In 2011, NTanya Lee quit her job as the executive director of a San Francisco-based community organization to launch the Ear to the Ground Project with fellow Bay Area organizer Steve Williams. A veteran of three decades of social justice activism dating back to her childhood roots in the black working class of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lee spent the past year interviewing 158 fellow left activists and organizers across the United States about their work and the hopes they had for seeing a “movement of movements” emerge that could effectively challenge business as usual in this country. Lee and Williams recently released their first report (More Than We Imagined: Activists’ Assessments on the Moment & The Way Forward), which provides a candid snapshot of how those who are fighting social justice every day perceive the challenges facing them.
John Tarleton: Many people on the Left are discouraged at this moment, yet your report strikes a hopeful note. Why is that?
NTanya Lee: I came out of the interviews sobered by people’s assessments of the weaknesses of our movements and the challenges we need to overcome. Yet, in those same sobering conversations, people were so hungry, so ready to take the conditions of these times and be more bold with their work and do their work in different ways. Even though people weren’t clear which way to go or on an overall strategy to strengthen our movements, that internal courage and readiness and hunger is essential to be able to move and people have that all over the country.
JT: What do you mean by “movement”? How is that different from having a collection of individual groups each pursuing their own campaigns?
NL: For us, a movement exists where there’s sustained, ongoing activism of many different forces working toward a common goal around shared values. From our perspective, there are actually many movements in the United States that are happening. The work in front of us is not to grow one big movement, but to build a movement of many movements.
JT: In the eyes of the activists and organizers you spoke with, what are some of the fundamental challenges that they face?
NL: One of the most common things people talked about was the level of fragmentation. In the United States, for a variety of historical and political reasons, social justice workers are really isolated from each other. They are all in these different silos fragmented by racial identity groups, constituency, etc. This is a core weakness but it’s not the underlying weakness. The underlying weakness is a lack of coherent politics. There’s not a coherent set of ideas that brings all our political work together, and that is what leads to fragmentation.
The other thing a lot of people talked about was how “movement culture makes hard work harder.” People and organizations who are doing really good work for justice are sort of infested by dominant values like competitiveness, ambitiousness and ego-drive work and people with insecurities end up manifesting interpersonal rivalries that are very destructive. We are calling for a renewal of culture that goes back to some feminist values that have been lost in a lot of social justice organizations, where there’s a real belief that how you do the work together matters.
JT: You raise the issue of race a lot in your report. Why must a racial analysis be central to left movements?
NL: Capitalism is racialized and white supremacy is embedded into the structure of it. The experience of working people differs depending on how they are racialized in this society. Our show they’re positioned in our society. Also, we want to have people in leadership of a transformative movement who have the most at stake in changing and overturning the current system.
JT: Many of the people you spoke with are active in base-building organizations. Can you describe what you mean by “base building” and why it is important?
NL: By base building, we mean doing membership recruitment, leadership development and campaign work to build organized bases of poor, usually working class people who can identify their own issues, their own campaigns and make demands that meet their own demands. There’s no social movement in the history of the world that hasn’t rested ultimately on local, organized bases of people as a core to moving things forward.
JT: Why do people stick with social justice work? It’s not an easy path to be on.
NL: People are not in it for the money, clearly. One thing I would pull out is that people need a community of people who share their values and who are going to consistently support the work you are doing. It’s not enough to be doing activist work and protesting and working on campaigns. We have to be really building relationships of trust with each other so that we can be with each other through hard and good times. Ultimately, we say, the movement should be “magnetic.” The work should be the kind of work that makes people feel good and want to stay in. It should be hard work. It should involve personal sacrifice, as most work does. But if we’re trying to build a new kind of society as we do our work, the work should be fulfilling. And part of what makes it fulfilling is that we care about each other.
JT: What does it mean to be a leftist as opposed to being a liberal? The media often blurs the two.
NL: To be on the Left is to be explicitly anti-capitalist and to oppose the forms of oppression that are embedded within capitalism like white supremacy and patriarchy. People who are opposed to those systems and are seeking a society that replaces them are who I consider to be on the Left. Many people who consider themselves liberal want to improve the current system so there’s less poverty perhaps, but are basically fine with the current economic system.
Many of the people we interviewed do reform work as liberals do, but they do it with a different purpose and in a different way, with the leadership of working class people for example. They do it with a movement-building orientation that isn’t just about advancing short-term organizational interests. 65 percent of the people we heard from identified as anti-capitalist and most times they said: “I’m not speaking for my organization, I’m speaking personally.” I think it’s very significant that the personal politics of the individuals in the social justice sector are to the left of their organizations. And I think increasingly so.
JT: Many of the people you and Steve spoke with hesitated to give their political beliefs a label. Why is that?
NL: People’s discomfort at identifying has more to do with the lack of meaningful labels to identify with. So many people said, “Well, I think I’m a socialist, but I don’t know what that means in the 21st century.” People don’t want to use labels that they’re not sure what they mean right now in this period. People don’t want to be boxed in and targeted but not be able to fully articulate and defend their own ideas. Ultimately this lack of clear alternatives on the Left is a structural problem, not an individual one.
JT: The Left puts much of its energy into ameliorating the damage done by conservative policies while the Right continues to heavily invest in propagating its ideology and thus tilting the political terrain further it its favor. How do you get out of this dynamic?
NL: We need a vision of an alternative society. We need to answer basic questions about the current conditions of experience and then we can develop a long-term strategy for change. When we have that kind of plan, that’s what’s going to make us feel powerful and in fact be powerful, and have the guts to do the kind of crazy things the right-wing does because they’re just so unapologetic about their goals and policies. We too can be that unapologetic, but in a strategic way, and not mistake militancy for strategy.
I see the readiness of people to act, but it was clear in going around the country and talking to people that our level of analysis is not deep enough. We’re not ready. Groups of us have to get together and do that rigorous level of analysis that can produce a strategy that makes some damn sense.
JT: What would winning look like?
NL: We’re only going to get economic justice in a new system after capitalism, but it’s insufficient to replace it with a system that’s just going to raise the standard of living. That to me is where the Left is coming from in the 21st century. We need a new society based on protagonism that values full and deep participation of everyday people. Radical democracy and full human development are the goals of winning. That’s ultimately what we want.
For more, see:
39 Exciting Ideas for the Left, by NTanya Lee and Steve Williams
Looking to Build a Larger Movement, by Steve Williams