A retired farm worker, she was recounting the days before Cesar Chavez and his stoop-labor colleagues founded the United Farm Workers.
Hope appears to be an American attribute that has vanished for many, no matter what their class or condition of life. The official word has never been more arrogantly imposed. Passivity, in the face of such a bold, unabashed show of power from above, appears to be the order of the day. But it ain’t necessarily so.
It would be manifestly unfair to blame the troubles wholly on one administration. It has been the dark dividend of all our adventures since the cold war. But now, with the world’s hope, the United Nations, being constantly humiliated by our public servants, we are seeing enemies everywhere, even among our former allies. Thomas Paine’s vision of the American is being profaned. What he wrote in 1791 is on the button in 2003: “Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. … In such a situation, man becomes what he ought. He sees his species, not with the inhuman idea of a natural enemy, but as a kindred.”
Here is where the activists enter the picture. In the following pages are portraits of the inheritors of the legacy of those past. Activists have always battled the odds. It’s like a legion of Davids, with all sorts of slingshots. It’s not one slingshot that will do it. Nor will it happen at once. It’s a long haul.
Tom Geoghegan is a lawyer in Chicago and author of Which Side Are You On? (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991):
Americans are beginning to realize at this moment that there’s a bigger world, and it’s committed to values that we don’t have. I feel the world is becoming a better place, but the big wild card is what the United States is going to do. The extent to which the world becomes a better place depends on the struggle between light and darkness in the United States. I think the world will become a better place no matter what happens in the United States, but it will happen more quickly or more slowly depending on how the battle goes here. You can go to extremes of hope and despair being in the United States. Years ago, when I went to Ireland for the first time, it rained and rained and rained. I was on a bus, and I said aloud to the old woman next to me, “Is it ever going to clear up?” “Oh,” she said, “we live in hope and die in despair.” She laughed. Where there is humor, there is hope.
Ed Chambers is executive director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which was founded by Saul Alinsky in 1940, and where he has worked since 1956. He is the author of Roots for Radicals (Continuum Publishing, 2003):
It’s hard to get young men and women in this culture to drop the markets-driven vision. I’m a little bit discouraged, but I’m not quitting, I’m not giving up. I still got the hope that the next re-founder of Industrial Areas Foundation can take it into a better future. The purpose of life isn’t truth; the purpose of life is meaning. The struggle of meaning that keeps you going, and a hope that you are about to get something greater than anything you’ve got. If anything keeps me going, it’s building the future of these institutions on a broader base, so they can take on corporate America. That which you possess isn’t as great as that which you are about to possess.
What keeps me going is that I realized, sometime in my forties or early fifties, I couldn’t just dig down inside myself and pump it out like in my thirties. Then I realized that I got my energy for this organizing work from other people, so the self must stay in connection with others, new others, others that have more talent and more vision and more power than you have. That energizes you and keeps you going. Without that, you will ossify. You can call it what you want. You can call it community, you can call it necessity. You’ve got to be in relationship with real people. I try to stay in touch with everyday, ordinary citizens. I don’t need celebs. The big power, you can’t have a relationship with. They don’t want you, they don’t need you.
Pete Seeger is a folksinger whose most recent album, Pete Seeger and Friends, was just nominated for a Grammy:
I tell people I think we have a 50-50 chance for there to be a human race here in a hundred years. They think that’s being pessimistic. No, I say, that’s being optimistic, because it implies that one of us might be the grain of sand that will tip the scales in the right direction. Imagine that there’s a big seesaw. At one end of it is a basket half full of rocks. That end is on the ground. At the other end is a basket one-quarter full of sand. And a bunch of us with teaspoons, we’re trying to put sand in that end. A lot of people laugh at us, they say “ Oh, don’t you see, it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in.” Well, we say, “It’s leaking out, but we’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time. One of these days, you’re gonna see that whole basket with sand so full that this seesaw is going to go zoooom-up in the other direction.” And people will say, “Gee, how did it happen so quickly?” Us and our damned little teaspoons.
Frances Moore Lappe, author and activist, is the author most recently of Hope’s Edge: A New Diet for a Small Planet
(J.P. Tarcher, 2002).
I came across a woman named Wangari Masai. Growing up in a small Kenyan village, she ended up becoming highly educated, the first female Ph.D. in biological sciences in East Africa. She became acutely aware of the encroaching desert. On Earth Day in 1977, she planted seven trees. Then she began to realize that it would take millions of villagers planting trees all over the country to begin to reverse the ecological decline. So she went to government foresters and said, “There have to be millions of people planting trees.” They said, “No, no, it takes foresters to plant trees.” That did not deter her. She started a nursery in her own house, growing little saplings. Her husband thought it made for a very messy house. He ended up divorcing her. That did not deter her. She ended up creating a village-based movement of women. There are now 60,000 of these tree nurseries, run by village women who have planted 20 million trees through Africa.
I became a community organizer with the Welfare Rights Organization in the late ’60s. When I think back, that was my first experience of exactly what Wangari was doing in Africa: helping people see their own capacity not just to be victims, but to have the creative capacity to change their situation. My job was going door-to-door, talking to welfare mothers and drawing them into a group in which they could come up with strategies to change the welfare system. I never thought about this before, but just having someone there, a random young woman—what was I, 23?—listening to them and creating a space for them began to change their sense of possibility.
Life is engagement, life is struggle. That’s what’s rewarding. The Latin root of power is posse, “to be able.” Power just means our capacity to act. I wanted to show people that we all have this capacity to affect the larger world.
Lynn Siebert, a 23-year-old graduate of Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, is an organizer for the Service Employees International Union Local 880 in Chicago.
Most of the time, I organize home child care providers. It’s not like there’s a shop floor, it’s not like somebody who’s going to go organize a factory. These people all work in their individual homes spread out all over the state. We take the union to them, going door-to-door.
We’re organizing groups of people that were once thought to be unorganizable. It’s not what I originally saw myself doing, but it’s definitely what I’m happy doing now. I think a lot of people my age are doing this kind of work because they’re dissatisfied with how things are. We’re helping to mobilize a group of people, poor women of color normally, who aren’t thought of as political heavy-hitters. But by bringing these people together, they can have a voice, they can have a say politically. I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t have hope.
Bob Kelly is a building manager at Harvard University, who describes himself as “a glorified custodian.”
When this living-wage campaign started, it was really run out of this building. I’d notice those students working nights and days; they’d be here running off copies and having meetings all night. They’d be here at 7:30 in the morning, going out postering. They were doing something that they would gain nothing from. You know what I mean? These were student volunteers, and all they were doing was getting the university to frown on them and maybe give them a hard time. And the risks that they put themselves through. I mean, like when they occupied the building there, they jeopardized their academic careers, and it wasn’t like they were going to walk out of there and have a raise themselves. What does it give you? Hope is what it gives you.
Something happened here that I never saw before. The workers who did the work around the university, I noticed, got to like the students. Instead of, “We’re taking care of spoiled little rich kids,” it’s “Can you believe they’re doing this for us?” Things that never would have happened were it not for the students. Boy, people can surprise you.
Greg Halpern was one of the student leaders in the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, which occupied the president’s office in 2001.
I’d much rather be a naive fool than be cynical. I don’t mind being called a fool if I’m foolishly believing in a better world. It sounds cheesy, but why else be alive? Honestly. What else is there? It’s worth living to be happy, to have a nice house, to have a good marriage, and to raise kids, and I want to do those things. But the bigger questions … What’s the point in being alive if you’re not hopeful that you can do a little something to make the world a little better?
The world is sometimes a really miserable place. The only thing you can do to make yourself feel a little better about the world is to try to make it a little better. And some people say, “Oh, that’s selfish, you’re trying to help other people to make yourself feel good.” But if you can make yourself feel better and help people at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with that.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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