Marty Aranaydo and I were all over Bioneers this past weekend: from caucuses to panels to workshops to the hotel bar to the plenary stage, Ruckus brought a light and loving touch to this growing conference.
Marty rolled with a deep crew including Native Movement, Black Mesa Water Coalition, Indigenous Environmental Network. He joined an Indigenous Circle on the plenary stage during Evon Peter’s lovingly honest welcome of white people to Turtle Island, and stayed through Evon’s simple caveat – if you aren’t willing to respect the people indigenous to this land then you can and should return to your own.
These kind of bold statements, particularly in the realm of race and class relations, were plentiful at this year’s Bioneers. This conference has gone through many cycles of challenges and learning moments particularly around race. The odds of an event or movement started by white people, no matter how well-meaning, becoming a space for deep, equitable and applied race analysis are still relatively slim. However, I tend to take it as a huge step when the critiques are coming from the panelists and the plenary stage. Speakers like Evon, Gihan Perrera, angel kyodo williams, Akaya Winwood, Clayton Thomas-Mueller, Winona LaDuke, Aqeela Sherrills, Van Jones, myself and so many more brought a consistent message: People of color and indigenous people speak for ourselves, we are breaking ground in the environmental realm, but it is not separate from the race, class, and gender analysis in which we’re deeply engaged.
I spoke three times throughout the weekend. I’m going to summarize the key talking points here, and will be writing about many of these points in the future.
The first talk, on Friday, was about Building and Bridging Movements. Other panelists were Courtney Hull from Green For All, Kalindi Attar from YES! (now living in Oaxaca), Jon Warnow, the youth mastermind behind Step It Up!, and Taj James from the Movement Strategy Center. We started by asking folks what they wanted to hear – inspiration, best practices, how to get folks excited. Then we gave some responses – here’s a paraphrase of mine:
I first wanted to shift the metaphor away from a bridge, which is a linear body moving between two points that never come any closer. Instead, keeping with the model of natural operating systems, I see those of us who build movement as the pollen and air of the ecosystem…the tissue of the organism. The best movement builders that I’ve come across are those who follow the path of transformation from self to family to community to world. Starting with self, I asked the participants how many felt like they knew themselves deeply. The number of activists who don’t have a real sense of themselves and their unique gifts but are out there wondering why they aren’t making change is massive. An empty box doesn’t make a very good present. So get self on point – political education and analysis, love of self and body, inner house in order.
Then family – again folks tend to leap to try and save the world without looking out how the people who share their blood, who sat around the dinner table talking politics, how those people are acting, spending, voting and thinking. It’s much harder to face people you are going to have to face again and again with your truth telling. But often the opposition consists of your family, and people like your family, who don’t have someone who loves them enough to challenge and expand their world view.
Then your own community. Is your community standing up for sustainability and self-determination? Is there anything your community is doing to contribute to oppression, destruction, or inequality? Before you create a master plan to “save” people you see as “victims” in other communities, it would be good to know that you can create a small ripple that becomes a direction shift in your own community. The reality is, your community is probably doing more tiny things on daily basis that have a devastating impact on those communities you wish to rescue than you realize. Your work there could have revolutionary impact.
Once you get your self, your family and your community having deep, transformational conversations and aligned with justice, or at least taking steps in the right direction, then you can enter the larger conversation on saving the world.
I wanted to share about a couple of projects right now that show deep promise for this type of movement transformation that starts on an individual level. The first is obviously Ruckus. As an organization we’re committed to transforming ourselves and our structures and our allies. We’re supporting networks of locally founded, organically developed groups working on counter recruitment with young people of color and indigenous communities using nonviolent direct action in their struggle for sovereignty and sustainable communities. We’re bringing that lens to electoral work, and to climate justice.
The second is Beloved Communities, a network of communities who are basically taking the ideas that Martin Luther King, JR was advocating before his assassination and applying them in a variety of ways. 6 elders are visiting these communities, 12 in total, over the course of the year. The common themes that are emerging – radically inclusive, vision based, interrelated, individually transformational, unabashedly spiritual and full of song and art, practicing truth and reconciliation – make sense and are some of the hardest themes to actually apply.
The third is actually three groups/projects that are changing the way communication happens. One is Allied Media Projects, a network of media justice people and groups who are intentionally training youth in do-it-yourself media tactics including radio, zines, digital stories, audio documentaries and more. The second is Wiretap magazine, a youth spin-off of Alternet, which is publishing youth voices. The other is the Art of Change facilitation year long training that just finished, putting almost 40 facilitators into the world who are trained specifically in transformational facilitation. As we learn to tell our own stories, and learn to have conversations that evolve us, we get stronger voices and build stronger collaborations. This is our best chance at success and solidarity.
The question of what comes after actions came up, and I got to speak to how the majority of the work really happens before the action, in the visioning process, in setting the goals for the community. This is a time for visionary action, rather than reactionary. We want to occupy space and start community gardens and recycling centers there. We want to push the front line of our vision forward, and forward, and forward.
The question arose about working with young people, doing intergenerational work, and the panel answered almost as one voice: Listen, respect. Set up a structure that centers on the voices you want to hear your leadership from. Jon Warnow added – “we aren’t stupid. If you don’t propose something in scale with the problem, we won’t engage.”
The second panel was Elections as Metaphors. Ilyse Hogue, James Rucker and Leda Dedrich joined me this time. We started off with three spectrograms to get a sense of the room, stuff like if people thought elections were the answer to all of our problems, a total waste of time, or somewhere in between, and if people see elections merely as an organizing tool, or as a real way to influence policy. Then we spoke.
I started by addressing the controversy around whether electoral organizing is a relevant tactic with a metaphor that makes a lot of sense to me: The Tower of Babel. Everyone’s tongue given a different language to keep the body from building a tower that could reach heaven. When we start speaking about tactics and issues, suddenly we find ourselves in the Tower of Babel situation – trying to build something and unable to understand each other. For me, as a co-founder of the League of Pissed Off/Young Voters, flexing community organizing power in the electoral realm is more about a whole systems approach to movement building than a tactical preference.
We’re often engaged in struggles that deeply effect our communities well-being where the decision-maker is an elected official. At some point we need to become the decision-makers, or have them accountable to us. There has to be a balance between the asker and the asked. I spoke about voter protection being an exciting space for action, and about the small scale voter protection work we did last year where we had combined forces of lawyers, videographers, voter organizers and base building organizations along with other media collaborating to respond to instances of voter suppression by sharing information and mobilizing our various folks around the country. We hope to step that work up in the coming year. I spoke about community generated voter guides and passed some out. James and Leda and Ilyse were each brilliant, speaking from very different spaces about MoveOn, Color of Change and black voters, the tech side of voter organizing – I hope this panel makes a repeat.
My third and final talk was on Successful Campaigning. I was on a panel with Mike Brune from RAN, Medea Benjamin from Code Pink, and Clayton Thomas-Mueller of IEN with Charlotte Brody, the brilliant director of Commonweal, moderating. Charlotte started by having the crowd introduce themselves and say why they came, what they wanted. There were a lot of people, so that process took a half hour. There were a lot of questions around the basic best practices of campaigning. I had written down a little step by step process – vision, why you, who’s the opposition, who could make the decision to change it all, and so on. But as the questions emerged – how do we get started, who do we do cross-cultural organizing, how do we get local organizations to have a national impact, and especially how do white organizations who have no one from the community that they serve in the organization engage the community – what I had to say shifted.
I knew between Charlotte, Mike and Medea that a lot of the campaign basics would be covered. Clay and I had spoken earlier about wanting to somehow speak to what works for people of color and indigenous folks, and I was full of my thoughts, hoping it came out with the love intended.
First, before you get to the campaign planning, it helps if your group or organization has some guiding principles. At Ruckus, we use the Jemez principles and Environmental Justice principles to guide us – ground up, community in leadership and speaking for themselves – you can find them on our site.
I suggested that if there are no people from the community in the organization, then perhaps the organization doesn’t belong in that community. This is the key dischord with environmental organizations – they say they want the community there, but aren’t building deep relationships with the community, aren’t friends with the community, aren’t putting community members in leadership positions. The actions don’t match the words.
I told the story of Ruckus, which was founded by three white men doing kick ass work protecting forests, and has grown into an organization whose staff, board and network is now majority people of color with strong white activists who have a strong analysis on privilege. I gave props to our former executive director John Sellers, who understood that no one wins if the power dynamic doesn’t drastically shift, and made space for leadership of color on our board and staff. There’s a model for going from a white to a multi-cultural organization.
Then I spoke about a model for local to national organizing. Often, we approach campaigns as a top-down endeavor – someone conceives of the campaign, based on research, and then wants to spread it out everywhere. This seed is the same one that grows empire – we have a great idea for how to run a government, or how to manage the resources of the world, and we want everyone to agree. Its the same way Starbucks and McDonald’s run their marketing campaigns. I don’t think that’s the way for us…there’s another model. The Not Your Soldier model is a national coalition of local organizations doing amazing counter-recruitment work, sharing best practices and a common understanding of what needs to be called for. As a national organization, with our national partners, it is our work to identify folks doing amazing local campaigns, let them know they aren’t alone, provide support and space for their work, and build capacity in the areas we’re strong – direct action. That’s a model, take it, use it.
It amazes me to see how at this gathering it is deeply understood that the local, organic product is superior in the long run. The produce, the building materials, we want an economy that is local and organic because we understand that that is the most sustainable. When will we really shift to applying these sustainable models to our organizing? I’m now writing a piece on the Sustainability Model for Organizing.