Tag Archives: movement

Ella Baker, Puerto Rico solidarity rally, 1974

A nice gathering like today is not enough. You have to go back, and reach out to your neighbors who don’t speak to you, and you have to reach out to your friends, who think they are making it good, and get them to understand that they as well as you and I cannot be free in America — or anywhere else where there is capitalism and imperialism — until we can get people to recognize that they themselves have to make the struggle and have to make the fight for freedom every day in the year, every year, until they win it. Thank you.

Still true, still in struggle, still needing to stand in solidarity with Puerto Rico…

Ledwith on Freire, Gramsci, and Community Development in the UK

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.

Sigh.

Why Empower

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.

There’s more on organising, on Saul Alinsky…but there I have written far too much. I shall stretch towards the new.

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.

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Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up #1: Community Organizing — History and Organisation

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)

Right on.

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.

Sen writes:

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.]

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Finale: Robert Fisher on Community Organising in the 1980s

Community Organizing in the Conservative 1980s — exciting stuff (though we’ve been through the late 1800s through 1946, the 1960s, conservative organizing in the 50s and 60s, and the 70s). The chapter opens with a fabulous quote:

We live in a society that is like a house on fire, and it’s arson. (Heather Booth, organizer, p 168)

Ah, the 1980s. My lifetime. Reagan and economic crisis, the reemergence of voluntarism, agreement amongst community activists that there has been a movement away from dissent and confrontation. There is now talk about how organizing  is no longer ‘against’, instead it is ‘for’ something, it is increasingly about establishing common ground, political partnerships, moving into development, CDCs and ’empowerment’ though seems like they are doing less of that in a radical way. But on the positive side you have ACORN and City Life staying radical, there is increased thinking about cooperatives etc

You also see the rise of the neoconservative movement building on some lessons from community organizing. Fisher writes:

The neoconservative movement, in fact, sees itself, not the New Left and new social movements, as the true proponent of “the community revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s.

They are the ones giving ‘power back to the people’ (178)

Fisher describes a process in which the IAF has shifted to faith-based organizing as part of a move to understand people need more than self-interest but continues trenchant in his critique:

The strategy of moderation, the commitment to moderates, the grounding of IAF efforts in mainstream religious institutions, and a definition of power that emphasizes relationship building leads to a politics that limits the parameters of IAF work and excludes alliances with other movement activists and organizations. It encourages IAF to work alone with its constituency and mainstream allies and avoid confronting the causes of the imbalance of power that oppresses its constituents. (196)

On the other hand, ACORN continues to follow a social justice movement model, committed to radical ideology and confrontational tactics. It has a clear political program. Its “people’s platform” emanates from–but goes beyond–neighborhood politics to integrate both a constituency and class-based mode of organizing and critique of American political economy.

There are also some new developments, a raising of critiques around the intersectionality of oppressions (my words there).

There is the founding of CTWO, the Center for Third World Organizing, where I did some training myself and love well (more about them later). Fisher describes their work as multiracial organizing and a ‘critique of the systemic, institutional bases of racism and ethnocentrism’ (197). More on them next. You have the rise of ACT-UP among others…there is actually a rise of all kinds of awesomeness in this decade, despite its bad rap.

This is a decade of new social work models developing out of a radical feminist movement — a movement I was completely unaware of, but now feel the need to explore, starting with the work of Lorraine Gutierrez, Edith Lewis on the elimination of power hierarchies and support to realize full potential, Ann Withorn and Cheryl Hyde, explorations of tensions in service delivery and social action.

In response, Fisher writes:

It is this decentering of political struggle, away from the core class struggle of the old social movements to a more diverse, polyvocal discourse of the varied new citizen initiatives, that gives current grassroots efforts such potential and such problems (207)

He accepts the importance of this, and continues

the challenges of the 1990s and beyond is for groups to learn how to maintain their identity, focus, and constituency and work together in progressive organizations that advance social justice. (209)

I am struggling with Boaventura de Sousa Santos at the moment and he is all about this in a way that is quite amazing. But more on that later.

Conclusions. Finally.

The conclusion wraps up all of this up quite well, summarizing Fisher’s understanding of the three main approaches he looks at: political activist, social welfare and neighborhood maintenance (which maybe I haven’t drawn out enough over the course of these summaries):

The political activist approach regards the community as a political entity and/ or potential power base. It focuses on obtaining, maintaining, or restructuring power. Or…is political in that its goal is to develop alternative institutions. The community’s problems, as defined by organizers, is the absence of power needed to defend the neighborhood and/ or give people more control over their lives.

Where the political activist approach differs most significantly from the social work approach is in its class perspective. The social work approach often seeks a class rapprochement based on a “partnership” between upper-class supporters, social welfare professions, and working- and lower-class neighborhood residents. (212)

Again we have an analysis of the positive role played by conflict in challenging structures people didn’t think they could challenge, and the ways in which this is where people find power, and how this is where class balances are actually altered. He looks a bit at ‘New Social Movement Theory’ too, challenging it in more ways than one, but particularly the idea that after the industrial revolution all organizing was factory organizing or entirely class oriented until post WWII. Sock it to them, I say.

The main lessons from the past as Fisher sees them:

  • Neighborhood organizing cuts across the political spectrum. Not inherently left or right.
  • Neighborhood organizing movements develop in a historical context that includes yet transcends local community borders. (222)
  • There is a critical interaction between neighborhoods organizing efforts, national politics, and nationwide social movements. (223) Movements can be buoyed by these larger forces or crushed.
  • Problems besetting neighborhoods demand political organization beyond the neighborhood level. (224)
  • Neighborhood organizing requires a gentle balance between organizing, leading, and educating. (225)
  • Political education must be an integral part of neighborhood organizing. (227)
  • Neighborhood organizing must create a more consciously ideological practice. (228). Must connect ‘popular, inherent ideology rooted in people’s traditions and a derived ideology, primarily external, that connects their concerns to forces and events beyond personal experience. (23)

And finally

  • An organizing ideology for our times needs to combine new demands for autonomy and identity with older ones for social justice, production for human needs rather than profit, and a spirit of connectedness and solidarity rather than competition. (232)

That’s the real trick.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]

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Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]

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Hold Everything Dear: John Berger

John Berger gives us words to live by, Hold Everything Dear. An amazing book. This is a rather Benjaminian collection of quotes that I particularly loved really.

From ‘Wanting Now’, thinking  of all the struggle that lies outside of a ‘movement’:

Today the desire for justice is multitudinous. This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organizations, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement. (2)

From ‘Let Us Think About Fear’ — it seems even more uncannily accurate about Trump and the Republicans today, who almost make me miss Bush Jr.

The leaders of the New World Order, however, would seem to be married to Fear … Day and Night the partners of Fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates the right half-truths … It takes about six half-truths to make a lie. As a result, they become unfamiliar with reality, whilst continuing to dream about, and of course to exercise, power. They continually have to absorb shocks whilst accelerating. Decisiveness becomes their invariable device for preventing the asking of questions. (53)

From ‘Stones’ — on the walls of Ramallah:

Today there is not a wall in the town centre of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead, taken when alive and now reprinted as small posters. … These faces transform the desultory street walls into something as intimate as a wallet of private papers and pictures. … Around the posters, the walls are scarred with bullet and shrapnel marks.  (59)

I confess, I am perhaps a bit wary of such essays as a form, printed in a small book they seem part of the elite tradition of letters. I still love this book, I know Berger was a Marxist to the end. Yet it makes me so sad that the cover should name Berger one of the great intellectuals of our time, that he could then write such an essay so powerful on Palestine, and that it should continue to be ignored. It makes me wonder what we are doing, what we should do, what we can do.

As I read Raja Shehadeh, another such powerful writer, on his wanderings and the beauty of Palestine it reminded me so much of the Arizona  desert I love, that was also lost though not in the same way. So this had a bit of an eerie feeling to it:

I have never seen such a light before. It comes down from the sky in a strangely regular way, for it makes no distinction between what is distant and what is close. The difference between far and near is one of scale, never of colour, texture or precision. And this affects the way you place yourself, it affects your sense of being here. The land arranges itself around you, rather than confronting you. It’s the opposite of Arizona. Instead of beckoning, it recommends never leaving. (68)

This captures capitalism I think, and our history of conquest and pillage of which Bacon knew quite a lot — On a new appreciation of Francis Bacon’s work ‘A Master of Pitilessness’

Today’s pitilessness is perhaps more unremitting, pervasive and continuous. It spares neither the planet itself, nor anyone living on it anywhere. Abstract because deriving from the sole logic of the pursuit of profit (as cold as the freezer), it threatens to make obsolete all other sets of belief, along with their traditions of facing the cruelty of life with dignity and some flashes of hope. (87)

More about walls, about poverty, about home. ‘Ten Dispatches About Endurance in Face of Walls’ (Oct 2004)

2

The poor have no residence.

The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.

***

The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens. (91-92)

‘Looking Carefully — Two Women Photographers’ made me feel inspired to be a photographer again, but I particularly liked this:

Within such a concept of history we have to come to see that every simplification, every label, serves only the interests of those who wield power; the more extensive their power, the greater their need for simplifications. And, by contrast, the interests of those who suffer under, or struggle against this blind power, are served now and for the long, long future by the recognition and acceptance of diversity, difference and complexities. (134)

Ah, to take pictures that do not capture and simplify but render up complexities.

I end where the book actually begins, with a poem. It has been too long since I shared a poem.

Hold Everything Dear
for John Berger

as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey

as the rose buds a green room to breathe
and blossoms like the wind

as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent
in the trucks

as the leaves of the hedge store the light
that the moment thought it had lost

as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air

as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark

hold everything dear

the calligraphy of birds across the morning
the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth
one step ahead of time
the broken teeth of tribes and their long place

steppe-scattered and together
clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug
carrying itself towards us through the soil

the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking
the map of the palm held
in a knot

but given as a torch

hold everything dear

the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them

the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching

the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days
as it sinks to become what it loves

memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed

the words
the bread

the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door

the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world

the people in the room the people in the street the people

hold everything dear

19th May 2005
–Gareth Evans

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Robert F. Williams on White Racism

While the bulk of Negroes With Guns deals with self-defense and the story of trying to organise for political, racial and economic equality in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert F. Williams also gives some real thought to the problem of white racism. Know your enemy. He writes:

What has happened and continues to happen in Monroe,
N.C., illustrates an old truth: that words used in common
by all men do not always have a meaning common to
all men. Men have engaged in life-or-death struggles because
of differences of meaning in a commonly-used word. The
white racist believes in “freedom,” he believes in “fair trial,”
he believes in “justice.” He sincerely believes in these words
and can use them with great emotion because to the white
racist they mean his freedom to deprive Negroes of their
basic human rights and his courts where a “fair trial” is that
procedure and “justice” that decision which upholds the
racist’s mad ideal of white supremacy. On many desperate
occasions when our constitutional rights were denied and
our lives were in danger, we called on the Justice Department
and the FBI to investigate the Monroe situation, to protect
our lives and to restore our constitutional rights-in
other words, to administer justice. And they always refused
our request. (54)

It can still shock me, I realise, to read those words written decades ago and realise how true they still are. These words still ring with emotion in the mouths of Trump supporters, don’t they. Without understanding this dissonance, there is no other way to explain patriotic white discourse around ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ and ‘justice’, when at the same time children are being shot dead and nothing happens to their uniformed (or even non-uniformed) killers. When the NRA can defend to the death the right to carry any kind of arms whatsoever with no controls at all ever. Unless you are Black.

An aside to say that Robert F. Williams actually formed a chapter of the NRA while they were training with guns. That has a sweet taste to it, though some bitterness too.

I appreciate a section with the title:

Minds Warped by Racism

Because you can see it, and it is not pretty. Williams continues:

We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis. When I have described racial conditions in the United States to audiences of foreign newsmen, Cubans and other Latin Americans, they have been shocked to learn of the depths of American race hatred. (72)

I, too, am still continuously shocked. Stretching from the hatred directed at Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin to those gloating white faces over bodies that had been lynched and burned, it can only be a kind of psychosis. That is too easy a word really, it needs more unpacking from the likes of Fromm and others. But it begs the question of an adequate strategy in its murderous face. Williams asks:

Why do the white liberals ask us to be non-violent? We are not the aggressors; we have been victimized for over 300 years! Yet nobody spends money to go into the South and ask the racists to be martyrs or pacifists. But they always come to the downtrodden Negroes, who are already oppressed and too submissive as a group, and ask them not to fight back. There seems to be a pattern of some sort of strange coincidence of interest when whites preach a special doctrine to Negroes. Like the choice of theology when the plantation-owners saw to the Christianization of the slaves. Instead of the doctrines which produced the rugged aggressively independent and justice-seeking spirit that we associate with Colonial America as the New England Conscience, the slaves were indoctrinated in the most submissive “trust-your-master,” “pie-in-the-sky after-you-die” form of Christianity. (75)

Even Martin Luther King would tire of this liberal refrain. Nor did he have an entirely easy relationship to strict non-violence. The very real threat of violence meant that many communities he visited armed themselves and sat watch to protect him, as they did for the youth of CORE and SNCC — Cobb writes of this across the South. Williams was not alone in his assessment of white violence, and the means to prevent it.

This is one of the more eloquent statements on self-defense, and the challenge even this poses to white liberals, that I have read:

This fear of extermination is a myth which we have exposed in Monroe. We did this because we came to an active understanding of the racist system and grasped the relationship between violence and racism. The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a “militant” because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system-the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say that they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists. We have shown in Monroe that with violence working both ways constituted law will be more inclined to keep the peace. (76)

I put my favourite part in bold, but I like all of it. I like the acknowledgment that it is through lack of challenge that the system perpetuates itself, which means all of it needs to be challenged. I like the questions this raises for piecemeal change — not that we don’t need small steps to move forward, but that we should understand that they are steps. I feel that he understood both the potential and the limits of the Montgomery bus boycott before most commentators and civil rights leaders did (Ella Baker is one clear exception to this of course, I know there were others):

The Montgomery bus boycott was a victory-but it was limited. It did not raise the Negro standard of living. It did not mean better education for Negro children, it did not mean economic advances. Just what was the issue at hand for the white racists? What sacrifice? Remember that in Montgomery most white Americans have automobiles and are not dependent on the buses. It is just like our own experience in Monroe when we integrated the library. I called the chairman of the board in my county. I told him that I represented the NAACP, that we wanted to integrate the library, and that our own library had burned down. And he said, “Well, I don’t see any reason why you can’t use the same library that our people use. It won’t make any difference. After all, I don’t read anyway.” Now, this is the attitude of a lot of white Southerners about the Montgomery bus boycott. The white people who control the city didn’t ride the buses anyway. They had their own private cars, so it didn’t make any difference to them. But when Afro-Americans get into the struggle for the right to live as human beings and the right to earn the same amount of money, then they’ll meet the greatest amount of resistance, and out of it will come police-condoned or inspired violence. (77-78)

The limits came from how little it challenged the true structures of Black oppression — though it is terrifying really, even now, just how hard they had to fight for such a small change.

An inspirational chapter title:

“The Future Belongs to Today’s Oppressed”

And finally, the fact that Williams never did give up on the struggle, nor on white people. His theory, that they needed an honest look at themselves:

Whenever I speak on the English-language radio station in Havana (which broadcasts for an audience in the United States) I hope in some way to penetrate the mental barriers and introduce new disturbing elements into the consciousness of white America. I hope to make them aware of the monstrous evil that they are party to by oppressing the Negro. Somehow, I must manage to clearly reflect the image of evil that is inherent in a racist society so that white Americans will be able to honestly and fully see themselves as they really are. To see themselves with the same clarity as foreigners see them and to recognize that they are not champions of democracy. To understand that today they do not really even believe in democracy. To understand that the world is changing regardless of whether they think they like it or not. For I know that if they had a glimpse of their own reality the shock would be of great therapeutic value. (85)

An honest look is still what is needed. Wendell Berry too talks about the need for a double consciousness required from this level of injustice inflicted on another groups of human beings, the illusion-building needed and the distortions that it has caused. But instead of taking a hard look, those who most need it have elected, and continue to support a president handing out nothing but lies.

Not that we all don’t need a good long look in the mirror on a regular basis.

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What Ella Baker really thought about Baptist Ministers

Ella BakerThis is from an interview Ella Baker did with Eugene Walker in 1974 (the transcript is here, audio is here), who was most interested in the formation of SCLC and the key influences on it, so there isn’t follow up on many of Baker’s responses — but that’s always the way it is with other people’s interviews. Even so, it is a great complement to the various biographies. She was 71 years old, and very focused on the two widely different approaches to the work at play here — the bottom up current which she fought for, and the very very top down…

Well, the thinking about the nature of the organization would vary with the people who were doing the thinking. Those of us who preferred an organization that was democratic and where the decision making was left with the people would think in one vein and the organizing of active, let’s call it, chapters or units of people. But when you reckon with the fact that a majority of the people who were called together were ministers and the decision as to who was called together emanated no doubt both from the background out of which (let’s call it) Martin came and maybe lack of understanding (I’m willing to say) of the virtue of utilizing the mass surge that had developed there in Montgomery. Just look at Montgomery. What has happened since Montgomery? (12-13)

When Baker started work for the SCLC she was already an old hand at organising and movement building, but the ministers certainly weren’t — I can’t really imagine what it was like for her.

When you haven’t been accustomed to mass action, and they weren’t… You see basically your ministers are not people who go in for decisions on the part of people. I don’t know whether you realize it or not. And they had been looked upon as saviors. So what happened is, here they are faced with a suggestion that goes against the grain and with which they are not prepared to deal. So they come together. (14)

She knew it would be hard, didn’t really choose her role — so for her initially (once she had been bludgeoned into it) she planned to set up citizen committees, and then get out of the SCLC:

I had anticipated being there for about six weeks. Gave myself four weeks to get the thing going and two weeks to clean it up. But they had no one. How did they get Rev. Tilly? They wanted a minister. I knew that. They couldn’t have tolerated a woman.

The personality that had to be played up was Dr. King. The other organizations (if you know this), the executive director was the spokesman. But they couldn’t tolerate having an old lady, even a lady, and an old lady at that. It was too much for the masculine and ministerial ego to have permitted that. [Laughter] There you are. (19)

Asked about her early strategic input on SCLC to bring in more women and youth, Baker replies

I guess my own experience but basically in terms of the church. All of the churches depended in terms of things taking place on women, not men. Men didn’t do the things that had to be done and you had a large number of women who were involved in the bus boycott. They were the people who kept the spirit going and the young people. I knew that the young people were the hope of any movement. It was just a normal thing to me. The average Baptist minister didn’t really know organization.

She is able to talk a little more about the distrust between the NAACP, the Urban League and CORE, and to a lesser extent SCLC — primarily around strategy.:

You see, they couldn’t trust C.O.R.E. [Laughter] in their minds. What you have there is the division between those who have some respect for mass action and pressure and those who believe that your best results came from negotiations from the knowledgeable people. The negotiations from the knowledgeable and the legal action were the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. (29)

Baker underlines the autocratic way she was ordered into the SCLC by Levinson and Rustin, as part of the In Friendship group they had formed to support the formation of a group after Montgomery.

They came back and told me that I had been drafted to go to Atlanta to set up the program for the Crusade for Citizenship for these twenty-odd meetings. Prior to that it had been assumed that Bayard would go down, but he was not available, let’s say. I was very provoked because I had never in my life.

EUGENE WALKER: Well, let me ask you this. This is the first major civil rights undertaking in the history of this country whereby a woman has been granted a seemingly, ostensibly significant policy-making kind of position. Now, were you taken by that? Was that gratifying to you?

ELLA BAKER: [Laughter] Oh no, no, no, no. Because I knew I didn’t have any significant role in the minds of those who constituted the organization. I’m sure that basically the assumption is, or was, and perhaps the assumption still prevails in the minds of those who remember my being there, that I was just there to carry out the orders of Dr. King and somebody else, but incidental since there was no designation of authority. I wasn’t a person of authority.

More about the significant obstacles Baker had to climb over as a woman:

The average attitude toward the southern Baptist ministers at that stage, and maybe still, was as far as their own women were concerned were that they were nice to talk to about such things as how well they cooked, how beautiful they looked, and how well they carried out a program that the minister had delegated them to carry out but not a person with independence and creative ideas of his own, but on whom they had to rely. They could not tolerate, and I can understand that they couldn’t, and especially from a person like me because I was not the kind of person that made special effort to be ingratiating. I didn’t try to insult but I did not hesitate to be positive about the things with which I agreed or disagreed. I might be quiet but if there was discussion and I was suppose to be able to participate, I participated at the level of my thinking. (53)

You like her more and more…The point of the SCLC for Baker:

The whole concept was we needed in the South a mass based organization that might further the involvement of masses of people similar to what had taken place in Montgomery. It didn’t have to be a bus boycott, but whatever. I think this is it. (63)

But she also emphasis the lack of deeper thought behind the movement —  because of their inexperience, because of the speed with which things happened. And of course, unstated, because of their inability to listen to those who did have experience, primarily Baker herself.:

the personnel who provided the leadership for S.C.L.C. had never come to grips with a philosophical concept other than the general concept of nonviolent mass action. I don’t think there was much—I’ll be gracious and say—either time or other bases for in-depth thinking about how far non-violent mass action can go and to what extent can you really involve people. You see, you may talk about it but when you respond—as the organization did—to situations—their major efforts were in response to situations—and when you exhaust yourself in situations (65)

The problem of always responding — who amongst us who has worked in movement-building organisation doesn’t know all about that? Baker’s real strength was in being able to create space to think bigger — and the SCLC did little to appreciate or utilise that skill.

She used that to the hilt in SNCC’s formation, however, and emphasises how important it was that SNCC be free of the others to escape their very real constraints and limits of their political thought — and how this is precisely what was most resisted by other groups:

I think the basic reason for the reactions of N.A.A.C.P. and S.C.L.C. to S.N.C.C. is the fact that they elected to be independent and they exercised the independence that only young people or unattached people, those who are not caught in a framework of thought, can exercise.

They were open to ideas that would not have been certainly cherished, or in some instances certainly, tolerated by either the N.A.A.C.P. or S.C.L.C. As a chief example, the moving into Mississippi. When they decided, they called it “Move On Mississippi” and they called it “MOM”. I think a delegation went to talk to Thurgood Marshall, who was then the chief counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. regarding this and to seek legal help. And Thurgood was not responsive. In the first place because the young people had expressed the opinion and the determination that they were going to accept help from wherever they could get it. Which meant that people like Crocket in Troy and other members of what is called the National Lawyers [unclear] —many white lawyers—which is leftist oriented, would be objectionable to the N.A.A.C.P. because they didn’t want to introduce this conflict of ideologies, of pro-communist ideology, and leave themselves open to the charge on the part of the authorities that the communists were taking over. (71-72)

There are some nice small commentaries on Black historians — so I love the moment when she says ‘Yes, I love Vincent (Harding).’ Then there’s an aside on Harold Cruse (who has been transcribed as Cruz)

I can look back probably at a book by Harold Cruse —I don’t remember seeing his name mentioned in Cruse’s book.
ELLA BAKER: Cruse is an embittered soul too, isn’t he?
EUGENE WALKER: It’s so evident when you look into his book. Oh, he’s embittered; he’s exceptionally candid in saying whatever he wants to say about anybody. He attacks everybody…
ELLA BAKER: …but himself.

She is very critical of the Baptist ministerial tradition — this was so good for me to read because these comments brought it home to me in a way nothing else has done. She’s critical of King in how fearful he remained of open dialogue — though I know he was better than others of that tradition.

ELLA BAKER: No. I don’t care how much reading you do, if you haven’t had the interchange of dialogue and confrontation with others you can be frightened by someone who comes and is in a position to confront you.
EUGENE WALKER: Especially if they confront you with an air of security and independence.
ELLA BAKER: Yes, and if they come with their own credentials. There was an insecurity, I think. I don’t know whether he was ever aware of it. It was a natural insecurity coming out of that Baptist tradition. Baptist ministers have never been strong on dialogue; it was dictum. (77)

I just  I love how she is well aware of how insecurity is not driven away by degrees, position or book-learning. Just as she is aware that being open to others is real strength. That so much was accomplished despite the weaknesses highlighted here… there is so much we owe the women of the South, and especially Ella Baker.

 

Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974.
Interview G-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Baker, Ella, interviewee
http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/G-0007/G-0007.html

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The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the Lower East Side

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.

Ah, the Lower East Side…

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For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.

I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.

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We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.

I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.

I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.

Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.

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A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.

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I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:

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On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:

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Housing co-ops:

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Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:

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New YorkAnd finally, a wonderful map of the radical spaces of the Lower East Side produce by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space — I wish we had had more time to explore! Get the pdf here.

 

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