Is Revolution the Point?

You know that phrase, life is about the journey, not the destination?

Is the same true for community organizing?

I think that a lot of us who get into community organizing get up in the vision of revolution– creating a movement that makes the world a more peaceful, equitable, justice-filled place to live. And that’s why a lot of people leave community organizing, too. Even after a few short years, the work starts to feel like work. It’s a grind with long hours, low (if any) pay, and often, very few results. The dream of bringing the justice-for-all revolution, or raising up the generation that brings it seems a more distant dream than most.

How many of us have a journey that can sustain us through the difficult work?

It’s a very real possibility that we will never reach that goal. Is the journey good enough?

Lessons Learned from the Hunger Games

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins is a cross between “Ender’s Game” and “Twilight”. A strong, independent teenage girl lives in an oppressive, post-apocalyptic earth. She ends up as a contestant in the Hunger Games, a yearly battle royale in which the Capital forces young people from it’s subjugated outer districts to kill each other. It’s graphic, exciting stuff.

What starts as a personal struggle to save her family turns into an all out, continent encompassing civil war. Without too many spoilers, I want to talk about the revolutionary, down-with-the-system part of the book. Specifically, a phrase from the second book, “When you’re in the arena, remember who the enemy is”.

The end goal of all organizing is to create a healthier, more just world for our communities and future generations. This is simple, but all the stuff in the middle gets pretty sticky– campaigns turn into personal vendettas, differences of opinion and disagreements of strategy become political fiascos within communities. Miscommunications become interracial tensions, then violence. As we try to survive, we end up fighting with ourselves and each other, and alienating people who should be allies. Because we lose track of the enemy.

The enemy is never a person, or even a group of people. The enemy is a system of oppression that forms whenever people try to consolidate power for themselves. Does that sound complicated? Remember, Katniss tried to make one person her enemy. And as bad as he was, replacing him with someone else wasn’t the answer.

Still confused? Don’t wait for the movie. Go read the book!

Magic Methods for Nonmagic Peoples

Learning happens everywhere, so why not from Harry Potter? New Organizing.com has a nicely written, well thought out top ten list for strategies we can all learn from Harry Potter. Number seven says:

Respect the oddballs.

When I was in 7th grade, there was a really nerdy boy and we called him Neville, which was nothing less than high-brow bullying. Neville Longbottom was on the receiving end of an onslaught of condescension and low expectations not only by the Slytherins but often from his own family and house. Anyone who has read the last book knows that while Harry, Hermione, and Ron are chasing horcruxes, Neville was anchoring the grassroots resistance back at Hogwarts (and anyone who has seen the last movie knows that the nerdy actor who plays Neville kind of turned into a hottie).

 

Being kind and respectful to people I don’t like (oddball, too similar to me, not enough like me, so cool it’s threatening, etc.) is so difficult, but it’s the right thing to do, as an organizing tactic and otherwise.

Purpose and Tactics

Tactics that had a big impact in the past (massive public demonstrations, boycotts, petitions, etc.) tend to come back over and over again. But as we’ve seen with the Tea Party Movement, tactics have very little connection to ideologies. I read this article on Newsweek.com. The gist of it is– a man owns a large stake of Coca Cola. His adult son is wanted as a murder suspect, but he fled the country and couldn’t get extradited. After a series of other tactics that got no results, a group organized a boycott of the organization of Coca Cola products.

 

The goal of the group is to pressure someone into extraditing the murder suspect. Ostensibly, by boycotting Coke, the father’s income would be reduced so badly that he would pressure his son into turning himself in. Given the degrees of separation, a lot of things have to go right for that tactic to be successful. First, enough people need to join the tactic in order to make a significant dent in the profits of a multi-billion dollar, global corporation. Second, the man needs to have enough invested in the company and not other places that his income is significantly hurt. Couldn’t he just sell his portion of the company? Third, he and his son need to have the kind of relationship that the son would turn himself in if the father’s income is hurt.

 

As an ideological gesture, I don’t think it’s the most effective either, again, because of the degrees of separation. I don’t support murderer, or murderers escaping justice, or corporations not being held accountable for their actions, but I don’t like sloppy organizing tactics either.

Finding A Voice

It’s always at least a little bit awkward, if not downright difficult, to be the odd one out– a non-Christian among Christians, a man among women, an Asian among non-Asians, and vice versa for all those situations. Factor in not just differences, but also power dynamics, and having real conversations between unlike people can feel impossible.

 

Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of an infomercial? Because we’ve got a product for you!

 

I think a lot of the problem in conversations between unlike individuals comes from bad expectations. The lone representative from a given group is either ignored or asked to speak with authority for the entire group. Instead, we should strive to make people feel respected but not representative. It means, for instance, if I, as a mixed-race Asian American, were in a meeting full of Chicanos, my voice would be heard and given weight, but my opinion and experiences would not be applied to all Asian Americans.

 

Someone should pay me to think of catch phrases like this.

Looking for a Fight

As I scanned through Asian American blogs this morning, I came across a picture of a mini-dressed, middle-aged white woman surrounded by a gaggle of young, undressed multicultural men. I would repost the picture here, but after careful consideration, the source isn’t worth giving publicity to. You know those pictures and headlines that purposefully make themselves so ridiculous that people repost it? That’s what this was, and I refuse to give them the satisfaction or the extra attention.

 

My boss caught me on this scantily clad section of the blogosphere, so naturally, I tried to play it off like I like good looking men. And naturally, it didn’t work because my boss knows what I like more than pretty pictures. Getting angry. I, like many other bloggers, like prowling the internet looking for things to be angry about.

 

If I was trying to make myself look good, I would call it proactive critical thinking. I would say “There’s so much messed up stuff out there! I’m just trying to make sure that nobody gets a free pass! If something is problematic in terms of race or gender or class dynamics, the world needs my insightful analysis!”

 

While it’s true that nobody should get away with racism/heterosexism/religious intolerance, and while I do like to imagine that my commentary is genius, I’ve got another theory I’m working on– that sometimes its better to just let things quietly die away. Some people just want attention and when I go looking for fights, they get it right away. Things get blown out of proportion. And then it’s easy to lose track of what’s really important.

 

Some fights need more attention than others. I was at UC Berkeley when a group of people climbed into some trees to stop the school from cutting them down. I like trees, but really? The school spent over a million dollars trying to get the protestors down. It went on for months. It made national television! And meanwhile, tuition and fees increased astronomically. The student senate discussed divestment from Israel. Local restaurants were pushed off campus to make way for fast food chains. And the percentage of students of color admitted to the University continued to drop, while the average family income of new students continued to rise. I like trees, but people are a more pressing priority, and I think that the other issues on campus deserved more attention.

 

We can go looking for fights, and we should pursue our differing passions. But some fights deserve more attention than others.

The Great Dilemma

It’s a fact that there are unmet needs in a lot of communities. Equal access to affordable housing, education, health care, nutritious food, encouragement to be creative, etc. It’s also a fact that as nonprofits, we work really, really hard to put together programming that sometimes, no one shows up for. We want programming that fills the unmet needs in our communities.

 

There are two possibilities for this dilemma– either our programming is good and our publicity needs work, or our programming isn’t really meeting the needs of our communities.

 

The solution, of course, is more complicated than identifying the possible causes and finding a fix. The reality is that some services are used, to the point of capacity, and are fabulous. And some services do need better publicity and for these, we need to think about how evolving technology, the digital divide, communication networks, etc. need to be navigated. And some services are really just not useful, or take more money than they should.

 

No answers here, just thoughts. Publicity is hard. I hate when events spam my email and Facebook message me all the time. It makes me more aware of the events, but it doesn’t really make me want to go more. I want to go to events that already seem popular, and where I know at least one other person, and generally seem well planned, and on a topic I’m interested in. I think personal encouragement is the best form of outreach, but it’s limited. Still, if we provide flyers and get other people interested, it’s my belief that people will spread the word.