Anarres Project Interview

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 ascare” 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.

Another Politics is out!

Some good news: Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements, the book that I have been working on for the past several years, is out from the University of California Press! You can look for Another Politics at your local independent bookstore or order it through the UC Press website. I invite you to get a copy, read it, share it, and, if you appreciate it, “like” it on Facebook and/or write a customer review on Amazon.com.

Over the coming year, I’ll be touring with this book on the U.S./Canadian West Coast (in October/November), across the Canadian context (in the winter), on the U.S. East Coast (in the spring), and in other regions as well. My aim is to use book events to lift up inspiring and effective organizing work that is happening all over North America, and to help catalyze discussions to strengthen our movements. I hope to see you during my travels! And in the meantime, I welcome your feedback on the book!

Media for Movement Self-Reflection

In fall 2012, I was asked to speak at a Media Democracy conference in Ottawa. At first, I wasn’t sure what I could contribute. While I’ve had a long-time appreciation for activist media, I’d never actually considered myself a media maker. This is interesting, considering my work with Left Turn magazine (RIP), Upping the Anti, and publishing projects of the Institute for Anarchist Studies.

On reflection, I realized I’ve been involved with very specific kind of media-making, what I think of it as media for movement self-reflection. By this, I mean media that help us, as activists, to discuss collectively what we’re doing, what we want to achieve, what challenges we’re facing, and how we can strengthen our efforts.

My investment in creating and sustaining media for movement self-reflection is pretty simple. Based on my understanding of social movement histories, I’m convinced that successful movements require lively, serious, and widely-used media to facilitate self-reflection – to discuss strategy and vision, and to catalyze new forms of action.

The big question for me is: What forms of media for movement self-reflection can we develop that are adequate to this moment and to our movements? I honestly don’t know the answer. But growing out of my experiences, I have some ideas about what features media for movement self-reflection should have. I’ll mention three here.

1. Build radical intellectual culture

Have you ever looked at an academic journal or book? Across disciplines, they tend to be fairly consistent in form: specialized vocabulary, agonistic argumentative style, ample citations, and prominently displayed author credentials. This form communicates that only a select, “in the know” few can participate.

In the absence of a vibrant and broad-based left today, these sorts of academic conventions have unfortunately come to stand in for genuine radical intellectual culture, even in a lot of activist media. They make it seem like the only way to discuss ideas is to speak and write like an academic.

But our movements need a much wider and more deeply engaged intellectual culture – a culture that invites and welcomes people rather than telling them that they’re stupid and not part of the club. One important task, then, for movement media is to generate positive collective spaces for people to develop ideas and discuss them. As part of this, it’s particularly crucial to facilitate contributions from those who are conventionally excluded from officially-recognized intellectual culture through systems of ableism, hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism.

To be clear, I’m not calling for banning big words and abstract discussions, or being less rigorous. But I do believe that building sophisticated radical intellectual culture requires intentional and sustained movement educational work, such as writing workshops, critical literacy programs, and study groups.

One small example of this is the simple and straightforward writing suggestions featured in every issue of The Abolitionist. Also, check out the detailed study groups guide recently developed by Mamos of the Black Orchid Collective in Seattle.

2. Bridge conversations and movement sectors

Have you participated in a comment thread on Facebook in which you’ve offered your opinion about an activist effort? That’s a kind of movement self-reflection that many of us do regularly. The tragedy is that Facebook keeps us separated into friend silos that limit our discussions and reflective capacities. So, while there is a tremendous amount of reflective work happening on Facebook, most of it isn’t connected very widely or playing the catalyzing role that it could. In various ways, this manifests in other forms of web-based media and in print publications too.

To build broad and smart movements, we need media that help us climb out of our silos and engage with other sectors. In part, this involves bringing together contributions coming from different political perspectives and movement experiences. The point is to facilitate conversations that can enable new kinds of alliances and strategies.

Left Turn magazine, over its more than ten-year life, offered one good example of this kind of cross-movement media effort. Online, Organizing Upgrade has pointed in this direction as well.

3. Grapple with difficult questions in ways that open up possibilities

There are two common forms of how we, as activists, tend to write or talk about movement efforts. One is cheerleading, highlighting how totally amazing an initiative is, and the other is tearing down, emphasizing how completely messed up something is. What’s more rare – but what I think we desperately need – is a third form: grappling with situations in which things aren’t 100% awesome or horrible. This means embracing complexity and acknowledging that we can constantly learn from what we’re doing.

For this, we need movement media that aren’t about cheerleading or tearing down, but instead push us to discuss difficult questions: What mistakes have we made? What limitations do our efforts currently have? What have we actually achieved? What should we do differently next time? The point in grappling with these kinds of questions is to learn lessons and improve our efforts, understanding that everything we do is an experiment worthy of evaluation.

Organized well, roundtables featuring several activists reflecting on their work can dig into difficult questions and distill lessons. Many of the roundtables featured in Upping the Anti have succeeded at this. The “Waves of Resistance” roundtable in Harsha Walia’s book Undoing Border Imperialism offers another great example, as does the roundtable on working-class power in last November’s issue of Briarpatch magazine.

How do you think about media for movement self-reflection? What features do you think are important? What examples do you learn from?

Evaluating Success

Earlier this month in Ottawa, I helped to organize an event called “We Win Every Day” with longtime organizer and writer Chris Crass as part of his speaking tour through Quebec and Ontario. This event opened up some great discussions about victories that local organizations have achieved in recent years (check out some lovely posters generated from these victory stories here). Afterward, many people present talked about how unusual it is to acknowledge victories in this intentional way.

My experience at the event definitely got me thinking about how to bring a regular practice of celebrating victories into my work. More generally, it also provoked me to think about how we, as activists and organizers, tend to evaluate success, individually and collectively, in our political efforts. On reflection, I don’t think we do this so well.

For one thing, we often don’t stop for even a basic evaluation before moving on to another activity. Here, I’m thinking of a collective discussion about what we hoped to achieve, what we did achieve, what was challenging, and what we can learn from our experiences. Even when we do evaluate our efforts, though, it’s tempting to gauge the effectiveness of our activities with metrics that are easy to see but actually not very useful:

  • Frenzy and exhaustion: Perhaps the most readily available mode of evaluation we have for judging our success is how busy we are. Indeed, many activist communities have elaborate status hierarchies based on who is able to take on the most responsibilities, sleep the least, and appear the most stressed. The problem here is that doing more doesn’t necessarily mean that we are getting any closer to achieving our goals. Sometimes it does, for sure. But other times, it just means that we’re succeeding in creating a small frenzied core of very stressed-out, exhausted activists.
  • Social recognition: Within relatively small and interconnected activist scenes, popularity can function as a powerful metric. The more other activists notice what we’re doing, the more we can feel that we’re succeeding in our efforts. Social media definitely amplifies this dynamic. And of course, there are many worthwhile initiatives that get a lot of attention among activists. However, gaining social recognition within activist scenes doesn’t necessarily translate into having relevance or impact beyond them. At worst, social recognition can prevent us from frankly evaluating the limitations of our efforts.
  • State repression: When the state pushes back against us with surveillance, arrests, or outright violence, it’s tempting to use this as evidence that we’re succeeding. In some cases, we are. The trouble is that this mode of evaluation mainly focuses on moments of confrontation rather than all of what we’re trying to build and achieve in the long-term. And perhaps more troubling, it gauges our success through state logics – with all of their internal contradictions – rather than through our self-determined goals and priorities.

So, what sorts of modes of evaluation can we develop that would be better? There are some wonderful initiatives that have developed helpful metrics, but here I just want to contribute some brief, general ideas to get us thinking. I offer them as five questions:

  1. How are our activities winning tangible gains that demonstrate the power of collective action by ordinary, non-activist people?
  2. How are our activities bringing more people together, creating new kinds of connections, and widening the circle of participation?
  3. How are our activities building new confidence and capacities in people, particularly those who are structurally excluded and oppressed in our society?
  4. How are our activities communicating a transformative vision, not just rhetorically but also through how they are organized and what they create?
  5. How are our activities laying the basis for future successful struggles, in terms of moving ruling institutions, shifting consciousness, and building movement infrastructure?

In my view, these kinds of questions begin to move us toward the more fine-tuned, self-determined evaluation routines that we need. What kinds of metrics do you use? How do you articulate them?

Sharing Movement History

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how we, as activists and organizers, can better work to recover, preserve, and share movement history. This concern partly comes out of my longtime interest in learning about stories of struggle left out of dominant history-telling in the U.S. and Canada. I’m fascinated by how activists in previous eras reckoned with their circumstances and tried to push beyond them, and how their efforts shaped the present in which we currently live.

Mostly, though, I’m committed to movement history because I think it’s so valuable for helping us to struggle more effectively right now. In the pace of movements and mobilizations, years can sometimes feel like decades and, with frequent activist turnover, we all too easily end up repeating similar mistakes and debates over and over again. Coming to know our history, I’m convinced, can help us to learn from our mistakes, build on our strengths, and have new discussions that propel us forward.

I don’t have any ready-made formulas to offer here. My sense is that building a significantly greater understanding of history – even history from the previous few decades – into our movements today is going to require a lot of work and a lot of experimentation. Some very good work along these lines happens in classrooms and through books and journals. In recent years, though, I’ve developed a particular appreciation for other kinds of movement history initiatives that, it seems to me, indicate useful directions for broadening this work.

For one, I have a special place in my heart for movement archives – physical spaces that collect activist materials and make them available for others to access. In the U.S. and Canada, the more long-lived movement archives tend to be housed in university libraries. Three good examples are the Anarchist Archive at the University of Victoria, the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, and the Tamiment Library at New York University. In the last several years, I have been heartened to encounter lively non-university-based movement archives, such as the Freedom Archives in San Francisco and Interference Archive in Brooklyn. In addition to making available a wealth of materials, both of those institutions run amazing community programming which is well worth checking out.

Meanwhile, the Internet has enabled a proliferation of digital movement archives. Those that I have encountered include the ACT UP Oral History Project, African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project, AIDS Activist History Project, Farm Workers in Washington State History Project, Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project, SLAM! Herstory Project, Socialist History Project, Sojourner Truth Organization Digital Archive, and WTO History Project. I especially appreciate how many of these online archives produce oral histories – in-depth interviews with activists – and make them widely accessible. There is so much to gain from reading and listening to people as they recount their organizing experiences in their own words.

In the last few years, I’ve also been heartened to see more experimental movement history projects with a strong orientation toward sharing knowledge across generations. Members of No One Is Illegal-Vancouver Coast Salish Territories have been conducting video interviews with movement elders in their city as part of a series called Inheriting Resistance: A Community History Project. Last fall, Solidarity Halifax held a community conference called A People’s History of Nova Scotia featuring stories of struggle from their region. And Aid & Abet has been running the San Francisco Bay Area Radical History Project, a series of public talks in radical spaces about local activist history from the 1980s to the present. Some of my favorite high-quality left radio programs and podcasts – such as Against the Grain, Black Sheep Radio, and Talking Radical Radio – also regularly feature people discussing movement history.

What kinds of institutions and projects for recovering, preserving, and sharing movement history have you encountered? How do you think we can build deeper knowledge of history into our movements today?

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!

Writing with Movements

Welcome! Thanks especially to the support of Angus Maguire, this website is now live and looking gorgeous. I’m excited to share it with you!

I want to kick things off here by saying a little something about the title of this site. “Writing with movements” is a phrase that I use in order to talk about written reflection as part of – and accountable to – transformative social movements.

My approach to writing with movements grows out of two kinds of experiences I’ve had as an activist who also spent some time in academia. The first comes out of my participation in movements, where I regularly see the promise of collective reflection and also experience how challenging it is to generate this in grounded and useful ways. Harsha Walia lays this out wonderfully in her new book Undoing Border Imperialism:

Movement building requires reflexivity. And yet it is rare to find open spaces of debate and discussion, outside of insular networks, where movement practices can be rigorously analyzed. I attribute this rarity to a variety of factors: the crisis-oriented nature of community organizing, skepticism about intellectualism stemming from a misplaced conflation with the elitism and inaccessibility of academic institutions, and our own personal fears and defensiveness about unsettling existing movement practices in which we are invested or implicated. Rather than shying away from debate and dialogue, transformative and effective movement organizing requires us to kindle a consciousness within the Left that fosters deliberate thought aimed at effectively challenging exploitation and oppression beyond ritualized “petition to workshop to rally” activism.

The lack of spaces for movement reflection that Walia identifies, as well as her analysis of why this occurs, strongly resonates with my experience. Coming out of this, I think the challenge is to intentionally develop spaces for collective reflection while also generating positive radical intellectual culture not circumscribed by academia, moving away from crisis-oriented organizing, and allowing for frank and compassionate conversations about our hopes and fears. I’m convinced that writing with movements can be a part of this.

The other experience that has shaped my approach to writing with movements comes out of my time in university contexts. When I went to graduate school, I was surprised to discover a whole world populated by left academics largely (but not completely or uniformly) disconnected from movements and day-to-day organizing work. This particularly struck me when I encountered the work of social scientists in the area of “social movement studies.” With some important exceptions, most of that work is astonishingly irrelevant to activists, even though many of those engaged in it are broadly sympathetic to the movements they study.

George Katsiaficas, in his classic book The Subversion of Politics, puts words to my experience:

Seldom in the world of theories of social movements, a world with hundreds of researchers (or perhaps a few thousand) employed full-time, does the idea of changing society get discussed. For most social researchers, social movements are not something they are part of, but merely an object of study. Some of their theories immobilize us, others make us less attuned to dimensions of our lives we know to be significant.

This tendency toward treating movements as objects of study, significantly removed from the goal of changing society, is something I’ve witnessed again and again in academic scholarship. It disappoints me every time. Against this tendency, the challenge I see is to develop a shared practice of reflection and writing not about or even for but with movements. I see writing with movements, at its best, as helping to document movement-generated knowledge, distill lessons, evaluate mistakes, develop liberatory vision, open up difficult questions, and strengthen collective struggles against ruling institutions and relations. That is the kind of writing that I try to support and do, and that is what motivates this blog.