- Jonathan Matthew Smucker, “Political Orphan” in Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals (AK Press, 2018).
- Jane F. McAlevey, “Introduction” in No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford, 2018).
- Kim Bobo et al. “The Fundamentals of Direct Action Organizing” in Organizing for Social Change (Forum Press, 2010).
- Cesar Chavez ,“The Organizer’s Tale” Rampart’s Magazine, 1966.
Spotlight organization: Virginia Organizing
Guest organizer: Libero Della Piana, Alliance for a Just Society
Develop a new insight(s) from one or more of the texts we read for this week about what makes organizing distinctive as an approach to social change.
“Praying for Accompaniment” – CB
“Integrating Healing into Community Organizing” – GB
“‘Activists’ vs Organizing” – BB
“A Greater Sense of Self” – KA
“Neutrality in Academia” – MC
“‘Commoning and Loving” – FSD
“Collective Hustling” – EH
“To the Campus Activist” – KW
Praying for Accompaniment
“Make us proud.”
A little over a year ago, my church sent me off to Yale. As I shook the hands of older members (in a world before COVID-19), they would squeeze me with one hand, place the other on my shoulder, look me in the eyes and say three words – “Make us proud”. Occasionally, “make us proud” would be followed by a light hearted “Don’t forget about us”. Both appeals were made in good faith, both appeals were communal, and both were fresh in my ears as when I got to New Haven the next week.
I, like many others, came to Yale with a fundamental understanding that my education here was not for my own aggrandizement but for the benefit of the communities I belong to and the people that made my presence here possible. However, I did not have an exceptionally clear vision of what that meant in practice.
The concepts that Osuna explores in “Class Suicide: The Black Radical Tradition, Radical Scholarship, and the Neoliberal Turn” are not new to me as ideas but are new to me when put in conversation with the Black radical tradition and the default role of the Peteit Bourgeoise. Once we understand that marginalized folks who are welcomed into the Petite Bourgeoisie are intentionally welcomed as individuals, we can begin to imagine the ways in which they lend legitimacy to the system of capitalism and white supremacy.
So how am I supposed to make my church proud? When the system, as it exists, expects me to forget about them. I haven’t yet found the answer, but I have entered the Petite Bourgeoisie – alone.
As we enter the ranks of this class, our original intention – to use this knowledge and scholarship for the betterment of our people – often becomes perverted by individualism and expertism that separates us from those we intend to support. The concepts of “Class Suicide” as explored by Osuna and “accompianment” as explored by Toni Cade Bambara work hand in hand to illustrate the ways in which, as scholars and intellectuals from marginalized groups or who intend to work for the betterment of marginalized groups, we must intentionally remove themselves from the cocoon of our class position and firmly root ourselves in the communities we serve.
Rooting ourselves in these communities is likely easier said that done. It asks us to abandon some of the privileges that we worked within the system to be awarded. Nevertheless, it must be done.
According to Bambara, we must “turn away from expertism and toward mutual, dialogical, participatory, and horizontal relations”. In a few words more than the elders of my church, Bambara asks us to make our communities proud by serving them, living in them, and not forgetting them.
Integrating Healing into Community Organizing
“If we heal our people, then we’ll heal our land.” (Freda Huson).
In an interview with Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en spokesperson, she provides an alternative, or rather preventative measure, for Steven Osuna’s claim that scholars/academics, as “private intellectuals,” pose danger to their/our communities. Huson discusses the physical healing provided by river but advocates for the pursuit of mental and intergenerational healing in her community. And she points precisely to getting other indigenous psychologists, doctors, and scholars to aid the process. The act of healing communities’ trauma, I believe, is one of the most important ways to begin transforming how we think about our scholarship, community, and our place beyond the walls of a neoliberal institution/society and beyond perpetuating further harm. The reason we might be drawn to pursuing a “success” that endangers the people and places we come from is because we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that is the only way out, and in many cases, the only way to “give back.” But what does conducting research on our homes, supporting certain “progressive” candidates in our districts, and providing support here and there do long-term for people and places that have endured decades, if not centuries, of systemic harm (racial prejudice, over policing, school to prison pipelines, denial of basic rights like healthcare and housing, and so many more).
It’s powerful when Huson brings up the process of healing (herself and her family members) as her reason for engaging in community work. She knows that in order to ensure the longevity of both her people and her land, she must help the community heal as a whole (mentally, physically, emotionally). How as scholars do we go back into our communities, not to study or take from them, but help them unpack trauma/heal? What resources, if we can’t do this ourselves, can we bring in and connect people to that will work long-term? Lastly, like Huson, how do we make people feel like they have the power, individual and collective, to heal? Part of this healing is recognizing that we ourselves, as members of various elite institutions, are part of the problem, and that we too need to heal in some ways. But that cannot be accomplished alone. That process begins in the ways we actively resist an elitist detachment from the places and people who made us and in collective spaces like this classroom.
‘Activists’ vs Organizing
Like so many of my peers, I have borne witness to a socially constructed category of “activists,” figures who have amassed significant followings and media coverage based on their roles as social justice champions. Growing up, I was conditioned to believe that activists were rare and exceptionally valorous— I constructed this vision of a superheroic (Social) Justice League, in which the most moral echelon of society tackled the world’s inequities. Self-proclaimed “activists” represented the best of us, I thought. However the more I ruminated on my perception of activists, the less grand they seemed. When I worked with local organizers in my small Louisiana town, I noticed how they never identified themselves as “activists.” These folks mobilized without the grandeur of titles or even recognition. To me, they made the real difference, in the everyday change in my community.
In Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, I sympathized with Jonathan Smucker’s disdain for the label of “activist.” I found his argument that the class of activists reinforces capitalist modes of “self-selection,” particularly compelling. I began considering the connection between activists’ “self-selection” and neoliberalism: a system in which social hierarchies are constructed to maintain hegemony, and individual mobility is prioritized over collective equality. Such structures actively prohibit positive social change.
Organizing, as opposed to the invention of activism, functions as a language of collective action in pursuit of shared transformation and liberation. As Libero Della Piana discussed in class, we tend to adopt this stark binary of those who hold power and those who are stripped of it. However, organizing resists this binary and flips the power structure into the hands of the marginalized. In this sense, organizing is a direct refutation of neoliberal vertical power construction; instead, power is consolidated in a choir of voices.
Smucker advocates for the collective formation of organizing, but he also warns us to resist the temptation of becoming insular. He stresses that organizing ought not to be a “disadvantageous monopoly” that gate keeps folks who aren’t “radical enough” from participating in the movement (Smucker 30). His rationale differs from the trite argument of collaborating with “both sides of the aisle” on political issues. Broadening a social base of organizing requires empathy that doesn’t rest in the facade of “nonpartisanship.” Instead, Smucker urges us to reach out to “unlikely allies,” or people willing to engage in organizing (Smucker 26). This proposition encourages us to ditch sanctimonious labels that tell us how to spot a “real” activist or a legitimate crowd of organizers and in turn, embrace human connection as a means of social transformation.
A Greater Sense of Self
At a first glance, the terms “self-interest” and “community organizing” seem oppositional, yet as Kim Bobo et al. argue in “The Fundamentals of Direct Action Organizing”, “self-interest is one of the most important and misunderstood concepts in direct action organizing.” Prior to this reading, I had always thought of self-interest in the most narrow sense—caring only for one’s self in the most individualistic of ways. I suppose this assumption has much to do with my own conception of the self that I have been socialized to have growing up in the United States—to constantly think only of myself and place myself at the top of my priorities, without care for how my actions may have lasting effects on others. Self-interest however, the authors argue can also be understood as a “much broader concept” which comes from the Latin inter esse, meaning “to be among.” Through this meaning, self-interest then can be understood and interpreted outside of the Western, singular concept of the self, but rather as the interests of those with whom we are among as well. While self-interest does apply to one’s own material needs as we might commonly conceive of it, “it also applies to the need for friends, for respect, for recognition, for being useful, for feeling important, or for feeling part of a larger community.” For the purposes of community organizing then, it seems necessary to expand upon the narrow and often lonely conception of the self we have been socialized to uphold in order to succeed in the never-ending social hierarchy of life. I wonder all that could be gained from this expanded, outward looking conception of the self and self-interest. I believe that self-love and self-care are absolutely crucial, however I wonder if these concepts are really all that different from the love and the care that we show others.
Relationships, Kim Bobo et al. argue are critical to organizing because organizing “is about changing the world and changing how individuals act together.” The emphasis on the collective and on the many as opposed to the few, not only in the writings of Kim Bobo et al. but also in the example provided by organizations such as Virginia Organizing and Khmer Girls in Action, is important because too often, activist and organizing spaces in themselves become co-opted, elitist, and exclusive—giving in to the very same unequal power relationships that created the need for such a space in the first place. I love that Virginia Organizing and Khmer Girls in Action place such emphasis on giving those involved with their organization, even those at the earliest stages of involvement, a sense of their own power and their own importance in advancing their own interests and the collective interests of those with them. Issues after all, are only one ever changing part of the goal of community organizing. In building relationships and in building the strength of the community, the true people power of organizing is achieved.
Neutrality in Education
Looking at Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20, I was reminded of Steven Osuna’s discussion on class suicide in Class Suicide: The Black Radical Tradition, Radical Scholarship, and the Neoliberal Turn, and the undeniable role students play in legitimizing the exclusivity of academica, particularly at Yale. Though they address different forms of neutrality, Ringgold’s piece forces the viewer to realize that no person in the event pictured is left in a position of indifference. After reading Osuna’s piece, it is clear that as students at Yale, we are nowhere near that position of neutrality.
Our neutrality within academia ceases to exist as we accept our position within an institution that excludes. The knowledge being produced within institutions like ours is not meant for public consumption, and Osuna says that educational institutions like Yale “produce scholars and intellectuals who are disconnected from larger struggles for social change, who write about oppressive conditions in the abstract, and who produce knowledge accessible only to a specific few.” Even after deciding to learn through the ER&M program, and while we learn about critical theory and organizing, we are still at Yale, which is far, both geographically and socially, from the systems and people we are trying to understand. The exclusivity that makes academia inaccessible in this way, however, is the same exclusivity that keeps it in demand. Through exclusivity, we have reached new levels of privilege, access, and power. And although it would be ideal to work towards dismantling oppressive systems while holding on to the security we’ve gained in our time at Yale, it is insincere to believe that simply acknowledging our position will turn a switch and absolve us from the very active role we play in upholding academia’s exclusivity and everything that comes with it. Though class suicide seems farfetched and unrealistic, it is difficult, maybe impossible, to imagine an alternative that would yield the same results. Class suicide, however, does not have to be understood solely as a practice of destruction and elimination. Rather, it can primarily be one of opening, redistribution, and access.
‘Commoning’ and Loving
A wise friend of mine once remarked, “At no point in my Yale education have I been taught how to take care of people.” A world of hierarchies thrives by pitting individuals against one another and one another’s communities. At a privatized site of knowledge production like Yale, instead of serving each other horizontally and mutually, we serve the capitalists or strive to become them. Instead of a lifelong search for personal and social transformation, like filmmaker and radical scholar Toni Cade Bambara committed to, our most immediate options are to try and survive racial capitalism and exploitation, or seek to profit from it. But there are still moments – and movements – of hopeful alternatives.
Last week, a man and I made eye contact on College Street, where, like Ruth Wilson Gilmore wrote, the street runs “into the campus.” According to someone’s administrative decision, this man and I should have been against each other.
Along with a neighbor, I was posting signs downtown, on telephone poles and bulletin boards, to publicize a campaign from New Haven Rising. The signs read “Yale: Respect New Haven,” and demanded that Yale pay its annual tax break of over $150 million to the city. I finished my route, turned around, and saw this young man behind me, removing the signs. So I waved and smiled, and he shrugged back at me.
Organizers at New Haven Rising had confirmation that this man was a temp worker, hired by Yale to remove the signs from public and private property. His shrug seemed to communicate that he bore no grudge against our signs, that Yale could have paid anyone to take them down; it just happened to be him. I imagine – I can only imagine, and cannot know – that his wages were minimal, that he took this job as a necessary survival strategy. This man and I probably shared a childhood in New Haven, the same communal spaces, the same sidewalks, the same changing city. And with an absurd and complicated joy, I felt that we were on the same side. Had he chosen to commit a form of class suicide, to resign and leave our signs on the privatized commons of the telephone pole, Yale would simply have found another worker who needed the money.
It is in the high bourgeoisie’s interest to disrupt the relationships that allow community organizing to flourish. But we see these relationships persist and grow anyway: in the hundreds of people who come to Wet’suwet’en land for direct action trainings and healing work, in the communal houses and mutual accompaniment that Mary Watkins describes as a way to build the commons, in the scholars of the Black Radical Tradition who have fought to shatter elitist knowledge production and partake in anti-racist and anti-colonial movements. As I read Watkins’ argument about commoning, drawing on Peter Linebaugh’s advice to consider the commons a deed, not an abstraction, I remember a similarly subversive definition by the writer/activist bell hooks. In her book All About Love, hooks urges us to think of love as a verb, not a noun, as something we continuously choose to do for people and movements. And it is not easy: our positionalities in an institution that aims to convince its most disenfranchised students to find security in the petit bourgeoisie means that, even when we try to love, it can reinforce the vertical relationships of charity. When Yale students serve New Haven, it is often to treat the symptoms of injustice; volunteering at a soup kitchen, for instance, is a form of care that hardly ever offends wealthy alumni. The closer we get to addressing causes like anti-Black violence, police surveillance, the wealth gap, redlining, gentrification, all systems that Yale has played a role in maintaining, the less likely it is that we will receive institutional support. If we do as Frantz Fanon encourages us to do and experience the “extraordinary productiveness” of community meetings, we might find ourselves committing a kind of class suicide that is constructive and good.
This language itself – English, that is – does not always lend itself well to describing alternative structures of equitable care. Freda Huson, an Unist’ot’en spokesperson and protector of unceded Wet’suwet’en land, remarks that “critical infrastructure” ought to refer to the cycles of land, water, and life that sustain us, rather than destructive industry intended to maximize the profit of a group of settlers. In Organizing for Social Change, Kim Bobo tells us how “self-interest” comes from inter esse, which means “to be among” – our self-interest could be about where our needs fit into the needs of society at large. We cannot create the commons in its most equitable form without a process of reparations that returns Indigenous land and sovereignty and rids the world of the legacy of enslavement and systemic racism; this is to say, the true commons cannot exist in the United States of America. But we can practice commoning every single day, in our interactions, in our organizing, in our mutual aid, in the paths we take and places we go. And I find this to be intensely liberating and hopeful: we have a choice, whether or not justice will arrive in our lifetimes, to be just toward others in the present moment.
In their book “Knocking The Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics,” Lester K. Spence uses the concept of ‘hustling’ to introduce how neoliberalism and the neoliberal turn pervade in aspects of Black culture and politics. The word hustling, Spence argues, has experienced a semantic shift in the past few decades that reflects the neoliberal turn: mostly recent, hustling has changed from representing kinds of underground, fugitive labor to now describing entrepreneurship or even high-salary jobs. In their article, “Class Suicide: The Black Radical Tradition, Radical Scholarship, and the Neoliberal Turn,” Steven Osuna cites Spence’s usage of the “Neoliberal Turn” to suggest how much of critical studies has gone through a similar neoliberalization. Osuna recognizes how Black, Chicanx, and Native American Studies were once considered unproductive to the Academy—academic labor that (like the previous meaning of hustling) had to exist underground; however, through professionalization, these academic endeavors have grown divorced from the communities they were meant to serve and have instead been subsumed by neoliberal paradigms of individualism and capitalism. Osuna proposes the concept of “Class Suicide” to be the solution against this threat. Those who are invited by the academy to become petit bourgeois intellectuals must resist class seductions and instead choose to position themselves with the people.
At first, I struggled with this idea. I could not see an expression of class suicide that would incite structural change. Even if my peers and I chose to drop out of school, the Academy would more than likely continue unfazed and the neoliberal order would persist. Additionally, even as I unsubscribed from the neoliberal university, I would most likely still perpetuate and commit neoliberal violence in other ways (see Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20). It was only after I read the interview with Freda Huson from Standing with Standing Rock that I gained a clearer picture of structural class suicide. In the interview, Huson, Unist’ot’en spokesperson, outlines the specific strategies of frontline land defense that needed to be done in order to protect Wet’suwet’en land from pipeliners. During which, she describes how loggers from a logging company aided the Unist’ot’en’s by telling them the location of pipeline equipment on their land. initially, I interpreted the relationship between the Unist’ot’en people and the loggers as strategic, for I assumed that the relationship was entirely dependent on the loggers providing valuable information. Later in the interview, Huson points out how the logging industry also plays a role in threatening Wet’suwet’en land, and so I read the loggers as merely temporary allies who are still aggressors to the community. And while that may certainly still be the case, I now see that Huson could also be recognizing the larger structures of violence at play. Rather than seeing the loggers as enemies temporarily playing the part of allies, it’s likely that she instead recognizes the loggers as aggressors by default—that is, as long as they exist within our neoliberal structure, they will be aggressors in some way. I also realized how Huson recognizes the loggers’ decision to help fight the pipeline as a collective act and not as individual choices of morality. While the lumber workers were not committing class suicide in the way Osuna describes, reading about their role in defending Wet’suwet’en land offered me some insight on what the parameters of structural class suicide would look like. For instance, before the Huson interview, I still perceived structural class suicide to be a summation of peoples’ individual class suicides. In other words, I still considered the path to liberation to be centered upon individual moral choices, which still works within neoliberal paradigms. I did understand that class suicide can (and must) be a collective act.
To the Campus Activist
“We simply cannot go to the laborers—urban or peasant—in the banking style, to give them “knowledge” or to impose upon them the model of the “good man” contained in a program whose content we have ourselves organized. Many political and educational plans have failed because their authors designed them according to their own personal views of reality, never once taking into account (except as mere objects of their actions) the men in a situation to whom their program was ostensibly directed” – Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed
This is a quote from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book considered foundational in the field of critical pedagogy. While we discussed the qualities of effective community organizing in class this past week, I couldn’t help but refer back to this book as a whole, but especially quotes like these. In the quote, Freire critiques our current education structure. Typically, a teacher does not pause to, nor are they expected to, create a dialogue with the student or consult with them throughout the learning process.
It reminds me of the three pillars of community organizing that we talked about in class:
- Winning concrete specific victories that directly improve people’s lives
- Building powerful orgs among people directly affected by issues
- Changing relations of power for the long term
Specifically, the quote reminded me of the first. Although we weren’t necessarily focusing on issues of education in class, I do believe that organizations and individuals -especially those at a place like Yale- are frequently guilty of speaking over the communities we intend to serve, if we even stop to listen. In any given time at any given Yale building, I can almost assure there will somebody working on a paper examining an issue in New Haven, organizing their social club’s next community service opportunity with the public schools, or designing a “new” service club for New Haven instead of joining one of the many New Haven grassroot organizations already providing these same services -but better.
New Haven is a test subject for academics’ theorizing over the problems affecting the community, but rarely do you witness tangible, selfless solidarity with the people that we not only claim to stand with, but whom our very existence damages daily. We are not New Haven’s saviors, in fact, we are the complete opposite. The sooner we come to terms with the ways our privileged positions further serve to marginalize the community we reside in, the faster we can get to work to make things as right as we possibly can. As the authors of the readings we discussed in class explained, this might consist of social, class, or economic suicide. However, we must stand behind the community. Amilcar Cabral, one of Africa’s foremost anti-colonial leaders as well as one of the academics we learned from this week in class, emphasizes the need to keep the people’s needs at the forefront. How can we know the people’s needs if we don’t even talk to them? How can we assist those we claim to serve in winning concrete and specific victories if we don’t know the battles they are facing to begin with?
For many of us, our admission to Yale came with our admission into the petit bourgeois. Regardless of where we came from before we stepped foot on campus, our status as a Yale student is one that comes with innate and often violent privilege. It is the petit bourgeois’ and the intellectual’s duty to stand behind the common people. It is our duty to stand with New Haven. Join that grassroots organization. Listen. Learn. Serve. No one understands the needs of an oppressed group better than the group itself.