Wednesday, March 19, 2008

'Movement-Building: Finding Common Ground' (Left Forum 2008 panel)

This was the description of that panel in the program: 'Drawing on organizing experience across race, ethnic, gender, and generational lines, panelists will discuss what kind of movement we need to build, how we can bridge theory and practice, how to raise difficult issues, and how older activists can make themselves useful to the young.'

Again, like with so many panels at the Left Forum, this sounded promising and relevant for what we call movement strategies. Unfortunately, the panelists did not systematically address the above issues, but only in a rather ad hoc, if not to say improvised fashion. Only one apparently had prepared a paper, only to run out of time before being able to present the full paper. Again, from my limited experience of the Left Forum in the past two years, there seem to be way too many unprepared panels. Still, this was one of the better panels, if only because the chair actually introduced the presentations and actively moderated the discussion, which also seems to be the exception.

Susan Wilcox, co-executive director of Brotherhood/SisterSol, a youth development organization in Harlem, spoke on 'Youth development for social change.' Cidra Sebastien, associate director of Brotherhood/SisterSol, talked about its Liberation Program. And Howie Machtinger, of Heirs to a Fighting Tradition, a North Carolina social justice project, presented on 'Intergenerational politics: Legacies of the sixties. It was moderated by Suzanne Pharr, who describes herself as an 'organizer, strategist, educator, author, and political handywoman.' She has worked with Highlander, a popular education and research center based in Tennessee, and co-founded Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an LGBT organization.

The presentations and discussion appeared to converge around the following main points. The starting, like with so many panels, was the recognition that the left continues to decline, and the question of how best to reverse that trend. Related to this was an emphasis on the importance of finding more effective to ways to move from a growing sense of isolation and individualism to a greater sense of interconnectedness and collectivity. The emerging theme, in short, was one of transformative politics as opposed to the more traditionally ideological approach. The key to this, as other panels emphasized as well, was to build personal, long-term relationships. The one way to achieve this that was most explored was active listening and especially story-telling, which is also emphasized by scholar-activist Marshall Ganz. In general, all panelists and most participants agreed, organizing needs to shift its emphasis from issues to relationships, which necessarily always involve multiple, interrelated issues, as reflected by the intersectionality of place, race, ethnicity, gender, and generation. This was also seen as one way to break out of the issue-siloes, which tend to solidify as a consequence of increasing competition for dwindling resources.

This conflict between traditional organizing privileging ideological purity and organizational independence, and this different type of organizing emphasizing interdependence and personal transformation, was illustrated by an extended discussion between a former member of the American Labor Party, and the panelists and the rest of the participants. This difference was also noticeable in other panels, with some calling for the creation of an independent labor party, and others focusing on building transformative personal/political relationships.

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