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Radical Approaches to Reform Struggles

This piece captures some of the insights from a series of dialogues that the New York Study Group (NYSG) organized over the last year.  NYSG is a study group made up of more than 100 organizers and activists from around New York City who are engaged in a range of exciting struggles rooted in working class communities and communities of color around the city, from immigrant worker organizing and housing campaigns to public education and cultural work.  We came together because we believe that – even though our work in these struggles to win reforms and change conditions in our communities is crucial – we also needed a space to reflect on that work as leftists, as people who believe in an end to capitalism and in the fundamental transformation of power relations in our society.  Given the political and economic conditions of our current moment, it is far from clear how to both build strong organizations that can fight for concrete changes and how to lay the groundwork for more radical transformation.

The New York Study Group spent the last year trying to clarify our vision and our thinking about this question, organizing our collective conversations around the question: “How do we develop more radical and revolutionary approaches to reform struggles?”  While we didn’t come to any final answers, the conversation yielded some valuable insights and creative thinking that we hope can move the broader conversation forward. Following are excerpts from some of the panels that NYSG convened over the last year.

Why should we engage in community organizing for reform?

There is a long-standing debate among radical activists and organizers over whether or not we should engage in struggles for reform.  The overwhelming majority of the people in NYSG are engaged in these types of struggles, seeing them as important vehicles for building long-term power for more radical transformation.

One woman – who organized around public education in the Bronx and who is now an organizer with a national network focused on winning housing, immigrant and worker justice – reflected on why she moved from radical activism into community-based organizing work. “When I first moved to New York City, it felt like I was part of a movement.  Hundreds of people were organizing around police brutality cases like Amadou Diallo. Thousands of people were mobilizing. But over time, those mobilizations slowed down, and it stopped feeling like I was part of a movement.  It started to feel more like I was part of a scene, and there’s no way that a scene is going to get us to the revolution. I was organizing events that recruited activists, but we weren’t engaging new people in our struggle. We were spending so much time fighting over left ideas that we were forgetting to bring in new people.  That was what I really wanted to be doing, engaging new people.  So I ended up going to organize in the Bronx. I got involved in some kick-ass organizing up there.  It was a tough transition: the job was demanding, they had a different culture of getting work done, and they had some different politics from the radical ideas that I was used to, or they showed up differently.  But it was by far one of the best things that ever happened to me.  I learned so much from the organizers there, and I was able to engage hundreds of new people in the work.  Now I’m working on a national campaign.  Between us and our allies we were able to mobilize more than 20,000 people this past year.  We’re going to need to learn to mobilize much larger numbers than that, but I’m excited to be moving in the right direction.”

One of the important distinctions that the New York Study group came to was the distinction between reform work and “reformism,” that is, the idea that reforms alone can solve all of our problems.  Without falling into reformism, left organizers can use reform work to lay the groundwork for more radical transformation.  An organizer in the LGBT community in New York City shared some ways in which reform  work can play this role. “First, reform work builds our capacity to fight. It brings numbers of people into the fight. Secondly, in that process of bringing new people in and building our fighting capacity, it exposes the limits of reform work itself.  And people learn the limits of reform differently when they are actually engaged in the fight; they learn it better than they would in a class or in a book.  The reform work exposes the nature of the system, and being engaged in reform fights deepens our members’ leadership and their analysis of the system.  Third, we need to meet people’s everyday needs.  Even though we all believe in improving people’s lives, we don’t always practice it.  If we can’t fight for people on welfare or organize to reduce police brutality, what are we doing?  Those changes matter. They don’t change the system as whole, but they improve people’s lives.  Fourth, reform work allows us to build the power of important unorganized social sectors.  That’s why I organize in the LGBT community.  And that’s important because we think that our movement is weaker because there is an absence of LGBTQ people leading social change efforts. And, finally, our fights push other reform fights to the left. When we are choosing our reform fights, we are going to pick LGBTQ issues that are more progressive than mainstream LGBTQ groups do (like gay marriage).  By engaging in reform fights, we get the opportunity to engage those forces and to move those organizations more to the left.”

An organizer who works around workers justice and housing issues in Brooklyn, reflected on the principles that help her to connect our short-term organizing campaigns to a longer term vision of far-reaching social change. “One, we need to demonstrate that the current system is bankrupt.  There’s an ideological battle that needs to happen, and the only way we can do that is through on-the-ground fights. By making demands and by bringing previously excluded people into direct contact with the political system, those fights test the limits of that system, and expose its flaws and contradictions to our base. It’s the job of mass organizations to engage in those kinds of reform fights. When we don’t get what we want, we need to talk about why, about the very specific ways in which the economy is currently organized doesn’t meet our needs, why Obama can’t fix people’s problems.  There are so many  teachable moments, but you never even get those moments unless you’re actually in it and fighting those fights.  Second, building mass organizations with large bases is one of the most urgent tasks right now. Building campaigns that make ambitious demands on the current system is the most viable way to do that. It’s hard for people to envision large-scale changes to the economy or to society unless they have the confidence that other people will be part of that project. I’ve knocked on many doors, and – time and time again – I have heard people say, ‘I agree but my neighbors won’t.’  Once we truly have a mass movement, people will be more willing to take a leap of faith in imagining an economy organized around different kinds of principles.  But no one is going to be willing to engage unless they see that thousands of other people are going to be in motion, too.”

Is reform organizing enough?

As much as NYSG participants agreed that reform work is a crucial aspect of building capacity and power for more fundamental transformation, they also agreed that it was not – in itself – sufficient.  The national campaign organizer quoted above said, “Building powerful reform work takes a lot of time, but we also need to reserve time and energy into something else, whether that ‘something else’ is a left organization or a left study group.  We need to be working on independent left and revolutionary projects in addition to our reform work.  That is crucial for making our reform work more revolutionary.  We don’t have a public left pole that has power, strength or relevance. If we had a clear left pole, then we could move things further to the left.  The right wing does that. They have explicitly ideological organization like the Tea Party, and they are also able to pass crazy policies like SB 1070 in Arizona.  We need to push our own crazy policies and ideas- crazy in a good way- that reflect our vision for change.”

The organizer from Brooklyn agreed with the need for independent left organizations, “We need a division of labor between mass organizations and left organizations. I’m not sure that the organization I work for could or should become a left organization, given our role in the community and our history.  But that’s not necessarily our job.  There are several left organizations that are active within the organization, Dominican and Ecuadorian socialist parties.  I think there’s room for different political tendencies inside of mass organizations, and that having those differences is great as long as those left organizations respect the mass organization’s decision-making processes and principles.  I think that mass organizations create a space where leftists who are members can talk to their fellow members, where people can learn to work together and where left organizations can even recruit people.   There are a lot of people – from nutrition programs and so on – who come into our organizations trying to recruit people to other programs, so why can’t left organizations do the same thing?”

Claire Tran from the Right to the City Alliance reflected on how having that kind of independent left organization can help prevent leftists from pushing their reform work in unproductive directions. “Part of the answer of how to advance more radical ideas in our reform work is to stop trying to force all of our reform work to be “revolutionary.” Because we have revolutionary ideas, we can set the bar too high when we start engaging in reform struggle.  We miss opportunities to bring more people into that work and to broaden the mass base so that the reform work can respond to real conditions. We can get paralyzed in analysis and not move effectively. The mass base organization should allow space for people to develop their politics in the initial stages and wage reform struggles.   Revolutionary organization should provide a space for people to strategize and carry out revolutionary tactics.   That will allow the reform work to be broader and more effective.  Then within that reform work, we can carry out several important tasks: shifting consciousness, shifting culture, building inclusive community and developing leaders.”

The LGBT  organizer added, “There are some important differences between left organizations and mass organizations.   Mass organizations do all of these things that we’ve been talking about – engage new people in the struggle, expose the limits of the system and so on – and they lead many of these important reform fights.  Many leftists are playing important roles in building mass organizations and in leading these reform fights, but we have often slipped into ultra-leftism in the process by pushing too many left ideas or by staying out of fights that we should be in. because they don’t seem radical enough. But there are also limits and challenges when those politics are advanced through left organizations. Many of the left organizations that exist today are not rooted in oppressed communities, and they are not engaged in relevant work. I think that we need a left organization to ground our reform work so we know it’s going somewhere in the longer-term, to help us weave the threads of our reform work together. I don’t think that the kind of left organization or network that we need exists at this point, but we need to start building it.  Another important arena for experimentation is hybrid organizations that bring together aspects of mass organizations and left organization.”

Vinny Villano, the policy and research coordinator at a local community organization and a member of the Right to the City Alliance, reflected on that kind of more “hybrid” model of the Right to the City Alliance which integrates reform organizing with a more transformative vision. “The Right to the City Alliance is an important model because it is bringing together two crucial aspects of our work: (1) mass organization and (2) ideology.  There are lots of organizations that are doing hardcore organizing work, and that organizing is the machinery out of which we can build a movement, but our organizations are in different places about how we bring in long-term vision and ideology.  The Right to the City Alliance is exciting because we’re building on the infrastructure and organizing that has been happening for a long time, and we’re connecting it with a frame that has a vision about how to move towards more fundamental change in the long run.  One of the dynamics that we struggle with is that there can be real tensions between trying to get legislative wins and doing long-term visioning work. In 2009, the Platform Committee of the New York City chapter of the Right to the City Alliance, completed a very participatory platform development process that engaged our members in envisioning the city they want to live in. And there was a tension right away between the longer term principles that we wanted to uphold and the need for some concrete demands that would allow us to win real policy change.  So the first thing that we did was to incorporate both: we have sections on our principles that allude to our long-term vision and we have sections which contain demands for the immediate policy wins that we think can move us in that direction.  Out of that process, we chose a campaign that we believed demonstrated both our long-term vision and a winnable policy fight: the fight to convert empty condominiums into housing for low-income and working-class people.  In the past, this would have seemed like a very radical demand, but the conditions of the economic crisis makes it seem like a very common sense idea. The government bailed out the banks that gave loans to build these buildings, and they also gave subsidies to the developers.  So, now the people own these buildings that are sitting empty.  So it’s a common sense response, but it also advances the idea of expropriating private property.”

Building Alternative & Making Demands

NYSG also reflected on the long-standing debate between left strategies that emphasize making demands for reforms on the state and building alternative institutions and methods to meet people’s needs outside of the system.  The LGBT  organizer challenged the tendency to see these two approaches as contradictory with each other. “Let’s use an example of access to food to get at the relationship between ‘engaging the system for concessions’ versus ‘building alternative to the system.’ We can fight for people to get more money through food stamps, or we can build alternatives – like growing our own food in community gardens – because we don’t think we can win more food stamps or because we don’t want crumbs like food stamps.  There’s often a tension between these two approaches in our movement.  My experience is that people who build alternatives are often hard-core critics of the people who fight for reforms.  I think that some of the people who are doing reform work also critique the limits of the alternatives, like, ‘Oh, that community garden is real cute. Too bad that all those people down the street can’t eat.’  That kind of easy critique has meant that we miss opportunities to unite different tendencies, and we miss the chance to both meet people’s needs directly and to win gains against the system. There are challenges and limits in both approaches.  For example, one question I have about the strategy of ‘building alternatives’ is, Can we do that to scale?  Can we actually grow enough food to replace what people need through food stamps? I don’t think we can.  So what I would offer is that we need ‘both / and,’ not ‘either / or.’”

The organizer from Brooklyn agreed, “I think that this question of coordinating between waging campaigns to make demands for the changes that we want to see and building alternative institutions ourselves is one of the key questions for our work today.  We need to figure out how to bring those two arenas of work together.  Neither can happen without the other, or at least neither can really succeed without the other.  If we just keep making demands, it can become limiting and depressing.  And if we build alternatives, we need to be able to sustain and defend them.  These two approaches need to be mutually supportive, and we need to do that coordination in a strategic way.  To give an example from another country, I was recently on a panel with a trade unionist from India.  He described the political situation in India where there have been a few cycles of economic crisis over the past decade during which workers took over factories and started workers co-ops. But the co-ops kept collapsing. So his question was, “What is the nexus between the public sector, workers co-ops and cooperative banking?”  All of those fronts of work require making demands on the state.  He made it clear that – at this point – we won’t be able to build strong alternatives unless we get some state support for them.  At my organization, we are exploring starting some workers co-ops, and we are also working to pass legislation guaranteeing paid sick days for all workers.  Both kinds of work are necessary, and we need to bring them together if we are serious about building an economy that actually meets people’s needs.

People transform through the process of struggle

The national organizer said, “I think that the only way for people to learn the more radical lessons is when they have tried to do something or tried to change something. In the process of fighting and struggling, we all transform. We learn to connect the issues. We build our base, and we increase our capacity to fight.”

The organizer from Brooklyn shared a compelling story of the ways in which her members developed a more radical vision through the course of their organizing. “We can also create transformative experiences for people inside of our own organizations.  One example comes from some work that we did to organize dancers at a dollar dance club. Dollar dance clubs are these restaurants where the waitresses will dance with you for a dollar, and they are hugely popular in Latino communities.  The women who worked as waitresses in one of these dance clubs had really bad working conditions, and they started organizing. They presented the issue to our workers committee, which is mostly made up of men. We found out that many of the members of our workers committee were clients of these clubs, and, at first, it was hard for them to see these women as workers.  We did a bunch of actions, and we were able to win real changes for those workers.  And – in addition – through that collaboration, our male membership developed an understanding of how sexism and exploitation go hand in hand. Those kinds of conversations and political development wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for being engaged concretely in a struggle.”

Priscilla Gonzalez who works at Domestic Workers United shared a different story, about how we transform our relationships with each other through the course of organizing. “Through the Bill of Rights campaign, we’ve had to build a broad coalition that includes not only domestic workers but also faith leaders, unions, employers and students.  The relationships that we are building today set the tone for building long-term power. We frame our campaign broadly enough so everyone feels that they have a stake in this struggle.  That fosters a sense of shared commitment so that – instead of domestic workers rights being seen as a narrow issue – it can be seen as an “everybody” issue.  It is about immigrant rights, about women’s rights, about labor rights and so on.  That approach has transformed the ways that domestic workers and allies relate to each other and that is key for the long-term transformative process.”

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