Organizing Upgrade

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We Need a New Division of Labor

makani-photoSushma Sheth interviewed Makani Themba-Nixon for Organizing Upgrade in mid-2009.

Sushma: These are dramatic times, politically, socially and economically.  What do you think are the most significant shifts happening right now and how do you think they change the context of our work.  Clearly, your knowledge and skills base is broad.  So please draw from whatever is relevant, especially from your experiences organizing within the black community as well as your media work.

Makani: The first thing is that we are in a period of extreme contradictions.   On one hand, our people are celebrating an important racial benchmark — Obama’s election.  On the other, we are fighting to counter the narrative that his election is a sign that we’re now in a post-racial context while we are in the midst of this highly racialized context as evidenced by the rise of hate crimes, hate media and speech and increased media stereotyping in news and entertainment media.

When you consider what might be indicators of a society that is dealing fairly and justly with communities regardless of race and ethnicity, you think of educational attainment, income, equal protection before the law, equitable access to services, to the vote, etc.  We are at an all-time low in this indicators since the early 1970s and yet we have a Black president. In many ways, it is reminiscent of Black political discourse in the 1930s where we were engaged in this debate about whether we as a people should be fighting for  “hiring Black” or “buying Black.” The “hire Black” camp was about what is going to be the best way for the masses of Black people, the vast majority of whom are working class, poor and not college educated, to improve their lives?Buy Black focused on creating a Black middle class and owner class as a primary strategy.  Through Black buying power, Black providers would replace the mostly Jewish retailers in Black communities and this new class of entrepreneurs would reinvest its wealth into building our communities.  Essentially, we are faced with a similar question: is having a Black man at the “top” going to result in a trickle down of power and access to the rest of us?,

“Well, what does it mean to have a Black president when so many Black people and other people of color,immigrants, etc., are under incredible criminalization.  We have raids and  families being torn apart.  There’s a rainbow of people who are affected, not just Latinos. It’s people from almost every continent who are being exposed to this kind of hatred and militarization and trauma and terror in the midst of this election that  people believe is a huge victory.  Organizers are having a hard time figuring out how to negotiate it without being “downers.”.

It seems as though we have opportunities. Progressives are being invited to the White House.  Many of our ideas are getting a hearing for the first time.  So we’re not quite sure how to protest, what to do or what to say.  We’re in a place where we are stuttering politically – both figuratively and actually – about what it is that we do next.   And this is really very different. I don’t think anyone can remember a time like this where the left has been so paralyzed by division around what to do next. That in itself is just profound.  We need to reflect on what this means and what is our understanding of the state.  We need to rethink completely our sense of the state and step away from Marx for a minute and think about, “What is our theory of the state? How do we interact with it? What does it mean?  How do we build real change and make sure our people don’t suffer even more during these hard times? How do we let go of this Western paradigm that dichotomizes direct service and organizing as if organizing is some kind of profession?”  All of these contradictions are way up a front right now because our people are suffering   Too many of our folk are hungry, unemployed, abused at work and home, homeless and we will not be relevant if our work ignores this  These are  critical pillars of the contradictions that we have to navigate for the rest of the work to make sense.

S: What opportunities do you think are coming up through the Obama administration and the economic crisis? In the midst of these opportunities, what do you think is the role of the community organizing sector and particularly the role of left-leaning organizers within that?

M: I think that the first thing that we need to do is step back and draw a much broader map about who’s “left”.  And we have to abandon the idea that being left means that you’ve read some left stuff or had certain conversations. We have to step back and say there are people who have analysis drawn from their lived experience.  They may not have read the books or use the terminology but, they’re a part of the left.

The left needs to be able to navigate the opportunities of the current moment. We have to be able to embrace the researchers and folks who have been imagining solutions that are outside of the market paradigm. That means we also have to rethink our division of labor in this left, that this left is not just about the people who knock on doors or build base organizations – which is critical – but we also have to fully embrace the whole division of labor and the whole range of people who are thinking about policies and imagining our lives and our institutions beyond the current system and its oppression; the people who are dreaming and painting that work and singing about that work, the artists.  All of that is part of the tapestry of what the left is.

Having said that, therein lies the opportunities. One part is: how do we move people to a place of concrete hope or belief in the  possibility of  a real alternative? Because people know that things are messed up; they are living it. But there are so many people who just don’t believe that there is another way. And so we have to build relationships with folks who have thought about the alternatives, the other way. It’s about us translating those policies and those visions into concrete fights and into concrete changes in conditions.  It’s about working with with progressive academics and artists to help tell a story that allows people see themselves in the narrative; see themselves in the picture  of what the world can look like without this madness.  This is an amazing opportunity.

Clarifying this vision will help us more effectively leverage the openings in the Obama Administration   It will give us an opportunity to experiment with some of these ideas – within limits – both at the local level and at the national level.  We can actually work the system to provide glimpses of the next world, glimpses of how to be engaged in the governance of our lives, because people do not take anything that they do not believe belongs to them. If you look at any major change in any country, there was  first a point where people engaged the system and understood the way things worked – or didn’t work for them. Then, they made a decision that it needed to work better for them.  Why?  Because they began to understand it as theirs.  And the gift of this election is that there is a new set of people who believe that this society belongs to them. Now, the question is, what do we do as organizers, broadly speaking to help people see:

1. Yes, this does belong to us.

2. Yes we  can run it.

3. Together, we have what it takes to make it run better and make it work for more of us.

That is the opportunity.

We also have to respect the division of labor. There are people who can put on a suit and go up to the White House and make that work. They can figure out how to move these ideas and open up more space for more  to step into that place of co-governance.  They can push the envelope, push the rhetoric. But we also have to understand that  protest in still very necessary.  There are things  we have to do to call attention to the terror.  Raids – they need to be protested, not negotiated. The need for real health care for people, not just a privatized health insurance system.  There needs to be an outside strategy, not everybody in suits having polite conversations. And it goes on.  And so we need to have a strategy that is about power. A strategy that has this vision of the next phase of this work but does not abandon the outside strategy and the need for people to express rage; a way to confront wrong things directly so that folks understand that they’re not crazy.  But we also need to be there with clear solutions like what should the banking system look like? How should people deal with capital and their own personal money? Why is that we have all these check cashing places? Many tools and solutions that – as organizers – we haven’t really explored. Maybe this is because we think, “We’re organizers. We knock on doors. We help people think about the fight.”  But the fight and the policy and the solution and the framing and the story telling, they’re all a tight braid. We can’t abandon any of that.

S: You’ve been getting at the need to expand our division of labor but not letting go of the outside strategy, the protesting and the agitation.  But I want to push you on that a little more. At some point, we’re going to have to make choices. And, at some point, priorities have to be set.  That gets to our next question. What are old strategies that may not work in this new climate, that we need to let go of?  Are there particular analyses or particular methods that you think may not be as relevant now?  And can you talk more about what you are finding innovative or exciting?  Anything you are experimenting with?

M: One thing that we should never abandon is building personal relationships.  There’s this rush towards certain kinds of technology without the understanding that what makes the technology great is the ability to find new opportunities to build relationships with people.  So there’s a lot of folks who are not knocking on doors and they’re not meeting new people directly; they’re not having direct, physical ties with their base.  Yet, these are times when we really have to expand our relationship-building.

Again, I think that we also have to let go of the false dichotomy between direct service and organizing. People are suffering.  If we are not doing anything to deal with their suffering, then we will become irrelevant. We’ve tended to thumb our nose at the idea that direct services are a part of organizing, but they are. Service provision can be both a base-building strategy and a condition-changing strategy. In this climate, good organizing groups need to think about either providing their own services – like food banks – or about having good relationships with service organizations.  I’m not saying that every base-building group has to expand into direct services, but I am saying that everyone needs to let go of the idea that the two don’t go together. To criticize groups that  engage in service provision totally misses the point.   I’m excited about the organizations that are bringing the two aspects of the work together and are really stepping fully into this experiment. I’ve seen some exciting examples in the Northwest like the Idaho Community Action Network.  They have this low-income base. Their people are hungry; they don’t have enough food.  So ICAN asked, “What are we going to do about that? How can we talk about you coming to a meeting and engaging in the organizing work if you haven’t eaten?” But also,  “How do we politicize those services?”  Mississippi Workers Center is trying a similar thing: providing direct services toto improve  their work conditions and then building off those services to develop a base that engages in work that is highly political. Many workers centers do the same thing.  I’m glad to see more groups paying attention to the needs of the base and not just seeing the process of organizing as moving people through meetings and into actions.  I think this idea of organizing as some narrow arena of work is passé.  It’s not going to survive  during this period of incredible social dislocation.

The other practice that I love is Web 2.0 stuff, all of the interesting things that groups are doing with websites and blogs and so on.  You’re able to tell stories; you’re able to bypass the mainstream media, or what’s left of the mainstream media because the mainstream media is in incredible flux right now.  Our understanding of how we tell our stories is dramatically changing. The traditional newspapers are becoming somewhat obsolete. Some people think that doesn’t matter because newspapers never really did a good job of telling our story. That’s true in a lot of ways.  But when we lose these newspapers and these news outlets, we lose the ability to capture an official story about what is happening in the world.  There is no paper record; there is no clear official story based on the principles of journalism.  That means that the people with the most money will get to dominate the narrative more easily.  In the past, when we were able to capture the daily newspaper or the New York Times or 60 Minutes even when we didn’t have money, we got the credibility of being a part of the official story. We’re losing some of that leverage today.  In response to these changes, progressive people are trying to create mega-websites to put out our stories.  They’re trying to brand their institutions as a credible source of information for the media and for the broader public. These big organizations and websites are asking smaller organizations to join in and to merge their credibility with them as a way to fill the vacuum that mainstream media used to fill: legitimate sources, credible stories, a following of people who will read this information and learn from it.  That’s good in some ways, but there’s also some dangers to it. When smaller organizations pool our credibility under these mega-organizations, they suck resources away from local groups. Then they frame our stories using their own political frames, and they often water our stories and our analyses down. So then there’s fewerclear left messages out there.  As a result, we have seen the same kind of concentration of power and voice that we were fighting with the corporate media.  I’m not sure what a better answer is. We do need to have these high-traffic sites that tell our stories, but we also have to be aware of what these sites are saying about our work.  We need to strategize about how they can actually help us to build our work. But at this point, I think the jury’s still out on whether we can do that well.

I think that the other important trend in this period is the development of national-level formations like the Right to the City Alliance, the Pushback Network and Grassroots Global Justice. By developing these formations, people are saying, “There is clearly a vacuum.  We are doing great work locally.  But we need to figure out how to link up, how to have a national or an international frame for our work.” In other contexts, that vacuum would be filled by a political party. But given the absence of political parties in this country, it is primarily non-profit organizations that are building power. They are forming these networks that mirror some of the functions of political parties, specifically the function of building power on a national scale.

Of course, people are still working out what national work should look like.  There is a push for people to come together and examine how to work collaboratively, how to build power together, and how to magnify their local work.  But one of the inherent contradictions in these networks is that people have ambiguity about the kind of power that they want to build, about whether they want to build that power together or whether they want to just learn from each other and build that power wherever they are.  In that case, a national network is a space where they can hang out and be cool with each other; it’s more of a learning community. And if they decide they do want to build concrete power together, then people struggle to figure out how to do that work together without losing their organizational self-determination.  This is especially complicated when the relationships are new and people are still building trust.

We need more collective spaces to get clear on this question of building power.  The Social Forum might be that space, but it isn’t really designed for large-scale discussion.  Hopefully someday, a forum will emerge that will allow larger and larger groups of people to think about how the left can build power. Again, in other contexts, that discussion would have happened inside of a political party. Today, people are afraid of parties, and I understand that.  So that forum may not need to look like a party.  We could be imagining some new amazing and different kind of formation. For the last 150 years, when people talk about the “left,” they’re usually talking about certain kinds of formations like left political parties. But that definition has really shifted since the 1970s.  Right now, when we talk about the left, we’re talking about a completely different set of networks.  The left today is much more like “swarms,” as they say in community psychology, groups of people who come together and then come apart but not in formal institutional ways. We have to learn more from anarchist work and other political models that help us understand how people can work together and have networks and connection with each other but also maintain self-determination.

S: It’s helpful to have someone with experience like you remind us about similar points in history where some of these questions have come up, and provide some bookmarks from history that people should be going back and looking to so we don’t have to re-imagine or rethink everything today in isolation.

M: I’ve been watching these kinds of national formations come and go for years.  In the 1980s, in the face of Reaganomics, there was another period where these national formations were in vogue.  I don’t think that people doing this work today have sufficiently studied what happened with those earlier formations. There are important lessons to be learned, like how to understand the needs of the individual members and the relationships between groups, that networks should remain actual networks and shouldn’t devolve into becoming their own organizations, that it’s crucial to think about power and to have clear strategies, etc.

Actually, I think we need a serious conversation about what organizing was like in general during the 1980s.  For example, there was this amazing Family Farm Alliance (though I might be getting the name wrong).  It was this amazing left formation that came directly out of thoughtful organizing in response to a political moment when the savings and loan crisis became a family farm crisis.  The campaigns were phenomenal, and their analysis was really clear and nuanced. Once in a while when I’m traveling around the country, I run into people  that were part of that formation. Those folks are still doing great  work. They have this deep analysis of the economy, and they have strong race politics. We’re talking about places in Nebraska or Idaho or Montana. So these are mostly white folks surrounded by white folks and maybe some Native folk.  And their work is still holding in the hearts and minds of a wide range of people in their communities.  Iowa is a great example; a lot of people don’t realize how much of Obama’s victory in Iowa was directly related to that organizing from twenty years ago.   It’s invisible now; other people on the left don’t know about it or don’t understand it.  But there was a point in the late 1970s and the 1980s where there was a commitment to organizing white people in a  profoundly anti racist, left way. I often  wonder what would have happened if that work had taken off at a different level of scale.

S: Any other kinds of closing thoughts?

M: I think that one challenge we have – particularly in racial justice work – is people’s ambiguity about Black liberation.  There are ways in which Obama’s presidency heightens those contradictions.  We have an administration that is basically afraid to deal with anything “Black” because they’re afraid of what it will mean politically because many people are Afrophobic.  There’s a great deal of fear and hatred of Black people that we  just don’t want to confront openly.  Now, I’m not talking about white people liking hip-hop music or saying “Whassup” or whatever. People think that’s the same thing as liking Black people.  But it’s not. And it often seems like people doing racial justice work feel like Black people had their day in the sun in 1960s, that because other communities of color were rendered mostly invisible during that time, that Blacks should take a step back because other communities  need to be seen, too. It is true that other communities  need greater  visibility,support and solidarity for their work.  We need to be clear about the way in which white supremacy makes it seem like we have to pick one group to be the special one, like, “Let’s pick the colored people who are going to be in the sunshine because we can’t really concentrate on more than one.”  That idea – that there just isn’t enough space for all of us to be seen and heard and fought for – is at the root of these challenges.

But the people who are engaged in the work of Black liberation are having some really important conversations that I think would interest  lots of organizers outside of these communities.  There are concrete benefits to be gained through building alliances in our community beyond the sheer numbers.  And we as a community need the solidarity ourselves.  The Obama administration is not addressing the incrediblevulnerability of Black people in this economy  Of course, we’re not the only folks dealing with these challenges. I’ve mentioned the immigrations raids — lots of different folks are under the gun.  But there are ways in which some of these targeted communities are  avoiding solidarity with the African American community.  They want support from  African American communities but they are not building genuine alliances. Some of this is driven by funding.  For example, there are dollars moving to non Black groups to do outreach  in African American communities to increase their support on a whole range of issues, from marriage equality to immigration. That’s good, but it’s being done without any sense of quid pro quo.  Black groups rarely receive support from these pools and it sets up an uneven dynamic that essentially conveys a lack of commitment to Black self determination and institution building.  We are not going to have a viable base of progressive power in this country until we figure out how to develop a multi-racial cross-community work that is deep and principled and that explicitly addresses the general Afrophobia and Islamaphobia in this country.

Makani Themba

Makani Themba is executive director of The Praxis Project, an organization helping communities use media and policy advocacy to advance social justice.  Makani has done trainings and workshops worldwide and published numerous books and articles on race, media, policy advocacy and public health. and is author of “Making Policy, Making Change’ and co-author of “Talking the Walk: Communications Guide for Racial Justice.” Her latest book (under The Praxis Project) is “Fair Game: Racial Justice Communications in the Obama Era.’

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