This is the fourth article of a 7-part series that will focus on the issues in our radical movements that I think need our immediate and ongoing attention. I am using the ancient eastern concept of chakras for the body as a parallel to our movement’s energy wheel. Healers believe sickness occurs when the body’s chakras are blocked or out of alignment. Likewise, the U.S. Left and our social justice movements need our collective introspection, analysis and adjustments that lead to unblocking our energy/chi points. A weakened Left, and especially the Black Left, have been unable to provide this critical guidance over the last twenty years. I do not have the space to go too deep into my thinking although I have been pondering and talking about this very subject for a few years now. I am looking to stimulate a higher level of principled discussion about how to energize and organize the social forces coming into play at this pivotal juncture in history and how we can rebuild a formidable radical movement in this country.
“We’ll never have a real movement without locally rooted, organized bases of people.”
-Respondent, More Than We Imagined Report
Organizing. Organizer. These two words have become so diluted and used incorrectly as to render them almost meaningless. Being an organizer is not a self-identification like racial identity. These days you can literally claim whatever race or races you want. Being an organizer is not the same as being a protestor or being an activist. Organizing is not synonymous to mobilizing or protesting. The organizing chakra has been obstructed for too long. It’s past time to unleash the intensity of this chakra and stand back to witness its force.
My intent here is to get us closer to some working definitions and most critical, to understand the “who” we organize and the “how” so that we can make colossal strides towards our strategic goals in this latest configuration of neo-liberalism.
When social justice organizations talk about vision and mission, strategy and tactics, programs and action plans, some may also advance a theory of change (TOC) . The TOC is basically how you see making the change happen that you envision. For example, Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ) seeks to make Black workers central to the both the Freedom and Labor movements. It’s basic theory of how that will be done is by building the strength and leadership of Black workers in those movements.
Some might be saying “I didn’t know all this went into organizing!” I frequently say that organizing is both a science and an art. You can put your own creative flourish on a universal organizing principle but you have to first know the basic principles. The organizing forms used by people across the globe under various conditions is endless. Some more successful that others from winning the fight for a $15-hour wage in Seattle to the fight for a progressive, African American district attorney in St. Louis. Conversely, when a strategy was unclear or under-developed, massive mobilize do not result in reformative or transformation changes. We saw this with the U.S. Occupy Movement and with the Arab Spring.
While our movement may not have an algorithm for perfect outcomes, there are universal organizing principles. The elements outlined above must be observed and put in place or you will fail to reach your goal. One can have all the ingredients for bread but if you leave out the yeast or you don’t let that yeast rise at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time, what comes out of that oven can technically be called bread but…well, you get the picture.
Organizations whose theory of change is rooted in organizing the working class as the key link to transformative change seem to be in short supply. If there’s no base building going down among the working class, I’m unsure of how our movement is going to grow, challenge structure and take power. Base building may not have the same appeal as mobilizing a protest but the outcomes are far more enduring and impactful. Wrongfully or not, I’ve concluded that people steer away from organizing a base because 1) they don’t know how; 2) they don’t want to know how; and/or 3) they’re fearful of the working class especially the Black working class.
A few years ago, a compelling report was released that, in hindsight had our movements taken it more seriously, we may be in a different place now as we face president trump and his neo-fascists forces. “More Than We Imagined” was an introspective probe into the status and well-being of the US social movement in 2013 and how to move forward. NTanya Lee and Steve Williams embarked upon an earnest process and engaged movement forces in thoughtful conversations to draw out certain themes and to assert informed recommendations. There are many gems of wisdom laden in the report and it needs to be circulated to the legion on new and younger activists who’ve come into the movement since the Ferguson Uprising. While some are building their personal brand, many of them are eager to learn how to organize. This is forcing us to hold our models of organization up for scrutiny and to overhaul our organizing strategies. This should be an exciting time for organizing and organizers!
Nearly 40% of the participants in “More Than We Imagined” identified as coming from base building organizations. I found this curious because I rarely see groups organizing in this way. We morphed into a movement of consultants with theoretical understandings of organizing and nonprofits who mobilize one another. An updated critique is needed of the nonprofit industrial complex and its impact on the radical social movements. The starting point would be The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex, then fast forward to 2017. The groundbreaking book by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence is now about a decade old and the nonprofit world continues to pluck up some of our most talented thinkers and organizers. I don’t believe this scenario is inherently antagonistic. We do need a healthy discussion to clarify each one’s roles and limitations so that we can build the strongest, broadest and most unified movement possible. There’s plenty of room in our tent if first you do no harm to the movement.
I also don’t believe that technology/social media are incompatible with 21stCentury organizing. Again, role and limitations must be clarified so that young activists (mainly) understand that social media is no substitute for face2face organizing. FaceBook, Twitter and other social media platforms can be useful tools that support organizing. We should pursue innovative ways to integrate the technology into our organizing practices. Umi Selah of the Dream Defenders does an effective critique on the topic in “Blackout Reflection: No one Should Have all that Power.”
Organizing is to build power for the masses of people victimized by capitalism and all its tentacles. Organizing is to build organizations or institutions that expand and defend that power. If people are intentionally organizing for power, if people are strategically building a base to expand and amplify the voices demanding justice, equity and dignity, I believe our movements will be closer to the vision of the world we deserve. As veteran labor organizer Bill Fletcher aptly reminds us, magical thinking will not get us there. We must be bold, methodical, consistent and imaginative in carrying out a strategy for human liberation.
Next article: Unblocking the chakra of redemption.