The Politics of Longing and Desire

Suzanne Pharr February 21st, 2008

For several decades, I have traveled the country giving speeches and workshops. Much of what I know has come from contributions from people in those settings. Early in the 1990s as we began facing increasing rightwing attacks, I began to hear a repeated theme from social change groups: “When can we stop reacting just to attacks and begin building what we want?” At the same time, it seemed that the Right was growing in strength, and the number of progressive people and our ideas were diminishing.

A few years ago, after I finished being the director of the Highlander Center, I began talking in my speeches about the politics of longing and desire. What would it mean if we began our base-building and organizing from a place of people’s longing and desire ? It is a place where many of us share common dreams: to have self-determination for our lives and bodies; to have integration of mind, body, and spirit; to be recognized for our whole selves and identities; to be respected and considered persons of worth.

Though how we begin is not always an either/or choice, we know that organizing flows in one direction when it begins with fear and anger, and in another direction when it originates with longing and desire. The former requires immediacy and sometimes expediency and is often connected to survival. The latter takes a longer time: bringing people together, asking questions, making connections, developing vision. Both call for change and require action. The question I keep mulling over is what is the place—fear or desire—that is likely to produce the most sustained heat for bringing people together over time.

2 Responses to “The Politics of Longing and Desire”

  1. Kay Whitlockon 25 Feb 2008 at 6:20 pm

    Thanks for this timely and provocative reflection. Politics have been so fear-soaked, so boundaried by the false idea that there is a scarcity of rights, of social and economic goods, that I think it is tough for us to think beyond the violence and injustice done to us in the immediate moment on into a vision of what communities that are both beloved and just would look like.

    I am wrestling with this question – the ways in which organizing based on a sense of fear, anger, and victimization can produce different results from organizing based on longing, desire, vision, and dreams – in relation to anti-violence strategies in the LGBTQ movement. And in relation to how those relate to the overall way in which “law and order” agendas have undermined, fragmented, limited, and contained movements for social and economic justice.

    You’re right; how we begin is not always an either/or choice. Fortunately, we always have opportunities, should we seize them, to ask how our strategies reflect and illuminate our organizing approaches. My own thoughts are unfinished, but I am grateful to you and others who challenge us to consider to what degree our visions are limiting and to what degree they open vast new roads into liberating possibility.

  2. Luz Guerraon 29 Feb 2008 at 5:19 pm

    It is interesting that you pose these questions, Suzanne, as this afternoon I clicked on Youtube randomly and came across a video called Lusaka Sunrise. It tells the story of organizers in Lusaka, Zambia who are using the passion young people have for soccer (football) in Lusaka to educate them about HIV/AIDS. As one soccer coach and organizer says—you take something that people are passionate about to bring them together, and then you use that opportunity to educate them—Their efforts go beyond education, as the young people then go on to organize in their communities around issues related to HIV.
    I think of this popular education effort as a transformation of both fear and passion—every young person interviewed had lost family members to AIDS—how could they not live in fear for themselves and their loved ones? But the existence of fear does not negate passion. Indeed, it can fuel passion given the right conditions.
    On a very basic level, most people have a longing for home and for community. Most people desire recognition of their true selves and the opportunity to express themselves freely in a space where they will be upheld and celebrated.
    I think of an organization in San Antonio, TX called Fuerza Unida, originally founded to launch a boycott campaign against Levi Strauss by laid-off workers. The immigrant and Mexican American women who made up the majority of these workers traveled the country, to college campuses and churches, to shopping malls and community centers to gain support for their cause—to improve the benefits package given to workers by Levi Strauss when the main San Antonio plant was closed down in the 1990. The campaign included a class action lawsuit (defeated in 1996), a mail-in campaign of previously-purchased Levi’s products and a national boycott. Since the boycott and lawsuit, Levi’s has given more notice to other workers of a plant closure, larger benefit packages and more extensive retraining programs.
    Over the years, a core group of women remained together as Fuerza Unida, and turned their attention to community organizing and being a worker’s center for other women in the textile industry and in the barrio in San Antonio. They formed a sewing cooperative, they run a food bank, and they have a catering service. They have also begun to organize cross generationally, identifying themselves as middle aged and older women whose “focus is to empower young women from working class backgrounds to find their voice, develop their leadership and protect the right to govern their own body, mind, and spirit.”
    The primary organizers of Fuerza Unida—Petra Mata and Viola Caseres—are great inspirations to me. When I feel frustrated about the very issues you bring up, Suzanne, I often look to them for direction. They are an example of an organization that has found a way to meet at that juncture of fear/anger and passion/longing. There are models already in existence, like Fuerza Unida, who exemplify transformed and transformational organizing. Perhaps one way for us to discuss the questions you pose is to look for these examples and dissect them—what has worked, what hasn’t worked, what can we learn from them as we look for that space of sustained heat for organizing over time.

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