A few years ago I was covering a panel discussion for Hyperallergic featuring members of Gran Fury, an ACT UP affinity group focused primarily on producing what group members themselves called “propaganda” against a government hellbent on isolating, vilifying, and smugly looking on as tens of thousands of their citizens died of AIDS. There were a number of young people in the audience at the event and more than once the hand of one of these audience members rose to ask how they could do something similar — how they could employ similar tactics and ideas in political struggles happening today.
Reading the book When We Fight, We Win!: Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World by Greg Jobin-Leeds and AgitArte, with input from Rinku Sen, Antonia Darder, and David Goodman, felt, in certain ways, like an answer to those questions.
The book, released in January, looks at examples of organizing around six different struggles in the US, from prison abolition to immigrant rights to minimum wage and income inequality fights, among others. In addition to commentary and exploration in text, the book, through AgitArte’s participation, includes numerous examples of visual and cultural production tied to those struggles — from posters and photographs of artworks to interviews with artists and cultural activists. While the book spends time homing in on some of the particulars of each fight, the overarching message is that the leading edge of social justice today is a swelling network of affinity groups that, despite focusing on an array of different issues at any given time, are in fact aligned around an insistence that their ultimate fight is against the roots of all injustice — things like racism, exploitation of people and the environment, economic inequality, and militarization.
“Transformative organizing focuses on systemic change that addresses root causes, not just reforms that allow the same systems to reproduce themselves,” Jobin-Leeds notes in the intro. “Many may have started their activism by focusing on a single personal grievance; over time they saw the interconnection of their issues with others. Thus, transformative organizing builds solidarity.”
How does this relate to those young people’s desire to emulate Gran Fury? ACT UP itself took the form of affinity groups tied together in some of their planning and actions by the weekly meetings at what was then called the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center of New York. While the group meetings provided opportunities to compare notes, build knowledge, coordinate efforts, and meet new lovers and collaborators, affinity groups like Gran Fury were making decisions about specific tactics and group goals on their own. And this kind of organizing has worked in numerous other instances in the past. In other words, the answer to those contemporary questioners is that there are struggles happening all around you, linking up with and supporting the efforts of others attacking root causes ties you to a broader effort to shift society at its core.
A second key point of the book is that single-issue fights and the failure to bring transformation to political organizing itself ultimately undermines the goal of social justice and forces people to choose between different parts of themselves. From Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, quoted in the first chapter of the book: “We can’t ask someone to be an undocumented immigrant one day, a lesbian the next, and a mom on the third day.”
In fact, this insistence on wholeness has much deeper roots than recent struggles. Some of the most powerful articulations of this insistence on wholeness that I know of come from a number of lesbian and queer women of color such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Smith, Cherríe Moraga, and Audre Lorde. One of the clearest comes from the Combahee River Collective in their 1977 statement: “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”
It was that emphasis on wholeness, on integrating the many fights for social justice, that made me think of another book I read recently about one of the most inspiring organizations I’ve come to know of, Activism, Alliance Building, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center by Sara DeTurk.
Founded in 1987, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center is a cultural and social justice organization rooted in the Westside neighborhood of San Antonio, Texas, a neighborhood that has long been home to many Mexican-Americans and Mexicans, many of whom live at or below the poverty line. Created and run primarily by lesbian and queer Latinas, Esperanza’s founders wanted “a place where they could bring their whole selves,” where they could work on issues ranging from racist development by the city to environmental concerns to breaking down the patriarchy.
When I visited and interviewed staff members in 2014 for a film project I’m working on, beyond their insistently holistic approach, two other things impressed me very deeply: the fact that they start and lead much of their political work through the arts; and the vast array of people who participate in and support the Esperanza. DeTurk talks about the latter point this way: “Staff and volunteers alike spoke of elders who came into the Center for the arts programming, despite its reputation among some people for being run by ‘a bunch of communist lesbians.’ Once they were there, the elders’ personal relationships with the staff breaks down cultural and political barriers.” It is rare for radical social justice organizations to be able to draw a wide audience and network of support to their work from across demographic, age, and class groups, but the fact that Esperanza has been so deeply rooted in and responsive to the Westside community, and also the fact that they have always supported other groups around the city in their own social justice efforts, has helped them earn the trust and respect of many in the San Antonio community.
The Esperanza’s choice to lead with arts and culture is particularly important given the fact that Mexican, indigenous, and Mexican-American culture is missing or maligned in many of the dominant histories of both San Antonio and the US. The center celebrates and holds up cultural production not simply to preserve it, but also to insist on the unique perspectives and wisdom that it carries and the dignity of the people who created it. From DeTurk: “The experiences of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center illustrate the essential role of narrative and artistic expression in establishing relationships, alliances, and coalitions among individuals, and in transforming private experience into public testimony.”
One final argument that When We Fight and the Esperanza itself offers, is that transformative justice is and must be led by those most affected by injustice. The vast majority of examples in When We Fight and the nearly 30 year history of the Esperanza are characterized by people from within impacted communities rising up against oppression — from those living in under-resourced communities to low-wage workers to indigenous activists fighting for their land and sovereignty. The lesson is not only that these efforts must be led by those most affected, but also that organizations and groups must look within themselves for transformation — working to tackle the same issues within the group that they are trying to tackle in the wider world.
The importance of critical self-examination gets at one failing of both of these books — neither of them really acknowledges the difficult reality that political organizing has become professionalized (i.e. paying jobs and career tracks for some, but not all, organizers) and that many such professional political organizations rely on nonprofit status and money from wealthy donors or funders in order to build or maintain their programs and jobs. The charity-based orientation of nonprofit funding means that when the particular interests of funders shift, programs and staffing are at risk, making it difficult to sustain flows of money over the short and long term in organizations that require outside funding to operate. As many have pointed out over the past few years, charity has failed to solve any of the major problems that it has aimed at over the past century. From Jitu Brown, an education and community organizer in Chicago’s South Side, quoted in When We Fight: “People in oppressed communities don’t need charity. We need solidarity. All we need to make change is time, space, and will.”
However, it’s worth noting that not all of those involved in the creation of these books or the activists and groups discussed in them operate as nonprofits, nor are they all paid for their organizing work. I also don’t believe payment, in and of itself, is a bad thing in every case. That critique is not intended as a dismissal so much as a complication, a prompt to acknowledge some of the complexities of an evolving movement and a note to be cautious about how those doing work to improve metrics interact with those doing work to improve their lives.
While I can recommend When We Fight without much hesitation, I have some reservations about DeTurk’s book because of its relatively high price. This largely has to do with the fact that DeTurk and her book fall squarely within the academic realm. That said, I can highly recommend the Esperanza itself, which you can stop by most days if you’re in or around San Antonio. A visit to the Esperanza or time spent supporting any of the groups mentioned in When We Fight offers dynamic proof that this method of organizing not only works to combat injustice at a local level, but is building substantial networks and winning important victories on the national stage as well.
When We Fight, We Win! Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World is available from the New Press and Activism, Alliance Building, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center is available from Rowman & Littlefield.