Movement lessons from the South‏

November 24th, 2014

Dear ROPnetters,

It’s great to be back home and at work in rural Oregon after having a fantastic few days in Dallas, TX for the Facing Race conference put on by Race Forward. Thanks to our friends at Welcoming America (of which ROP is an affiliate), I was able to join over 1,600 folks from 44 states and 8 countries who are all committed to building a strong multiracial movement for racial justice.

Over three days, we came together to hone our skills, share strategies, build relationships, and CELEBRATE. I came back home to Oregon feeling recharged, re-energized, and eager to prepare for a kickass 2015.
One of the great opportunities of Facing Race was to make connections across regions. Listening to Southern organizers talk about their work, from confronting racial injustice to advancing workers rights, I couldn’t help but be reminded of our own work here in Oregon: building deep, meaningful relationships with those we organize with that last over the long-haul; using storytelling as a way to engage people; and progressive folks coming together to find each other, despite the isolation of doing this work in a conservative part of the country.

As we settle down with our families and our communities for Thanksgiving, here are some points that I’d love to share with you. As we wind down and reflect before gearing up for 2015, what are you most puzzling through?
1. Lead with Our Values
Leading with our values of human dignity and democracy allow us to have the broader conversations about what we want and need to see our communities function as and look like. Without our values at the forefront, it’s easy to get baited into binary conversations: racist or not racist, right or wrong. When we can have deeper, more nuanced conversations, that’s where we find common ground.

2. Intersectionality
All of the human dignity issues we work on are connected and it is important for us to recognize that! Intersectionality allows us to break down the silos, the rhetoric that keeps people divided from each other. Intersectionality means that we don’t have to leave parts of ourselves behind when we enter the room to organize. Rural folks know that our communities are made up of people not issues — our lives are interconnected, our identities are intertwined, and successful organizing in small towns understands this.

3. Building Bridges
Studies show that when race comes up, people can experience anxiety so severe that parts of our brains literally shut down. The key is to engage folks in a way that doesn’t trigger hopelessness or anxiety, but builds together. Recognizing and validating experiences begins that bridge-building. Empathy. It is easier to build a wall than a bridge, but the work put into building a bridge lasts much, much longer.

Similarly, we need to make it safe for people to be wrong. Everyone makes mistakes. People grow most where the space is made for that growth. Our work right now is about, and always has been about, having transformative conversations one-by-one, and I learned that’s true across the country.

4. Small Victories MATTER
I was moved by the work of the Workers Defense Project in Texas whose membership is primarily undocumented construction workers. In a state that has rolled back just about every right for workers, the Workers Defense Project is organizing for some of the most basic of security measures to keep construction workers safe on worksites, taking on billion-dollar corporations and the Republican Party, and winning incrementally. Cristina Tzintzún, Executive Director of Workers Defense Project, reminded the crowd that “little victories are tremendous gains,” especially in the South. “We’re building power for the long haul… I think doing work in the South is some of the most difficult and challenging work for progressives like we are, but I also think it’s incredibly fun. I think when you’re at rock bottom you can only go up and I think that’s what the communities here are doing.”

Being big-picture thinkers like we are, we sometimes can forget the celebrate the small victories on the path to achieving our long-term goals. Obama just announced administrative relief that will benefit millions undocumented folks after Not 1 More and countless other organizations (including human dignity groups!) invested in making broad relief possible when Congress couldn’t be compelled to pass immigration reform. Marijuana was legalized in Oregon as one huge step in dismantling the drug war that has ruined so many lives. Despite millions of dollars dumped into Oregon by some of the biggest corporations in the world, the GMO labeling measure is too close to call and is going to a recount. We have so much that Oregonians have worked so hard to implement and defend for decades. Our work is a series of small victories (and sometimes losses), and it’s important to not overlook opportunities to claim and celebrate those victories.

5. Pay Attention to the Right
We have seen ways that coded racist language has mobilized people against the government, from taxes to food stamps to safety nets to immigrant rights. One of the speakers at Facing Race, author of Dog Whistle Politics Ian Haney López, described this as “strategic racism” by the Right – manipulating racial anxiety to get what they want, and a distraction from what is really happening: the accumulation of even more wealth within the 1%.

Here’s an example that might sound familiar: “we are a nation of laws.” We just saw this tactic of strategic racism used successfully with Measure 88, the Driver Card measure. While the phrase isn’t racist on its face, it uses this coded racist language to conjure the idea of undocumented immigrants coming from across the southern border and “breaking laws”. Recognizing and naming this when we see it helps our communities deepen our political analysis, the same way human dignity groups have named scapegoating of immigrants, queers, and other marginalized communities for years.

6. Let’s Keep Our Eyes on the Prize
So often when we talk about racism, we default to thinking about interpersonal racism, one person saying something to another, without addressing structural racism. Our media does a great job of cultivating this; if you take a look at the 24-hour nonstop coverage of Ferguson and Mike Brown’s murder you’ll see it playing out as a matter of whether Darren Wilson is racist or not, instead of digging into why a black man is killed by police every 28 hours in this country.

Mass incarceration, immigration policies, school discipline gaps, housing inequity, and so much more clearly demonstrate structural racism across institutions. It is our job as organizers to bring the big picture into our conversations. We aren’t just about making sure our neighbors don’t say racist things — we are about making sure that systems that disadvantage people of color, immigrants, queers, or any other marginalized community are torn down and built to uphold justice, equity, and human dignity. It’s about systems and root causes.

7. CELEBRATION!
Let us not forget that to build a movement for the long haul, we must feed our souls, recharge, have fun, CELEBRATE. Why would we struggle without it?

As many of us begin to wind down for the holidays, what are you spending time thinking about? What would you like your human dignity group to bring to the movement in 2015? What would you like ROP to bring to your human dignity group in 2015?

Warmly,
Jessica

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