As we stared at each other’s digital faces in neatly aligned boxes, our class reached a collective understanding that the distance between us, though real and critical, did not diminish our interdependence. On the day after Indigenous People’s Day, Community Organizing Theory and Practice (COTAP) was honored to welcome Indigenous organizer Judith LeBlanc, Director of the Native Organizer’s Alliance, a leader in peace movements and the Communist Party, and an Elder of the Caddo Nation. She described to our class how, in the wake of the occupation of Wounded Knee in the 1970s, she left her undergraduate studies at UMass Amherst and moved to South Dakota to fight for Indigenous sovereignty. Only after she made this decision to leave the academy, she told us, did she fully see the systemic nature of racism, as well as the lesson that we must be in community with others to bring about transformational change. 

Guest speaker session with Judith LeBlanc, Director of the Native Organizer’s Alliance

Whether we recognize it or not, she said, we are all closely related to the nonhuman world and to the rest of humanity. Interdependence is a long-held principle of Native organizing, the idea that tribal sovereignty will not be achieved “tribe by tribe,” but instead through the creation of a fundamentally democratic and radically new political system that returns land to Indigenous peoples. Relationality is central to the framework of “grounded normativity” that Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes in As We Have Always Done as a “nonlinear, overlapping emergent and responsive network of relationships of deep reciprocity, intimate and global interconnection and interdependence, that spirals across time and space” (24). 

For Simpson, movement building is fundamentally about being in community – about rejecting the colonized mindset that centers so largely on consuming, and instead constructing a new way of living and new modes of productions through a deep engagement and reciprocity with others. She writes, “governance was made every day. Leadership was embodied and acted out every day…. Processes were created out and practiced. Daily life involved making politics, education, health care, food systems, and economy on micro- and macro-scales” (23). Rather than applying one particular theory of social change or model of organizing to social justice work, Simpson instead contends that “everything we need to know about everything in the world is contained within Indigenous bodies,” and that process-centered modes of living are in and of themselves forms of knowledge production (22). 

LeBlanc pointed out that the coronavirus reveals how the well-being of others is intimately connected to our own. This is true on an immediate level (we put each other in danger by breathing in and out in proximity, or we take care of each other by choosing to interact safely) and on a social level (we realize how the needs of essential workers, teachers, people in healthcare, etc are tied to everyone’s needs). Our realization of relationality has also grounded and guided the global protests after George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police. This movement united 10% of the population across the world. It has taken the cataclysmic events of the current moment to reveal to many of us the extent of our relationality, and the fact that these communities of which we are a part and the actions they take are a reflection of ourselves. This discussion of relationality extends to how we organize ourselves too. LeBlanc said our process matters as much as our goal. Without being able to put our ear to what the communities we work with are feeling, we may put energy to actions the community doesn’t have a willingness to do, like planning a strike when people feel safer spending time on GOTV.

Her talk prompted us to reflect on whether it is possible for us to bring academic work into organizing, instead of limiting our work to detached discussions of systemic racism that operate away from the on-the-ground, community-centered work to which LeBlanc has devoted her life and career. The classroom is a site where we may observe the mechanisms and consequences of racism, through studying them or experiencing them directly (e.g. in discriminatory behavior, surveillance and violence from campus police, or inequities in access to academic resources). LeBlanc, on the other hand, learned about systemic racism while actively battling it in a context of high-stakes protest. Is it possible for us to reach the same level of understanding and empathy LeBlanc gained from being a ground-level organizer while remaining students? While it may feel impossible to fully separate ourselves from the mainstream academy at the moment, as it controls so much of our livelihoods, we must ground our academic perspectives in the needs and work of people in frontline communities, and embrace our roles as giving back in mutual exchange with the community, attempting to redistribute University wealth through our work. This means literally redistributing what capitalist hegemony considers to be wealth, by moving money away from endowment hoarding and exploitative investing and toward community power, but it also means sharing relationships, skills, and knowledge, and even challenging the notion that the university is the primary source of such things. Knowledge can flow in all directions, so redistribution at its best would destabilize any added power or legitimacy that academic knowledge carries, and lend attention and care to knowledge systems beyond it. Perhaps this is where relationality comes in – to show us how an individual could not understand the totality of systemic racism alone, and that we are all tied down by forces out of our control, but we can and must still adapt to support each other.

Here is a list of some resources compiled by our class to accompany the week’s discussion: