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AI-JEN POO: Organizing With Love

AI-JEN POO: Organizing With LoveHarmony Goldberg interviewed Ai-jen Poo for Organizing Upgrade in January 2010.

These are dramatic times politically, socially, and economically. What do you think are the most significant shifts happening right now, and how do they change the context of our work?

Some important dynamics at play are the housing crisis, the financial meltdown and the rising unemployment rate. Working people – the working class, the poor and the working poor – are facing the brunt of this crisis. They are feeling the impact of neoliberalism more sharply than ever, even if they aren’t articulating it as “neoliberalism.” The response is manifested as a resentment of corporate greed. There’s a growing anti-corporate sentiment in society today, which could mean that conditions are much riper for mobilizing than they have been in the past.

There are also important shifts under the Obama administration. People in the social justice movement can now have access people within the administration much more easily than we could have in the past. The Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, is a good example of someone to work with within the Obama administration. She came in with a strong record of working in collaboration with community groups as a legislator. She is very serious about enforcing the rights of workers, and she seems to be dedicated to using Department of Labor resources to do that. So we can expect that workers rights will be enforced in ways that have not even been considered for the last eight years. We need to see that as an opportunity. It’s not an answer, we still need a strategy for change, but it is an opportunity.

There are also new opportunities to work in collaboration with the administration to try to create new policy and new social infrastructure and to move legislation that can benefit the working class and poor communities, particularly measures that do not have huge fiscal implications. But we need powerful social forces on the ground to move that type of an agenda, and we don’t have that kind of motion right now. Even with the growing momentum of the Right and the powerful corporate lobby, a good organizing strategy and a solid, organized social force could contend. There are these opportunities for access and potential for real change, but we don’t have the level of on-the-ground organization and mobilization capacity that could serve as the social force that can drive an agenda to the left of the Democratic Party. I think the health care reform fight is a good indication of that dynamic. There may be a good advocacy infrastructure in DC, but – in the absence of a social force that can drive an independent agenda locally in communities on the ground with a level of national coordination- these reforms that our communities need so badly won’t get realized.

To me, the biggest lesson of this moment is that – in order for us to move a real progressive agenda – we’re going to have to ratchet up our ability to organize. We need to actually get our work to a different level of scale and depth in our organizing. That’s true across issue areas and across communities. We need to build a base that has the power to drive a real progressive agenda that’s to the left of what the Democratic Party is willing to settle for.

What are the key struggles where left organizers should be focusing that work to build real scale and depth in their organizing?

There are some key issues that resonate strongly with peoples’ difficult experiences during this crisis and where their consciousness is attuned with our vision, issues like housing, unemployment and jobs. With unemployment rates as high as they are, there are a huge number of unemployed people who are sharply aware of the importance of job creation. And people who are employed have huge fears that they’re going to lose their jobs. So we should be incorporating that into our work more strongly.

We also need to pay attention to the high degree of anger that people have towards the banks and corporate greed. The general public has a real sense frustration around the bail-outs, resentment at economic inequality and anger at the way in which the corporate lobby runs Washington. The health care reform fight and the debates over financial regulation have made the impact that corporations have on government policy more and more clear to people. There’s real popular resentment that could manifest in a serious fight to rein in corporations and the corporate agenda.

What do we need to do to build the kind of independent social force that you were talking about?

We need to build stronger connections between the social movements and the labor movement. Whether it’s the nonprofit social justice organizations or the organizing networks that have taken generally progressive positions, we all need more connections with the labor movement. At the moment, the labor movement is the strongest organized force behind any progressive policy agenda in Washington. It has real resources and a serious organizing infrastructure. That means that we need to understand and engage with labor’s agenda, and we also need to push labor to take on social justice issues from the various vantage-points that the working class experiences them. And, we need to craft campaigns that allow for those kind of connections to develop effectively.

The 2010 Social Forum in Detroit will be an important opportunity for that connection-building work. The Social Forum will bring together some really important social forces: the labor movement (certainly the more progressive unions and hopefully a broader cross-section as well), the non-profit social justice organizations who are organizing locally and moving policy in a range of areas, students and young people who were behind electoral organizing on campuses. The Social Forum will provide us with the opportunity to start distilling a comprehensive progressive agenda that cuts across our many issues and that reflect the core values that we all share: workers’ rights, immigrant rights, internationalism, women’s and LGBT rights and equality, universal health care, environmentalism and sustainable economic development. Even though we have debates about the specifics of strategy and implementation, we generally agree on these core values. Until we’re able to coordinate our work around that shared basis of unity, our energy will be diffused. We won’t be able to mount a real challenge or to be a real social force to move a real progressive agenda. The Social Forum is a place where we can start to see the synergy between our different struggles and to distill out our shared values. The Inter-Alliance Dialogue is another site where this kind of unity-building and collaborative work is starting to take shape.

Could you describe the Inter-Alliance Dialogue?

The Inter-Alliance Dialogue is a process initiated by six key grassroots alliances of social justice organizing groups that developed outside of the traditional organizing networks: the Right to the City Alliance, the Pushback Network, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and Jobs with Justice. Most of our national alliances emerged independently through our sector-based organizing, among domestic workers, day laborers and so on. First, grassroots organizations developed at the local level. As the local organizations gained some capacity, we formed these national alliances that were still very specific to our particular issues and sectors. But we all shared a commitment to grassroots organizing and movement-building, so we wanted to do work that moved beyond the narrow interests of our particular issues and sector to actually build power around a broader progressive agenda for change. We also shared a commitment to internationalism, to being part of a broader movement for social justice around the world. We started talking about coming together because we were seeing both the way that the economy was headed and the opportunities of a new administration. As our alliances were starting to grow, we wanted to combine efforts and share resources instead of reinventing the wheel. And, we wanted to see whether coming together would make us more than the sum of our parts.

The working class, the working poor and the poor haven’t had a strong voice in the national policy debate. The public dialogue about the economic crisis has largely been framed around the impact on the middle class, but the reality is that working people are suffering. There isn’t really a voice to tell that story. So, as this new political moment unfolds, we need to move the voices that have been on the margins to the center of the national policy debates. With the exception of Jobs with Justice and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in their work around immigration reform, none of our organizations have that kind of national experience. We came together so we could take on movement-wide issues, so we can have a voice for our communities at the national level. We wanted to experiment with putting forward a real national progressive agenda that comes from the grassroots because the hopes and dreams of our communities aren’t reflected anywhere on the Beltway.

We wanted to be able to put forward bigger and more transformative visions and policies than any of our alliances could win on our own. To give an example, we have been discussing the possibility of fighting for a “Community Reinvestment Bank.” The idea would be to take over one of the banks that received a bail out by the government (which means it was bailed out using our peoples’ resources) and transform it into a community bank that would reinvest in jobs, schools and local, economic cooperative development efforts. An institution like that could address many of the on-the-ground issues that that our organizations are working on.

It’s going to be challenging. There are fewer resources for organizing, and the local organizations are more strapped than ever. We’ve never done work at a national level before, so it’s very much an experiment.

You’ve been doing organizing for more than 15 years now. What are some lessons that you’ve drawn from your work? Are there any organizing principles or political lessons that you’d want to share?

There are a lot of lessons that I’ve drawn from my experiences and from dialogues with other organizers:

  • Build a Core to Build Your Base: First, I want to highlight the importance of base-building; we can never forget that base-building is the most central aspect of organizing and social change generally. We need to build our bases in a really serious and systematic way and make sure that we’re trying to reach more and more people all the time. In order to do that, you need to have a core of leaders who have strong alignment in terms of vision and practice. You can actually accomplish a lot in terms of base building with a core of even just four or five people. That kind of leadership core is a real source of power in organizing.
  • Create an Inspiring Environment: We also need to be aware of the environment we’re creating in our work. Maya Angelou once said that, “People don’t remember what you say. They remember how you make them feel.” It’s really important for us to be mindful about the environment that we’re creating, about the feelings that we’re leaving people with. What is the feeling that you’re creating around people as you’re organizing? Is it inspiring? Does it give people hope? Does it encourage people to bring the best of who they are to the work? Does it make them feel like change is possible?
  • Time, Place and Conditions: One thing that I learned from the Labor Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles is the importance of being aware of our “time, place and conditions.” We need to constantly assess the political environment that we’re working in and the historic context of our fights. That assessment allows us to be clear about what’s realistic and what’s possible in this historic moment. We often overestimate the power that we have to achieve our demands, and we underestimate what we’re up against. So our demands tend to be way off in terms of timing, and we don’t push ourselves to build the kind of power we need if we’re actually going to win. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t push the envelope as far as it can actually go and keep our long-term vision on the table; it just means that we need to be clear about our real conditions.
  • Fight to Win: It’s important that we fight to win. Terry Marshall said here on Organizing Upgrade that, “We’re not going to lose our way to the revolution.” It’s really essential that we win the fights that we’re engaged in if we want to build power in working class communities and to build the broader movement. The working class has taken such a beating over the past several decades, and it’s only getting worse. We have a responsibility to try to make life better for the working class in an immediate sense. But in the longer term, we’re never going to build the confidence of the working class to contend for real power unless we win in our immediate fights. We need to build peoples’ faith in organizing and in using collective power as a path towards social change, but I don’t see how we’re going to do that unless we can show that it works. To build that faith and confidence, we have to be able to change the material conditions of life.
  • Unite All Who Can be United: In the past, we haven’t been good at “uniting all who can be united.” We tend to bring together the same cast of characters to fight around our different issues, but almost all of our issues can be framed broadly enough to unite a wide range of social forces. That can increase our power exponentially. We need to learn how to do our work based on the principle “uniting all who can be united” We need to move beyond our cultural, organizational and political comfort zones in order to build power and start to impact politics on a different scale.
  • Push Past Your Comfort Zone: I can give an example from my work at Domestic Workers United. In 2007, we organized our first Town Hall meeting for the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. We had many high-profile speakers who come from very different organizational cultures and had differing positions on other issues but who supported the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. We ended up featuring them as keynote speakers at our event, and I remember that I wasn’t sure if that was the thing to do in that moment. I didn’t know whether we should have put forward those voices instead of having more workers speak. While I was struggling with that discomfort, someone reminded me that you’re supposed to be uncomfortable in this work. We aren’t going to be able to impact change on the scale that we want if we stay within our comfort zone. We may make mistakes, but if we’re not uncomfortable, there’s something wrong. It means that we’re just doing the same things with the same cast of characters and we’re not pushing ourselves to have a broader impact by reaching different communities and changing perspectives. I learned that as an organizer, you’re supposed to be uncomfortable, and it’s important to embrace that.
  • Don’t Burn Bridges that Don’t Need to Be Burned: That relates to the importance of building bridges and knowing how to relate to a wide range of people in our work. We need to remember to never burn any bridges unnecessarily. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take risks, but it’s very important to be very deliberate about what risks to take. If you’re going to burn a bridge with someone, you should be really clear about why. Things are constantly changing on the ground and forces are constantly shifting. Someone who is your enemy in one fight could be an important ally in another context. And people have very long memories for burned bridges. To give an example from my organizing with domestic workers, I had to train myself not to react negatively when an employer would call the office and ask questions like, “Why should we pay our domestic worker for a sick day? They’re not working.” When you’re organizing with domestic workers and dealing with those issues on a daily basis, a question like that is very upsetting. But we always need to keep our end goal in mind. Ultimately, you want that worker to get paid for that sick day. You want to be able to set the standards for the industry. So you need to be able to act as if you can hold that space, and that means that you need to be able to speak in a way that reflects authority. It’s not helpful to get angry and defensive with people like these employers. You need to learn not to react passionately. You need to be able to articulate why it makes sense for an employer to pay a worker for their sick day, and both speak to their standpoint and help them to see it as part of a broader dynamic. It’s very easy to respond and react from a place of anger and frustration, given how severe the problems are and how much people are up against. But our ultimate goal is to shift power, and our ability to shift power relies on the connections that we’re able to build.
  • Transformation of Self: The transformation of self is an important part of social transformation. Joyce and Nelson Johnson from the Beloved Community Center and the staff at Social Justice Leadership have some really good thoughts and practice at this. We’re ultimately trying to transform institutions and structures. But if people aren’t being transformed in the process, that institutional change won’t hold. It won’t be practiced in the way that we need it to be. Institutional change lives through the people that change effects. We need a culture that supports being centered, focused and connected to our sense of purpose. That allows us to stay on track toward our real goals and objectives, rather than getting derailed by ego and exhaustion. People are starting to work on integrating individual transformation into organizing more; I think those efforts are crucial to developing a deeper, more sustainable organizing model. I practice yoga. Yoga’s not for everyone, but there is something out there for every organizer to create a consistent space to quiet their minds, take care of their mental, emotional and physical health and reset their vision toward victory.
  • Campaigns Can Transform Us: There’s an incredibly transformative potential in campaigns. Good campaigns aren’t only about material change; they also offer opportunities for the kind of personal transformation I was talking about earlier. A compelling demand can give people a vision of what’s possible; it can help people to believe that what was once impossible can become possible. We need to bring together a broad cross-section of unlikely allies, knowing that when people come together to fight for things, they begin to see their connections more clearly. They can start to recognize and practice from the place of interconnectedness. We need to identify some key campaigns that bring together a broad cross-section of the working class to actually engage in social change at their points of connection and to feel what’s possible in a way that they haven’t in a past. Those kinds of campaigns will bring us to different scale of political impact, with a broader vision and more transformative demands.
  • Organize With Love and Hope: It’s important for organizers to assume the best in people. We shouldn’t be naïve, but we should assume that people generally want to do what’s right: they want to be good people; they want to be good neighbors; they want to do unto others as they would have done unto them. That desire to be good and right is an untapped reserve of energy that organizers can draw on if we are open to it, if we look for the good in people and try to find ways to bring out that goodness. You can always look at things as “glass-half-empty” or “glass-half-full.” We need to choose the fullness. We need to choose the good in people and remember that everybody has that potential to connect with what’s right. We need to try to build connection and relationship from that place. We need to organize with love, and that will allow us to build an infinitely stronger force.

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