A Conversation on Organizing Models for Social Justice Struggles in the City

A Conversation on Organizing Models for Social Justice Struggles in the City

Take Back the Land

Betty Robinson started the discussion off with some very important questions:

How do we create, build, and nurture organizations that can be in the forefront of our new social justice movement ?  

How do such organizations build capacity and leadership?

What does their strategic thinking look like?

Organizing from below: Getting people involved, building leadership

Betty Robinson: My sense is that we don’t just need one type of organization, we need many. But most of them need to be where the people affected by the crisis are in the leadership and moving the agenda forward.

Steve Meachem: We certainly have been involved in struggles and with organizations trying to recruit people who are sympathetic to a struggle – to recruit people who are morally opposed to gentrification, to recruit people who don’t like the foreclosure crisis – but we certainly emphasize recruiting the people directly effected by the crisis – the folks who are getting the rent increases, the folks who are getting foreclosed on, the folks who are getting evicted after foreclosure.

We want to decentralize decision making as much as possible to those directly effected by the struggle. So we organize tenants’ associations all around the city of Boston – in an average year we have maybe 150 meetings of tenants’ associations across the city – and all of those meetings are making the decisions about their struggle. We are there to give advice, we are there to provide political perspective, we are there to link that struggle to other struggles, but when it comes down to whether or not you're going to pay that rent increase or not, how long you are willing to fight, when you want to give up, when you want to push forward, all those decisions have to be made by those people directly effected.

Greg Rosenthal: The mission of United Workers is to build a movement to end poverty.  There’s a reason you see Harriet Tubman on all our posters – Harriet Tubman was a leader in the movement to end slavery. We’re building leadership to end another form of slavery, which is poverty. Within that, we have a focal point campaign, which is how we build leadership, how we build political power and bring resources and allies into the work that we do.  So we started out with the day laborers at the baseball stadium, Camden Yards, and the process was organizers just going in and meeting workers.  We organize through home visits. We meet people at their workplace, and then go to their home and go through a process of what we call ‘reflective action’ which is our form of human rights education.  You understand that this one conversation, it could be someone who is the next leader of this movement – anyone could be a leader.

We had a victory at the stadium – we won living wages after a three and a half year campaign.  It was a really concrete win – workers going from $4.50 an hour as day laborers to having direct employment and making $11.30 an hour.  Everywhere along the way, people said, you’re not going to do it.  But workers said, no, this is our lives, poverty can end, and we’re going to be a part of a process that does this.  It’s not just a process of changing your workplace. This is the difference between transformative values and transactional values, having the understanding that it’s not just about me, and whether or not I’m going to get a wage increase if I participate in this organization. That’s not what it’s about. A wage increase is something needed to survive, and of course that’s really important. But the transformative value is believing that every person should have human dignity, should be able to live with dignity and basic human rights. And realizing that that’s the process that I want to be a part of. Not because I pay a union due, and so therefore you’re going to help me out. That’s transactional – and if that kind of approach, the kind of approach unions use, worked, things would be different. Things would be getting better. It’s not working.  The greatest victory of the stadium campaign wasn’t the wage increase, it was that there was 30 committed leaders in this movement who came out of the campaign, and are moving on with the understanding they’ve gained to new campaigns, like the one we’re working on in the Inner Harbor.

Veronica Dorsey:  We know that every low wage worker isn’t at the same place.  So we like to meet people where they are.  There are a number of different projects we have going on simultaneously, and wherever the people are at the time in their lives, is the project that the staff helps them to get into to develop the skills that they already have, and once they develop them and they gain more self-esteem, then they’ll ask questions, like we did this, what they can do next.  We have retreats, where we sit down and discuss our strategies, the problems at the work site so we know what to do next, they allow us to broaden our own horizons, they allow us to come up with our own solutions, because we got tired of band-aid solutions people were giving us, because every time we went to the medic and got a band-aid, the next day that band-aid was dirty and we had to go right back to the same medic for the same kind of band-aid: we got tired of that. So United Workers helped us stop using band-aid solutions, and use our own brains and come up with our own solutions.

Jean Rice: We believe in participatory democracy at Picture the Homeless. We are led and directed by homeless New Yorkers. We believe in participatory democracy and transparency in government. Until that fails, we’re not going to sign on to any centralized form.

Rob Robinson: We don’t have a hard time building membership because a lot of folks are angry.  They’re angry because you’re keeping me in a shelter every night. They’re angry because you won’t give me a rent subsidy that will give me permanent housing.  You give me a rent subsidy that has no sustainable waged job training attached to it, and I wind up in the shelter system again because after the year when that subsidy is over I have no where to turn.   

Our mayor in New York has an ambitious plan that in 5 years he’s going to end homelessness, but we find that his numbers decrease by small percentages and when he started that plan almost 5 years ago – this June will be 5 years – there were 38,000 people in the shelters, if we were to take a look at that number today, I guarantee it’s 35,000 in the shelters. So his system is failing miserably; we recruit membership based on that position. Folks are angry. We go to soup kitchens to do outreach. Folks are standing in line, they can’t afford to get a meal. We do a soup kitchen called Holy Apostle in New York City which is probably one of the largest groups of homeless people who get together on a daily basis. There are some 1600 meals served at this particular soup kitchen on a daily basis so it’s pretty easy for us to find homeless people that are angry. You stand there, you start to have some conversations; before you know it, you’re recruiting new members.

We retain membership and recruit membership by a combination of things. We have regularly scheduled meetings. We do this because it’s difficult for members who don’t have phones, who don’t have a permanent place to stay, to be contacted. So the one thing they know is that that meeting will be there, and if they’re hungry there will be meals supplied for them there, they’ll have metro cards, transportation.

Our membership is involved in the decision-making process. We’re a membership organization, all the members decide on the issues we vote on.  The staff is there to support, to show a way how, and create processes. We select issues to work on basically by talking to homeless people, and we do that outreach. “What are you angry about?” “What bothers you  the most?”

Max Rameau: Something we don’t talk about enough as organizer types: because of material conditions and particularly now, exaggerated with the rise of the ‘501c3 industrial complex’ there’s a growing split between organizers and the masses.  Right now we have a professional class of political organizers and it makes it very difficult for grassroots groups, native grassroots groups, to rise and compete in a real way with professional grassroots organizers who are trained in college, and who have particular political ideologies and are clearer on certain things because they have access to study those things. So there’s times, as organizers, when we’re thinking about the movement going in one direction or going at a particular speed or rate, and the masses aren’t keeping up.  But there’s other times when the masses are far surpassing us.  In 1992, after the not guilty verdict in the case of the police officers who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles, the people – without any planning, without any organizers getting there and saying let’s have a meeting, let’s discuss this – got up, rose together, and burned the city down.  Without any level of organizing or planning, they took action on what they saw was an issue which directly impacted their interests.  Organizers were not prepared for that, organizers were not leading that, and organizers were struggling to catch up to the people.

Taking on the system: What kind of politics?

Max Rameau:  Material conditions need to be taken into account in choosing organizing tactics: the fact there was this so-called housing boom which turned out to be a big bubble and a bust, and the level of gentrification in our community changed things.   We could not have gone, say, five or six years ago, and tried to take over vacant houses, even though that’s a great and exciting campaign – it’s a great and exciting campaign that can only work when the conditions were right.  You can’t force a really cool idea into inappropriate conditions; the campaign not only has to be right, but right for the conditions that exist. 

Given these material conditions, Take Back the Land tries to think about power in terms of how a community develops its own power rather than how the community holds power in relation to elected officials or other people.  We don’t think about power in the sense of how to meet with elected officials or get elected officials to concede to certain demands. We think about the capacity of our community, and how we can maximize and then expand that capacity? So we don’t think in terms of what we can get “them” to do for us; we think in what terms we can do for us.  What we could do was take over a plot of land and build the city that we could run ourselves and we were in fact able to do that .  We never thought about, never wanted to, turn that into demands from the system or demands from the city or developers.   

Rob Robinson: I’ve been struggling with Max’s refusal to deal with elected officials. In the work we do with Picture the Homeless, we have to constantly confront elected officials. And a lot of our work is adversarial with elected officials, because as Max so eloquently put it, they’re the ones who got you in the positions you’re in. His reasoning for not wanting to deal with it, I love it – I think it’s great, but unfortunately we have to deal with them – and we have to deal with them sometimes at a pretty high level. With homelessness in NYC, its shelter system has become a quasi-industry. The department of homeless services which runs homelessness in NYC has a budget of $750 million a year.  This is to keep people temporarily housed – it makes absolutely no sense. And so often our work is directed at them. 

Steve Meachem: I would describe City Life’s role as that of an organizing collective – we don’t simply staff tenants’ associations, we bring our organizing philosophy and our politics into it.  There’s this debate among organizers about whether an organizer should bring his or her politics into the work; we don’t think that’s the right question.  We think an organizer always brings their politics into their work, it’s just a question of what politics it is.  When City Life goes to a meeting of people being affected by rent increases or foreclosures, our political perspective which we lay out at the beginning creates the moral space that allows certain options to be chosen that weren’t even on the table before.

These new options help in linking individual struggles to the big picture.  It’s certainly true in our experience that individuals’ defensive action on a really local scale can have offensive system-challenging consequences depending on how they are conducted.  To give an example: when we’re doing an eviction blockade of families in buildings that have been foreclosed on, these are defensive struggles to save the home of an individual or a couple of families.  And they’re powerful in part because the personal story of that individual or those families is on the table juxtaposed against the interests of the bank.  But beyond that, the blockade has system challenging properties – first, we’re taking a clearly collective response to those individual struggles – it’s not that one person or one family plus a lawyer, it’s that person or family plus a whole lot of other tenants who are willing to defend them.  Second, it challenges the system because people are taking direct action; they’re not simply going through legal channels, but are going outside of legal channels to defend an individual or a family’s home, and insisting on their moral right to take those actions. And finally, it’s a challenge to the system because when we bring publicity to these struggles, we’re pointing out the contradiction between banks getting giant bailouts and this person who is simply willing to pay rent or buy the building back at a real value and instead is going to be evicted from their home. 

You can listen to the whole conversation from which these excerpts were taken online at: http://cityfrombelow.org/content/session-audio-organizing-models-social-...