fresh voices from the front lines of change







It feels like everything is on the line right now for our country, our planet, and for humanity.

We have a global pandemic in the middle of a climate emergency. The corporate-conservative Radical Right has taken over country after country. Inequality and inequity are rising. It feels overwhelming. But there is a path toward a green new world if we have the will to win.

There’s no better place to start when looking for inspiration than Ella Baker, the trailblazing African-American organizer who over five decades was a driving force in the civil rights movement, at the Young Negro Cooperative League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (2003) is an outstanding introduction — or reintroduction — to Baker’s monumental achievements, and it affirms her pivotal role in seeding and tending the development of a revolutionary, grassroots, feminist, Black radical tradition.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Ella Baker was the best community organizer of the last century. She is far less known, but way more influential, than men like Saul Alinsky in shaping the wide field of community organizing. Her example reverberates through nearly every effective grassroots organization today.

“Ella Baker was the comforting, nurturing, rock-solid mother to the movement,” explains Ransby. “Yet there was nothing maternal about her in the traditional sense of that term.”

Baker, she continues, “was a militant activist, an insurgent intellectual, and a revolutionary, descriptors that are usually associated with men rather than women and with youth rather than the middle-aged. Baker’s complex, carefully crafted persona enabled her to cross gender and generational boundaries within the movement. Even in retrospect, she defies categorization.”

Baker’s insights are as powerful today, as we try to face a global pandemic, the global rise of fascism, and an unfolding climate catastrophe, as they were a half century ago. In Ella Baker’s own words,

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning — getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.

Ransby highlights a key element of Baker’s example, which is often glossed over by chroniclers: the way that she introduced gender into the movement for civil rights, which in and of itself was a subversive act.

Ransby describes how Ella Baker’s subtle presence

Offered a different model of gender relations and a broader spectrum of gender identities. Her own transgressive female identity was represented by her uninhibited occupation of predominantly male political spaces, her refusal to be a conventional teacher, and her rejection of a social identification as someone’s wife. Her way of being a black woman challenged men in SNCC to rethink manhood and masculinity, just as it gave women in the movement a widened sense of their own possibilities as doers, thinkers, and powerful social change agents.

Baker also understood there is a class element to this revolutionary reorganization of identities. Ransby places this in the context of Baker’s finest hour, as a mentor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC):

The SNCC activists always had to struggle against the tendencies toward elitism and male domination, but SNCC did enable women, workers, farmers, and youth to emerge as strong, effective, and publicly recognized leaders of the movement. This achievement was in no small measure the result of an active assertion of leadership on the part of SNCC women themselves. As SNCC developed a bold and brazen public image, bold and brazen women were attracted to it; and once they joined, no one sought to constrain them. Ella Baker nudged them along this path and cleared obstacles from their way whenever she could. As architect of SNCC’S democratic approach, she in effect widened the space of leadership, so that those most marginalized or excluded from the centers of power in society and in civil rights politics could stand up and be heard. Her fundamental commitment to a democratic vision and inclusive political practice was not based on a feminist perspective per se, but unconsciously, Baker had laid a foundation for subsequent black and white radical feminist work.

Ella Baker’s political development “combined the black Baptist missionary values of charity, humility, and service with the economic theories of Marxists and socialists of various stripes who advocated a redistribution of society’s wealth and a transfer of power from capitalist elites to the poor and working classes.” She was able to organize around these hybrid values, Ransby explains, by

Appealing to ordinary people, by making herself accessible, speaking in a familiar language that people could readily understand, and interacting with them in a way that made them feel they were important to her. She nurtured and cultivated this unassuming manner…Her remarks underscore the point that she was straightforward and unpretentious. This down-to-earth quality enabled her to rapidly develop a rapport with people, especially poor and working-class people.

Baker also teaches us that as organizers, we can be angry. We can be wholly committed to living our truths in our relationships. Ideology and identity can be an insulating armor against the pain of the world, but it’s not a path to power for people.

“Baker was very sensitive about how she came across to the people in the communities where she did outreach work,” continues Ransby. “An organizer did not have to have the perfect political strategy but did have to have the respect and trust of those he or she struggled alongside.”

Women’s Transformation

Following Baker’s command to “understand the root cause” of the systems that oppress society, Susan Engh picks up the torch of women’s organizing for transformational change where Ransby’s chronicle ends, focusing on twenty-one women organizers whose “root cause work” is lifted up and celebrated in Women’s Work: The Transformational Power of Faith-Based Community Organizing (2019).

Engh, like Ransby, collects and centers stories of women’s transformation. Just as Ella Baker’s influence and importance have been marginalized by men in the history of the Black freedom movement, so have women in the faith-based community organizing movement. Engh set out to show that:

Through their engagement in this field, women experience liberative transformation, both personally and professionally. Further, through their actions and leadership, women who embrace organizing are catalysts of significant transformation in their congregations, faith traditions, organizations, and communities.

This theme comes up repeatedly for both Engh and Ransby. Women claiming space for themselves opens the door to the participation and leadership of people of color, and generously creates opportunities for both women and men to deconstruct patriarchal and cis-gendered identities.

Being a woman in the movement also means getting back in touch with anger. Engh describes how “anger can become fuel for seeking greater power and self-determination.”

“We can turn what might feel like hot, untamed rage into something more useful: cold, hard determination,” she continues. “Organizers helped me understand that anger is not a bad thing in itself. Rather, anger is a natural signal that my values have been violated. It’s something to pay attention to, to assign merit, not to mask, deny, or ignore.”

You can feel the reverberations of these trailblazing women today, as organizers and activists struggle to forge identities that both live their own truths and also open up space for the radical reimagining of identities of the multiracial working class.

So much of what we have to do to become the best organizers and activists we can be is about letting go, not piling on. One of the most important things is to let go: as organizers, we should stop thinking it’s our job to think up the perfect strategy then enlist the “movement” to execute it.

Give People Light and They Will Find the Way

This brings us up to our present moment, and the path forward from here. By examining the relationship between changes in communications technology and the organizations and movements they make possible, in The Future of Change: Technology, Social Movements, and Social Change (2020) Ray Brescia contextualizes the century of organizing that Ransby and Engh describe, and points a way forward for the “medium, network, and message” of the next wave of revolutionary, feminist social change.

I had my fingers crossed that Brescia would elevate just how important local people, grassroots organizations and bottom-up campaigns still are in the digital era, even as more and more of our lives seem to be migrating online.

I remember when, as a young organizer at National People’s Action (NPA) in the early 1990s, we got our first fax machine. We no longer had to have two people drive around downtown Chicago to drop off press releases — one person to drive, while the other would run in and drop off the release to the editor’s inbox or at a reporter’s desk. We could now simply program the numbers for news outlets into this newfangled machine, and with the press a single button, pitch our next action (followed by phone calls of course) to a hundred reporters at once! Now that was revolutionary!.

Brescia digs into the evolution of digital communications and its impact on change: “Digital networks appear capable of enabling leaders, organizers, and individuals to cultivate relationships, develop stronger networks, coordinate action, build consensus, and activate their strong and weak ties for collective action.”

But he also makes it clear that “synthetic social capital is not a substitute for traditional social capital but can generate some of the same benefits and can do so with less trouble.”

Brescia traces a historical pattern that connects the Black freedom struggle with the women’s suffrage and racial justice movements in their innovative use of the newest communications technologies available to them:

The rapid spread of the printing press in the New World in the mid-eighteenth century helped spawn a revolution, just as it had a century before in England. The growth of the postal service after the creation of the new American republic helped facilitate the emergence of the Second Great Awakening and other social movements in the early nineteenth century. The steam printing press supercharged the capacities of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s. The telegraph spread the word of the birth of the women’s movement. The introduction of the telephone and transcontinental railroad helped launch the suffragettes and the Progressive Era. The radio helped garner support for the New Deal. The television advanced the cause of civil rights in the 1960s. Today, mobile technologies have exposed police brutality in new ways that helped launch the Black Lives Matter Movement.

The point of agreement among organizers and activists across traditions and technologies is the centrality of trans-local organizing, where the construction of shared identity leads to shared destiny. Brescia describes how “groups have often organized translocal, grassroots networks” that can mirror in their forms the communications technology available to them, so groups that relied on the post office formed around post offices and groups formed over social media clustered based on friend and family networks.

There are very divergent views about what local organizing is and how to encode the values, politics, and strategies of movement organizations into DNA that is mass-based, scalable, and transformational for people and society. Let’s turn to this next.

Who Are Your People?

There is one essential question that unites all organizers, whether digital or grassroots, fifty years ago or today. That is, as Ransby reminds us of Baker’s formulation, “Now, who are your people?” Ransby continues:

Who one’s people were was important to Ella Baker, not to establish an elite pedigree, but to locate an individual as a part of a family, a community, a region, a culture, and a historical period. Baker recognized that none of us are self-made men or women; rather, we forge our identities within kinship networks, local communities, and organizations…As she talked with people like Papa Tight in Shreveport and the sharecroppers in Tennessee, they sometimes spoke about things only tangentially related to politics, but she was collecting valuable information all the same. In such seemingly casual conversations, she listened for what historian Earl Lewis calls the “semi-public transcript” of opposition within oppressed communities.

“Your people” are the people who helped you along the path to becoming yourself. Radicalization, self-realization, and clarity about self-interest — all happen in relationships. Most of this work is about shining a bright light on the pain and joy that shaped who we are, and stripping away the fear and barriers in our control.

Negative connotations about self-interest (the self among others vs either selfishness on the one hand and self-sacrifice on the other) do a disservice to what Engh calls “a much healthier, relational, and more productive pursuit.” She explains, “Why this shift in understanding matters so much in community organizing is because it’s important to get people in touch with precisely why they care about issues of justice and equity.”

It is liberating to get in touch with our self-interest. When we get clear about who we are and why we need to build power with others, then we create space for love to balance our anger for love is what we create when we remove the barriers and boundaries between us.

The best tool we have at our disposal to clarify self-interest is compassionate agitation. Engh describes how “Provoking another to love and good deeds — to the doing of justice based on one’s best abilities or aspirations — is the aim of an artful agitation.” She goes on to say that

There are essentially four steps to an agitation: (1) articulating the self-interest or values you believe the person holds related to this given situation; (2) identifying their behavior that you experience as contradictory to their self-interest or values; (3) helping them understand the consequences of their behavior for themselves and others around them; (4) getting a commitment from them to adjust their behavior to fit their values and self-interest.” It is respectful to agitate; that’s how we show people that they have value no matter who has told them otherwise.

So first we forge relationships where people are at, and when our respect and trust is freely given and reciprocated, then we have relationships where we can invest in each other through loving agitation. The big question for storied organizer and trainer Mary Gonzales is: “How do I inspire them and agitate them and hold them up and hold a mirror up to them and make sure they don’t only see ugliness? That they see opportunity and possibilities and not just failure.”

This is the apex of movement and power building, not something that you do for a couple of months or years and then move on to bigger and better things. This is the work, and all other movement work should be in service to deep organizing that can provoke a whirlwind of movement moments. Maybe we should stop calling people in, and calling people out, and instead call each other to greatness. Maybe we need to go deep to go far.

This opens up the final step in relational liberation: helping people make sense of their stories and self-interest.

Engh says that in organizing “there’s a concept we refer to as politicizing your pain or politicizing your anger or oppression… It involves getting in touch with your own life story and those events and circumstances that have led you to this particular point and place in time…The idea of politicizing one’s pain, anger, or oppression is introduced as how one can begin to harness these dynamics into collective public action.”

Engh’s touchstone on anger and how it’s a signal that our values have been violated is taken to another level here as people connect their lived stories to the realities of structural oppression, racial capitalism, and corporate power. Collective public action follows along the lines of what Ransby describes as “Baker’s fundamental commitment was to grassroots activism, mass mobilization, and democratic change.” This is the path to power for the multi-racial working class.

Rabbi Stephanie Kolin crystallizes this in Women’s Work when she states that, “the connections between people were the things that were going to save us.”

A Vision Beyond the Immediate

Ok, but we’re still organizing for a political revolution, right? Yes — by following the path that Baker blazed in her work with the Young Negro Cooperative League and SNCC. Ransby describes how these groups “were distinguished from other contemporary organizations by their focus on grassroots education, democratic decision-making, and a step-by-step, transformative process of working toward long-term goals.”

How about knocking on doors, and talking to people about core values “like love, commitment, and compassion”? That’s the approach Brescia describes in his account of the fight for Freedom to Marry and in Maine in 2012 to win a ballot initiative recognizing same-sex marriage. This fight and others like it in Minnesota that year (to successfully reject the corporate-conservative Radical Right’s ballot initiative defining marriage between a man and a woman) are in keeping with Baker’s legacy and the women-led evolution of organizing toward more deep, relational, and scalable work.

The good news is that organizations, just like people, can be transformed to do just this. In fact, that may be our primary task as organizers to prepare for the next wave of change in communications technology. Engh shares a quote from Doran Schrantz, executive director of ISAIAH, as she was “learning about the corporate conservative moment and their long-term agenda.”

She continues, “I was really feeling urgency that we get to another level of relevance as an organization. I saw political operations at work and the mechanisms of power behind them. Then I’d turn around and look at our organization and think, “Oh, we’re cute! With our little meetings and little lunches!” If we wanted to be relevant through this vehicle, then we had to build something that could compete.”

Ransby describes how Ella Baker provoked a conference audience with this same question, “reaching for something larger, greater, more inspirational. What was at stake? What were they really fighting for and why? These were the fundamental questions Baker wanted her audience to ponder. As Howard Zinn’s report on Baker’s speech attests, she offered her listeners “a vision beyond the immediate.””

Taken together Ransby, Engh and Brescia show that the bright through line across eras and communication technologies is the centrality of trans-local multi-racial working class to relieve material suffering and win deep structural reforms, guided by a transformational political vision, and communicated in the most cutting edge fashion for the time.

Books Discussed:

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print.

Engh, Susan. Women’s Work: The Transformational Power of Faith-Based Community Organizing. Lanham: Lexington Books-Fortress Academic, 2019. Print.

Brescia, Ray. The Future of Change: Technology, Social Movements, and Social Change. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020. Print.

First published in Social Policy Magazine in Spring 2020, Volume 50, Number 1.

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