Organizing Upgrade

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Reflections from Organizing Upgrade’s Editors

Reflections from Organizing Upgrade’s EditorsSushma Sheth is a communications strategist and organizer. In 2001, she returned to her hometown to join the Miami Workers Center, an emerging grassroots organizing and progressive strategy center. She jump started the strategic communications program, directed staff and programs, as well as convened regional coalitions to move progressive initiatives in Miami. Sushma was awarded the 2002 New Voices Fellowship and named 2007 Miami Fellow and “Top 25 Power Women of Miami” in 2006. Currently, Sushma is a graduate student. She supports social movements and institutions, including the national Right to the City Alliance, as a strategic communications and planning consultant, writer, and facilitator.

I think a lot about problem solving.  Part of this is the residue from my nerdy school days, when my team competed to build the tallest structure of marshmallows and raw spaghetti.  I thought about it as an organizer at the Miami Workers Center, sitting on a member’s stoop, when her family was evicted for the third time.  And I continue thinking about it now, walking through in the marbled halls of management and public policy school.

I recently enrolled in a leadership class at grad school.  A former surgeon who used to run emergency operating rooms teaches it. He makes an interesting distinction between technical leadership and adaptive leadership.  He defines technical as leadership you exercise when you have the expertise to solve a known and familiar problem (e.g. routine tonsillectomy).  Adaptive leadership, conversely, is recognizing that you are facing a new problem and engaging in a creative (often disruptive) process of learning and reflecting to develop new tools and solutions (e.g. responding to a natural disaster or new disease).

One year ago, Organizing Upgrade posed a dilemma:  The rich history of organizing and left theory provides tools for progressive change: base-building, campaign development to expose contradictions, political education, leadership development, cadre-building, and united-front building for power. Many of us use these tools to intervene on the social challenges of our time.  We have had some inspiring successes – but membership remains at lower than we would like, the social safety net continues to rip apart at the seams, and our incremental, local reforms cannot keep up with the global pace of change.

The traditional actors and systemic forces that we are up against are also changing shape and tactics.  In just the last year, we have seen Wal-mart employ organizing tactics, business economists challenge the assumptions of self-interest, and the emergence of grassroots populist movement, forming cross-class alliances, and running people, from within their ranks, for office. That movement is not ours, but it should be.

In these times, of what my professor would term a “new, adaptive problem”, we can benefit from an honest and open conversation on what solutions are working and where we need to be more creative.  Do we need a new division of labor?  Is it time to diversify away from non-profit organizations?   Dare we begin thinking collectively about “ideology” or “revenue generation”? Organizing Upgrade is contributing to fostering these conversations in the following ways:

- Encouraging organizers to step back: No, we’re not asking you to stop.  Instead, we are inviting organizers to step away from the demands of the day-to-day and talk to each other from the bird’s eye view of our collective work.  OU has been an attempt to move the whispers from behind the water-cooler, or after hours at the bar, to a larger intentional conversation on “where are we going?”

- Fostering a dialogue between theory and action:  We are helping draw the dotted line from the slogan on a picket sign to the foundational theories on capital accumulation and collective action.   We are sharing the work of theoreticians that think about campaigns as well as organizers who turn to theory.  There is a dynamic and creative process between the two realms that OU is committed to supporting.

- Comparing notes within issue areas:  “Fast Forums” serve as periodic pulse checks or snap shots of how the progressive left is tackling the political challenges currently in play. From elections to Haiti recovery, immigration reform to non-profit vehicles, Fast Forums highlight new work, emerging organizers, and spaces of agreement and difference.

- Engaging the ‘soft side’ of organizing: Organizing is a risky and deviant endeavor. We recognize that this raises particular challenges for the communities you serve, the leaders and staff that you develop, and your own stamina.  Our February issue on “Love & Organizing” had the highest hit rate to date.  With the rise in organizational instability and staff turnover, this continues to be an important area for us think  about together.

- Lifting known voices and new: OU is committed to providing a platform for superstar ideas and popular practitioners, as well as serving as a launch pad for emerging actors and new trend-setters.  We need icons as well as iconoclasts as we think through how best to attract and retain organizers, activists, and broader forces.

- Meeting you online: Through facebook, email, texting, and subsidized software, we are trying to make theory, networking, and strategy accessible to today’s progressive-left organizers.  OU is using our existing social and political networks to consolidate discussion threads, expand access to them, as well as cast a broader net to engage interested people.  Essays and posts are being used in universities, staff retreats, and shared among colleagues and friends.

I believe we are in new and disorienting times. There is a strong argument that would differ with me.  It would say that we are not in unexpected territory at all; rather, that the Great Recession, the national chauvinism, and global energy/climate crisis are all the anticipated symptoms of neo-liberalism unchecked and globalization gone wild.  This could be the case.  But, I encourage us to think about which of these perspectives is more useful? Specifically, which perspective is most useful in upgrading our capabilities to achieve membership in the thousands, self-sustaining organizational budgets, permanent affordable housing solutions, popular participation in governance, and the energizing and expansive social movement we’ve all been waiting for?

A founding member of SOUL: School of Unity & Liberation, Harmony Goldberg has run left political education programs for grassroots organizations around the country for more than a decade. She is currently a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and she continues to support grassroots organizations and the broader left as a popular educator, writer and facilitator.

I helped to start Organizing Upgrade a year ago because I was scared. I was scared that we were never going to get our act together. Two years ago, we saw one of the biggest political openings of our lifetimes (speaking, at least, for my generation). Between the unprecedented level of mobilization inspired by Obama’s campaign for the presidency and the mass discontent inspired by the economic crisis, the boundaries of what we considered to be politically possible in this country were being pushed open. You could feel the potential for building mass social movements that could open up deeper critiques of capitalism and empire. But instead of a push to bring our forces together to map that out – to figure out how we were going to build massive mobilizations in support of a transformative health care program or waves of direct actions against the discredited banks – I found myself in meetings where we were busy debating the obvious – like whether or not Obama was going to support U.S. imperialism. I was scared that we were going to miss the immense opportunities of that moment because we were not only coming up with the wrong answers; we weren’t even asking the right questions. Instead of asking questions of strategy and program, we were remaining stuck in critique and in marginal left debates.  So I helped to start Organizing Upgrade to try to put the right questions on our collective table.

This moment offers us an opening to step out of the margins where we’ve contained ourselves and to start playing a serious role in real mass politics. I believe that – if we play our cards right – we still have the opportunity to achieve a scale of popular movement much larger than we have seen over the past several decades. That would allow us to both advance immediate victories that will improve the lives of oppressed people and to build a real left in this country that will be better positioned to fight for our longer-terms aims. But we have to play our cards right; that outcome is far from inevitable. It depends on our orientation and our level of preparation.  If we don’t take real advantage of those opportunities quickly, we are in danger of relegating ourselves to permanent irrelevance.  But in order to do that, to take advantage of this moment, we need clearly articulated left strategies that can unify and guide our diffuse organizing work.

Changing Our Orientation

In order to move towards this more strategic stance, left organizers will need let go of many of our past methods of work, some because they were appropriate for slower political times and are therefore not appropriate for today and others because they were self-marginalizing methods that we have now outgrown.  Specifically, we will need to overcome the tendency towards ideological purism (where we are more concerned about the political line of our work than we are about its scale or impact), methodological purism (where we have fetishized a particular organizing model so much that we limited our broader impact and even our ability to actually build larger-scale working class power), our wariness of building broad alliances and engaging in mainstream politics and – in many cases – our doubt that we could actually move masses of people. A friend once said to me, “Our interpretation of being ‘left’ has unfortunately become the limiting factor on being ‘mass.’  But is that a necessary contradiction? Our left politics should be facilitating factor in building our work to scale instead of limiting us.” In the past, our left politics have focused mainly on social critique, and they have manifested primarily in our political education and leadership development. Today, instead of focusing so much on questions of abstract political line, we need to prioritize questions of political strategy.

To meet the demands of this unique historic moment, we need to be more than the “leftest” we can be.  Instead, we need to be the best left strategic thinkers and actors that we can be. We need relevancy-oriented revolutionaries who have an orientation to engage in a serious way in real mass politics, who can tap into the growing anger and spontaneous resistance of working class communities as well as engage in the complicated politics of electoral work and alliances with mainstream progressives and liberals. A clear left strategy would allow us to have the tactical creativity we need to reflect the changing times, recognizing that tactics as wide-ranging as mass direct action, electoral organizing and multi-class alliance-building all have roles to play in opening up new space for mass struggle. I believe that Organizing Upgrade’s contributors have started to layout the broad brushstrokes for the kind of dynamic and flexible strategic approach that we need, pointing towards multi-sectoral struggles, creative tactical plans, uncomfortable alliances and newways of doing our work.

There are several strategic questions that I believe are central to engage, many of which have been addressed by our contributors. We need to recognize that the struggle and crises that we are facing today are going to have a very long arc, and we need to develop a long-term plan today for how we will intervene in them over the next thirty to fifty years.  Specifically (1) The economic crisis is not over, and we need to keep building on our strategic reflections and dialogues on this front.  I believe that – because the U.S. empire is going into decline – the current economic crisis is only the first shock wave in a series of economic crises to come. We need to engage in serious dialogue about our lack of adequate response to this last crisis to prepare ourselves to jump into action when the next wave hits. (2) Similarly, we all know that the devastating wave of ecological disasters that will result from climate change have only just begun. Several of our contributors – Jason Negrón-Gonzales, Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan and Bill Fletcher – have reflected sharply on this front of our struggle. We can’t be caught by surprise by disasters like those that hit New Orleans or Haiti any longer; we need to develop a more coherent and proactive response that can respond more rapidly and transformatively. (3) The fact that the United States will no longer be a majority-white nation in thirty years means that we need to plan for an intense struggle over national identity over the next several decades. We need to reflect on the struggle in California in the 1990s (when the state became majority people of color and the electorate responded with racist and anti-immigrant ballot initiatives) and today’s Arizona for signposts in that fight. Even larger anti-immigrant shockwaves will be coming, and we need to shift towards a more proactive stance in that fight, as Marisa Franco, Aarti Shahani, Subhash Kateel and others have reflected. But – while building a fight-back against anti-immigrant attacks is absolutely crucial – it is not all that we need to prepare for. We need to prepare ourselves for the long-term struggle to transform this country’s national identity.  I hope that our contributors will engage some of these strategic questions over the next year.

What is the role of Organizing Upgrade in advancing this process?

On the most basic level, we built Organizing Upgrade to provide a space where left organizers could explore these types of questions and start to lay out the broad strokes of a new left strategic orientation. One of the main challenges of the tendency to do our organizing work through non-profit organizational forms is that we are often isolated in our organizational work and that we lack cross-organizational and cross-sector spaces for broader strategic thinking.  We hoped that Organizing Upgrade could serve as one of those spaces, and – based on the feedback that we’ve heard from organizers and movement-builders from around the country – we seem to have at least started to succeed in that role. Is the conversation that has taken place here sufficient? Have we developed the kind of clear relevancy-oriented left strategy that we need?  No.  But we have started the conversation, and that is the first step.

Relatedly, we hoped that Organizing Upgrade could serve as a place for principled and productive debate, so that we could help to overcome long-standing patterns of divisive and destructive ways of handling difference in the left and in broader social movements.  Gaining the deep left strategic clarity will not be easy, and it will certainly not be neat and clean. We are going to make mistakes – to the left and to the right.  If we are going to find our way forward in this complicated balancing act, we will need to be able to engage in honest dialogue with each other – to challenge each other and to keep each other on track. That dialogue will need to be direct, and it will require us to assume the best in each other. I wish I could say that we have succeeded in creating that space for productive debate, but I am afraid that isn’t the full truth. We have heard that people either don’t know that our “comment” function exists or that they are too intimidated to use it.  More problematically, in the last two months, I have seen a number of troubling counter-examples: mass emails full of destructive and sometimes inaccurate critiques, facebook blasts dismissing whole categories of organizers and activists and scathing blog posts gone viral. The methods of these critiques make it difficult to engage in productive political debate to work through our real differences. Let me be clear: I believe that debate and difference are crucial. Clear political poles and honest polemics can be helpful.  Principled engagement can push us all to be sharper, clearer and more honest.  But indirect and destructive methods of debate result in inaccurate polarizations and unnecessary resentments. I want to challenge those practices and encourage us to engage in honest and informed political dialogue and debate with each other. We are offering Organizing Upgrade as one vehicle through which a more direct and productive conversation can happen, and we hope that our readers will start to take advantage of that opportunity and to encourage others to do the same.  (That is, please start to use the “Comment” function!)

That said, I think that the fact of many of these controversies and debates is good.  It shows that we – left organizers who are rooted in and trying to build various social movements – are shaking up our old limited ways of being and leaving our comfort zones.  I hope that Organizing Upgrade can continue to play a role in pushing towards relevancy, impact and strategy within the broader left and towards a clearer and more radical strategic vision within the world of community organizing.

Joseph Phelan has been active in left movement work for the last decade. Originally from New York he cut his teeth in the global justice movement as an activist and agitator, was grounded in organizing in the CUNY student movement, and now builds the capacity of grassroots leaders to tell their own stories to the world as the Communications Coordinator for the Miami Workers Center.

I wrote this piece while reflecting on the role of Organizing Upgrade. In order to do that I reflected on where we are at as a movement and where we have been. So rather than reflect on OU, I am putting this out as an example of why I think Organizing Upgrade is important. It is a space for left organizers to challenge ourselves and each other. It is a place where people are encouraged to advance our theory, leap-frog our practice forward, and most importantly think. Along that line, I put forward this piece and call for three controversial and challenging directions: 1. We must win today. 2. We must reconnect with our hearts. 3. We must build a leftism based in the idea of “America.”

September 12

I was sitting in a meeting room in Charas Community Center on the lower east side of Manhattan. The room was packed, hundreds of people. There were people I recognized from my previous nine months of making the rounds to different left activist events in the city. This was just like any of those countless meetings I had been to: facilitators trying to bring the gathered group of people in a particular direction, disagreements over process standing in for honest and clear political debate, over the top political debate standing in the way of moving the meeting forward to some conclusion.

But looking back through rose colored glasses, I am amazed at the clarity that people in the room had about what was coming to our city and our nation. Someone put forward the rise of nationalism; someone else, the quashing of dissent. The ideas kept coming: the rise in racist violence, the coming devastation of immigrant communities. These realities were brought into the room, and people were trying to figure out how we, a group of mostly individuals with left politics could wage a fight-back against these coming realities.  We were damn smart, analytical, historical, all of it. Except….

…something was missing. No one seemed to be terrorized; no one seemed to be angry at the guys with box cutters who killed thousands of people with a horrible conviction and violence. Why weren’t we angry? Why weren’t our hearts aching?

September 11

I watched the towers burn. The flames seemed so far way, so small. I thought, “Remember this day.” I was two blocks away, standing with a crowd of people, the backs of our heads reaching back to our shoulders. I had a cup of coffee from a coffee truck. Black and sweet.

The first tower came down. The sides of the building wrenched off first with the horrendous sound of metallic tearing. Then the top just fell in. Rumble. Collapse. There was silence for a moment before the world around me erupted into screams and action. People dove under cars and into doorways to escape the grey tsunami flooding the streets.

I escaped on my bicycle, the wave of soot, smoke, incinerated office chairs and bones, licked my back wheel.

I saw the second tower fall from a midtown cycle messenger dispatch office. Later that day, when I finally got to a radio and started to understand what happened that morning, my first thought was not “Oh my god, thousands of people died in front of me, crushed in a building I had delivered packages to not a week earlier.”

No. My first thought was, “We are going to war, and thousands more will die before it is over.”

I felt nothing. And I jumped into action.

Back in the Saddle We Never Left

That meeting of leftists (mostly white leftists) in the Lower East Side, as the dust settled over our rattled city island, was amazingly absent of raw sorrow, of raw anything. Looking back, the meeting was full of what I now see as canned responses from the left, and I was definitely throwing some out there.

Over the years I have come back to my own lack of emotion. There are a lot of excuses. The one I use most often is that my political analysis, my leftist politics, got in the way of me being able to feel anything about the death of over 3,000 people right in front of me.

I told people, when asked, that I couldn’t get over the implications of what was coming, about how I jumped right into action and didn’t have time to feel anything. I argued that millions of people have been killed in the name of colonization, capitalism, white supremacy. That hundreds of millions had been raped and molested, that the death on the September 11 was no more than part of a cycle of violence, that it was a part of life under these mega systems that sought to extract profit and power from our lives.

This justification for not feeling anything, for not having real emotion about my own experience on September 11, was reflected back at me from the left movement in New York. This was almost an automatic response. How could we feel sorrow, how could we feel angry about the violence done to our neighbors, to our city, without being complicit in what that sorrow and rage was going to be used for: expanded wars (that we are still in now), domestic oppression of dissent, the racist baiting of Arabs, Muslims and anyone perceived to be either (including Puerto Ricans). How could we be sad and angry when the same cops who became heroes at ground zero were the ones who had been shooting young black men (It’s a wallet not a gun).

We lost our heart that day. Or maybe it was already lost, buried deep inside our chests, guarded against decades of devastating defeat and in the worst cases, death and imprisonment. But in the year and a half leading up to 9/11 there had been a reinvigoration of the left, grounded in a cross-sectoral militant street movement that found expression at the Battle of Seattle, April 16, 2000 protests in DC, and the RNC in Philly in 2000 and the Critical Resistance Conference in New York in 2001. We were riding this wave of invigoration when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers. On that day we lost connection with that feeling of what is possible, we entrenched ourselves in left critiques and dogmatic reactions. We lost our hearts. But it is time to find them again.

It is time to face up to the complications of social change. We need to do the heart-work of building our movements: this means sometimes being vulnerable and connecting with all the sadness and joy, the loss and newness, all of it. It also means breaking from old patterns, old ways of doing our work, of protecting our work. Connecting to hearts means we are willing to not only be right, it means we are willing to be wrong (but not in a criticism/self-criticism “you didn’t follow the plan” sort of way, but in the deep “we went the wrong way” sort of way, the “cause this shit ain’t working” way).

When we are wrong, when we are not being effective, and we are just going about this work in the same way, with the same analysis, we aren’t just cheating ourselves; we are cheating the movement we supposedly want to create.

This is about winning.

The Changes we need to Make!

I want us to connect with our hearts, and even lead with them because I want us to win. I want to win here and now, so that we can continue building power to win tomorrow and the next day, until we finally just win. I know, I know that if we win reforms today and actually improve people’s lives than we are just colluding with the power structure and lying to our people about the real problems and real solutions. If you believe that, stop reading now, and move on. You are not going to like the rest of this essay.

I am talking about winning along the path. The path that we are creating as we move on it, the one where we often find dead ends and have to back up and feel our way forward. For those of us who organize we know that even with the best practical and ideological training, we often come to dead ends – big and small – and we have to change directions.

It is the wins on this path to greater change, the wins that allow us to consolidate our forces, win over those who are up for contention, and alienate our enemies. To feel out those wins we actually have to feel. We also have to be realistic about what it is we can win today and tomorrow and what bigger wins those initial wins point to. Let’s set a path for the quantitative change so that we can see the qualitative change.

And to win we have to touch people’s hearts, not their heads (uh-oh more about hearts).

September 13

It was beautiful day. I was in the city for the weekend. A friend and I had just stopped at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory to get some Black Sesame Ice Cream (you have to try it) and walked south. All of a sudden we were standing where I stood nine years earlier watching the towers pour black smoke into the sky. The sun was warm on my arms. The sky was beautiful blue. People pushed past on the way to the subway at City Hall. I felt it in my chest, not just the loss, not just the attack on my home, my city, I felt the horror of that day. I felt the fear of the people in the building as it started to rumble and the sides shook free. And even in that moment, I couldn’t cry because I did not want to collude with the symbolism of that day. I didn’t want to collude with the last nine years of nation-building. And most importantly I didn’t want to feel the confusing emotions that seemed to contradict my left training.

America on the Left

I came away from that walk that day with my friend thinking a lot about America. We went to the memorial and you couldn’t get away from America. Everything was about America. I do believe that memorial is for the 3000 people who lost their lives, but also for a city that was shaken that day. And I know it will be used by some to justify continued wars abroad and repression at home. While others, those who lost family or friends, will find it as an honor. We need this honor in New York, just as we need memorials for the tragedies that have (with the help of greed) befallen workers, enslaved Africans, women, Indigenous people, queers. But the lack of those two city block memorials does not erase the need for the one we have.

We still haven’t constructed an Americanism that is left. Or put another way we haven’t constructed a leftism that is American. A lot of us can’t even say the word America (let alone spell it correctly Amerikkka) without bristling because of what it means; racist, imperialist, capitalist, etc. The problem is there is a very clear Americanism being developed in this country. It is multiracial, it is multi-ethnic, it is multi-lingual, it is multi-gendered, and many are fighting to also make it at least accepting of queer people.  But because of it’s explicit capitalism and its racist history, many of us refuse to be a part of it. We refuse to engage with it. And thus we give it up. There isn’t even a battle; we just hand it over. We hand it over to those who shape it without resistance because our struggles are outside the construct of America, and we are proud of it.

I contend that it is time to stop placing ourselves outside of America and start placing ourselves squarely in the middle of it. I am not asking for all of us to wrap ourselves in the flag, but I am asking for us to participate in the life of this country. To relate to the contradictory ideas and values that Americans have, such as: the importance of hard work, caring for neighbors, multi-racialism, and multi-nationalism.  We must draw on the liberation history of this country such as: the Green Corn Rebellion, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, etc.  We must look to American Heroes such as: James Baldwin, Sylvia Rivera, Ella Baker, Langston Hughes, Leonard Peltier, etc. And we have to be relevant. We have to ground ourselves in the very American experience of people’s everyday existence if we hope to build a movement that will win the fights we need to win.

So there you have three pretty clear assertions made on the anniversary of what I think is a pretty cool project, Organizing Upgrade. Now use this forum what it is supposed to be used for: challenge me, advance theory, and shape new ways of creating the world we are fighting for. Let the controversy and name calling begin.

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