Monday, June 15, 2015

Organizing and Mobilizing in Today's World

We had spent the whole day, the whole conference, really, attaching vocabulary words in permanent marker to self-adhesive poster boards. If you read them, you'd see complicated terms like "hegemony", "Patriarchy", "coded politics", and the ever-popular "capitalism." They demonstrated a complete command of language and context, and while these words held power, or perhaps demonstrated a lack of power, they had limitations, too.

After nearly a week of talks and discussions, an older black woman in her seventies addressed us last of all. She is one of an ever-decreasing number of African-Americans who remembers life in the segregated South. And her initial remarks were a reminder to those of us who have had the privilege to know what hegemony is, or what heternormative means. In our work and conversation with low-income minorities or the working class, especially, these words are of limited usage. We can know within ourselves what these terms mean, but they mean nothing to the fast food worker, the auto mechanic, or the chicken plant worker.

Quakers are like lots of predominately and historically white faith groups. They place a premium on education and often send their children to small liberal arts schools. The destination their kids take are many times Friends schools, which are scattered primarily along the East Coast, parts of the Midwest, and the West Coast. I should add here that Quakerism is divided along theological lines, much as is the case of Judaism. I'm a liberal Friend, but conservative (not politically conservative) Friends exist, programmed Friends exist, and Evangelical Friends are present as well.

Though a majority of us do not have a Quaker education, our sensibilities, both politically and theologically, line up according to whichever branch of the Religious Society of Friends we favor. During the six-day conference I attended at a Quaker resource center called Pendle Hill, situated slightly outside of Philadelphia, liberals would have felt quite at home, activist liberals even more so. While faith was certainly stressed, Liberal Friends do not seek to convert the unwashed masses. The Evangelical branches do, but what I and others experienced was as far away from an Evangelical gathering as possible.

Having set the exposition, I return to the narrative I began. While it flatters my feminist sensibilities that a man quoted the black writer and activist bell hooks during the discussion period of an activity, bell hooks is nevertheless a minor name to many, albeit well-respected within her field and held in high esteem by devotees, deservedly so. Though I never asked the speaker if she had read a single work of bell hooks, I would not have been surprised if she had not.

As I took into account how she feels now, in these times, I wondered what she thought. More often than not, female participants displayed unashamed underarm hair and voluminous hippie skirts. One gender non-conforming (another vocabulary term!) man dressed in elements of women's clothing and make up. But most men dressed similarly. Some things never change.

Our presenter talked about life in segregated North Carolina, where she was able to spend money at a local department store, but unable to use its restrooms. Though the audience was attentive and inquisitive, as they had been for the whole of the conference, I knew they had no real, tangible understanding of what that must have been like for her or for anyone of her race. I had no idea myself.

If generational memory is indeed limited, films and photographs will have limited application for the current day and going forward. The memory of the Holocaust implores us to "Never Forget", but surely we will forget, eventually. This is the nature of humankind. But despite the fear of losing memory of the sins of the past, I felt a pronounced sense of optimism and a realistic expectation of how long it will take for times to change for the better. One participant hoped that in a century we might reach significant progress, but that we ought to make incremental progress until then.

The conference was based around a particular Quaker Testimony, this one being the Testimony of Equality. Speakers were transgender, people of color, activists of all shapes and sizes, and one presenter was an active participants in Black Lives Matter. He regrettably had to be Skyped into his allotted workshop time because he had been detained in customs due to recent activist work and was not allowed to board his plane. He was not much older than most of the attenders, who ranged from eighteen to thirty-five.

A group of three young activists from Kalamazoo, Michigan, talked about building grassroots social change from the ground up. The three had felt spontaneously compelled to act following the resurgence of racial violence in Ferguson and in other incidents. Accordingly, all three came from different ethnic backgrounds. They shared their theories with all seated before them. The oldest of the three was only 33.

My response is two-part. On one level, I was extremely gratified to see so many people actively engaged and involved with the current discourse. On a second level, some of the strategies I witnessed during workshop provided few real answers. While it makes for an impressive talking point that change begins from the bottom up, I know that answer alone is not sufficient.

The Civil Rights Movement, if this is even a fair comparison, took years of planning and immaculate organization. Though it is not talked about much, many white liberals and white money drove the Movement. Had it not been for Minnesota liberal Hubert Humphrey forcing a Civil Rights plank during the Democratic National Convention in 1948, who knows how long it would have taken? Southern Democrats had been placated for years because of their segregationist stances.

White supporters had at least enough sense to get out of the way and let what were then called Negroes take the lead. Campaigns were planned, marches were put together with surgical precision. Much was immaculately choreographed. That is why it succeeded, though it left behind an enormous amount of unfinished business, the likes of which we are seeing today.

Back then, the clergy led the Movement. A charismatic Baptist preacher espousing the words of Jesus was its nominal leader. It was ministers and religious leaders who were the brains behind the planning and those who put themselves in physical harm during protests with many others. In this far less-religious age, we need the clergy more than ever. We need its leadership and we need its wisdom. Like the Old Testament prophets of the ancient times, it is time for people to turn back to God. Religion gives authenticity to any social movement. We cannot save ourselves from ourselves, despite our stellar intentions.

Now a new generation of well-meaning white people take up a similar mantle. But unlike times past, there is bluster in place of action. When there was once collective action, there are good intentions like Occupy, which at its heyday was little more than a latter-day Hooverville. What strong, compelling leaders do we have today?    

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