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Reflections from Organizing Upgrade’s Editors

Reflections from Organizing Upgrade’s Editors
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I think a lot about problem solving.  Part of this is the residue from my nerdy school days, when my team competed to build the tallest structure of marshmallows and raw spaghetti.  I thought about it as an organizer at the Miami Workers Center, sitting on a member’s stoop, when her family was evicted for the third time.  And I continue thinking about it now, walking through in the marbled halls of management and public policy school.

I recently enrolled in a leadership class at grad school.  A former surgeon who used to run emergency operating rooms teaches it. He makes an interesting distinction between technical leadership and adaptive leadership.  He defines technical as leadership you exercise when you have the expertise to solve a known and familiar problem (e.g. routine tonsillectomy).  Adaptive leadership, conversely, is recognizing that you are facing a new problem and engaging in a creative (often disruptive) process of learning and reflecting to develop new tools and solutions (e.g. responding to a natural disaster or new disease).

One year ago, Organizing Upgrade posed a dilemma:  The rich history of organizing and left theory provides tools for progressive change: base-building, campaign development to expose contradictions, political education, leadership development, cadre-building, and united-front building for power. Many of us use these tools to intervene on the social challenges of our time.  We have had some inspiring successes – but membership remains at lower than we would like, the social safety net continues to rip apart at the seams, and our incremental, local reforms cannot keep up with the global pace of change.

The traditional actors and systemic forces that we are up against are also changing shape and tactics.  In just the last year, we have seen Wal-mart employ organizing tactics, business economists challenge the assumptions of self-interest, and the emergence of grassroots populist movement, forming cross-class alliances, and running people, from within their ranks, for office. That movement is not ours, but it should be.

In these times, of what my professor would term a “new, adaptive problem”, we can benefit from an honest and open conversation on what solutions are working and where we need to be more creative.  Do we need a new division of labor?  Is it time to diversify away from non-profit organizations?   Dare we begin thinking collectively about “ideology” or “revenue generation”? Organizing Upgrade is contributing to fostering these conversations in the following ways:

Encouraging organizers to step back: No, we’re not asking you to stop.  Instead, we are inviting organizers to step away from the demands of the day-to-day and talk to each other from the bird’s eye view of our collective work.  OU has been an attempt to move the whispers from behind the water-cooler, or after hours at the bar, to a larger intentional conversation on “where are we going?”

Fostering a dialogue between theory and action:  We are helping draw the dotted line from the slogan on a picket sign to the foundational theories on capital accumulation and collective action.   We are sharing the work of theoreticians that think about campaigns as well as organizers who turn to theory.  There is a dynamic and creative process between the two realms that OU is committed to supporting.

Comparing notes within issue areas:  “Fast Forums” serve as periodic pulse checks or snap shots of how the progressive left is tackling the political challenges currently in play. From elections to Haiti recovery, immigration reform to non-profit vehicles, Fast Forums highlight new work, emerging organizers, and spaces of agreement and difference.

Engaging the ‘soft side’ of organizing: Organizing is a risky and deviant endeavor. We recognize that this raises particular challenges for the communities you serve, the leaders and staff that you develop, and your own stamina.  Our February issue on “Love & Organizing” had the highest hit rate to date.  With the rise in organizational instability and staff turnover, this continues to be an important area for us think  about together.

Lifting known voices and new: OU is committed to providing a platform for superstar ideas and popular practitioners, as well as serving as a launch pad for emerging actors and new trend-setters.  We need icons as well as iconoclasts as we think through how best to attract and retain organizers, activists, and broader forces.

Meeting you online: Through facebook, email, texting, and subsidized software, we are trying to make theory, networking, and strategy accessible to today’s progressive-left organizers.  OU is using our existing social and political networks to consolidate discussion threads, expand access to them, as well as cast a broader net to engage interested people.  Essays and posts are being used in universities, staff retreats, and shared among colleagues and friends.

I believe we are in new and disorienting times. There is a strong argument that would differ with me.  It would say that we are not in unexpected territory at all; rather, that the Great Recession, the national chauvinism, and global energy/climate crisis are all the anticipated symptoms of neo-liberalism unchecked and globalization gone wild.  This could be the case.  But, I encourage us to think about which of these perspectives is more useful? Specifically, which perspective is most useful in upgrading our capabilities to achieve membership in the thousands, self-sustaining organizational budgets, permanent affordable housing solutions, popular participation in governance, and the energizing and expansive social movement we’ve all been waiting for?

A founding member of SOUL: School of Unity & Liberation, Harmony Goldberg has run left political education programs for grassroots organizations around the country for more than a decade. She is currently a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and she continues to support grassroots organizations and the broader left as a popular educator, writer and facilitator.

I helped to start Organizing Upgrade a year ago because I was scared. I was scared that we were never going to get our act together. Two years ago, we saw one of the biggest political openings of our lifetimes (speaking, at least, for my generation). Between the unprecedented level of mobilization inspired by Obama’s campaign for the presidency and the mass discontent inspired by the economic crisis, the boundaries of what we considered to be politically possible in this country were being pushed open. You could feel the potential for building mass social movements that could open up deeper critiques of capitalism and empire. But instead of a push to bring our forces together to map that out – to figure out how we were going to build massive mobilizations in support of a transformative health care program or waves of direct actions against the discredited banks – I found myself in meetings where we were busy debating the obvious – like whether or not Obama was going to support U.S. imperialism. I was scared that we were going to miss the immense opportunities of that moment because we were not only coming up with the wrong answers; we weren’t even asking the right questions. Instead of asking questions of strategy and program, we were remaining stuck in critique and in marginal left debates.  So I helped to start Organizing Upgrade to try to put the right questions on our collective table.

This moment offers us an opening to step out of the margins where we’ve contained ourselves and to start playing a serious role in real mass politics. I believe that – if we play our cards right – we still have the opportunity to achieve a scale of popular movement much larger than we have seen over the past several decades. That would allow us to both advance immediate victories that will improve the lives of oppressed people and to build a real left in this country that will be better positioned to fight for our longer-terms aims. But we have to play our cards right; that outcome is far from inevitable. It depends on our orientation and our level of preparation.  If we don’t take real advantage of those opportunities quickly, we are in danger of relegating ourselves to permanent irrelevance.  But in order to do that, to take advantage of this moment, we need clearly articulated left strategies that can unify and guide our diffuse organizing work.

Changing Our Orientation

In order to move towards this more strategic stance, left organizers will need let go of many of our past methods of work, some because they were appropriate for slower political times and are therefore not appropriate for today and others because they were self-marginalizing methods that we have now outgrown.  Specifically, we will need to overcome the tendency towards ideological purism (where we are more concerned about the political line of our work than we are about its scale or impact), methodological purism (where we have fetishized a particular organizing model so much that we limited our broader impact and even our ability to actually build larger-scale working class power), our wariness of building broad alliances and engaging in mainstream politics and – in many cases – our doubt that we could actually move masses of people. A friend once said to me, “Our interpretation of being ‘left’ has unfortunately become the limiting factor on being ‘mass.’  But is that a necessary contradiction? Our left politics should be facilitating factor in building our work to scale instead of limiting us.” In the past, our left politics have focused mainly on social critique, and they have manifested primarily in our political education and leadership development. Today, instead of focusing so much on questions of abstract political line, we need to prioritize questions of political strategy.

To meet the demands of this unique historic moment, we need to be more than the “leftest” we can be.  Instead, we need to be the best left strategic thinkers and actors that we can be. We need relevancy-oriented revolutionaries who have an orientation to engage in a serious way in real mass politics, who can tap into the growing anger and spontaneous resistance of working class communities as well as engage in the complicated politics of electoral work and alliances with mainstream progressives and liberals. A clear left strategy would allow us to have the tactical creativity we need to reflect the changing times, recognizing that tactics as wide-ranging as mass direct action, electoral organizing and multi-class alliance-building all have roles to play in opening up new space for mass struggle. I believe that Organizing Upgrade’s contributors have started to layout the broad brushstrokes for the kind of dynamic and flexible strategic approach that we need, pointing towards multi-sectoral struggles, creative tactical plans, uncomfortable alliances and newways of doing our work.

There are several strategic questions that I believe are central to engage, many of which have been addressed by our contributors. We need to recognize that the struggle and crises that we are facing today are going to have a very long arc, and we need to develop a long-term plan today for how we will intervene in them over the next thirty to fifty years.  Specifically (1) The economic crisis is not over, and we need to keep building on our strategic reflections and dialogues on this front.  I believe that – because the U.S. empire is going into decline – the current economic crisis is only the first shock wave in a series of economic crises to come. We need to engage in serious dialogue about our lack of adequate response to this last crisis to prepare ourselves to jump into action when the next wave hits. (2) Similarly, we all know that the devastating wave of ecological disasters that will result from climate change have only just begun. Several of our contributors – Jason Negrón-Gonzales, Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan and Bill Fletcher – have reflected sharply on this front of our struggle. We can’t be caught by surprise by disasters like those that hit New Orleans or Haiti any longer; we need to develop a more coherent and proactive response that can respond more rapidly and transformatively. (3) The fact that the United States will no longer be a majority-white nation in thirty years means that we need to plan for an intense struggle over national identity over the next several decades. We need to reflect on the struggle in California in the 1990s (when the state became majority people of color and the electorate responded with racist and anti-immigrant ballot initiatives) and today’s Arizona for signposts in that fight. Even larger anti-immigrant shockwaves will be coming, and we need to shift towards a more proactive stance in that fight, as Marisa Franco, Aarti Shahani, Subhash Kateel and


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