone and without a coalition. Additionally, a robust coalition centers the issue or societal change sought, and helps the people impacted by the issue leverage their experience and stories as their power.

What isn’t a Coalition?

A coalition does not mean that each organization gets along completely or works collaboratively or in harmony or unity all the time. Social movement organizations each have different goals and specializations. Some are local or regional, some focus on legislation, some on housing, some on advocacy, and some on education. Some focus on specific interest groups (juveniles, non-contact offenses, those with intellectual disabilities, partners and loved ones of those directly impacted, etc.), while others focus on all those with sex offense convictions. 

A coalition will fail if organizations are not open to sharing their work and view other groups as competitors for members, funding or notoriety. However, an effective coalition can also help groups define and enhance their strengths. For instance, if groups that normally don’t communicate come together and get a better sense of which groups are best at what, they can hone their own efforts and we can all better serve the community. Intentional structures and a framework for trust-building are critical to effective coalition-building efforts. 

Why is a Coalition Necessary? 

The reason any social movement that is addressing more than a local or easily resolvable issue needs a coalition is that the work of promoting social change is immense and overwhelming. One organization cannot do all the work. To be clear: for effectiveness and power, organizations with common goals become stronger when they do not duplicate work and collaborate on strategy. 

A coalition is also important due to the reality that organizations will attract different people with different viewpoints and different leadership styles. Our community is large and diverse, and we each feel at home and heard in different organizations. At the same time, a social movement that is made up of very different organizations must have a unifying body to make real and lasting change. The coalition can provide support to those groups that may feel overwhelmed due to changes in leadership or the loss of members dealing with burnout.

This doesn’t mean that each organization must have a unique specialization. What can happen, if done well and in the spirit of transparency and collaboration, is that a coalition can improve each organization and create greater successes for the movement. 

It is also important to note that a coalition is far more effective than any individual organization in the realm of politics, media, and public opinions. For instance: if one organization challenges a proposed law, it is easy to dismiss or critique an individual organization. When a coalition communicates the dangers of proposed law to all the groups, and shares a coherent critique based on the shared coalition goals, each group can mobilize and push back in various ways. If the debate about the proposed law receives media coverage, it appears far more powerful when a range of groups or a coalition is viewed as opposing the law, rather than one organization (even if the one organization is larger or better funded than the others). 

Additionally, if a crisis occurs, such as the potential passage of a federal law that will further harm those impacted by registries, the coalition can mobilize groups quickly and will have a process in place to focus on the difficult work of pushing back and educating the public and politicians loudly, coherently, and effectively. Also, in times of crisis, a coalition can quickly pool resources.

How Will a Coalition Benefit All Those Working to Abolish the Registry?

Many organizations have been fighting the registry regime for decades. As the registry has flourished, in terms of both numbers of people impacted and the growing numbers of laws, so have new organizations attempting to push back at what seems to be an endless flood of increasing and harsher restrictions. Each of these organizations has unique value and a role to play in the fight, as those impacted by registry laws face not only the array of challenges faced by all those impacted by the criminal-legal system, but the realities of banishment, special laws that subject many to public and lifetime shaming, as well as a stigma enhanced by decades of moral panic regarding this issue.

Even the largest and most well-funded organizations have conferences that only a few hundred attend, and they reach only a small percentage of those impacted by registries. A coalition is a necessary first step for achieving genuine broad movement power and success, as well as building participation from those not interested in formally joining social movement organizations but who are impacted by the issue and want to support efforts for change. 

Successful social movements offer useful examples. The gains of the civil rights movement, including impactful events like the March on Washington, were not achieved by the work of one organization or a charismatic leader, but years of grassroots organizing and coalition work led by a range of civil rights groups, as well as labor, student, political, and religious organizations. The more recent movements opposing the death penalty and reproductive rights, for example, have also successfully mobilized broad coalitions of organizations in their fight for laws and policies that serve their overall movement interests.


Social movement scholars, those who study what makes social change happen, find that successful movements need to build coalitions in order to have real and sustained impact. As social movement scholar Valesca Lima (2021) summarized in her recent study of housing coalitions:

There is an extensive body of literature that recognizes the importance of coalitions as a critical element within the dynamics of social movements. Social movement scholars have pointed to the complex nature of these movements and highlighted the relationships forged among groups when orchestrating joint political action…these studies have shown the importance of taking advantage of political opportunities when building strategies in order to increase the chance of success, indicating that coalition building is a commonplace strategy used by social movement organizations to achieve their goals.


Lima V. Housing coalition dynamics: a comparative perspective. Comp Eur Polit. 2021;19(4):534–53. doi: 10.1057/s41295-021-00245-6. Epub 2021 May 10. PMCID: PMC8108406.).

Van Dyke, N., & Amos, B. (2017). Social movement coalitions: Formation, longevity, and success. Sociology Compass, 11(7), e12489.

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Emily Horowitz


Author: Protecting Our Kids? How Sex Offender Laws Are Failing Us (Praeger 2015)/Professor of Sociology @ St. Francis College (Brooklyn, NY)