The View From the Ground: Organizers Speak Out on Race

by Francis Calpotura and Bob Wing

At ground zero of today’s racial and class conflicts stands a staunch and determined band of racial justice organizers who are organizing with low-income communities of color. Because they deal daily with the people who bear the brunt of racism, they are in a unique position to understand its workings and impacts. Their experiences tell the tale of how race not only matters, but matters centrally in shaping people’s lives.

Racial justice organizers spend their lives trying to figure out how to work with their constituents and allies to attack racism most effectively. Their confrontation with racism, and the struggle against it, is absolutely practical. For them, theory is truly a guide to action rooted in concrete experience, and action constantly calls for deepening theory.

This is why we’ve asked a panel of kick-ass, cutting-edge, anti-racist organizers to reflect on the lessons they have learned at the intersection of race and organizing in our time. We’ve asked them how they navigate these dangerous political waters and assertively develop strategies to advance racial justice. In response, they address some of the most provocative issues facing organizers today: the impact of globalization, the limits of multiculturalism, how differences between various racial and ethnic groups shape organizing in different communities and building unity, the difference between “equity” and “justice,” the limitations of focusing on immediate victories, the importance of political education, and many others.

The participants are: Jane Bai out of New York City’s Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence–Organizing Asian Communities (CAAAV); Jeanne Gauna of the South West Organizing Project (SWOP) in Albuquerque; Maria Jiménez of the American Friends Service Committee’s Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project (ILEMP) in Houston; Janet Robideau of Indian People’s Action (IPA) in Missoula, Montana; Anthony Thigpenn of Los Angeles’ Environment and Economic Justice Project and AGENDA; Jerome Scott of Project South in Atlanta; and Steve Williams of San Francisco’s People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER).

These organizers are diverse in personal profile, organizing style, constituencies, and geographical location. But all are at the epicenter of racial justice activities that not only bring their communities together but also articulate, for people within their organizations and for those outside, an understanding of what’s going on in a racialized social and economic order and what needs to be done to turn it around.

Anthony Thigpenn joined the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party almost 30 years ago. He co-founded the Coalition Against Police Abuse in 1976 and directed Jobs with Peace from 1983 to 1990. In 1993, he started AGENDA (Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives), a South Los Angeles community organization. He is executive director of the Environment and Economic Justice Project, a national training program for anti-environmental racism organizers.

Jerome Scott was an autoworker and founding member of the League of Black Revolutionary Workers in Detroit in the late 1960s. He has been a trade union and community organizer in the South for the last 20 years. He is currently the director of Atlanta’s Project South, a leadership development, popular education, and research organization that partners with groups throughout the South.

Jane Sung-ee Bai, a Korean American, has been a rape crisis and domestic violence advocate since the early 1990s. Currently, she is executive director of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, also known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, which organizes with low-income Asian immigrant communities in New York City. Jane is also a leader in People’s Justice 2000, a multi-racial, grassroots group that is at the forefront of the fight against the notorious police brutality in New York.

Jeanne Gauna was a founding member and is now co-director of the South West Organizing Project (SWOP), a statewide, multi-issue, membership organization based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. SWOP is one of the leading environmental justice groups in the country and is a founding member of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ). In her 25 years of activism, Jeanne has organized among welfare recipients, the disabled, undocumented immigrants, and farmworkers.

Maria Jiménez is the founding director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project (ILEMP). Based in Houston, ILEMP coordinates the work of organizations in the Rio Grande Valley, San Diego, Tucson, Houston, and Florida, that document immigration abuses and help border area residents exercise their rights. Maria previously worked as a union organizer in Texas and as a community organizer and adult educator in Mexico.

Steve Williams is the executive director and co-founder of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) in San Francisco. POWER is a membership organization led by low- and no-wage workers that fights for full employment and living wages. Steve has organized around issues of affirmative action, homelessness, and public housing, and is involved in the fight to free Mumia Abu Jamal.

Janet Robideau is the statewide coordinator for Indian People’s Action, a chapter of Montana People’s Action. Started in 1997, IPA organizes urban Indians to fight institutional racism in education, employment, and law enforcement policies in the state of Montana.

Q: How does your organizing work deal with race and racism?

Janet: The work of Indian People’s Action (IPA) focuses on institutional racism in education, employment, and law enforcement, and how these systems affect the lives of urban Indians in Montana. For example, we’re fighting with the school district to address the high suspension and drop-out rates for Indian students. We’re demanding that they address why, out of 750 certified teachers in the Missoula school district, there are only three Native American teachers and seven teachers of color, total. Race plays a big part in how our kids get treated, what they’re taught, and who gets to teach them.

Jane: The work of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence centers around race and how it plays out in Asian and Pacific Islander communities in New York City. Specifically, we deal with how state violence issues like police brutality and Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) enforcement are connected to the prison industrial complex and how they affect Asian communities and other communities of color.

Anthony: AGENDA is trying to do a couple of things in our organizing work in communities of color in the Metropolitan Los Angeles area. One is to work on a large enough scale so that we have the power to really make a difference on issues facing our communities. The other is to develop models for advancing political consciousness that move people beyond their immediate community self-interest to becoming social change activists pushing for a different vision of society.

Jeanne: The environmental justice (EJ) movement is a direct response to the fact that people of color are being routinely poisoned, and that we are not being protected by the agencies that are supposed to protect us: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), local governments, the health department, you name it. SWOP coined the term “environmental racism” to spotlight this reality because no one, including the mainstream environmental organizations, was doing anything about it. In fact, sometimes these organizations were contributing to environmental racism. So the EJ movement put everyone on notice that this couldn’t go on. Early on, we decided that the movement would be defined by the people most affected by these policies, and that people would speak for themselves. These became the central principles of the EJ movement.

Steve: POWER organizes with low- and no-wage workers who have a non-traditional relationship to the work force. Our first campaign has been with welfare workers who are forced to do some form of work in exchange for a welfare check. I think our particular contribution to this area of organizing has been to develop real political education among welfare workers so that they understand that this is not just a fight for equal pay for equal work, but that it takes place in the context of international capital, white supremacy, and patriarchy. When you see the attacks on people of color around the globe, it sharpens the focus in understanding what is taking place in communities of color here in the United States–a Third World workforce forced to work in hyper-exploited conditions.

Q: What are some of the key lessons from your organizing work that could help others deal with and understand race?

Jerome: At Project South, we believe that white supremacy is still the leading edge of oppression in this country. We also believe that you can’t just concentrate on white supremacy without bringing up issues of class as well. But having said that, when we look at organizing efforts in the South, there are folks who just want to deal with economic issues–increase wages and that sort of stuff. They ignore the racism and white supremacy that is the very foundation of the wage issues. We have to look at issues of class in relationship to white supremacy, or else we’re missing the boat.

Maria: Proposition 187 in California, which got replicated around the country, is the most recent watershed event in terms of immigrants and native-born Latinos responding to racism. It wasn’t so much the proposition, but what it signified: the institutionalization of racist attitudes against all undocumented immigrants masked as public policy by government entities and politicians. Latinos’ resistance to another generation of our people being subjected to these attacks sparked activity and organization in Latino communities across the country: the huge march in Washington, D.C., organizing drywall workers in Los Angeles, the effort of hundreds of thousands of people to become naturalized citizens, and getting out to vote. This has changed the landscape in anti-racist organizing for immigrants.

Anthony: At AGENDA, we think that self-organization of a particular ethnicity or racial community can often be a legitimate form because the cultures and/or conditions of a particular community warrant that. But I think these efforts have to be placed in a broader context. We cannot limit ourselves to organizing just one group of people, because our vision of society is broader than that. And, if we’re trying to organize on a large scale to gain real power, I don’t believe there’s any one ethnicity that can do it by themselves. Alliances have to be built between different communities and we need to create multicultural organizations and multiracial movements.

Jane: CAAAV understands that different communities are segregated, policed, repressed, and exploited in different ways. For example, when we talk about policing in an Asian immigrant community, we don’t just go out there and say, “Hey, it happens to us, too, and here are all the people who have been brutalized by the police in our communities.” Each Asian immigrant community experiences state violence in different ways. Violence against the Cambodian community in the Bronx is different from violence in the largely undocumented Fukienese community that lives in Chinatown. The harassment of Cambodian youth by the New York City Police Department is a different experience than INS raids in Chinatown, even though both are acts of state repression. Therefore, organizing in each community needs to be different.

Janet: IPA uses the school district’s own numbers to show how institutional racism works, that it’s not the individual prejudice of a teacher, or a principal, even the superintendent. It’s the system that produces higher suspension rates for Indian students; it’s the district’s policies that discriminate against our children and reinforce individual prejudice.

Q: Do you see any negative trends in how organizations deal with issues of race and organizing?

Jeanne: One of the key tensions that has existed in the EJ movement from the start has been between those who were calling for “equity” and those of us who demanded “justice.” Earlier, it was the national white environmental organizations who were pushing for “environmental equity.” Nowadays, mainstream national organizations of color–like the Hispanic Environmental Network, which goes around and gets major corporate sponsors–are using that language. The term “equity” was a government creation pushed onto the EJ movement by the Environmental Protection Agency. SWOP doesn’t want “equal opportunity pollution.” We want to reshape the whole table. We want a fundamental reordering of our priorities and commitments, and that starts with corporate and government accountability to the community. We want justice. There are those of us who use race as a driving force to change society, and there are those in our own communities who use it to drive opportunities for themselves. And then they wonder why they’re being shunned by the movement.

Maria: Some people think that bringing multiple cultures together in the name of diversity means that there’s anti-racist organizing going on. I think it is important for various cultures to interact and engage in political projects together because these become laboratories for breaking down barriers and finding strategic unity. But I think the more difficult task of “political integration” is to identify what it is about the current historical political moment that creates the need for immigrants from Mexico and Central America to get together with Nigerians and Indians to overcome this country’s racist immigration policies. ILEMP believes that the very presence of immigrants is the most concrete manifestation of the global integration of communities, and race plays a huge part in global development. The disparate experiences of immigrant and refugee communities must be integrated to craft a long-term strategy based on this analysis. Just pushing “multiculturalism” without political content is not helpful.

Janet: People want to use pretty words like “diversity” and “multicultural awareness” instead of calling it what it is. At IPA, we know it is institutional racism. It’s like we’re all in the same room, and there’s this huge pink elephant in the middle of the room. That pink elephant is racism. But nobody wants to look at it; people walk around it; they don’t want to see it. But we can’t begin to move forward until we name it and get other folks to actually see it. Until we can do that, we can’t really change anything, we can’t get the pink elephant out of the room. People are too busy running around proclaiming, “I am not a racist.” Either they get over their blindness and see the pink elephant, or they’ll get run over in a stampede they don’t see coming.

Jerome: When people talk about multiculturalism in the South, they are basically talking about black and white. The growing Latino population is left out of the multicultural equation in the South. Another thing that gets glossed over in our language and practice is the difference between “white supremacy” and “racism.” When people say “racism,” it conjures up people’s attitudes, or that white people have a bad attitude about people of color, or that people of color have a bad attitude about white folks, or each other. But the real deal, I think, is “white supremacy,” because it’s an institutionalized thing with long historical roots that goes beyond individual bad attitudes and shapes the development of the policies and cultures of institutions. The term “white supremacy” indicates more of a structural phenomenon than “racism.”

Jane: When people are fighting for jobs, they are really talking about jobs for the “enfranchised”–people who either are citizens or are documented. CAAAV believes that race is centrally embedded in the whole construct of citizenship and all the systems that emanate from it–public services, jobs, opportunities. When we’re fighting for jobs or better housing, we want to reframe the issue–whose interests are being served by these demarcations and incredible enforcement structures that delineate citizens from non-citizens?

Q: What are the key challenges and opportunities in advancing racial justice in the coming period?

Maria: I think the basic challenge actually lies within the progressive movement itself. As a longtime organizer, I’ve observed this perception that immigrants can’t form their own organizations, can’t lead their organizations, can’t speak for themselves, can’t build organizations with enough power to make a real difference. An immigrant rights organization like ILEMP will not look and feel like a traditional community organization, and therefore will not act like one. It combines services with national advocacy, and its grassroots organizing practice is influenced by experiences from its members’ countries of origin. Most immigrant rights activities are concentrated in major urban centers and the border region. Immigrant communities blend domestic and homeland issues, and make the experience of globalization painfully real. To meet these challenges, one of the key areas of concentration is developing an infrastructure for a new, emerging leadership in immigrant communities.

Steve: People on welfare are all poor and are overwhelmingly women of color. What has been important for POWER in organizing with them is to pinpoint the intersections of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. The fight is not simply one for racial justice, but also for economic justice and for gender justice. One of the major trends is to try to focus on one particular lens of oppression as opposed to the complexity of the intersections. Some may attempt to deal with racial justice to the exclusion of dealing with the broader system of capitalism, or vice versa. Neither approach advances our work significantly. The other tendency is to focus exclusively on tactical skills development, because doing analysis is just too complicated or even unnecessary. This approach assumes that the system we currently have is an acceptable system, and all we need to do is to tweak or modify it in some way so that welfare workers receive a slightly higher wage. That approach really gets us nowhere.

Jerome: Project South believes that one of the main challenges in the next period is how well we as a movement promote the leadership of low-income people. Central to that leadership development is a systematic education process about how white supremacy functions as the leading oppressive tool in this country. The key is to organize with low-income people, to develop them as leaders in the process, and to develop education around the centrality of white supremacy. If you’re fighting for the leadership by low-income people in this country, and you’re fighting side-by-side with those people, then you are doing some serious anti-racist, anti-white-supremacist work.

Jane: The next challenge CAAAV faces is to link issues of citizenship, immigration, and immigrants of color with the African American community by showing how INS detention and enforcement policies are linked to the prison industrial complex. This project challenges us to deepen our understanding of the way that race operates. Dealing with racism is much more complicated than just saying that the black and Latino communities are disproportionately incarcerated in the prison system, and that immigrants are in the INS detention system. One point of commonality is an economic one, another is the strategies and tactics employed by both types of incarcerated populations. CAAAV is trying to get into that nexus.

Jeanne: We need to develop our own institutions, strengthen our organizations, and build an infrastructure to support them. We have to write down our own history, our own training manuals, our own models of doing this work. The EJ movement has set up many regional and racially specific networks in the past 15 years, and there’s much we all can learn from that experience. We’re having the second People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit next year, ten years after the first one, to see what lessons we’ve learned, and what challenges lie ahead for the movement. Right now is the calm before another major storm.

Janet: People who have been very successful organizing in other communities of color want to use the same type of strategies and tools and tactics in Indian country, but they don’t meet the same success. They don’t know our culture, and they expect our people to react to similar agitations, exhibit the same interest level in traditional organizing methods, and engage in similar tactics that they see in other communities of color. We don’t respond well to cookie-cutter organizing. We adhere to our own cultures and traditions, and our own rhythm of building towards action. For example, we don’t focus on the treatment of ourselves; as Indian people, the number one priority has always been our children. We’re the kind of people that say: “Do whatever you want to me, I’ll endure. But mess with my child, then I’ll have to kick the shit out of you.” Our numbers may be small, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be powerful.

Anthony: AGENDA believes that one of the biggest obstacles to advancing the practice of community organizing is the traditional fixation on the campaign and the basic organizing premise that you have to win something concrete to motivate and keep people involved. While there is some truth to that, one of the things we’re trying to do is not just talk to people about the immediate campaign, or the immediate impact it will have on their family, but also to engage them on broader social and political issues. What is our vision of society? Of community? Our values? Clearly, the development of a more consistent political education program strengthens that engagement. But how do we combine political education with organizing on a large scale? We’ve done good work, and built a solid membership structure, but we’re still organizing on too small of a scale to challenge the power structures in L.A. What would it take to challenge for power in the whole country?

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Francis Calpotura was co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing for the past ten years. Back to top.

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