Epistemologies of the South blew me away a little bit. It was also quite hard work, but the opening uses slightly different language, and highlights most of the main themes. At the same time it represents quite a unique, and rather brilliant opening as it alternates between the Manifesto for Good Living, or Buen Vivir and the Minifesto for Intellectual-Activists so they can be presented face to face on opposing pages. So it is still hard work, but it makes it possible to see the difference and convergence between the two. I loved the juxtaposition, found it an interesting way to read a book in the way it causes you to move back and forth, breaks the flow of each, and thus makes you think. It is not reproduced here. Instead, I have just copied some of my favourite quotes from one section and then the other. Too many deadlines and things left undone, no time yet for reflection, which will come with thinking a little more about the ways that these ideas are fleshed out through the rest of the book. Some day. But for now a constellation of transformative ideas with zero commentary. (You can find a PDF of the book here, which made collecting these quotes such low-hanging fruit…)
From the Manifesto:
The worst borders are the borders that cannot be seen, read, heard, or felt on this side of the line … We live on the other side of the line that someone traced while thinking of us but aiming at not thinking of us anymore. We are invisible, inaudible, and illegible because the success of previous revolutions decided not to include us. If our here is invisible, our now is even more so. According to those revolutions, we have, at most, a past, but no future. We were never allowed to write the history books.
How do we live? Always at risk of dying for causes other than illness, of being wounded or killed but not in friendly games; on the verge of losing home, land, water, sacred territories, children, grandparents; always at risk of being displaced long distances to flee war or of being confined in our barrios or in concentration camps…
What kind of passion urges us? The most subjective and diverse passion because grounded in the most intensely and diversely lived truth: that we deserve a life with dignity, a free life because free from the fear of violence and dispossession, a life to which we are entitled, and that fighting for it is possible and that we might succeed.
Against whom do we fight? On this side of the line everything is seductive; on the other side of the line everything is scary. We are the only ones who know, from experience, that there are two sides to the line, the only ones who know how to imagine what they do not live. Our context is the urgency of a life with dignity as a condition for everything else to be possible. We do know that only a civilizational change can guarantee it, but we also know that our urgency can bring about such change. (8)
This is a time of reckoning at a planetary level, involving humans and mother earth. It is a time of reckoning as yet without any rules. On the one side, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and all their satellite-oppressions. This is what we call the global North, a political, not geographical, location, increasingly more specialized in the transnationalization of suffering: workers losing their jobs in displaced plants; peasants in India, Africa, and Latin America expropriated by the megaprojects, agribusiness, and the mining industry; indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia who survived genocide; women murdered in Ciudad Juárez; gays and lesbians of Uganda and Malawi; people of Darfur, who are so poor and yet so rich; Afro-descendents murdered and displaced to the confines of the Colombian Pacific; mother earth struck in her vital cycles; those accused of being terrorists, tortured in secret prisons all over the world; undocumented immigrants facing deportation; Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis who live, work, and celebrate under constant bombardments; the impoverished North Americans, shocked by the fact that capitalism and colonialism treat them with exactly the same contempt and arbitrariness with which they have treated all the other peoples of the world; the retired, unemployed, and unemployable who are prey to the law of pillaging of the financial pirates. (10)
Our allies are all those who are solidary with us and have a voice because they are not on our side of the line. We know that “solidarity” is a trap word. To decide unilaterally with whom one is solidary and how one is solidary is to be solidary with oneself alone. Unlike what has been the case up until now, we put conditions on solidarity. Alliance with us is demanding because our allies have to fight against three kinds of enemies: our enemies, their enemies, and the commonsensical view that there is no connection at all between the two previous kinds of enemies. (14)
From the Minifesto:
But ruins may be creative too. Starting anew means rendering creativity and interruption possible under hostile conditions that promote reproduction and repetition. The point is not so much to imagine new theories, new practices, and new relations among them. The point is mainly to imagine new ways of theorizing and of generating transformative collective action. (5)
The impossibility of collective authorship. As far as authorship goes, this book has diffuse limits. In recent years I have been an activist in the World Social Forum process and have been deeply involved in the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. I am unable to determine to what extent my thoughts are part of a collective without a name and without clear outlines. Of my own is only what is expressed individually and with full awareness of a double absence: the absence of that which could be formulated only collectively, were it susceptible to rational formulation, and the absence of that which cannot be rationally formulated, either individually or collectively. Half this book will forever remain unwritten. I write what I am able to write with this in mind. I am part of a collective by being aware of how I separate myself from it in order to write.
To write from the perspective of the impossibility of radicalism is today more promising than before owing to three factors: the end of the game of dogmas; the mission of the rearguard theory with which the ralliers have entrusted the intellectuals; and the inexhaustible diversity of the world and what it shows, or what it lets be seen, regardless of the possibility of its being spoken. (7)
The surprise is due to the fact that both Marxism and liberalism have ignored the indigenous peoples, both as social and political actors. The great Peruvian Marxist José Mariátegui was stigmatized as “ romantic” and “ populist” by the Communist International for having ascribed a role to the Indians in the construction of Latin American societies. Such a surprise poses a new question to theoreticians and intellectuals in general — namely, whether they are prepared to experience surprise and wonder. This question has no easy answer. Critical theoreticians are particularly trapped in this difficulty since they have been trained in vanguard theorizing. Vanguard theory, by its nature, does not let itself be taken by surprise or feel wonderment. (11)
Unity lies in no essence. It lies in the task of building good living/buen vivir. Herein reside the novelty and the political imperative: to enlarge contemporaneity means to amplify the field of reciprocity between the principle of equality and the principle of the recognition of difference. Thus, the struggle for social justice expands in unsuspected ways. (13)
Acknowledging this autonomous and enabling diversity is perhaps the crucial feature of the process of untraining, as partly reported in this book. It is from this perspective that I propose epistemologies of the South. Such an acknowledgment works as a safety net against the abysses into which one falls when one loses the certainty that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge and that beyond it there is only ignorance. It is the most efficacious antidote against Wittgensteinian silencing, which is totally prey to monolanguage and monoculture. What cannot be said, or said clearly, in one language or culture may be said, and said clearly, in another language or culture. Acknowledging other kinds of knowledge and other partners in conversation for other kinds of conversation opens the field for infinite discursive and nondiscursive exchanges with unfathomable codifications and horizontalities. (15)
Santos, Boaventure de Sousa (2016) Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. New York and London: Routledge.
This weekend’s review: some article, some film review, some report written, but nowhere near enough. 2nd novel submitted (again), more trilogy written and worlds built. Seeded spelt bread baked for the first time (delicious, minus extra spices and also — what the hell kind of giant kitchen with its giant mixing bowls and giant ovens does that man take for granted?) and wine drunk. Exercise had. Some deadlines will be missed.
I loved Margaret Ledwith’s book, Community Development: A critical approach. This has been my practice for so long alongside community organizing and then on its own — I can’t describe the feeling of reading something that resonates so strongly, that frames this kind of work within this academic context that sometimes feels so alien and this British context with its very different trajectories. All that, and offering new insight. I’m working on the next paper, which is on this kind of work in London, so there will be a couple of posts on this, though the paper is actually almost done. Should have been submitted ages ago.
I tend to hate the word empowerment, but I suppose mostly because it has been so eviscerated of all critical content and liberatory practice. I have heard it come out of the mouths of people who wouldn’t empower anyone at all if they really admitted the truth to themselves, it has lost much of its credibility to me. But Ledwith some of it back. First, a quote from Butcher et al (a wealth of reading lies ahead of me as always):
If empowerment is at the heart of critical community practice, then “power” and its utilization are at the core of empowerment. It is only through engaging with structures and processes of social, political and economic power that communities can effectively work to confront the disadvantage, exclusion and oppression that they experience. (Butcher et al, 2007) 13
And here Ledwith nails much of why I hate the word:
Empowerment is a transformation concept but without a critical analysis it is all too often applied naively to confidence and self-esteem at a personal level, within a paradigm of social pathology, a purpose that is usually associated with personal responsibility for lifting oneself out of poverty, overlooking structural analyses of inequality. (13)
And the kind of practice I prefer instead.
Radical practice has a transformative agenda, an intention to bring about social change that is based on a fair, just and sustainable world. In this respect, it locates the roots of inequality in the structures and processes of society, not in personal or community pathology. (14)
And a final note on how things change, on how static models are never enough.
Community development is never static: its practice is always re-forming in dynamic with current thought, political contexts and lived experience. (14)
It emphasizes to me just how much depends on individual practice and ability to be flexible, to adjust, to do what’s best given the situation. To change the world, which is the point, not just to get the model right. Always hard, both to do, and to teach.
History of Radical Community Development
She gives a short history of such radical community development in the UK (which she describes as being longer in the earlier version damn it! I needed that! I will have to find an old edition). I found it so useful. So this version skips the Victorian settlement stuff, jumps right into the Beveridge Report in 1942 which established the consensus on the welfare state. There’s the work by Peter Townsend and others in the 1960s that showed the failings of the welfare state (including Cathy Come Home and everything Ken Loach was doing). The founding of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). The sea of reports in the 1960s that recommended community development be a professional practice, but one committed to working with communities — in England more as planning and service delivery, but in Scotland (no surprise really it should be more radical there) as community learning. The setting up of the Urban Programme in 1968, the Community Development Project in 1969 — they sought to use action research and tackle the structural grounds of poverty as opposed to the pathology-based model. In this it defined itself against social work, which it saw as ‘soft policing’ and youth work, which ‘was dismissed as a means of simply keeping working-class kids off the streets’. (16)
Over the 1970s came a split, the radical agenda ‘which believes that community development is a locus of change within the struggle for transformation of the structures of society that are the root causes of oppression’ (Mayo, Craig et al, Ohri et all, Dominelli) and the pluralist one: ‘which believes there is a multiplicity of competing bases in society, mediated by the state, and that community development is only capable of ameliorative small-scale neighbourhood change and piecemeal reforms. (Henderson and Thomas, Twelvetrees) (17)
We come to the 1980s. Thatcher and the New Right, the return of the distinctions between deserving and undeserving poor, the active dismantling of the welfare state. New Labour also moved towards ‘we are all on the same side’ and away from commitment to structural change or analysis of injustice and inequality — they also embraced zero tolerance policing, punitive approaches to asylum seekers and fines for ‘anti-social behaviour’. (21) Hardly surprising that the radical agenda became less effective in this period. All that before we get to the Big Society under Cameron (and Clegg), their transferring responsibility to community while implementing austerity. Some good stuff on what a bad idea that is.
Gary Craig’s work critiquing this move, move away from critical position.
There are some good critiques listed here: the critique of communitarianism (Etzioni) which emerged in New Labour agenda — Robson arguing it ignores Gramsci, and the insight around hegemony of how dominant ideas infiltrate into civil society institutions. Cook and Kothar’s critique of participation as the ‘new tyranny’, which could perhaps be condensed down to the knowledge that key concepts reduced to buzzwords can dangerously flip transformative practice into placatory practice. (29)
And of course, praxis has developed quite a lot despite such conservative decades, and so our work needs to be imbued with critical analysis around intersections of race and class and gender, also with sustainability.
The story of a community
Ledwith gives a first walk through of how community development might work, an important tool for grounding the rest of the book in practice, and talking through some of the issues through narrative. She writes:
Community is a complex system of interrelationships woven across social difference, diverse histories and cultures, and determined in the present by political and social trends. This calls for practitioners to have an incisive analysis of…political context and the historical issues… (34)
Important to know — but where to start? In the tradition of emancipatory action research, she describes a process in which any project should start with a community profile. This means ‘local people researching their own stories, beginning the process of critical consciousness’. (35) This can then be put into play with statistical evidence, sociopolitical trends & community development interventions to develop collectively, and look in a structured way at the level of the individual, the group, the community, society’s structures/ institutions, and wider society. (36)
She gives a model here for critical praxis, locating internal and external forces in the community and working through how they impact on people’s lives. I like these drawings. That said, I sometimes stare at them quite a while trying to work out quite what they mean.
Doing Community Development
This chapter opens with a focus on Paulo Freire, so it’s covering much of what I know though I appreciated the discussion of the feminist critique of his work. It did feel a bit like Freire in all of his imperfections became a bit of target, when what I like about his work is that the whole point is to facilitate a collective learning and collective liberation to avoid being trapped in any one individual’s blindnesses. I feel it is the establishment and academia that sets individuals up as super philosophers only to be torn down, and that’s more a fault of the system if any one individual is given so much power. Still, the critique is just, I just wish we could be more generous with each other. Anyway.
I love the connection between the work of popular education and narrative, and the telling of a story. Ledwith shares a great quote from O’Donohue (2004):
A real narrative is a web of alternating possibilities. The imagination is capable of kindness that the mind often lacks because it works naturally from the world of Between; it does not engage things in a cold, clear-cut way but always searches for the hidden worlds that wait at the edge of things. (61)
The more I stare at that quote the more I love it, I’ve been thinking about fiction and non-fiction for a while. That captures something important.
Other quotes from Carolyn Steedman on how story names our place in the social world. Brought together with analysis, Ledwith says, these become critical insight for action. This is particularly important in Western settings where the preoccupation with the individual (in distinction to the rest of the world) means people are fractured and split from the greater community. This rootedness in storytelling is also key to feminist pedagogy, with greater emphasis on the the
complex interlinking, overlapping matrix of oppressions that shape us all according to ‘race’, class, gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality ‘dis’ ability, religion and so on, rather than a simplistic dichotomous analysis of oppressor/ oppressed. (64)
I love this, all of this.
Without the link between person and political, Ledwith writes, stories remain subjective. She gives insights form Chris Cavanagh’s practice of using storytelling for social justice. In fact, there are so so many good examples about narrative and storytelling and justice… they’re on a list now. My to read list is absurd, I shall have to retire early.
Organising in the community
So here we get to her practice of Emancipatory Action Research (EAR) as the glue that binds theory and practice together. Not just through the results of the research, but in the process to move towards a better world and to escape the power relations of traditional research. Ledwith writes:
we need to create critical spaces for dialogue, involving all co-participants in co-creating knowledge for our times. These are counter-hegemonic critical spaces where power relationships are deconstructed according to our analyses of power in order to reconstruct democratic relations with new possibilities for a world that is fair and just. (78)
So, EAR, in summary:
- grounded in an ideology of equality;
- adopting a methodology that is emancipatory, working with not on people, power is redistributed;
- using non-controlling methods, open to multiple ways of knowing, experience is explored beyond the written word through dialogue, story, music, drama, poetry, drawings and photographs in a search for multiple truths;
- action for change emerges from new knowledge (79)
It consists of 4 interlinked stages:
- critiquing the status quo
- identifying key sites of intervention
- creating new ways of making sense of the world (epistemology)
- creating new ways of being in the world (ontology).
She writes about Rowan’s ‘Dialectical paradigm for research’ (1981), which sounds amazing, you can never be too dialectical. I’ll read that and write more, it’s already on the stack. This chapter includes checklists and questions (these are throughout, and so damn useful, meaning this will be a well-thumbed book once research is underway). Everything she quotes from this foundational text by Reason and Rowan sounds pretty phenomenal. She combines this with Schuler’s core values model, to help pay attention to the balance of needs while you are busy doing everything else. All these tools I never knew of. There’s the Scottish ABCD model as well, also to be explored.
Collective action for change
Ledwith describes the flow of popular education from the very first stage:
Community groups form the initial collective stage of the process where trust and cooperation create the context for reflection. It is a stage at which personal prejudice needs to be explored in order to reach a collective purpose. It is a place where problematising teaches people to question their reality, to open their minds to altered perspectives on life. This is the bedrock of collective, critical action. (98)
Yep. After that comes
Conscientisation [that word I can never pronounce] …the process whereby people become aware of the political, socioeconomic and cultural contradictions that interact in a hegemonic way to diminish their lives. This awareness, which is based on critical insight, leads to collective action. (100)
this process is so important, because otherwise collective action can simply lead to taking power without a critique of how power operates, which makes it easier to abuse because that is, after all, the dominant model. Critique also has to stretch towards a global view, developing understandings of how it is all linked.
She sees two major ‘sticking points’ in community development — the first a resistance to developing theory in practice, the other a reluctance to move beyond community to harness a greater collective force for change. (110)
This chapter ends with lots of case studies, they are dead useful.
The power of ideas
Gramsci! You can never have too much Gramsci. The key ideas of hegemony, the personal as political and the role of intellectuals. The importance of challenging dominant and damaging forms of common sense supporting the dominant system, particularly around race and patriarchy. So if you read your Gramsci you know that empowerment must therefore be connected to conscientisation.
Empowerment is therefore the ability to make critical connections in relation to power and control in society in order to identify discrimination and determine collective action for change. In this sense, it embraces identity and autonomy. (144)
She raises critiques of Freire and Gramsci, and to do so brings in Foucault! This made me like Foucault more than anything else has done, how his work combines with Gramsci and Freire and Marx to really understand internalized coercive power and how it operates at the micro-level, ‘how it permeates the nooks and crannies of everyday existence’. (165)
So what do we need to challenge it? Transform it?
Towards a Freirean-feminist-anti-racist pedagogy
Power…becomes a mutually reinforcing process operating from the bottom up as well as top down. This places consciousness at the heart of change, suggesting that the beginning of this process lie firmly in the stories of everyday life as the beginning of a process of progressive social change. (177)
Conscientisation. And I think she’s right. But there’s lots more to say about that. It is interesting how much this resonates with Boaventura de Sousa Santos as I finish his book, so many people working along similar lines for so many decades and, I think, never in real contact. But drawing on many of the same ideas I suppose. Makes me feel like we’re on the right track.
Mark Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party is a deep and detailed look at this relationship in the US over a very short period of time, but a rather vital one I think. This time when the CP did some pretty amazing organizing, and some pretty flawed organizing, before their top-down structure dictated they drop it entirely. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how theory works with practice, about ideology and pragmatism, about the need to confront racism and white supremacy and how we might better go about that and I keep thinking about this book, so I dusted off the notes. I read a good while ago, I confess. Never got around to processing it really. This doesn’t succeed or do it justice, just pulls out some key quotes because it’s dense, something to return to with questions about specific people, specific dates.
So to start with Otto Huiswood. Originally from Surinam (Surinam!), he helped found the CP in Harlem in 1919 — making him the 1st African American to join. Cyril Briggs from the island of Nevis was another key figure…I had so little knowledge before reading this of just how important the Caribbean diaspora was in NY, and to radical politics. But Briggs did so much before the CP… he was inspired by the Irish Easter rising
which had fired the imagination of the “New Negro” radicals…exemplified an revolutionary nationalism that found its way into the rhetoric voiced on street corners and in the emerging press of rapidly urbanizing African American life. (5)
It makes me happy to see the connections between his radical philosophies and the Irish struggle (we all know Irish and Black folks didn’t often get along in NY, I just finished Ignatiev on the whole Irish becoming White thing, and damn is it ugly…) But anyway, a bit of happy news — and Connelly stood against slavery, for a while anyway. But the Easter Rising, and other independence movements, inspired Briggs to advocate for a separate black state within the US. He founded the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) for African Liberation and Redemption, the announcement of its founding continued ‘Those only need apply who are willing to go the limit.’ (9) They were modeled on the Sinn Fein, founded the newspaper The Crusader in 1918.
1919 — Red Summer, a wave of lynchings swept the country. Briggs Was moving in the same circles as Huiswood, Claude McKay, Grace Campbell, W.A. Domingo, Hubert Harrison and other radicals in Harlem. Terrible times, amazing times, no? This was also the time of Marcus Garvey — and he and Briggs never got along. Solomon writes
Marcus Garvey’s UNIA resonated for African American working people as Briggs’ ABB could not, because the former vibrantly express outrage at the dominant white society without directly and dangerously confronting the bourgeois order. (28)
And that is something Briggs did. He would join the CP in 1921, after the 2nd Internation congress in 1920. That’s the one where Lenin presented his ‘Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’, a radical document that would begin to transform the work of the CP in the US as it urged the party to support revolutionary movements, and named both Ireland and African Americans. I lose track a little of the twists and turns and the politics of these congresses, but Claude McKay and Otto Huiswood were both present at the 4th congress in 1922, where the Congress established a Negro Commission.
The American Negro Labor Congress of 1925 opened in Chicago, race was always an issue as seen by the mostly white delegates, though they were addressed by Richard B Moore and Claude McKay. Solomon writes:
The sense of a “nation within a nation,” born in slavery and nurtured in segregation, is rooted in African American thought. It emerged from the lash, from political subjugation, from the trampling of the cultural heritage of an entire people, from assaults on their psychological makeup and identity. The Negro question was indeed more than a class or racial problem. the forced rupture of community between blacks and whites, and the onslaught on the blacks’ historical continuity, culture, and identity had produced a longing for political unity and psychic autonomy–for the realization of black national yearning. the Communists were onto something. National oppression constituted a proper description of what had happened to black Americans. (88)
There is this amazing insistence for a time that racial divisions and white supremacy be overcome:
southern whites [and non-southern whites, but more amazing for southern whites] must enter the CP cleansed of chauvinism…At the end of the decade [1920s] the Party had finally admitted the need to win the trust of blacks and to strongly resist any backsliding on social equality. The Communists had come to believe that racial segregation and the savaging of black identity represented both an institutional foundation for American capitalism and its weak point. To compromise with racism in any way strengthened capitalism and wounded its most potent foes…concessions to segregation and inequality would validate racism and sacrifice blacks’ trust in white radicals. ‘ (128)
I still find it hard to imagine how hard it must have been to place this front and centre, but they did, and they were right to insist that it was this racism that prevented any united sense of class, right that freedom could not be obtained while these divisions existed. As Solomon continues:
“A real Bolshevik Leninist understanding” of racism, Harry Haywood intoned, held that liberation from the bonds of such oppression was inextricably “part of the question of the proletarian revolution” — a precondition for achieving Lenin’s historic alliance of the workers and subject peoples in common struggle against capitalism and imperialism. …. By locating the source of white chauvinism in the ideology and interest of the ruling class, the Party held an ominous sword over its members. What was more serious than the accusation that a Communist was doing the work of the class enemy? (130)
And so some of this work was amazing. The 20s drew to an end, the Great Depression hit. We see the brilliant movement of the Unemployed Councils, working to return possessions back into the homes of those who had been evicted and organizing rent strikes. In Chicago, 1931, Unemployed Councils organized on South Side of Chicago. Solomon notes that one day in July they restored 4 families to their homes in one day. Yet the police were cracking down. While the UCs continued fighting through 1933, there is no doubt that 1931 saw them at their height. The CP admitted they were unable to maintain the enthusiasm and engagement, and noted the ‘internal tedium’ of party politics as a factor. Reading some of the descriptions of party life, it is easy to see why. Meetings and meetings, circles of judgement and criticism, show trials. I mean, they had show trials. I had no idea, but you can see how the structures emerging from a calcifying Russian revolution (a whole tragedy in itself about to unfold there of course) were already beginning to crush the spirit.
It took a while though.
This early period also saw a branching out to work in wider collaborations. A number of middle-class Black leaders also endorsed the party given their stance on the race question, like Countee Cullen. The CP was running dozens of black candidates for political offices, not to win but as mass actions to educate and politicize around unemployment and racial equality. They had some incredible victories beyond the Unemployment Councils. Like the strike in St Louis where on May 15, 100 women working in the nut industry (!) walked out demanding a pay rise, 3 weeks later 1000 black women struck, the next day white women walked out in solidarity. My favourite line in the book:
‘The women armed themselves with ‘brick-sandwiches’ to confront strikebreakers’ (251)
In Chicago 800 women, black and white, won a partial victory on strike against B. Sopkins Dress Company. Solomon gives us names I had not heard of the, the women who led this movement in Harlem — Maude White, Louise Thompson, Augusta Savage, Williana Burroughs of Hunter College (keep seeing this college referenced here though I had not heard of it before, seems to be an amazing radical place to look into). Increasingly the movement is being driven by those who are American born. There is a real sense of movement though, of hope. And then the CP stepped in once again. Good in some ways, that 1935 opening up, ‘accelerating the popular front’. CP members were able to work in growing coalitions — they even included Father Divine in Harlem. But this signaled the beginning of a move away from organizing, the liberation of Blacks, the anti-racist strategies. They dropped tenants wholesale. 1936 was a bit early for this so that’s not really covered here (like Iton’s work), there is a little more about it in Manning Marable, Robert Fisher and others. There is just a sense of impending tragedy, the story of the black Share Croppers Union — trying to ally with others with the help of Highlander (Don West, the cofounder of Highlander with Horton is mentioned a number of times in the book) — they fail, and face a horrible wave of repression after they strike, they face murder and assassination.
This history is swallowed up. Rarely retold. Needing to be kept alive.
[Solomon, Mark (1998) The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi}
Second post on Stir It Up by Rinku Sen of CTWO (first post here) — this one on the nitty gritty of it all. Which being an academic now I find less exciting than when I was an organizer, though as much or more important than the other stuff I know. Anyway. In Sen’s opinion there has been a real shift in community organizing, and it’s during this shift and in this realm that I came of age really, so this rings true though I am discovering that there is more continuity than I had thought. She describes what she calls the ‘New Community Organizing Practices’, which certainly reflected some of SAJE’s work while I was there I think. Though we maybe took on more ‘winnable’ issues apart from gentrification itself, but no one has beat that yet have they… just held it at bay. Folks like LA CAN and Union de Vecinos have been doing that with might and brilliance for decades now.
In a significant shift in practice, community organizations are increasingly taking up the issues and constituencies mainstream groups refuse to touch. There has been significant innovation in three particular areas. First, groups have begun to organize the most marginalized people rather than those occupying the middle. The organizing of undocumented immigrants, victims of police brutality, and single mothers is indicative of this trend. Second, groups choose issues that enable the organizing of the worst-off, sometimes privileging those concerns over blander issues that might be more winnable. Third, political education has been added to organizing practice. (lxiii)
CHAPTER ONE: NEW REALITIES, INTEGRATED STRATEGIES
So a chapter here on the political and economic realities:
This chapter is about what I consider the central political and economic trends we need to take into account while we do our work. In the United States today, three trends in particular are relevant to every progressive group: the resurgence of conservative movements and the power gained by such movements in the United States since the early 1970s; the character and organization of the new economy, which is distinguished by the rising use of neoliberal policies and contingent workers; and the continued, unyielding role of racism and sexism in the organization of society. (1)
These are the underlying trends that organizing works needs to be tackling. So what needs doing? Another list:
Increasing Progressive Organizing, (18)
Addressing Core Ideas and Values: The base building, the development of sustained campaigns, and the research and media work are essentially techniques with no specific moral, economic, or political values attached to them; they are meaningless unless we also address the core ideas that shape society. (20)
Supporting Large Social Movements: We need to develop a movement orientation to our organizing. (21)
That’s a big one, but at the same time movement isn’t really something you can create — Piven and Cloward talk about this, and I think we all agree. So what is the role of the organizer in the meantime? Aldon Morris talks about Halfway Houses, Myles Horton thought about this in relation to Highlander. I like the below as well:
While we can’t control all the factors that enable a movement to develop, we can build our organizations in such a way as to be ready for movement work when the time is right. Most experienced activists believe that movements emerge from a specific set of conditions—rising expectations among the disenfranchised, a backlash against the status quo, or demographic shifts—in addition to explicit organizing. Being ready requires, in the first place, shifts in our work patterns and attitudes. For example, rather than figuring out how to do everything in one organization, we need to think more about how to create and support complementary organizations that work together to get the job done. Such a division of labor requires a deep understanding of and mutual respect for all the functions necessary to organize people, ideas, and money. (22)
CHAPTER TWO: ORGANIZING NEW CONSTITUENCIES
Organizing can mean a lot of things to different people, I like her simple list of what it is (and why).
By organizing, I mean an effort to build organizations that include at least these five elements:
- A clear mission and goals
- A membership and leadership structure, with a way for people to join and take roles
- Outreach systems that concentrate on those most affected
- Issue campaigns featuring multiple tactics, including direct action
- Pursuit of changing institutions rather than individuals
These elements combine to produce power and a shift in how people are treated as a result. (24-25)
I also like this breakdown of the underlying principles, and the impacts these have on the work you do, how you do it, and who can work with you:
Four major principles form the basis of our organizing efforts. First, our organizing strategy, our plan to build or expand a particular constituency, holds implications for the way we structure our organizations. Second, every organization has its own culture, which has to be shaped and refined to make room for the participation of particular groups. Third, we need to match our recruitment methods to the people we want to reach. Fourth, if we use services to attract members, we have to be extra vigilant that service provision doesn’t take over the organizing. (26)
That last one? Hard. We used services around evictions to ensure we still had some members but still. Hard. This, though? It’s all about this:
Organizing is essentially the process of creating politically active constituencies out of people with problems by focusing on their strengths and the solutions embedded in their experience. It is the basic work of progressive social change. (47)
CHAPTER THREE: PICKING THE GOOD FIGHT
Choosing campaigns…breaking down the difference between issues and problems. All organizing manuals talk about this.
Webster’s dictionary defines issue as a conflict between two parties. Organizers distinguish issues from problems. Problems refer to large-scale systems that are too large and vague to help us focus on real changes worth fighting for. Identifying specific issues within large-scale problems helps us define clear conflicts to which our group can propose a resolution. Issues always have at least three elements: a constituency with a grievance, a set of demands that address that grievance, and an institutional target at whom the grievance is directed. If a group cannot identify these three elements with specificity, then it is probably still dealing at the level of problems rather than carving out issues. (48)
I loved the principles, but loved also this acknowledgement about the realities of people’s lives and how they don’t quite fit into easy traditional models to deal with it, and the benefit of wisdom gained over years looking back:
Students of color, women, and lesbian/gay/bi/trans (LGBT) students, arguably the most explicitly marginalized constituencies on their campuses, frequently resisted our characterization of “good” issues. They asserted, quite correctly, that they rarely had the luxury to choose issues. Issues were thrust on them by oppressive institutional policies and practices that forced them into a survival mode. Furthermore, they said, choosing issues creates a hierarchy among oppressions: groups have to make implicit, if not explicit, judgments about which issues are important enough to work on and which are not, who deserves liberation and who does not.
Today, I would suggest that those students create their own criteria for prioritizing issues. While it is true that some attacks must be answered, having clear criteria can help you respond effectively, as well as move beyond defense posture to victories that improve the quality of life. (50)
Some great lists for choosing issues — first from Midwest Organizing Academy and then CTWOs own. Go look at them.
CHAPTER FOUR: READY, SET, ACTION! (79)
While the idea of direct action is often scary, using it can provide important benefits. First, direct action can clarify the stakes, presenting our take on an issue in sharp contrast to other proposals or the status quo. This kind of clarification makes it less likely that the interests of our constituency will be negotiated away by people who are not affected—a distinct possibility when liberal policy, research and lobbying groups are deeply involved in a controversial issue, whether it be welfare or immigration. (79-80)
Second, nothing is better than a well-timed confrontation to help targets feel the pressure, which leads to victories that weren’t forthcoming without the action.
Third, direct action demystifies the halls of power for a constituency, and the people occupying those halls start to realize it and treat us with more respect.
Fourth, face-to-face conflict can sometimes help protect the members of a group when they are under attack. The mere process of taking risks together, which direct action requires, helps to build the group’s sense of itself as a group. Actions can also help protect individuals who are having problems with the system by making it clear that they are surrounded by a whole group.
Fifth, direct action offers fun, creative, and effective ways to get your message out. (80)
It is definitely the campaign that makes the action meaningful, and the political education and critical consciousness that needs to be built with it that creates real change.
Still, no matter how successful any individual direct action is, it is meaningless outside of a campaign. Campaigns indicate sustained intervention on a specific issue; they have clear short- and long-term goals, a timeline, creative incremental demands, targets who can meet those demands, and an organizing plan to build a constituency and build internal capacity. Within campaigns, different tactics accomplish different goals. There are tactics for building a base, recruiting allies, educating the larger public, and proving a point, in addition to those that pressure targets. Campaigns require planning and discipline, the ability to think about life in six-month, one-year, or multiyear terms. Many organizations do great actions but cannot sustain a defined campaign that pursues a specific set of demands that fit into their larger vision. (81)
I do like these too, having now participated in numerous protests in this country where not a single damn one of these ever happens, despite my own protests:
There are three important principles in using direct action effectively. First, each action has to have a clear purpose grounded in an irrefutable need and expressed in the action’s specific target and demand. Second, the best actions are heavily choreographed. Third, direct actions are always part of a larger campaign.
This grows long, I just want to capture key points to think about later, to compare to others. So what follows are just the chapter headings and the principles that encapsulate CTWO’s best practices:
CHAPTER FIVE: LEADING THE WAY
There are four key principles of leadership development. First, successful organizations distinguish between leadership identification and deeper development. Second, they formalize their leadership development programs, using popular education methods and grounding development in the daily work of the organization. Third, they pay attention to the race, class, gender, and cultural issues embedded in leadership development. Finally, they actively plan for the renewal and regeneration of leadership, from supporting an individual in avoiding burnout to managing leadership transitions well. (98-99)
CHAPTER SIX: TAKE BACK THE FACTS
There are three basic principles for conducting research for organizing purposes. First, consider the ways in which you can combine your research with outreach and issues development. Second, use human sources rather than paper as much as possible. Third, figure out whether you are better off doing your research internally or creating a partnership with another organization. (118)
Research is close to my heart, and I’ve a stack of things to get through on action research and PAR but I will add a second paragraph:
To use research to work on issues, we have to know where we are in the issue-development process before starting the research. Are we choosing an issue, reframing it, or developing a campaign plan? Choosing an issue requires a research process that determines what the constituency cares about, whether a solution is available, and whether we can craft an issue that meets our criteria. Reframing an issue requires detailed data, sometimes stories but often hard numbers, that dispute or discredit information put out by the other side. Developing a campaign plan requires tactical research—gathering specific information about targets and potential pitfalls embedded in our demands. (121)
CHAPTER SEVEN: UNITED WE STAND
There are four key principles to remember here. First, a group has to distinguish between different forms of collaboration and choose the one that matches its goals and capacities. Second, each partner in a collaboration has to have substantial self-interest and similar politics, although the need for political negotiation is ongoing. Third, organizations need to bring resources into an alliance or network, and those contributions have to be structured to equalize power and credit among the partners. Fourth, these formations work best when one party is responsible for staffing them; long-term alliances and networks require their own staffing and infrastructure. (136)
There is so much more here, I think, about alliance building. Particularly for me, how this is done to scale while still being grassroots led and in a world of scarce resources/lack of time/inability to travel because of immigration status or family commitments or poverty. I think anyone working at a national scale struggles a lot with this, even more so at an international scale.
CHAPTER EIGHT: Speaking Truth to Power
There are five key considerations in expanding organizational media capacity: crafting a strategy that adjusts messages and materials according to the audience; developing sharp, polarizing messages based on shared values; recognizing the importance of designing our own print, radio, and electronic media; understanding the media and building relationships with reporters, including challenging outlets when necessary; and, finally, using people within our own organization as sources. (150)
CHAPTER NINE: EDUCATION FOR ENGAGEMENT
If we are going to engage in political education, we need to keep four principles in mind. First, clarity about the purpose of our political education will help define the approach we take and the questions we ask. Second, we need to avoid dogmatic rhetoric by grounding our political-education work in fact and inquiry. Third, we need to balance education with our primary goal, political organizing. Fourth, varying the medium of education will keep people engaged. Fifth, exploring solutions will help prevent our members from becoming depressed after political-education sessions. (167)
CONCLUSION: Community Organizing—Tomorrow
This is just me being lazy, recapping it all with two copied paragraphs. But I myself need to remember things like this, and it’s hard, so a nice way to end.
There’s a lot to pay attention to: changes in the economy, implications of identity, the connection between local communities and global trends, the tactics of the opposition, as well as how our organizations are shaping themselves. Paying attention is about being self-conscious in the best sense—having a heightened awareness of what’s going on with us and around us. It does not mean knowing everything about everything, but it does mean expanding our notion of what is relevant to our work.
But being aware without a commitment to action divorces us from real life and keeps us from distinguishing what requires our attention from what doesn’t. In this age of rapid information diffusion, that is a dangerous thing. Much of the information coming our way catalogues the horrors of being a regular person, the terrible consequences of the policies that control our lives. Without a commitment to taking action that will improve conditions, we don’t demand the kind of information we need to make changes, and we become paralyzed by what we know. (183)
Action is required.
[Sen, Rinku (2003) Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizin and Advocacy. San Francisco: Chardon Press.
Rinku Sen’s guide to community organizing is brilliant — nothing could ever replace the collective energy and knowledge generated through CTWO’s (or any group’s) training programs because community organizing is all about collective liberation, but if you can’t get there then this is great. If like me you’ve been lucky enough to learn from folks there, than this is a good reminder of some of what they taught. But of course, this has also made me think a lot more about things in the way that only sitting with a book can, especially now that I am removed from the pressures of organizing and being all intellectual about shit.
You should buy it, support such work, but you can get the PDF here. The presence of a PDF available for copying means I quote at EVEN GREATER LENGTH, which is always a failing of mine. Apologies.
The book in a nutshell:
The book is organized to provide an overview of organizing and then to explore specific aspects of current practice. The tools presented here can help communities transform the institutions and ideas that shape our lives. I make two essential arguments. First, I argue that today’s social, political, and economic context, characterized by global capitalism, a resurgent conservative movement, and the continued role of racism and sexism in world society, requires a deeper strategic capacity than most organizations have today. Second, I argue that although organizing among the people suffering from these systems is more important than ever, the range of political skills required of us goes far beyond recruiting members and planning creative actions. Minimally, effective peoples’ organizations need to have not just the people but also a system for internal leadership development and consciousness raising, strong factual research, and the ability to generate media attention. Simply put, today’s movements for social and economic justice need people who are clear about the problems with the current systems, who rely on solid evidence for their critique, and who are able to reach large numbers of other people with both analysis and proposals. (xvii-iii)
So this first post is on her overview of community organizing, anti-racist and feminist critiques of it, and how it can be combined with learning from the many vibrant struggles around identity. It is nice and broad and captures much of the amazing work happening in the US, and which I miss so much now that I’m in the UK:
The term community organizing refers to a distinct form of organization building and social activism that grew in the United States mostly after World War II. …. There are at least six major organizing networks in the United States, each with its own methods and theories. Since World War II, community organizing has grown into a profession, with its own body of literature, standards, and training institutes. (xliv)
The oldest network is the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), founded by Saul Alinsky:
the first to devise and write down a model of organizing that could be replicated. He created dozens of community organizations, all designed to test out a new portion of the theory, in addition to the IAF. Alinsky’s pragmatic, nonideological approach to social change has been both emulated and challenged by organizers and groups, many of which arose to fill perceived gaps in Alinsky’s work. (xliv)
They are funded primarily through institutional membership and foundation grants. Most have become faith based over time. A branch from this model came when Fred Ross Sr., the IAF’s West Coast director, developed the Community Service Organization (CSO). This worked out of LA (woo!) to register people to vote and help elect the first Latino city council member in 1949 (Ed Roybal!). He helped develop a model of individual membership, and worked with Cesar Chavez start the United Farm Workers. I am fascinated that both started with a process of mutual aid through the pooling community funds, need to learn more about this.
Been thinking a lot and in conversations about Alinksy lately, and agree that the summaries here and in Fisher are not doing him enough justice — and it seems to me that this is often because they focus more on a calcified form of practice that he would himself have been quick to disavow. But more on that later, here just to recap what other’s feel — interesting in itself in thinking about representation and different understandings.
The People’s Institute for Community Organizing (PICO) was founded by two priests, John Baumann and Dick Helfridge in the 1970s-80s along similar lines and still going strong, faith-based organizing bringing congregations together for change. Knew some young organizers in these older organizations, liked them a lot.
And of course there is also ACORN — she’s right I didn’t know this history:
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is the undoubted leader among traditional community organizations based on the model of bringing individuals together into new formations that did not rely on existing institutions. Few contemporary activists, however, know that ACORN has its roots in the civil rights and welfare rights movements. In 1968, a chemistry professor and civil rights leader named George Wiley, active in the Congress of Racial Equality, implemented the idea of combining community organizing, which he saw winning significant victories, with the racial justice commitments of the civil rights movement in a new formation called the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). Although it survived only six years, among its lasting legacies was the creation of ACORN, which was started by Wade Rathke, who had been sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to build an NWRO chapter in 1970.
ACORN was the first to design a replicable model for the individual-membership organization. Today, ACORN has organizations in twenty-six states and counts among its successes winning many local living wage campaigns, resisting redlining by banks and insurance companies, and reforming local public schools. ACORN’s outreach to individuals and its continued commitment to organizing the very poor makes it an important supplement to the IAF and PICO, institutional models that address only marginally the question of the unorganized (Delgado, 1986). (xlviii)
Since then a n umber of other models and networks have developed, such as the National Organizers Alliance (NOA). Relationships between everyone often remain a bit fractious, at least they were in LA. Personalities are of course part of it, but the various critiques raise some of the biggest issues in the country really, primarily those of how we understand our relationship with capitalism, inseparable from the ways race, gender, sexuality intersect with class and struggle. That, and who gets to say ‘I am the community’. That’s a tough one when you’re just fighting for a seat at the table.
Anti-racist critique of traditional community organizing
So… the anti-racist critique of traditional models. Sen writes
The antiracist critique centers on three concerns: the domination of community organizations by white staff and white “formal” leaders such as priests and union officials; the refusal of most community organizations to incorporate issues focused on racism; and the lack of flexibility in the rules of leadership and tactical planning. (xlix)
So as already noted, it was a blow to him that Alinsky’s first community organizing victories happened were won by the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, yet it became an active racist force for segregation in the late 1960s. Sen’s own analysis of this:
So, Alinsky knew enough about race to be embarrassed by explicit racism but not enough to embrace organizational practices that could centralize antiracist work and that could develop a sophisticated antiracist analysis that kept up with the efforts of the right wing. As years passed, the larger community organizing networks tended to follow that lead… (liii)
Related to that, is that the tactics and the formula for success given by traditional models — choosing limited campaigns that are winnable — are not enough to shift the balance of power nor do they ‘match the political cultures and priorities of communities of color and antiracist activists’ (she cites Delgado, 1986; Fellner, 1998; Blake, 1999 — I haven’t read any of these folks).
As the conservative backlash and active racism of the right grow, campaigns need to shift and begin to tackle some of the harder issues at the core of what communities of colour face.
One last critique:
Finally, people of color argue that many of the rules of community organizing run counter to the political traditions, cultures, and realities of communities of color. They point to three community organizing trends in particular: the separation of leader and organizer roles, the refusal to advance a fundamental critique of capitalism and U.S. democracy, and an over-reliance on confrontational tactics as the only sign that institutional challenge is taking place. In many communities of color, organizers are a part of the community’s leadership, publicly acknowledged and included in decision making. Sometimes these leaders are paid to do their organizing, and often they aren’t. Examples abound, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Anna Mae Aquash. While many organizers of color see the importance of leadership that generates new leaders, they resist drawing a false line between leader and organizer.
Many people of color have little faith that simply raising their voices will have a dramatic effect. Tactically, communities of color are accustomed to finding other ways to challenge institutions, including building alternatives.(li)
This brings us to the community organizing networks formed explicitly attending to race, the first of which in 1980 was the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) ‘by Gary Delgado, a former welfare rights and ACORN organizer, and Hulbert James, a former SNCC and HumanServ organizer’.
CTWO advanced a strategy based on two notions: that people of color occupied a colonized position within the United States and could find common cause across the lines separating black, Asian, Latino, and Native American communities, and that community organizing offered potentially strong forums for such politics if it could be conducted with clear antiracist analysis and priorities.(liii)
A second network from the early 1980s, Grassroots Leadership, was founded by Si Kahn (I remember his book How People Get Power as being as awesome as the title) ‘to be an explicitly biracial network of community organizations in the South that continued the tradition of combining art and culture with organizing practice’. (liii)
Feminist critique of traditional community organizing
Sen describes four targets of feminist critique
community organizing overemphasizes intervention in the public sphere, does not allow organizers to balance work and family, focuses on narrow self-interest as the primary motivator, and relies on conflict and militaristic tactics.
Things we thought a lot about at SAJE, things that ultimately limit movement when left unaddressed — but they are hard, particularly the work and family balance. We never got that right, don’t know that anyone did. Sen argues that both the critiques emerging from anti-racist work and communities of colour and the critiques raised by feminism all point to the issue with the pragmatism Alinksy emphasized in his trainings and in his writings. She writes:
In many ways, the lack of sophistication that traditional community organizing applies to large-scale economic, racial, and gender questions resulted in the lack of explicit ideological discussion in most traditional organizing networks. Over time, the pragmatism that Alinsky espoused came to characterize community organizations; it determined the path of internal conflicts about class, race, and gender, and eventually of those about immigration and sexuality. If a particular issue was bound to divide a community or was difficult to address entirely in the public sphere, most community organizations did not deal with it. Domestic violence and police brutality provide excellent examples of issues that could divide a community and that local institutions resisted dealing with. … Over time, additional forces and new movements have changed community organizing by creating an imperative for different methods and politics. (lvi)
This tendency to shy away from difficult issues is a natural one, particularly in the emergency-driven environment of organizing desperately trying to weld people into organized struggle. It is hard, requires time and space and thought and tools. Luckily people have been working on theory and on tools for decades, it is for us to carve out the time and space and that requires will.
On Identity and Struggle
The final section here deals with the impact of other kinds of movement struggles — first the new organizing strategies of SEIU (Justice for Janitors) and HERE (Hotel and Restaurant Workers) and their rejuvenation of the labor movement through the organization of immigrants in precarious sub-contracts. Second the rise of identity-based movements. There is much to learn here, many of these campaigns have been fierce, beautiful, victorious.
In part, identity politics started as an analytic movement, a movement of ideas, that upheld the importance of the political experiences of marginalized constituencies and expected progressives to unify around the imperatives of attacking racism, sexism, and sexual oppression as they had around class. Identity politics—a political vision that recognizes the problems of societies in which rewards and punishments are distributed by massive systems according to physical attributes—led to some of the most important theoretical and political movements of the last thirty years of the twentieth century; these movements ranged from black feminism to the anti-AIDS campaigns to the community-based worker organizing described above, and they have, in turn, profoundly affected community organizers and their ideas.
Such identity politics rejected the idea that everything could be reduced to class, that certain fights could wait until the class war was won, that all of these differences were just distractions from the war against the bosses. I rather love how Sen breaks down why this is terribly wrong:
First, activists exploring identity politics developed the idea that identities that had been considered biological are socially constructed.
Second, activists developed the idea that these social constructions create vastly different experiences among people as they relate to the institutions of private and public life. In acknowledging this difference in life experience, activists were forced to grapple with the reality that black autoworkers require voting reform as well as union membership or that women might rebel against the nuclear family because that structure burdens them a great deal more than it does men or that black women’s priority gender issue might be welfare while white women’s might be abortion.
Third, identity politics raised the idea that one solution might not fit all: controlling capital might not prevent institutional racism; third world liberation might not address women’s oppression. Activists observed that movements for one kind of liberation might not embrace the issues that would lead to other kinds of liberation (lx)
Those who could not find their place in traditional Left movements left to found their own groups around these different dimensions of struggle, and they were vilified for it. Sen describes a
… growing resentment among white leftists (including many community organizers) toward the attention afforded identity-based movements, as well as a troubling nostalgia for universal labor and populist movements that regularly excluded people of color, encouraged nativist violence, and kept women out of the paid labor force. As Kelley (1997) writes, “They either don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge that class is lived through race and gender. There is no universal class identity, just as there is no universal racial or gender or sexual identity. The idea that race, gender and sexuality are particular whereas class is universal not only presumes that class struggle is some sort of race and gender-neutral terrain but takes for granted that movements focused on race, gender and sexuality necessarily undermine class unity and, by definition, cannot be emancipatory for the whole.” Researcher of conservative movements Jean Hardisty puts it more bluntly when she writes, “To the heterosexual, white, male leaders of the Old Left, class oppression (and hence the demands of the labor movement) was the movement’s principal concern. The neglect of ‘other’ oppressions stems from their lack of relevance to that leadership” (1999, p. 197). (lxii)
This break has not been closed in Sen’s view, she writes:
Identity movements and community organizing have both been growing but largely along parallel tracks; they speak little to each other and share few issues and resources. The question is how to achieve the goal of scale without leaving important non-majority issues and constituencies by the wayside. (lxiii)
CTWO’s work, and the rest of this book, is beginning a conversation about how this might be possible.
[Sen, Rinku (2003) <em>Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizin and Advocacy</em>. San Francisco: Chardon Press.]
This looks pretty amazing, and I am honoured to be in it on Grenfell, right to the city, right to a home. But it is full of struggle to transform the world.
A quick break from writing and reading and writing to think for a minute about Grayson Perry’s The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! at Bristol’s Arnolfini. It started life in the Serpentine down in London I believe, and was so nice to see something like this outside of the capitol — I loved the Arnolfini focusing on one exhibition as well, it really opened up the space, made it feel larger than I remember it being. The official description of the exhibit:
[The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!] tackles one of the artist’s primary concerns: how contemporary art can best address a diverse cross section of society. On show for the first time outside of London, the exhibition is central to the autumn season at Arnolfini and a programme of events inspired by Perry’s irreverent take on contemporary culture.
In the exhibition, Perry continues to explore many of the themes and concerns that recur in his practice, drawing from his own childhood and life as a transvestite, as well as wider social issues and his abiding interest in his audience. The works in the exhibition examine masculinity, class, politics, sex religion, popularity and art, as well as contemporary issues such as Brexit and ‘Divided Britain’.
My favourite piece was this I think, Red Carpet. I love everything about it. I love that it is a tapestry, love fabric, love the rich textures of it that fit so well the highrise buildings that form its backdrop. I love its squiggly lines, its noting of the many boundaries and main thoroughfares, how it reflects back at the nation its own maps of us and them inscribed upon hearts and minds — safe and dangerous places, useful places, places marked in different ways by class and culture and kind of dwelling and our reception there. I love how this map resembles the kinds of maps Kevin Lynch uncovered in trying to understand how people visualised and understood and traveled through their everyday cities. It is such a beautiful object, yet does not make the discourse (and what it says about Britain in this particular time) all that beautiful, as it isn’t beautiful at all.
Grayson Perry himself describes it thus:
The title evokes the most formal and reverent of welcomes and the style is influenced by some of my favourite material culture – Afghan war rugs. This is a map of British society as evocative and inaccurate as a geographical one made by a medieval scholar. The distortions partly reflect the density of population rather than the lie of the land. It is covered in words and buzz phrases that I felt typified the national discourse in 2016. The background weave is made from photographs of tower blocks.’
The second map is no thing of beauty, which…perhaps if he had spoken to other people on the estate it might have been, but this rings pretty true for young men. Here we have the Digmoor Tapestry.
Grayson Perry writes:
This work is my reaction after talking to a group of young men from Skelmersdale, Lancashire. They are the victims of poverty, chaotic parenting, bad role models and disrupted education. They hung around street corners selling weed, riding motorbikes around parks and getting into fights with rival groups. They were at an age when a hormonal need to assert their masculinity was at its freshest. Deprived of acceptable badges of status, job, money, education, power and family, they exercised their masculinity in a way that seemed to echo back to the dawn of humanity – they defended territory. That territory was the Digmoor estate, a quadrant of a 1970s new town bounded by dual carriageways. They seemed prepared to kill for it. The Digmoor Tapestry is a map of the state the defended. The style was inspired by traditional African fabrics and the graffiti is taken directly from the boys’ environment. On seeing it one of them commented, ‘It looks like it’s been used to wrap up a body’.’
There is ‘Animal Spirit’, a different kind of mapping, very different elements, and oil everywhere oil. A foretelling of our own destruction and the death of our future in the entrails as the Greeks used to do…
”Animal Spirit’ was a phrase that cropped up quite a lot during the commentaries after the financial crash of 2008. It seemed to be used as a way of offloading responsibility for the human chaos of the meltdown onto some mystical force, when in fact the men controlling the market are prone to irrational behaviour as anyone. Some of the symbolism within the image of Animal Spirit – the abandoned baby, the three black crowns and the hanging man – come from the names of the traditional patterns in Japanese candlestick graphs used by traders in the city.’
Maps…I so love maps. He has a map of days, a map of nowhere, a map of an englishman… I long to see them. Someday.
He loves shrines as much as I do! Though I prefer mine in the wild. There were bikes! And there were ceramics. This one evoked both phallic symbol and skyscraper and banking district, here we have Object in Foreground which provoked this headline from the Evening Standard: ‘Artist Grayson Perry has created a huge glazed ceramic penis he says is inspired by the City of London’s bankers and traders’. Funny that I too have always thought of them as giant penises. His description was quite provocative:
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of masculinity to examine was its pervasive effect on the power structures and unconscious bias within the City of London financial industry. Men working there are well-educated, confident and operate in a culture of their own making, so it was difficult to pick out the dominant threads of masculinity from the dense and perfect weave of their business. Object in Foreground was inspired by the bland lobbies of their corporate towers. The decor expresses imperial neutrality, but I saw them as bachelor pads write large.
My favourite though, was this one: ‘Luxury Brands for Social Justice’
Because it felt so good to be so angry and yet be able to laugh at this shit all at the same time: