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How to Fight for Radical Change and Never Burn Out

Issue 281

Eleanor J. Bader Jul 28, 2023

Anyone who has done community organizing knows that there are no formulas for successful resistance. At the same time, abundant lessons exist, and it is possible to avoid predictable pitfalls, learn valuable skills, and utilize insights from past struggles to plan today’s campaigns for social justice. What’s more, whether the struggle is for prison abolition or for funding for a community play space, how we formulate demands and mobilize support can have long-lasting reverberations. Needless to say, thoughtful consideration of tactics and strategies is required.

Let This Radicalize You by Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba dives into this terrain; it is both a how-to guide for community activists and a deeply-felt assessment of how we can better support one another to sustain lifelong involvement in progressive efforts. Throughout, the book combines practical advice with the belief that a better and more equitable world can be fought for and won.

Both authors’ personal experiences — and those of colleagues in a wide swath of social justice movements whose insights are included — give their book heft and gravitas.

And, since both authors are seasoned writers, educators and organizers, their personal experiences  — and those of colleagues in a wide swath of social justice movements whose insights are included — give the text heft and gravitas. The end result? Let This Radicalize You is a well-wrought antidote to the pervasive despair of living in Trumpian times.  

Among its most salient lessons is the need to mix horror with hope. “It’s easy to assume that if others knew how bad things were, they too would take action,” they write. “This assumption can sometimes lead activists to become walking, talking encyclopedias of doom.” But experience has taught the pair that the recitation of ills seldom works: Rather than energizing communities, it enervates them. “If spitting horrifying facts at people changed minds and built movements, we would have overthrown the capitalist system long ago,” conclude Hayes and Kaba. “The facts have always been on our side.”  

Instead, they continue, conjuring a vision of what might be, alongside the opportunity to participate in projects geared to bringing that vision to fruition, allows people — allows us — to win reforms, if not a broader societal overhaul.

There’s also much more here.  

Two pro-tips: Breaks are essential, as is recognition that we do not need to be in lock-step agreement with everyone who’s on our side. 

Let This Radicalize You admonishes activists to avoid being propelled into working 24/7/365, since no one can sustain such a relentless pace no matter how urgent the cause. Burnout, they caution, is real and can drain movements of people with experience. Breaks are essential, as is recognition that we do not need to be in lock-step agreement with everyone who’s on our side. We sometimes simply don’t like one another, they concede, but “organizing isn’t matchmaking. … We have to be able to organize outside of our comfort zones.” 

While  I wish the book had delved more deeply and provided examples of how we can productively engage with people who have retrograde ideas about race, class, gender and gender identity, the text’s emphasis on listening is important.

“Listening is a practice,” write the authors, “and at times it’s a strategic one” that takes to heart the organizing maxim that it can be a fatal error to impose an agenda on a community that does not want it. “It is difficult to meet someone where they’re at when you do not know where they are. Until you have heard someone out, you do not know where they are, so how could you hope to meet them there?” they ask.

Hayes and Kaba further suggest that humor can be an essential tool to defuse tensions and break logjams.  

That said, the book reminds those of us who tend toward impatience that organizing is slow work, that momentum typically builds over time and can’t be rushed.  

These are wise words, and while the book will likely be most impactful for newbie organizers, veteran activists will find value in its pages. By taking the long view of change, the book is boldly optimistic and calls on each of us to do our part to repair the world. 

Kaba is known for reminding those in her orbit to see crises as opportunities for radical action rather than hopelessness. Let This Radicalize You urges us forward, prodding us to bring the world we want into existence with creativity, persistence and sass.

Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care
By Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba
Haymarket Books, 296 pages, May 2023

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