The Anarres Project for Alternative Futures recently interviewed me as part of their online series. I’m re-posting it here. The project is definitely worth checking out! (And you can also find this interview on Truthout.)
What experiences did you have that turned you toward organizing?
That’s a long story, as I imagine it is for most people you interview.
I came into radical politics in my early teens, thanks largely to the public alternative school I attended in Anchorage, Alaska. As a teenager, I was mostly an activist, focused on expressing dissent and demonstrating opposition. Influenced by punk rock, my friends and I developed a shared identity around our rejection of prevailing values and ruling institutions. We had a lot of heart and creativity, and we were also at times obnoxiously self-righteous!
I developed more of an organizing perspective, focused on bringing people together to build collective power and take collective action, through my experiences in social movements. The global justice movement was especially pivotal for me. In 1997, when I was in college in Olympia, Washington, I traveled with friends to participate in in the protests against the Vancouver summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. In Vancouver, I was very inspired by the ways in which many activists grounded their efforts in solidarity with Indigenous resistance and movements in the global South. Two years later, I collaborated with others along the West Coast in launching the Direct Action Network (DAN), which became the organizing hub for the surprisingly successful mass direct action against the Seattle Ministerial of the World Trade Organization in late November 1999.
In the wake of the Seattle victory, many of us involved became increasingly aware of the limitations of our efforts. As my comrade Steph Guilloud, a leading DAN organizer, would later write, “We were not building a long-term resistance movement: we were mobilizing for a protest.” In the process, we clearly overlooked some fundamental issues. Longtime activist and writer Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, in a widely circulated article, posed one question with which many of us were grappling: “Where was the color in Seattle?” Her intervention and others inspired widespread discussions about not only racism, but also other social hierarchies at play in the global justice movement. They also raised important questions about organizing and strategy.
A more recent experience that influenced my organizing perspective was the five years I spent living in Sudbury, Ontario, a small mining city located about 250 miles north of Toronto. Although it has a distinguished history of militant labor organizing, Sudbury isn’t an easy place to build movements anymore. The few working-class organizations that have survived the last three decades of neoliberal assault are barely holding on, most people struggle to make ends meet, and there is a pervasive sense of resignation.
Living in Sudbury from 2007-2012 was eye-opening for me. I worked as part of a very small crew of activists involved in anti-war and Indigenous solidarity organizing. I also participated in solidarity actions with striking miners and a support campaign for John Moore, a local Indigenous man fighting a racist conviction that had sent him to prison for a decade for a crime he didn’t commit. And toward the end of my time there, I was involved in Occupy Sudbury and then a re-launch of the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty.
Were there any special lessons about organizing that you think we ought to learn from the global justice movement of the 1990s and early 2000s?
Based on these experiences, the lesson I take from the global justice movement is twofold. On the one hand, it showed me the magnificent possibilities that can erupt through collective action. Sometimes well-laid plans, large numbers of emboldened people, and circumstances beyond our control can come together in ways that feel magical. On the other hand, the global justice movement demonstrated to me that even the most magical moments are fleeting and limited when we don’t lay the foundations for a resilient movement grounded in diverse communities. This requires long-term (and often not-so-flashy) alliance-building and organizing.
You’ve written on your blog about the need to learn how to organize in spaces outside of big urban areas. Why is it important for social justice organizers to learn how to work in rural areas or small cities?
Among other things, my time in Sudbury helped me see the importance of organizing outside large metropolitan areas. After all, huge numbers of people in North America live in small cities and rural areas. And although the Left often ignores these people, significant sections of the Right don’t make that same mistake. Also, learning to organize outside big cities helps us to avoid city-centric activist tendencies (such as assuming that everyone has access to the internet or transportation, or that everyone is comfortable with a fast pace of activity) that frequently limit our efforts wherever we live and struggle.
These experiences in the Pacific Northwest, Sudbury, and other places have deeply shaped how I think about organizing. I’ve come to believe three core things: (1) any hopes for positive social transformation hinge on our ability to build movements across lines of advantage and oppression with those with direct experience of oppression and exploitation in the lead; (2) the kind of social changes that we’d like to achieve require fierce struggles involving large numbers of ordinary people, most of whom don’t – and perhaps won’t – think of themselves as “activists”; and (3) the only way we are going to get what we want is by building enough collective power – power capable of both disrupting ruling institutions and constructing viable counterinstitutions – that we can force powerholders to accede to our demands.
Who would you consider your social justice heroes and why?
I draw inspiration from a lot of people. Some are organizers of the past, such as Ella Baker and Judi Bari. Baker was a skilled and dedicated organizer among African American communities in the U.S. South in the middle decades of the twentieth century. One of the main advisors to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she championed and manifested a commitment to long-term organizing, grassroots democracy, and what she called “group-centered leadership.” Her influence looms large in the Black freedom struggle. Bari organized with Earth First! in the early 1990s to protect old growth forests in Northern California. A working-class mother, she played a key role in bridging direct action environmentalism with labor struggles and other social justice issues. Her broad political vision and commitment to alliance-building contributed to a crucial transformation in Earth First! Bari’s success also made her a target of the FBI.
I also think there are many unsung social justice heroes around us today. Two I know personally who I would include in this category are Harsha Walia and Gary Kinsman. Walia is an organizer with No One Is Illegal – Vancouver Coast Salish Territories and many other initiatives. As an activist, writer, and public speaker, she has played an especially important role in foregrounding Indigenous solidarity work and anti-racist feminism in social justice movements. Kinsman is a longtime queer liberation, anti-poverty, and anti-capitalist activist who lived for many years in Sudbury. He played a foundational role in much radical queer activism in the Canadian context, and he is also a leading scholar of state regulation of sexuality. Both Walia and Kinsman demonstrate what it means to sustain a long haul commitment to social justice, building vision and ties across struggles.
What gives you hope for the future?
Social movements give me so much hope! I’m particularly inspired by grassroots movements with broad democratic participation that don’t shy away from articulating bold visions and engaging in disruptive forms of collective action. In recent years, I’ve been energized by Idle No More, anti-prison organizing, the radical wing of the climate justice movement, direct action migrant justice organizing, bottom-up labor militancy, and the 2012 Quebec student strike. In these examples, I see a lot of messy experimentation, action, and discussion, which is exactly what I think we need.
I also get a lot of hope from people’s everyday activities to survive and thrive in the face of exploitation, oppression, and violence. Whether migrants making their ways across borders without state permission, low-paid workers stealing from their employers, or (mostly) women sharing care-giving responsibilities for children in their neighborhoods, people are constantly working out innovative ways to get around the systems that rule our lives. I’m convinced that any successful large-scale revolutionary efforts will have to tap into these everyday activities.
What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?
I want to be clear about this: the most significant obstacle to social justice is the set of interlinked systems of domination – colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and ableism – that are generating misery and destruction in lives and ecosystems across the planet. Together, these systems serve to enrich a small layer of incredibly wealthy people while keeping the vast majority of us divided and demobilized.
In addition to this main obstacle, there are also obstacles with which we have to contend in our movements. I’ll mention three here briefly. One is the tendency for movement spaces, usually unconsciously, to replicate oppressive values, structures, and practices from the society in which we live. A second obstacle is the widespread habit of crisis-mode organizing – continually mobilizing in response to emergencies in such a way that creating longer-term vision and strategy becomes very difficult. And third obstacle is the story we often tell ourselves about being “the righteous few” – forever embattled and marginal, courageously and necessarily apart from broader layers of people.
In highlighting these three obstacles, I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly new. But I do strongly believe that we have to grapple with these and other ways that we undermine our own efforts.
What books would you recommend people look at for social change and why?
I feel like we’re living in a time of so much good writing related to social change! There are two types of books that I especially recommend. One is social movement histories. These are books that help us understand past efforts and offer us grounded lessons for current work. For some great examples, check out Reluctant Reformers by Robert Allen and Pamela Allen; Oppose and Propose! by Andrew Cornell; Freedom Dreams by Robin Kelley; Gender and Sexuality by Scott Neigh; Poor People’s Movements by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward; Freedom is an Endless Meeting by Francesca Polletta; Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy; and A Promise and a Way of Life by Becky Thompson.
I also recommend reading books, especially manuals, about social and ecological justice organizing. These kinds of books help us to reflect on how we do what we do and how we can do it better. Some real gems include Organize! Building from the Local for Global Justice edited by Aziz Choudry, Jill Hanley, and Eric Shragge; Resource Manual for a Living Revolution by Virginia Coover, Ellen Deacon, Charles Esser, and Christopher Moore; Organizing Cools the Planet by Hilary Moore and Joshua Kahn Russell; Instead of Prisons by the Prison Research Education Project; The Troublemaker’s Handbook 2 edited by Jane Slaughter; The Empowerment Manual by Starhawk; and Uses of a Whirlwind edited by Team Colors Collective.
Would you tell us about your work with the Institute for Anarchist Studies?
Sure! I’m a member of the collective that runs the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS). The IAS is an eighteen-year-old organization that annually gives out grants to support radical writers and translators. To date, we’ve funded more than one hundred projects by people all over the world. In addition, we have two main publishing initiatives. In collaboration with AK Press and Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, we publish the Anarchist Interventions book series. There are six books so far, the most recent of which is Harsha Walia’s Undoing Border Imperialism. We also publish the journal Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, usually once per year. Each issue is organized around a theme such as “care” or “movement.” As well, we periodically organize educational events, includingtracks at conferences, panels, and onetime talks.
With all of this work, our goal is to help build extra-academic intellectual infrastructure for the anti-authoritarian left. We aim to direct our support primarily toward those who don’t have access to university resources and whose intellectual work is grounded in movements. To do this, we rely on regular contributions from a lot of people. If you’d like to help, please go to the support page on our website.