Reflections on Social Justice Work for Young Activists in a Changing World

I first started working for nonprofit organizations, elected officials and labor unions when I was a teenager, continued to do social justice work throughout college, and have been working as a community organizer for a few years now since finishing school. I’ve worked for local and national organizations, for a small town city council member and a White House federal agency, done grassroots organizing in the ‘hood and research surrounded by economists in suits, knocked on countless doors, recruited and developed unforgettable leaders, been on national TV, gotten arrested, won some campaigns, lost some campaigns and some I’m still not sure if I won or lost. I’ve been given more opportunities than most people, more than I knew what to do with, and had incredible mentors who shared their wisdom and experience by teaching me lessons that I mostly ignored and learned the hard way later or still haven’t figured out yet.

When I first started doing this work, like so many others, I spent too much time contemplating the changes I thought were needed and how to advance myself into a position where I could be a decisionmaker and not enough time listening to what others in my community wanted and how they saw my role in a broader struggle. I spent too much time lost in my own head envisioning the policies and programs in my version of the perfect world, and not enough time figuring out the groundwork it takes to actually grind out victories inch by inch. I spent too much time concerned with winning the campaigns in front of me at all costs within the constraints of current political conditions, and not enough time thinking about how to build organizations and movements to shift the balance of power itself.

As I write this, another crop of student activists are graduating from school, with many trying to find their place outside the college bubble, working within movements for social change, and hopefully figuring out a way to get paid to do so. So I’m taking the opportunity right now to reflect on my own experience with social justice work, the lessons I was taught, and those I wish I had learned faster. For me, it boils down to three things: Think long. No fluff. Remember who you work for.

Think Long

Everything– and I mean everything– we do should be seen through the lens of how it contributes to shifting the fundamental imbalances of power that are at the root of everything we fight against. No campaign is more important than building an organization that can carry out and win more campaigns. No organization is more important than building a movement that can birth and grow more organizations. No movement is more important than building power among everyday people who can launch and sustain more movements.

It is a hollow victory when we win a policy change solely through the advocacy of a few highly educated policy or legal experts, and fail to build the power, skill, confidence and capacity of the directly affected community to determine their own destiny. It is a hollow victory when we win an electoral campaign by following nothing more than the conventional wisdom of what a viable candidate looks like, what a reliable voter looks like, or what a safe message looks like, and never shift the realm of possibility of who can be elected and how. It is a hollow victory when we build public support around our issues by echoing our opposition’s worldview, winning an opinion poll on today’s incremental step forward by marketing it as more reasonable than the alternative of more fundamental change, failing to make a sincere case for real social transformation according to our values. Any victory is inadequate if it doesn’t grow our strength to win future victories.

As young activists, we often want the immediate win, getting a candidate elected or a piece of legislation passed. These short-term victories are critical to delivering meaningful change in people’s lives and building momentum for long-term movements. But long-term power building means spending much of our time and energy on things that feel less rewarding. Things like writing grants and raising the money to sustain our organizations, like coaching a nervous fumbling community member to speak instead of speaking for them, like building coalitions that can be frustrating and unreliable, or hashing out improvements to staff structure and wrestling with your budget.

It doesn’t come naturally to us to think first and foremost about how to build the organizations we work for. We often think of organizations as vehicles we are steering towards whatever it is we want to accomplish—we use them to go where we want and maintain them only when they break down. But organizations are the infrastructure of social movements, the pipes and roads and rails and cables upon which everything else functions. We are accomplishing nothing in the long run if we are not constantly working to build effective, sustainable, accountable organizations of regular people empowered to change the conditions of their lives.

Because the harsh reality is that right now we are playing a game that is stacked against us. Unless we are slowly, steadily changing the game itself, our paltry scattered victories will never be enough. The even harsher reality is that someday we are all going to die. Every powerful politician, every brilliant intellectual, every visionary founder of an organization, has an expiration date. And too many leaders leave us having failed to sustain something larger than themselves, their life’s work fading when they do. But when we build a tool that can outlast its creator, that’s when our work really matters in the long run. To think long means not just asking the question “What can I win today?”, but asking the question “What can I build forever?”

No Fluff

It is not enough to spend our days organizing educational workshops about oppression attended by a handful of the same people, 90% of whom are already involved in social justice organizations. It is not enough to spend the majority of our mental and emotional capacity deep in critical theory, posting long open letters to everyone and everything we have grievances towards. It is not enough to spend our days attending conference after conference in an endless parade of events, living on a diet of catered food and speaker panels, in a world invisible and inaccessible to ordinary people. It is not enough to live in isolated self-sustaining cooperatives and remove ourselves from systems of power to keep our hands and consciences clean. Because choosing not to participate as individuals in systems of power that make us feel uncomfortable does nothing to change the fact that these systems of power continue to determine the day-to-day conditions of 99% of the population’s lives. We owe it to the people we work for to make tangible impact on a scale that is greater than that. We have more than just a responsibility to feel righteous and pure, we have a responsibility to win. We are here to be relevant to our people by delivering results that matter to them. We have an obligation to strip the vanity from our work, to be about more than our appearances as intellectually innovative and brilliantly radical. We need to deepen our understanding of power, and be deliberate, methodical, strategic and intentional about building real meaningful power among those who have been robbed of it.

Theoretical purity is a luxury of the marginal and the irrelevant. The truly powerful forces of greed and intolerance that bring pain into the lives of the people we love, rarely see us as a credible threat, too often they laugh at us, if they are even aware of our existence at all. At the end of the day, feeling good is a poor substitute for being effective.

Our generation of activists has brought some great things to the movement: a strong commitment to self-care and personal sustainability, a sharper awareness of the racism, homophobia, patriarchy and other forms of oppression that can exist even within our own movements, and an honest acknowledgement of the limitations of the structure and funding of our nonprofit organizations. But young organizers also need to channel the ruthless pragmatism and fierce discipline of an older generation– we may not face the same degree of violent suppression directed towards labor organizers of the 1930’s or civil rights organizers of the 1960’s, but that’s no excuse to allow our work to become feel-good and fluffy, insular and masturbatory, or lofty and theoretical. We cannot yoga our way out of systemic oppression and inequality. Scale matters. Tangibility matters. Immediacy matters. Our generation of activists needs to grow up and abandon the fluff, because the stakes are too high for our bullshit.

Remember Who You Work For

As much as we’d all like to fantasize otherwise, no one wants you to work on your own agenda for social change. Whether you like it or not, your work is part of a broader agenda set by people other than yourself. And that’s actually a good thing: a million arrogant visionaries, each with their own detailed utopian plan for social progress, would ultimately produce nothing. Those of us in the business of changing the world don’t get far without being team players. But we can go far in the wrong direction if we’re not careful whose team we play for. The nuances aren’t always visible at first glance, but at the end of the day, we are all pulled by invisible lines of accountability: Who signs your paycheck? Who gets a vote on what you do? Who are the constituents, the members, the core base of supporters you couldn’t function without? Don’t think of these lines of accountability as shackles. If our lines of accountability are our ties to our communities, rather than feeling like burdens, they can be the only thing keeping us grounded, honest, and effective.

In the public sphere, the world of politics and policymaking, there are very few truly evil people, who sit in dark rooms cackling and smoking cigars, who are actually driven by a fundamental desire to exploit the poor, destroy the earth, and oppress the vulnerable. But there are many people whose invisible lines of accountability to those with power and privilege are tighter and firmer than their accountability to those without.

All of us, good and bad and everything in between, must operate in an all-encompassing environment, where the political debate is overwhelmed by the voices of the wealthy, and policy priorities are driven by the needs of the powerful. This is the water in which we all swim, which has a powerful current that consistently pulls us in one direction. Without actively struggling to swim against that current at every moment, we allow ourselves to be swept up in it, sometimes not realizing until we have drifted far from where we started. As we all flounder and try to keep our heads above the surface, those lines of accountability are what anchor us. And when tough decisions need to be made in times of crisis, our actions and our priorities will depend on if we are firmly tethered to the people in the fishing village on shore or to the oil tanker drifting slowly in the deep water.

People in communities struggling with poverty, violence and pollution, with lack of health, education, and political voice, have become accustomed to watching the regular ebb and flow of consultants, academics, nonprofit professionals and other people in suits who think they know how to solve the community’s problems. They parachute in, answer to committees of distinguished experts far away, write long reports that no one from the community can read, disappear when their grants end, and ultimately are nowhere to be found when shit hits the fan. Many young idealists eager to make positive change encounter skeptics in the communities they work in and wonder “Why can’t these people see that I’m here to help them?” These people were here long before you came and expect to be here long after you leave. The trust of a community isn’t earned easily, you have to work for it daily, to prove to people that when push comes to shove, your work is truly accountable to them. Accountability is about always remembering, from the all-or-nothing moments of heated political conflict to the day-to-day mundane decision-making of negotiation and compromise, who you really work for.

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One comment

  1. Ian Fregosi

    Fantastic post. This whole thing really resonated with me, especially this paragraph:

    “Theoretical purity is a luxury of the marginal and the irrelevant. The truly powerful forces of greed and intolerance that bring pain into the lives of the people we love, rarely see us as a credible threat, too often they laugh at us, if they are even aware of our existence at all. At the end of the day, feeling good is a poor substitute for being effective.”

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