Movement-Building Outside Metropolis

Last week, at a solidarity rally with Elsipogtog on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, I was struck once again by how incredibly unique radical activism and organizing is in big cities. After living for five years in Sudbury, a small and largely working-class mining city in northern Ontario, I’m still stunned to go to activist events in Ottawa and see lots of people I’ve never encountered before. And this, I’ve come to realize, is just one of many unique aspects of metropolitan activism.

My time in Sudbury, along with earlier stints living in small cities and towns in Alaska and Oregon, has made me much more sensitive to the specificities of place for movement-building. Over the last several years, I’ve started to notice how much the ideas and models that circulate on the Left tend to assume metropolitan contexts, and how little attention radicals tend to devote to the world outside big cities, which includes suburbs, smaller cities, towns, reservations and reserves, and rural areas. This nearly exclusive focus on big cities, it seems to me, creates a bunch of problems for our movements in the U.S. and Canadian contexts. I’ll mention two here.

First, when we solely pay attention to big cities, we ignore the huge numbers of people who don’t live in urban centers. We don’t see how crucial they are for building powerful movements to transform our society. Significant sections of the Right don’t make the same mistake; they understand that people living in nonmetropolitan areas can be foundational participants in broad-based movements. Amy Dudley, a former organizer with the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) in Oregon, sums this up in an excellent interview in Towards Collective Liberation: “The Right has targeted rural white communities as their base and we must counter that.”

Second, when we focus only on major urban centers, we end up developing and using city-centric organizing models. For instance, we assume that people have regular access to the internet, can easily transport themselves to and from meetings, or are comfortable moving at the particular pace of big city life. Perhaps most significantly, we assume that we can rely on a geographically concentrated community of like-minded activists to make things happen. InA View from the Plains,” R. Spourgitis insightfully describes this:

There is something different going on in big cities, something in the way of an aggregate population with greater numbers of militants, radicals and the like-minded who can push already existing organizations, or build new ones more radically. Some form of leftist framework may be in place, such as a living history of political organizing from past struggles, community centers with a social justice purpose, sympathetic religious congregations, and so forth. These are potential spaces and resources where many come together in the form of liberal or radical community organizations or groups, and often it seems combinations thereof, even within one grouping or organization. As marginal and problematic as such spaces and projects may be, the degree to which they act as staging grounds and support networks for militants is perhaps overlooked. In my experiences in smaller areas, the severe lack of such a framework changes what is possible with a given project model, a model which may implicitly presuppose such supports.

These sorts of metropolitan assumptions mostly aren’t practical or realistic outside of big cities. As Scott Neigh has pointed out, they can be very limiting even in urban centers, where they put real limits on who feels welcome and able to participate in movement work and who gets noticed by self-identified radical groups.

It’s also important to mention that there is a crucial, if complicated, class dimension to what Dudley calls “the Left’s urban-centric tendency.” While cities are full of poor and working-class people, nonmetropolitan areas – especially rural areas but also increasingly suburbs – tend to be overwhelmingly poor and working-class. And the poverty in these areas often takes a very different shape than in big cities. We should bear in mind that class and geography are related even as we also understand that nonmetropolitan areas are by no means homogenous racially, culturally, or otherwise.

With these kinds of problems in mind, I’ve been trying to follow and learn from organizing work outside the metropoles. Just to mention a handful of examples, I’m encouraged by ROP’s work in Oregon, Indigenous land struggles linked through initiatives such as Defenders of the Land, the regional multi-racial queer organizing of Southerners on New Ground, the economic justice work of the Vermont Workers’ Center, and community-based fights against resource extraction and transportation happening all over North America right now. I’m also excited about efforts such as the Building Resistance Tour that Rising Tide – Vancouver Coast Salish Territories organized to learn from and support organizing in rural communities throughout British Columbia last spring. I suspect too that there is still much to learn from the recent experiences of the occupy movement outside the major cities.

What kinds of non-metropolitan movement-building efforts are you excited about? I want to know!

8 thoughts on “Movement-Building Outside Metropolis

  1. I love this so much! These are insights I’ve been reflecting on a lot since leaving the San Francisco Bay Area and living the past few years in Knoxville, Tennessee. While I’m in Louisville, Kentucky now, a large city, being in the South is a beautiful experience of thinking in new ways outside of the By Area and West Coast in general. Thanks for helping me think Chris Dixon.

  2. Thanks for these insightful reflections! I’ve been grappling with similar questions lately as well—trying to break out of the urban-centric perspective that I’ve been habituated to from organizing in Minneapolis for awhile, and to develop relationships across urban and rural struggles. Along the lines of your first point on the potential of rural peoples to participate in broad movements, one lens that I’m using to reflect on that potential is to think about the ways that the tensions from urban struggles can be displaced onto rural areas, like a kind of ‘safety valve.’ And then, those tensions are often dissipated there, partly due to the relatively lesser political power of rural communities. I’ll give two examples of this (and these aren’t just any examples but ones related to struggles that I’m engaged in and hoping to link together somehow):
    1) In struggles against the penal regime, although much of the criminalizing, policing, and judicial shit happens in cities, the siting of prisons is often in rural areas. These prisons are further away from the urban communities out of which many prisoners are stolen, isolating them and making it harder for their friends, family, and comrades to support their struggles. Also, rural communities around prisons often develop economic interests in those prisons, i.e., for jobs.

    2) In environmental justice struggles, many wastes from urban activities are disposed into rural areas—e.g., human sewage sludge applied on farm land, shit from pigs and cows in factory farms sprayed on fields, and chemicals from fracking for natural gas used to heat urban homes—all of which have horrible health effects on nearby rural residents, and which have been shown to be imposed on them in discriminatory, unjust, racist, anti-rural ways. If the full costs of these ‘negative externalities’ were taken into account for the value of the goods used by urban consumers who produce these wastes (‘flush it and forget it’ sewage treatment, meat, and natural gas), those goods would either become very expensive for consumers or the corporations and governments that profit off of them would have to cut into their profits. Yet, most consumers don’t even know about these harmful effects from the wastes of their consumption (and shitting) habits. They are distanced and shaded from these effects by many mechanisms (e.g., the psychological and physical bordering between rural/suburban/urban, commodity fetishism, the PR industry that frames sewage sludge as ‘biosolids recycling’ and natural gas as ‘clean energy,’ etc).

    How do we connect these seemingly separate struggles across urban-rural divides? How can we trace and highlight the relations between prisoners—people who are treated *as* the waste of ‘good, developing, educated society’—and rural communities who are treated *with* the waste of that same ‘society’? These questions about the relations between regimes of value and regimes of waste are ones I’m reflecting on lately. If you know of anyone else who is trying to connect these kinds of struggles as well or has written anything on these questions, I’d love to know.

  3. Thanks for sharing these reflections, Eli! Your description of this “safety valve” relationship – the ways that the tensions from urban struggles can be displaced onto rural areas – is really insightful, I think. I experienced it a lot while living in Sudbury especially, where it is so clear that the ecological devastation of 100 years of mining – and the tremendous health consequences for everyone in that region – are closely connected to urban consumption, and yet hidden from view of people living in the big cities.

    Your example of prisons in rural communities made me think about the Prison Moratorium Project, an organization that worked in the U.S. to support communities fighting prison construction projects. While I was writing this blog post, I actually quickly searched around the internet to try to determine whether it still exists. I think maybe not. I do know that Critical Resistance has continued to do some of this work in coalition with other groups. As you probably know, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s book Golden Gulag offers an excellent analysis of the dynamics in California driving prison construction in rural areas. I highly recommend it.

  4. Thanks for your helpful reply, Chris. I’ve been meaning to read Golden Gulag for awhile, and will now put it on the top of my ‘to read’ list. I’ll look into what happened with the Prison Moratorium Project. I’m connected with a group in Durham called the Inside/Outside Alliance (http://amplifyvoices.com/), so I’ll ask them if they know.

  5. Thanks Chris – and now I am waiting for further analysis and reflection from the movements you are following and learning from organizing work outside the metropoles. What are the ways you see people succeeding in connecting and organizing outside of larger centres?
    Another thought I had while reading this (and in other conversations) – and not isolated to smaller centres, I don’t think – is that people seem to have less time, and that this makes it challenging to spend the time to simply be together and talk about ideas and experiences for people to connect with each other and nourish each other. Trying to build that time into meetings and other activities becomes a burden because people simply don’t have that time to give. Yet, without it, it is difficult for solidarity to go beyond common goals.
    What are your thoughts on that?

    A final thought – having a scarcity of like-minded people to rely on is a challenge for movements in smaller centres. but it could also be a challenge in a positive sense if takes us out of the comfort of common politics and language to connect and work with others.

  6. Naomi, those are great thoughts and questions! I don’t have definitive answers, of course, but I’ll share a few thoughts that came to mind:

    (1) Like you, I’m waiting for further lessons from activists and organizations outside the big cities. One approach that I see a number of groups using for organizing in more rural contexts is building organizations that link people up who are geographically dispersed. ROP in Oregon, for instance, has connected up groups and individuals in small towns and rural areas all over the state. When I went to one of their workshops, I was excited to see that they invited people from a whole area rather than just one town. To me, this seemed like a good technique for working against the isolation that left-minded people in non-metropolitan areas can sometimes feel.

    (2) I agree with you that time is a huge issue. With people working more hours for less money, having less access to social assistance and childcare programs, and dealing with all sorts of hardships compounded by our current political-economic context, it’s always a wonder to me when people organize for justice and dignity. One thing I have noticed is that big city activism often has a frenetic pace – when’s the next action? when’s the next event? – that activists in smaller cities and sometimes more rural areas try to copy. Sometimes circumstances require that we sprint, but I also think it’s always worth asking whether we can go more slowly and take the time we need to build relationships in the deeper way you mention.

    (3) Again, I agree with you. Not having access to a geographic concentration of radicals can really help us, if we’re courageous and deliberate, to move out of our comfort zones and connect with broader layers of people. I first experienced this when I was growing up in Anchorage, actually. In much of my activism there, I had to learn how to talk with people who didn’t share my particular radical vocabulary – and who often came from extremely different political perspectives and backgrounds than me. I’m not saying that I figured out how to do this very effectively, but I appreciate how it helped me grow. I experienced this in Sudbury too. I’m convinced that moving out of our comfort zones like this is key for building the movements we need.

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