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August 29, 2005

Exploration: Blueprint for Revolution (part 4)

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

Well, apparently I have enough material in me for a fourth installment. Once again, this is not so much an essay as a brain-dump -- getting all the various practicalities of activism out of my head so that I'll be able to reshuffle the pieces into formal essays later.


Thinking once again at the national level, I'm interested to note that specialist organizations seem more effective than generalist organizations. Think about the early 70s when the National Organization for Women (NOW) is really expanding quickly. The dialogue about women's rights is at its early stages in the popular mind, so it's possible to conceive of an organization with enough committees to cover every women's issue. Thirty-plus years later, the various feminist issues are now championed by separate organizations -- if not separate movements. Getting women elected, abortion, domestic violence -- each cause deserves its own focus.

With regards to YL, the national organizations that I'm familiar with (e.g. NYRA, ASFAR) are still very generalist in nature: their manifestos lay out many various issues that we see as hanging together. Is this a stage in the growth of the movement? Maybe we'll be evolving in the right direction if we establish an anti-curfew movement with a national coalition, and another that deals only with voting rights, and so on. On the other hand, I've noticed in looking at feminism that while the activists have become pretty specialized, there's still a need (particularly among men) for groups that show how all the issues are related. It seems to me like there's a gap right now that needs to be filled -- there should be an organization (or two) at the national level promoting a "101" level of anti-sexist awareness.


There's a strong impulse to found an organization. We can see that the problem of adultism is going to be around for a while, and we can think of lots of issues that we want to tackle... So we want to pledge our commitment to tackling all these issues by creating a group with an infrastructure that will allow it to last for years to come.

This may be a mistake. It takes a great deal of effort to maintain the existence of an organization. It also takes a great deal of effort to spearhead a political campaign. The work that it takes to simply maintain the organization may get in the way of actually doing the work that it's supposed to support. You can find yourself in a position of having endless weekly meetings where you're trying to figure out how to get more members -- but no one's going to join because you're not actually tackling the real problems, you're only promising to do so once enough people are present. If your energy is limited -- and it usually is -- it may make sense to dive into working on a political campaign; if you start making progress, that will interest people in joining you.

Youth groups are particularly prone to turn-over. If you yourself aren't going to be a part of this organization for several years to come, trying to stabilize the internal structure is probably a bad use of energy. Do something that can get done -- and be called "finished" -- during the year or two or three that you can personally give.

The wish for an ever-lasting youth organization is related to setting up a multi-issue group: you see that there's lots of work to be done. Again, rather than trying to tackle the vote and the curfew and discrimination against youth at a chain of restaurants, you'll probably do better to focus your energy on a single project. ...If you have 45 or 50 youth actually attending your meetings, rather than a typical maximum of 15, then maybe you're ready to branch out!


Suppose you've settled on trying to eliminate the curfew. There are (at least) two major approaches to how to construct your organization for this purpose. On the one hand, you can frame this as a Youth Rights issue, and thus name your group "Youth Rights Portland". If you do this, you'll be attract people who believe in youth rights as members, and the name of the group will keep people coming at the issue from this angle.

On the other hand, you could name the group something like "Project No Curfew". By making your group's campaign part of the name, you're able to attract anyone who wants that goal -- even if they wouldn't endorse a broader Youth Liberation agenda or ideology.

I've seen a conflict of opinions on this matter emerge (and boil over) several times, in various contexts. One faction wants as many people involved as possible, and doesn't care who's involved -- so long as they agree on this one issue. Another faction feels that you shouldn't ally yourself with groups that would be against you in other contexts. For instance, during the 80s there was a coalition against pornography that included both some feminist groups and some religious conservative groups. This created a lot of controversy in the feminist community, activists being unhappy with the company they found themselves keeping.

In identity politics, putting the issue first may also lead to problems within organizational meetings themselves. When men and women work together against sexism, whites and blacks against racism, adults and youth against adultism, there is potential for members of the oppressor group -- though well-meaning -- to engage in typically oppressive behaviors. At worst, members of the oppressed group can feel that their organization has been stolen from them. In less severe situations, it can simply feel like the men / whites / adults can't be confronted for their bad behavior, because they're "one of the good ones".

Adult allies bringing their patterns of oppression into an anti-adultism group can be an argument for youth separatism. I am not in favor of pure separatism -- for practical reasons: adults have valuable resources that youth stand to benefit from. However, I do think it's important to confront oppressive behaviors, even when coming from one's "allies". The compromise I advocate is building processes into youth organizations that encourage youth to discuss words and actions that "stung" either when they happen or at the end of each meeting.

This practice of "processing" does have the potential to take up valuable time when one is in the middle of a campaign. When one is tight-for-time in the middle of a campaign, in fact, is probably when conflicts are most likely to arise. Having the campaign fall apart because group participants are too busy processing is unacceptable. Still, being in the habit of dealing with "stings" during times when the group is not under pressure can help build a trust that gets the group through the more challenging periods.

[Another strategy for naming organizations that I should mention: to pick a slogan that responds directly to the opponents' criticisms. For instance, in Oregon civil rights for gays and lesbians have been called "special rights" by opponents. In response, one of our most powerful organizations has dubbed itself "Basic Rights Oregon". This naming strategy may be a more advanced concept, since it comes into play when the opposition is already well-organized. Most of the activism I'm discussing here begins in a context where the opposition has not yet organized itself.]


It can be difficult for representative organizations to do political activism. If you initially set up your organization so that people could be dues-paying members, then you've probably implied that your group exists to serve their will. If there are board members who are periodically elected to their positions, this impression is strengthened.

Having a base of many members strengthens your position as a voice for a community -- you can say "I speak for the 500 dues-paying members who elected me". However, how do you choose to serve them circumstances are changing quickly?

For example: Suppose you've had a meeting with a the mayor, in which you gave her the text of a new law that you'd like passed. She says she'll think about it. A week later you find out that she has decided to bring the proposal to the city council for a vote -- but she's changed the wording. In some ways you'll get what you want -- but in other ways you may actually lose ground. The vote is in three days. What do you do?

On the one hand, you could decide that having been elected by your membership, they trust you to make decisions in cases like this -- so you decide to either support or oppose the new text on your own, and the members can vote you out of office later if they didn't like your decision.

On the other hand, you could try to call an emergency community meeting. Community members could talk about their opinions in person, so you'd know how they really feel, and you'd probably get ideas that you wouldn't have had on your own. But because you may only be able to give 36 hours notice before this meeting, attendance may be pretty bad.

I've been through dilemma very similar to this, myself. You may never find yourself in this situation, though... Let me come at this from a different angle.

The smaller the group you are in, the more likely it is that you'll be able to arrive at agreement. The larger the group you have, the more diversity of opinion there will be, and the more difficult it will be to reach a consensus. Politics are inherently matters of opinion. If an issue is not part of your mission statement -- if perhaps it has recently emerged and you are trying to respond -- then you may not be able to unify your membership and rally them behind the cause.

A small group, a "cadre", does not have this problem. When your activist group is only as big as the number of people who are in your meeting room, then you can make decisions without being concerned about what non-participating members think.

Again, I seem to be making an argument for single-purpose organizations. When I was with the Portland Bisexual Alliance board of directors, we tried to be a one-stop all-in-one organization. We had social events, educational events, and political events... But while the leadership was committed to doing politics, many of the members were purely interested in social events, and were disinterested in the projects that we hoped to rally their support behind. Had we approached politics as a cadre rather than from a "serving the members" point of view, we would have saved ourselves an amount of grief.


The "Portland Bisexual Alliance" was poorly named, not being an "alliance" as I understand the term.

An "alliance" is when two or more groups share common values, and support each other's work. The alliance may result in collaborative projects, or it may be more loose -- a sort of network of like-minded groups.

A "coalition" is a collection of groups that band together to work on a single issue. The participating groups may disagree on all other issues, but they agree to set those differences aside for the sake of achieving this one goal.

[I learned this distinction at a Portland Women's Crisis Line training at least a decade ago. Possibly from Guadalupe Guajaro?]

When you're pursuing a political project, often you'll want other organizations to support your work. You try to establish as broad a coalition as possible, to give the appearance (if not the reality) of community support.

Over time, you're more likely to get support, and more likely to be seen as a trusted organization, if you develop relationships with the groups you want to be working with. In practice, what this means is that you go to their meetings, you staff a table at their events, you show up at their protests in solidarity, you invite them to coffee to get to know them better. It's great if you can get multiple people from your group to come -- but as a leader, getting to know other leaders personally, getting to the point where they know who you are -- that's valuable.

But you also need to not be disappointed when they say "no" to joining your coalition. Consider for a moment if the roles are reversed -- if another group asks you to be a part of their coalition.

The easiest requests to deal with are for a donation of money or for a simple endorsement. Your group can discuss the matter and send off a check or permission to add your group's name to a list of other supporters. You do that, and your commitment is done.

Things get trickier if the other group wants you to actually collaborate. When I was running a board, my policy was that representatives from other organizations were always welcome to attend our planning meetings to present their case. You don't need to decide in advance whether or not your group collaborates -- you can decide on a case-by-case basis. After hearing what the other group is trying to do, you discuss how closely aligned your aims are, whether there's overlap between the membership of their group and the membership of yours, whether you have adequate energy to take on another commitment, and so on. ...Coalition work isn't such a simple matter when it's someone directly asking you for a contribution!


There are several debates about how to do politics that are likely to never go away. To an extent you can circumvent them by making some decisions about the nature of your organization when it is first being formed.

(1) Bridge-building vs. Confrontation

This is largely a matter of style. Do you want to challenge the people who oppress you? Show them how outraged and angry you are? Condemn bad behavior in no uncertain terms? ...Or do you want to peacefully educate the people who have done harm -- arriving at a sense of understanding and friendship?

In my opinion, both styles are valuable tools -- it's really just a question of when each one is appropriate. A confrontational style can often get people's attention, so that an issue will get dealt with rather than ignored. On the other hand, when you're trying to get a person or group to change, they ultimately need to feel like there's a potential solution. If your group will be against them no matter what, then there's no motive for change.

(2) Separatism vs. Partnership

If you are an oppressed group, should you welcome members of the oppressor group into your organization? Strict separatists want to prohibit members of the dominating group for several reasons: to prevent take-overs from within, to allow the minority culture to flourish, to allow space for healing...

Activists who prefer partnership tend to feel that separatism excludes, and therefore is a matter of doing the same behavior that we complain about. There are men, whites, adults (etc.) who are strong supporters of anti-oppression causes -- and there are women, blacks, and youth who are against the cause of liberation. Shouldn't belief rather than body be the criterion for involvement? And, if a world of equality is the ultimate goal, shouldn't this be embodied in the organization itself?

As I've said many times before now, I am in favor of a compromise: organizations where oppressor and oppressed work together -- but where members of the oppressed group are given special encouragements to speak up when their "allies" (presumably unwittingly) do things that hurt.

(3) Cultural pride vs. Melting pot

Should members of minority groups try to emulate and fit into the oppressor's culture -- or should they work to reclaim and celebrate their own unique heritage? Youthful character-traits, clothes, music, etc. have frequently put down by adults. "Youth spaces" where these things are celebrated can help youth feel pride in who they are, shed conscious and subconscious shame for not measuring up to adult standards.

However, using slang, and dressing in youth fashions may lead to adults dismissing youth activists rather than listening to them. Politics may not be the best time for self-expression. Recall that African-American protesters in the Southern civil rights struggles of the 60s wore their Sunday best. Youth wearing formal clothes, such as suits, who may look like National Honor Society students, may (or may not) make the better impression at an election day protest about youth not being allowed to vote.

I think there's a place for both approaches. Self-expression motivates youth to become part of the movement. I think we want to create more room for youth to be themselves... Trying to dress, speak, and act "adult" is a form of costume that one can put on when necessary. ...But then, I don't believe that either "youth" or "adult" cultures are natural and real -- both seem artificial to me, so I'm happy to mix and match. My preference is to transcend age entirely.

(4) Unified front vs. Taking care of our own

Oftentimes "progressive" leaders will make the argument that the various liberation movements (feminism, black empowerment, youth lib, etc.) will never succeed alone -- we need to all band together into one big movement. These leaders may point to ways in which oppressor groups set oppressed groups against each other, and thus let us keep each other down, saving them the work.

However, an organization only has so many people -- no one has time and energy to take on all issues at once. Sometimes one group has been asked to put their agenda on the back burner, to work on the "more important" issue first. Sometimes groups on the Left -- Socialist groups in particular -- have actually infiltrated other movements specifically with the intention of subverting them, bringing them around to doing the other movement's work. Being back-burnered or infiltrated isn't OK. If we don't fight for ourselves, who will fight for us? And who knows our agenda better than we do? A progressive agenda might have a hundred points on it -- our small agenda might have only ten -- which is much more workable.

I believe in a realistic progressivism. It is worth our while to learn as much as possible about other oppressions. Because we ask others not to oppress us, we should care about not oppressing others. Furthermore, learning about other groups means we don't have to reinvent the wheel -- our own oppression becomes more easily understood when we look at the suffering of others and how they have struggled. We should take on coalition commitments when it makes sense to do so -- and always be open to hearing other people's requests for help.

(5) Role of Allies

I have talked about this above, so I will say little here except to note this as a perennial point of contention. Some people feel that anyone who believes in justice should be welcomed into the movement. Others feel that the subjects of oppression have special knowledge about it and deserve special considerations in the process of doing activism. Me, I feel that members of the oppressor group are not universally evil, ignorant or untrustworthy -- but that because we are often unaware of our own oppressive behaviors, those who want to be allies should be careful not to take over groups (voluntarily removing themselves from votes, for instance), and should take extraordinary measures to make themselves safe people to criticize, should criticism be needed.


There are a number of types of political functions that an organization can fulfill. In part, it is worth considering these because it is difficult for a single organization to undertake all tasks. Thus, at the local level and at the national level, a healthy movement should have a variety of organizations.

(1) Watchdog Group

A watchdog group pays attention to known opposition groups or government bodies (state legislature, county commissioners, city council, government agencies, etc.) or media outlets. A watchdog group may or may not take action in response to current events... But someone has to notice that things are going wrong if anyone's going to do something about the situation.

(2) Lobbying & Legislative Activism

There is work to be done to prevent bad laws from passing, to strike down bad laws on the books, and to propose good new laws instead. This work can be done at the federal, state, county, or city level.

(3) Court-based Activism

Good laws aren't worth much if your community doesn't know how to use them, can't afford lawyers to pursue their cases, or judges interpret those laws in ways that render them ineffective. There is work to be done teaching youth what youth they have and how to use them. Legal defense funds can be set up to help youth get lawyers to help defend them. We tend to think of the legislature as the only place where laws are shaped -- but putting our energies into a significant court case can be just as effective (or more so!) in terms of pushing the legal system in the direction we want.

(4) Against Media Defamation

There are biased or downright inflammatory articles, advertising, and entertainments being produced all the time for TV, newspapers, billboards, movies, the net, etc. Letters to the editor, protests, etc. can use these items to our advantage, pointing out oppression when it occurs and critiquing it.

(5) Education

It can be argued that education is not true activism because it does not directly address power. However, running workshops or producing videos is a time-honored way of attempting to win support for your views, which perhaps means translates into more activists joining your group. [Beware training oppressors how to discriminate simply without getting caught!]

(6) Social Events

Social events are decidedly not activism. However, helping establish a community is a first step towards mobilizing that community to activism.


Activists want to mobilize their communities to action. However, this can be difficult to do when a population -- such as youth -- has not even recognized itself as a community yet. We want youth to care when a new anti-youth law is created, for them to get angry and get working to stop it. But if youth haven't developed their perspective as a youth, it's almost as if the law deals with someone else.

Let me take a moment to explain how people get involved in activism and why they stay.

People get active when an issue directly affects them, in a deeply personal way. Lots of issues effect you, but you're not so bothered that you care to do anything. ...Having a friend or partner who cares deeply about an issue means that that issue impacts you in a personal way.

People get involved in groups because they know someone else who's going. It's very hard to walk into a room of strangers; it's much easier to come along with a friend. Really, nearly all social change happens because of the bonds that people have with each other. This is why good activists know put effort into getting to know quite a few people quite well.

People stay involved in groups, and become committed to a larger movement, because the ideas that they hear help them make sense of their lives. A movement that gives you a worldview is a movement that becomes home.

...Because youth organizations have such high turn-over, they must constantly concerned with recruiting new activists. The first step is not necessarily a hard-sell to join (which too often means just giving money to become a member). The first step can be to ask questions. Host a community forum about what issues matter most to youth in your community now. As youth work on answering this question together, they begin to see themselves not just as "people" but as "youth". This is probably the first step towards mobilizing the community -- and it's an action that doesn't necessarily have an immediate outcome. It's outreach, but without too forceful of a hook.


In much of my past writing I have been extremely skeptical about parents' ability to be allies -- the motivation to stay in control is so strong. However, I have recently been reevaluating this position. I am seeing pockets of radical parents emerging, such as the readers of "Hip Mama" magazine. I don't know how closely our ideologies align -- but there's potential.

Parents are a valuable source of money which could go toward hiring lobbyists to watchdog the state legislature. They are also a constituency that would have a voice that is well-received when it speaks up in legislative struggles. However, I think that YL would want to try to assert some standards for what constitutes acceptable parenting and acceptable participation in the movement, in order to prevent being steam-rolled.

I've been imagining (but haven't yet written) a sort of domestic bill of rights -- a set of entitlements that parents of conscience voluntarily extend to their offspring. Ex: I will not spank or hit; I will not invade the privacy of your room; you are allowed to call me by my first name; you can choose your own name; you will not be constrained by a curfew; I won't prevent you from dying your hair, wearing clothes of your choice, getting a tattoo, etc; and so on. A document such as this might be a good core document for radical parents to organize themselves around.


I seldom talk about what sorts of activism an individual can do -- even though an individual is very powerful on their own. Rather, I'm always talking about groups and organizations. Why is this? Because I believe that groups are the social unit that will push forward social change. Working in a group has several key advantages over working as an individual.

Working in a group gives you courage. Alone, you are full of doubt and uncertainty. Being with people who believe what you do gives you confidence. They support you in taking risks that you'd never actualize on your own.

A group is smarter than an individual. When you discuss something together, you come up with many more ideas that you would alone. You get different perspectives, you come up with more solutions. And if you're wrong, you're more likely to discover it if there's a friendly group to check your thinking. [This collective intelligence can also be very useful when you're actually in a meeting with an authority!]

A group is taken more seriously than an individual. If you go into a principal's office alone with your complaint, s/he can fairly easily dismiss you. But if a group of eight students come in together, the complaint has much more weight to it.

Adults aren't used to hearing youth speak as a group. Adults generally only listen to one youth at a time (when they're listening at all). When a group of youth all speak together, their voices take on a different quality: it's as if all youth are speaking. Rather than just listening to individual persons, an adult feels like they're listening to what youth as a group feel.

Working in a group you can get more done. You pool your efforts, each taking on a few small tasks, and something very large can be accomplished.

A group continues to exist even if it loses a member. When a cause is important, you want someone to keep working on it. Creating a group is a strategy for making a force in the world that will continue on even after you've left it.


Here is a very basic principle. We act as if an organization is a person that can do things, some kind of giant robot that we can order around. In reality, there is no organization -- only the individuals who work under it's name. The organization is an illusion. It's worth perpetuating: people on the outside take an organization more seriously than they take an individual. For the sake of the illusion, the people who are making it happen don't emphasize their own unique identities and contributions so much -- they contribute to the group project. And yet, it is absolutely crucial that the activists on the inside remember that the organization is only themselves. If there is work to be done, someone at the table is going to have to do it. Talking about what "we" should do is a waste of time if no one is volunteering to be the individual who takes on a specific task.


An activist's most powerful tool is one-on-one, face-to-face conversation. I'm not exaggerating -- most powerful tool.

If you want to raise money, the most effective way to do so is to ask. Make a list of everyone you know. Make appointments to meet them at coffee shops. Tell them what you're doing and why you need money, and then ask them for a specific amount. Wait silently, let them consider it. Then they give you some money, or they don't. Maybe they can give you time volunteering instead. ...You're far more likely to make money this way than by sending letters to strangers.

Politically too, make a point of inviting people out to coffee. Get to know the other political leaders in your town. Get to know the members of your organization. When you know about the lives of these people -- and they know about you -- they're no longer strangers, but rather acquaintances whom you can call upon. Knowing something about their lives gives you better knowledge about their motives, their interests, what kind of time and money they can bring, etc.


Too many people seem to think that you can do activism entirely via email. Not so.

Email is notoriously bad for group discussions. If you want to plan something, do it in person -- or at least over the phone. With correspondence, there's too much opportunity for a tone of voice to be misread. Or for someone to not respond to an important point. Or for the reality of a situation to not set in. These things are quickly dealt with face-to-face.

Face to face, you have much richer conversation -- there are facial expressions and tones of voice. You can talk much faster, progressing through much more material. There's a physical sense of commitment to each other.

Use email for invitations, RSVPs, and reminders. Do all your planning face-to-face.


Before you leave a meeting, always figure out when and where you're going to meet next. Leave adequate room for this discussion on the agenda. [This point should be under "how to facilitate a meeting".]


Justice and fairness aren't very compelling issues. Pain and suffering are. Legislators tend to be pragmatists rather than idealists. If you can't dramatize how a problem makes someone suffer in a practical way, they probably won't be interested.

Furthermore, I'm not sure that we should be interested, either. On a theoretical level, there are a lot of things that aren't fair. However, ultimately I think we should be devoting our energies to lessening real suffering in the world. I've sometimes described this in terms of "bread and blanket" issues. Feed the hungry, give a blanket to people who are cold. Issues that are purely a matter of pride matter -- but keep them in perspective.





...On youth turf.


(disrupt & occupy city hall; election day protests; take back the night marches)

Posted by Sven at August 29, 2005 12:00 PM


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