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Ng’etha Maina: Its Time to Experiment

Sushma Sheth interviewed  Ng’ethe Maina for Organizing Upgrade in August 2009.

Ng’etha Maina: Its Time to Experiment We are living through dramatic times. What do you find to be the significant shifts and how do they change the context of the work we are doing now?

I go back and forth on how significant the shifts are for the movement.  Obviously the economic crisis and the election of Barack Obama are pretty significant shifts.  Those two combined allow for a different conversation of what the conditions are.  However, the response by the administration to the crisis has not been a significant shift. The initial response (i.e. We need to Save the Banks) and the later response focused solely saving the financial industry, instead of taking the opportunity to invest in other kinds of economic recovery.  The response followed pretty mainstream and historical reactions to crisis.

 From my perspective, the potential shifts around the economy are giant and have made two things clear to me about the left and progressives: The first is, our generation of movement folks have never experienced anything quite like this and do not know what to do. We have witnessed a huge opening where the mainstream media has been talking about the death of capitalism.  I think it was The Economist that had as one of its covers “Capitalism as a dying animal.”  Even a year and a half later there is still a huge opening and my sense is that this is completely beyond the experience of our generation.  Nothing like this has happened since the 30s, since the Great Depression. And in some way, I feel as though we are a deer in the headlights: either we are stuck and we do not know what to do; or we see the shifts, but we are so mired in our current ways of doing things that our inertia will not allow us to move.

Minimally, there is an opening to do vast quantities of political education with everyone: grassroots leaders, staff, the mainstream public. My feeling is that there’s been nary a peep from the Left in terms of a loud and concerted response to frame the crisis that we are facing.  Nor does it seem that there has even been a determined and systematic effort to do this simply within the community organizing world. There was an opportunity to engage and force a real conversation about what is a just economy.  I think that the opportunity still exists. But the movement proved that in the last thirty to forty years of organizing we have not done enough to be prepared for the moment of crisis.  As a result, the debate is not about the end of capitalism.  Instead, it’s a conversation about “what kind of capitalism do we want to have.”

The second thing is the utter lack of power we have.  It just seems as though the left, the social justice movement and progressives (I am putting a wide range on this) are relatively powerless to do anything.  We see the U.S. government doing things like nationalizing parts of the financial industry. This is something that many of us on the left would say that’s a really good thing. But, it is happening through Democratic bureaucrats, rather than people on the left.  There are some exciting pockets of organizing happening in various places around the country, but they are relatively small and weak given the scale of challenge we face.

What are key interventions that community organizers should be making right now and are there particular contributions that left identified individuals in that process?  Can you comment on the kind of power we have?

In the conversation so far, we have been looking through the lens of power and consciousness. When the opposition is strong, then it is understandable that our power is weak.  But it is inexcusable that consciousness-raising is weak.  There are ALWAYS opportunities for consciousness-raising. Part of the reason why we are not in a position of having the power to seize the moment in front of us is because of a lack of consciousness-raising.  In the community organizing world, political education seems to be narrowly issue-focused, and/or trying to understand the channels of power within government or the private sector in order to leverage the power we have to win victories for very concrete and specific demands. There has been less focus on larger ideological issues and understanding the nature of the economy which really undergirds the society that we have.  This is a big indicator for me of why we are weak and paralyzed now.  There is an opening to debate the nature of the economy and we generally have little to contribute to the larger public discussion, or even to the discussion happening within and between organizations.  Moving towards interventions, my hope is that the lessons of the economic crisis can teach us that we can never slack or stop doing that kind of consciousness raising and political education.

I think it is also a flaw in how community organizing has evolved. Community organizing evolved over the last wave of movement in the 1960s and 70s to a more micro community focus. The model took on issues without putting them in an ideological context. As a result, we did not create room to have a broader conversation about the economy, how the government should work, etc.  And those who were trying to do political education were engaging fairly small numbers of people.  There has been no mass consciousness-raising.

If we want to take the long view, we can say that the crisis and lack of response is an indicator of the failure of community organizing as we know it.  From my perspective, community organizing plays two roles. The first is that it helps lay infrastructure. Real societal change happens through movement, in terms of fundamentally altering power relations, and changing culture and people’s hearts and minds. The role of community organizing is then to help lay infrastructure prior to movement so that it can spark and anchor the movement and help it grow.  The second is then within movements or post movement, the role of community organizing is to take advantage of windows of opportunity that open.  Community organizations represent concentrations of resources, people, staff time, skill and expertise so that when a window opens these organizations can point those resources in a focused way.  They can also point these resources to helping secure and institute the victories during the implementation phase, even after a movement has faded away.  Community organizations can do this when movements open opportunities, or when crises open opportunities. Years from now, we may look back at this moment and say that the community organizations failed at doing what they are designed to do.

So, then what is the role of left identified people?

Simply stated, it is to push things to the Left. To push community organizing to the left: base building, consciousness-raising, but also how we consider campaigns, how we structure them and our demands, how we structure our organizations, the kinds of practices we engage in inside them.

There are roles to be played.  People need to decide on what their role is and then play that role.  The role of left leaning organizers is to figure out how to do organizing and consciousness-raising, and make sure campaigns are connected to a broader ideological debate. We should not be doing campaigns that cannot be connected to a broader ideological conversation. We also have a responsibility to not create 1000 more tiny organizations.  There is probably a more efficient way to have scale, and I think it is the responsibility of people on the left to figure that out and talk about why that needs to happen.

But there is also a role for Left thought. To think that organizers are going to do all things is unfair and not realistic.  There are intellectuals on the Left that should be putting forward ideas:  ideas on the economy, what expanded democracy looks like.  They need to put them forward in a context that is directly related to organizers doing work in the field. There needs to be discussion and debate around those ideas.  Otherwise, ideas are disconnected and being put out by people who are just critics.

When Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor of Los Angeles, he received an agenda from the business community. But from our side, we weren’t sure.  There were some ideas like “a home for every homeless person” that were righteous and just, but also unrealistic given the conditions. We need ideas that can lead us towards a policy agenda that is doable and lead us towards somewhere else.

Another thing that left organizers can do is to prepare people for roles outside our organizations, in running the economy and government, which is something we are putting very little attention on.  We do not encourage our organizers to go to policy school. We do not encourage our organizers to go to business school. We do not pay for them to go.

We look at the economy right now and say we want to be engaged with the (Obama) administration. But the reality is that we do not have that many people who can sit across the table with the level of expertise needed to engage in that conversation, and who are connected to the on-the-ground work.  We do not actually have the skills and expertise inside of our organizations or even inside of our movement to be putting forward alternatives. We have been anti-intellectual for so long. We do not support it and we do not encourage it. So much so that when someone wants to go back to school, they get shouted down.

Our movement needs dedicated experts who can focus on policy, research, economics, etc., but we also need organizers who have some of those skills inside our organizations as well.  I can remember a time a few years ago when people would freak out if they could not be an “on-the-ground organizer.” Because it was cool.  People were not interested in trying to develop the multi dimensional pieces that we need in order to actually call ourselves a movement.

It seems like among organizers there is disdain or fear around a breadth of development. Things like being able to do demographic or economic analysis, or policy development. We need to think about a division of labor and the relationship between the different roles: how organizers relate to researchers and policy analysts, etc.  But that should not narrow the set of skills that organizers need to also develop. Otherwise what happens, and I’ve certainly seen this here in New York, is an over reliance on “experts” to move a certain piece of work; and organizers, in the absence of that capacity, end up waiting.  There is a timidity in terms of taking steps to do that work on their own.

We need to build internal expertise so that we can engage with our external allies.  But we have to be careful about believing that we can “do it all”.  While we may hesitate from engaging policy organizations because they may have a more conservative approach, by avoiding a relationship with them, we also get more caught up in our “pie in the sky” notions of what is possible.  At the policy level, I think we lack political savvy. We believe that the bill we write is the bill that should be passed, no compromises. And that isn’t how legislative processes work, especially when we ain’t got no power.

When someone tells us that something is not practical, we say they are “sell outs.”  But we are often unrealistic about the things that we think can happen because we are trying to make it all happen at one time. By not engaging and not having pushback, we end up talking to ourselves, creating echo chambers, and not winning.

I know that it may sound like I am saying contradictory things:  we need to be ideological and boldly visionary, and we need to be practical and not pie-in-the-sky.  But the truth is we need to be both of those things.  We need to be ideological in our political development and in being clear about how today’s work will lead to a transformation of society years from now.  And we need to be open to being practical at certain tactical levels, such as policy work and the building of united fronts.  But such tactical practicality is expressly a function of lack of power.  We aren’t the majority power, and so we need to have tactical flexibility in order to succeed.

What are old strategies that our sector should be turning away from?

Good question. The frame for me is looking at the conditions we are in and how they have changed over the last 40 years. And then taking a look at the organizing models we use and how they haven’t really changed in the last 40 years. In this country, non-profit community organizing is a descendant of the Industrial Areas Foundation (1950s) and ACORN (early 1970s).  The models we use came from a specific era, in response to a specific set of conditions, and the question we need to ask is if those models fit the changing conditions of our present time.  This is not a knock on the hard work that people are doing in organizations now, but I am asserting that we aren’t even asking the question of does the model fit the times. I mostly feel we are blind to this (though there are notable exceptions like the advent of workers centers).

We gave some critique as to why we think organizing models need to change in terms of lack of ideological development. I think another point of change is our time frame and orientation. It is always astonishing to me that people tend to think five or ten years out, but do not have a vision for society in fifty or seventy five years.  If we are serious about making history, we have to look at the long arc of change and recognize that the country has had 300 – 400 years of practice in disenfranchisement, social exclusion, dispossession, economic exploitation. This has laid the foundation and been woven into us in a very deep mass and individual level. In contrast to this reality, on the left we almost have Star Trek-ian ‘transporter’ approach where we work hard, do some left things for a few years, there is a blank spot, and then thirty years from now we will have revolutionary change. I think that shows a deep denial about what it will take to make that change.

For example, we mostly think about structural change in society (civil society, government, how people relate to decision making, the economy, etc.).   We do not think about changes in culture (society and individual level).  Each of us, in our daily actions, replicates and reproduces capitalism. The notion of buying, the notion of money, we are mainly blind to how deeply they are ingrained within us. If we want to fundamentally change society, we have to change culture at the mass level and individual level.

From my perspective, structural and cultural change starts with those who are tasked with pushing change in society: organizers, grassroots leaders, and people on the left. We need to be fighting for and modeling change in culture. This has been mostly absent from left or progressive work in the last thirty to forty years.  Cultural nationalism is an example of some attempts but it’s been absent from schools of organizing, and its got its own set of pros and cons. More recently, we see pre-figurative approaches that try to address this problem.

How do we need to shift our orientation to current conditions, i.e. with relation to the Obama Administration?

We need to let go of the notion that we are only the opposition.  That we are somehow here only to wave banners and noisemakers and not here to figure out how to govern.  This is the character we have created of our organizations and of our movement. I think we talk about structural change and broad social change but we never imagine ourselves running anything or taking over anything. This limits the way we build our organizations and the way we develop leadership.

When there was a push to staff the Obama administration, everyone was complaining about the kinds of people that were getting jobs. When you spend thirty years acting as if you do not care about governance, then you do not prepare yourself to take advantage of opportunities when they come.

There is no question that Obama has limitations in terms of his politics.  But its also true that there were openings for us there.  The truth is our movement is not thinking about governance.  I wonder, when the revolution comes, who will rewrite the constitution? I think Barack Obama is a shock to everyone. And even with his limitations, suddenly we are scrambling. We are scrambling because we were not building real power in our communities, in our states, nor in our national networks. We are scrambling because we didn’t do good mass education. We did not think about how we are partnering in the governance of this nation. We have to decide that this (governance) is a part of who are and what we are going to do. This is it.  We have to decide whether we are in it govern or that we are in it just to complain.

What is inspiring you these days?  What do you find hopeful?

I do not want to sound like someone who does not believe in hope.  But, I feel that hope is not appropriate at this stage.  For me, the term “hope” connotes either that we have the solutions to our long term problems and hope we can win them, or that we have abdicated responsibility for our destiny and hope that an equitable  society just sort of happens to us.  I believe we are in a moment where need a lot of experimentation – we don’t have the solutions yet, but we cannot give up responsibility to try different things to figure it out.  And some of those things, many of them even, will fail, but our responsibility is to keep experimenting diligently, with loyalty only to the vision and to the quality of our work.

We may not have a blank canvas, but we do have a shifting canvas where we can pretty much insert anything we are creative enough to come up with.  I think of many of the conversations that are happening around consolidating small organizations into bigger ones, working together in different kinds of ways, and recognizing our weaknesses — that alone is inspiring in and of itself.  For so long, we pretended as if we were not weak.

I am inspired by the potential for broader conversations about alternative economies and rebuilding movement infrastructure in the black community where it has almost eroded to the point of nonexistence.  How do we have a black president and not have black people engaged?  Those conversations are exciting.

And speaking of… I don’t want to say this in a way that sounds crude, but “white folks need to organize some poor white folks.”  We can be certain in the next two to six years there will be a tremendous backlash in terms of the Obama election. Some people think it will be a worse backlash than Nixon, a worse cultural backlash than Reagan. We can expect that because history tells us to expect it. But not many folks seem to be preparing for that.   There has to be some strategic investment in poor and working class white communities, beyond organized labor that has failed in its job to develop working class white consciousness that is tied to the rest of the social justice movement. We need to think about strategies to mitigate or preempt what could be a huge cultural and economic backlash in the next decade. Burt Lauderdale cannot organize all the poor working class white people in America.  There have to be other institutions and individuals willing to do that work.

We need to experiment to see what will get traction. I think it’s a mistake to think that whatever is working now will work thirty years from now. When we are on the cusp of qualitative change towards justice, equality, and democracy, I do not believe that what we are doing now is the same thing that will push us through that moment.

There is more openness to try new things and to look more long term.   There is more and more discussion on form of organization. What form do we need for the functions that are necessary?  I do not think that these were the conversations ten years ago.  How do we look at the culture of society that is ours? How do we change our root habits? These questions were not asked inside organizing ten years ago at the scale that they are now.  There are also good questions around class and race dynamics inside organizations and evaluating leadership development within the constituencies they are organizing in.

I would not say that these things make me “feel hopeful.”  I would describe the feeling as a confidence in change. Things will always keep moving.  I believe in the nature of reality, or rather the reality of nature.  It is the reality of nature that things will always change.  Things may be tough now, but if we pay attention and do our practice diligently, we might just be ready to make history when the time is right.

Ng’ethe Maina is Executive Director of Social Justice Leadership.  The mission of Social Justice Leadership (SJL) is to help usher in the transformation to a just society by catalyzing a new generation of social justice leaders and organizations with the skills, analysis, and competency to lead a renewed social justice movement.   Ng’ethe was a founding organizer at SCOPE, a grassroots community-based organization in Los Angeles from its inception in early 1993, helping to develop it into a leading voice for poor people in struggles for social and economic justice.  As a Senior Organizer, and eventually as Organizing Director, he helped lead successful economic justice campaigns to win jobs and training for poor people across the Los Angeles region, as well as set policy precedents for the use of public capital; he also helped pioneer cutting edge tools and technologies for social justice organizing.   After more than 10 years at SCOPE, Ng’ethe moved to New York in 2003 to found and launch Social Justice Leadership.  He brings to his position more than a decade of social justice organizing, and several years of transformative organizational change work and coaching.

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