You notice it in the comments on some online article. A casual conversation with a neighbor. Your friend’s argument with their uncle on social media. You see the same words pop up again and again, the same stories: “Safe spaces” and “participation trophies” and “snowflakes”. The problem these days is everyone’s become so “coddled” and “entitled”.
In our world of filtered feeds, it’s getting harder to figure out what the other side is talking about– interpret their latest vocabularies and mythologies– talking points bouncing around an echo chamber you’re not quite part of.
Here’s what’s going on:
The political right sees the dangerous tide of the Millenial generation, the future of American culture, shifting unstoppably to the left. But they’ve got a playbook for times like these: Facing the whirlwind of social change led by young Baby Boomers in the 1960’s, Nixon’s strategists developed a counter-message that helped win a conservative era of government for decades. They spoke for the “Silent Majority”, the god-fearing, hard-working, patriotic, real Americans, isolating progressive youth culture as out of touch and dangerous, wild with drugs and sex and communism, an existential threat to American values.
Today the right is pushing a new set of talking points through their media echo chamber of AM talk radio, Fox News, and conservative sites like Breitbart, to build popular resentment and scorn towards young people.
Their message is this:
Brainwashed by college professors and celebrities and coddled by participation trophies, kids these days have become fragile little snowflakes whose feelings need to be constantly protected. To keep themselves safe from any ideas that might trigger them, they’ve tightened the clamps of political correctness on any free speech they find offensive. Thugs create carnage in the streets because police are afraid of being called racist, immigrants bleed us dry because we can’t say “illegal” anymore, men prey on little girls in the bathroom claiming they’re “transgender”, terrorists massacre innocent Americans because we’re too damn PC to say “radical Islam”. And then these whiny crybabies are so entitled they think the rest of us should pay for their sociology classes and birth control, because they don’t know what it’s like to put in a hard day’s work.
The right excels at making their political messages deeper, more subconscious, almost more cultural than explicitly political. You’ll hear lifelong Democrats repeating their buzzwords without realizing it, as if they organically thought them up on their own, perhaps even as observations about their own children, rather than echoes of talking points written by conservative communications strategists.
The 1960’s attacks on progressive youth culture described them as “radical”, “subversive”, “dangerous”, etc. But young people take pride in being called dangerous rebels. Calling their counter-culture radical pours fuel on their fire. Conservatives realized they had to reframe young activists as a threat to America due to their weakness rather than their strength. They’ve deliberately shifted towards labels like “coddled”, “entitled”, and “whiny”. Snowflakes: the young, diverse, and sensitive who think they’re all so special and unique. Fragile, handle with care! Don’t offend these kids or they’ll melt!
This also helps build a counter-counter-culture among young conservatives, who don’t have to feel like the dorky church camp kids anymore. Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer rebrand themselves as the bold, edgy, “alt-right” rebels, unwilling to conform to a youth culture that mindlessly celebrates diversity.
The “Snowflake” label even challenges diversity itself as an American value. Young people assert that they represent the future of America, in its beautiful mix of identities and experiences. But the new right messaging says that in the end, all those unique special snowflakes melt into the same grimy puddles, unable to withstand the slightest heat. Newsflash, kiddos: You’re not special. No one is.
Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces
The appropriation of “Trigger Warnings” and “Safe Spaces” is fascinating. These terms originated in lefty student culture, but were limited in use prior to the right-wing media assault against them. Try to remember: how many times have you actually seen a trigger warning or safe space in real life prior to the barrage of blogs and thinkpieces and TV commentators decrying them? Not only is the widespread use of trigger warnings and safe spaces a myth perpetuated by the right, but the use of these terms has been distorted from their original meanings.
“Triggered” comes from the field of trauma recovery. Trigger warnings might be given before showing a college class a video depicting rape. Since 1 in 4 college women experience sexual assault, more than a few in a lecture hall of hundreds could publicly relive their trauma in front of their peers. A warning lets them step outside or at least mentally prepare themselves. Trigger warnings are still rarely used even on college campuses, but have become central to right-wing mythology of why young people are coddled and unable to handle debate with opposing viewpoints. The term “triggered” has now evolved into a derisive sneer at people who show signs of being emotionally hurt or angered during debates around race or gender, topics rooted in traumatic life experiences to some, while only abstract intellectual play to others.
Similarly, “safe spaces” originally described rare places where queer people could feel safe from the ever-present danger of being harassed, assaulted, or even murdered for holding the wrong person’s hand or dressing the wrong way. It’s now become a buzzword meaning college campus bubbles where students avoid hearing right-wing perspectives, particularly ones perceived as racist, sexist, or homophobic.
These terms are now used far more often by conservatives to explain what’s wrong with kids these days than they ever were on college campuses to protect marginalized students or survivors of trauma. But the intended audience for these talking points was never college students themselves, so an accurate depiction of university life isn’t necessary. These myths have taken on a life of their own within a larger story.
Participation trophies are a critical piece of the new right narrative: they connect the right’s social message with its economic message. It’s the idea that Millenials grew up in the era where all kids in group activities like AYSO soccer leagues were given trophies, even the losers. So they’ve grown up unable to handle the harshness of the real world and entitled to being given rewards for no effort. Thus, not only are young people incapable of dealing with diverse opinions like “black people are thugs” or “Muslims are terrorists”, but they are also ill-equipped to face the realities of a free market economy where you have to work or die.
Somehow, this generation whose entire life has been in the rubble of a collapsed economy, left with only low-wage service jobs and saddled with exploding college tuition and crushing housing costs, are magically transformed into a generation of lazy entitled brats who had everything handed to them.
The right knows that young people who grew up in an era of horrific economic inequality simply don’t believe in the American Dream myth anymore. They fear a whole generation turning towards Bernie Sanders-style democratic socialism. The “participation trophy” story is a bullet aimed at the heart of the economic populism of American youth.
There is of course no real evidence that links accepting a participation trophy for being bad at sports when you’re 8 years old to future inability to succeed in a capitalist economy. Yet this narrative has become deeply embedded in the public’s conventional wisdom. That’s how effective messaging works.
Each of these buzzwords are attached to stories, narratives, mythologies that are evoked in the subconscious mind whenever they are uttered. Each repetition reinforces these myths as general truths about the way the world is, parroted over and over at dinner tables and break rooms, met with knowing grunts and sage nods.
Central to this new right message is the idea of progressive thought as “political correctness”, and political correctness as a violation of free speech. This allows the right to reframe maintaining white supremacy and misogyny as an issue of freedom.
The reactionary right can no longer say “all _____’s are lazy, stupid, violent, etc.” like in generations past. However, they can imply that maybe not all, but most or many are. Controversial, but not completely taboo. When those assertions are challenged, they respond that they are being oppressed by the denial of their free speech rights. Even worse, they say, not only is left-wing political correctness violating our freedoms and threatening American values, but it’s crippling us from tackling important problems like crime and terrorism because we are so wrapped up in not offending anybody! Thus the new right-wing talking points turn a defensive position, of being out of touch with an increasingly tolerant America, into an offensive one, where they are the champions of freedom and our very way of life.
This act of verbal jujitsu not only maintains overtly racist beliefs, but shuts down debate about them, by claiming disagreement is a violation of free speech.
Conservative: “Sure, of course not AALLLL Muslims are terrorists, but let’s be honest, whenever there’s a terrorist attack on TV it’s a Muslim. How come we can’t talk about that? We can’t even say who wants to kill us? What happened to free speech?”
Progressive: “But more Americans are killed every year in terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists than Muslim extremists. Groups like ISIS are to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. You can’t just slap that label on all Muslims. That’s racist!”
Conservative: “Now I’m a RACIST?? Oh I’m sorry did my opinion trigger you, snowflake? Do you need a safe space from all these offensive words? This PC crap is why ISIS is killing us.”
But the real intent of this message is to build popular resentment against the “woke” youth culture of the 21st century, with a few different audiences:
1) Provide talking points for older core conservatives. Shifting attention to the crazy kids these days allows men who grew up in the Jim Crow era to avoid the uncomfortable contradiction of their intolerant beliefs losing touch with an evolving society. They absorb these talking points and become their biggest promoters.
2) Make inroads with middle-aged and working-class moderates. They see themselves as tolerant people but sometimes clash with a youth culture that can be harsh towards those who don’t keep up with national conversations about race and gender playing out on social media and college campuses. Their frustration at feeling attacked for not knowing the right things to say can be manipulated to drive a wedge between them and progressive young people.
3) Tap into a new group of young people to replace their aging base. The alt-right targets disaffected young white males in online spaces like Reddit and 4chan to find new recruits who wouldn’t connect with older conservative messages like “family values”, but feel alienated by their peers, where progressive “wokeness” is social capital. Their resentment is ripe for recruitment and radicalization.
This message isn’t just spread through their old top-down channels like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity, or even newer voices like Tomi Lahren aimed at young people. It’s also disseminated through viral marketing tactics– intentionally provoking controversy and protest to circulate a message faster and wider.
This is Milo Yiannopolous’ whole thing. He goes to a progressive college campus to say horrible shit knowing protests will inevitably erupt, maybe preventing him from speaking in-person to a small handful of conservative students, but meanwhile exposing his ideas to millions of non-students as news of the controversy spreads first to the local area on TV and then virally on social media to a far wider audience.
But it’s one thing to see your opponents’ strategy, it’s another to know what to do about it. So what now?
We can’t just ignore these rapidly spreading messages and hope they go away. Refusing to feed the troll lurking under the bridge isn’t a winning strategy once the troll has climbed up to stand directly in your path, dragging its club along the cobblestones.
We also can’t reinforce our opposition’s frame by trapping ourselves in defensive arguments against it. Our message has to be more than “Hey, we’re not snowflakes!”
We have to lead with our own message. We need to tell our own story about the problems in our society and our own vision for how to solve them. We need to define who we are, what we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting for.
Above all, to contradict their message, we need to make our most visible battles about substance rather than language. We have to make undeniably visible the impacts of systemic inequality on the daily conditions of people’s lives.
This was never about being offended by words we disagree with. This is about the families torn apart by prison cells and deportations. This is about the poisoned air and water making children sick. This is about the grandmothers evicted from their homes. This is about the people toiling for poverty wages at dangerous jobs. It has always been about a system that puts corporate profits over the lives of human beings who are considered disposable because of who they are or where they’re from.
How could such savage inequality not offend us, not offend our very humanity? The real act of coddled entitlement is turning a blind eye to injustices that cause us discomfort. Instead, it is an act of radical bravery to dream of a better world and fight for it. It is nothing less than the most fundamental responsibility of every generation: to look with wide open eyes at the rights and wrongs of the world we inherited, and commit ourselves to building a better one for those who come after us.
I’ve held a quiet fear throughout the Bernie Sanders campaign. With every breathlessly excited conversation with friends who were feeling the Bern, the hope swelling in me was pulled back by that nagging fear. I was afraid of the growing hero worship of Bernie. I worried that when faced with disappointment, with loss and uncertainty and doubt, that a whole generation of young people would become disempowered, disillusioned, disheartened and disengaged. I was terrified that our generation would learn all the wrong lessons, learn that we were powerless in a dark and uncaring world. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. This generation is so powerful we’ve changed the political landscape in this country beyond what anyone could have imagined. But when we have so much love for our leaders, sometimes we come to forget that we are leaders too.
Bernie Sanders is Gandalf. He’s Obi Wan Kenobi. He’s Dumbledore. He’s an old man who’s seen some things, with the wisdom and integrity to guide a younger generation through a time of great moral crisis. He’s a grizzled sage with the courage to speak the truth to define right from wrong in the face of a rising darkness.
But in these stories, the wise old man isn’t the one who saves the world. Instead the world depends on the young heroes who only truly step into leadership once their mentor is lost.
Before then, they cling to the wise old man, hoping he can fight the war, hoping he can fix things. The elder knows this is not possible, and warns the heroes that he can’t do it for them. But they refuse to hear it. They’re afraid they don’t have what it takes, that the mounting forces of greed and hatred are too powerful. It’s only when the wise elder is gone (or at least seems to be) that the young heroes are faced with a choice. They can give up and accept the world as it will be without them, accept the world happening to them. Or they can happen to the world—they can alter the outcome of their own destiny and the destiny of everyone they love and the place they call home.
We know this story. We’ve grown up with it our entire lives. But somewhere along the way we forgot it. We forgot that we were always going to face this moment. The moment where the young feel lost, where their guide, their voice of wisdom who always seemed to know the right thing to say and do, is suddenly struck down, leaving us aimless and filled with doubt and fear.
Bernie Sanders was never going to be able to fight our battles for us. He told us this in every speech. He told us that the system we had to change was far more vast and complex than just who sits in the Oval Office of the White House. That he couldn’t change it alone, that it would take all of us.
The Bernie Sanders campaign has moved so many people, from those getting involved for the first time in their lives to lifelong activists who felt this time might be different. So many people are now experiencing a crushing wave of disillusionment wash over them, and it breaks my heart because we deserve better. We believe in a simple idea: that we deserve a political and economic system that actually works for the people, not the wealthy and powerful. And now we’re aware more than ever how far away that is.
But that day of disillusionment was always coming, sooner or later.
For many it came sooner, as we saw the Bernie campaign struggle to overcome the Clintons’ longer-established relationships built in communities of color, leading to steep losses among older Black Democrats in the South and older Latino Democrats in the Southwest, losing the national popular vote and leaving the campaign’s only hope of winning a half-cocked plan to overturn the vote of the people by somehow gaining the support of the superdelegates who had been stacked against Bernie from the beginning.
In another world, the disappointment might have come later. If Bernie won the presidency, like the dog that finally catches the car, we would likely have been left wondering what to do next. With no real groundwork laid or resources invested into electing allies to Congress, most of his agenda would have quickly ground to a halt.
Bernie knew all along that even if we elected him, he wouldn’t be able to solve everything through the sheer power of his words and integrity and justice. He told us over and over again that to end the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few it would take a revolutionary shift in our political landscape, the kind of tectonic shift that changes everything. That kind of change takes organizing people in the streets to create political pressure that can’t be ignored, getting the right people elected in every community across the country, and building grassroots organizations that can sustain that vision and hold them accountable.
If we are disillusioned now it’s because we were suffering from too many illusions to begin with. It was the inevitable result of this insane hero worship of Bernie that he never expected of us and never asked us for.
A movement is so much more than one person, one candidate. We often don’t realize that because we were taught bad history. We learned in school about social movements by reading about individual charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. or Cesar Chavez, but that’s not how it actually happens. It happens because millions of everyday people like you and me do little things in every corner of the country, and together our actions swell into an unstoppable tide.
Bernie Sanders didn’t start this movement and his defeat (yes–we can say it–defeat) sure as hell won’t end it.
There are people in this world who are just out there being themselves and somehow one day they end up in the right place at the right time, when the world needs someone like them. That’s Bernie. He’s been fighting greed and bigotry his whole life from his corner of the world in Vermont, and decided to run a campaign for president if only just to show that there was an alternative, to push Hillary Clinton, to force a real debate on inequality. No one predicted, including him, that our generation would put that campaign in the history books.
The media barely covered it as a joke, DC insiders rolled their eyes. Yet suddenly thousands of young people were showing up to his rallies, he was raising money to rival the super PACs through countless small donors from every part of the country, word was spreading through social media and he was rapidly climbing in the polls, running neck and neck with Clinton.
But Bernie didn’t start this. He wasn’t just some overnight success. Bernie tapped into something that had been bubbling for years since the financial crash. Perhaps we first glimpsed it in 2011, when tens of thousands of students and teachers and workers occupied the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin to protest Governor Walker, the first glimmer that the anti-austerity protests sweeping Europe in the aftermath of the financial meltdown might also have life here in the United States. Later that year it exploded into the Occupy Wall Street protests that rocked nearly every major city in the nation and completely shifted the political debate. Although the Occupy encampments dissolved, the huge shift in U.S. politics on the issue of economic inequality translated into real policy gains, most notably the dazzling string of victories raising the minimum wage in cities and states, at a scale that would have been unthinkable if not laughable just a couple years ago. Bill de Blasio being elected mayor of New York, Elizabeth Warren elected Senator from Massachusetts, these were waves in the same political tide.
So although no one inside the DC beltway thought it was possible, Bernie Fucking Sanders actually gave Hillary Fucking Clinton a run for her money she’ll never forget. Yeah, Bernie Sanders, that Jewish democratic socialist congressman from the middle of nowhere. And Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy seemed so completely inevitable that no serious candidate wanted to run against her. If you told any DC insider two years ago that Bernie Sanders would win half the states in the country over Clinton, they would have laughed in your face. And they’ll continue to laugh when we tell them that this movement is still burning, that it’s only going to continue to grow, that the young and restless are coming for them. But based on the accuracy of all their predictions lately, the political analysts on TV don’t know shit.
The vast majority of voters under the age of 40, in every demographic, in every region of the country, chose Sanders. Sanders won young people by an even more astronomical margin than Obama did in 2008. The ideas and values of social democracy won our generation, not some young charismatic candidate or some rebellion against the disaster of the Bush years. The ideas of universal healthcare and higher education, of reigning in Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry, of guaranteeing a living wage, of making the wealthy pay their fair share, of getting corporate money out of politics. Regardless of who wins in 2016, the future of American politics, of American history, is our generation.
The change we need won’t come on Election Day. It was never going to. It will only happen if we organize, at a much deeper level than a campaign for one presidential candidate.
The change we need will happen when we build organizations with lasting power, from the ground up, in communities across the country. We need to build grassroots organizations that have the capacity to mass mobilize voters like the Working Families Party in New York, or California Calls in California. We need a re-energized labor movement pushing bold initiatives like Fight for 15 or the Black Friday strikes at WalMart. We need Dreamers and Black Lives Matter activists marching in the streets. We need a better Democratic Party in every county, in every state, that’s accountable to us and not to corporate interests.
We need organizations willing to truly challenge corporate power and change the game. These organizations will look differently in different communities. Just as Bernie’s platform and message were honed to perfection over a lifetime of representing folks in rural New England, an organized force to address inequality in the Southwest must put the exploitation of immigrant workers front and center, in the South must confront the legacy of slavery and entrenched racial inequality, in the Midwest must work to rebuild communities devastated by globalization.
Here’s what the political revolution looks like for me: My community stretches up the Central Coast of California, where the agriculture and oil industries once dominated local politics, where developers are salivating over land to grab for cheap and sell for more, where demographic change from immigration has led to racial tension, but also the beginning of a progressive majority. Here, we’re fighting oil and gas companies to stop new drilling and power plants being built in our communities. We’re struggling with the agriculture industry to win better labor conditions for farmworkers and protections from toxic pesticides around our schools. We’re going head to head with real estate developers to keep our communities affordable for the working-class that’s lived here for generations.
So what can you do in your own community?
- Get involved in a local organization in your city, or start a new one, that will bring together regular working people to demand our local elected officials are accountable to us, not big corporations.
- Organize your coworkers to start a union and together have real bargaining power to demand better treatment, better wages and benefits, and a voice in the workplace.
- Organize the tenants in your apartment building to stop rent increases and evictions and force your landlord to repair the rundown building.
- Join other progressives to take charge of your county’s Democratic central committee and make sure your local party pushes for candidates willing to take on corporate interests to stand up for our people and our planet.
- Run for your city council or support a candidate who will fight landlords and developers for affordable housing and tenants’ rights, raise the minimum wage and pass laws raising standards for local workers, stop companies from building polluting projects or extracting fossil fuels in your community, shift the city’s budget from police to community services promoting health and education, and cap donations to local political campaigns to keep out big corporate money.
The political revolution in my community won’t look the same as the political revolution in yours. But wherever you are, whatever you do, bring people together into something that will last, challenge the people holding all the money who think they hold all the power, and win real victories that matter to real people.
You won’t have to do it alone. There are countless people just like you who believe in a better world. You just have to find them. Luckily, you might already know a few.
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.
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?”
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.
There are moments in history when time seems to move faster, turbulent eras when humanity lurches forward together. Like the shifting of tectonic plates beneath the ground we walk, change doesn’t happen smoothly, but rather builds pressure slowly until it abruptly ruptures in a sudden release of energy. The ancient mountains and calm valleys we see and take for granted as eternal fixtures of the landscape were products of devastating seismic events that moved continents.
The political, economic and cultural realities of the United States today are products of these social earthquakes, these movement times. Times when people marched and chanted in the streets, when powerful organizations were born, when leaders threatened and negotiated and hammered out deals that changed laws and institutions forever. In this country, waves of social change seem to break every three or four decades, with the years in between spent defending the victories won in those historic moments, while the next wave slowly swells beneath the surface.
Although the exact start and end date is unclear, it’s widely acknowledged that the last such time in the US was roughly from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s. The Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the Chicano Movement, the Second Wave of Feminism, the Anti-War Movement, the Environmental Movement and more, all brought sweeping changes to the country during this era. In the decades since, America retrenched, with bitter struggles to protect the laws and programs built under the pressure of those social movements.
I wasn’t alive then, and I’m no PhD historian. I don’t know whether most people in the early 1960’s truly understood the times they were living in, but I think we may be in the early stages of another one of those movement times. We’re due for the kind of social turning point that led to the Populist and Progressive Movements of the turn of the century, or the labor movement that brought the New Deal in the 1930’s, or the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. We’re undeniably seeing an escalation in street demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience, as well as a leftward tilt in popular culture, at the same time as the institutional tide of public policy seems to be decisively turning, with major progressive victories emerging from all corners of the country. From prison and police reform, to climate change, to gender and sexuality, to immigration, to economic inequality, things are moving fast.
At a time when there are more black men in prison in America than were slaves in 1850, a new generation of civil rights activists is opening the nation’s eyes to the sickening injustice of our criminal justice system. Just as slavery was replaced by the slightly more subtle but equally sinister Jim Crow laws backed by vicious voter suppression and public lynchings, the Jim Crow era was replaced by the explosion of the prison industrial complex and often-deadly “broken windows” policing in communities of color. A wave of reforms is forming, rolling back the mass incarceration and heavy-handed policing that has torn apart black and brown and poor families and made the US the prison capitol of the world. We can now clearly see that we’ve hit a turning point where our prison population is falling for the first time since it skyrocketed in the late 1970’s as a result of the War on Drugs and the rise of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The pace of sentencing reforms is picking up. Here in California, home of the nation’s most notorious “Three Strikes” mandatory life sentencing law, voters overwhelmingly approved prison reforms with Prop 47 last year and Prop 36 two years before. Nationwide momentum for marijuana legalization is growing almost too rapidly to follow and the Obama administration has taken firm action against the racist disparity in sentences between crack vs. powder cocaine. But it’s the powerful #BlackLivesMatter protests sparked in Ferguson, Missouri, that poured across every major city in America, that are turning the nation’s eyes directly on the racism deeply embedded within the criminal justice system. They’ve put thousands in the streets, in die-ins, in public disruptions of day-to-day life from Black Friday shopping to Sunday brunches to demand attention to the almost daily killing of black community members by police and vigilantes and lack of accountability from the courts.
A few years ago, after the collapse of legislation in Congress to curb carbon emissions and the BP oil spill being met with “Drill, baby drill!” instead of curbs on offshore oil production, the environmental movement was filled with grim faces and weary sighs. After years of slogging through the critical but uninspiring legislative sausage-making process, many realized that the environmental movement simply didn’t have the life force to take on the juggernaut fossil fuel industry lobby, which wielded more power than ever in an era of free-flowing money in politics. They recognized that movements were built in the streets, not inside the Beltway, and shifted from composed policy wonkery to vibrant and turbulent grassroots organizing. Greens turned their energies to rallying the public around directly obstructing the tangible machinery of fossil fuel disaster, holding off the massive Keystone XL pipeline, launching an onslaught of local campaigns against fracking in communities sitting on profitable shale, and blocking rail lines used to transport crude oil. New York’s historic People’s Climate March kept the pressure on for broader transformation towards clean energy, but also marked a deeper shift within the environmental movement, an expansion beyond its traditional comfort zone of the white middle-upper class. This November, President Obama announced a historic deal with China, the first time the world’s two biggest polluters have agreed on a plan to reduce emissions. And as he nears the end of his presidency, Obama’s administration has ramped up his executive actions to curb emissions, securing his legacy of taking the largest steps against climate change of any president in history.
In recent years, we’ve seen an astonishing transformation in the national conversation around gender and sexuality. I don’t know if the time we’re in could be called a Fourth Wave of feminism, or simply a mainstreaming of Third Wave feminism, but something is happening. The question asked is not whether feminism has suddenly become cool again, but how much this undeniable fact can be personally credited to Beyonce. Feminism’s resurgent strength has sparked a growing backlash, like the rise of “Men’s Rights Activists”, or Time Magazine’s inclusion of “feminist” in their “Words that should be banned in 2015” poll alongside choices like “bae” and “yaaassss”. The expansive type of feminism that emerged in the 90’s, holding positive views towards sexual expression, recognizing the complex interplay of gender with social forces like race and class, and seeing gender and sexuality as fluid social constructs, was largely consigned to university campuses, but with the help of social media kicked down the door of mainstream popular culture in the 21st century. For example, despite a theoretical embrace of transgender people in left-wing circles, even major LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign traditionally had a very soft “T”—showing little willingness to fight for transgender people. Yet this year, Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to make the front page of Time Magazine, with the caption “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier”. Meanwhile the limited agenda around inclusion into marriage and military service that had long dominated political struggles around LGBT issues suddenly seems almost old news, with marriage equality’s seemingly inevitable push across the country and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell relinquished to the history books. This leaves an opening for a broader political agenda including issues like California’s groundbreaking law allowing transgender youth access to facilities and sports teams according to their gender identity, tackling LGBT teen homelessness, addressing transgender healthcare, extending immigration benefits to same-sex couples, and cracking down on employer discrimination against LGBT workers. What greater testament to the rapid shift in the public’s attitudes around gender and sexuality than the sudden eagerness of corporations like Dove and JC Penney to jump on the bandwagon by running advertising campaigns trying to align themselves with this social change among their consumers? All this momentum has given greater traction to core gender issues in American politics: What started as a loosely organized network of college women determined to fight sexual assault on their campuses became a national debate drawing in everyone from Fox News to President Obama, and creating a flurry of legislation. Discussions around economic policy have increasingly acknowledged that the gender-pay gap is alive and well, that women make up the vast majority of America’s low wage workers, that US law is stunningly medieval when it comes to paid family leave. And while the wave of Republican state legislatures won in 2010 has been devastating to reproductive rights, it brought a national spotlight to red-state feminist leaders like Wendy Davis, and last year reproductive rights advocates won big at the ballot box in Colorado and North Dakota. Mainstream understanding of reproductive justice is even beginning to expand beyond abortion, with California passing a landmark law banning the forced sterilization of women in prison.
Just as with prison reform, on immigration, American social movements have always had trouble fighting for the rights of those seen by society as criminals. After immigration reform legislation floundered under the Bush administration, much of the energy was sucked out of the immigrants’ rights movement. But two things happened. When Tea Party Republicans swept statehouses in 2010, a series of draconian anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” SB1070 galvanized immigrant communities and their allies. And a powerful undocumented youth movement emerged, proudly declaring themselves “DREAMers”, using attention-grabbing tactics, and breathing life into the national immigrants’ rights movement. Most notably, as key DREAMer leaders were both undocumented and queer, inspired by the gay rights movement, they renewed and reimagined the concept of “coming out”, making countless previously unsympathetic US citizens realize that they had friends, neighbors and coworkers who were undocumented immigrants. While comprehensive immigration reform was blocked by Republicans in Congress despite overwhelming public support and massive demonstrations across the country, the bold tactics of DREAMer activists forced the Obama administration to twice take executive action that it long claimed was impossible: First, to provide deportation relief and work permits to DREAMers brought to the country as children, and then for millions of undocumented parents of US citizens. Meanwhile, immigrant-friendly states like California allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses and curbed the use of local police resources by federal immigration authorities. Latino and Asian voters showed their power at the ballot box in 2012, as Republicans were stunned by an overwhelming defeat at the hands of immigrant communities. With that memory fresh, it seems unlikely any Republican with their eyes on the presidency will overturn Obama’s executive order, cementing in place the DREAMers’ victory and creating an inevitable pressure for Congress to pass a comprehensive reform bill.
But perhaps the largest unfinished business of the social movements of the last century was tackling America’s deeply entrenched economic inequality. The Populist Movement floundered after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan, and was absorbed into the more moderate aims of the Democratic Party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the year before his death, proposed a Second Bill of Rights expanding on the New Deal and declaring access to housing, education, healthcare, living wage employment and secure retirement as a human right. But as the turbulent union movement of the 1930’s settled into the stable labor bureaucracy of the postwar era, the social pressure for deeper economic changes dissolved. Lyndon Johnson, who sought to leave his mark on the nation through the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs and civil rights laws instead found himself drawn deeper into the black hole of the Vietnam War, eventually declaring “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved”. On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr’s death, the Civil Rights Movement was gearing up to launch a massive “Poor People’s Campaign”, to tackle what its leaders saw as the next big obstacle to equality and justice: poverty. But left in disarray after Dr. King’s assassination, facing internal strife and external hostility, the Poor People’s Campaign disintegrated quickly.
After the 2008 economic crash, it seemed that the next great opportunity to take on economic inequality had been lost, as the stunning rise of the Tea Party dominated the American political landscape. But it was perhaps the Tea Party’s overreach, attempting to strip union rights in the old labor stronghold of the post-industrial Midwest that awakened the American labor movement. A 2011 uprising of workers and students in Wisconsin inspired the tactics and paved the way for the Occupy Wall Street protests that exploded organically across the country later that year, later drawing union support. And while many (myself included) proclaimed that Occupy would quickly dissolve because of its adamant insistence against institutionalizing itself for fear of being co-opted, the movement dramatically shifted the frame of public opinion and flipped the political landscape. Occupy forced institutions to pay attention to income inequality, from the Obama administration to the International Monetary Fund, and despite Occupy’s “death”, it’s no coincidence that we’ve since levied the highest tax rate on the richest 1% since before Ronald Reagan. And although the left is full of Obama disillusionment, we should not understate that he’s overseen the widest expansion of the social safety net since the movement time of the 1960’s and the strictest financial regulations since the movement time of the 1930’s. This reflects a major shift in the political direction of the country, after decades of slashing programs for the poor and loosening rules for Wall St., carried out gleefully by both Republican and Democratic administrations. But no economic transformation happens in the US without unions,
long the most powerful force on the left. A true movement era will require a rejuvenation of the ailing labor movement, just as the 1930’s industrial union movement grew out of the ashes of craft unionism, when political commentators proclaimed unions to be dying just as they do now. Just as innovative 1930’s labor leaders like John Lewis built much of the American middle class by organizing factory and mine workers, thought at the time to be unskilled and therefore un-organizable, the labor movement today is aggressively organizing service workers who are striking at companies like WalMart and fast food chains long thought to be beyond labor’s reach. Sure enough, change is bubbling beneath the surface of the labor movement, in experimentations with alt-labor organizations like worker’s centers, and raising wages and benefits through laws and ordinances rather than collective bargaining. Last year, voters approved every single minimum wage on the ballot, including in four solid red states. The “Fight for 15”, ridiculed in the media just a year ago when fast food workers first went on strike demanding $15 an hour wages, has now become reality in two of America’s biggest cities, with San Francisco and Seattle passing $15 minimum wage ordinances. It’s not just wages that are being raised, but ordinances securing paid sick leave, cracking down on wage theft, providing retail workers with reliable schedules and full-time opportunities, and extending labor protections to long-excluded workers like domestic workers. The National Labor Relations Board is now beginning to redefine employment itself, holding mega-corporations like McDonald’s accountable for labor abuses by their franchise owners and subcontractors. It’s increasingly clear that the fight over income and wealth inequality did not fizzle out with Occupy, but in fact is just starting to heat up.
These might all seem like unrelated and disorganized political battles in a hyper-partisan era. Many of the elders who remember the last movement time in America will dismiss the activism of today as incompetent clicktivism. Their children, raised in the eras of Nixon and Reagan, may be too cynical to believe in progressive change. And our millennial generation, with no memory of major social movements except the sanitized versions we watched on PBS specials, may assume that our messy activism could never compare to some fictional time when everyone marched united under the banner of Martin Luther King for justice and equality forever.
But dear fellow young activists, we have to understand that back then shit was messy too. That we were divided between countless different organizations with competing agendas. That we faced right-wing backlash and sometimes it seemed like we would lose everything. That we sometimes broke windows then too, and people called us thugs. That our elected officials seemed to always disappoint us, to begrudgingly tolerate our movements rather than stand alongside them. That often it seemed like we were pouring endless resources into something so small and incremental, like desegregating one little public transit agency in Montgomery, Alabama.
But the worst thing we can do right now is allow ourselves to be so filled with self-doubt that we hesitate and fail to seize this opportunity. It’s useless to cling to the moderate center, because that center is not in the same place it was five years ago, and that center will not be here five years from now. We have no choice but to stand by our values. Especially those of us who have embedded ourselves in longstanding organizations and institutions, who do menial work in the halls of power, who are surrounded by those who will tell us, with the paralyzing wisdom of experience, that now is not the time. Because we will never have a better opportunity than right now. We may spend the next 30-40 years of our lives defending the gains that we manage to win in the next 5-10 years.
We should listen to our elders, let them teach us the lessons they learned. We may be in a time when social media allows us to plan massive demonstrations without singular charismatic leaders like Dr. King. But we do need to practice discipline, we do need to create institutions that will last, and if we do it right, those institutions will be more democratic, more inclusive, more true to our values, than those of our grandparents’ generation.
The nation is stirring, and if you listen, you can hear it rumbling. We live in turbulent times, and there are many roles to play in these times that shape history. But as Dr King said, “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
I live in Ventura County, California, the battlefield of one of the most hotly contested congressional races in the country this year. Eastern Ventura County is heavily Republican, populated largely by upper-middle-class white families who have fled farther and farther from the suburbs of Los Angeles into the distant exurbs. Western Ventura County is heavily Democratic, blue-collar and majority Latino, too far from LA to commute, with an economy built instead on local agriculture, oil and the military. Two years ago, the first Democrat was elected to represent the area in 70 years, the result of rapid demographic change, an end to longstanding racial gerrymandering, and high Latino voter turnout. This year millions of dollars were spent to defend the freshman Democrat’s seat on Capitol Hill against a strong Republican challenger in a nail-biting race where she wasn’t declared the victor until long after Election Day.
I work for a social justice organization in western Ventura County, meaning I have one of the few year-round political jobs available to locals. Every election season we watch a massive influx of resources pour into the region for political campaigns. And then after Election Day– like magic– it all disappears. I call this the swing district’s “Resource Curse“—just like an impoverished country whose economy is completely dependent on oil drilling revenue, the volatile surges of money and lack of long-term human development or local control of those resources leads the region to be permanently impaired despite seeing unimaginable riches pass through its borders.
After the election, the young people who worked on campaigns scramble for a few permanent staffer jobs in legislative offices, are forced to find work outside politics, or move to a more urban area. Since swing districts are rarely in major metropolitan centers, they almost never hold large headquarters of advocacy groups, unions, government agencies or other potential employers of people wanting to go into public service. And by nature of being a swing district, someone with progressive values might only be willing to work as a staff member for about half of the local elected officials without wanting to vomit on a daily basis.
Then when election season rolls around again, campaigns struggle to find locals to hire with political savvy and campaign experience, and end up importing many campaign workers from across the country who have more difficulty connecting with voters because they lack Spanish fluency or knowledge of local communities. To some extent they can rely on hiring people trained by community organizations like mine, but the kind of scale we have pales in comparison—our election budgets number in the tens of thousands rather than the millions thrown around in heavily targeted partisan races. Moreover, pulling canvassers and phonebankers from local organizations or labor unions who would be working on the election anyway is a bit of a zero sum game.
Nationally centralizing political resources rather than developing local political infrastructure also hurts local politics in “purple” communities. While enormous resources were spent on our congressional and state assembly races in Ventura County, city councils and school boards, which have more impact on the day-to-day lives of locals, were mostly ignored. In the largest city in the district, republicans came 10 votes away from picking up a seat on the council of an overwhelmingly democratic city after outspending a democratic incumbent 3 to 1. If a fraction of the resources that had gone into the higher level races had been spent down-ballot, this race would have been an easy win. Today’s city council and school board are tomorrow’s state legislature and congress, and it’s not unusual for congressional candidates in swing districts to be imported from outside the district because of a shallow local democratic bench.
But more importantly, this boom and bust cycle permanently stunts the career development of young progressive activists from the politically shifting areas where we need them most.
It’s not hard to imagine a solution. Could the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have predicted two years ago that California’s 26th congressional district would be a close election again in 2014? Obviously. The day after the 2012 election, could they have chosen to hire a couple of local former campaign staff to stick around long-term? Easily. Could the work those staff do year-round potentially be more impactful than overwhelmed voters seeing yet another TV ad or mailer in the last few weeks of campaign season? Political consultants way above my pay grade might tell you no, but I’d argue yes.
A stable, long-term investment in the development of progressive politics in swing districts or states could look like this:
- Staff to register graduating high school seniors every spring and new community college students every fall in low-income neighborhoods with low voter registration and turnout rates. They could also run vote-by-mail-conversion drives and citizenship drives of green card holders who haven’t applied for citizenship.
- Staff to recruit and train a strong base of local progressive activists who can be engaged in issue-advocacy year-round and pivot to elections during election season after having already been trained on phonebanking, canvassing, and volunteer management.
- Staff to run petition drives that can push progressive policies on both national and local issues while developing the skills of local activists and building targeted lists of progressive voters and potential volunteers. Canvassing on issue campaigns in low-income neighborhoods year-round also helps build voter engagement that shows itself in higher turnout during elections.
- Staff to amplify progressive frames and messages in local media on both national and local issues through press conferences, op-eds, letters to the editor, etc., shaping local voters’ views on national and state-level political battles long before the election.
- Staff to encourage and advise progressive community leaders to run for local office, building the long-term bench of candidates for state or federal office, especially in shifting regions where local offices may be dominated by conservatives.
One year-round full-time staff member in a congressional district could do all of this without much difficulty. For an organization like the DCCC, this would take virtually no resources. According to Nate Silver, there are only about 35 congressional districts that could reasonably be considered swing in the entire country. I estimate at less than 5% of the $60+ million they spend every two-year election cycle, the DCCC could hire a local as a year-round field organizer in every one of them. If these field organizers were asked to develop the local donor base as part of their job, even that cost would be significantly less.
This concept is similar to Organizing for Action, the attempt by Obama campaign folks to adopt community organizing strategies post-election. But Organizing for Action never had much success, in my opinion because they failed to adequately staff up with organizers on the ground.
To some extent, this is also the type of work done by community organizing groups like the one I work for. But most community organizing groups work in big cities far away from swing districts and most are 501c3 nonprofit organizations that are banned by the tax code from engaging in candidate races. And national partisan donors often don’t see their interests as aligned with local social justice organizations—my organization’s political arm was primarily focused on ballot initiatives for prison sentencing reform and banning fracking rather than the congresswoman’s reelection.
These are also the functions that should be carried out by effective county democratic parties, but the way we spend campaign money now keeps local parties in swing districts perpetually weak, while resources and decision-making power are concentrated at the state or national level and only surge into these districts during elections. Instead, the places that have powerful local party organizations are usually overwhelmingly democratic urban areas.
This is an outsider’s unsolicited advice—I don’t work for the Democratic Party and never have. But I care about my community and the people in it, I see how the boom and bust of national political money holds us back, and I hope it’s not naïve for me to think we can do better.
This weekend I took a group of high school students out to clean a beach next to a toxic slag heap Superfund site that will hopefully be cleaned up by the EPA in about a decade. It’s one of the last remaining natural wetlands in California, home to endangered species, and in the process of being restored by the Nature Conservancy. The beach is largely cut off from pedestrian access by decaying industrial sites and marked by the towering smoke stacks of a power plant. I rarely meet youth from the surrounding low-income immigrant neighborhood who have ever been there prior to volunteering to clean it up. Hopefully someday it will be restored for public access, but for now the city government seems intent on developing more crap on top of it.
For me and my organization, bringing students out to this site for cleanups is more about engaging them in the broader environmental battles in the community. But we do the cleanups because that’s what the students tell us they want to do. Young people in America have a deeply ingrained idea of what community service is and what it isn’t. Teenagers are endlessly told to go clean the beach and give soup to the homeless and help children with their homework. They’re told it’s the alternative activity to gangs and drugs and they need to do it to get into college.
The commonly accepted form of community service is about being helpful and doing what an adult tells you to do. It’s not about generating controversy or engaging in power struggles or advocating for deeper change. In fact, youth are explicitly discouraged from doing those things by both their educational institutions and their parents. Community service, as it’s practiced, is about accepting the society you live in and trying to ameliorate the problems it’s created, not about challenging the conditions of that society and how it could be different.
Why are we telling youth to clean up natural habitats we allow corporations to pollute? What kind of a country makes children sell magazines to shore up the cost of the schools we’re unwilling to pay more taxes to fund? If we really believe all human beings deserve enough food to survive, how do we justify cutting food stamps while asking students to volunteer at food pantries?
Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that as a country we’re taking the people most capable of questioning our assumptions and re-imagining our world and keeping them busy cleaning up the shit we’re creating. Maybe it comes from our condescending assumption that young people can’t make up their minds for themselves about anything contentious, that youth wanting to participate in anything that looks “political” must be the product of manipulation and brainwashing.
I want a world where high school student groups like National Honor Society and Key Club speak at school board meetings and march in rallies and write letters to the editor and get out the vote. I want a world where guidance counselors tell students to serve on a city commission to build their college application and city councilmembers actually appoint them. I want a world where parents suggest helping at a soup kitchen on Christmas and campaigning for a higher minimum wage on Election Day.
I’m not calling for an end to community service. I’m calling for a radical opening of our understanding of what it means to serve our communities. I’m calling for a broadening of the role we expect youth to have in our communities. We should be asking young people to take the role of leadership in the public sphere, producing new ideas and participating in decision-making. That’s the kind of service we admire in business leaders and elder statesmen and public intellectuals but feel uncomfortable with youth engaging in.
More and more schools are requiring community service for graduation because in a world where students are bombarded with messages about competition and achievement and test scores it’s worth teaching there’s more to life than earning good grades to get a high-paying job.
But educators, nonprofits, and parents should be teaching young people that the community doesn’t just need your menial labor, but also needs your ideas. And your courage to raise your voice and challenge us to build a better world is by far the most valuable service you can give to your community.
Today I’m thinking about the hope and faith held by Dr. King and the importance of optimism.
Harry Belafonte tells a story in his amazing memoir, ‘My Song,’ about King being challenged by his SCLC deputies on his accelerating radicalism generally, and the Poor People’s Campaign specifically, just a week before he died… Belafonte quotes King telling the group, gathered at the singer/actor/activist’s New York apartment: ‘What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.’ When Belafonte asks what that means they should do, an exhausted King tells him: ‘I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.’
This is the kind of optimism that looks with wide open eyes at the reality of the world and decides not to dismiss it and withdraw from it, but to engage it and reshape it. King realizes he is fighting to be part of an America plagued by poverty and war. But he not only believes that marginalized people can be included in this society, but puts them in the role of heroes: those who through their liberation and inclusion can lead the movements needed to heal it.
Many activists are cynical people. It’s hard not to be, organizing reluctant people to fight uphill battles against a powerful status quo. Anger is an important motivator. But people are never truly called to action without that seemingly-impossible combination of anger and hope: An understanding of the world as it is, and a deep belief in a vision of the world as it should be.
In fact, optimism itself is fundamentally necessary to the spread of a worldview that supports progressive change.
Conservatism is deeply dependent on pessimism. The foundation of the right-wing narrative is pessimism: basically those promiscuous gay birth-control-using kids these days and all those dangerous criminal brown and black people are taking over America, crumbling its moral foundation and taking all our tax money to spend on drugs. Therefore, beef up the prisons and the military, dig your heels in on traditional practices, and slash the social safety net. The fact that most people believe teen birth rates, drug use, and violent crime are rising right now when they’re actually all plummeting in the US is a testament to the power of conservative fear messaging. Every time you spread the idea that this country is going to shit, a Republican gets elected somewhere.
I was raised with pretty cynical politics. For most of my life I believed that America was irredeemably racist, materialistic and violent. My political consciousness developed largely through 3 national moments: The dismantling of civil liberties in the early 2000’s and horrifying start of the Iraq War, the failed push for immigration reform in 2006 when I started watching cable news and was stunned by the swell of public hatred towards immigrant families, and the financial crash in 2008 and following years of heartless austerity as I worked to get a public education in a system that was crumbling around me. Disillusionment came easy.
It took me actually doing work to make me disillusioned with disillusionment. I worked on campaigns that beat bank lobbyists to pass legislation raising tens of billions of dollars in federal student aid and defeated big oil at the ballot box in California. I stood behind Nancy Pelosi at her press conference in San Francisco to announce the passage of historic health care reform. I helped organize Oakland residents to force big developers to guarantee thousands of living-wage local-hire jobs targeted at those who needed them most. I turned out the vote to raise enough revenue to finally balance California’s budget so the youth I work with today are dealing with how to restore budget cuts in their schools, not how to make them.
And sure, I was a very small part of each of these victories and I know they each would have happened without me. But not without a lot of people like me. The real transformation was not the impact I had on this work, but the impact this work had on me. It made me see myself not as someone passively affected by the conditions of the world around me, but as an agent of change. It made me believe in the power of people like me, young people and people of color, to be neither the villains nor the victims in the story of my country, but the heroes. I began to believe in a different story, one that ended happy.
I deeply believe that the forces of peace and equality and enlightenment throughout history tend to win in the end. I’ll admit I’m going on faith and a loose grasp of history given to me by what’s left of California’s public education system. But I believe victory in the battles we fight today will one day feel just as inevitable as the battles fought by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.
Practicing optimism is not just about motivating yourself or feeling happy. It’s about changing the dominant narrative about our world. It’s about telling stories of hope where we are the good guys and we win.
So the next time you see some corny Upworthy link that says “This 3 minute video will restore your faith in humanity” maybe you should watch it. We could all use our faith in humanity restored sometimes.