Friday, April 8, 2011

Who are your people?

When I watch progressives today, I tend to think we've lost our way. A historical look at progressive movements in the past - as well as some of the successful ones lately in the Middle East - have much to teach us all.

As much as I love blogging, I have to wonder if this medium isn't partly responsible. When it came on the scene, it seemed like it provided us all with a huge megaphone that would allow us to get our voices heard. And for many progressives, that turned into a mantra of "yell louder." I see two problems with that strategy:

1. As hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of us yelled louder - who was listening? The battle ground became who could yell the loudest over all the others yelling loudly.

2. Way too much energy has been spent on yelling at politicians. I'm immediately reminded of the line "when the people lead, the leaders will follow."

I've talked before about the power of partnership as the kind of leadership that fueled successful progressive movements in the past. This week, Barbara Ransby wrote about that kind of thing powerfully in an article titled Quilting a Movement. She draws on the example of Ella Baker to make the point.

In order to map our next moves, we would do well to look to the example of the late civil rights leader and radical intellectual Ella Baker. She understood that in order to create a broad-based progressive movement that would fight for palliative reforms and push for institutional change we have to build deep ties (not one time “hook up” coalitions) between diverse communities of activists. It is easier to say “let’s build a movement,” however, than it is to do it. The work is gritty not glamorous, messy not neat, protracted not immediate. As both Baker and Brazilian educator Paolo Freire insisted, we have to engage in active listening as the first step to movement building...

Ella Baker was fond of asking the question—who are your people? She meant where do you come from, but she also meant, who do you identify with? When you have to take sides, where do you stand and who will be there with you? She pushed educated college students to see illiterate sharecroppers as “their people,” their allies and their political mentors. She pushed Northerners to embrace Southerners in principled solidarity. She organized back and forth across various color and cultural lines, and most importantly, across generational divides. In other words, she was a political quilter. She did not advocate forging coalitions of convenience: short-lived and limited. Instead, she wanted to create a movement and nurture the kind of long-term relationships that would sustain it. She tenaciously stitched together fragments of a progessive community into a patchwork of a movement.

Ella Baker taught us how we ought to do our movement work: take time to be inclusive, be active listeners, walk the thorny and sometimes circuitous path of participatory democracy, mutual respect and genuine solidarity; and build campaigns from the bottom up not the top down. Today’s progressives should take these lessons to heart, if they want to succeed in creating the social change our world desperately needs.

The focus here is not on yelling at each other or at politicians - but on talking AND listening to each other...forming the bonds that lead to the power of partnership.

Speaking of listening...take a few moments to hear Sweet Honey in the Rock sing the words of Ella Baker - and be blessed.

Ella's Song
Lyrics and music by Bernice Johnson Reagon
Sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons

That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don't mean a whole lot, I've come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives

I'm a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I'll bow to no man's word

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes


  1. Stephen Kirby, Edinburgh, UKApril 8, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    Yelling louder isn't the problem, yelling (writing) more is. I've come across your blog via the comments section in the Guardian, a forum that I quit a year ago on the grounds that being the 293rd contributor in a list of 695 merely becomes an exercise in windbaggery. Blogs, forums etc are closed looped situations. The left whingeing with the left and the right pontificating with the right ain't democracy.

  2. Hello Stephen.

    I agree about the closed loop. Its why I participate at the Guardian. Its good to converse with the other side. That's one of the only places I've found that it happens.

  3. Smartypants, thank you so much for this post. Yes, talking loudly makes one hard of hearing. Thanks also for including Sweet Honey in the Rock to make your point. Just love them. I must read up on Ella Baker again.


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