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Looking to Build a Larger Movement

Steve Williams Jun 11

My parents used to say that I was born in the wrong decade. As survivors of the segregated South who had graduated from Spelman and Morehouse Colleges in 1964, they had witnessed the rise of one of world’s great social movements. They now worried about their would-be revolutionary son growing up in the time of Reagan and reaction. Some nights, before going to sleep I wished that I had been alive in the 1960s.

I became an organizer in 1992 after I finished college. For the next 20 years, I organized with homeless and low-income people for economic, racial and gender justice in San Francisco — for five years with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness and for the next fifteen with POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), a community organization of working class African-American and Latino workers, tenants, students and transit riders that I co-founded in 1997. During my time at POWER, I had the opportunity to recruit new fighters in the movement and to meet other organizers and activists across the country through the different campaigns and alliances that we were a part of.

The time that I spent working at POWER included some of my proudest moments, but with the economic collapse of 2008, I sensed that the movement was missing historic opportunities to advance a liberatory agenda. I decided to leave my position at POWER to focus my energies on building a massive popular movement. This was August 2011 — three weeks before Occupy Wall Street began.

Inspired by the experiences of the great African revolutionary Amílcar Cabral who used his experience as an agronomist to strengthen the national liberation movement in Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, I dreamed of interviewing organizers and activists from across the country about their insights and experiences on the frontlines of struggles for justice, sustainability and dignity. Now that I was unemployed, nothing was holding me back. After discussing the idea with another recently unemployed San Francisco organizer, NTanya Lee, the Ear to the Ground Project was born.

Listening Closely

The two of us set out to interview at least 150 organizers and activists. From the beginning, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to talk to all of the amazing organizers and activists doing important work in the United States. In fact, we were scared that few people would be interested in a project such as this; we only hoped that the people we asked would be polite enough to grant us an interview.

Some of the people that we interviewed I knew from work we had done together in local organizing campaigns or national alliance work. Some I considered comrades, and others didn’t know well but was interested in their assessments. But the interviews that were most powerful were those with people I was meeting for the first time. I was repeatedly surprised and humbled by the trust and generosity that people showed me — not only with their honest reflections but also by inviting me into their homes and sharing food with me.

This experience has changed me in many ways. I listen better now. The idea of the Ear to the Ground project always drew from the notion that all good organizing begins with listening, but amidst the pressures of day-to-day campaign work, I recognized my tendency to connect people’s comments to my pre-existing ideas. Months of asking the same questions to some of the most thoughtful people in the movement with no pressure to emerge with an answer taught me the creative potential of spacious listening. I like to think that my assessments and recommendations are stronger now because I took in the richness of others’ thinking.

I had predicted that we would be inspired by the gritty and determined work that is happening across the country, and we were not disappointed. The imaginativeness driving so much important work is inspiring, but we were still left with the question of what it might take to bring the different strands of these efforts together into a larger whole. Given the difficulty that I’d witnessed in developing shared work in local, statewide and national spaces, I expected widely different assessments to emerge from the interviews, but I was surprised by the consensus that emerged. The people we interviewed shared remarkably common assessments of the state of the world and the relative strengths and weaknesses of the movement.

A Shared Desire

Coupled with this, an overwhelming number of people we interviewed talked about their desire to shift the way that their work is being done. They want connection to a larger movement. They want to feel engaged in a project to change the world for the better — even if that means abandoning some of the institutions and identities that have gotten us to this point. Repeatedly, people talked about wanting to feel like they are a part of a team — just like me.

We began this project because it filled a need that NTanya and I felt, but over the course of almost a year and dozens of interviews, I see we weren’t alone. We would often receive emails and phone calls from people in Detroit, New York, Atlanta, Albuquerque and Los Angeles asking us about how the project was coming along. Frankly, we were surprised, but this was a need that many of us felt. This interest pushed us to be more rigorous in writing More than We Imagined, which summarizes our findings from the interviews.

NTanya and I traveled to more than 30 different communities across the United States to interview 158 organizers and activists, three-fourths of whom came of age after the political movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Clearly, there are a lot of people that we missed, and NTanya and I have started to joke about what it might mean to do a second round of interviews. We’re not rushing into that right now because we really want to hear people’s reactions and thoughts to this report of the first round.

In the end, I’m thankful for this last year because it’s shown me that if I were given a choice, this is the moment of history that I’d choose to be alive and active. I’d choose this time because I see that there are hundreds, if not tens of thousands of people out there, longing and dreaming and working for a world based on solidarity, liberation and sustainability. I see that I am not alone. After doing finishing this phase of the Ear to the Ground project, I know that there’s a community that I’m proud to be a part of and that there’s more of us than I ever imagined.

For more, see:

Overcoming Fragmentation, interview of NTanya Lee by John Tarleton

39 Exciting Ideas for the Left, by NTanya Lee and Steve Williams