Re-reading another classic — The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. I remember being a little torn by it just as I was torn reading it again — loving so much the autobiographical sections, loving the stories of his students in the mountains of the deep South and imagining this northern intellectual living there among them. Loving the explorations of music. I remember being so struck with this other sense of divided worlds, of Black and white… of feeling both how far we’ve come, and how much has stayed the same. At the same time, I remember the way some of the old fashioned language and sentimentality left me cold. Yet this a book meant to speak to a broad population, to touch heartstrings and to move. It is hardly Du Bois’s fault that such words might have less power today — and I am no judge of its impact on others. All that said, there are few things more powerful than this I think:
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of framing it. All, nervous, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? (7)
And grown up through this system of racialisation and horror created in the US, the veil…
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (8)
The way that living in two worlds requires two consciousnesses, what is possible in one impossible in the other.
This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people,—has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves. (10)
So much impossible in the white world.
In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,— First, political power, Second, insistence on civil rights, Third, higher education of Negro youth,—and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred:
The disfranchisement of the Negro.
The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.
These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington’s teachings; but his propaganda has, without a shadow of doubt, helped their speedier accomplishment. The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meager chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No. (42-43)
For Booker T. Washington to come after Frederick Douglass… damn. And what better refutation.
If the Negro was to learn, he must teach himself, and the most effective help that could be given him was the establishment of schools to train Negro teachers. This conclusion was slowly but surely reached by every student of the situation until simultaneously, in widely separated regions, without consultation or systematic plan, there arose a series of institutions designed to furnish teachers for the untaught. Above the sneers of critics at the obvious defects of this procedure must ever stand its one crushing rejoinder: in a single generation they put thirty thousand black teachers in the South; they wiped out the illiteracy of the majority of the black people of the land, and they made Tuskegee possible. (74)
He goes on to strip the lies of a ‘benevolent’ white society:
The wrong which your gentlemen have done against helpless black women in defiance of your own laws is written on the foreheads of two millions of mulattoes, and written in ineffaceable blood. And finally, when you fasten crime upon this race as its peculiar trait, they answer that slavery was the arch-crime, and lynching and lawlessness its twin abortion; that color and race are not crimes, and yet they it is which in this land receives most unceasing condemnation, North, East, South, and West. (80)
The truth of the plantation:
And yet with all this there was something sordid, something forced,—a certain feverish unrest and recklessness; for was not all this show and tinsel built upon a groan? “This land was a little Hell,” said a ragged, brown, and grave-faced man to me. We were seated near a roadside blacksmith-shop, and behind was the bare ruin of some master’s home. “I’ve seen niggers drop dead in the furrow, but they were kicked aside, and the plough never stopped. And down in the guardhouse, there’s where the blood ran.”
With such foundations a kingdom must in time sway and fall. (92)
We seldom study the condition of the Negro to-day honestly and carefully. It is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loth to have them disturbed by facts. And yet how little we really know of these millions,—of their daily lives and longings, of their homely joys and sorrows, of their real shortcomings and the meaning of their crimes! All this we can only learn by intimate contact with the masses, and not by wholesale arguments covering millions separate in time and space, and differing widely in training and culture. (101)
To the car-window sociologist, to the man who seeks to understand and know the South by devoting the few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unravelling the snarl of centuries,—to such men very often the whole trouble with the black field-hand may be summed up by Aunt Ophelia’s word, “Shiftless!” (113)
There are still a number of academics engaged in such pursuits, still an inability to listen. Still a denial that any kind of veil exists, much less that it makes it difficult for those with race (class, gender) privilege to see, or understand what lies on the other side of it. Not the way those who stand there must, within oppression but needing that knowledge of privilege’s workings for survival.
I read the short version of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography many years ago and it impressed me so deeply, I had always meant to read the longer version — one of them at least. Too many years separate them for me even to be sure of the differences, apart from the recounting of the scene where Douglass stands up to Covey — much expanded here, but I am not sure more powerful for that. Still. The moment where enough is enough, where resistance is embraced fully, where everything changes. An incredible moment. But this is a book of powerful moments. So much of what is theorised over the next 150 years is here already, though always in a way that pathologises slavery not those bound and tortured by it. If only we had kept to that tradition.
Geneological trees do not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence here in the north, sometimes designated father, is literally abolished in slave law and slave practice. It is only once in a while that an exception is found to this statement. (34-35)
Of course, Douglass’s father was white. Master or overseer, he is not explicit — does not know, does not wish to know, does not wish to say.
The practice of separating children from their mothers, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with a brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and the heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution. (37-38)
Frederick Douglass belonged to the Lloyds, a plantation along the Wye river named after the river in Wales whence they came. Knowing the Wye river — it brings these connections home. From rural wales to owning slaves in Maryland.
Frederick Douglass grows up. Always cold. Always hungry. Always questioning.
The old doctrine that submission is the best cure for outrage and wrong, does not hold good on the slave plantation. He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest; and that slave who has the courage to stand up for himself against the overseer, although he may have many hard stripes at the first, becomes, in the end, a freeman, even though he sustain the formal relation of a slave. (95)
There is, of course, a line to be walked here because too much and they will just shoot you — this is clear in the text despite the numerous forceful statements like the one above.
I’ve just finished re-reading Du Bois on The Souls of Black Folk, and found it powerful that Douglass too spends time on the songs sung by slaves and their meaning and importance. It was often demanded of them that they sing, you cannot plot while singing, you cannot run away. But song transformed into something else. Douglass relates that it is not until after escaping slavery and looking back that the real meaning of the songs struck him.
They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of these wild notes always depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness… Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery… (99)
But then, still a child, he is sent to Baltimore, and it is strange to think, that without this arbitrary decision the future course of his life might not have been possible. For here he has opportunity to learn to read, to play with poor white children, to ask questions, to obtain knowledge, to see a world beyond the plantation. And, in the beginning, to have a taste of something different.
At first, Mrs Auld evidently regarded me simply as a child, like any other child; she had not come to regard me as property. This latter thought was a thing of conventional growth…it took several years to change the natural sweetness of her temper into fretful bitterness. (144-145)
Douglass illustrates time and time again how the structures of slavery constrain the humanity of both slave and slave-owner. The nature of slavery is such that there can be no good owner, no kind mistress because to own a slave is to deny the humanity of another human being. Mrs Auld begins kindly — begins to teach him to read, and is stopped in her tracks by her husband. It becomes fully brought home to her that reading and slavery are incompatible. In bowing to this, she loses her own self as she must.
As Douglass comes to understand this, the bewildering changes from kindness to bitterness, the reminders of his place in the household, he is also working out the nature of his own morality under slavery. That within a structure that has robbed him of both liberty and all reward of his labour, his right to steal for self preservation cannot be questioned. With no freedom of choice, no slave can be held morally responsible or accountable, rather all responsibility lies with those who created an enforce slavery.
There are insights too, into slavery’s impact on the class distinctions made in the South:
Slaves, too, readily distinguish between the birthright bearing of the original slaveholder and the assumed attitudes of the accidental slaveholder; and while they cannot respect either, they certainly despise the latter more than the former. (192)
Refusing to call him Master only one of many subtle ways of showing this. But it is so clear that status is entirely bound up in ownership of other human beings at this time, even though a certain level of privilege is granted to all those with white skin. Douglass is thinking all of these things, but can do little. At the age of 16 he is sent to work for a man named Covey for year, to be broken. And after 6 months of being broken, he stands up, refuses to be whipped, fights back.
…this battle with Mr Covey–undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is–was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I was A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. (246)
He was never whipped again. He does wonder why he wasn’t just killed — the punishment decreed by law for such defiance. The loss of face that Covey would have incurred is most likely the reason, but he himself has seen someone murdered for less. He describes the price of being a man — being willing to die. He also notes the many other things that work to keep human beings enslaved. Ties to family and friends, to place and familiarity. The granting of holidays, and other things that keep ‘minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. A certain degree of attainable good must be kept before them’ (253).
One of teh most powerful sentences I think:
The thought of only being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future–a future with hope in it. (273)
I think this is perhaps the terror of poverty as well, though it cannot be compared to slavery. But it appears again in one of the speeches at the end. A future could only lie in freedom. He plans an attempt at escape with a group of dear friends and is betrayed, but without quite the proof needed to convince his owner that the freedom break was actually going to be attempted. So while threatened with sale to the South, he is not in the end taken there. He is sent back to Baltimore, and apprenticed in the shipyards.
He has the shit beaten out of him by white apprentices there, partially at the instigation of the white carpenters who stand and watch it all. He notes that one of the elements in slavery is this:
the conflict of slavery with the interests of the white mechanics and laborers of the south. … The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black man himself… The slave is robbed, by his master, of all his earnings, above what is required for his bare physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, of the just results of his labor, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages. (309-310)
Douglass writes this will set the white laborers in the vanguard against slavery — it’s curious that he is right and wrong, for in much of the north and in California they surely are against slavery, but equally against Black labour. Still, we see here the intersections of race, economic systems, labour, struggle…
He escapes. Wanders lost in NY afraid for his life and recapture, no money, no friends. He doesn’t wonder that some return South. But he reaches safety with the abolitionists and they recommend he move to New Bedford. Which sounds bad ass. He tells a story in which a newcomer threatens one of the community with informing on him to his old master. A meeting is called of the whole Black community, and at the end of it
…at the close of his prayer, the old man (one of the numerous family of Johnsons) rose from his knees, deliberately surveyed his audience, and then said, in a tone of solemn resolution, “Well, friends, we have got him here, and I would now recommend that you young men should just take him outside the door and kill him. (348)
He escapes, sadly. But Douglass writes
A slave could not be taken from that town seventeen years ago, any more than he could be so taken away now. the reason is, that the colored people in that city are educated up to the point of fighting for their freedom, as well as speaking for it. (348)
That brings a tear.
So Douglass comes to the attention of the abolitionists as a speaker, begins to travel and lecture. He reads more, speaks more, thinks. He is fucking brilliant, far more so than those around him and they don’t like it, tell him to speak more like a slave, to just give his story and let them denounce the wrongs and provide the solutions. Whites in the audiences start murmuring at his eloquence, refuse to believe that he is a slave as he doesn’t speak like one or act like one. Makes you want to throw things.
And so Douglass writes the first version of his autobiography to free himself from these insinuations…which is, of course, a huge risk and means his almost certain recapture. And so he goes to England. where like many others before and after, he is treated as an equal (though all this would change for other generations of Black people coming to England). Money is raised to buy his freedom so he can return to the US without the threat of recapture hanging over him. (He is criticised for allowing this, by those who don’t know what it is like to be owned or to have the fear of being taken back hanging over them.) More money is raised to provide him with a printing press, so he can begin his own paper. And the white abolitionists really fucking hate that, as you can imagine — they argue it’s not needed, that it will interfere with the lecturing they have planned for him, that he is a better speaker than writer, and that it can’t succeed. William Lloyd Garrison has his own paper after all. So Douglass moves to Rochdale to avoid competition with them. They hate it even more when, upon deep thought, Douglass decides that they are wrong in their analysis of the issue and in their tactics of refusals to vote and demands that the slave-states be cut free from the union.
He notes near the end, the many instances of racism in the north. The prejudice that existed even among abolitionists and the awkwardness of their denials underlining how deeply it ran. Like their insistence they were ‘not afraid to walk with him’. He resists the existence of ‘Jim Crow’ cars in trains and trams, refusing to move and fighting any attempts to so remove him. Jim Crow this early, in name and in segregated carriages. I had forgotten. He is such a well-connected figure by this time, his battles are successful.
At the end are a collection of speeches and damn. They are incredible, what a thing to have heard him speak. Above all the speech for the 4th of July, which I have read before. But some excerpts, first from his reception speech at Finsbury Chapel.
I am here to say that I think the term slavery is sometimes abused by identifying it with that which it is not. Slavery in the United States is the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of poetry in the body and soul of another. The condition of a slave is simply that of the brute beast. He is a piece of property–a marketable commodity…to be bought or sold at will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property; he is spoken of, thought of, and treated as property. His own good, his conscience, his intellect, his affections, are all set aside by the master. The will and the wishes of the master are the law of the slave. He is as much a piece of property as a horse. If he is fed, he is fed because he is property. If he is clothed, it is with a view to the increase of his value as property. Whatever of comfort is necessary to him for his body or soul that is inconsistent with his being property, is carefully wrested from him, not only by public opinion, but by the law of the country. He is carefully deprived of everything that tends in the slightest degree to detract from his value as property. He is deprived of education. God has given him an intellect; the slaveholder declares it shall not be cultivated. If his moral perception leads him in a course contrary to his value as property, the slaveholder declares he shall not exercise it. The marriage institution cannot exist among slaves, and one-sixth of the population of democratic America is denied its privileges by the law of the land. What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage? (408)
And then this rousing finale
The slaveholders want total darkness on the subject. They want the hatchway shut down, that the monster may crawl in his den of darkness, crushing human hopes and happiness, destroying the bondman at will, and having no one to reprove or rebuke him. Slavery shrinks from the light; it hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest its deeds should be reproved. To tear off the mask from this abominable system, to expose it to the light of heaven, aye, to the heat of the sun, that it may burn and wither it out of existence, is my object in coming to this country. I want the slaveholder surrounded, as by a wall of anti-slavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light. (418)
The fact is, there are few here who would not return to the South in the event of emancipation. We want to live in the land of our birth, and to lay our bones by the side of our fathers’; and nothing short of an intense love of personal freedom keeps us from the South. For the sake of this, most of us would live on a crust of bread and a cup of cold water.(424)
At this moment, you are probably the guilty holder of at least three of my own dear sisters, and my only brother in bondage. These you regard as your property. They are recorded on your ledger, or perhaps have been sold to human flesh mongers, with a view to filling your own ever-hungry purse. Sir, I desire to know how and where these dear sisters are. Have you sold them? or are they still in your possession? What has become of them? are they living or dead? And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse, to die in the woods—is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them. (426-427)
First of all, I will state, as well as I can, the legal and social relation of master and slave. A master is one—to speak in the vocabulary of the southern states—who claims and exercises a right of property in the person of a fellow-man. This he does with the force of the law and the sanction of southern religion. The law gives the master absolute power over the slave. He may work him, flog him, hire him out, sell him, and, in certain contingencies, kill him, with perfect impunity. The slave is a human being, divested of all rights—reduced to the level of a brute—a mere “chattel” in the eye of the law—placed beyond the circle of human brotherhood—cut off from his kind—his name, which the “recording angel” may have enrolled in heaven, among the blest, is impiously inserted in a master’s ledger, with horses, sheep, and swine. In law, the slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home. He can own nothing, possess nothing, acquire nothing, but what must belong to another. To eat the fruit of his own toil, to clothe his person with the work of his own hands, is considered stealing. He toils that another may reap the fruit; he is industrious that another may live in idleness; he eats unbolted meal that another may eat the bread of fine flour; he labors in chains at home, under a burning sun and biting lash, that another may ride in ease and splendor abroad; he lives in ignorance that another may be educated; he is abused that another may be exalted; he rests his toil-worn limbs on the cold, damp ground that another may repose on the softest pillow; he is clad in coarse and tattered raiment that another may be arrayed in purple and fine linen; he is sheltered only by the wretched hovel that a master may dwell in a magnificent mansion; and to this condition he is bound down as by an arm of iron.
From this monstrous relation there springs an unceasing stream of most revolting cruelties. The very accompaniments of the slave system stamp it as the offspring of hell itself. To ensure good behavior, the slaveholder relies on the whip; to induce proper humility, he relies on the whip; to rebuke what he is pleased to term insolence, he relies on the whip; to supply the place of wages as an incentive to toil, he relies on the whip; to bind down the spirit of the slave, to imbrute and destroy his manhood, he relies on the whip, the chain, the gag, the thumb-screw, the pillory, the bowie knife the pistol, and the blood-hound. These are the necessary and unvarying accompaniments of the system. Wherever slavery is found, these horrid instruments are also found. (429-430)
It is only when we contemplate the slave as a moral and intellectual being, that we can adequately comprehend the unparalleled enormity of slavery, and the intense criminality of the slaveholder. I have said that the slave was a man. … The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property. Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility. It reduces man to a mere machine. It cuts him off from his Maker, it hides from him the laws of God, and leaves him to grope his way from time to eternity in the dark, under the arbitrary and despotic control of a frail, depraved, and sinful fellow-man. (431)
Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? (441)
Those words are still pretty true.
America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! (442)
What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? (444)
Words cannot express my admiration or respect. Yet I am still full of questions, about the wife who came from Maryland also, about her life, about the day to day…more to read, always more to read.
Douglass, Frederick (1969 ) My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
A nice gathering like today is not enough. You have to go back, and reach out to your neighbors who don’t speak to you, and you have to reach out to your friends, who think they are making it good, and get them to understand that they as well as you and I cannot be free in America — or anywhere else where there is capitalism and imperialism — until we can get people to recognize that they themselves have to make the struggle and have to make the fight for freedom every day in the year, every year, until they win it. Thank you.
Still true, still in struggle, still needing to stand in solidarity with Puerto Rico…
Epistemologies of the South blew me away a little bit. It was also quite hard work, but the opening uses slightly different language, and highlights most of the main themes. At the same time it represents quite a unique, and rather brilliant opening as it alternates between the Manifesto for Good Living, or Buen Vivir andthe Minifesto for Intellectual-Activists so they can be presented face to face on opposing pages. So it is still hard work, but it makes it possible to see the difference and convergence between the two. I loved the juxtaposition, found it an interesting way to read a book in the way it causes you to move back and forth, breaks the flow of each, and thus makes you think. It is not reproduced here. Instead, I have just copied some of my favourite quotes from one section and then the other. Too many deadlines and things left undone, no time yet for reflection, which will come with thinking a little more about the ways that these ideas are fleshed out through the rest of the book. Some day. But for now a constellation of transformative ideas with zero commentary. (You can find a PDF of the book here, which made collecting these quotes such low-hanging fruit…)
From the Manifesto:
The worst borders are the borders that cannot be seen, read, heard, or felt on this side of the line … We live on the other side of the line that someone traced while thinking of us but aiming at not thinking of us anymore. We are invisible, inaudible, and illegible because the success of previous revolutions decided not to include us. If our here is invisible, our now is even more so. According to those revolutions, we have, at most, a past, but no future. We were never allowed to write the history books.
How do we live? Always at risk of dying for causes other than illness, of being wounded or killed but not in friendly games; on the verge of losing home, land, water, sacred territories, children, grandparents; always at risk of being displaced long distances to flee war or of being confined in our barrios or in concentration camps…
What kind of passion urges us? The most subjective and diverse passion because grounded in the most intensely and diversely lived truth: that we deserve a life with dignity, a free life because free from the fear of violence and dispossession, a life to which we are entitled, and that fighting for it is possible and that we might succeed.
Against whom do we fight? On this side of the line everything is seductive; on the other side of the line everything is scary. We are the only ones who know, from experience, that there are two sides to the line, the only ones who know how to imagine what they do not live. Our context is the urgency of a life with dignity as a condition for everything else to be possible. We do know that only a civilizational change can guarantee it, but we also know that our urgency can bring about such change. (8)
This is a time of reckoning at a planetary level, involving humans and mother earth. It is a time of reckoning as yet without any rules. On the one side, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and all their satellite-oppressions. This is what we call the global North, a political, not geographical, location, increasingly more specialized in the transnationalization of suffering: workers losing their jobs in displaced plants; peasants in India, Africa, and Latin America expropriated by the megaprojects, agribusiness, and the mining industry; indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia who survived genocide; women murdered in Ciudad Juárez; gays and lesbians of Uganda and Malawi; people of Darfur, who are so poor and yet so rich; Afro-descendents murdered and displaced to the confines of the Colombian Pacific; mother earth struck in her vital cycles; those accused of being terrorists, tortured in secret prisons all over the world; undocumented immigrants facing deportation; Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis who live, work, and celebrate under constant bombardments; the impoverished North Americans, shocked by the fact that capitalism and colonialism treat them with exactly the same contempt and arbitrariness with which they have treated all the other peoples of the world; the retired, unemployed, and unemployable who are prey to the law of pillaging of the financial pirates. (10)
Our allies are all those who are solidary with us and have a voice because they are not on our side of the line. We know that “solidarity” is a trap word. To decide unilaterally with whom one is solidary and how one is solidary is to be solidary with oneself alone. Unlike what has been the case up until now, we put conditions on solidarity. Alliance with us is demanding because our allies have to fight against three kinds of enemies: our enemies, their enemies, and the commonsensical view that there is no connection at all between the two previous kinds of enemies. (14)
From the Minifesto:
But ruins may be creative too. Starting anew means rendering creativity and interruption possible under hostile conditions that promote reproduction and repetition. The point is not so much to imagine new theories, new practices, and new relations among them. The point is mainly to imagine new ways of theorizing and of generating transformative collective action. (5)
The impossibility of collective authorship. As far as authorship goes, this book has diffuse limits. In recent years I have been an activist in the World Social Forum process and have been deeply involved in the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. I am unable to determine to what extent my thoughts are part of a collective without a name and without clear outlines. Of my own is only what is expressed individually and with full awareness of a double absence: the absence of that which could be formulated only collectively, were it susceptible to rational formulation, and the absence of that which cannot be rationally formulated, either individually or collectively. Half this book will forever remain unwritten. I write what I am able to write with this in mind. I am part of a collective by being aware of how I separate myself from it in order to write.
To write from the perspective of the impossibility of radicalism is today more promising than before owing to three factors: the end of the game of dogmas; the mission of the rearguard theory with which the ralliers have entrusted the intellectuals; and the inexhaustible diversity of the world and what it shows, or what it lets be seen, regardless of the possibility of its being spoken. (7)
The surprise is due to the fact that both Marxism and liberalism have ignored the indigenous peoples, both as social and political actors. The great Peruvian Marxist José Mariátegui was stigmatized as “ romantic” and “ populist” by the Communist International for having ascribed a role to the Indians in the construction of Latin American societies. Such a surprise poses a new question to theoreticians and intellectuals in general — namely, whether they are prepared to experience surprise and wonder. This question has no easy answer. Critical theoreticians are particularly trapped in this difficulty since they have been trained in vanguard theorizing. Vanguard theory, by its nature, does not let itself be taken by surprise or feel wonderment. (11)
Unity lies in no essence. It lies in the task of building good living/buen vivir. Herein reside the novelty and the political imperative: to enlarge contemporaneity means to amplify the field of reciprocity between the principle of equality and the principle of the recognition of difference. Thus, the struggle for social justice expands in unsuspected ways. (13)
Acknowledging this autonomous and enabling diversity is perhaps the crucial feature of the process of untraining, as partly reported in this book. It is from this perspective that I propose epistemologies of the South. Such an acknowledgment works as a safety net against the abysses into which one falls when one loses the certainty that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge and that beyond it there is only ignorance. It is the most efficacious antidote against Wittgensteinian silencing, which is totally prey to monolanguage and monoculture. What cannot be said, or said clearly, in one language or culture may be said, and said clearly, in another language or culture. Acknowledging other kinds of knowledge and other partners in conversation for other kinds of conversation opens the field for infinite discursive and nondiscursive exchanges with unfathomable codifications and horizontalities. (15)
Santos, Boaventure de Sousa (2016) Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. New York and London: Routledge.
I loved Margaret Ledwith’s book, Community Development: A critical approach. This has been my practice for so long alongside community organizing and then on its own — I can’t describe the feeling of reading something that resonates so strongly, that frames this kind of work within this academic context that sometimes feels so alien and this British context with its very different trajectories. All that, and offering new insight. I’m working on the next paper, which is on this kind of work in London, so there will be a couple of posts on this, though the paper is actually almost done. Should have been submitted ages ago.
I tend to hate the word empowerment, but I suppose mostly because it has been so eviscerated of all critical content and liberatory practice. I have heard it come out of the mouths of people who wouldn’t empower anyone at all if they really admitted the truth to themselves, it has lost much of its credibility to me. But Ledwith some of it back. First, a quote from Butcher et al (a wealth of reading lies ahead of me as always):
If empowerment is at the heart of critical community practice, then “power” and its utilization are at the core of empowerment. It is only through engaging with structures and processes of social, political and economic power that communities can effectively work to confront the disadvantage, exclusion and oppression that they experience. (Butcher et al, 2007) 13
And here Ledwith nails much of why I hate the word:
Empowerment is a transformation concept but without a critical analysis it is all too often applied naively to confidence and self-esteem at a personal level, within a paradigm of social pathology, a purpose that is usually associated with personal responsibility for lifting oneself out of poverty, overlooking structural analyses of inequality. (13)
And the kind of practice I prefer instead.
Radical practice has a transformative agenda, an intention to bring about social change that is based on a fair, just and sustainable world. In this respect, it locates the roots of inequality in the structures and processes of society, not in personal or community pathology. (14)
And a final note on how things change, on how static models are never enough.
Community development is never static: its practice is always re-forming in dynamic with current thought, political contexts and lived experience. (14)
It emphasizes to me just how much depends on individual practice and ability to be flexible, to adjust, to do what’s best given the situation. To change the world, which is the point, not just to get the model right. Always hard, both to do, and to teach.
History of Radical Community Development
She gives a short history of such radical community development in the UK (which she describes as being longer in the earlier version damn it! I needed that! I will have to find an old edition). I found it so useful. So this version skips the Victorian settlement stuff, jumps right into the Beveridge Report in 1942 which established the consensus on the welfare state. There’s the work by Peter Townsend and others in the 1960s that showed the failings of the welfare state (including Cathy Come Home and everything Ken Loach was doing). The founding of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). The sea of reports in the 1960s that recommended community development be a professional practice, but one committed to working with communities — in England more as planning and service delivery, but in Scotland (no surprise really it should be more radical there) as community learning. The setting up of the Urban Programme in 1968, the Community Development Project in 1969 — they sought to use action research and tackle the structural grounds of poverty as opposed to the pathology-based model. In this it defined itself against social work, which it saw as ‘soft policing’ and youth work, which ‘was dismissed as a means of simply keeping working-class kids off the streets’. (16)
Over the 1970s came a split, the radical agenda ‘which believes that community development is a locus of change within the struggle for transformation of the structures of society that are the root causes of oppression’ (Mayo, Craig et al, Ohri et all, Dominelli) and the pluralist one: ‘which believes there is a multiplicity of competing bases in society, mediated by the state, and that community development is only capable of ameliorative small-scale neighbourhood change and piecemeal reforms. (Henderson and Thomas, Twelvetrees) (17)
We come to the 1980s. Thatcher and the New Right, the return of the distinctions between deserving and undeserving poor, the active dismantling of the welfare state. New Labour also moved towards ‘we are all on the same side’ and away from commitment to structural change or analysis of injustice and inequality — they also embraced zero tolerance policing, punitive approaches to asylum seekers and fines for ‘anti-social behaviour’. (21) Hardly surprising that the radical agenda became less effective in this period. All that before we get to the Big Society under Cameron (and Clegg), their transferring responsibility to community while implementing austerity. Some good stuff on what a bad idea that is.
Gary Craig’s work critiquing this move, move away from critical position.
There are some good critiques listed here: the critique of communitarianism (Etzioni) which emerged in New Labour agenda — Robson arguing it ignores Gramsci, and the insight around hegemony of how dominant ideas infiltrate into civil society institutions. Cook and Kothar’s critique of participation as the ‘new tyranny’, which could perhaps be condensed down to the knowledge that key concepts reduced to buzzwords can dangerously flip transformative practice into placatory practice. (29)
And of course, praxis has developed quite a lot despite such conservative decades, and so our work needs to be imbued with critical analysis around intersections of race and class and gender, also with sustainability.
The story of a community
Ledwith gives a first walk through of how community development might work, an important tool for grounding the rest of the book in practice, and talking through some of the issues through narrative. She writes:
Community is a complex system of interrelationships woven across social difference, diverse histories and cultures, and determined in the present by political and social trends. This calls for practitioners to have an incisive analysis of…political context and the historical issues… (34)
Important to know — but where to start? In the tradition of emancipatory action research, she describes a process in which any project should start with a community profile. This means ‘local people researching their own stories, beginning the process of critical consciousness’. (35) This can then be put into play with statistical evidence, sociopolitical trends & community development interventions to develop collectively, and look in a structured way at the level of the individual, the group, the community, society’s structures/ institutions, and wider society. (36)
She gives a model here for critical praxis, locating internal and external forces in the community and working through how they impact on people’s lives. I like these drawings. That said, I sometimes stare at them quite a while trying to work out quite what they mean.
Doing Community Development
This chapter opens with a focus on Paulo Freire, so it’s covering much of what I know though I appreciated the discussion of the feminist critique of his work. It did feel a bit like Freire in all of his imperfections became a bit of target, when what I like about his work is that the whole point is to facilitate a collective learning and collective liberation to avoid being trapped in any one individual’s blindnesses. I feel it is the establishment and academia that sets individuals up as super philosophers only to be torn down, and that’s more a fault of the system if any one individual is given so much power. Still, the critique is just, I just wish we could be more generous with each other. Anyway.
I love the connection between the work of popular education and narrative, and the telling of a story. Ledwith shares a great quote from O’Donohue (2004):
A real narrative is a web of alternating possibilities. The imagination is capable of kindness that the mind often lacks because it works naturally from the world of Between; it does not engage things in a cold, clear-cut way but always searches for the hidden worlds that wait at the edge of things. (61)
The more I stare at that quote the more I love it, I’ve been thinking about fiction and non-fiction for a while. That captures something important.
Other quotes from Carolyn Steedman on how story names our place in the social world. Brought together with analysis, Ledwith says, these become critical insight for action. This is particularly important in Western settings where the preoccupation with the individual (in distinction to the rest of the world) means people are fractured and split from the greater community. This rootedness in storytelling is also key to feminist pedagogy, with greater emphasis on the the
complex interlinking, overlapping matrix of oppressions that shape us all according to ‘race’, class, gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality ‘dis’ ability, religion and so on, rather than a simplistic dichotomous analysis of oppressor/ oppressed. (64)
I love this, all of this.
Without the link between person and political, Ledwith writes, stories remain subjective. She gives insights form Chris Cavanagh’s practice of using storytelling for social justice. In fact, there are so so many good examples about narrative and storytelling and justice… they’re on a list now. My to read list is absurd, I shall have to retire early.
Organising in the community
So here we get to her practice of Emancipatory Action Research (EAR) as the glue that binds theory and practice together. Not just through the results of the research, but in the process to move towards a better world and to escape the power relations of traditional research. Ledwith writes:
we need to create critical spaces for dialogue, involving all co-participants in co-creating knowledge for our times. These are counter-hegemonic critical spaces where power relationships are deconstructed according to our analyses of power in order to reconstruct democratic relations with new possibilities for a world that is fair and just. (78)
So, EAR, in summary:
grounded in an ideology of equality;
adopting a methodology that is emancipatory, working with not on people, power is redistributed;
using non-controlling methods, open to multiple ways of knowing, experience is explored beyond the written word through dialogue, story, music, drama, poetry, drawings and photographs in a search for multiple truths;
action for change emerges from new knowledge (79)
It consists of 4 interlinked stages:
critiquing the status quo
identifying key sites of intervention
creating new ways of making sense of the world (epistemology)
creating new ways of being in the world (ontology).
She writes about Rowan’s ‘Dialectical paradigm for research’ (1981), which sounds amazing, you can never be too dialectical. I’ll read that and write more, it’s already on the stack. This chapter includes checklists and questions (these are throughout, and so damn useful, meaning this will be a well-thumbed book once research is underway). Everything she quotes from this foundational text by Reason and Rowan sounds pretty phenomenal. She combines this with Schuler’s core values model, to help pay attention to the balance of needs while you are busy doing everything else. All these tools I never knew of. There’s the Scottish ABCD model as well, also to be explored.
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.
Rinku Sen’s guide to community organizing is brilliant — nothing could ever replace the collective energy and knowledge generated through CTWO’s (or any group’s) training programs because community organizing is all about collective liberation, but if you can’t get there then this is great. If like me you’ve been lucky enough to learn from folks there, than this is a good reminder of some of what they taught. But of course, this has also made me think a lot more about things in the way that only sitting with a book can, especially now that I am removed from the pressures of organizing and being all intellectual about shit.
You should buy it, support such work, but you can get the PDF here. The presence of a PDF available for copying means I quote at EVEN GREATER LENGTH, which is always a failing of mine. Apologies.
The book in a nutshell:
The book is organized to provide an overview of organizing and then to explore specific aspects of current practice. The tools presented here can help communities transform the institutions and ideas that shape our lives. I make two essential arguments. First, I argue that today’s social, political, and economic context, characterized by global capitalism, a resurgent conservative movement, and the continued role of racism and sexism in world society, requires a deeper strategic capacity than most organizations have today. Second, I argue that although organizing among the people suffering from these systems is more important than ever, the range of political skills required of us goes far beyond recruiting members and planning creative actions. Minimally, effective peoples’ organizations need to have not just the people but also a system for internal leadership development and consciousness raising, strong factual research, and the ability to generate media attention. Simply put, today’s movements for social and economic justice need people who are clear about the problems with the current systems, who rely on solid evidence for their critique, and who are able to reach large numbers of other people with both analysis and proposals. (xvii-iii)
So this first post is on her overview of community organizing, anti-racist and feminist critiques of it, and how it can be combined with learning from the many vibrant struggles around identity. It is nice and broad and captures much of the amazing work happening in the US, and which I miss so much now that I’m in the UK:
The term community organizing refers to a distinct form of organization building and social activism that grew in the United States mostly after World War II. …. There are at least six major organizing networks in the United States, each with its own methods and theories. Since World War II, community organizing has grown into a profession, with its own body of literature, standards, and training institutes. (xliv)
The oldest network is the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), founded by Saul Alinsky:
the first to devise and write down a model of organizing that could be replicated. He created dozens of community organizations, all designed to test out a new portion of the theory, in addition to the IAF. Alinsky’s pragmatic, nonideological approach to social change has been both emulated and challenged by organizers and groups, many of which arose to fill perceived gaps in Alinsky’s work. (xliv)
They are funded primarily through institutional membership and foundation grants. Most have become faith based over time. A branch from this model came when Fred Ross Sr., the IAF’s West Coast director, developed the Community Service Organization (CSO). This worked out of LA (woo!) to register people to vote and help elect the first Latino city council member in 1949 (Ed Roybal!). He helped develop a model of individual membership, and worked with Cesar Chavez start the United Farm Workers. I am fascinated that both started with a process of mutual aid through the pooling community funds, need to learn more about this.
Been thinking a lot and in conversations about Alinksy lately, and agree that the summaries here and in Fisher are not doing him enough justice — and it seems to me that this is often because they focus more on a calcified form of practice that he would himself have been quick to disavow. But more on that later, here just to recap what other’s feel — interesting in itself in thinking about representation and different understandings.
The People’s Institute for Community Organizing (PICO) was founded by two priests, John Baumann and Dick Helfridge in the 1970s-80s along similar lines and still going strong, faith-based organizing bringing congregations together for change. Knew some young organizers in these older organizations, liked them a lot.
And of course there is also ACORN — she’s right I didn’t know this history:
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is the undoubted leader among traditional community organizations based on the model of bringing individuals together into new formations that did not rely on existing institutions. Few contemporary activists, however, know that ACORN has its roots in the civil rights and welfare rights movements. In 1968, a chemistry professor and civil rights leader named George Wiley, active in the Congress of Racial Equality, implemented the idea of combining community organizing, which he saw winning significant victories, with the racial justice commitments of the civil rights movement in a new formation called the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). Although it survived only six years, among its lasting legacies was the creation of ACORN, which was started by Wade Rathke, who had been sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to build an NWRO chapter in 1970.
ACORN was the first to design a replicable model for the individual-membership organization. Today, ACORN has organizations in twenty-six states and counts among its successes winning many local living wage campaigns, resisting redlining by banks and insurance companies, and reforming local public schools. ACORN’s outreach to individuals and its continued commitment to organizing the very poor makes it an important supplement to the IAF and PICO, institutional models that address only marginally the question of the unorganized (Delgado, 1986). (xlviii)
Since then a n umber of other models and networks have developed, such as the National Organizers Alliance (NOA). Relationships between everyone often remain a bit fractious, at least they were in LA. Personalities are of course part of it, but the various critiques raise some of the biggest issues in the country really, primarily those of how we understand our relationship with capitalism, inseparable from the ways race, gender, sexuality intersect with class and struggle. That, and who gets to say ‘I am the community’. That’s a tough one when you’re just fighting for a seat at the table.
Anti-racist critique of traditional community organizing
So… the anti-racist critique of traditional models. Sen writes
The antiracist critique centers on three concerns: the domination of community organizations by white staff and white “formal” leaders such as priests and union officials; the refusal of most community organizations to incorporate issues focused on racism; and the lack of flexibility in the rules of leadership and tactical planning. (xlix)
So as already noted, it was a blow to him that Alinsky’s first community organizing victories happened were won by the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, yet it became an active racist force for segregation in the late 1960s. Sen’s own analysis of this:
So, Alinsky knew enough about race to be embarrassed by explicit racism but not enough to embrace organizational practices that could centralize antiracist work and that could develop a sophisticated antiracist analysis that kept up with the efforts of the right wing. As years passed, the larger community organizing networks tended to follow that lead… (liii)
Related to that, is that the tactics and the formula for success given by traditional models — choosing limited campaigns that are winnable — are not enough to shift the balance of power nor do they ‘match the political cultures and priorities of communities of color and antiracist activists’ (she cites Delgado, 1986; Fellner, 1998; Blake, 1999 — I haven’t read any of these folks).
As the conservative backlash and active racism of the right grow, campaigns need to shift and begin to tackle some of the harder issues at the core of what communities of colour face.
One last critique:
Finally, people of color argue that many of the rules of community organizing run counter to the political traditions, cultures, and realities of communities of color. They point to three community organizing trends in particular: the separation of leader and organizer roles, the refusal to advance a fundamental critique of capitalism and U.S. democracy, and an over-reliance on confrontational tactics as the only sign that institutional challenge is taking place. In many communities of color, organizers are a part of the community’s leadership, publicly acknowledged and included in decision making. Sometimes these leaders are paid to do their organizing, and often they aren’t. Examples abound, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Anna Mae Aquash. While many organizers of color see the importance of leadership that generates new leaders, they resist drawing a false line between leader and organizer.
Many people of color have little faith that simply raising their voices will have a dramatic effect. Tactically, communities of color are accustomed to finding other ways to challenge institutions, including building alternatives.(li)
This brings us to the community organizing networks formed explicitly attending to race, the first of which in 1980 was the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) ‘by Gary Delgado, a former welfare rights and ACORN organizer, and Hulbert James, a former SNCC and HumanServ organizer’.
CTWO advanced a strategy based on two notions: that people of color occupied a colonized position within the United States and could find common cause across the lines separating black, Asian, Latino, and Native American communities, and that community organizing offered potentially strong forums for such politics if it could be conducted with clear antiracist analysis and priorities.(liii)
A second network from the early 1980s, Grassroots Leadership, was founded by Si Kahn (I remember his book How People Get Power as being as awesome as the title) ‘to be an explicitly biracial network of community organizations in the South that continued the tradition of combining art and culture with organizing practice’. (liii)
Feminist critique of traditional community organizing
Sen describes four targets of feminist critique
community organizing overemphasizes intervention in the public sphere, does not allow organizers to balance work and family, focuses on narrow self-interest as the primary motivator, and relies on conflict and militaristic tactics.
Things we thought a lot about at SAJE, things that ultimately limit movement when left unaddressed — but they are hard, particularly the work and family balance. We never got that right, don’t know that anyone did. Sen argues that both the critiques emerging from anti-racist work and communities of colour and the critiques raised by feminism all point to the issue with the pragmatism Alinksy emphasized in his trainings and in his writings. She writes:
In many ways, the lack of sophistication that traditional community organizing applies to large-scale economic, racial, and gender questions resulted in the lack of explicit ideological discussion in most traditional organizing networks. Over time, the pragmatism that Alinsky espoused came to characterize community organizations; it determined the path of internal conflicts about class, race, and gender, and eventually of those about immigration and sexuality. If a particular issue was bound to divide a community or was difficult to address entirely in the public sphere, most community organizations did not deal with it. Domestic violence and police brutality provide excellent examples of issues that could divide a community and that local institutions resisted dealing with. … Over time, additional forces and new movements have changed community organizing by creating an imperative for different methods and politics. (lvi)
This tendency to shy away from difficult issues is a natural one, particularly in the emergency-driven environment of organizing desperately trying to weld people into organized struggle. It is hard, requires time and space and thought and tools. Luckily people have been working on theory and on tools for decades, it is for us to carve out the time and space and that requires will.
On Identity and Struggle
The final section here deals with the impact of other kinds of movement struggles — first the new organizing strategies of SEIU (Justice for Janitors) and HERE (Hotel and Restaurant Workers) and their rejuvenation of the labor movement through the organization of immigrants in precarious sub-contracts. Second the rise of identity-based movements. There is much to learn here, many of these campaigns have been fierce, beautiful, victorious.
In part, identity politics started as an analytic movement, a movement of ideas, that upheld the importance of the political experiences of marginalized constituencies and expected progressives to unify around the imperatives of attacking racism, sexism, and sexual oppression as they had around class. Identity politics—a political vision that recognizes the problems of societies in which rewards and punishments are distributed by massive systems according to physical attributes—led to some of the most important theoretical and political movements of the last thirty years of the twentieth century; these movements ranged from black feminism to the anti-AIDS campaigns to the community-based worker organizing described above, and they have, in turn, profoundly affected community organizers and their ideas.
Such identity politics rejected the idea that everything could be reduced to class, that certain fights could wait until the class war was won, that all of these differences were just distractions from the war against the bosses. I rather love how Sen breaks down why this is terribly wrong:
First, activists exploring identity politics developed the idea that identities that had been considered biological are socially constructed.
Second, activists developed the idea that these social constructions create vastly different experiences among people as they relate to the institutions of private and public life. In acknowledging this difference in life experience, activists were forced to grapple with the reality that black autoworkers require voting reform as well as union membership or that women might rebel against the nuclear family because that structure burdens them a great deal more than it does men or that black women’s priority gender issue might be welfare while white women’s might be abortion.
Third, identity politics raised the idea that one solution might not fit all: controlling capital might not prevent institutional racism; third world liberation might not address women’s oppression. Activists observed that movements for one kind of liberation might not embrace the issues that would lead to other kinds of liberation (lx)
Those who could not find their place in traditional Left movements left to found their own groups around these different dimensions of struggle, and they were vilified for it. Sen describes a
… growing resentment among white leftists (including many community organizers) toward the attention afforded identity-based movements, as well as a troubling nostalgia for universal labor and populist movements that regularly excluded people of color, encouraged nativist violence, and kept women out of the paid labor force. As Kelley (1997) writes, “They either don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge that class is lived through race and gender. There is no universal class identity, just as there is no universal racial or gender or sexual identity. The idea that race, gender and sexuality are particular whereas class is universal not only presumes that class struggle is some sort of race and gender-neutral terrain but takes for granted that movements focused on race, gender and sexuality necessarily undermine class unity and, by definition, cannot be emancipatory for the whole.” Researcher of conservative movements Jean Hardisty puts it more bluntly when she writes, “To the heterosexual, white, male leaders of the Old Left, class oppression (and hence the demands of the labor movement) was the movement’s principal concern. The neglect of ‘other’ oppressions stems from their lack of relevance to that leadership” (1999, p. 197). (lxii)
This break has not been closed in Sen’s view, she writes:
Identity movements and community organizing have both been growing but largely along parallel tracks; they speak little to each other and share few issues and resources. The question is how to achieve the goal of scale without leaving important non-majority issues and constituencies by the wayside. (lxiii)
CTWO’s work, and the rest of this book, is beginning a conversation about how this might be possible.
[Sen, Rinku (2003) <em>Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizin and Advocacy</em>. San Francisco: Chardon Press.]
Community Organizing in the Conservative 1980s — exciting stuff (though we’ve been through the late 1800s through 1946, the 1960s, conservative organizing in the 50s and 60s, and the 70s). The chapter opens with a fabulous quote:
We live in a society that is like a house on fire, and it’s arson. (Heather Booth, organizer, p 168)
Ah, the 1980s. My lifetime. Reagan and economic crisis, the reemergence of voluntarism, agreement amongst community activists that there has been a movement away from dissent and confrontation. There is now talk about how organizing is no longer ‘against’, instead it is ‘for’ something, it is increasingly about establishing common ground, political partnerships, moving into development, CDCs and ’empowerment’ though seems like they are doing less of that in a radical way. But on the positive side you have ACORN and City Life staying radical, there is increased thinking about cooperatives etc
You also see the rise of the neoconservative movement building on some lessons from community organizing. Fisher writes:
The neoconservative movement, in fact, sees itself, not the New Left and new social movements, as the true proponent of “the community revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s.
They are the ones giving ‘power back to the people’ (178)
Fisher describes a process in which the IAF has shifted to faith-based organizing as part of a move to understand people need more than self-interest but continues trenchant in his critique:
The strategy of moderation, the commitment to moderates, the grounding of IAF efforts in mainstream religious institutions, and a definition of power that emphasizes relationship building leads to a politics that limits the parameters of IAF work and excludes alliances with other movement activists and organizations. It encourages IAF to work alone with its constituency and mainstream allies and avoid confronting the causes of the imbalance of power that oppresses its constituents. (196)
On the other hand, ACORN continues to follow a social justice movement model, committed to radical ideology and confrontational tactics. It has a clear political program. Its “people’s platform” emanates from–but goes beyond–neighborhood politics to integrate both a constituency and class-based mode of organizing and critique of American political economy.
There are also some new developments, a raising of critiques around the intersectionality of oppressions (my words there).
There is the founding of CTWO, the Center for Third World Organizing, where I did some training myself and love well (more about them later). Fisher describes their work as multiracial organizing and a ‘critique of the systemic, institutional bases of racism and ethnocentrism’ (197). More on them next. You have the rise of ACT-UP among others…there is actually a rise of all kinds of awesomeness in this decade, despite its bad rap.
This is a decade of new social work models developing out of a radical feminist movement — a movement I was completely unaware of, but now feel the need to explore, starting with the work of Lorraine Gutierrez, Edith Lewis on the elimination of power hierarchies and support to realize full potential, Ann Withorn and Cheryl Hyde, explorations of tensions in service delivery and social action.
In response, Fisher writes:
It is this decentering of political struggle, away from the core class struggle of the old social movements to a more diverse, polyvocal discourse of the varied new citizen initiatives, that gives current grassroots efforts such potential and such problems (207)
He accepts the importance of this, and continues
the challenges of the 1990s and beyond is for groups to learn how to maintain their identity, focus, and constituency and work together in progressive organizations that advance social justice. (209)
I am struggling with Boaventura de Sousa Santos at the moment and he is all about this in a way that is quite amazing. But more on that later.
The conclusion wraps up all of this up quite well, summarizing Fisher’s understanding of the three main approaches he looks at: political activist, social welfare and neighborhood maintenance (which maybe I haven’t drawn out enough over the course of these summaries):
The political activist approach regards the community as a political entity and/ or potential power base. It focuses on obtaining, maintaining, or restructuring power. Or…is political in that its goal is to develop alternative institutions. The community’s problems, as defined by organizers, is the absence of power needed to defend the neighborhood and/ or give people more control over their lives.
Where the political activist approach differs most significantly from the social work approach is in its class perspective. The social work approach often seeks a class rapprochement based on a “partnership” between upper-class supporters, social welfare professions, and working- and lower-class neighborhood residents. (212)
Again we have an analysis of the positive role played by conflict in challenging structures people didn’t think they could challenge, and the ways in which this is where people find power, and how this is where class balances are actually altered. He looks a bit at ‘New Social Movement Theory’ too, challenging it in more ways than one, but particularly the idea that after the industrial revolution all organizing was factory organizing or entirely class oriented until post WWII. Sock it to them, I say.
The main lessons from the past as Fisher sees them:
Neighborhood organizing cuts across the political spectrum. Not inherently left or right.
Neighborhood organizing movements develop in a historical context that includes yet transcends local community borders. (222)
There is a critical interaction between neighborhoods organizing efforts, national politics, and nationwide social movements. (223) Movements can be buoyed by these larger forces or crushed.
Problems besetting neighborhoods demand political organization beyond the neighborhood level. (224)
Neighborhood organizing requires a gentle balance between organizing, leading, and educating. (225)
Political education must be an integral part of neighborhood organizing. (227)
Neighborhood organizing must create a more consciously ideological practice. (228). Must connect ‘popular, inherent ideology rooted in people’s traditions and a derived ideology, primarily external, that connects their concerns to forces and events beyond personal experience. (23)
An organizing ideology for our times needs to combine new demands for autonomy and identity with older ones for social justice, production for human needs rather than profit, and a spirit of connectedness and solidarity rather than competition. (232)
That’s the real trick.
[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]
Part 2 on Robert Fisher’s great book on Community Organizing (read part 1 from 1886 to 1946 here). This might be the best part, the most inspiring at least, because weren’t the 60s amazing? We have won so much since then and I wouldn’t want to go back, but that feeling that revolution could come tomorrow?
Damn, I wouldn’t mind that at all.
The Neighborhood Organizing “Revolution” of the 1960s
Another great quote from Malcolm X:
I, for one, believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what it is that confronts them, and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program; and when the people create a program, you get action. When their “leaders” create programs you get no action. (98)
I find it hopeful, even if I will never believe revolution is right around the corner, that there is a steady progression in how we come together to change the world, and that the issues encountered through one struggle inspires new, and often better responses to carry the struggle forward. Fisher writes:
As preceding chapters have demonstrated, the stop-gap solutions and tenuous class and race relations of one decade often become the central problem and basis for change in the next. And each new situation seems to breed new forms of neighborhood organization activity. (98)
I think he’s right, we have come a long way, and it feels good to look back to these years and see the seeds there, things I took for granted but that were invented, tested, put into action. The chapter looks at ‘the quasi-anarchist experiments’ of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — I’ve ben reading all kinds about the first (Ransby and Cobb and Morris and Zinn and others). Fisher writes:
The groups were important innovators in a new style of community organizing, but only one of many types of grassroots efforts during the decade. (99)
He notes how geographical shift to suburbs meant poverty invisible to those living outside city center, which allows poverty to be redefined as a “black problem” both because of its concentration, but also because African Americans are leading the fight back. This connection between the spatialities of segregation, white privilege and struggle are so important, and I think finally through the new Movement for Black Lives and #BlackLivesMatter, much more of this is being explored. But at the same time as there was a spatial separation of elites, the NAACP and SCLC tended towards an elite way of working (and for the NAACP always had, with some exceptions amongst the branches), despite King’s vision of democracy. The youth entering the movement opened it all up and made it more participatory through student sit-ins and freedom rides.
Fisher notes that like Alinksy, SNCC and SDS called themselves “nonideological”:
they advocated in their words and behavior a moral revolt and nonconformity…rejected liberal faith in modest reforms…emphasis on direct action and the formation of locally autonomous, insurgent community organizations…rejected all centralized, bureaucratic, hierarchical forms…
They moved away from concerns with organization and power, and
substituted an all-embracing political credo that emphasized democratic action and relationships, processes and values. “participatory democracy,” they called it. “Let the People Decide.” (107)
The common ‘ingredients’ of these approaches (I love these lists):
Be a catalyst, not a leader
Let the people decide
Develop loose organizational structures – to encourage maximum participation, consensus decision making (108)
Establish places in the community free of external restraints – development of community unions open to all. My favourite idea, why don’t we have a million of these?
Develop indigenous leaders
Create supportive personal relationships (109)
A lot of those ideas are still part of the canon, along with some new additions. Many of them to deal with the shit gender dynamics that Fisher notes were still in operation here, with women doing much of the work while ‘men always remained center stage and dominated the organizations.’ (113) That picture at the top of the post was carefully chosen to make sure I don’t feel too much nostalgia.
Gender issues (and race for damn sure, and homophobia, and etc) must have damaged the strength of the movement. Fisher notes another three principal factors that hurt their efforts up to 1965. The first, the decimated state of the left and the absence of any national program to provide support, so they had to rebuild from scratch. I am divided on that as a negative factor actually, after my experiences here in the UK. The second is the difficulties in building a ‘leaderless’ movement of ‘organizers’. Fisher writes:
It is critical in community organizing to provide leadership, to do organization building, and to teach leadership and rudimentary organizational skills, but most new lefters though this ran counter to the idea of letting the people decide. (116)
I am rather fascinated by that because I can see where they were coming from ideologically, but it seems so clear that direct democracy in practice is something that is learned, that you improve with practice, that takes skill to make work effectively in a way that ensures everyone’s voice is heard, everyone can speak, everyone has power. That shit is hard. Anyway. He describes the third factor as the ‘sheer physical and emotional drain of organizing’ (117). That shit is real too.
But undoubtedly these have had a big impact on the developing models for community organizing.
The 1960s also brought the Great Society, it’s organizing projects and its Community Action Agencies. An attempt to buy out revolution really. Fisher describes the havoc that government funds caused, thrown at community organizations to try and quell the disorder that was beginning to effect economic and political centers, He writes:
The Great Society, however, was more than a traditional liberal reform program to palliate and co-opt mass insurgency. It sought not only to defuse protest from below but to reincorporate African-Americans into the political process and thereby solidify their support for the Democratic party. It sought in essence to create new black political organizations in the inner cities and the rural South that would strengthen black political involvement and electoral participation. (122)
And in many ways it succeeded. The theme of a Black elite co-opted by the establishment and becoming part of the foot holding people down, well, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation does a brilliant job at looking at that. And this is long, so the 1970s are continued next post.
[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]
Winona LaDuke…damn. This collection is so due to be updated (hold on a second, it has been! A new collection, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles, came out this year). Published in 2002 this reader already represents decades of struggle and wisdom, imagine what that must look like now? She is still fighting at Standing Rock, still going strong to defend lands and peoples, still writing and speaking. It is humbling to read these words.
From ‘Building with Reservations’, speaking to architects and educators she described this:
If I were to describe the architecture of my community, I would describe it both as an architecture of poverty and an architecture of what is sacred. … But there is this sorrow–I have to say sorrow–that exists when you are stripped of the cultural integrity of your house, of your architecture, and given something that does not resonate. Sure, it provides a shelter, but as you all know, a house is more than a shelter: it is a home, it is something that reflects you. So that is the architecture of poverty in my community.
And then you have the architecture that is sacred. Next to some of these houses, you’ll see a sweat lodge, or you’ll see a miichwaap, which is like a tepee, but it is used for smoking meat. The most beautiful thing to me is when I consider the fact that a lodge that is used for one of our ceremonies is based on the mirror of a star constellation; it reflects where the poles are located. That, in its essence, is sacred architecture. I think that that is the most beautiful thing in our community. (46-47)
I’m pretty obsessed with with ideas of home, of architecture, I love this redefinition of poverty in architecture which we are in fact seeing in gleaming steel and concrete across all of our cities in the form of luxury apartments built for the global market. So different than pieces of shit HUD homes on the reservation, I don’t mean to compare them in any other sense beyond their bankruptcy of creativity or human feeling.
She talks later on about the importance of culture, the way that in universities it is treated as anthropology and folklore rather than literature and something vibrant and lived. She writes
In my life and in the life of my family, many of us in our community find that those teachings are not about the process of going back, but that’s kind of the mythology that surrounds the view of native people… It’s not about that at all. It’s about recovering that which the Creator gave us as instructions, and then walking that path… (173)
It provides an alternative — not to be appropriated but to be learned from — of systems that value balance and ‘a good life’ over profit. Like this:
There should be beauty in “process,” whether it is harvesting with intelligence, whether it is the use of recycled materials, or whether it is observing energy efficiency. (53)
It is particularly explicit in the essay on ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Futures’, a term I know has been problematised, but which lays out a different basis and a better source of expertise for our thinking about how we relate to the world around us:
Traditional Ecological knowledge is the culturally and spiritually based way in which indigenous peoples relate to their ecosystems. This knowledge is founded on spiritual-cultural instructions from “time immemorial” and on generations of observation within an ecosystem of continuous residence. I believe that this knowledge also represents the clearest empirically based system for resource management and ecosystem protection in North America, and I will argue that native societies’ knowledge surpasses the scientific and social knowledge of the dominant society in its ability to provide information and a management style for environmental planning. (78)
It is based around a very different idea of success, of life’s meaning.
“Minobimaatisiiwin,” or the “good life,” is the basic objective of the Anishinaabeg and Cree people who have historically, and to this day, occupied a great portion of the north-central region of the North American continent. An alternative interpretation of the word is “continuous rebirth.” This is how we traditionally understand the world and how indigenous societies have come to live within natural law. Two tenets are essential to this paradigm: cyclical thinking and reciprocal relations and responsibilities to the Earth and creation. Cyclical thinking, common to most indigenous or land-based cultures and value systems, is an understanding that the world (time, and all parts of the natural order-including the moon, the tides, women, lives, seasons, or age) flows in cycles. Within this understanding is a clear sense of birth and rebirth and a knowledge that what one does today will affect one in the future, on the return. A second concept, reciprocal relations, defines responsibilities and ways of relating between humans and the ecosystem. (79)
I don’t know how different, in fact, Minobimaatisiiwin actually is from what most people outside of these traditions would term a fulfilling life, but we have still bowed before money and power as measures of success and as enough justification for any number of terrible things. She describes a very different understanding of development, light years removed from that which now prevails but without question one way, perhaps the only way, to step back from the precipice of ecological disaster:
By its very nature, “development”–or, concomitantly, an “economic system” based on these ascribed Indigenous values-must be decentralized, self-reliant, and very closely based on the carrying capacity of that ecosystem. (80)
And this is, indeed, a very good question:
I believe there is a more substantial question meriting discussion: Can North American society craft the social fabric to secure a traditional management practice, based on consensual understanding and a collective process? (82)
I am taking these out of order here, thinking about how this all connects to our relationship to the earth, that perhaps many of our problems emerge because we have been so divorced from place:
Implicit in the concept of Minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous inhabitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem, and the need to maintain that balance. These values and basic tenets of culture made it possible for the Cree, Ojibway, and many other indigenous peoples to maintain economic, political, religious, and other institutions for generations in a manner that would today be characterized as sustainable.4 (80)
She returns later to this topic:
Native environmental groups have a commitment and tenacity that springs from place. “This is where my grandmother’s and children’s umbilical cords are buried … That is where the great giant lay down to sleep … That is the last place our people stopped in our migration here to this village.” Our relationships to land and water is continuously reaffirmed through prayer, deed, and our way of life. Our identity as human beings is founded on creation stories tying us to the earth, and to a way of being, minobimaatisiiwin, “the good life.” (57-58)
It is not just positionality and the structural oppression faced by indigenous communities, but this connection to place that drives experience, meaning and struggle.
All this to say that Native communities are not in a position to compromise, because who we are is our land, our trees, and our lakes. This is central to our local and collective work. (62)
There is a lot about land in here, and what has destroyed traditional connections to it:
The governance of this land by traditional ecological knowledge has been adversely affected by genocide, colonialism, and subsequent circumstances that need to be considered in the current dialogue on North American resource management, the role of the environmental movement, and indigenous peoples. (82)
She describes the two worldviews at play:
The conflict between two paradigms-industrial thinking and indigenous thinking-becomes central to the North American and, indeed to the worldwide, environmental and economic crisis. … For many indigenous peoples, the reality is as sociologist Ivan Illich has suggested: development practices are in fact a war on subsistence. (86-87)
Capitalism, industrialism…can the two be separated? But it is definitely a war and this seems to be exactly the idea that we might belong to the earth that is being decimated. The clearances and enclosures in Europe were to the same end.
Akiing is the word for land in our language, and in the indigenous concept of land ownership or the Anishinaabeg concept of land ownership, it is much more a concept that we belong to that land than the land belongs to us. … land tenure itself and concepts of land ownership are of course a concept of culture–they are a concept of your teachings, a construct of how you are raised and how you live in your community. (138)
Important to always remember that these things are not natural or self-evident but constructed. And the creation of the US is definitely one of predator…I am pondering how this might help us think about the political economy of land.
Indigenous people traditionally have been the people who have lived on the land, but the predator/prey relationship that exists between America and the land is one that has caused the constant erosion and taking of the indigenous land base in the Americas. And it has caused the constant erosion and the taking of other people’s land outside of that context as well. (143)
Again mobility, predation, frontiers, all those things that capital needs, as opposed to connection, balance, care…
One of the challenges that we have in America is that America is built on conquest, not on survival. It is a society, by and large, based on the concept that there is always a West, always a frontier. There will always be someplace to go. We don’t necessarily have to give thanks for where we are because we’re moving.
That is the challenge..This conceptual framework between one worldview and another worldview, indigenous and industrial, or land-based and predator….the predator world-view. It is, in fact, manifest in how we live here. And every ecological crisis we have today is a direct consequence of that… (180)
From the land to rights as Native women, I loved her speech ‘I fight like a woman’ from the UN Conference on Women in China, 1995.
As one woman, Corrine Kumar from the Asian Women’s Human Rights Association explained simply, “From the periphery of power human rights looks different.” (205)
A challenge to mobile, global power to look those it is destroying in the eye:
Vicki Corpuz is an Igarok woman from the Philippines, head of the Cordinera Women’s Association. … “We found that a lot of our problems were related to trans-national corporations and institutions. And we thought it was time to get more accountability from them. We can do basic empowerment work here – but all the decisions are actually made elsewhere. They should have to look at us in the face when they make those decisions.” (208)
The need for indigenous peoples (as true of other struggles) to operate at a global level…
It was several years ago Mililani Trask, Kia Aina or Head of State of the Native Hawaiian Nation changed her mind about work. “The real reason why all Indigenous people have to be apprised of, or involved in the international arena is because their individual land-based struggles will be impacted by these nation states and international interests.” (209)
More on militarism — I love this quote, hate what the US and others are doing on other people’s lands…
Militarism is a form of colonization which takes away from our lives. That future is without hope for us. But, we will fight for our rights. I believe in nonviolence and civil disobedience. I am ready to go to jail, to take blows or die for our cause, because I believe in the struggle for the freedom of my people. I don’t want your sympathy, I want your support, your strong and collective support against the oppression of your government. What are need is your resistance.” Penote Ben Michel made this plea at a 31 January 1987 conference in Montreal on militarism in Labrador/Nitassinan. (230)
I am furious with Geroge Dubya all over again. I volunteered to do precinct walking for Kerry in Vegas I was so furious with that man. Might have campaigned for her, though, if I’d been a little more woke, though I still might have bowed to the dual party system.
This is from her acceptance speech for the nomination for Vice Presidential candidate, running with Nader.
I am not inclined toward electoral politics. Yet I am impacted by public policy. I am interested in reframing the debate on the issues of this society — the distribution of power and wealth, the abuse of power and the rights of the natural world, the environment and the need to consider an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in which all decisions made today will be considered in light of their impact on the seventh generation from now. That is, I believe, what sustainability is all about. These are vital subjects which are all too often neglected by the rhetoric of “major party” candidates and the media.
I believe that decision making should not be the exclusive right of the privileged. (267)
All of that. We need all of that.
This is only a sampling of some of what I loved most/have been thinking about most recently. There is so much more here, and of course so much more written since this was published.
[LaDuke, Winona (2002) The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press.]
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.