Towards Collective Liberation: Building Successful Social Movements
by Holly Roach
April 1st, 2013
It wasn’t until recently I realized that I had somehow lost a bunch of digital files off my computer. It was mainly photos and newspaper articles from my activist work when I lived in the San Francisco/Bay Area from the late 90′s to the mid 2000′s. That loss left me feeling sick with the thought that a deeply formative part of my life was gone. My experience with Occupy Movement organizing left me longing to reconstruct what was good, strategic and expansive about our activism back in the day and put those lessons back to work.
Sometimes the very thing that’s needed comes to being and luckily Chris Crass came along with his new book Towards Mutual Liberation: Anti Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis and Movement Building Strategy.
The book came across my Facebook feed at the most incredible time. I had been writing on intentional movement building and praxis in relationship to the Emergence Christianity Movement. As a relative newcomer encountering the Emergent movement as a non-evangelical with new age Buddhist leanings, I had a lot to learn in just getting to know the movement, its culture, language and friendships. Prior to this, I had almost literally no idea that there was a thing called Progressive Christianity in the United States. I had encountered faith-based groups in organizing, but never knew the theology behind it. It’s been incredibly life-giving for me and brought me back to the core of my spirituality. So when I say that I am engaged in critiquing the way we go about building our movement, please know that I am doing it from a deep level of love and investment in the Emergent Movement.
This book comes to us at such a lovely time, a time when we are asking ourselves what collective potential we have to build a better world together.We are asking ourselves if we are a conversation or a movement, a network of talkers or doers, and some of us are getting impatient to live out the call toward Justice that we feel compelled by our faith to enact.
Rather than re-create the social movement wheel we can look to the lessons and gains that movements who’ve come before us have struggled towards. Chris does a beautiful job contextualizing the movement culture that we activists inherited back in the 80′s and 90′s and weaves a narrative that is both engaging and informative about the things we learned. I first met Chris when I was organizing in the Art & Revolution Collective and Chris was a Food Not Bombs organizer in San Francisco. Our collectives worked together a lot, and we both ended up at a lot of the the same protests and the 15-week Challenging White Supremacy workshop with the brilliant Sharon Martinez in collaboration with the People’s Institute’s Betita Martinez. Betita had just written a provocative essay entitled “Where Was the Color In Seattle: Looking for Reasons the Great Battle Was So White” written in response to the mass protests in Seattle at the World Trade Organization Ministerial On November 30th, 1999. She starts the piece off with a quote:
“I was at the jail where a lot of protesters were being held and a big crowd of people was chanting ‘This Is What Democracy Looks Like!’ At first it sounded kind of nice. But then I thought: is this really what democracy looks like? Nobody here looks like me.” —Jinee Kim, Bay Area youth organizer
This essay threw the progressive social profit sector up and down the west coast into an upheaval of challenging built-in white supremacist organizational structures and dynamics. We witnessed numerous NGOs fall apart, completely deconstructing their culture and process and starting over again. We saw a lot of progress and experienced the shift in how our organizing was called upon to evolve and become more focused around bridge building. So as I hang around Emergent Movement conferences and hear that same call again from people of color and white allies, I’m thinking, “Wait, we activists have done this work, and we learned a lot that we can share!” And this is where Toward Collective Liberation becomes an amazing tool for progressive Christians in the U.S. Chris Dixon says it better than anyone in his Introduction to the book:
“Transformative social movements are always much more dynamic and intelligent than individual organizers, no matter how reflective, tireless and courageous such individuals may be. This is one of the amazing things about collective struggle for justice. At the same time there are always individuals who crystallize movement experiences, who distill and share hard won insights and help to catalyze much needed discussions. Chris Crass is one of these people. For two decades, he has consistently given expression to the ideas, questions, and lessons of a generational cohort of radical organizers and activists in the United States.”
In his first essay, Chris does an amazing job of illustrating how anarchist politics and organizing influenced our shared organizing culture. Consensus-based organizing was the norm, many of us working in collectives that practiced feminist, transparent, non-hierarchical leadership structures but still manage to collaborate with more top-down structured NGOs. I want to challenge us here not to dismiss the strategic politics of anarchists organizing as the chaos and destruction that language and media have portrayed them to be. Much of what we saw in the Global Justice movement, the anti-war movement, and Occupy was based in liberatory anarchist politics, which is a testimony to the contributions of anarchist politics thought this century.
Chris also does a really beautiful job of narrating why anti-oppression work and challenging systemic racism is absolutely essential to movement building. Chris Crass went on to found the Heads Up Collective and anti-racism training collective called Catalyst Project. He has some serious chops around this work, and we’re lucky Chris has a passion for documenting our shared lessons and passing on the knowledge. He’s written countless resources and made them widely available to Occupy movements. Chris understands and rises to the responsibility of passing on the gains that we have achieved in building movement cultures that work.
Chris understands that social movements don’t only just win gains from institutions on behalf of communities, they also embody, live into and become those gains that better serve their community. Let’s briefly look at some of the components of transformative social movements:
One of the things I’d like us to look at is what Chris has to say about prefigurative politics. We talk about “living into” visions for what we like to see for our lives, we quote Gandhi, and we sloganize his call for us to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
This concept may come from other sources, as truth has a way of cropping up in varied and multiple ways, but I think it’s good to unpack this further. Prefigurative politics is the strategy of incorporating the vision of the future society into the struggle to get there.
“Social change is not replacing one ruling class for another, but transforming the social relationships of society away from domination toward democracy and equality … Prefigurative politics challenges us to create liberatory processes and practices in the here and now while we fight for the future. This means bringing feminist politics into our daily lives and organizations as much as we can, while recognizing that we need to engage in long-term collective struggle against patriarchy as a system of oppression. Similarly, we should work to understand anti-racism as not only a politics against systemic racism, but for anti-racist culture, strategy, and practice in our organizations and lives that transform the ways we work for liberation.”
Straight to the Point
This is the absolute crux of my critique of the Emergent Church Movement. I feel strongly that if we are not prefigurative in our approach to our collective movement work, we are simply acting out the dynamics that keep people oppressed. If we wish to be a transformative force in our work together, we must work together in a way that challenges all the -isms and systemic means of oppression while working for the world we wish to see some into being — the kingdom of God on Earth. Anything less would be lacking integrity.
Movement Strategy Center
If you don’t know the Movement Strategy Center, I highly recommend checking out their literature. I can write a whole other essay just on the work of their director Taj James. What I want to leave you with is a quote from him that I feel deeply compelled by, and I hope you do to:
“There is a deep cultural change underway in the progressive movement which is radically transforming how we organize and work together. Ask not what your sector of the movement can do for mine — realize that if we do not unite, all of our movements will face continual defeats in the face of a unified and ascendant right wing. The brave organizations and leaders who are driving this change need support from the broader movements. We are not asking for mere words of support but rather for concrete acts of solidarity that demonstrate an embodied wisdom of our independence.”
Steps Forward Toward Mutual and Collective Liberation
I am honored to be teaching on this material this weekend at the TransFORM Southwest Regional Gathering in Fort Worth, TX, a gathering of missional-minded practitioners. I would also like to invite you to take part in a series of Open Conversations that we are having online around the many facets of movement building. On May 7th at 8pm EST we will be hosting another conversation online with Chris Crass, Anthony Smith, Steve Knight along with other social movement folks and a few other Emergent Movement folks, which will be able to be viewed on SOGO Media TV on YouTube. Viewers will be able to chat in questions and comments. The goal with these conversations is to move forward our collective understanding of liberatory and transformative social movement building in an open and transparent way. I hope that you join us.
Holly Roach is an activist, communications and development director, and artist currently living life in Santa Fe, NM.