Category Archives: Role of the intellectual

The questions we ask: environmental justice and ecocriticism

51PGPTD2KZL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been working on research proposals and job applications, along with working on articles, and slowly growing into how I think theoretically about my many years as a community worker and organiser, and how I can work in my new role to make this world better. Whatever my new role comes to be exactly, given how few jobs exist, and without ceasing to be an activist as a volunteer for this, that and the other of course. So much of our work and thought is driven by the kinds of questions we ask, and nowhere have I found more difference than in the kinds of questions people ask and think are worth finding answers to.

In a large project, few things are as important as your research question.

So the fact that within the wonderful Environmental Justice Reader (mostly blogged here) someone sat down, and wrote out typical questions for the different areas of ecocriticism was wonderful, and impossibly useful to me. I think this should be done for every field. Not as a way of limiting our questions, but as way to help you position yourself, of knowing who you most want to be in conversation with. Of not judging others unfairly, because they never started off knowing what you wanted to know.

Then of course, there is the whole question of knowing what other people want to know, and how your own questions fit into that, so you can get funding. But that just drags a whole exciting world of curiosity and possibility into the dust, and there’s no need to do that in a blog post. I will save that for my paralyzing moments of existential questioning.


img_7438Reed, T.V. ‘Toward an Environmental Justice Ecocriticism’ (145-162)





Linda Hogan: Dwellings

3592266A beautiful meditation through a series of essays on the world and our place in it from Linda Hogan…our place as part of it, and our place sharing it with a host of other things full of wonder. A world that is greater than our comprehension, though dominant ideology attempts to constrain it within words and models of profit and loss.

Even wilderness is seen as having value only as it enhances and serves our human lives, our human world. While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to our spiritual and psychological well-being, it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours. It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand. it is something beyond us something that does not need our hand in it. As one of our Indian elders has said, there are laws beyond our human laws, and ways above ours. We have no words for this in our language, or even for our experience of being there. Ours is a language of commerce and trade, of laws that can be bent in order that treaties might be broken, land wounded beyond healing. It is a language that is limited, emotionally and spiritually, as if it can’t accommodate such magical strength and power. (45-46)

The world continues to be greater than our small understandings.

There is so much here that resonates with the very theoretical work emerging around the crisis we face, the working through in academic ways of the meaning of the anthropocene. Dwellings emerges from the bottom up, from earth and people and out of a tradition whose attempted destruction demanded the rationalisations emerging from immense intellectual work. The theorising that justified genocide, that continues to justify the world’s destruction, shares much the same abstracted kind of language as that of academics now working in their own ways to understand this moment of crisis we are in. This is not entirely a critique, people speak in the language that they know. I love some of this work. It is just a dissonance I always feel, an alienation that is always there. Because in many ways, academic language cannot really cope with what matters, and what it learns it hides away behind an impenetrable wall of words in books as heavy as bricks.

We are looking for a tongue that speaks with reverence for life, searching for an ecology of mind. Without it, we have no home, have no place of our own within the creation. (60)

I’m not sure English can cope at all, the way we have stripped it. Funny how words that try to grapple with meaning and emotion too often just sound cheesy, like Hallmark cards packaging things for slick consumption. This should not damage the quality of those meanings, but our language seems to try.

We have no home, have no place.

Hogan quotes Lynda Sexson from the article ‘What do Stars Eat?’ in Left Bank, which expresses so much of the barrenness I find in the imagination, that works like Andrea Hairston’s Mindscape highlight through their rich textures and hopes, no coincidence that language should also be a focal point of her work.

We are so accustomed to myths (sacred stories) of extinction, that we are not as practical at imagining that greater gap–continuation. . . .  Would the earth or our existence be in such peril if we did not harbor a profound desire for extinction? “They lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick,” resonates Isaiah. The crisis of Western culture is ecological. The source of that crisis is in Western culture’s own version of reality; the myth of the urge to eradicate: earth and images of earth, body and song. (94)

Everywhere we see the smoking charred proofs of this urge to eradicate.

It manifests partially, I think, in simple arrogance, so deeply ingrained people don’t even know its there. I guess centuries of Colonialism, Imperialism, Slave-owning and genocide haven’t been too good even for those at the top of the chain. Academics especially always need to be discovering, inventing. Need to be owning, taking credit. The establishment demands it, we are caught up in a system just as Marx described manufacturers, and so too many of them (us) bluster through the world not listening, but extracting and abstracting and generating money and status from what other people already know, when they are not busy working on things that probably don’t much matter.  A poem by Jimmie Durham, Cherokee writer: The Teachings of my Grandmother

In a magazine too expensive to buy I read about
How, with scientific devices of great complexity,
U.S. scientists have discovered that if a rat
Is placed in cage in which it has previously
Been given an electrical shock, it starts crying.

I told my grandmother about that and she said,
“We probably knew that would be true.” (55)

all these things that are ‘discovered’, and  — we probably knew that would be true. There are meditations here on Cortez, conquistadores, and I think that’s a big part of where all of this started. That attempt to completely destroy other ways of knowing, other ways of being. In an article on Ishi (last of his tribe), Linda Hogan writes:

A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, the solution to the mystery of what we are. There are already so many holes in the universe that will never again be filled, and each of them forces us to question why we permitted such loss, such tearing away at the fabric of life, and how we will live with our planet in the future. (115)

On the opposite side of a culture that creates holes in the universe is one that celebrates people, strangers, potential, and welcomes them inside:

The lands around my dwelling
Are more beautiful
From the day
When it is given me to see
Faces I have never seen before.
All is more beautiful.
All is more beautiful.
And life is thankfulness.
These guests of mine
Make my house grand.
–Eskimo song







Myles Horton: Popular Education and Social Movement

200275Myles Horton lived and contributed to some of the most pivotal social movements in the US, making his thoughts on social movement as interesting as his experiences of education as liberatory and revolutionary. Both before and after the founding of Highlander, he studied with and learned from other movements and institutions working on projects of transformative change. As a young man he briefly attended the Union Theological Seminary in New York. He then took classes at the University of Chicago — argued and learned from Robert Park and Jane Addams at Hull House:

I learned a lot about social movements, the concepts of how organizations work, while I was at Chicago. I knew that people as individuals would remain powerless, but if they could get together in organizations, they could have power, provided they used their organizations instead of being used by them. I understood the need for organizations, but I was always afraid of what they did to people…they end up in structures and structures become permanent and most of them outlive their usefulness. (49)

This tension is a constant one. It is at the centre of so much argument over what the nature of social movement and just how we should go about both creating and consolidating change. Some, like Piven and Cloward, argue against all organisation that goes beyond a basic capacity for supporting mobilisation, others argue uncritically for organisation at all costs (especially those most invested in them). Myles Horton is naturally quite dialectical about it all.

There is a tradition of folk schools in Denmark, which Horton visited, then came back to his home country of the Appalachians and cofounded Highlander in 1932 with Don West and James Dombrowski. They raised money from subscribers through the Fellowship Of Reconciliation (FOR — another movement organisation to be further explored), which they had ties too, as well as socialist networks.

Highlander, Monteagle, Tennessee

During the Great Depression, it came to be central in the rising labour movement. I myself have never been lucky to be part of or witness anything like the power of the 1930s labour movement or 1950s-60s civil rights movement. Horton writes:

The best educational work at Highlander has always taken place when there is social movement. We’ve guessed right on two social movements–the labor movement in the 1930s and 40s, and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. During movement times, the people involved have the same problems and can go from one community to the next, start a conversation in one place and finish it in another. (84)

Of course, most of the time you’re not this lucky.

Now we’re in what I call an organizational period, which has limited objectives, doesn’t spread very rapidly and has a lot of paid people and bureaucracy. It’s completely different from what takes place when there is a social movement. During organization times you try to anticipate a social movement, and if it turns out that you’ve guessed right, then you’ll be on the inside of a movement helping with the mobilization and strategies, instead of on the outside jumping on the bandwagon and never being an important part of it. You try to figure out what’s going to happen so that you can position yourself in such a way as to become part of it: you do things in advance to prepare the groundwork for a larger movement. That way, you’re built into it when the momentum begins. It’s like learning to ride freight trains. (84)

This ‘figuring out’ isn’t remote or terribly theoretical, it involves listening to people and remaining connected to struggle:

Years later we anticipated the civil rights movement, not because we did an analysis and concluded there was going to be one, but because we found that with everything we tried, we’d get only so far before we’d run up against the playing off of blacks against whites. It was a barrier that stopped us from moving toward our goal of economic democracy. (87)

Part of the reason they were so aware of this, is that Highlander was for decades the only place in the south where people both black and white could stay, eat and meet together. This alone was revolutionary as for decades, beginning with its educational work in the labour movement, Highlander fought segregation through its daily practice.

For more on the difference between long organizational periods and periods of social movement:

It’s only in a movement that an idea is often made simple enough and direct enough that it can spread rapidly. Then your leadership multiplies very rapidly, because there’s something explosive going on. People see that other people not so different from themselves do things they thought could never be done. They’re embold­ened and challenged by that to step into the water, and once they get in the water, it’s as if they’ve never not been there.

People who work to create a decent world long for situations like this, but most of the time we are working with organizations. We cannot create movements, so if we want to be part of a movement when it comes, we have to get ourselves into a position-by working with organizations that deal with structural change-to be on the inside of that movement when it comes, instead of on the outside trying to get accepted.

When you’re in an organizational period, which is most of the time, there can be many organizations without there being a move­ment… (114)

Citizenship Schools

Highlander was at a crossroads in the late 40s and early 50s, phasing out of union organizing as they had succeeded in helping the unions become ready to further organize and work on their own. They tried to start up conversations around building a liberal labour-farmer coalition, but that went nowhere. Quite naturally they also began to focus on racism. They had been confronting this for many years,  also they had more and more people from Africa and Asia arriving for conferences unable to feel comfortable anywhere else in the south. Education director Septima Clark (there will be more about her) made a proposal for schools to help people learn enough to pass Jim Crow literacy tests so that they could vote.

Bernice Robinson taught the first classes and helped craft the program. A niece of Septima Clarke, she also worked as a black beautician — her business a social centre, as well as a job of status and independence in the community with its economic independence of whites. Bernice and the first 14 students decided to call it a citizenship school. The first thing on the wall that they learned to read was the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. (In Septima Clark’s memory it was the constitution they learned from — there are some interesting minor differences in the ways she and Horton remember things, but more on that in another post).

Horton describes that decision:

Since we were operating from the basis that these were adults with dignity, it was important to challenge them with something worthy of the attention an concern of an adult. (103)

also the other aspect of the curriculum:

Along with becoming literate, they learned to organize, they learned to protest, they learned to demand their rights, because they also learned that you couldn’t just read and write yourself into freedom. You had to fight for that and you had to do it as part of a group, not as an individual. (104)

None of the teachers were formally trained — it was thought teachers would be unable to resist recreating traditional models of education which did not respect the knowledge and life experiences of their students or succeed in teaching adults differently from children. All of them came from the communities they taught in. I particularly liked how he described his advising role in the founding of the programme:

I made up a movie in my mind of what would happen during those three months, and when I’d see certain tings going wrong in my mind’s eye I’d re-edit the film or erase the movie and start over again. Then I replayed the film until I finally got most of the bugs out of it…I’d sit by the hour… (101)

The citizenship schools became wildly successful, an idea whose time had come.

The job of Highlander was to multiply leadership for radical social change. The Citizenship School during the  civil rights period is an example. It’s been estimated that more than one hundred thousand people were reached by the Citizenship Schools. In my opinion, the truth is that nobody knows how many people were involved. They could’ve just said, “a helluva lot of people” and it would have been about as accurate. (115)

Given the dialectic between organisation and structure and programming, and innovation and flexibility in a supportive role more to do with creating space for people to come together outside of the limitations of the structures they worked within, the citizenship schools were spun off to become part of SCLC programme. Horton writes:

We tried to find ways of working that did not duplicate what was already being done. To be true to our vision, it was necessary to stay small and not get involved in mass education or in activities which required large amounts of money… We solved the problem of staying small by spinning off programs that were already established and were willingly taken over by organizations less interested in creating new programs… These spin-offs enabled Highlander to concentrate on cutting-edge programs that no one else in the region was undertaking. (138-139)

The Larger Civil Rights Movement

Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King and  Ella Baker along with the whole host of organisers from SNCC held a number of important meetings here.

The ante went up and finally escalated into demands that they do away with all public segregation. (116)

This of course put Highlander at risk. In 1961, Tennessee District Attorney shut down Highlander — raiding it and arresting those who were there on charges of selling liquor without a license and for holding interracial classes. The trial resulted in the State’s confiscation of the property. Within two months of being locked up, someone had burned it down. Highlander temporarily moved to a big house in the black community of Knoxville. There they faced arson and firebombing attempts, the puncturing of their tires, and the shooting out of their windows. They survived there ten years, before moving back to another farm in rural Tennessee.

Horton again emphasises the conflict and violence involved in achieving meaningful change described more fully in the first post, and the ways that this is brought to the for during a period of social movement:

A large social movement forces people to take a stand for or against it, so that there are no longer any neutrals. You’ve got to be on one side or the other. It’s true that it forces some people to be worse than they would. be, more violent than they would be, but it also forces some people to get behind the cause and work for it and even die for it. People have to understand that you can’t make progress without pain, because you, can’t make progress with­out provoking violent opposition. If enough people want change and others stand in their way, they’re going to force them out of the way. A revolution is just the last step of a social movement after it has taken a pre-revolutionary form. (114)


Another aspect of social movement is its leadership — and most prominent is always leadership of a different kind than that provided by Highlander.

The only problem I have with movements has to do with  my reservations about charismatic leaders. There’s something about having one that can keep democracy from working effectively. But we don’t have movements without them. That’s why I had no intellectual problem supporting King as a charismatic leader. (120)

This issue of charisma is an important one, brought up by Aldon Morris, Piven and Cloward and others theorising social change. I like Horton’s very practical approach:

One thing I especially like about social movements is that even though they throw up charismatic leaders, most of the people who are part of them can learn to be educators and organizers. High­lander was able to play a role in developing educators because we were asked to do the educational work by both SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). We trained the people who ran the Citizenship Schools and the voter registra­tion drives, the noncharismatic people. That was when I learned, just as I had in the earlier industrial union period, that educational work during social movement periods provides the best opportunity for multiplying democratic leadership.

There is another important thing that social movements do: they radicalize people. That is, people learn from the movement to go beyond the movement. It may only affect a minority of the people, but there are so many people. involved that thousands of them get radicalized. (127)

A final point. For Horton the struggle was never just within the local area, the region or the nation — he emphasised that this approach must be international.  He traveled widely, part of building a network of people involved in this kind of liberatory praxis, and believed their approach connected Appalachia to other oppressed regions and areas, as well as other struggles and other people engaging in similar work such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Paulo Freire… What is not to love?

This is the second of three posts on Myles Horton’s The Long Haul, the first is on popular education basics, and the next will be contrasting popular education with community organising.

For more posts on popular education and struggle…



Myles Horton: The Basics for the Long Haul

200275Things Myles Horton says often make you want to clap your hand against your forehead and say ‘of course!’ They are so simple, so true, so clear… They lack some of the complex theoretical framing of Paulo Freire’s work, which I am sure explains why they have not become as prevalent in academic discourses. Yet the two men worked along almost exactly the same lines developing critical praxis for changing the world. Horton speaks of decades of work and key support for two of the greatest social movements in the U.S., the 1930’s union movement and the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. Through this retelling of his life and work, an incredible theory of education and social change emerges.

At bottom, the principle is so simple:

It’s the principle of trying to serve people and building a loving world. If you believe that people are of worth, you can’t treat anyone inhumanely, and that means you not only have to love and respect people, but you have to think in terms of building a society that people can profit from, and that kind of society has to work on the principle of equality. Otherwise, somebody’s going to be left out.

People always ask, “Can we wait till we have a society that’s perfect to have equality?” Well, of course, we’ll never  achieve it unless we start where we are, so you begin incorporating principles of equality into everything you do. That’s complicated, because it’s hard to avoid domination or inequality, or paternalism: but the principle itself isn’t complicated, it’s the application that’s complicated. (7)

All of the elaborations of both Freire and Horton among others are trying to figure out just how you incorporate equality, love and respect into everything you do, what that means. He has a vision similar to Freire’s on what the point of life really is:

I think that people aren’t fully free until they’re in a  struggle for justice. And that means for everyone. It’s a struggle of such importance that they are willing, if necessary, to die for it. I think that’s what you have to do before you’re really free. (184)

This shit makes me tear up just a bit, because it’s true. And me, I’ve been involved in struggle a long time but not quite achieved this full freedom yet. I’m not sure if it’s more distant now or not as I struggle to plug back in to meaningful work as a writer, an academic, a volunteer activist rather than an organizer. I think much of this will happen once I’m finally able to settle down again, put down roots, involve myself for the long term in a community. I am looking forward to that, and a job. But there are words of comfort here about that

I had to turn my anger into a slow burning fire, instead of a consuming fire. You don’t want the fire to go out — you never let it go out–and if it ever gets weak, you stoke it, but you don’t want it to burn you up. It keeps you going, but you subdue it, because you don’t want to be destroyed by it. (80)

Also in recognising the strength of what we are up against, and that this struggle is an ongoing one where we only play a part. Thus, the title:

I had to come to grips with this when I realized that the capitalist system was more viable than I had thought. It had more ways of lasting than I had understood from my experience in the Depression, when a lot of people, including me, thought that capitalism was on its last legs. When I finally found out it wasn’t even limping, that Roosevelt’s job was to make it work, and he did make it work, I realized that you had to slow down the fire, because you’d burn up the fuel and it would be over. That’s when I started trying to calm myself down, step by step, that it wasn’t going to come as a great explosion automatically. It had to be made, or it wouldn’t happen.

That’s when I started saying, “Horton, get yourself together, get ready for the long haul..” (81)

So…the basics of Horton’s teaching. First, that change must be collectively won through action upon the world:

I changed and became philosophically a socialist. I understood that you couldn’t act alone, and that you couldn’t withdraw into a utopian community. To deal with injustice you had to act in the world. you had to share what you knew. (30)

Popular education thus must be a collective enterprise:

It isn’t a matter of each one teach one. It’s a matter of having a concept of education that is yeasty, one that will multiply itself. You have to think in terms of which small groups have the potential to multiply themselves and fundamentally change society.

Therefore, you can’t have each individual go her or his own way and work separately. the people you deal with have to work with you in the name of a group, not for their own personal reasons. (57)

That this collective action is not just some idealistic pipe dream:

In the civil rights movement we saw people come out of the fields and get in the voter registration line and be beaten up and shot at and become leaders and run for office and get elected. Since we’ve seen that, we don’t think of ourselves as utopian.
My job is to provide opportunities for people to grow (not to make them grow, because no one can do that), to provide a climate which nurtures islands of decency, where people can learn in such a way that they continue to grow. (133)

A final recognition that through inaction you are as much a part of the dynamic as through action:

I do not  believe in neutrality. Neutrality is just another word for accepting the status quo as universal law. (139)

To work as an educator to achieve such a nurturing climate in our society requires a particular kind of framework and understanding that are very much based in standing with the poor and oppressed (even if you weren’t raised among them, it’s your choice). First, it is to understand the lived reality of the poor and people of colour and women  — in my own life this has been one of the biggest gaps in activist circles, and the lack of such understanding in others has been one of the most frustrating to overcome.

I didn’t have to work out theories about the violence of poverty, because I had been close to it all my life. The violence of poverty destroys families, twists minds, hurts in many ways beyond the pain of hunger.

There is another kind of violence that supports the violence of poverty, and that is institutionally sanctioned violence. We live in a violent society, a violent world; that is, a world in which force is a vital mechanism used to keep the economic and social system intact. We have laws that are backed up by a police force; and the state, when the police force can’t control defiance, is backed up by armies. The laws of the land are supported by the use of violence…If you oppose things in that system, then all those powers of violence can be used to force you into line. If you’re trying to change things, first you have to know that violence can be used against you, and second, you have to know what strategies to use in order to change the system, given that situation. (27 – 28)

Perhaps sharing this assessment and lived experience of such structural violence (while of course recognising the very real differences and my relative privilege compared to Horton and so many others) is why I completely agree with his assessment on violence as opposed to non-violence:

You have to fit violent revolutions into the whole context of thinking about violence. Violence is relative. Sometimes a revolution can be a lesser form of violence if people are suffering intolerably under their currently entrenched rulers. There are many kinds of violence: physical violence, mental violence, the kind of violence that causes babies to be born with brain damage because their mothers didn’t have the proper food, the violence that suppresses people’s expression of beliefs and ideas… (38)

For a time Horton was part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) where he engaged in many discussions about this. It would also be a key discussion point for members of SNCC, working in the murderous South. Charles Cobb describes remarkably similar conclusions to Horton’s below:

I believed that it was a matter of determining what was the lesser violence, not choosing between violence and nonviolence. Most of the poor people in the world don’t have that kind of choice. The people at this meeting were more privileged, and they could afford to take a theoretical stance. I was always needling about their unrealistic position. (39)

I wish I had been there. I wish too I had more of this uncompromising yet loving attitude that always speaks up…I would have probably sat angry but mostly silent in such meetings.

Key, of course, is that this is all about working with people to create a better world, to ‘incorporate the principles of equality into everything you do’, knowing that this means starting with where people are and moving upwards together.

Since I chose to work with poor, oppressed people, I had to take into consideration that they’d never been allowed to value their own experience; that they’d been told it was dirt and that only teachers and experts knew what was good for them.

I knew that it was necessary to do things in the opposite way…It also became clear that there had to be a place where people could learn how to make decisions by actually making real decisions. That’s how you learn anything–by doing it. (57)

Always a goal, its practice still emerged at Highlander through learning from mistakes:

We ended up doing what most people do when they come to a place like Appalachia: we saw problems that we thought we had the answers to, rather than seeing the problems and the answers that the people had themselves. That was our basic mistake. Once you understand that, you don’t have to have answers, and you can open up new ways of doing things.

Another idea we didn’t fully understand is that one of the best ways of educating people is to give them an experience that embodies what you are trying to teach. When you believe in a democratic society, you provide a setting for education that is democratic. (68)

People learn more through a process of dialogue and practice, rather than through a taught curriculum. Returning to the understanding of the violence inherent in the system, this praxis is never safe, nor conflict free.

It’s dangerous to do this kind of education, to push the boundaries to the place where people might be fired or get in some other kind of trouble… If people don’t take chances, they’ll never keep pushing. They must explore and push as far as they can. People get the exhilaration of liberating themselves, pushing that boundary… by the time they do, they are liberated enough that they are not going to spend the rest of their lives boxed in, and of course most of the time they land on their feet. (183)

To me this is as effective a message as Freire’s philosophy of humanization and dialogue, and it has to rest firm on a belief that we are here on this earth for more than just getting through each day. Risk is part of change, and it is part of becoming fully human.

I don’t think you help people by keeping them enslaved to something that is less than they are capable of doing and believing. … My position was that I believed in changing society by first changing individuals, so that they could then struggle to bring about social changes. There’s a lot of pain in it, and a lot of violence, and conflict, and that is just part of the price you pay. I realized that was part of growth–and growth is painful.

Trusting people — the role of the intellectual

You don’t have to know the answers. The answers come from the people, and when they don’t have any answers, then you have another role, and you find resources. (23)

This is key to it all, the belief that collectively, through critical dialogue, people will come up with the answers they need, and steadily refine and expand them over time.

People have a potential for growth; it’s inside, it’s in the seeds. This kind of potential cannot guarantee a particular outcome, but it’s what you build on. (133)

The role of the educator lies in creating a safe space and a process for the collective undoing of oppressions, bringing resources to bear when needed. This process is the only thing that can create the desired outcome.

If we are to have a democratic society, people must find or invent new channels through which decisions can be made. Given genuine decision-making powers, people will not only learn rapidly to make socially useful decisions, but they will also assume responsibility for carrying out decisions based on their collective judgment. The problem is not that people will make irresponsible or wrong decisions. It is, rather, to convince people who have been ignored or excluded in the past that their involvement will have meaning and that their ideas will be respected. The danger is not too much, but too little participation.

Popular education should give people experience in making decisions. Many take it for granted that people can make decisions, but actually, the majority of us are not allowed to make decisions about most of the things that are important. I have been put on the spot about the contradiction between my views on people making their own decisions and my action in making decisions that affect people’s experience at Highlander, such as my insisting there can be no discrimination or lack of freedom of speech. I think, however, if you’re going to help people make decisions, it’s important to show them that the decisions they make must be responsible. Whenever you take a position, you’ve made a decision. The decision at Highlander from its beginning in the 1930s to practice social equality was a big one – with legal, practical and moral implications. (134)

A little more on Myles Horton’s vision of democracy:

Democracy needs to be not only political but part of the fabric of society as a whole. When I use the word “democracy,” it is not limited to political decision making, to voting. It is a philosophical concept meaning that people are really free and empowered to make collectively the decisions that affect their lives. (169)

The practice of popular education

I like to think that I have two eyes that I don’t have to use the same way…I try to see with one eye where these people are as they perceive themselves to be…You have to start where people are, because their growth is going to be from there, not from some abstraction or where you are or somewhere else is.

Now my other eye is not such a problem, because I already have in mind a philosophy of where I’d like to see people moving. (131)

This movement happens, just as for Freire, as a natural outcome of critical and collective discussion in a circle:

I think of an educational workshop as a circle of learners. “circle” is not an accidental term, for there is no head of the table at Highlander workshops; everybody sits around in a circle. (150)

At Highlander there were two guiding principles:

nobody can be discriminated against, for any reason, and there is freedom to say anything or take any position on the topic of the workshop. (155)

It is, however, understood in advance, that students have to stay on topic. No rants on other things…we have all met those folks who enjoy that sort of thing. The working assumptions for each workshop (and I am paraphrasing here) are:

1. a workshop has to have a goal arising out a social problem that the students perceive
2. people have within themselves the potential, intelligence, courage and ability to solve their own problems
3. the Highlander experience can add to and enrich the educational experience
4. in addition to learning from their peers, Highlander staff members should have an opportunity to interact in the field with the students.
5. factual information and analysis presented has to be tailored to the expressed needs of the participants It is meant to be usable knowledge that can help when people return home.
6. follow-up receives special attention

Above all this is a process of praxis embedded in a community:

The most important part of a workshop come from what has happened in a community before the workshop itself, and what happens when people go home and act. (153)

A final reminder on why this kind of practice is so important, because any other simply reifies what the capitalist system currently imposes:

Any educational philosophy comes out of what you do and how you deal with people. When you believe in people and in the importance of trying to create a democracy, you must turn these beliefs into practice, and if you don’t believe in the free enterprise system and individual competitiveness, you practice group action and cooperation…(175)

This is one of three posts, the next looks at Highlander’s connection to social movement, and the third at the difference between popular education as Myles Horton practiced and envisioned it, and his understanding of community organizing as practised by Saul Alinsky and others.

[Horton, Myles with Judith and Herbert Kohl. (1998) the long haul: an autobiography. New York: Teachers College Press.]



Freire: What we are up against, and the role of the radical

Paolo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedThe last of four posts on Paulo Freire, I am finally getting to his more concrete theorisations of what we are up against, and the role that radicals should take. This is because in my own mind — and as it is structured in the book itself — this must be based firmly around an understanding of how our existing structures strip away our humanity and how each of us needs to recover this for ourselves through a process of struggle. This consists of a process of collectively finding voice, naming our reality, and acting upon it.

The role of the radical is thus one based is love, faith in others and humility, to echo the last post:

The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a ‘circle of certainty’ within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side. (39)

This sits in an utter negation of more commonly understood definitions of both charity workers and too often revolutionaries:

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands — whether of individuals or entire peoples — need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world. (45)

People often set out to deliver false charity, but I found particularly apt this description of the pitfalls of charity and the upper class vanguards:

It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and more to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them their deformations, which include a lack confidence in the peoples’ ability to think, to want, and to know…. these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust. (60)

To recap the points made in earlier posts, people must liberate themselves through a combination of reflection and action, to carry out a revolution otherwise is simply to oppress in a new way.

It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection — only then will it be a praxis.

Critical and liberating dialogue, which presupposes action, must be carried on with the oppressed at whatever the stage of their struggle for liberation. (24) The content of that dialogue can and should vary in accordance with historical conditions and the level at which the oppressed perceive reality. But to substitute monologue, slogans and communiques for dialogue is to attempt to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication. (65)

On Education

Freire’s writings on education have often been removed from the more revolutionary nature of his work, but I like how it engages with the process of education as it is now, bringing insights into how hegemony is created and oppression maintained and most importantly, how it must be undone through a very different process:

Indeed, the interests of the oppressors lie in “changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them,” (1) for the more the oppressed can be led to adapt to that situation, the more easily they can be dominated. To achieve this the oppressors use the banking concept of education in conjunction with a paternalistic social action apparatus, within which the oppressed receive the euphemistic title of “welfare recipients.” They are treated as individual cases, as marginal persons who deviate from the general configuration of a “good, organized and just” society. The oppressed are regarded as the pathology of the healthy society which must therefore adjust these “incompetent and lazy” folk to its own patterns by changing their mentality. These marginals need to be “integrated,” “incorporated” into the healthy society that they have “forsaken.”

The truth is, however, that the oppressed are not “marginals,” are not living “outside” society. They have always been “inside” the structure which made them “beings for others.” The solution is not to ‘integrate” them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become “beings for themselves.” Such transformation, of course, would undermine the oppressors’ purposes; hence their utilization of the banking concept of education to avoid the threat of student conscientizacao. (74)

Another key point around the use of ‘marginal’, the understanding of where people sit within the system. Following Marx, Freire understands that the oppressed, the labourers sit at the very heart of the system.

I find Freire’s formulation of precise strategies of capitalism to promote dehumanization so useful. Above all they are antidialogic, destroying the spaces of communication and collectivity that make possible a different world. They are:


The first characteristic of antidialogical action is the necessity for conquest. The antidialogical individual, in his relations with others, aims at conquering them—increasingly and by every means, from the toughest to the most refined, from the most repressive to the most solicitous (paternalism).

Every act of conquest implies a conqueror and someone or something which is conquered. The conqueror imposes his objectives on the vanquished, and makes of them his possession. He imposes his own contours on the vanquished, who internalize this shape and become ambiguous beings “housing” another. From the first, the act of conquest, which reduces persons to the status of things, is necrophilic. (138)


As the oppressor minority subordinates and dominates the majority, it must divide it and keep it divided in order to remain in power. The minority cannot permit itself the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people, which would undoubtedly signify a serious threat to their own hegemony.

One of the characteristics of oppressive cultural action which is almost never perceived by the dedicated but naive professionals who are involved is the emphasis on a focalized view of problems rather than on seeing them as dimensions of a totality. In “community development” projects the more a region or area is broken down into “local communities,” without the study of these communities both as totalities in themselves and as parts of another totality (the area, region, and so forth)—which in its turn is part of a still larger totality (the nation, as part of the continental totality)—the more alienation is intensified. (141)


By means of manipulation, the dominant elites try to conform the masses to their objectives. And the greater the political immaturity of these people (rural or urban) the more easily the latter can be manipulated by those who do not wish to lose their power.

The people are manipulated by the series of myths described earlier in this chapter, and by yet another myth: the model of itself which the bourgeoisie presents to the people as the possibility for their own ascent. In order for these myths to function, however, the people must accept the word of the bourgeoisie. (147)


In this phenomenon, the invaders penetrate the cultural context of another group, in disrespect of the latters potentialities; they impose their own view of the world upon those they invade and inhibit the creativity of the invaded by curbing their expression.

Whether urbane or harsh, cultural invasion is thus always an act of violence against the persons of the invaded culture, who lose their originality or face the threat of losing it.(152)

This is part of the process of cooptation.

Neither the professionals nor the discussion participants in the New York slums talk and act for themselves as active Subjects of the historical process. None of them are theoreticians or ideologues of domination. On the contrary, they are effects which in turn become causes of domination. This is one of the most serious problems the revolution must confront when it reaches power. This stage demands maximum political wisdom, decision, and courage from the leaders, who for this very reason must have sufficient judgment not to fall into irrationally sectarian positions.

Professional women and men of any specialty, university graduates or not, are individuals who have been “determined from above”34 by a culture of domination which has constituted them as dual beings. (If they had come from the lower classes this miseducation would be the same, if not worse.)… since many among them—even though “afraid of freedom” and reluctant to engage in humanizing action—are in truth more misguided than anything else, they not only could be, but ought to be, reclaimed by the revolution. (158)

Sentences like this, you realise just how close Freire is to a world of actual revolution, to armed struggle in Brazil and elsewhere throughout Central and South America. It is like reading Angela Davis, I am so jealous of those who were able to work in times of such hopeful uprising.

I find these four divisions of capitalism’s operation so interesting, these are their counters:


In the dialogical theory of action, Subjects meet in cooperation in order to transform the world…. there are Subjects who meet to name the world in order to transform it. (167)

I love, too, that being so close to revolution there is no room here for romanticisation, love, faith and humility do not require naivete, they simply require moving alongside people rather than in front of them.

This confidence should not, however, be naive. The leaders must believe in the potentialities of the people, whom they cannot treat as mere objects of their own action; they must believe that the people are capable of participating in the pursuit of liberation. But they must always mistrust the ambiguity of oppressed people, mistrust the oppressor “housed” in the latter. (169)


the leaders must dedicate themselves to an untiring effort for unity among the oppressed—and unity of the leaders with the oppressed—in order to achieve liberation. (173)


In the theory of antidialogical action, manipulation is indispensable to conquest and domination; in the dialogical theory of action the organization of the people presents the antagonistic opposite of this manipulation. Organization is not only directly linked to unity, but is a natural development of that unity. Accordingly, the leaders’ pursuit of unity is necessarily also an attempt to organize the people, requiring witness to the fact that the struggle for liberation is a common task. (175)

I think the whole of Freire’s understanding about the role of voice, dialogue and praxis far overflows these categories, so they are not as useful as the formulations of what we fight against. But still. Useful. Perhaps of their time, but on the whole this book is timeless and quite magnificent.

Other posts on Freire and popular education…















Movement Halfway Houses

22493I quite love the idea of Movement Halfway Houses, explored in Aldon D. Morris’s The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. I thought I’d blog it separately from the stupidly long look at the main thrust of the book itself. I have read so much of Freire and Horton, worked in popular education for a long time and have thought a lot about what the hell we organizers do when there is no real rumbling of the masses and popular uprising in the wind. Apart from long for these days past when everything seemed possible.

It seems to me, we build these. Analytically, this is what Morris argues they are:

A movement halfway house is an established group or organization that is only partially integrated into the larger society because its participants are actively involved in efforts to being about a desired change in society. The American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Highlander Folk Schools are examples… They don’t have a mass base, instead they ‘develop a battery of social change resources such as skilled activists, tactical knowledge, media contacts, workshops, knowledge of past movements, and a vision of a future society.’ (139-140)

Because mass uprising may have a level of spontaneity, but it can take different forms both good and really fucking virulent. Because democracy and collective action are learned, they are skills rather than some kind human nature that just comes out when called. Because strategy and tactics shouldn’t be continually reinvented (though always innovated). Because inspiration from our elders is so important — and young organizers always become elders in their turn and we don’t have good ways to manage that at all.

Morris focuses on the Highlander Folk School and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Highlander was founded by Myles Horton in the Appalachian mountains. This is why he is a hero of mine, arguing ‘oppressed people know the answers to their own problems’ but ‘the answers to problems of the oppressed lie in the experiences and imagination of the group rather than individuals.’

To arrive at liberatory knowledge and praxis requires a group, a collective, it needs to work through dialogue. Morris argues it is based on the following assumptions:

  1. Education through experience was a potent social change force.
  2. The solutions to oppression were rooted in the experience and communities of the oppressed.
  3. People and their situations would inform Highlander’s educational programs.
  4. The task of changing society rested on the shoulders of the oppressed. (142-143)

They worked with unions through the Great Depression and demanded integration of all union workshops beginning in 1940. Horton did things like bring beauticians in for workshops from all over the South because saw that they were community leaders, and wanted them to work for integration. Highlander sponsored the amazing citizenship schools that were later passed on to the SCLC to grow:

Movement activists of various pursuasions stated repeatedly that the Citizenship Schools were one of the most effective organizing tools of the movement. The “less militant” aspects of the movement like the Citizenship Schools were a significant mobilizing factor throughout the movement, often serving as “quiet structures” behind what appeared to be spontaneous uprisings. (239)

Rosa Parks was a regular figure here, as was King and all the other figures we know and love from the movement. It was the one place in the South that was fully integrated, living this reality before many could even begin to imagine it. Student leaders met here to strategise and train for the sit-ins, even before they formed SNCC. Local authorities saw it as a threat, they faced multiple threats and violence. They were closed by court order. For a bit. But not for long. They were instrumental as a place for reflection, difficult discussion, collective learning and sharing. But in the words of Myles Horton:

Movements are not started by educational institutions, I don’t care how good they are. We might have been pretty good, at least the enemies thought so. But not that good, you know. (157)

The movement might have looked very different, however, without the existence of Highlander.

The same can be said of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, another example of a movement halfway house. Morris argues it was instrumental to the civil rights movement in 5 ways:

  1. in the organization and development of CORE
  2. a vehicle through which the method & history of nonviolent protest was introduced to Southern Black communities and the emerging leadership of the civil rights movement.
  3. provided MIA ‘with “an intelligence service,” which gathered information from white opposition groups
  4. made available well-trained staff members and continued to pay their salaries,
  5. … provided the emerging movement with important literature and films. (157)

Morris emphasises the fact that nonviolence was not part of a long tradition. He quotes organizer Hosea Williams as saying

Nonviolence as a way of life was just as foreign to blacks as flying a space capsule would be to a roach. (158)

In a nutshell this shows the remarkable feat it was to convert the Southern black community to nonviolence, through continuous workshops and appeals to ‘nonviolent tradition rooted in the black church and in the life of Jesus’. (158)

Still, it was for many just a tactic to reach a specific goal (there’s a wonderful discussion of this in That Nonviolent Stuff Will Get You Killed), but as a tactic it was widely embraced. After the Supreme Court decided Montgomery’s segregation of buses was unconstitutional, one of FOR’s nonviolence workshops held to prepare people for struggle to fully desegregate trained over 5,000 people.

5,000 people. God damn. I get organizer chills again.

They did research, collected intelligence, shared best practices both within the movement and learning from other struggles around the world. They also documented the movement — a thing organizers never have time to do. They published a comic book to reach all those folks who don’t like to read on the dynamics of the Montgomery bus boycott, titled it Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They made a film as well, called Walk to Freedom. Priceless footage to us now.

Just an aside as a researcher as well — there’s is another brillianr note on the role of research from the United Christian Movement, Inc (Louisiana). They knew they had a problem with infiltrators, hey created their own intelligence department, so they found out all about those they were up against. They would often announce plans to integrate libraries or movies on a certain day and then not show. Their aim? To ‘devastate’ stool pigeons. They also passed messages through codes in sermons and songs.

Anyway, I’ll quote Myles again saying ‘Movements are not started by educational institutions, I don’t care how good they are.’ But they are shaped by them, supported by them, and documented by them for future generations. All of these things make these key institutions in building a better future. Maybe the same can be said of writers and academics as well, when they do their job well. One can hope.

Sister Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider

Audre Lorde Sister OutsiderYet another person, I think, finding Audre Lorde intense and beautiful and amazing and reading it and saying hell yes, this and this and this…

I think this will just be a long old collection of quotes. Because they are amazing, and you can never have too many quotes, right? This is my own treasure to delve back into when I need some anger or some love or some wisdom. But it is also yours. Audre Lorde’s gift to us. These will resonate with me the rest of my days, and I hope to think through many of them more deeply through my writing over time.

Because everything she says about breaking silence, both the necessity and the fear and the vulnerability, it’s all true.

From ‘The transformation of Silence into Language and Action’

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. (40)

And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger…We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters are wasted, while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we still be no less afraid.  (42)

The fact that we are here and that I speak these words us an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of these differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken. (44)

From ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’

The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has different bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are — until the poem — nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding. (36)

Some important definitions from ‘Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving’:

Racism: The belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance.

Sexism: The belief in the inherent superiority of one sex and thereby the right to dominance.

Heterosexism: The belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving and thereby its right to dominance.

Homophobia: The fear of feelings of love for members of one’s own sex and therefore the hatred of those feelings in others.

The above forms of human blindness stem from the same root — an inability to recognize the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening to the defined self, when there are shared goals. (45)

For it is through the coming together of self-actualized individuals, female and male, that any real advance can be made. The old sexual power relationships based on a dominant/subordinate model between unequals has not served us as a people, nor as individuals. (46)

From ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’:

The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference. (56)

(How fucking lovely this is as a way to understand the erotic.)

From ‘An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich’

Audre:…And I remember trying when I was in high school not to think in poems. Isaw the way other people thought, and it was an amazement to me — step by step, not in bubbles up from chaos that you had to anchor with words… (83)

Audre:.. When I wrote something that finally had it, I would say it aloud and it would come alive, become real. It would start repeating itself and I’d know, that’s struck, that’s true. Like a bell. Something struck true. And there the words would be. (88)

Audre: The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot. (98)

ohhhhhh, could I teach like that? If only I could, if only I can…

Audre: Once you live any piece of your vision it opens to you a constant onslaught. Of necessities, of horrors, but of wonders too, of possibilities. … Of wonders, absolute wonders, possibilities, like meteor showers all the time, bombardment, constant connections. (107-108)

From ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’ — a title that says it all really.

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support. (112)

From ‘Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference’

Much of Western European history conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior. In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. Within this society, that group is made up of Black and Third World people, working-class people, older people, and women. (114)

But Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest. We do not deal with it only on the picket lines, or in dark midnight alleys, or in the places where we dare to verbalize our resistance. For us, increasingly, violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living — in the supermarket, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us.

Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying. (119)

I love this discourse on violence, acknowledgment that what we face is not all the same. I also love the call out to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

I need to read some more poetry — I have so much poetry to read:

 We have chosen each other
and the edge of each others battles
the war is the same
if we lose
someday women’s blood will congeal
upon a dead planet
if we win
there is no telling
we seek beyond history
for a new and more possible meeting.

From ‘The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’

I love acknowledging the need for anger, the benefit of anger, the right to anger. Hell yes.

My response to racism is anger

Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.

My anger is a response to racist attitutudes and to teh actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes…I have used learning to express anger for my growth. But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures. (124)

We are not here as women examining racism is a political and social vacuum. We operate in the teeth of a system for which racism and sexism are primary, established, and necessary props of profit. (128)

This…being poor teaches you a little of this, but not all of this, not the depth of this. Racism always wielded like a knife cutting away, always cutting whether superficially or deep. So many cuts, so many years…it stops mattering.

Women of Color in america have grown up within a symphony of anger, at being silenced, at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart. We have had to learn to move through them and use them for strength and force and insight within our daily lives. Those of us who did not learn this difficult lesson did not survive. And part of my anger is always libation for my fallen sisters. (129)

The power of anger as a positive force, one that brings transformation

But the strength of women lies in recognizing differences between us as creative, and in standing to those distortions which we inherited without blame, but which are now ours to alter. The angers of women can transform different through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth. (131)

from ‘Learning from the 60s’ (and there is a lot to learn)

MALCOLM X is a distinct shape in a very pivotal period of my life. I stand here now – Black, Lesbian, Feminist – an inheritor of Malcolm and in his tradition, doing my work, and the ghost of his voice through my mouth asks each one of you here tonight: Are you doing yours? (134)

As Black people, if there is one thing we can learn from the 60s, it is how infinitely complex any move for liberation must be. For we must move against not only those forces which dehumanize us from the outside, but also against those oppressive values which we have been forced to take into ourselves. Through examining the combination of our triumphs and errors, we can examine the dangers of an incomplete vision. Not to condemn that vision but to alter it, construct templates for possible futures, and focus our rage for change upon our enemies rather than upon each other. In the 1960s, the awakened anger of the Black community was often expressed, not vertically against the corruption of power and true sources of control over our lives, but horizontally toward those closest to us who mirrored our own impotence. (135)

And this and again this:

You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness. (142)

From ‘Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger’

There is a distinction I am beginning to make in my living between pain and suffering. Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named, and then used in some way in order for the experience to change, to be transformed into something else, strength or knowledge or action.

Suffering on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain. (171)

So much wisdom here, I could do a post on each. Maybe I will.

Fighting for Change

Street Kids: youth, struggle, public space…

12720883Street Kids is a thought-provoking ethnography of youth on the streets and those who try to reach out to them – and one that faces squarely all of the ethical issues involved in an academic studying such a population. I appreciated that so much, as I did the fact that she became an outreach volunteer for two years to complete the study. Thus

What I learned is that when young people tell adults anything about their lives, it is a gift (18).

Ain’t that the truth.

I also appreciated that this got beyond some of the more liberal heartbleeding to look at structural factors – the way that neoliberal privatisation of services and cutbacks in social spending has decimated service provision as the state makes way for private and often faith-based charities, the way that zero-tolerance policing and controls over public space by BIDs and others have forced non-white, non-hetero, non-middle-class populations out of the spaces they have long inhabited and into greater mobility, invisibility, and danger. One consequence of gentrification is even more deaths as youth find themselves under more stress from police, far from services and the familiar networks they rely on for survival, and in neighborhoods that are less safe. The majority of New York’s youth on or of the streets are not the highly visible white population of kids panhandling and scruffy and from around the country, but rather local kids of colour who do everything possible to hide the fact they are homeless, a high percentage of them queer, a high percentage of them escaping abuse. White middle-class residents of newly gentrified areas demanding that they just go home? Just not getting the dynamics are they. Not wanting to get them either.

Scholars argue that public-space laws that drive any perceived source of disorder from gentrifying or commercialized public spaces are ‘revanchist’ that they punitively deny people a right to space. In effect, these laws dismiss homeless people as legitimate social subjects with the right to exist in public… Public-space ordinances are being used to spatially exclude marginalized groups while simultaneously constructing some groups as deviant, disorderly subjects with no right to an orderly, commercialized city (13-14).

Thus society is ‘disciplining street youth into invisibility’ (19). Out of sight, out of mind. Out of funding.

There is a lovely discussion of ‘emplacement’, building on work by geographer Tim Cresswell – how have I not read him before?

Human geographers contend that social subjects are also spatial subjects, that as social beings, people understand the world through grounded and contextual categories. Moreover, places help naturalize social structures and hierarchies by their seemingly stable existence. In the popular lexicon, there is a place for everything, and everything has a place. Places are always both physical and social locations organized through powerful social ideologies. This sociospatial construction is a process of “emplacement.” Besides occupying spaces, these spaces makes us who we are; that is, we shape and are shaped by complex geographies, as both agents and subjects of places (25)

This not only offers insight into our characters and development, our own relationships to places, but also helps define what is at stake in the formation of place. Thus:

The presence of street youth marks a social fissure disrupting modern Western society’s imaginary of itself as orderly and just. Because street you present a type of social dissonance—a ripple in the social stream—social forces over the years have attempted to dislodge, explain away, reposition, reimagine, and erase them.

In an interesting addition to the whole debate about the use of the word ‘underclass’, she clarifies what I kind of knew but hadn’t vocalized – that it is grounded in ideas of youth, as well as race and class and gender. Unemployed youth, criminal youth, teenage mothers. Young people. Even more reasons to hate it, apart from how it’s been used to undercut welfare and demonize those in poverty. ‘They’ are different, outsiders when the term ‘community’ is mobilized as an ideal form in service of cleaning up and cleaning out, in service of attracting the middle and upper classes back to the city and creating spaces for capital.

I also liked her critique of the ‘end of public space’ argument mobilized by Mitchell, Davis, Sorkin and others, presuming that there was an earlier ideal. Instead:

Public spaces have never been open and accessible to everyone in society; rather, policing and shifting norms have functioned together to shift geographies of access and rights to particular spaces and subjectivities. Over time, women, children, and minorities have all struggled to gain the right to access, use, and be visible in public…public spaces become arenas for members of society to claim their rights. According to this view, public space is a process, a nexus of power relations, not a fixed state. Public space may not “end,” but it can shift in regard to power relations.

I really love this idea of the public and public space as process and power relations, I need to think about it more.

I have a few critiques of course. Street Kids moved from description and storytelling to theory, and what I’ve written above I found really useful, but other sections not so much and it made it a bit disjointed at times. I’m not the biggest fan of Foucault, for example, so to draw on him in discussing the rise of child labour laws and compulsory schooling as disciplining and the imposition of middle-class values on working-class children earning a living in the street I find a little maddening. Not that it isn’t true, but that is not the whole story – working classes fought hard for child labour laws and schools, these have always been contested areas and created new spaces of contestation in which struggle could play out. I always feel that Foucault condescends, that he loses that aspect of regulation, health and education services fought for and won (though not everyone would agree with me on that I suppose). The discussion of outreach as performance I also found interesting and disturbing truth be told. There is an element of performance in anyone’s activities in public, on the street. But in something like outreach, as I found in organizing, what you are striving for is connection. To get through performance to something deeper. Buber’s I-Thou, or Fromm’s work or anything in addition to performance.

Finally, there was only one mention of FIERCE!, who I love. Who organize and work politically for the preservation of their right to public spaces (being primarily LBGTQ youth of colour and as fierce as their name). Who question the whole social service framework and what is possible working within that framework. The ways it can save, empower, but more often I think, disempower. The ways this connects up to capitalism and gentrification. This book doesn’t really engage with the critiques they make. Interesting, because otherwise I so appreciate the focus on engagement, commitment, concreteness in turning academic work towards improving a situation and changing policy.


Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates - Between the World and MeI loved this book, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is definitely what I will be giving people for Christmas to help them understand #BlackLivesMatter and the experiences of those Americans labeled as such, as well as an understanding of America as it has rarely been taught, but which continues to shape our ongoing tragedy and all the hatred that exists.

…the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.

Once you cross the line to really feel this history in your stomach, it is hard to work through it patiently and rationally with others who aren’t there yet, especially if they really don’t want to see it. Because this is terrifyingly true:

But all our phrasing–race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, break teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

And at the base of all of it? White Americans have always had a narrow and limited view of who other ‘Americans’ were, when they said ‘we the people’ they did not ever actually mean all the people. My thesis worked this out at length, but here it is short and eloquent:

The question is…what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.

Our race is culturally constructed to be white or black, despite how deeply intertwined we two are. And white has been constructed to be “the people,” to take the land, to run the country, to benefit from all it can offer.

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive powers to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.

And on the other side of this privileged identity? There is so much in here that is deeply personal, deeply particular to a place and time, yet that rings true beyond it.

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.


When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Full 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not…

These Baltimore neighbourhoods, and neighbourhoods across the country, are part of the same process, formed and structured by the same forces of racism over many decades

And I knew that there were children born into these same caged neighborhoods on the Westside, these ghettos, each of which was as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, or our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. … A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and tradition, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. “Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.

And always the blame to be pushed away from policies and police, and onto Black people themselves:

Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson–not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is fro you countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined–with Eric Garner’s anger, with Trayvon Martin’s mythical words…and Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd…

Away from whiteness, and all of its privilege, because this is a truth and a seeing that threaten:

This is the foundation of the Dream–its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honour, and good works…This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.

This isn’t a particularly hopeful book, but there are ways forward. I loved this, the heart of politicization and popular education:

My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers–even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. that is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”–as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.

This is the way forward, but also means there is no one answer, no one way:

I had come looking for a parade, for a military review of champions marching in ranks. Instead I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.

There are lists of writers, lists of artists — I love lists:

List of writers: Larry Neal, Eric Williams, George Padmore, Sonia Sanchez, Stanley Crouch, Harold Cruse, Manning Marable, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, Sterling Brown.  Later on Thavolia Glymph.

List of artists: Bubber Miley, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, C.K. Williams, Carolyn Forche, Ethelbert Miller, Kenneth Carroll, Brian Gilmore, Robert Hayden.

And reading through them comes this realisation, which I too have felt with immense force though in a very different way. Here is the role of the activist intellectual: to face everything full on, no shrinking, no comfortable truths:

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.


My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

A round up of a few of the other small things that I loved here — with many others left out in a short(ish) blog.

The riposte by Ralph Wiley to Saul Bellow after he described a Black writer as the Tolstoy of the Zulus:

“Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

That is such an obvious thing that someone else needed to say it I think, for me to see clearly.

It was also strange reading this written by someone my own age, someone who shared the same music and wider context, and whose fear of physical violence from others I also shared. These things show how connected class and geography are to race, and thus aspects of life are often shared more widely. He wrote:

This was the era of Bad Boy and Biggie. “One More Chance” and “Hypnotize”.

I have never seen those words on paper anywhere. And this too struck me:

I found that people would tell me things, that the same softness that once made me a target now compelled people to trust me with their stories. This was incredible.

I know too much about being a target, though never one at the other end of a gun. But likewise people have told me their stories. I am grateful for my growing up, for how it has given me that. But those still aren’t pretty scars.

I also loved the acknowledgment not just of the material foundations of pain and violence in segregation and policy, but the global context in which struggle happens, the larger forces beyond our control that help movements to victory or defeat. This is a key lesson I too stumbled across through reading, and it requires an adjustment in your driving forces.

You cannot disconnect our emancipation in the Northern colonies from the blood spilled in the Revolutionary War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from slavery in the South from the charnel houses of the Civil War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from Jim Crow from the genocides of the Second World War. History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.

There is this on the one hand, faced full on:

And I have no God to hold me up. And I believe that when they shatter the body they shatter everything, and I know that all of us–Christians, Muslims, atheists–lived in this fear of this truth.

But I loved too the gentleness and the celebration of what is best in us, the rich cultures, the layered knowledges, the complexity of our world whose beauty we all can share

And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds–the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched together into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then.

An uncompromising look at where we are, and the strength and beauty of those who have come before us and who fight alongside us to build the kind of world we want to see — this is where we need to start. Because our country must change inside and out, rather than continue to plunder the world and export its fears and horrors.