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Learning from the Past, Building for the Future

Matthew Birkhold Dec 16

Since the failure of a Ferguson grand jury to indict Darren Wilson I have been amazed by the way my Facebook newsfeed has been filled with people talking about attending demonstrations, die-ins and marches. People who have long rejected my urging to become active are now attending demonstrations more consistently than I am. As the murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of his killers politicized the generation of people who built the black power movement, the failure to indict the killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner is politicizing a new generation. Because much of the black power and 1968 generation is still with us, this moment presents an incredible opportunity for younger organizers to learn from older ones about what they did well and what they could have done differently. 

I came of age politically in the early 2000s in anti-racist campus politics and then in the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. Since then I have been fortunate enough to have a number of relationships with older and experienced movement activists to whom I have long turned to for discussions of movement activity. People like Grace Lee Bogs, Tony Monteiro, Muhammad Ahmad, Rod Bush, Melanie Bush, Richard Feldman and Shea Howell are but a few of the experienced movement folks with who have taught me to analyze movement dynamics in important ways. These people have all provided me with an understanding of how people come to recognize the importance of strategy, theory and the importance and limitations of spontaneity. We have never agreed on everything and there is no reason we should. Our disagreements have taught me that divergent views are important and critical to building movements. 
 
These are movement building times. People are coming to demonstrations, marching and blocking traffic for the first time in their lives. They feel empowered by activity, and this feeling is creating momentum. As long as this momentum grows, the movement will grow. As the movement grows, spokespeople and new leadership will develop. Disagreements will emerge over fundamental questions, issues, strategies and tactics. 
 
Younger movement builders need to know that they do not have to navigate these developments alone and older movement builders who are still alive need to assume responsibility for helping younger activists navigate. Had Ella Baker not assumed responsibility for nurturing student activists in the early 1960s, it is likely that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would not have emerged and played a leading role in the Southern freedom struggle. Without SNCC, the world we live in today would be far more unjust than it is. 
 
We all have much to learn from Baker’s relationship to SNCC. Baker, who already had three decades of grassroots organizing experience at the time of SNCC’s founding in 1960, was able to make the contribution she did because young activists were receptive to her and knew they needed experienced mentors. While young activists must exercise humility, older activists must recognize that one reason Baker was successful was her willingness to learn from young people and insist that they be autonomous. 
 
Many of us have been politicized in a world where nonprofit work has dominated the activist landscape. We often expect to be paid for our work and look for ways to turn activist work into income. There is certainly nothing wrong with getting paid for movement work. Yet, doing movement work within the corporate structure of nonprofits and universities means that younger activists are less likely to be critical of movement activity guided by capitalist values than we need to be. Movements get built and grow when people feel their humanity growing. They often often start dying when money flows into people's pockets.
 
Seeing people become politically active and gaining a sense of their power to transform the world is a beautiful thing. As people who have previously felt powerless begin to feel powerful, all kinds of contradictions emerge. If young movement builders are able to build relationships with older movement builders now, before those contradictions become capable of stunting the movement’s growth, we can collectively learn to utilize those contradictions in ways that will generate new ideas and relationships and transform us and the world we so desperately want to change. 
 
Matt Birkhold is former executive director of the Brecht Forum and author of the short forthcoming book, Growing Our Souls: Visionary Organizing to Create the World Anew.

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