Q&A with Alex Han, New Executive Director of In These Times

Writer, activist and trade unionist Bill Fletcher Jr. puts our new executive director, Alex Han, in the hot seat.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Alex Han

Bill Fletcher Jr: What brings you to In These Times? Your background is not primarily in journalism. You’ve been an activist and a leader. 

Alex Han: In all the organizing I’ve done over the last 20 years, one of the clearest things I’ve seen is the real need for media that can actually be used by movements to expand and translate what’s happening on the ground. 

I’ve spent most of my adult life in the labor movement: as an organizer, as an elected officer of a large, local union. I came to the labor movement because I saw it as the most effective vehicle to advance a bigger struggle for change, democracy, economic justice, racial justice. Now it’s become clear to me that there’s an enormous need for left media that can really expand to reach more people. 

Bill: When you look at In These Times, it’s evolved since its inception in 1976. What do you make of that evolution? 

Alex: In These Times was launched in a really specific moment in time. But from my perspective — and I wasn’t around in 1976; you can tell me, if you think I’m on the wrong track — in a lot of ways, there are some parallels now. I think about the conditions that existed: the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era of enormous distrust in institutions, a hangover from the movements of the 50s and 60s and early 70s, not being able to quite capture the power that a lot of people imagined and hoped that they could. An economy that was changing and shifting under people’s feet.

That period was the beginning of this neoliberal era. We are starting to come out of it into a next phase that I don’t think any of us can predict. There’s a natural evolution that happens because of trends and forces that are outside of any of our control, right? Bigger economic forces, bigger political forces, bigger cultural forces. Every couple of years, we’ve had different things that have shifted the ground, both for movements and for people more broadly. Even over the last 15 or 20 years, when I’ve been really active in organizing, we’ve gone from 9/11 to the War on Terror into the financial crisis, the election of Obama, the rise of Occupy and income inequality as a real meaningful movement into the Black Lives Matter movement, through the Trump presidency into this 1-in-100-year global pandemic that we are still struggling to get out of.

“The left media, in my view, needs to be orders of magnitude larger with a broader reach than it has right now.”—Alex Han

I think it’s natural for a publication to evolve with those times. Now is a really good moment to think about: What were the foundations of what In These Times was founded to do, and how can we best serve that now? How can we best serve that with a publication that is anchored in all of the advances in technology and communications, and in the broadening of what movements for social and economic justice look like?

Bill: What was it founded to do?

Alex: In short, it was founded to advance a vision of democratic socialism. And to become a newspaper for a newer socialist movement, inspired by earlier generations of publications — particularly Appeal to Reason, from the early 20th century — as being a place to expand the vision of what people thought was possible, and to be matched with a growing movement on the streets and in politics as well. And I think we’re in a similar time, and that’s really necessary.

Alex Han at a rally outside of Howard Brown Health's office in Chicago, protesting planned layoffs.
Alex Han (center) joins an Illinois Nurses Association rally outside of Howard Brown Health's office in Chicago on December 3, 2022, to protest planned layoffs. Photo by Sarah Ji

Bill: What has surprised you since you joined the magazine?

Alex: I imagined the operation was a magnitude larger — it’s necessarily been running with a pretty small but growing staff — given the journalism it produces. I’m really encouraged by the number of steady, longtime supporters and subscribers, from the tens of thousands of people who subscribe and the hundreds of thousands who visit the website, to the multiple thousands who support the magazine financially. 

Bill: In These Times was not always very strong on issues of racist and national oppression. It came out of a section of the Left that did not seem to see their centrality. How do you look at In These Times’ approach on this, and what do you bring to the table?

Alex: I want to start out by talking about some of what I see as the strengths of In These Times, in part because I think in order to grow, you figure out how to come from your strengths. For me as a union organizer, one of the strengths of In These Times has always been its relationship with labor, its reporting about labor, and its analysis of labor. Both with organized labor and with workers and workers’ movements more broadly. Starting from that position of strength, I think that there’s a set of enormous layers of complexity to add. How do we build onto that the intersections of the questions that you’re raising around race, around national oppression? How do we use workers’ movements as a pathway to talk about those issues in a more central way? 

I think that’s also a reflection of a lot of the work that I’ve done, not just in organizing and representing workers, but working with other progressive unions, community groups and social movements to develop coalitions and campaigns that really do bring in all of the aspects of what we are trying to fight for.

“My entire adult life has been spent building power for the working class, and my belief is that race—and gender—are inseparable from that project.”—Alex Han

We’re also now almost 50 years into the publication that is In These Times, and these times” have changed, both on the Left and more broadly. It’s not lost on me that I’m the first person of color to lead this magazine. We’ve just come through the largest street movement in decades, the uprising of 2020 in response to state murder of Black people, which was preceded by the decade-long formation of a modern civil rights movement. And now we’re seeing the white supremacist backlash to that uprising and that movement. If we are to continue to advance the founding mission of In These Times, it’s necessary to keep fights against racist and national oppression at the center. My entire adult life has been spent building power for the working class, and my belief is that race — and gender — are inseparable from that project.

Former In These Times Editor & Publisher Joel Bleifuss having a conversation with incoming Executive Director Alex Han.
Former In These Times Editor & Publisher Joel Bleifuss talks with incoming Executive Director Alex Han at the Chicago office, on February 17, 2023. Photo by Jamie Hendry

Bill: What’s your vision, and how does it compare with what’s preceded you?

Alex: I think about my own history as a young organizer in 2001, 2002, 2003, being able to pick up an issue of In These Times and get actually textured reporting about things that I was engaged in. My vision is really thinking about how we’re talking to young people and using new technologies and modes of communication without losing sight of the roots as a print publication — and one that’s rooted in Chicago, in the Midwest.

I do think about this, to some degree, in coalition terms, and so I think about the broader ecosystem of left media. What are the needs of movements from media? Both in informing people broadly about what’s happening but also in giving space for deeper analysis that is going to help inform what those movements are actively engaged in. The left media, in my view, needs to be orders of magnitude larger with a broader reach than it has right now. In These Times has a very specific place in that ecosystem. But it needs to be working together with other elements of it in order to grow. And so to me, it’s about breadth, a bigger reach.

Bill: What about fundraising, one of the biggest challenges facing left and progressive media?

Alex: Money is a problem across media. It does seem like the only segment of media that finds it easy to fundraise is the right wing, right? But they’re dependent, frankly, on a handful of billionaires. At various points over the years, there’s been sentiments in progressive and left circles about: How do we build a machine like what the Right has in the media? I think that it’s a strange binary to put out there. And it’s a strange way of looking at the world. What we need is a left media that can actually take some of the space of institutional media. The problem is not purely how we build an apparatus that can counteract what exists on the Right, but how we build a left-wing media that can win over those parts of the audience that are up for grabs because of the challenges and churn of mainstream media.

As legacy and institutional media crumble, that creates an opening for institutions like In These Times that already have a large base of supporters. It’s not about us getting two people to write a $100 million check. It’s about innovation. How are we finding a much bigger number of people to contribute what they can to a project like this?

Bill: Another challenge that seems to afflict progressives is short attention spans. It started with flipping channels on TV; now lots of people seem to want to keep their exploration to a few hundred characters.

Alex: I like the print magazine because I can have it on my coffee table and choose whether I want to read a short piece — maybe not 280 characters, but a few hundred words — or find something longer and dig in. There’s no perfect way to translate print onto the web, but there are other interesting means of delivering web content. Places like ProPublica, places like In These Times, are thinking about: How do we visualize some of these stories to capture people’s attention a little bit more? How are we putting things in a format that people are willing to engage with and that can lead them down a road? But we have a big, broad audience. We want people to be able to get something if they’re only flipping through there as well, with useful and solid journalism and analysis from a left perspective for people who want to dig deeper.

Bill: So that also makes me think about In These Times and Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.

Alex: I think all of those are important tools. And we have to figure out how to communicate through all of them. I’m sure there are more. I feel like I’m in a lot of conversations about TikTok these days. But how do we build that audience and move forward? I think part of it goes back to the basics: We want to produce journalism, and the best left journalism is clearly linked to, and grounded in, movement. At the core of it is having that journalism, having that writing and having that analysis. The way that we deliver it is something we have to be creative about.

Bill: I gave up on TikTok. I tried it and I just said, homie, don’t play this one.

Alex: I’ve never actually logged in but I do have two teenage step-kids whose view of the world is shaped by what they see on TikTok. And so that, again, speaks to the need to be present in all of the ways that people consume media and consume ideas. We’ve got to figure out a way to do that as part of the bigger project of how we advance a left voice.

Alex Han playing guitar at “Lessons from the Chicago Teachers’ Strike” at the UE Hall in Chicago on September 29th, 2012.
Alex Han performs at “Lessons from the Chicago Teachers’ Strike” at the UE Hall in Chicago on September 29th, 2012. Photo by Sarah Ji

Bill: I want to shift gears: In These Times doesn’t review fiction (including my new novel). But you think about any number of left science-fiction writers — Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson (who In These Times interviewed), but no fiction reviews?

Alex: I certainly can’t speak to that, but we do need to think about how we are interacting with art and culture. One of the things that really got me excited coming in was that a very young, dynamic, diverse staff has been built at In These Times that I think wants to approach these questions. We are in a moment when some critical analysis of science fiction could be really constructive. 

Organizers will ask me, particularly younger organizers, if there are books that I recommend, and I’ve started to only recommend fiction, in part because I think there is a creative element to thinking through things in allegory and in storytelling [that] is a really important ability — particularly for professional organizers who can get trained in very regimented ways of doing things. 

Bill: It seems to me that part of it is a narrower sense of what it means to be political and to be on the Left. 

Alex: I totally agree. It’s a question of a holistic and broader approach to how we do politics. Interacting with and covering arts and culture are an obvious place to go. 

Bill: We’re at a very strange political moment, with the rise of a mass-based, right-wing authoritarian movement that most people I know did not anticipate. When I became radicalized in the late 1960s, early 1970s, many of us assumed that there would be repression, because there was a lot of repression going on. But we thought about it more as a military-junta-type thing. We did not really think about a mass-based, far Right. And that brings up a whole series of challenges, and a need to build what’ve called the broad front of opposing the Right. Where does In These Times fit in?

Alex: This reminds me of the ongoing debate within liberal to left circles around: This isn’t fascism, that isn’t fascism, it’s only fascism if it comes from the fascism region of Germany.” Meanwhile, today, in a lot of places, it’s much harder to be a transgender youth than it was six years ago. Meanwhile, in a lot of places, there are books that you could take out from your school library five years ago, and now, you can’t — or maybe your entire school library is covered up or removed. So I do think it’s a really important question to raise. We want to be producing journalism that helps to create the conditions for change. I’ve been reflecting a lot about my own training as an organizer, both good and bad, and one of the things I was trained about was to create a crisis,” or sharpen a crisis,” to surface a crisis.” Crises exist all around us in people’s day-to-day lives, in their workplaces, in their homes, in their communities. And so as organizers, we talked about creating crises that require a response, usually from people in power. So what’s the role of journalism? I think journalism can be about unmasking those crises; it can be about informing people much more broadly about those crises. 

I agree broadly with your conception of a broad front to fight authoritarianism. And I think it’s a challenge, sometimes, to fight back against a desire to create a mirror image of the thing that you’re trying to fight against. We see that to some degree on the Left — sometimes a debate about the strategy of the Squad starts with, What’s the strategy of the Freedom Caucus?”

I think the role of In These Times—as a nonsectarian publication, one squarely based in the idea of democratic socialism — is as a place where we can have debate and discussion around the different strategies of fighting authoritarianism and combating the Right. To do that, we need to sharpen our understanding of what the Right is, what it does, how it’s operating and how it’s moving. 

Bill: What are your thoughts about leaving your role as an activist and trade union leader? Do you have unfinished business?

Alex: This role, the way I conceive it, is not leaving one area to work in another. It’s a natural progression. I left SEIU in 2019 to work for Bernie in 2020. Some parts of it were a direct continuation — the broader kind of movement politics and coalitional development I’ve been working on over the years. In These Times is a slightly different vantage point to sit at, but the goals and relationships I’ve developed over the years, overall, are not changing.

My last decade has really been about building movements, creating bigger coalitions, and ensuring unions and workers are represented. At various points since I left my role in my local union a few years ago, I’ve missed being directly answerable to thousands of members, and that’s an important thing, especially when you’re trying experiments and you’re trying challenging and new things. At In These Times, I’m answerable to longtime supporters, subscribers, readers who have helped keep this publication growing, the people who are going to ground it and who are going to help move us forward into the future. That’s the community. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

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Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, activist, and trade unionist. The Man Who Changed Colors is his latest novel. His first novel is The Man Who Fell From the Sky. He is also co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solitary Divided, and the author of They’re Bankrupting Us” — Twenty Other Myths about Unions. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www​.bill​fletcher​jr​.com.

Alex Han is Executive Director of In These Times. He has organized with unions, in the community, and in progressive politics for two decades. In addition to serving as Midwest Political Director for Bernie 2020, he’s worked to amplify the power of community and labor organizations at Bargaining for the Common Good, served as a Vice President of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana for over a decade, and helped to found United Working Families, an independent political organization in Illinois that has elected dozens of working-class leaders to city, state and federal office. Most recently he was executive editor of Convergence Magazine.

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