Tag Archives: popular education

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

I had a crazy day today. So much work to get through before taking a break. I am so deeply grateful for a life where I can take breaks. Deep excitement about teaching housing, but a bit nervous too. A bureaucratic meeting in which Foucauldian theories of governance became real with an extraordinary intensity. A meeting with the mayor in which it turns out we are all thinking different things about this research. Much needed pints with some of the more awesome academics I know to talk about radical housing and radical research. A long day.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, after finding it in looking for something else but it came to mind again this evening. I wrote it almost ten years ago and hadn’t read it since then to be honest, and I know it’s not available anymore from Perspectives Journal, who I wrote it for (which explains some of the references). Back before I was an academic. A year after I had left LA, quit organising. I was still thinking about it. For all I’ve learned and written since then I’m still not sure I know more really than I knew then, though I phrase many things differently. Leonardo Vilchis is still my hero, still smarter than me.

In other news, isn’t Killing Eve the best thing you’ve seen on television in ages (I know I’m a little behind on this)? Much as I love Jodie Whitaker…

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

Introduction:

In August of 2002, two different families came to Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) because the manager of the Morrison Hotel had stopped accepting their rent. As tenant organizers, we had found this to be a common tactic to evade the laws of rent control and illegally force people from their homes. Typically the managers would not accept rent for a couple of months, then tell tenants that they had to leave. If the tenants did not leave they would be evicted in court for non-payment of rent, their only defense a claim that the managers had refused their rent. The managers themselves would contradict this while under oath, if it ever actually went before the judge. Such a tactic generally came into play when an owner was trying to empty a building, either to sell for higher profit, or to rehabilitate it and then rent the apartments at four or five times the original rent.

The Morrison Hotel is a 117-unit building situated only a few blocks from the Los Angeles Convention Center, in the midst of a flurry of new construction and luxury lofts. Famous as the cover of The Doors’ album titled The Morrison Hotel, over the years it had become a residential hotel. Essentially it had become housing of last resort, single rooms, with over half of them sharing public restrooms and showers. The managers sat in a small glass-fronted room facing the doors so that they could monitor everyone who came in or out. Knowing that many managers are unhappy about the presence of tenant organizers in their buildings, we went in on a Sunday morning while they were in church. Upon entering, fleas and insects attacked us, roaches were everywhere, and the smell of sewage was overpowering. Mold covered bathroom walls, paint peeled from the ceilings, plaster cracked, fire doors sat broken, panes of glass were missing from windows and balcony doors. The entire building seemed to be full, with a slight majority of the tenants being families with small children. We met one family of five whose two children had suffered from severe lead poisoning and permanent brain damage due to the flaking paint. While Los Angeles County had ordered the owners to rehabilitate that individual unit, only a few years later it was once again in very poor condition. The owners were not ordered to rehabilitate the rest of the building, nor inform other families of the lead hazards. Apart from families, the other tenants were single individuals or couples on general relief or disability. For all of them, the Morrison Hotel was the housing of last resort before the streets.

Within three months, more than 70 of these units would be empty. Not one of them was vacated under the legal requirements of rent control. Some families were evicted in the courts after the managers had withheld all mail informing them of the eviction process against them. The sheriff informed them of their eviction orders when he knocked on their doors. Tenants testified to physical assault, sexual assault, constant insults, and the intimidation of both themselves and their children. Several tenants told of being threatened with the manager’s dog, a pit bull. Threats alone were enough for many to just walk away, others were paid sums ranging from $25 to $4,000 to vacate.

While several tenants who had been threatened verbally were brave enough to come forward to file police reports, the police told them that “until it became physical” they would do nothing. At the same time, the police were being used to keep us—tenant organizers—out of the building.

All of these tactics were set into motion when the owners put the Morrison Hotel up for sale for $8,000,000 and drew up initial plans to convert it into a boutique hotel. They had bought the building for $1,000,000 eight years before, and after years of collecting rent while investing the absolute minimum to keep the building standing, they were looking to gain a substantial profit. The legal system that had failed to ensure the building’s maintenance was used to keep community workers out of the building, and thereby facilitate the owners’ attempt to circumvent California housing law by emptying the building by any means necessary.

This story exposes two things: the first is the changing dynamic of property development and profit in city communities, and the second is the ugly reality that under our legal framework, property rights take precedence over all else in the United States.

And so what better place for radical struggle? In this story, and others like it, lies not only grave injustice, but also what we would call a teachable moment, a place where people can break down for themselves the powerful American mythology of both development and the private property that is so foundational to our current system. What happened in this building (among so many others), exposes the essence of capitalism and its human cost, and demands an alternative vision for our society. Without grasping this
moment, critically analyzing it in light of theory, folding it into a greater movement and building on it, this story is nothing more than a story, and represents a struggle with a beginning and an end that makes little difference in the world as it currently exists, or in the hearts and minds of those who fought. This is the importance of theory for the people.

The importance of these stories for theorists is that they represent the harsh reality as lived by America’s poor and working class. It is the reality in which any radical movement needs to ground itself, and a field of battle where those who suffer the most from capitalism can drive the effort towards changing it. Voline wrote:

The key idea of anarchism is simple: no party, or political or ideological group, even if it sincerely desires to do so, will ever succeed in emancipating the working masses by placing itself above or outside them in order to “govern” or “guide” them. True emancipation can only be brought about by the direct action…of those concerned, the workers themselves, through their own class organizations…and not under the banner of any political party or ideological body. Their emancipation must be based on concrete action and “self-administration,” aided but not controlled by revolutionaries working from within the masses and not from above them…i

The question has always been how can this be achieved? The masses will never organize themselves around abstractions while they have to remove cockroaches from their children’s ears, or try to channel the water from a leaking roof away from their beds. They will organize around their key issues: security in their home and community, justice in their workplace, healthcare, a decent education and a future for their kids. It is the role of the radical organizer to ensure that these struggles open up an understanding of the structural realities that have made them necessary. It is also their role to ensure that each struggle builds community and horizontal organizations that will continue working together after the immediate struggle is resolved, to bring theory and practice together, and to tie local struggle into a greater movement for change.

Several things are required to build such a movement. The first is a deeper understanding of the forces operating in our local communities, the tides of disinvestment and investment that have caused such devastation, and how this fits into the larger framework of capitalism, globalization and neoliberalism. And we need to share lessons learned through practice, to build stronger horizontal organization and greater consciousness of struggle and change. This article will briefly look at the forces behind the new gentrification and how these can be challenged in practice. It will do so through brief case studies of the organizing work of two community-based non-profits in Los Angeles, SAJE, where I worked as an organizer from 2001 to 2007, and Union de Vecinos, through the words of Leonardo Vilchis, a cofounder and organizer. Both organizations are working to organize, to educate, and to build a greater movement for structural change.

SAJE

SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy) was founded in 1996 to improve economic conditions and opportunities for low-income families in Los Angeles. Initially, SAJE worked with various worker-owned and run cooperatives, and also organized campaigns around banking rights, working to ensure that welfare recipients could open bank accounts rather than being forced to pick up their checks at the local check-cashing outlet. SAJE is also the convener of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, which won the largest Community Benefits Agreement of its time against Phillip Anschutz and AEG when they attempted to expand the Staples Center and is now working on issues regarding the University of Southern California’s responsibilities to the surrounding community through what is called the UNIDAD (United Neighbors In
Defense Against Displacement) campaign.

Although winning the Community Benefits Agreement with AEG, there were clear limits to the victory, as the construction of LA Live would lead inevitably to the wholesale displacement of the residents who were supposed to benefit from the agreement. So, SAJE committed itself to working in the Figueroa Corridor, an area consisting of 40 blocks of Figueroa Street that stretch from the Staples Center and downtown Los Angeles on the North, to the University of Southern California on the South. Surrounding this commercial strip and comprising a 12-square-mile area are neighborhoods that house 200,000 people whose median income is 49% of the City’s median. A majority are people of color, among them Latinos, Blacks and recent immigrants. Eighty-six percent are tenants.

Through door-knocking and tenant organizing work, SAJE worked with tenants to fight illegal evictions, harassment, and displacement. It built tenant organizations in both individual buildings and larger community areas, and challenged the city’s redevelopment plans for downtown and South Central.

Union de Vecinos

Union de Vecinos was founded in 1996. It emerged out of a decade of work organizing with the Catholic Church in the tradition of Liberation Theology, and was started as a purely volunteer organization in an effort to save the Pico Aliso housing projects in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles from demolition. Over the past thirteen years, it has grown beyond its initial base in the projects to become a larger network of communities in different parts of Los Angeles County. They work mostly in Boyle Heights, but Union de Vecinos communities can also be found in Hollywood, North Hollywood, South L.A. and Maywood. It is a network that consists at any given time of between 25 and 30 different communities. Leonardo Vilchis defines a community as a small neighborhood, a group of people in a small enough area where it is possible for everyone to know each other. The communities that Union works with organize around the specific needs around their neighborhood. Within these communities, people develop their own programs to improve their neighborhoods and tackle specific issues. All of them come together periodically to organize broader campaigns around the key issues arising from their neighborhood work that affect everyone. Union has also worked to form building committees to address tenant rights issues, the protection of rent control, and the improvement of housing quality.ii

Since 1992, Boyle Heights has lost approximately 2,000 affordable housing units to publicly funded projects, which does not count the displacement caused by private owners and development. There were 1,500 units lost with the destruction of public housing, another 150 units with the construction of a new metro line, and 60 units lost for the building of a new police station.iii

Organizing Methodology:

Who Drives Change

The principal point of departure for both Union and SAJE is that for real and lasting change to be effective, it must be driven by those most affected by injustice. For Union this comes explicitly from the tradition of Liberation Theology and its preferential option for the poor, while for SAJE it is an explicitly theoretical position. For Leonardo Vilchis, this is also a very practical choice:

 … you could do a whole campaign on improving housing in Los Angeles where no tenants would be involved, and where you would raise your voice about the injustices within housing. You could put the data on the table and say this is why this is unfair. You could have all these middle-class people, educated people, college students (in the context of the United States, white people) to organize, and it would be a just cause, it would be the right thing, but I don’t think that that is the point of departure. The point of departure are the tenants themselves and the poor … the analysis, the description of the problem and the solution would be completely different from what this other group of people would make.iv

To build organization in the community you have to start where the people are, and any structures of cooperation have to be based in resolving community problems in ways that community involved actually have faith in. The struggle for bare survival is intense, and it is both a matter of respect and practicality to acknowledge that people will not get involved in anything that does not have an immediate impact on their lives.

It seems a simple enough proposition, and yet the hardest to actually practice for various reasons. The first lies in actually believing that it is possible when everything in a capitalist society tells you it is not. Even among those paying lip service to such an idea, it is difficult for many to put aside the preference and privilege assigned to education and professionalism, and far too often, race and language. And after years of working in the political arena when an organizer can often accomplish something through a few phone calls to City Hall, regular analysis is required to identify when to simply move forward on goals as defined by the community, and when to build capacity by stepping back and allowing people to take it to the city themselves. A clear and collective understanding needs to be built about how those who are educated and who hold professional qualifications should be of service in achieving the solutions as defined by the community, to the problems that the community itself has identified as the most important.

In practice there is a great complexity in this seemingly simple commitment. The poor and working class are constantly under attack on a multitude of fronts ranging from obscure changes in legislation that will have far-reaching negative impacts, to the criminalization of daily activities and the emptying of entire buildings and neighborhoods. It is a world of constant emergency where doing anything but immediately reacting is hard. And there is always the balance between doing anything possible to quickly stop something terrible, and building capacity through longer processes that often move more slowly and involve more risk than an orchestrated campaign following traditional organizing models. It is all too easy to get caught up in a struggle moving at a pace, and being fought at a level of technicality, that results in the poor being simply mobilized in support of an idea or strategy. But it is only through struggle and reflection upon struggle that people and the society they create are transformed.

It is also difficult because too often the poor are not organized. Horizontal structures of direct democracy have to be built in a community to direct the work for change, and this is a long, difficult, often heart-breaking process of many years. This is why we have much to learn from traditional community organizing, despite its self-imposed limits when it comes to real and lasting political change. Groups practicing direct democracy are necessary not only to have collective voice and power, but also to create a space where people can challenge themselves to think critically, to learn and to grow. These are often the only safe places where gender, race, nationality, and class can all be broken down, and the very nature of capitalism understood and rejected. Traditional community organizing has taught us that this doesn’t happen automatically,
and that building power for an oppressed group does not necessarily mean that they are incapable of then becoming oppressive to others.v This makes a guiding ideology and a methodology for making this happen all the more important. The power of such organization to stand up for itself is a beautiful thing when it exerts itself.

Union de Vecinos was founded exactly in a place where people were being silenced, and where the most poor were being pushed away from the decision-making process. There were a lot of people who said that they knew what the problem was with public housing. They were mostly politicians, mostly urban designers, planners, and bureaucrats. And they said the solution for public housing was a) to have more mixed income housing and b) to demolish the projects. And in that process a whole sector of the population was silenced and pushed aside from speaking. If you had asked the people in the projects the solution to public housing, they would’ve come up with a completely different list of answers. They told us yes, we want people to fix our homes. Yes, we want to have nicer services. But we want to stay here. Because, over the years the people who lived in the projects had built a community. Now the bureaucracy wasn’t functioning, the whole system was broken, but the way they solved it was by demolishing it and pushing people out of there. Our community had a different kind of solution. And so Union de Vecinos was started by bringing those people together who were being silenced and ignored by everybody else.

So the idea was to stop the demolition of the projects, to develop a system of relocation that would identify the real people who wanted to move out, and to talk about the preservation of public housing. And we did it totally in the margins, we didn’t have work anymore because the organization I worked for didn’t want us to continue organizing the community. We had to go find other jobs, and the tenants themselves had to do all of the work because we couldn’t be organizing, we could only provide technical support. So it became a strong volunteer organization where everyone was doing the work. We were getting together in the parking lots, in the yards, in people’s living rooms. But as the organization grew, we didn’t have a place to stay, we didn’t have a place to put our papers away, so a group of residents in the projects started saving some money and at some point they called for renting a place, and then we found a place in the community that we started renting. And for me that is very important, because they were the ones who were building the organization, they were the ones who were taking control of this process. We were providing all of the technical support that we could, but we didn’t want to be the ones pushing this, we wanted to know that it was coming from them. So they rented this place, and that is when Union de Vecinos got started. vi

Methodology:

Popular education is also foundational in the methodology of both organizations, closely intertwined as it is with the idea of being driven from below. Based on Paolo Freire’s work and writings, in essence it is a way of collectively building knowledge. It is a teaching methodology that rejects the idea of a student as a vessel to be filled with knowledge, but rather sees a process of learning as an interaction between student and teacher, growing out of the student’s lived experience. It is a collective process of learning, as well as a fundamentally political process of asking why the world is the way that it is, and how we can act together to transform it. Popular education as the basis for a method of organizing that builds critical consciousness and leads to concrete change is exemplified in this quote from Leonardo:

… I think the role of organizer, and I would slash it with organizer /popular educator/facilitator/animator is to bring people together to reflect on their reality, to define their reality, and then based on their own experience and their own condition, to seek for ways to change it in an organized way that deals with the social, economic, political, ideological, race and gender dimensions within the world. To get there the point of departure is the practice of being able to describe your world. …vii

What the popular educator brings to the conversation is the ability to move the description of the world to a critical analysis by asking questions, to move a conversation to an act of transformation. It does not mean remaining trapped in the initial world of students, circling, in the words of Freire, “like moths around a light bulb.”viii Their experience is only the starting point.

In this way, people “learn to learn,”ix they learn to deconstruct their environment and layers of oppression, and find themselves as creative and critical individuals able to act upon and change the world. It is for organizers to identify the teachable moments as they arise in the work, to leverage the daily struggles into a greater consciousness of the world and the underlying forces that have created it.

 … As organizers and popular educators, anything that the community talks about we see as a point of departure to do a social, political and economic analysis of the world. Anything can do it, a stoplight in an alley can take you to the issues of safety in the community and the need for light illumination and gangs and problems in the community and the social problems that come with gangs and you can follow that thread. Or you can talk about the budgetary reasons why they don’t want to put those lights and how the budget is allocated and where the priorities are and why they choose to put more police instead of more lights on the street and you can have a conversation on that. Or it can take you to going to the local neighborhood watch and asking the chief of police to sign a letter asking for new lights and finding out that the chief of police doesn’t care about putting lights on the street but only about putting people in jail so it leads you to understand the relation of power within the city, within the community, and the police and so on and so forth. So we use that a lot, we use these little moments, these situations, as tools to analyze the whole. … ”x

Leonardo’s description of identifying and using the teachable moment illustrates the key to popular education as a constant practice. Below is a more formal illustration of the methodology for collectivizing experience and continually building on that experience.xi

It provides a classic example of popular education theory in practice, an invaluable way of both adding theory to lived experience in a way that prioritizes one but values both, and of reflecting on past experience to build more effective campaigns in the future in a continually expanding spiral of experience, theory, and action.

The Challenges of Organizing: Organizing building by building:

The combination of traditional community organizing and popular education means that both Union and SAJE work on the issues that people themselves identify, though SAJE has chosen a more explicit focus on housing, development and displacement. The nature of the work requires that much of the organizing has to be done at a building level, side by side with tenants facing harassment, intimidation, and eviction. Working at this level to solve immediate problems gets people involved and offers a great starting point for connecting the issues of daily life to community wide problems, thereby creating a framework for and analysis and understanding of the world. It also carries many limitations however, that somehow have to be overcome for it to build towards a larger movement.
SAJE’s campaign in the Morrison Hotel showed this clearly. After getting in on the Sunday we set a date for the first building meeting at the St. Francis Center, a local service organization with whom we had built a strong partnership. We attempted to get into the Hotel again, but were physically kept out, first by the managers and their pit bull, then by armed security guards hired especially to keep us out. The police continued to take the side of the managers and the guards. The tenants brave enough to invite us in were physically threatened and faced with eviction, had their electricity turned off, and were thereafter prevented from having any visitors at all. In this climate of fear and intimidation, we worked to form a tenant union in the building. Not too many people attended the first meeting, and we essentially introduced ourselves, gave a broad picture of our experience with what was happening in the community, and allowed everyone to speak about the problems they were experiencing. People agreed to bring more of their neighbors to the next meeting, and we continued our attempts to get into the building.

The meetings began growing as people realized that they either had to fight or leave their homes. At the second meeting we began our analysis by putting a piece of paper on the wall and drawing a little cartoon building in the middle. And then we began to draw out who had power over the building. It started with the owners of course, and that is where most people’s initial analysis ended. We didn’t know a lot about the owners at that point, except that everyone had heard they owned a lot of buildings. So we asked the question, who has power over the owners?

And then we began an analysis of the city, drawing out the different structures of the Housing Department and the City Attorney’s Office. Over these we added the city council, made up of 15 elected representatives, the Mayor, and the City Attorney (another elected position in L.A.). We also looked at the County Health Department, and the County Board of Supervisors. We drew in the different state and city laws that protected tenants. And we looked at the city’s accountability to its residents, and the tenant’s own leverage over the owners.

We returned to this drawing to deepen collective analysis of the role and effectiveness of the city as we filed complaints on violations of rent control and habitability regulations. We also carried out participatory research on who exactly the owners were, what else they owned, what their business practices were. We found out that they owned or had owned at least 50 other properties through a complicated network of limited liability companies controlled primarily through the owner’s business, Phoenix Mortgage Corporation. We created a map of their business to be able to both analyze how they worked and who they were. This moved us into a discussion of the practice of rent collection in slum buildings while paying as little as possible in maintenance as one of the ways that these owners made their profit, and the extreme cost of those business practices to tenants. We talked about how the city not only failed to stop this, but often facilitated it, and why. We talked about the changes in the neighborhood and how those had changed the owners’ business practices. We discovered the discrimination in the owner’s business model shown by the differences in how they maintained their apartment buildings in Beverly Hills and their slum buildings concentrated in our own neighborhoods around downtown.

We were also able to see who exactly we were going up against, and the results of earlier attempts, which was important for strategy. As in many slum buildings, the two brothers who were actually responsible for the building’s conditions had distanced themselves from ownership on paper and legal liability as much as possible. The building was officially owned by the Hope Pico Limited Liability Company, which was registered in the state of Illinois and formed in turn by Phoenix Mortgage Company and two money investors. The Danpour brothers were the principals of Phoenix Mortgage, and in investigating them we found that Henry Danpour had two previous convictions for improperly maintaining his buildings. They both owned buildings, either jointly or passed back and forth, that had been identified by various city programs as violating basic habitability requirements. We were able to show that they had been sued multiple times by the tenants in their different buildings, and that several local tenant rights organizations had organized against them. By uncovering these facts together we were able to work with tenants towards a deeper understanding of the structures of oppression. The Morrison Hotel was also perhaps the best example we had of the ineffectiveness of city and county government when it came to enforcing their own codes against private owners. This was further tested by our own collective experience in navigating the city process.

We did similar analyses in each of the buildings that we organized. And every analysis led to deeper discussions of race and class, economics and gentrification. But building work was always intensive, and limited the number of people we could reach. The greatest struggle was always balancing the need to build towards a community-wide response to the problems, while also dealing with a constant level of emergency in the midst of a struggle. The Morrison Hotel was a campaign of extraordinary intensity and required a huge time investment to build trust among tenants, and between tenants and our organization. It was challenging to bring together a population made up of monolingual Spanish speaking families, African American veterans, and a handful of single people of various races, many of whom were rather eccentric, regular drinkers or users of varying levels of drugs, and some mentally ill. All meetings were carried out with simultaneous translation and it took some time to break down the barriers of language and race. Many of the elderly men really did not like small children, and in spite of on-site childcare, there were enough interruptions that it became a point of tension early on. The most effective thing in bridging these tensions was simply regular meetings and discussions, working together towards a common goal and building trust through knowledge of each other. These meetings would immediately address the many personal issues that arose, and, where possible, address them collectively.

Looking back, I know that we seriously under-estimated the investment of time that would be required of us, two years of weekly meetings with tenants, sometimes daily emergency visits to the building, regular one-on-ones, and constant negotiation with the lawyers and city officials who also became involved in the struggle. The symbolic victory was huge when the owner was convicted on 21 criminal counts by a city that had not taken a landlord to trial for decades. And we transformed how the city itself prosecuted problem owners. They began doing the same research that we had done: this resulted in their prosecution of both corporations and the individuals behind those corporations and considering the entire extent of an owner’s holdings when taking them to trial. The city has also begun working in partnership with community organizations.
And yet when looking at the scale of tenant participation, and our ultimate goal of building movement, there is definitely an argument that the Morrison Hotel campaign was a tactical mistake in building a larger base of tenants working together in a long-term way as part of a larger struggle around the causes of displacement in the community. We knew this possibility when we made the difficult decision to jump into a campaign there; we felt in the final analysis that it was too important of a symbol to allow it to fall without any struggle at all. Of all the tenants in the Morrison Hotel, only one leader has remained really active in the struggles of other tenants, though several have remained in touch and supportive of SAJE, donating either money or coming to occasional events. This is an all-too-common issue with many organizers, how to keep people involved in the struggle after their own immediate and pressing issues have been solved.

Overcoming Limitations, Building Structures for Participation:

At SAJE we had always identified this as an issue, and to ensure that our efforts were never limited in scale to a single building, our strategy had been to create a tenant clinic and something we called a Displacement Free Zone. We wanted the clinic to be a place to collectivize tenant experiences, to provide a foundation of knowledge about basic tenant rights and how these fit into a political and economic landscape, and work to build a sense of individual evictions as a community issue. Union de Vecinos has used similar clinics towards the same goal.

… At the clinic when people come together and start sharing their story one after another there is an awareness that we are not alone. There’s an awareness that this is not something that just happened to us because we didn’t pray enough or because we didn’t work hard enough or because they’re racist, there’s also an awareness that this happens because we are not organizing. … xii

Looking back to evaluate our success in these clinics, I believe the area we pulled tenants from was too small. As a result we never had a critical mass together in one place at one time to run a full workshop as we had planned, instead we usually ended up doing more work one-on-one with families, either as they trickled into the clinic, or when they came into the office with emergency situations requiring an immediate response. We were able to achieve some level of education and politicization, but not the strong collective sense of the problem that we hoped for.

We were more effective in building the Displacement Free Zone. As building blocks of the DFZ, we built tenant unions in various buildings, at one point we had eight tenant unions working on campaigns around improving conditions, preventing evictions, and stopping the harassment of tenants by landlords. The buildings themselves had regular meetings where tenants came together to discuss their issues and collectively make decisions on their own campaigns and strategies.

Volunteers from each of the buildings also came to DFZ meetings, which became a space to coordinate support for each other amongst the different buildings and begin to confront the wave of evictions and displacement changing the face of the neighborhood. We carried out an information and education campaign through door-knocking in the neighborhood to let other residents know their rights and where they could find help. This initial committee was gradually expanded to three committees in three different neighborhoods where we were doing building organizing. Although most of the tenants from the different buildings did not really continue in their support of other tenants after the particular campaign in their building had finished, they remained in contact with us and we had a core of people from each of the buildings who remained active in the struggle to improve the conditions in the community for everyone.

This system of working in multiple buildings at once worked reasonably well while the buildings we were involved in did not require a huge investment of our own time. The Morrison Hotel, however, put a huge strain on us, and maintaining active committees while simultaneously supporting campaigns in other buildings proved to be incredibly difficult. I don’t believe we adequately took into account the amount of time needed for tenants with no previous experience in political or community activities to have the confidence and the capacity to run regular meetings and activities on their own. And, of course, I believe we could have done better in giving them the tools required, and in using every meeting as an opportunity for people to develop those skills. It felt at all times as though we were incredibly stretched, and while we had a lot of idealism, our own practical skills were continually developing as none of us had come to the work with much experience either. We definitely learned that certain key skills such as meeting facilitation were incredibly difficult to build in everyone.

Union de Vecinos has been more successful in creating a large base of members that are working actively, many of them with minimal support from the organizers. This only underlines the importance of successful organizers sharing their experience and knowledge. Over two decades of working in the neighborhood, Union de Vecinos’ organizers have created a broad feeling of community that is not always necessarily active, but can come together when necessary. As Leonardo puts it:

 … Overall we have between 25 and 30 committees. It fluctuates because in the community, you know, people aren’t as involved if nothing is happening. Sometimes if an alley was the core of the problem in that community and you take care of that and there are no gang members and there are no buildings with problems, then people … well, they’re still your friends, they’re still part of your larger community even though they feel they no longer need to meet as a committee for a while. Just like with your friends, you don’t always see each other all the time. So those communities disappear and then others emerge in the process … xiii

They also grow in an organic way, through the members themselves talking to their neighbors. And over time there are now a number of committees able to maintain themselves on their own, though Union de Vecinos stays in regular contact with all of them.

…The way they (the committees) develop is that our members talk to other members, they learn about the issues and invite us to some meetings. Now sometimes it happens that they hold their own meetings and invite us to come and talk to them, and then they continue their meetings and we don’t see them for three months and then they invite us again. Our goal as organizers, our goal as staff to this organization, is to be in touch with the people in every committee, and to keep an ongoing relationship with every committee… ”xiv

It is this loose structure of keeping involved those wanting to be active, creating a space that allows committees and people involved to come and go, to take time off if burned out and easily pick up again, and building skill and capacity in individuals that has allowed such a small staff to build an impressive network of grassroots organization.

The committees also vary tremendously in size depending on the community and the people involved, but they have been successful as long as a core group of people are committed to the long-term and big-picture struggle. At SAJE it certainly took us a while to learn how to start building movement while also winning battles. Again, as Leonardo puts clearly:

 … The smallest committee is six people, but going back to the traditional organizing model, we do pay attention to the balance of power. We want to have an impact, we want to have influence in the community. So if it is six people who just want to meet with us and talk to us about their problems but they’re not involved in anything in the community, and don’t want to be involved we really don’t work too much with them. But if it is six people who are involved and who are able to move the community we work with them. … ”xv

When we first started doing the tenant organizing at SAJE, we more than once invested a lot of time in helping individual families who weren’t at all interested in giving back to the greater community. By doing this we made a great difference in individual lives, but it did not contribute to building something larger. In the face of desperate need, it is often difficult to limit your own involvement. It is only through commitment to the bigger picture that this becomes possible.

Building Scale:

The biggest keys in building the numbers and level of organization needed to have an impact on the larger problems facing a local community seem to come down to a few key principles. The first is to organize around what the people in the affected neighborhood want to organize around, typically things that are immediately relevant and meaningful in their lives and capable of providing concrete victories. The second is to target your efforts to those who share a similar commitment to you, and will help you organize something greater than a single victory. The third is to create fluid yet stable horizontal structures that allow people to be involved over a long-term period, and can be reanimated if the community becomes inactive for a time. And the last is simply to make a long-term commitment to a community and to individual development; what Union de Vecinos has created was built by key organizers’ working in the same community over a span of twenty years.

Yet even so, many of the problems that organizers face have roots far distant from the local level. Local action can be capable of only so much when facing the regional, national and global economic realities that define life in the inner city. One of the most vital areas of study is how to build cohesive and useful coalitions of organizations on every scale, from the city to the region to the state to the nation to the globe.

For organizations and groups committed to being driven by those they are organizing, this presents a particularly difficult problem. There is a risk that pressure could be brought to bear from the top down and coalition work turn into a simple mobilization of local residents. To prevent this from happening while still facilitating useful work, safeguards and a strict decision-making process must be set in place. At the same time, the process must be as streamlined as possible to reduce the additional burden of work on already overburdened organizers or it will simply not be possible. The process and the work must always be immediately relevant, reinforcing the need for theory and big-picture strategies. And best practices for integrating high-level campaigns with those working on the ground need to be investigated, developed, and shared. Both SAJE and Union de Vecinos are members of various coalitions on a city-wide level, and for the past two years have been part of a new and promising national coalition of organizations and theorists called Right To The City. This is certainly an area where much more needs to be written, and their efforts to build national organization amongst organizations that are committed to radical community organizing needs to be evaluated and shared.

Conclusion:

The eternal organizing problem is the unending succession of emergencies, of actions, of things that must be done. There is never enough time to do everything that requires doing, and making the effort to lift your head to look where you are going often seems impossible. This problem is compounded when you have to sort through the huge amount of theory and political thought that is not grounded in practice, and does not serve community building in immediately meaningful ways. This is no reflection on the usefulness of theory in understanding the world, simply that for those immersed in grassroots work, it is hard to find time and space to reflect on the abstract.

There is also very little written on the practice of radical community organizing, and the difficulties in creating sustainable and long-term horizontal community organization. There is even less on how to use every meeting and every campaign, however small, to constantly build towards a scale of involvement and power that can
have a real impact.

This essay is a beginning attempt to start thinking through what I have learned over years of work, and is only a very small contribution towards how we can more concretely respond to overwhelming challenges while remaining true to the belief that real change must come from the masses. How we can undermine the dominant ideas of private property, and propose alternatives. How we can create sustainable communities of critical analysis and action that operate through direct democracy. It has possibly raised more questions than provided answers and the ultimate question is whether such work could ever be enough. I don’t know that it is a question that can be answered, but it should be raised by anyone committed to these ideals as way to measure our own efforts and the usefulness of our theory. To organize certainly requires a great faith in the knowledge and abilities of the poor and working class, but also a recognition of the organizer’s place in a long line of people working for social justice both leading up to this time, and taking over after we are gone. I want to end with Leonardo’s answer to the question of what he thought was the most important advice he could give to other organizers:

“ …We have to understand that we are not operating on the time of the here and now. We are operating at the time of history, so these things take a lot of time. We need to think in terms of generations. A lot of times I think that the leaders that we are working with right now, the adults in the community, are not the main beneficiaries of this process. It is the kids who grow up in an environment where their parents are organized, where their parents come to these barbecues that Union de Vecinos is organizing, and who come to these actions. These kids grow up in a completely different world than they would have if they hadn’t been part of this movement, and that’s what I’m kind of hoping for in terms of the work of Union de Vecinos. Our results are not the stuff that we did 10 years ago, it’s the stuff that will happen in 20 years, and for that you have to have a different kind of patience.

You need to think in terms of making history, that you’re part of a historical process, of a social process. Social processes don’t get developed overnight. You’re talking about changing culture, changing values, changing society, changing the way everything is organized. And that is also why we are different in terms of a community organization. In most community organizations you only work in terms of the specific, the achievable, and the measurable. If it is not specific, if it is not achievable, if it is not measurable you don’t do it. We do here. We do it because it may not be specific, but it may be meaningful. And if it is meaningful it appeals to your consciousness, and if it appeals to your consciousness it changes how you look at the world, and if it changes how you look at the world it changes how you act on that world … there are signs of hope everywhere, we need to pay attention to them, we need to build on them, we need to become stronger every time we are part of them. But still, it is going to take time. … ”xvi

Works Cited

Arnold, Rick et al, Educating for Change. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991.

Fisher, Robert. Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Truax, Eileen. “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.

Notes

i Volin, cited in Daniel Guerin, Anarchism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 37.
ii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
iii Eileen Truax “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.
iv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
v Fisher, 65.
vi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
vii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
viii Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 70.
ix Freire, 81.
x Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xi Rick Arnold et al, Educating for Change (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), p. 38.
xii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xvi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification
Perspectives Journal, 2009

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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Ransby on Ella Baker — SCLC, SNCC, SCEF

200217Part 2 on Ella Baker’s biography by Barbara Ransby (part 1 is here) — and the more exciting part really, because in the SCLC and SNCC and SCEF Baker was able to do more of what she wanted to do. I’m reading J. Todd Moye’s biography of Ella Baker as well just now, and it cleared up one point of my confusion — the way that everyone respectfully called her Miss Baker even though she was married. That is what felt right to me earlier because I must have read it elsewhere, but I questioned myself and wrote something different. so I’m going to have to go back and take out the references to Mrs Baker.

Anyway,  in 1957, Ella Baker traveled south with Bayard Rustin as a representative of In Friendship to become part of the founding of the SCLC. There she saw the Women’s Political Council in action, who had helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott, and she applauded the formation of MIA, Montgomery Improvement Association to lead the struggle outside the structures of NAACP.

While Rustin and Levinson both became part of King’s inner circle, Miss Baker was left out. She later said:

After all, who was I? I was female, I was old. I didn’t have any PhD.” (173)

And she questioned everything, especially King.

She describes the boycott, and the hope and excitement it raised among movement folks, as:

unpredicted, where thousands of individuals, just black ordinary people, subjected themselves to inconveniences that were certainly beyond the thinking of most folk. . . . This meant you had a momentum that had not been seen, even in the work of the NAACP. And it was something that suggested the potential for widespread action throughout the South. (162)

SCLC was founded to provide an institutional framework to connect and strengthen struggle beyond Montgomery. It also made a strategic decision to stay away from a too-left politics — interesting that ‘Christian’ was at least partially included in the name to help distance it from any association with communism. It emphasized in these stages that it was only demanding the same rights as everyone else.

Once it was decided that the new coalition would be an extension of the church, a patriarchal ethos took over. (175) Women like Rosa Parks and Joanne Gibson Robinson were pushed out of leadership positions, Daisy Bates remained the only woman with a nominal seat on the board, but no power.  In 1958, Miss Baker was drafted as full time staff into SCLC — as with the NAACP she was not properly asked, more put into a position where her refusal would hurt the cause. Still, she accepted, and moved down to Atlanta. She knew what she was in for, though:

Baker was well aware that the SCLC ministers were not ready to welcome her into the organization on an equal footing. That would be to go too far afield from the gender relations they were used to in the church. Baker observed that “the role of women in the southern the church. . . was that of doing the things that the minister said he wanted to have done. It was not one in which they were credited with having creativity and initiative and capacity to carry out things.”

Ministers ‘most comfortable talking to women about “how well they cooked, and how beautiful they looked.”‘ (184)

She remained active in Parents in Action, NAACP, SCLC, In Friendship — for her it was always about building movement rather than organization. In this she was very similar to a number of local NAACP officers who were willing to work with anyone on the ground towards change. All of her work was concretely connected to people’s lives and needs. For example, Baker’s reconnaissance trip in Mississippi for In Friendship after the SCLC’s founding:

Baker soon realized that In Friendship would be hard pressed to make a real distinction between families who were victims of political reprisals and those who were victims of economic violence, pure and simple, since such violence saturated the social and political landscape of the rural South.  (176)

I wanted to hear more about her views on economic violence. She often disagreed with those she worked closely with, able to hold to her own beliefs while continuing to work with others. For example here is Miss Baker on nonviolence, contrasting herself with Rustin:

He had a history of dedication to the concept of nonviolence. I have no such history; I have no such commitment. Not historically or even now can I claim that because that’s not my way of functioning. (193)

This was clear in her rather famous 1959 speech in Pilgrim Chruch, Monroe calling for self-defense. Further in the biography, Ransby writes:

Ella Baker’s ability to sustain long-term friendships with other activists when particular circumstances put them in adversarial positions was one of her most important gifts. (284)

She also disagreed with many in the NAACP — for example, the kinds of attitudes expressed by Roy Wilkins:

“We must clean up and educate and organize our own people, not because they must be perfect in order to be accorded their rights, but they cannot be first-class citizens in truth until they appreciate the responsibilities of that station.” Baker’s view was quite different. Poor people would not have to be made deserving of their citizenship or their economic claims; such rights were fundamental. (226)

She could be quite critical of class judgments:

There’s always a problem in the minority group that’s escalating up the ladder in this culture . . . it’s a problem of their not understanding the possibility of being divorced from those who are not in their social classification.

Thus

I believe firmly in the right of the people who were under the heel to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get [out] from under their oppression. (195)

More from Miss Baker on exactly why the middle classes could not be depended upon to bring about real change:

those who are well-heeled don’t want to get un-well-heeled….If they are acceptable to the Establishment and they’re wielding power which serves their interest, they can assume too readily that that also serves the interest of everybody. (305-306)

Along these same lines, she was also fierce proponent of decentralization, local control over campaigns and power and responsibility in people’s own hands. Ransby writes:

Her main contribution to the civil rights movement during her years with SCLC was not the building of a solid regional coalition, which was what King had hired her to do, but rather the strengthening of several semi-independent local struggles, which were more connected to one another and to itinerant organizers like Baker than they were to the official SCLC leadership in Atlanta. (209)

On leadership, here is Ransby quoting Baker:

Instead of the leader as a person who was supposed to be a magic man, you could develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited the larger number of individuals and provided an opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying out a program.

to follow on from that, one of her most famous lines I think:

Strong people don’t need strong leaders. (188)

This, of course, put her into conflict with King and the men who dominated the movement at this time.

What I love most are the moments you get to see Ella Baker relaxing with the other women who formed the backbone of this movement, like on this visit to Azalea Johnson in Monroe (and always the reminder just how brave they all were):

The three women sat at Azalea Johnson’s kitchen table, Dorothy remembered, drinking Jim Beam bourbon, discussing the political situation in the South and remembering Raymond. Even more memorable than the conversation was the image of black men sitting in the front room and on the front porch with loaded pistols at their sides… (215)

Baker kept her maiden name after her marriage, kept her rpivate life private, and did all she did while also helping raise her niece, as well as taking over the guardianship of Brenda Travis, who had lied about her age to join SNCC sit-in. She was detained, sent to Colored Girls Industrial School after another protest, did not have support of strong family. Baker managed all of these roles in ways that I find rather jaw-dropping, but it was accomplished through the strong community that she created around herself.

SNCC

Ella Baker’s legacy can perhaps best be seen through SNCC —  I appreciated this insight from Ransby:

Since Baker never wrote an organizing manual or an ideological treatise, her theory was literally inscribed in her daily work–her practice. Some of the most powerful political lessons that she taught were through example, which represented an articulation of her unwritten theory in a conscious set of actions and practices. (271)

Also as an organiser, it is clear that almost a lifetime of experience and huge amounts of work and thought lay behind that first conference at Shaw to support the founding of SNCC, the orchestration of talks and workshops, and the creation of plenty of time and space for private brainstorms, the meeting of small groups and etc. I feel like no one really gets how much creative work and hard grind lies in that until they part of something similar. Creating such spaces is hard, but she was instrumental to SNCC in other ways, ensuring that problems of justice were never narrowed to a simple issue of race and that the leading roles of women, and youth and the poor in the struggle be respected:

She was instrumental in SNCC’s rejection of bourgeois respectability as a defensive political strategy, a rejection that opened the organization up to historically marginalized sectors of the black community. When SNCC broke with the largely middle-class, male-centered leadership of existing  civil rights organizations, it stripped away the class-based and gender-biased notions of who should and could give leadership to the movement and the black community. (259)

She also insisted on movement as being about relationships, connections, not mobilisation and dues and top-down battles on the lines of the NAACP.

The shift from transitory, high-profile events like the sit-ins and freedom rides to protracted day-to-day grassroots organizing in local communities was a significant turning point. Baker insisted that a movement was a web of social relationships…In order to be effective organizers in a particular community, Baker argued, activists had to form relationships, build trust, and engage in a democratic process of decision making together with community members. The goal was to politicize the community and empower ordinary people. this was Baker’s model, and in 1961 it became SNCC’s model.

This is the community organising model in a nutshell. Bottom up. Respectful. I like the acknowledgement that such respect isn’t always easy to embody either, and how she pushed SNCC through dialogue:

She urged SNCC organizers to suppress their own egos and personal and organizational ambitions as much as possible and to approach local communities with deference and humility. She stressed the need to resist organizational chauvinism or any attempts to make proprietary claims on political campaigns that might emerge from their efforts. Finally, she rejected the notion that the black middle class had special claims on leadership of the black community. …. she urged SNCC organizers to look first to the bottom of the class hierarchy in the black community, not to the top, for their inspiration, insights, and constituency…. people who would demonstrate to the first-hand the willingness, ability, and determination of oppressed people to resist and overcome their oppression while speaking for themselves… (274)

Thus SNCC attempted to organise the whole community, not just the middle classes. When they first went into a community, they started by talking to clergy and any others who had claims on being  representatives of community, but they knocked on everyone’s doors.

Bob Moses said “We did for the people of Mississippi what Ella Baker did for us.” … he meant … absorb the wisdom of indigenous leaders, to build respectfully on the preexisting strength within the communities where they organized, and to provide whatever was lacking–funds, time, youthful energy, and certain skills. (303)

Ransby gives a wonderful quote from SNCC organiser Jane Stembridge:

The field staff saw itself as playing a very crucial but temporary role in this whole thing. Go into a community. As soon as local leadership begins to emerge, get out of the community, so that the leadership will take hold and people will not continue to turn to you for guidance. You work yourself out of a job rather than trying to maintain yourself in a position or your organization. It doesn’t matter if you go in and call yourself a SNCC worker or a CORE worker or just a person who is there. (280)

And of course Baker’s own motto:

I was never working for an organization. I always tried to work for a cause. And that cause was bigger than any organization. (281)

She remained pragmatic though, supporting the influx of white privileged students in order to highlight what was happening in the South, to expose the relentless violence, to get some coverage and maybe help the broader community to care. Ransby quotes her as saying:

If we can simply let the concept that the rest of the nation bears responsibility for what happens in Mississippi sink in, then we will have accomplished something. (322)

Ransby talks a little about the development of the Freedom Schools, education was always one of the methods closest to Baker’s heart. SNCC established over 50 alternative classrooms for political organizing and popular education, run by Charlie Cobb, Robert Moses, and Staughton Lynd among others.

This highlighted for me one of the strange absences here, as Ransby tries to differentiate them from SCLC’s Citizenship schools by highlighting that Freedom Schools went way beyond teaching literacy for voting tests. In Septima Clark’s vision coming out of Highlander, this was never to have been the only role of Citizenship schools,  but maybe it’s an indication of how routinized these had become under the SCLC?

Myles Horton and Highlander are interesting absences here — not that they don’t appear at all. As an aside, Ransby notes Baker as attending a conference there on one occasion, and later that she worked to defend Highlander from closure. In another brief mention Ransby connects SNCC to Horton,  and notes Baker starting up a new fundraising group called Operation Freedom in 1961 with Horton, the Bradens and others to again funnel money to activists for emergencies. I was disappointed, though, not to learn more about Baker’s friendship with Rosa Parks, Myles Horton or Septima Clark. So I found it interesting that Baker’s theories are compared to Paolo Freire’s, a worthy comparison but interesting in the absence of Myles Horton and others from Highlander.

There is a brief note on education and the connection to Tanzania — but that remained undeveloped as well. Rightly so as it was a bit of a tangent perhaps

Moses also shared Baker’s confidence and faith in young people. After leaving SNCC in the mid-1960s and living for several years in Tanzania, he became a radical teacher, in Ella Baker’s style and tradition, focused on creative methods of teaching and learning as a strategy for empowerment and social change. (252)

But I would like to know more about connections to Africa and Nyerere’s Ujamaa movement.

A last absence was more about the concerted attack on the NAACP in the south after Brown v Board, the number of people who lost their jobs by refusing to renounce NAACP membership — and the number of people who did renounce it. The number of branches that shut down all together, and all of them people that Ella knew, had visited, had encouraged to form branches and become members in the first place. That must have had a huge impact on her. Huge. But it isn’t really visible.

I wanted a little more on the Southern Conference Education Fund run by Anne and Carl Braden, and founded by Jim Dombrowski who had helped found Highlander with Myles Horton way back in 1932. In 1963 Baker began working for SCEF, doing much the same as she had always done — whatever she thought was most needed to support local organising. The difference seemed to be that SCEF supported that. But I tracked down what seems to be the solitary book written on SCEF, which I am looking forward to reading and finding more.

To end here (though I will write more on Moye’s take on Baker), a final quote from Ella Baker that emphasises the longevity of the freedom struggle, the ways that things just haven’t changed fast enough, and the work that all those she has inspired should be continuing in, particularly in support of Black Lives Matter:

Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest. (335)

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Septima Clark: Ready From Within

Ready From Within - Septima ClarkSeptima Poinsette Clark… words cannot express how happy and humbling this tour of freedom fighters and popular educators has been making me. I only hope I have within me an ounce of their courage, and that my life could have a fraction of their meaning. I believed I could make a difference by writing, I am trying to continue a tiny piece of their legacy and remember their example when I face this academic article (and book) writing with fear and trembling, because I do not feel it is an audience of my people though I know some of my people are out there.

Anyway. This is short, wonderful, and everyone should read it. Cynthia Stokes Brown helped Septima Clark bring it together, and the introduction is her narration of how they met, how this book came about. In it she quotes part of a speech given by Rosa Parks at a dinner given by the East Bay Friends of Highlander where Mrs Clark was also present:

However, I was willing to face whatever came, not because I felt that I was going to be benefited or helped personally, because I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago. But I had the hope that the young people would be benefited by equal education…

I actually did not think in terms of non-violence and Christian love in connection with the Movement (we didn’t call it the Movement–we just called it survival) until Dr Martin Luther king came to Montgomery… (17)

These words shook me, regrounded me. Reminded me of the reality that all of this work was grounded in — survival.

I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago.

This is still where change has to start, where people are at. Septima Clark might have fought hard to do things the way she thought would be best, but it didn’t mean she closed herself down to change. Rather it meant opening up to a collective way of changing:

But I changed, too, as I traveled through the eleven deep south states. Working through those states, I found I could say nothing to those people, and no teacher as a rule could speak with them. We had to let them talk to us and say to us whatever they wanted to say. When we got through listening to them, we would let them know that we felt that they were right according to the kind of thing that they had in their mind, but according to living in this world there were other things they needed to know. We wanted to know if they were willing then to listen to us, and they decided that they wanted to listen to us.

…I found out that I needed to change my way of thinking, and in changing my way of thinking I had to let people understand that their way of thinking was not the only way. We had to work together to get the changes. (53-54)

She talks a lot about how she had to change her thinking about middle-class people, poor people, white people… but I’m getting ahead, because Mrs Clark fully came into her own with some help from Highlander, and this was a process the way getting rid of our prejudices is always a process.

Highlander Years

She was a teacher, and a colleague recommended Highlander to her. They offered free room and board for those attending the workshops (it’s clear this was important, it’s not at all clear how they funded it). Clark writes:

Myles used to open the workshops by asking the people what they wanted to know, and he would close it with, “What you going to do back home?” (30)

Clark, Thurgood Marshall, and others at the Highlander Folk School.
Clark, Thurgood Marshall, and others at the Highlander Folk School.

I liked that particular practice of questions, as much as the importance of music to the experience, and the singing that always went on there. When Clark lost her job as a teacher through the Southern push to destroy the NAACP and the mass firing of teachers who wouldn’t abjure their membership, she was hired on to Highlander’s staff.

An aside — Mrs Clark remembers Rosa Parks attending her first workshop while all the time fearing that someone would report her presence there back to the community and she would lose her job, even be in danger. No idle fear. Three months after that, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.

While at Highlander, Clark was instrumental in helping set up the citizenship schools. She herself had been a teacher on Johns Island in South Carolina, so she knew a great deal about the situation there when Esau Jenkins came to talk to her and Myles Horton at Highlander about setting up a school to teach adults literacy there. He was a bus driver among other things, and had begun educating people about the constitution so they could qualify to vote while driving his route. But he couldn’t teach literacy while driving the bus.

Highlander provided the funds to buy a building. They set up a cooperative grocery in the front rooms to disguise what they were doing from the white people of the island — this also allowed them to make enough money to pay Highlander back for the cost of the building and created a loan-fund. They used this to rebuild a woman’s house after it ‘got burned out’ (no mention of how, why), to help people through sickness and etc.

This is floating around the internet with no credits I can find...
This is floating around the internet with no credits I can find…

Cooperative efforts and mutual aid within communities are a running thread throughout all of these stories of social change and struggle. So is respect. You’d think that would be easy, but everyone knows it can be pretty hard for some. Like Horton, she emphasises the importance of finding someone who could teach with respect for their students:

‘We wanted to find a person who was not a licensed teacher, one who would not be considered high falutin’, who would not act condescending to adults. (48)

They settled on the amazing Bernice Robinson, and the schools grew and grew with wildly success. A few more thoughts on her work at Highlander and the white supremacist actions to shut down it’s challenge to the establishment through charges of interracial gatherings, the illegal selling of alcohol, and communism. This hodgepodge contains the real reason, the fabricated reason, and the fear-mongering reason for Tennessee’s hate, highlighting the particularly long-standing tradition of red-baiting to shut down all attempts at social change. This deep-rooted hatred of socialism has been, and continues to be, an effective demonising label for anything that troubles privilege and promises change. Clark writes:

But anyone who was against segregation was considered a Communist. White southerners couldn’t believe that a southerner could have the idea of racial equality; they thought it had to come from somewhere else. (55)

Shit, imagine being so limited of vision and spirit. You’d think anyone could look around them and think shit, we must be able to do better than this. So how do we do it?

There are some light moments in here. For all her radical politics, she’s that fierce church/mother figure in her disapproval of alcohol (and by extension all that goes with it), though you love her just the same. I love it too, so much, every time she mentions Stokely Carmichael’s ‘black power boys’. That phrase will never leave me. You can love her for it, because she always stayed in conversation with those black power boys. Saw them sharing a struggle, even if she disagreed with everything they said.

Then there’s that memory of Harry Belafonte (swoon) coming to Highlander and teaching them ‘Michael Row Your Boat Ashore’, and a return to harsh reality when she talks about singing it to keep her spirits up after being arrested as part of that effort to destroy Highlander. One thing Myles Horton never quite got into was the racism Septima Clark faced every time she set foot in Sewanee, the nearest town to Highlander. She had to do without so much while she worked and lived there — like shopping at the store, or being welcome in church. Such ugliness. You realise this, and then it is followed by her arrest while Horton is away. She’s fierce all right, but I can’t imagine her not terrified when the cops took her the long way round to jail.

That must have made it easier when she, Horton and King decided to spin-off the citizenship schools to the SCLC to ensure they weren’t affected (and a few more reasons, they were already getting bigger than Highlander wanted to manage). Clark moved with them, though remained tightly connected to Highlander.

SCLC years

So she moved house (though never fully left the street she grew up on in Charleston — but more about that in the next post) and started a centre called the Dorchester Cooperative Community Center in McIntosh, Georgia. There they held five day trainings for people from local communities who wanted to go back and open up citizenship schools. They also increased recruitment of teachers. They had only three qualifications: teachers had to be respected in the community, had to be able to read aloud, and they had to be able to write their names in cursive writing.

Back then in the South, whites made sure your signature didn’t count unless it was your name in cursive. I don’t know why that detail alone makes me so angry.

Clark describes a back and forth and a flexibility, people wanting literacy teaching for various reasons beyond voting. They tailored programs to local needs — like teaching people to write checks. They got a grant so were able to compensate poor tenant farmers for their time studying and allow them to come.

Even then we didn’t have too many to come. There was so much pressure from the whites in the community that too many of them were afraid. Those who came had to feel that we could get away with it or that we didn’t mind if we had to die. (65)

More grounding.This was about power, and whites never did yield power easily.

‘But before we could send anyone to Congress, the white people tried some of everything.’ (71)

White supremacists killed thirty people engaged in the civil rights work of registering people for the vote from northern Virginia to Eastern Texas. You want more grounding? Clark remembers arguing with white volunteers, who would sneak out after work to see the town and run back home scared after threats or worse. She would tell them:

“Well, I tried to tell you not to go out at night. it’s bad enough to try to go out in the day, you know.” (72)

I don’t know how well I’d do myself in that kind of claustrophobic environment and under that kind of pressure. I guess you never know until you’re in it. Septima Clark understood as well as anyone that the people she worked with in these towns were facing this for life, not just the little while they were stepping outside their own reality to volunteer for a cause. But she didn’t much care for the high-falutin’ folk who refused risk, not when she saw so many others stepping forward… She talks a lot about class, about middle-class preachers and teachers too afraid to risk their standing, and in preacher’s cases their traditions of accepting gifts from white businesses in return for their mediations with Black community. It was mostly the other members of the community who pushed through, some giving their lives to do so. But together they managed to form 897 citizenship schools between 1957 and 1970. In 1964 alone there were 195, and Fannie Lou Hamer and Hosea Williams both entered the movement through their participation in them.

Even more than class, Clark talks about the sexism:

I was on the executive staff of SCLC, but the men on it didn’t listen to me too well. They liked to send me into many places, because I could always make a path in to get people to listen to what I have to say. But those men didn’t have any faith in women, none whatsoever. they just though that women were sex symbols…That’s why Rev. Abernathy would say continuously, “Why is Mrs. Clark on this staff?” (77)

I feel that tickle of rage here. Imagine anyone not respecting this woman. Imagine it. She went right ahead and spoke her mind anyway, and she didn’t hold back any punches.

I think there is something among the Kings that makes them feel that they are the kings, and so you don’t have a right to speak. You can work behind the scenes all you want. That’s all right. But don’t come forth and try to lead. That’s not the kind of thing they want. (78)

Of course, she didn’t see herself as a feminist at the time, but looking back she saw the intertwining of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement, one did not come out of the other.

This is a slim volume, too slim for such a life! And curiously split in two parts, the second dealing more with her growing up and her family. So I’ll talk about that in a second post.

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Julius K Nyerere — Ujamaa

41enDxo8l6LUjamaa by Julius K Nyerere, is a collection of essays and pamphlets, a mix of ideals and strategies for establishing the new Tanzania on a socialist foundation of mutual aid and equality. It is a very different kind of work than Freire’s quite intellectual theorisations of the role of struggle and popular education, or Myles Horton’s storytelling, yet all three contain very similar and inspiring understandings of radical and revolutionary change. Perhaps my favourite quote encapsulates for me a key aspect of the world I would like to build, and in doing so highlights one of the things I hate most about the world as we have built it to date:

The real question, therefore, is whether each of us is prepared to accept the challenge of building a state in which no man is ashamed of his poverty in the light of another’s affluence, and no man has to be ashamed of his affluence in the light of another’s poverty. (104-105)

Thinking about it, seems like much of the nastiness of rich people comes from the various rationalisations they have invented to avoid feeling this shame.

From the preface:

The primary purpose of this book is to make this material available in a convenient form for use by the leaders and educators of the new Tanzania. Its secondary purpose is to contribute to the growth of a wider international understanding of the aspirations and purposes of the Tanzanian people, and perhaps to promote further discussion about the relevance and requirements of socialism in relation to mankind’s march to the future.
— J. K. Nyerere, July 1968 (viii)

This is an exciting moment where everything is possible, yet an immensely challenging time where everything must be done in the face of great opposition. Nyerere was a teacher before he became prime minister, first of Tanganyika, and then the new formation of Tanzania as it joined with Zanzibar. He held power until 1985 in a one party state, so this post is looking much more at the ideals than at a more tarnished and controversial reality that I don’t know enough about. It does seem though, especially given the failure to transfer power which signals a failure to develop other leaders, that Nyerere’s life did not quite embody these ideals the way that Horton and Freire’s did. I will have to come back to that, and the very real pressures from the U.S. and international lending agencies and the warning to all Socialist leaders through Lumumba’s assasination and etc, but I look forward to exploring more the histories of ujamaa communities. Reading Ella Baker’s biography I found out that Bob Moses of SNCC was there as a teacher for a couple of years, in the early 70s, but I haven’t found out more yet. From Highlander to Tanzania, though I know a lot happened in between.

Here Nyerere describes a process of building socialism on Tanzania’s cultural base,  starting where people are and moving forward, recovering from the past what should be recovered to build a new society. For Nyerere:

Socialism–like democracy–is an attitude of mind. In a socialist society it is the socialist attitude of mind, and not the rigid adherence to a standard political pattern, which is needed to ensure that the people care for each other’s welfare.
(‘Ujamaa — The Basis of African Socialism’ – 1)

There is much in Tanzania’s heritage that Nyerere is able to look to in building a better future, and such clear common sense that it makes me even more ashamed of the constant fear-mongering and ever present greed in the US, and growing in the UK:

Apart from the anti-social effects of the accumulation of personal wealth, the very desire to accumulate it must be interpreted as a vote of “no confidence” in the social system. For when a society is so organized that it cares about its individuals, then, provided he is willing to work, no individual within that society should worry about what will happen to him tomorrow if he does not hoard wealth today. Society should look after him, or his widow, or his orphans. That is exactly what traditional African society succeeded in doing. (3)

This sense of community is one key here, of taking care of each other. A second is holding land in common, and understanding its use value above its land value:

And in rejecting the capitalist attitude of mind which colonialism brought into Africa, we must reject also the capitalist methods which go with it. One of these is the individual ownership of land. To us in Africa land was always recognized as belonging to the community. Each individual within our society had a right to the use of land, because otherwise he could not earn his living and one cannot have the right to life without also having the right to some means of maintaining life. (7)

The TANU Government must go back to the traditional African custom of land-holding. That is to say a member of society will be entitled to a piece of land on condition that he uses it. (8)

I quite love his critique of actually-existing socialism, some things never change I suppose — the following quotes are all from The Varied Paths to Socialism (Address to Cairo University, 10 April 1967):

Unfortunately, however, there has grown up what I can only call a ‘theology of socialism’…the true doctrine… (76)

Even better:

It is imperative that socialists continue thinking.  (77)

And best of all:

For socialism the basic purpose is the well-being of the people, and the basic assumption is an acceptance of human equality. For socialism there must be a belief that every individual man or woman, whatever, colour, shape, race, creed, religion, or sex, is an equal member of society, with equal rights in the society and equal duties to it.

A person who does not accept this may accept many policies pursued by socialists; but he cannot be a socialist. (78)

It is perhaps the headings of the various sections that give the clearest idea of not just the vision, but how he believes it can be achieved through flexible, adaptable, place-specific actions holding key principles constant: ‘Socialism is against Exploitation and Injustice’ (79), ‘Group or Communal Ownership’ (82), ‘The Purpose of Socialist Organization must be the Central Factor’ (84), ‘Socialist Policies will vary from Place to Place’ (87). Above all — and this is how it connects with Freire, Horton and others — is that:

First and foremost, there must be, among the leadership, a desire and a determination to serve alongside of, and in complete identification with, the masses. the people must be, and know themselves to be, sovereign. Socialism cannot be imposed upon people; they can be guided; they can be led. But ultimately they must be involved.

If the people are not involved in public ownership, and cannot control the policies followed, the public ownership can lead to fascism, not socialism. If the people are not sovereign, they they can suffer dreadful tyranny imposed in their name. If the people are not honestly served by those to whom they have entrusted responsibility, then corruption can negate all their efforts and make them abandon their socialist ideals. (89)

The USSR showed what such dreadful tyranny could be.

The question becomes then, how people are involved in building Socialism and in public ownership, and what is necessary for that to happen. First, there is a policy of ‘Education for Self-Reliance’ (policy booklet published March 1967). There is a need to reject the current idea of education as preparation for a profession, or to inculcate values of the colonial society, with all of its emphasis and encouragement of the individualistic instincts of mankind where wealth establishes worth. Instead, education should be seen as the way in which we:

transmit from one generation to the next the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the society, and to prepare the young people for their future membership of the society and their active participation in its maintenance or development. (45)

And for the purpose of building a new world, this is what education must accomplish:

The education provided must therefore encourage the development in each citizen of three things: an inquiring mind; an ability to learn from what others do, and reject or adapt it to his own needs; and a basic confidence in his own position as a free and equal member of the society, who values others and is valued by them for what he does and not for what he obtains. (53)

Nyerere looked to the creation of what he called ‘ujaama villages’, cooperative villages where socialism could be practiced and perfected. From ‘Progress in the Rural Area’ (speech to University College branch of TANU Youth league, 21 Jan 1968)

In the past we worked together because that was the custom; now we have to do it deliberately and to do it in such a manner that modern knowledge can be utilized for the common good. (181)

An acknowledgment that people learn through doing, through committing to action and then reflecting on that action:

In villages ‘people must be allowed to make their own decisions; people must be allowed to make their own mistakes. Only if we accept this are we really accepting the philosophy of socialism…

It notes that sometimes people get it right and experts get it wrong.

Progress needs leadership, but not of the bullying, intimidating kind… A good leader will explain, teach and inspire. In an ujamaa village he will do more. he will lead by doing. (183)

More on leadership:

You can lead the people only by being one of them, but just being more active as well as more thoughtful, and more willing to teach as well a more willing to learn–from them and others. (184)

‘Socialism and Rural Development’ (Policy booklet published Sept 1967) outlines the underpinnings of traditional ujamaa living:

The first of these basic assumptions, or principles of life, I have sometimes described as ‘love’, but that word is so often used to imply a deep personal affection that it can give a false impression. A better word is perhaps ‘respect’, for it was–and is–really a recognition of mutual involvement in one another, and may or may not involve any affection deeper than that of familiarity. (107)

The second:

…the second related to property. It was that all the basic goods were held in common, and shared among all members of the unit. There was an acceptance that whatever one person had in the way of basic necessities, they all had; no one could go hungry while others hoarded food, and no one could be denied shelter if others had space to share. (107)

The third:

Finally, and as a necessary third principle, was the fact that everyone had an obligation to work. (108)

These are villages founded on the full equality of all residents, and with self-government in all matters concerning their own affairs. Some issues will have to be decided through cooperation with villages near by, and a few through democratic structures at an even larger scale:

National defence, education, marketing, health, communications, large industries — for all these things and many more, all of Tanzania has to work together. The job of Government would therefore be to help these self-reliant communities and to organize their co-operation with others.  (129)

These communities mast also address the inadequacies of traditional system, especially the treatment of women. Nyerere writes ‘it is essential that our women live on terms of full equality with their fellow citizens who are men.’ The second change is that poverty must be improved, they cannot remain with an equality maintained at a very low level. (109)

Above all people learn by doing, step by step, in their own time.

All of this has to achieved through persuasion and choice, rather than force. Looking at step-by-step transformation, carrying out little by little, testing out, evaluating

Village democracy must operate from the beginning; there is no alternative if this system is to succeed…It does not matter if the discussion takes a long time; we are building a nation, and this is not a short-term thing. For the point about decisions by an ujamaa village is not just whether the members do or do not decide to dig a well or clear a new shamba. The point is that by making this decision, and then acting upon it, they will be building up a whole way of life–a socialist way fo life. Nothing is more important than that, and it is not the work of a few days, nor of a few people. An ujamaa village is the village of the members, and the life there is their life. Therefore everything which relates exclusively to their village, and their life in it, must be decided by them and not by anyone else. (136)

I liked that Nyerere admits mistakes.

This does not mean that the Government should build modern expensive houses and complete villages for the new settlers to move into. that assumption has been our mistake in the past. (137)

For those places where land is no longer available, young people must start new communities elsewhere, but those established can develop cooperative structures where they are:

People move in stages, clear land, build themselves. Should practice working cooperatively, and this may not be in agriculture, but in an industrial or service project that serves good of all. (139)

It is here that the revolutionary learning through collective praxis exists.

To finish on a slightly different note, I also liked the outlining of how development should work in a newly liberated country awake and aware and trying to grow without growing into a neo-colonial relationship. I liked the explanationations and the refinements of the Arusha Declaration from ‘The Purpose is Man’ (Speech given at Dar es Salaam University College, 5 August 1967). It looks back at the Arusha Document, with its policies of self reliance, and outline of self development goals best adapted to their economic, cultural, environmental circumstances. It seems to me these are no bad places to start in thinking about models of support for development today:

We shall remain Tanzanians

Growth must come out of our own roots… (92)

Commitment to a Quality of Life

It is based on the assumption of human equality, on the belief that it is wrong for one man to dominate or to exploit another, and on the knowledge that every individual hopes to live in society as a free man able to lead a decent life in conditions of peace with his neighbours. (92)

Freedom must be maintained (93)

no foreign groups to own substantial industry or land

Progress by Evolution (93)

It does not accept remaining in poverty. ‘What we are attempting is a telescoped evolution of our economy and of our society.’ (94)

Integrated Programme based on Linked Principles (94)

Combination of self-reliance and socialist principles

The implications of self-reliance (95)

…it means that for our development we have to depend on ourselves and our own resources. (95)

Development through Agriculture (96)

And Appropriate Agricultural Methods (97)

This means improvement of the tools they now use and cooperative systems of production — He later expands on these last few points and how by moving little by little to better systems of agriculture and development they remain rooted in people’s skills, will be easier to adapt and retool, and will generate no debt as they would require very little capital up front.

It seems such common sense, yet it is the exact opposite of the decades of advice and demands from the World Bank, IMF and etc…

Small Industries, Factory Sites, Trade with Others, Capital Assistance

Overseas capital will also be welcome for any project where it can make our own efforts more effective — where it acts as a catalyst for Tanzanian activity. (100).

Skilled People are also needed. No False Pride in this Matter.

Human Equality–the Essence of Socialism.

The Challenge

My favourite quote again, just because:

The real question, therefore, is whether each of us is prepared to accept the challenge of building a state in which no man is ashamed of his poverty in the light of another’s affluence, and no man has to be ashamed of his affluence in the light of another’s poverty. (104-105)

He further develops the ideas of self-reliance in ‘After the Arusha Declaration’ (presidential Address to the TANU National Conference, 17 Oct 1967)

In fact, self-reliance is not really against anything or anyone, unless there are people who want to re-colonize us. Self-reliance is a positive affirmation that we shall depend on ourselves for the development of Tanzania, and that we shall use the resources we have for that purpose… (149)

And self-reliance at a local level:

For a community, self-reliance means that they will use the resources and the skills they jointly posses for their own welfare and their own development. They will not take the attitude that the Government, or Local Council, or anyone else, must come and do this or that for them before they make any progress. There will be things for which outside assistance in the form of skilled advice or a capital loan is necessary, but they will realize that this has to be paid for, directly or indirectly, by them and their fellow citizens. (152)

Emphasizing again

Leaders cannot do anything FOR the people. We can only provide the necessary information, guidance and organization for the people to build their own country for themselves. (157)

Just a final quote because I like it…

But works of art and the achievements of science are the products of the intellect–which, like land, is one of God’s gifts to man. And I cannot believe that God is so careless as to have made the use of one of His gifts depend on the misuse of another! (2)

Nyerere, Julius K. (1974) Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism. Dar es Salaam: Oxford University Press.

For more on popular education and community development…

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Myles Horton & Saul Alinsky: Popular Education and Organising

200275A final post on Myles Horton’s The Long Haul on what he saw as the differences between popular education and organising. This was something we always struggled with at SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, where I once worked as organiser and researcher). I remember reading this book while I was there, and how it made so much sense to me — also made me realise I was more of an educator than an organiser, and certainly no charismatic leader though I saw the good of both of these things in a strong collective mix of people working for radical change.

Horton writes:

There’s a lot to be learned from unsuccessful organization over a specific issue, from achieving a specific victory, like preventing a building from being torn down or getting a new sewer system. However, some equally valuable learning takes place when you escalate your demands to the place where you finally lose. Now if you don’t push to the place where you might fail, you’ve missed a wonderful opportunity to learn to struggle, to think big and challenge the status quo, and also how to learn to deal with failure. If you analyze them, you can learn more in some ways from failures than from successes. Now, all this is predicated on learning from analyzing your experience. An experience you don’t learn from is just a happening. (176)

The analysing is key in both organising and popular education, but it often gets dropped in organising because there is always a new emergency and never enough time. But in organising, success is always really important. It’s so easy to do what you need to do to win and let some of the other stuff go — and maybe sometimes it is what is needed, but if you get too used to it you maybe stop pushing as hard as you can.

There is also, of course, the recognition of different political moments, what is possible in a period of fear and organisation as opposed to a wave of movement:

In a social movement we are clearly part of a collective struggle that encourages us to increase our demands. One of the dynamic aspects of a social movement as opposed to an organization is that quite often in the latter, you’ll bargain down to. make concessions in order to survive.  You have a limited goal, and you might say, “Well, we want to get ten street lights,” and you’ll get together and figure that you won’t get ten, but you probably can get five. So you decide to tell them  you want ten in order to get five. In a social movement, the demands escalate, because your success encourages and. emboldens you to demand more.(115)

I found the section on Saul Alinsky particularly interesting, first because it embeds this critique in experience, and second because Alinsky’s model through the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is so prevalent in the US, and now in the UK as well through London Citizens.

One of Horton’s critiques of ‘Alinskyite’ organizers, was that they had a simplified model method that they used no matter the situation. Another common problem with organising I think:

They think it’s a matter of gimmicks. What made him [Alinsky] such a good organizer was his tremendous sense of humor, his brilliance and his utter disregard for what anybody said about him. he could have organized in half a dozen different ways and it would have worked, though some people think it was the particular method that was responsible. You don’t try to imitate people who know more than you. You try to learn from them. (178)

Particularly interesting was where Horton believed Alinsky had failed:

He thought that they’d want to share what they had learned with other people and that there would be a radical community movement. He felt this movement would spread, but it didn’t, because once the local leaders he had developed got into power, they held onto it and stayed where they were. in the Back of the Yards community in Chicago, the people Saul had worked with  became part of a racist power structure. This was the first community Saul had organized, and he was very upset about the outcome…. Although I always had tremendous respect for his integrity and ability, I didn’t always agree with Saul. His purpose was to put the poor and disinherited in power, he didn’t realize that when these people were no longer poor themselves, they wouldn’t necessarily be dedicated to poor people anymore. (180)

In L.A. we had some unpleasant encounters with the local branch as we did not fit their model and strategy of building power. I heard many similar stories from sister organisations, and these stories went back twenty years or more. For most of us this critique was combined with respect for what they had accomplished, but it never felt that respect was mutual. I think Horton’s observations above make some sense of this pattern.

But much of it comes back to the tension within our own organisation, particularly when it comes to people making their own decisions, leading their own fights, and needing that win:

Saul and I differed because my position was that if I had to make a choice between achieving an objective and utilizing the struggle to develop and radicalize people, my choice would be to let the goal go and develop the people. He believed that organizing success was the way to radicalize people. (180)

This tension between means and ends, process and potential failure as opposed to anything for success in a struggle that is almost always on someone else’s timeline (whether it is an employer, a landlord, a developer, whatever) is one faced by all movement organisations. It isn’t one that can necessarily be resolved, like so many things. You have to sit and struggle through this dialectic, and that struggle will hopefully bring you closer to accomplishing lasting change. Social change organisations that are not having this struggle? I worry a lot about those organisations.

For more on organising and popular education…

 

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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
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)

Leadership

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…

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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.]


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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:

CONQUEST

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)

DIVIDE AND RULE

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)

MANIPULATION

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)

CULTURAL INVASION

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:

COOPERATION

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)

UNITY FOR LIBERATION

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)

ORGANIZATION

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.

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Freire: Finding Voice and Praxis

Paulo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedThis second post on Paulo Freire’s thinking is shorter than some of the others. Perhaps just because as a writer I wanted to highlight these beautiful thoughts about words, speech, dialogue — the wondrous space created between us through communication where things can come to life that are greater than the sum of my thoughts or yours. This is the promise of collective thinking and action, and over and over again I have seen it fulfilled. Equally beautiful, equally important, is the necessity for us to name and understand things before we can change them, and of finding our own voice in this process.

Always, there can be no speaking truth to power without a corresponding action:

Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world. (87)

He continues:

Human existence cannot be Silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.

But while to say the true word—which is work, which is praxis—is to transform the world, saying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone. Consequently, no one can say a true word alone—nor can she say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words. (88)

We all must speak. We all must act. But it is not just the speaking of words, it is the process of it and the underlying principles. Above all, the desire that we collectively realise our own humanity, and that this process demands love. In a footnote, Freire echoes Che Guavara’s famous sentiment:

I am more and more convinced that true revolutionaries must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love. For me, the revolution, which is not possible without a theory of revolution—and therefore science—is not irreconcilable with love. On the contrary: the revolution is made by people to achieve their humanization. What, indeed, is the deeper motive which moves individuals to become revolutionaries, but the dehumanization of people? The distortion imposed on the word “love” by the capitalist world cannot prevent the revolution from being essentially loving in character, nor can it prevent the revolutionaries from affirming their love of life. Guevara (while admitting the “risk of seeming ridiculous”) was not afraid to affirm it: “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.” Venceremos—The Speeches and Writings of Che Guevara, edited by John Gerassi (New York, 1969), p. 398. (89)

Thus love forms one basis for this radical dialogue in which we engage. Another prerequisite:

…dialogue cannot exist without humility. … How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from others—mere “its” in whom I cannot recognize other “I”s? (90)

Another:

Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all.(90)

Out of love, humility, and faith emerges the ideal we strive for, what Freire calls the ‘dialogical man’:

The “dialogical man” is critical and knows that although it is within the power of humans to create and transform, in a concrete situation of alienation individuals may be impaired in the use of that power. Far from destroying his faith in the people, however, this possibility strikes him as a challenge to which he must respond. (91)

He (she) responds through, patience, dialogue, a process of learning and acting together. Through this:

Humankind emerge from their submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality as it is unveiled. Intervention in reality—historical awareness itself—thus represents a step forward from emergence, and results from the conscientização of the situation. Conscientização is the deepening of the attitude of awareness characteristic of all emergence. (109)

Freire then writes, summarising for me at least just why this book is so important:

If this view be true, the revolutionary process is eminently educational in character. Thus the road to revolution involves openness to the people, not imperviousness to them; it involves communion with the people, not mistrust. (140)

This also perhaps explains why I wish Freire had had the same impact on European leftist movements that he did elsewhere in the world (though never enough I think, because this is hard). Imagine revolutionary politics based on love, faith in people and humility. Enough to make you weep.

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