Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Transformative Organizing

I've got something special for you this month -> a sneak preview from the next issue of Left Turn! Below is a review by LT editor Max Uhlenbeck of two distinct documents both exploring something they are calling "transformative organizing".

As Max points out in his review, the piece by Social Justice Leadership gets at the need to not only make demands upon oppressive powers but to also shift our individual and collectively embodied practices toward our values. It is here that I think a third document,
So That We May Soar by Another Politics is Possible and LA COiL, has something to add to the conversation. Although we don't use the term transformative organizing, So That We May Soar, which was also prepared for distribution at this past summer's US Social Forum in Detroit, explores "prefigurative politics", a notion akin to SJL's embodied practices. In particular, this document co-written by at least a dozen organizers from NYC, LA and places in between, focuses on horizontality and intersectional struggle as two practices that are crucial to embody if we are to realize our democratic and transformative visions for the world. Although not yet available on-line, you can check out a review of So That We May Soar and the workshop LA COiL led in connection to it -as well as a snippet of the document itself- at Suzy Subways' blog, AIDS and Social Justice. I've also got a few copies left so drop me a line if you'd like me to send you one :-)

In other news, Movement for Justice in El Barrio co-hosted the National Encuentro of Organizations and Struggles of the Other Campaign in Atenco with the People's Front in Defense of the Land on November 12-14. Here are two articles from Hermann Bellinghausen covering the gathering for La Jornada (1,2).

Meanwhile, Raúl Zibechi was here in NYC. Raúl's visit was full of great encounters but perhaps the richest was an informal dinner with S'bu Zikode, elected President of Abahlali baseMjondolo (the South African Shackdwellers' Movement). Although I can't share the details of that conversation here, you can find several videos from S'bu's visit at Abahlali's website as well as an article, When the Poor Become Powerful Outside of State Control, which he wrote for Pambazuka News during his visit to the US. As for Raúl, we're planning to have some of his presentations up in audio and transcript format sometime down the road so stay tuned!

And without further ado, here's that Left Turn sneak preview...

a review by Max Uhlenbeck
from the forthcoming issue #38 of Left Turn Magazine
The 7 Components of Transformative Organizing Theory
By Eric Mann
The Labor and Community Strategy Center, 2010

Transformative Organizing: Toward Liberation of Self and Society
By Social Justice Leadership
Social Justice Leadership, 2010

If there is anything we have learned from the political struggles of the 20th-century United States, it has been the great importance of grassroots and mass-based organizing. From the IWW to the CIO, the early Communist Party to the rise of the civil rights movement, the question of how to organize and refine best practices has always remained central.

Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC) in Los Angeles, produced the pamphlet The 7 Components of Transformative Organizing Theory in anticipation of the 2010 US Social Forum. These ideas will be further explored in a book to be published next year, The 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer: A Journey in Transformative Organizing. Mann lays out LCSC’s concept of Transformative Organizing (TO) by attempting to place it in historical context.

Following from the proud tradition of indigenous resistance to European colonialism and the early anti-slavery abolitionists, Mann describes TO as “characterized by a militant opposition to racism, war, and the abuses of the US empire, strategized by a broad array of people who self-identify as revolutionary, radical, liberal or progressive.” This is juxtaposed to two other major approaches driving social change: right-wing organizing, “as reflected in the Klan, White Citizens Councils, Christian conservatives, and today the vigilantes and the Tea Party reactionaries,” and pragmatic organizing, which has “fought for specific reforms in the interest of working people that have often been limited in scope, characterized by anti-left ideology, and, at times, an implicit deal with the US empire.”

Mann, a veteran of the civil rights movement, has focused much of his recent years on work with LCSC’s flagship project, the Bus Riders Union. He argues that TO at once works to transform the system itself as well as the consciousness of the people who participate in the process of building organizations and movements, especially the organizers, “as they stand up to the right, reach out to the people, and take on the system.”

He is careful not to antagonize LCSC’s allies in the pragmatic camp, seeing the debate as a question of strategy rather than morality. Pragmatic organizing institutions and individuals are often allied with TO partners, and do much important work in working-class communities across the country. However, they are inherently limited, according to Mann, because their analysis does not see that the US is a structurally racist, imperialist power. “Transformative organizing, therefore, is situated in a worldwide movement with a strategy to challenge the US empire… Transformative organizers challenge the moral legitimacy and ideological hegemony of the capitalist system and its historical master narrative of empire building.”

The strength of Mann’s writing lies in his masterful ability to accessibly and sharply summarize the rich and various traditions of US radicalism, the demands those organizations and movements put forward, and the underlying political principles which should guide any transformative organizing as we move forward. The part of Mann’s text that still leaves something to be desired lies in his deliberate emphasis on this relatively new term, ‘transformative organizing,’ without adequately and clearly defining what it is, and specifically what distinguishes TO within the larger tendencies of mass-based organizing with a left or anti-imperialist framework. Mann’s writings have long successfully articulated vital movement analysis, but he does not quite break new ground, at least in the pamphlet version of his TO text.

Crucial Intentions

This is where the NYC-based Social Justice Leadership (SJL) picks up, with their pamphlet Transformative Organizing: Toward Liberation of Self and Society. Asserting that we are at a turning point in history, and also potentially a turning point in the evolution of grassroots organizing, SJL poses the question, “Will the social justice movement of the 21st century meet the demands of the changing times, or will it we be swept into the dustbin of history?” Arguing that “most social justice organizing in the US has focused outward… its potential greatly limited by its strict focus on external fights and short-term change,” SJL differentiates Transformative Organizing as a practice “which combines an ambitious emphasis on long-term vision, ideology and movement building with attention to internal personal and organizational transformation.”

For years, SJL has developed trainings and convened movement discussions with organizations like Domestic Workers United, Make the Road, and Mothers on the Move. SJL outlines four crucial principles of TO. Transformation begins with self-awareness; intentional practice leads to transformation; transformation requires vision; transforming society requires ideological, strategic, mass-based organizing. Putting forth these accessible yet deeply profound principles, SJL takes on the challenge of combining elements of traditional mass-based organizing strategies with new practices of personal grounding and self-care that transcend the often individualistic responses to these issues within the consumer-capitalist framework.

The concept of intentional practice is particularly exciting. SJL writes that “intentional practices are those we undertake to change how we show up in the world, and they can manifest as personal practices or political practices. They are new actions that we take to change our physical, emotional, and mental orientation. By practicing different ways of acting, we can align our actions with our vision for who we want to be and how we want to act. Intentional practices interrupt our old way of being, and they create the possibility for new action.”

While much of the writing within activist communities addressing such important concerns as personal trauma or spiritual growth has been limited in its inward or small-group orientation, SJL sees the concept of TO as something that can and must be built to scale. Millions of people must be organized if we are to reach a scale that can challenge the current power structure and contend with society’s embodied practices. Organizing efforts must reach mammoth proportions and model compelling democratic processes if we are to wield sufficient power to democratize the broader society.

The concept of transformative organizing, something still very much in development, is certainly a most welcome theoretical contribution to the current literature and conversation about organizing strategies at this critical juncture in human history. Credit Eric Mann and the LCSC with doing the hard work of articulating what a transformative organizing framework might look like, and SJL for pushing that concept further towards a practice that will actually get us there.


sida 2008 said...

I love transformative organizing!

Thank you for linking to AIDS and Social Justice. I realized that I made a mistake by only giving credit to COiL for the pamphlet, so I fixed that on the blog (I think I fixed it, but let me know if I could fix it better : )

A comrade in my study group scanned the pamphlet and I put it on my ftp site here: http://suzy.defenestrator.org/coil.pdf

Keep up the great blog!

sida 2008 said...

LOL, I'm identified here as SIDA2008, a long-dead website that never really lived. The internet is so funny. I should ID myself as Suzy Subways but I couldn't figure out how to do that.

I helped set up a blog for AIDS activists at the global AIDS conference in Mexico City in 2008 in case people wanted to blog in Spanish (there was only an activist blog in English, so my friend and I set this one up). But it didn't really get used. We didn't know if anyone would want to, so we set it up and told people about it just in case. So, sadly there is nothing to read there.

Suzy Subways said...

wait, I found the site we actually ended up using: http://sida2008.blogia.com/

Still not much on there though.

RJ Maccani said...

Thanks Suzy! Funny, you know the last time I was in Mexico City was during the 2008 Global AIDS Conference. I was there for other reasons but felt the IAC's presence amidst all the activity of DF... including, I know you remember, the dispossessed farmers from Veracruz demonstrating in the buff.