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The Importance of Relational Organizing: a workshop at GVSU

January 28, 2011

Yesterday Suzanne Pharr & Paulina Hernandez facilitated two sessions on importance of organizing as part of a series of workshops and forums that the LGBT Resource Center at GVSU is hosting over the next several months.

Both of the women talked about coming from 2 different places and histories of the south. Paulina, who is an immigrant from Mexico and Suzanne, who grew up in the rural south both work with Southerners on New Ground (SONG). Both of them talked about how they identify in terms of race, gender and sexuality and why that is important for doing organizing work.

SONG originated in 1992 at an LGBT conference and began with an emphasis on inter-sectionality. Inter-sectionality is the idea that issues like race, gender, sexual orientation and class inter-sect and that people who organize for social justice need to constantly understand this and make the connection apparent in order to deepen the transformative power of social justice work.

One of the first questions that SONG tackled was around economics and class issues, because people felt like there was too casual of an assumption about LGBT folks when it came to economic issues.

When they started there were 3 White and 3 Black lesbians. You could not be a part of the leadership of the leadership team as a White lesbian unless you had a history and track record of anti-racist work. They decided early on that they did not want to just work on homophobia, but to include racism, classism and other anti-oppression factors.

This work had two main strategies. First, they would bring people into the conversation in order to prepare people for doing organizing work, within the LGBT community. Part two of their strategy was to then work with civil rights groups to get them to partner on and work towards LGBT justice, which would not only transform those organizations, but create a greater possibility of larger alliances and movement building.

Some of this work involved the making of music and art, since they believed that you can’t do social justice organizing without cultural organizing. Part of their work was to fight against the propaganda of a film from the Right that was trying to divide the LGBT community and the Black community, claiming that the LGBT community was asking for “special rights” that were won beyond the black community.

When Clinton was elected in 1992, they began to explore the issues of economic justice in the south, which they knew very little of. They brought in people to do some training and then began to do cross border education by taking people to see the maquiladoras in northern Mexico near the US border.

The next project was held at the Highlander Center to see what the LGBT community saw as primary issues. What they discovered is that gay marriage was way down the list and issues like jobs and other economic justice issues were more of a priority for most people.

As they were planning for their future, the Katrina disaster happened, which radically changed where their emphasis would be. They asked themselves a question, which was what do you all wish that SONG had in place the day before Katrina? Overwhelmingly, people said that they wished they had 100 organizers. Thus the rebuilding of their organization began.

Paulina said that one thing the organization realized is that what has happened with Katrina and the BP oil spill is that disaster capitalism takes advantage of undermining the economic structures of the south. In contrast, what people in the south are increasingly desiring is for groups and organizations to develop as autonomous entities. One manifestation of the autonomy is for people to organize where they are instead of migrating to the cultural centers of power such as Atlanta.

The demographic changes in the south have determined some new focus and strategic work around the idea of space. The first space that SONG identified is Capitalism. They believe this is where we all are no matter what we do, we are all living in the midst of a Capitalistic system and all of its negative consequences. The second space is doing the anti-oppression work that reacts to the realities of this system of Capitalism. However, it is not enough that we just fight this system. We can’t remain in a reactionary mode. Therefore, the third space that Paulina and Suzanne talked about is asking the question of what do we want, what is our vision of the world we want to live in. This third space incorporates new language and ideas about what we want and what we are going to do, especially around long-term movement building strategies.

The other main area that was discussed was looking at organizing models. Suzanne presented four models: Alinsky style organizing, electoral organizing, moral organizing and relational organizing.

Many people are familiar with the Alinsky style of organizing, which can be confrontational but very effective in terms of organizing people who are most disaffected with the current economic system. Another model of organizing is Electoral organizing, where the goal is to mobilize as many people as possible to turn out and vote. The problem with model is that after people vote they are often left with little direction and in many ways encouraged to just go about their business and let the politicians take care of things.

A third model of organizing is what they called Moral organizing. Moral organizing is when people organize around the principle of trying to get others to change by appealing to a sense of morality. People even use moral organizing in order to appeal to people in power such as CEOs and politicians with the thinking that if you can get them to see the moral wisdom of their actions that can get them to change.

The final model that the presenters discussed was what they called Relational organizing. Relational organizing comes out of movements such as the anti-rape movements, where people who have been victims of rape came together to challenge male violence against women because of their common experience. These women would tell their stories about oppression as a means to connect.

Once those relationships are established people can then identify commonalities and analyze root causes of their oppression. People will then identify where change might be possible, do education and outreach and eventually develop a strategy. Once a strategy is developed people will share skills to meet those strategies and take collective action. The presenters also emphasized the importance of evaluating the group actions, reflect on those actions and talk about what worked and what didn’t work and why. Once evaluations have been done the group can then move to the next strategy.

Both Suzaane and Paulina shared with the group that we need to do this work outside of the traditional non-profit models, since these models are too connected to Capitalism and often has those of us at the grassroots level competing for the same limited financial resources.

More importantly, the presenters stressed that in doing anti-oppression work we need to do it with a sense of joy and love. Suzanne cited Dr. King’s essay The Beloved Community and the importance on doing this work with a sense of joy and love for each other. She also cautioned us against political purity and said that it is important to see that none of us are perfect and that every step we take towards liberation is a liberating step.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Brett Colley permalink
    January 28, 2011 7:02 pm

    Nice work on this, Jeff. Thanks for summarizing… (why did I even take notes?)

  2. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 28, 2011 7:05 pm

    Thanks Brett, I’m sure I left out important stuff, but I thought it was important to share their insights.

  3. January 30, 2011 12:17 am

    Ditto on what Brett said. I want to bring Jeff along to all my future meetings! 😉

    Great energy in the room. I was especially impressed by the young people present. Turns out they are the plurality of the Change U membership: ~40% (with ~30% faculty/staff and ~30% community).

    Suzanne began the session by listing Human Rights:
    Safe Workplace
    Living Wage
    Environmental Safety
    (One participant added Public Transportation)

    Suzanne also defined Intersectionality through four arenas (Land, Work/Labor, Spirit, and Body), but my notes aren’t more detailed than that.

  4. January 30, 2011 3:15 am

    Thanks for making this available!

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