Monday, May 28, 2007

The Coordinator, Promoter, and/or Educator

Here is a reading from our Another Politics is Possible study group in NYC...

The Role of the Coordinator, Promoter, and/or Educator
By Carlos Nuñez Hurtado*

In every educational process that is clearly directed towards social transformation, the raw material and the real protagonists of the process are undoubtedly the members of the groups, communities, and grassroots organizations, in a word, the people. This seems to be clearly accepted by everyone, even many who end up exercising a contradictory practice to this approach, since their pedagogical style – as we’ve already said – revolves around the educator and not the people. Thus, the educators, the leaders, or consultants end up being the protagonists. It’s no wonder that popular and political educators, promoters, and leaders continue to be concerned about “the outsider." Should this person exist or not? What is their role? What are their characteristics? We won’t focus on the first question beyond what the facts show and what prompted this document because, in fact, the reality in Latin America is that this “outsider” exists and has always existed. On occasion, this person has played the predominant role of the promoter; in other instances, the consultant; and in others, the educator. I would say that in reality all of us do a little of everything according to the circumstances and the diverse realities and situations.

In any case, at least in Mexico, for many years, we were all promoters in grassroots organizations. An authentic popular movement, that is, of independent grassroots organizations, was weak in the face of populist politics, demagoguery, and the cooptation of its process by the institutionalized revolution. Many of us tried from there to get the movement to challenge this by promoting the people. The “outsider” assumed the role of organizational manager. As the events unfolded, the popular movement in Mexico gained strength with the creation, presence and development of many class-based grassroots organizations that were independent from the official monopoly and clearly geared towards building a real alternative of structural transformation.

In this new and irreversible situation, we think that the role of the “outsider” should orient and relocate itself to the sphere of support and consultancy for grassroots organizations. Their true location can stop being “foreign” and “outside” if their historical and political commitment coincides with the principles of liberation; only then would they truly fulfill the role of organic intellectual. The degree and level of their militancy would only serve to clarify their role not modify its essence. The protagonist of the historic process of liberation has and will always be the people, including within this category those who – independent of their class origins – choose liberation, humbly offering and not renouncing their knowledge, abilities, resources, etc. to serve the common cause. If in developing their skills and knowledge, a popular leader moves away from their true role, they become by virtue of this an “outsider” to the process in spite of obviously maintaining their class origins. Similarly, if a politically committed intellectual is insensitive to the culture, interests, and dynamics of the people’s process, this intellectual will have a “foreign” or “outside” role in spite of their choices, wishes, and intentions.

To put it simply, one can be an “outsider” to the people’s process by virtue of origin and class status. However, one can’t try to be part of the people’s process without committing oneself to aligning with the working classes and their interests – this is the organic intellectual; although one can also be “foreign” or “outside” in practice. Here, we can see the methodological problems and vices that pervade so many self-proclaimed “vanguard” approaches, enveloping themselves in their complicated and sophisticated theories and concepts, words and attitudes in order to try and maintain – by virtue of the distance they create (a truly aberrant position) – their so-called vanguard role. Authentic vanguardism emerges from the people and their organizing process – we are indebted to it; we interpret and have it as a reference point; we are sensitive to it because its origins, reality, and culture are not foreign; in short, it is furthered as part of the origins and/or choice.

In any case, having sketched out this deeper dimension, let’s return to the central idea and leave aside the concern about the vanguard. All promoters, consultants, educators (or however they are called) who are truly committed to choosing liberation cannot be foreign, even if they have “outside” origins, to the process of transformation and its struggles. They must then be real organic intellectuals. This is their fundamental role. Therefore, a coordinator cannot be neutral. In reality, they are not because even if they tried, that position does not exist. Beyond this obvious declaration, however, a coordinator cannot be neutral since they made a choice and so have taken a position. And that position manifests itself and should be manifested clearly and in the moment in the popular education and transformation process.

There are naïve and simplistic approaches that try to maintain that the educator must be neutral because if they are not, then they are manipulating the group and directing it towards the educator’s own ideas and interests. Directing yes, in the right sense of the word; manipulating, no, because it is precisely about handling (and should be handling) a participatory and scientific methodology and pedagogy that promotes and builds the knowledge and attitudes freely and in relation to the reality of the interests of the actual organization.

The realities that are diagnosed, analyzed and interpreted exist within a context and history. They are recognized and interpreted within a particular framework. The educators as coordinators of the process direct according to their framework and interests. There is no, there can’t be, and there shouldn’t be any neutrality. Yet we insist: to have a position does not necessarily mean to manipulate a particular group; for this, we must gather a series of conditions and characteristics. We will elaborate upon some of these that will help us better answer the question: what does it mean to facilitate/coordinate a process or an educational activity? We’ll refer to contributions, using more precise and concrete educational activities as our reference.

To coordinate is to direct a group towards achieving stated objectives. Every rational process that is intentionally planned should clearly formulate those objectives that are trying to be reached overall and for each phase of the process. The coordinator is responsible for designing the process and leading the group, by means of reflection, analysis, and synthesis, to achieve the stated objectives. It is not possible to discuss a theme or situation without knowing for what it is being discussed and what you want to achieve with it. Therefore, the coordinator should have mastery of the theme and have a clear position. Only in this way is it possible for a group to achieve its stated objectives.

A group often says: “Who coordinates?” And by chance, without any consideration or regard, it elects “democratically” some compañer@. Very often the elected person is limited to giving their opinion only at those times when it is solicited (and this for the purpose of maintaining order), without putting together the theme, without discriminating between the contents, permitting and giving space to whatever opinion and whatever content, without contextualizing it, without questioning, accepting aspects that are not part of the theme, without making a partial synthesis, without concluding the theme, in short…Thus, normally, it doesn’t succeed in developing the stated content and obviously, doesn’t achieve the objectives that the group wants to reach. It produces confusion and discomfort, which causes many to prefer to return to a traditional and vertical method, since in a participatory one, the direction has now been lost. But we want to leave it clear: what fails is the capacity to coordinate, not the style. Even less the methodology or the theoretical base that supports it.

To summarize, to coordinate is not only to speak: but rather to guide the group to achieve its stated objectives, by means of organizing the contents, the continuous syntheses, the capacity to question and cross-examine the group in order to continue searching and constructing the response. To coordinate is to know how to integrate and excite the group.

Whatever group, save that which already exists perfectly formed such as a natural group, needs to pass through a process of integration that permits it to “break the ice”, build trust and in this way create optimal conditions for authentic, democratic, and productive participation. The coordinator should help to create this environment of integration and trust. In addition, they should be attentive to the dynamic that develops in the group in order to keep it lively and active, preventing weariness, boredom and tension. To achieve this, the coordinator should know and master a series of techniques or “dynamics” that they can implement with creativity in those moments when the process requires it.

To coordinate is to know how to generate and favor participation. We have spoken sufficiently of participation as the foundation of an active pedagogy; we even finished by valuing the factors of integration and excitement as facilitators of a participatory process. But it’s not enough to know it, the coordinator should provoke free, conscious, and enthusiastic participation. Much will depend on creating and sustaining a climate of trust, but also has something to do with mastery of the theme and above all, with the knowledge and application of particular methods, as well as the initiating techniques for each of the proposed themes or stages of the process.

To coordinate is to know how to question, to know what to question and to know when it is necessary to question. It has been said many times that the success of a good coordinator has to do with their capacity to question effectively, as much or more, than with their capacity to respond. And this is logical, because in a participatory and dialogic process, the response will be encountered based on the knowledge of the group and of the new elements that they offer. And this group knowledge and interpretation must be obtained little by little, in an organized and systematic form through each new question, timely and wise, that the coordinator puts out to the group like a new obstacle to overcome, when apparently—and only apparently—the group seems to have arrived at a certain limit. With relation to the content, their knowledge of the group and the stated objectives, the coordinator should know if the limit of capacity and interest of analysis is real: or if the moment to stimulate the process of generating knowledge with a new question, a new restlessness that they perceive is latent and that the group should resolve through the coordinators capacity to question effectively. To abound in the causes, to inquire into the elements, to look for unseen relations in the studied phenomena, is the objective sought with this method of questions.

To coordinate is to know how to opinionate and know how to be quiet. We cannot fall in the extreme notion that coordinators should not opinionate, that they should only question. If their pedagogy is good, it is based on their capacity to question. We have said that they are not neutral nor removed from the process and they are involved with a certain cause and certain interests. We have also talked about their directed role with the aim of accomplishing objectives. In all these circumstances, the coordinator should know how to be quiet, how to question and have patience, without getting ahead of the group’s progress, inhibiting it with their own truth. But they should also know how to opinionate, see their point of view and plant their position at the necessary and opportune moment. Effectively, caring for the rhythm of the group’s process, the coordinators involve themselves and form part of the group’s dynamic and its process. An equilibrium difficult to achieve, because impatience can cause the coordinator to abuse their role, falling into a verticalist and banking position; or an excessive "respect" for the group can cause anarchy and loss of control over the process, in other words, they do not fulfill their role as involved conductors.

For the most part, conductors should know how to integrate themselves into the group, because only in this way will they feel themselves in an environment of trust, with the right to manifest their position, their sentiments, their limitations and their contributions. In this way, Freire’s affirmation that "no one teaches anyone, rather everyone learns together", will have more overtones of truth and the role of coordination, being a role of service, will not remove them or separate them from the real process that the group lives, of which they are an active part.

Lastly, we would like to plant a few characteristics or qualities that a good coordinator should try to develop. Many have been implicitly or explicitly formulated while talking about what it means to coordinate; we will simply expand on them. A coordinator should be humble and amiable; which is to say, a compañer@. The more understandings, titles, experiences and abilities they have, their attitude should be more like a compañer@ – not like a pose or like temporal performance. They should not be, or think themselves as, a distanced teacher who the group should "respect" in the traditional sense, which is to say, a formal "respect" based on fear, distance, power or prestige. There are many who deny the validity of a dialectical method – even though they maintain a discourse in the same line – because they either don’t want or don’t dare to be compañer@s. Their arguments fall directly in line with the prestige that envelops them, that way – and only in that way – they can establish their role of authority.

In our way of knowing things, these current and common attitudes hide a large deep seeded insecurity that tries to conceal itself with a distanced position that impedes the question or questioning by groups or organizations. It is not the "authority" it pretends to be; it is authoritarianism. It is not the "truth" it pretends to be; it is secure and/or memorized orthodoxy, that is rarely understood or comprehended at a real level of understanding that allows for analysis, questioning and discussion, without fear of "losing the line." In any case, the practice demonstrates – and there are many examples of real leaders that endorse it – that the role of conductors and the force of their moral authority, not only appears unaffected, rather to the contrary, solidly fortified, when they succeed in identifying themselves as compañer@s, like the best if you will, like the most committed, the one who should do the rest a favor by letting them know, the one who represents the true authority, who is firm and respected because s/he is fraternal.

In any case, a problem concerning the way to approach a pedagogical process cannot invalidate all of a consistent theoretical and methodological approach. The synthesis between theory, methodology, pedagogy and didactics, also doubtlessly encounters a problem of personal attitude with respect to the process. Another capacity or condition that every educator should cultivate refers to the use of language that is used to communicate. As we understand and enter more profoundly in the aspects of theory; as we increase our dominion over a science or a technology; in sum, as our analysis becomes more elaborate and complex, our minds and our language become more complex and sophisticated, the requirements of conceptualization needed to attain a correct abstraction and interpretation of reality require this. The big challenge is in knowing how to use the profundity of thought with humility, without using, or better said, without abusing complicated concepts and terms that are unintelligible to the group. It is not about falling into simplistic terms or generalities that end up saying nothing. Instead it’s about looking for ways to explain, uncover and pull apart complex content, using synonyms and examples, until accomplishing, by using a simple colloquial language, that the idea be comprehended; and therefore the concept at hand, if it becomes necessary, would become incorporated and appropriated to the knowledge and lexicon of the group.

When we spoke of the techniques or in particular about the "codes," we were referring to this from the point of view of the creation, recovery and use of multiple manifestations of popular culture that become tools for Popular Education when adequately approached. The constant combination of these knowledge generating techniques (due to the participation they give rise to), plus the educator’s ability and sensibility to adequately manage their language, in general will give us an excellent didactic experience. A good organic intellectual is not one who separates or differentiates themselves from the masses by their attitudes and complex language. A good organic intellectual is one who accessible to the people and it’s culture, knows how to enrich themselves with the great freshness and depth of thought that the people express in interpreting the world, in multiple and rich manifestations of meaning and significances. Building upon these and beginning from them, the good organic intellectual constructs a creative formulation of the theory, that each time and according to each circumstance, recreates itself, enriches itself, and augments its capacity of interpretation and formulation of a position that is sustained fundamentally but is reconstructed practically abolishing dogmas and questioning the absolutes, because the only absolute is the praxis and its constant creative formulation...and in this the structuring of the language has a lot to do with it, because it is without a doubt a reflection of the mind.

Although we have been obviously referring to oral language, it is worth saying that by "language" we mean all types of expression, attitudes and manifestations with which we communicate with on a daily basis. From this, the coordinator should be very attentive to not neglect this gamut of communicative elements. With frequency we observe a very passive attitude with a frank appearance of disinterest on the part of the coordinator, the rhythm is slow, as is the attitude and position towards the group. Long silences are produced with a solitary and concise question from the coordinator. “What do you all think?” In general a group will not take off with great participation. We have to stimulate, and to do that, in addition to what was said earlier, it is important to have expressive body language. We have to know how to manage the rhythm and not to produce tensions by allowing (or provoking a slow down with our own manifestation) conscious or not, of all of our multiple "forms of language" in front of the group. We want to point out that though patience is an indispensable virtue in every coordinator, this should not be confused with inactive silence that leaves the group with no way out. Coordinating by use of silence is, in our judgment, a grave error that coordinators fall in with great frequency.

In general terms and without falling into a type of manual, we think that we’ve extracted from our experience the most important traits that locate and characterize the role of an educator, coordinator, promoter or whatever name is still used to define the role of organic intellectual. Nevertheless we reiterate (though it might be very obvious) that there cannot be good coordination without theoretical clarity, proven commitment, an attitude of service, mastery of the methodology, and knowledge and adequate management of the topic or situation that is being worked on. These qualities nevertheless, will not be learned by reading this text, any treaty on pedagogy or in a class; they are only developed in praxis.

*Carlos Nuñez Hurtado is a Mexican popular educator. Originally written in Spanish, this text is a translation by Canek, Paula, Priscilla, and RJ for the Another Politics is Possible study group in NYC.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

El Kilombo Intergaláctico

Big ups to El Kilombo Intergaláctico on the 1st Anniversary of the opening of their social center! Focused on the concerns of people of color, students, and working class communities in Durham, North Carolina, the center includes a radical bookstore, ESL learning center, progressive speaker and film series, community gardening/food distribution program, free technology center, and space for local cultural events, concerts, poetry readings, and art exhibits. Its current programming includes English classes, homework help nights for kids, capoeira classes, theater classes, and a Black and Latino Radicalism Seminar...and all for FREE.

I first heard about this crew a few years ago from some members of Estación Libre who were pulling it together. Last year I heard they were opening a space and later I started seeing that they were the ones translating a grip of the new Zapatista communiques. FRESH. I was just in Durham for the National Day of Truthtelling and didn't even get to see the dang space :-(

And in case you haven't already noticed, this crew is not just practical but big on the theory as well. If you are looking for an economical way to break down this whole "Fourth World War" thing, the Zapatistas' Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the Other Campaign...and what the hell it has to do with us here in the "brain of the monster," you might look no further than this:

The Fourth, the Sixth, the Other, and US
El Kilombo Intergaláctico, liaison to the Other Campaign
Talk given at El Kilombo's event: "Political Action: Beyond Solidarity"
March 8, 2007


I want to talk first about a country where severe poverty has reached a 3-decade high, where roughly 37 million poor people are dropping ranks at a rate of 26% over the last 5 years to swell the level of deep or severe poverty to 16 million. 60% of the population will spend part at least of their lives poor by official standards, and 40% will live an extended period in poverty. Among the top 10 states affected by this exponential growth are not the states historically known in the northern hemisphere to be poverty-stricken of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, but rather North Carolina. This is the United States in the 21st century, which, parallel to what we normally consider “developing” nations, has, at the mercy of neoliberal policies, experienced that once curious and now commonplace combination of statistical economic expansion on a national scale and falling wages and decreasing job growth for the great majority of the population. The benefits of US economic expansion and globalization do not benefit even the top 10% of the US population, but rather the top 1%. And while that 1% has enjoyed a salary growth of 87% in the last 30 years, the top .1% has enjoyed 181% increase and the top .01%, a 497% increase. But neither is this a US phenomenon; while Bill Gates currently holds the title of richest man in the world, he will, if current patterns and predictions continue, be surpassed shortly by Carlos Slim, Mexican businessman. So the richest man in the world will be Mexican, and in the country presumably posed to appreciate the rather non-globalized benefits of globalization, the richest country in the world, university-educated people are seeing their salaries sliding dangerously, rents rising more than 50% since 1995, a third of young workers without health insurance, and the rise of a “boomerang” generation of post-college kids now returning to live with their parents because their slim-salaried job options, if they find an option, are not enough to cover their crippling debt. In addition, we saw the willingness and capacity of local and federal governments to aid communities of color after Hurricane Katrina. The US and Mexico now find a surprising commonality, in addition to the 10-20 million Mexicans living in the US, and the fact that those people sustain to some degree both economies, the US and Mexico share the rank, accompanied worldwide only by Russia, of having the least and least effective anti-poverty programs. Neoliberalism, as the Zapatistas say, doesn’t turn many countries into one country, it turns each country into many countries.

I. The Fourth World War

This is the Fourth World War fought not in the “third world” or the “first world” per se, but rather in the 3rd world found in the first, and in the first found in the third, confusing categorization of who the “other” is, playing itself out on the streets of Seattle, Chiapas, Genoa, Quebec, Seoul, and a thousand other cities. Another US statistic: job satisfaction is dropping consistently, hovering now below 50% among workers of all ages and across all income brackets, with only 14% claiming to be “very satisfied.” 40% feel completely disconnected from their employers, 66% are unmotivated by their job objectives and almost all are unsatisfied with bonus plans, promotion policies, health plans and pensions; misery can’t be measured strictly with political economic indices. This is a war, in the words of the Zapatistas, where “each country, each city, each countryside, each house, each person: each is a large or small battleground.” You see, they say, “Behind our black mask, behind our armed voice, behind our unnameable name, behind what you see of us, behind this, we are you.” It is unfortunate that this has in large part been taken metaphorically, the Zapatistas actually meant it.

Traumatic as these policies are for them, the Zapatistas remind us, for all of those who take the streets, it is in fact more traumatic for the political class, which finds itself irrelevant as its job in government becomes one of managerial duties, and as powers beyond even them ask why employ politicians if market analysts better understand the new logic of power, better understand how to divide, classify, and address citizens as clients and consumers? The new “society of power,” again in Zapatista language, that conglomeration which holds together international financial organizations, mass media, large corporations, educational centers, states with their politician-managers and national defense programs, this society often wields the discourse of national security and sovereignty but deploys the always internationalist will of capital to promote the only thing it is loyal to, the empire of money.

This isn’t the map we normally see or the war we usually hear about. Let’s return to the entities on either side of the US-Mexico border. In the Zapatista analysis, people who have suffered centuries at the hands and handiwork of the United States: “The nation-state which now claims the title of the divine hand of God... exists only on television, on the radio, in some newspapers and magazines, and in the movies.” What for one crowd is the world power of “democracy and justice” and for the other, “brutality and imperialism,” is in reality neither, they say, it is a media spectacle, a mythical haven, a hologram, and of course, a useful tool for capital. It cannot even be loyal to itself: the heroes of this hologram are equally fleeting and utilitarian, the image of New York City fireman covered in ash in 2001, held up by US media and government agencies as world saviors of civilization and humanity, where are they now, the Zapatistas ask. They are in fact dying of respiratory disease, if not already dead, fighting, or their widowed families fighting, for even basic compensation and medical coverage from the US government, replaced on TV by the brave, armed soldier in Iraq, also an image quickly fading when that brave soldier is sent injured to a rat-infested veteran’s hospital or is court-martialed for denouncing the war.

On the other side of the border, Mexico has moved into first place on a worldwide scale as receiver of remittances, which required that internationally it pass India in the amount of remittances received from citizens outside of the country and that internally, remittances surpass both petroleum and tourism as a source of national income, weighing in in 2005 at 25 billion dollars. In 2004 nearly half the country lived below the official poverty line of USD$4.00 a day, some 60% of the working population participates as part of the informal economy, usually some version of street-vendor, and in many areas the principal export product is labor: for instance, the Mexican state of Zacatecas has in effect moved to the US—that is, there are more Zacatecans living in the US than in Zacatecas.

Then, in addition to these two ambiguous entities, there are the people stuck in between. More than 26,000 immigrants are currently being held in detention facilities nationwide in the US, a record number that follows federal raids on workplaces over the past six months, this of course not counting the dead in the desert, the suffocated in the truck trailers, the cheated who are dropped off outside a Wal-Mart in Sonora, Mexico and told they have reached America, still hundreds of miles from the Rio Bravo and without a cent to go further or go home, and all the undocumented deaths of the undocumented lives that dot the border.

If these problems could once be pushed to the margins, always offset to a more marginalized group, it is now becoming clearer that in the North American continent there are no more margins, or perhaps better said, there is nothing but margins. This underlines a common tendency towards the generalization of precariousness (lack of job security or stability or backup by social support), massive social fragmentation (into market groups for those who qualify as clients and penal institutions for those categorized as delinquents), and spatial segregation (to manage precarity and preserve some semblance of who the “other” is), and, as many have already pointed out, into a normalized state of exception to keep the disorder in order.

So now we (Mexico and the US) share the 4th world war. We share a population. We share mutually lethal and complicit immigration and social policies. And, to gloss over what is a complex and important situation that deserves much more time than we’ll give it tonight, we share the experience of having an extreme right-wing president put in power through massive fraud and a self-serving electoral left that has offered, when it has offered anything, only a slightly more socially sophisticated management of neoliberal restructuring, which has left not only the majority of the poor, the workers, the country flailing but has abandoned what have been its faithful followers to their fates as its makes backroom concessions with the party in power. It is in this context: the sham of an electoral system, the lack of any relationship much less a representative one between the political class and the population, and the poverty, debt, and dead-ends available to most people, that I want to look at the Other Campaign as one alternative being built in Mexico and what it can offer to us in the way of constructing a movement. Because what we also share are the stakes: a possibility for constructing our own liberation, however we choose—a multiplicity of forms of free activity and being, or submission to a system of command where atomized fragments of life are made ready for work in the subordination of all life to accumulation.

II. The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle

The Other Campaign is the Mexican part of the national and international initiative proposed by the Zapatistas in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle which came out the summer of 2005. There are several ways to understand the “Sixth” as it is called, in the trajectory of Zapatista history. One can look, for example at the Declarations of the Lacandon Jungle, the first which came out the day of the initial uprising, January 1, 1994 when a guerrilla army took over seven important cities in the southernmost state of Chiapas, Mexico, declaring that after 500 years of oppression, enough was enough and that they would die for their demands: work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace. The following declarations, which came out each time at long-awaited intervals over the next several years always explained a new moment, new “thinking” as they call it, in the Zapatista movement: an analysis of their interactions with the government, an analysis of what they have learned in their interactions with “civil society” (civil society is not used here inn the Gramscian sense, a more adequate translation would be civilian society—it is simply used to distinguish citizens from military), an analysis of global political economy and its manifestations locally, an analysis and accounting of their own processes of constructing their own liberation, or autonomy in Zapatista territory. These declarations were always accompanied by an announcement of the next step, the purpose of their actions, and a call to national and international civil society to join them. The 5th declaration came out in July of 1998, so the significance of the 6th was in part the seven year gap.

We could also look at Zapatista history in terms of their repeated initiatives to create more, and more profound, encounters with “civil society”: the National Democratic Convention in 1994, the Intercontinental Gathering Against Neoliberalism and For Humanity, also called the Intergalactic Encounter in 1996, the March of the 1,111 indigenous Zapatistas to Mexico City in 1997, the Referendum in 1999 in which 5,000 Zapatistas went out into villages, towns, and cities all over the country to hold a national consultation on indigenous rights, the March of the Color of the Earth in 2001, again to Mexico City, each of these a enabling them to meet another sector of the population, another sector or group which supported them but which also had its own struggle. We could also look at this history in terms of its symbolic icons: fire, word, silence, and the other. The fire referring to the 12 days of fighting in January of 1994 and the subsequent unilateral ceasefire called by the Zapatistas in response to civil society’s plea for an end to the fighting; the word refers to the dialogues, including the peace talks with the government but also the long process of the Zapatistas getting to know “civil society” through meetings, communiqués, letters, and the global traffic in and out of the Zapatista communities; the silence refers the years after the government betrayed the peace accords with a bad faith counterreform and the Zapatistas stopped communicating publicly or officially and set about implementing the accords “in practice.” That is, they decided they would continue with the process of constructing autonomy in their everyday lives and communities instead of asking or waiting for their rights to be granted. In this way they made autonomous education and health programs, an autonomous judicial system, a system of autonomous governments that govern all of Zapatista territory, and what has thus resulted in a system of new social relations that function from collective production, assembly decision-making, and direct democratic self-governance.

Or, in yet another way of looking at this history, we witness the expanding list of peoples and groups with whom the Zapatistas have met and begun to know, adding each time not just to their list of allies but to their network of “below”: students, workers, teachers, housewives, gays and lesbians, children, the elderly, religious laypeople who work with those below, artists, musicians, intellectuals, political prisoners, migrants, transvestites, transgendered people, punks, prostitutes, goths, skateboarders, and so on.

It is out of this context that the Sixth arises: announcing that, having done an analysis of the world, of the national situation, of global capitalism and of their local conditions, and a referendum throughout all Zapatista territory to come to an agreement on this next step, that they had decided that: 1) via the continuing process of primitive accumulation, total destruction was imminent, not just of the Lacandon Jungle and the Zapatista communities, but of the global environment and human living conditions, that capitalism was destroying everything for short-term profit and that it would stop nowhere, that it would eat its own to continue the process; 2) that what they wanted they could not obtain alone, nor was what they wanted just for them, and 3) that to do what they proposed in the Sixth Declaration was to risk everything, everything they have gained in the past 13 years of struggle, but to do nothing was to lose for sure. And so they would come out of the jungle, unarmed, out of the clandestinity and protection provided by a guerrilla existence in the mountains, to meet and organize with the rest of civil society, to, in short, peacefully overturn the entire system of government and destroy capitalism, to remake politics and change the world.

On a national level this would take the form of the Other Campaign, a project to create a national anticapitalist program of struggle, from below, nonviolent, non electoral, to create a new form of politics and a new constitution. On the international level it would take the form of the intergalactic—a planetary network of struggle. Tonight will focus on the Other Campaign.

The Sixth Declaration gave an account of Zapatista history somewhat like we have done above—a process not only of fighting for their own rights and demands, of battle and dialogue with the government, of construction and rebellion in their own communities, but of a process of meeting other sectors of society, of learning to know other struggles, of learning to respect and to demand respect from the “other.” In the Sixth they announce that, as a consequence of this process, “we couldn’t see and hear all that was happening on our planet and remain quiet, as if only we are where we are.” In Zapatista language this means, as they have stated elsewhere, today Iraq is in southeast Mexico, Chiapas is on the US-Mexico border, Palestine is everywhere. The project to connect struggles would be not just a strategy of mutual support and solidarity between struggles, but a project to create a new “we,” a collective subject from “below” capable of acting in cooperation beyond previously acknowledged borders that today function only to separate “us.” Included in this new subject are all those who are “humble, simple, dignified, and rebellious.”

III. The Other Campaign

Methodologically, the Other Campaign would start with the sending out of a Zapatista delegate to visit, traveling by land, each of the 32 states, in addition to three meetings on the US-Mexico border to meet with people from “the other side,” as they refer to the US. This was the work of Subcomandante Marcos, and this was the process that took place this past year. These meetings weren’t usually big public events in big cities—the Zapatista delegation traveled always where people lived and worked, the most remote corners of the mountains, the desert, the plains, the forests, the coasts, to indigenous communities, squatter’s colonies, anarchist squats, to the red light districts to meet with sex-workers, the schools to meet with students, and to the jails to meet with prisoners. The Zapatista delegation would speak briefly to give an account of the Other Campaign so far, to tell the stories they had already heard, but the great bulk of these meetings consisted of listening to the local people describe their situation, their struggle, their perspectives, and what they wanted, listening here implying not just letting them talk but creating the space for their words to be heard. Two or 200 participants, the Zapatista delegation listened to every single one. To create a new “we,” they say, to work together, we have to know each other, and the only way to know each other, to encounter each other, is to listen. After this initial exploratory journey by Subcomandante Marcos, more commanders of the Zapatista army would also emerge from the Chiapas mountains and distribute themselves throughout the country to continue the process
of creating a national network of struggle with other sectors and other struggles .

There are two important trajectories of this process that we can point out here as central to the process of building this new “we” of, from, and for below. One is the process of becoming united without becoming the same. The history of attempts by the left to unite struggles or create national or international level organizations have been characterized, and usually derailed, by structures and ideologies of the necessity of a vanguard to guide masses, or the need for a united “people” to lend support and legitimacy to a leader, or the inevitable process whereby peasants give way to proletariat or social movements become political party base, in general the necessity to suppress internal differences in the interest of making a common front to face the enemy. If there was one theme that was most repeated throughout the Other Campaign by the Zapatistas it was this: we do not ask you to be like us, we ask you to be with us; we are not looking for followers, we are looking for comrades, the only thing that makes us the same is that we are all different. The second aspect is to learn to know the “other,” to create a process of talking, and more importantly listening, that turns the category “other” from something marginal to something universal. That is, the “other” becomes each difference, self-valued and autonomous, among us, rather than measures of deviation from a norm. This was perhaps the conceptualization that most resonated across “civil society,” taking on fluctuating and transformative meanings that moved from something “alternative”: where the “other” of “an-other world is possible” and the “Other Campaign” became diverse calls for and projects of creating an “other” politics, an “other” education, an “other” media, an “other” communication, an “other” sexuality, into “other loves” as the Zapatistas refer to the non-heterosexual community; and then to something more than just alternative: the transformation of “todos somos Marcos” (We are ALL Marcos) chanted by the Zapatista communities in 1994 into the “tod@s somos OTR@S” (We are all Others) chanted by the transsexual community, adherents of the Sixth Declaration, in Oaxaca City, 2006.

The process of becoming “other” is not something figurative in the Other Campaign, it is a concrete process. There really was no other trick for doing this new “othering” than actually sitting and listening, for hours and hours, to how the transsexual community identifies neoliberalism in Oaxaca City, and how the landless peasants live neoliberalism on its outskirts. And in this process, it was not only Zapatistas and each group they met with that listened to each other, but each group began to hear the others, and a network of knowledge began to form in which farmers, street vendors, students, and housewives knew each other’s problems, persecutions, perspectives. These are not easy tasks, and it is only when you are sitting in an assembly of the communist party and the anarchist collective of Saltillo, Coahuila, or of Oaxacan indigenous farmers and Oaxaca City cross-dressers, that you begin to see that when there is no prescription to follow, when, as the Zapatistas have always said, and the Other Campaign had to tirelessly repeat, there is no road where we want to go, when the rebel is given options for life and doesn’t like any of them, they don’t pick, they start building a new one.

The new option being constructed in the Other Campaign starts here then, with a new “we” composed of all those from “below.” But “below” is not a term for victims, nor is it a term for an opposition, it is not the counterpart to, or the consequence of, “above.” It is an affirmative organization, a political project, a new way of composing community. The capitalist attack is to isolate the parts and destroy any semblance of a self-sustaining or self-determined habitat, and to thus force people into the exploitable relationship of capital; the political project must be to create a terrain of resistance and a collective subjectivity to inhabit that terrain, whatever that means wherever we are.

IV. Left Politics in the US

What does this have to do with us? What does it mean to be an “adherent” of the Sixth? We have established that the US and Mexican populations share and suffer under the same neoliberal capitalist system. We have looked at how the Zapatistas are facing that system and the state of permanent crisis it brings, specifically by creating a new collective subjectivity, new organizational forms adequate for that subject, new conceptualizations, that of the “others” that we all are, as a way to overcome the isolation and fragmentation of the neoliberal society and to provide a “we” that can act effectively in that setting. What does this imply for us, for the US?

Left politics in the United States have been dominated by two primary fields of organization, electoral politics and the NGOification of the grassroots. For those disenchanted with electoral politics—something we can’t go into at depth here—but speaking of, at minimum, dissatisfaction with the democratic party or a fraudulent voting system, and, more profoundly, with the party system (nullified by the empire of money) and the crisis of representation in general (which has become a spectacle of simulation), non-governmental and non-profit organizations have often been the refuge and catch-all for social concerns and activism. As has been written elsewhere and a critique increasingly common, the NGO model has cornered much of left politics into a cycle of fundraising bureaucracy and philanthropic fashion: launching funding searches, funding requests, funding report-backs, organizations have to find money to pay people to find money, to tailor or at least cater political initiatives or campaigns to funding requirements and preferences, and to dedicate endless energy and human resources to donor relationships, agency applications, and creating images attractive to foundations. And while they may be nicer people than many of those found in an electoral system of representation, NGOs do not offer a more democratic model—they seldom have or are accountable to a base (a community or a population), they are not chosen by a base, they are hired by a board, and they tend to, by the nature of their funding structure and salary scale, convert politics into NGO management, much the same way neoliberalism has converted state government into business management. This doesn’t mean they are useless, but it hardly provides a model for alternative social organization. Philanthropic trends and priorities have determined the focus and movement of these organizations, taking them through environmental justice, anti-nuke organizing, racial justice, gay rights, housing rights, youth development, anti-poverty initiatives, immigrant rights, anti-war movement, union organizing.... all worthy causes in themselves, but also very limited by themselves. And no matter how long that lists gets, it will likely never arrive at a new system of social relations, of community self-determination, of self-government.

This style of leftist politics not only does not provide us with a subject adequate for global anticapitalist struggle, but it in fact mirrors the fragmentation imposed by the market itself. What’s left? The tired ideologies of sectarianism and vanguardism have shown their utter inadequacy to address current global conditions; or have been so shown by their total rejection by people in struggle. Those discouraged by NGO politics and sectarian or vanguardist practices have in turn often taken refuge in solidarity activism, supporting those movements around the world who have managed to create something else, to do an-other politics. But the Sixth eliminates this last refuge. The conditions have gone beyond a solidarity structure where the privileged in the north help the poor of the south; the ethical responsibility of the cry, “we are all others” lies on our shoulders, to recognize our own conditions, our own struggle, to construct our own liberation. It is not solidarity groups, single-issue campaigns and sectorized activist identities that we need, it is our own organized communities—whether those be residential or professional, geographic or virtual—and a project to connect those communities.

The Sixth did not start with the Other Campaign or the highly publicized emergence of the commanders of the Zapatista Army from the Lacandon Jungle. It started years ago when the Zapatista bases began to organize assemblies and implement self-governing structures in their territories, experimenting with rotating juridical duties, a collectively created school curriculum, community-determined conservation and land use laws, in what amounts to a living constitution, and then creating a network of autonomous communities with the organizational power to make democratic decisions among hundreds of thousands of people. Their internal organization, with power firmly situated in assembly, is what created the ability and the collective mechanisms to open themselves to the project of a much bigger network, that which they have determined necessary for combating global capitalism. The Other Campaign was not about drawing masses of people into a centralized organization, but building, one encounter at a time, networks of communities that know each other, that would in turn form alternative communication networks, exchange systems, information circuits, routes of knowledge and resources, and eventually, an eventually that may come very soon, alternative institutions run by the same communities, what amounts to, at bottom, another society. We can’t wait for the “old” system, or society, to fall before we make the new one.

V. Conclusion

At this point, isolation is our enemy. Global neoliberal capitalism is not simply global markets and trade policy, it is a social system that carries the disease of separation and self-obsession, a depoliticization of society and disintegration of the collective political subject. “Raise your head, and with it your gaze,” the Other Campaign has taught us; you will not find the answer inside, nor is it outside, it is between us, what we create, what is created when we meet.

It has been our collective analysis here (in El Kilombo) that you can’t survive and struggle against capitalism at the same time by yourself; there is too much to do. You can’t know enough, have enough, or do enough to get through it safely and successfully—to pay the bills, take care of your health, secure housing, develop healthy human relationships—much less change it. We face the question, as if the Zapatistas have asked us, do you believe that, behind our masks, we are you, or do you believe that, behind your masks, there is nothing?

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Support This Delegation (Please)

Please see below to send your much needed financial support


a delegation of women of color, moms, kids, youth, and childcare volunteers traveling together from NYC to the first ever United States Social Forum (USSF) Atlanta, GA June 27 – July 1, 2007

WE ARE a community of organizations, cultural workers and individual activists committed to creating an intergenerational movement that is welcoming and accessible, prioritizes collectively-based work, integrates self-care, and builds on our cultures of resistance. Some of us are women, mothers or families of color, some of us are kids or people who play with kids, some of us are queer, questioning, transgendered, gender non-conforming, gay, lesbian, or two spirit, some of us have been locked up or have family members inside, someof us have experienced police violence or interpersonal violence, some of us are poor or have limited access to resources, some of us are wealthy or have abundant access to resources. We contribute critical perspective, visions and practices of movement building that understand transforming entire communities and our inter-personal relationships as central to addressing structural injustices.

THE USSF, inspired by the World Social Forum, promises to be the first major gathering of grassroots movement building organizations in the country. Many times, individual paid professionals and “token” community members represent community organizations in larger strategic conversations, gatherings, and conferences. The USSF provides an important opportunity to change this dynamic. Instead of choosing a few individuals to travel by plane and rent out hotel rooms, we will use a comparable budget to enable a large group of mothers, children, youth, and childcare volunteers to attend the USSF. Ground transportation will enable more participants to attend, particularly immigrants and families with children.

THE JOURNEY ITSELF will embody our politics, fostering an intergenerational space of connection, sharing and caring for people from different communities in NYC. At the USSF, we hope to both learn from others and to share our own work. Some of the workshops that our groups are developing are around collective and non-hierarchical approaches to organizing, addressing violence against women of color through transformative justice, alternatives to institutional schooling, solidarity work, and community-generated autonomous visions and practices. We also hope to learn and build relationships with other groups of young women, mothers, and immigrants.

UPON RETURNING TO NYC, we will produce a newsletter report-back about the USSF experience, and a popular education curriculum that builds upon the workshops we lead and participate in at the USSF. These materials will be bi-lingual (English-Spanish) and shared with NYC groups to use in-house in their leadership development work. We will also organize a city-wide gathering for reflection about lessons learned at the USSF, focusing on practices and strategies employed across the country that we could incorporate to strengthen our work.

SUPPORT US in securing ground transportation, food, and lodging for our delegation of over 70 mothers, kids, youth organizers, and childcare volunteers, as well as for production of report-back materials and follow-up community gatherings in NYC.

You can make a tax deductible donation directly online (please specify ‘USSF delegation’) by visiting:

You can also send a check to Center for Immigrant Families, with ‘ussf delegation’ in the memo line, to Center for Immigrant Families, 20 West 104th St Garden Entrance, New York, NY 10025.


SISTAS ON THE RISE: a community organization based in the South Bronx started by teen moms to develop leadership, promote political education, and fight for the rights of teen moms and all young women of color through community organizing.

CENTER FOR IMMIGRANT FAMILIES: a collectively-run organization of low-income immigrant women of color in Manhattan Valley (Uptown NYC). Our stories and lived experiences are central to building a community that works towards social change and promotes justice, mutuality, love, trust, and dignity.

PACHAMAMA: THE BUSHWICK CHILDCARE COOPERATIVE: Black and Latina mothers caring for each other and our children while organizing for collective liberation.

REGENERACIÓN CHILDCARE NYC: a network of volunteers who provide childcare to facilitate the participation of low-income mothers of color in building movements for collective liberation.

SISTERFIRE: a project of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. We are a network of NYC-based women of color invested in building a multigenerational movement to end violence against women of color in all its forms.

KITCHEN TABLE COLLECTIVE: an intergenerational education collective of parents, kids, elders and babies, currently from West Harlem, El Barrio and Corona. Through the act of "teaching our own", we are building alternatives to the oppressive systems of formal childcare and education for our families, our communities and ourselves.

CRITICAL RESISTANCE NYC FREEDOM SCHOOL: connecting low-income mothers of color with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in order to build solidarity, develop organizing capacity against prisons, policing and jails, and imagine solutions to interpersonal harm.

SISTA II SISTA: a Brooklyn-wide collective of poor and working-class young and adult Black and Latina women building together to model a society based on liberation and love.

HARM FREE ZONE: provides tools and trainings to local communities to strengthen and develop our ability to resolve conflicts without the need for the police, court system, or prison industry.

COMMUNITY BIRTHING PROJECT: a collective of women of color working to support the empowerment of low income women in their birthing experiences, and to challenge practices of forced medicalization, unnecessary interventions and controlled decisionmaking.

LIL' MAROONS: a parent-run childcare cooperative operating from a child-led African-centered curriculum. In the spirit of maroon communities children and parents model the principles of independence, self-determination and cooperation with each other and the world.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Zapatismo and Queer Struggles

Alot has transpired in the past week or so...the students at the Autonomous University "Benito Juárez" in Oaxaca City have taken back their radio station and various groups (1,2) have reclaimed the center (Zócalo) of Oaxaca City as a space of protest...national and international actions and events marking the first anniversary of the attack on Atenco and demanding the release of Mexico's political prisoners..the LAPD wildin' out on the Immigrants' Rights/Anti-War march on May Day...and Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB) denouncing state agression against the NYC march. Meanwhile, a bunch of us here in Brooklyn were at a packed BBQ/concert raising funds for MJB to go to the US Social Forum (USSF) this summer in Atlanta (you'll find info on their upcoming community dinner fundraiser in this post). And, speaking of the USSF, the deadline for workshop proposals is May 11! Oh, and in case you haven't seen it yet, the English translation of the call for a Continental Indigenous Encuentro this October in Sonora, México is up...spread the word! All this, yes, but it was USSF delegation preparations coupled with friday's jam-packed fundraiser for FIERCE! that inspired this week's post...

Zapatismo & Queer Struggles
... or some observations to continue a conversation
Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a gang member in Neza, a rocker in the National University, a Jew in Germany, an ombudsman in the Defense Ministry, a communist in the post-Cold War era, an artist without gallery or portfolio.... A pacifist in Bosnia, a housewife alone on Saturday night in any neighborhood in any city in Mexico, a striker in the CTM, a reporter writing filler stories for the back pages, a single woman on the subway at 10 pm, a peasant without land, an unemployed worker... an unhappy student, a dissident amid free market economics, a writer without books or readers, and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains of southeast Mexico. So Marcos is a human being, any human being, in this world. Marcos is all the exploited, marginalized and oppressed minorities, resisting and saying, 'Enough'!

This may be one of the best known quotes from Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos. Taken from a 1994 interview, it was actually Marcos' response to the media frenzy following an interview he had done with a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in which he stated that he had been fired from a restaurant in San Francisco for being gay. The Mexican press ran headlines claiming that Marcos had "admitted" that he was homosexual. Coming from the early days after the uprising, this would turn out to be just one of many attempts to discuss queer sexuality and liberation struggle made by the Zapatista spokesperson over the past 13 years...

Indeed, the language of the Zapatistas has attracted queer radicals from the first days following the 1994 New Years' uprising. The language of fighting for "a world where we [in the zap's case, mexico's indigenous] fit" and for "a world where many worlds fit" found obvious resonance with queer folks in struggle.

In "Message from the Zapatistas", a video message sent this year to New York City (in response to Movement for Justice in El Barrio's "Message to the Zapatistas"), Marcos admits that this resonance initially surprised them. This surprise soon gave way to a steep learning curve, however, that found the Zapatistas embracing the many allies who came forward. In this way it could be said that they were both contributors to and open-minded observers of a process that I'm calling "queering the sectors" of the left.

queering the sectors

The three traditional sectors of the Mexican left (and, perhaps it should be said, "The Left" in general) are workers, peasants, and students. The Zapatistas, in asserting the centrality of their indigenous identities and cultures, are pushing the rest of the left to see them as more than peasants. They are pushing the left to see that there is also something valuable in their experience as indigenous peoples. They recognize in their indigenous culture a powerful non-conformity with the capitalist westernization of Mexico being led by its neoliberal politicians. And they've found many others who also do not conform.

As the Zapatistas began attracting supporters after their 1994 New Years uprising, they began recognizing "new sectors" in struggle: youth organized into musical subcultures (punk, goth, etc), women (organized as women!), and yes, queer folks. And so, by the time we reach the Zapatistas' Sixth Declaration, released in June 2005, we see the three traditional sectors completely exploded:
We are inviting all indigenous, workers, campesinos, teachers, students, housewives, neighbors, small businesspersons, small shop owners, micro-businesspersons, pensioners, handicapped persons, religious men and women, scientists, artists, intellectuals, young persons, women, old persons, homosexuals and lesbians, boys and girls – to participate, whether individually or collectively, directly with the zapatistas in this NATIONAL CAMPAIGN for building another way of doing politics, for a program of national struggle of the left, and for a new Constitution.

awkward steps

Although we see no mention of trans-folks in the Sixth Declaration itself (a collectively written document), the Zapatista spokesperson had already been making attempts to integrate the terms transgender and transexual into his lexicon. Shortly before declaring the Red Alert which preceded the release of the Sixth Declaration, the Zapatistas bounced back into the media limelight with the announcement that they were challenging Inter Milan (a professional soccer team in Italy) to a series of matches. An amusing exchange followed, including this suggestion:
And, perhaps, in order to differentiate ourselves from the objectification of women which is promoted at football games and in commercials, the EZLN would ask the national lesbian-gay community, especially transvestites and transsexuals, to organize themselves and to amuse the respectable with ingenious pirouettes during the games in Mexico. That way, in addition to prompting TV censorship, scandalizing the ultra-right and disconcerting the Inter ranks, they would raise the morale and spirits of our team. There are not just 2 sexes, and there is not just one world, and it is always advisable for those who are persecuted for their differences to share happiness and support without ceasing to be different.

I've seen no responses yet from the Mexican "lesbian-gay community" (please send them my way if you have!). Inter Milan, however, has accepted the challenge so we may one day see how this spectacle turns out and how that particular invitation was received.

Following the release of the Sixth Declaration, in the early days of building the Other Campaign, the Sixth Commission of the Zapatistas began employing the language of "other loves" to poetically capture what we might say with "queer" or the litany of letters "TLGBTSQQ" (Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Queer, and Questioning). And as you'll see from the photo and link above, there were queer radicals more than ready to join with the Zapatistas in building the Other Campaign, but not without struggle...

When the members of Oaxaca's Sexual Diversity Collective addressed Delegate Zero (Marcos) during his 2006 listening tour to build the Other Campaign, they reminded him that the queer struggle was important and could not be left out (as it had been in his speeches in the state up to that point).

Later that evening, I watched Delegate Zero make a speech from the Zócalo in which he stumbled a bit, replacing what was perhaps meant to be "transgénero" (transgender) or "transexual" with "transgénico"...meaning "transgenetic." He immediately caught himself, however, and looked back sheepishly at Tlahui, who was waiting to speak adorned with a purple wig and a stunning rainbow dress.

a work in progress

The previously mentioned "Message from the Zapatistas", sent this year to NYC's Movement for Justice in El Barrio, perhaps marks a new level of understanding and connection being made by Marcos:
We were finding we had allies that we didn't expect and learning to listen and come to understand their struggle and how it was linked to ours...not only will we not conform, but we will fight against this system, raising our difference almost like a flag...autonomy means we can be compañeros even if we raise different flags...gays and lesbians approach us and we do not have to become gays or lesbians or, being gay or lesbian, we don't have to choose this as the basis of our struggle.

Now that we are in the second stage of Zapatista participation in the Other Campaign (not to mention the continued emergence of the Zezta Internazional), we're gaining the opportunity to hear not just from Marcos but more and more directly the voices of the indigenous comandancia; as well as the declarations and denouncements coming from the Zapatista communities (distinct from the political/military organization). And in these spaces we're hearing from queer radicals throughout Mexico and the world who are committed to building an anticapitalist movement "from below and to the left."

I've shared the thoughts here...more a series of vignettes than anything another stick in the fire fueling this dialogue. Because it's in this dialogue between all of us, and in the transformation and action that follows, where I find hope.

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