Archive for the 'Movement building' Category

Thoughts on Organizing the Queer Left

Suzanne Pharr May 15th, 2009

Since the early 1990s, there has been an effort to organize the Queer Left, and now the work has a little more momentum due to the historical moment we are in and, remarkably, a little funding to Queers for Economic Justice to facilitate some organizing. The organizer is the very capable, hardworking, smart and dynamic Kenyon Farrow. Could I say more? It seems a well-timed opportunity for us to use to its fullest.

In a recent phone call, Kenyon and I talked about issues and concerns and strategies for this organizing:

• Is it a queer Left we are seeking or do we need something else, some other name or configuration?
• If it is the Queer Left, how do we define the Left? What are the broad shared values and principles?
• How would one become part of it? Is it something to be a member of, something to use as identification? What are the ways to create a critical mass? Convenings? New media?
• How can QEJ facilitate the organizing without “owning” the Queer Left or being perceived as being in charge of it?

The idea of bringing people together who work for social and economic justice revs my political motor. In my work I am privileged to sit in many small groups of people who are talking about movement building with an intersectional analysis, economic justice, and international connections. That so many people are having very similar conversations is an indication that we are on the verge of major change. I say on the verge because we are in a pre-movement stage where we are trying to figure out issues such as taking the leap (or building a bridge) from non-profit structures that are still isolated through competitive funding–to groups and organizations that are not the 501c3 arm of capitalism but are committed to working across organizational and community and national borders to make change. We are debating the best ways to make radical change: through campaigns to change policy, through re-building people, through mass education, etc.

As these groups grow, as goals and strategies are shared and build, a moment will come when they will be linked. And to change from the motor metaphor for a moment—we will think of small brush fires spreading. And here we have the fire next time—hopefully, the fire in our collective bellies for radical change.

That’s the big picture, but it is this building-the-queer-left opportunity that makes me want to race on the backroads of our organizing. One of the limitations of progressive movement building has been that it has focused for the most part on people who are affiliated with queer organizations and has not created ways to include and convene the thousands (millions) who include intersectional analysis and economic justice in their daily work. I think of Creating Change, where mostly people from queer organizations attend, and where the work on racial justice and intersectional organizing occur during the week before—when regular working people are at their jobs.

When I think of the great minds and social justice workers, I know so many in queer organizations but so very, very many more in other non-queer identified organizations and work. My partner, Renee, for example, is a former labor organizer and now is a counselor in an Appalachian school. And then my friend is Beth Richie, is a brilliant leader in Incite! Women of Color against Violence, who works on prison issues and is a professor. Or Steph Guilaud is one of the very smart and strategic young co-directors of Project South. Shelley Wascom is the director of Community Shares and is a fierce activist here in Knoxville. The list is enormous. I want us to find a way for all of these people to have connection, identification, and engagement with our queer part of the larger movement for social and economic justice. This possibility revs my political motor and puts me in gear because I have wanted it for decades.

Don’t let those motors idle.

The Gift of Grace

Suzanne Pharr February 12th, 2009

On the evening of January 31, 2009 at the annual Creating Change Conference, I was honored by Queers for Economic Justice for my “years of work on economic justice and LGBT liberation.” In response to requests for my short acceptance speech, I am posting it here.

(Acceptance of award from Queers for Economic Justice at Creating Change 2009)

The Gift of Grace

My work is honored here tonight, I believe, because I was given the gift of grace.

In my religious tradition—Methodist—which I left at a very young age but not before it made a permanent mark on me, I recall that Grace is defined as a realm of good you are given, not because you earned it or necessarily deserve it.

When I think back to the gifts of grace in my life, I remember

my farm parents in Georgia who worked through poverty and disability to raise their 8 children and support their church and community. They gave me my life, my values, my determination.

those teachers at the Women’s College of Georgia—a tiny college for the daughters of shopkeepers and farmers—who slipped anonymous envelopes containing $10 and $20 into my college post office box. Those great single women—lesbians all, I think—made it possible for me to go to school when I was down to the last penny from my wages.

the people of color—especially Civil Rights leaders and other women of color—who had deep conversations with me, who challenged me, who confronted me, who shared with me our Southern culture, who joined me in laughter and struggle. They never cast me aside.

people of every generation across race, class and gender—and especially the young—who shared their lives and their ideas and invited me to be a comrade.

I have tried to return that gift of grace in my work and life.

My role in this movement has been to listen to what you have said, to make a composite of it, to put it in plain language, and to reflect it back to you—because it is yours.

My passionate love of ideas and action has been nurtured by your own. You have given me the space and time and patience to work and grow with you.

That is an act of love, community, and grace.

I thank you for it.

Co-Mentorship: Working for Equality Across Age

Suzanne Pharr February 25th, 2008

A few years ago, people in nonprofit organizations and foundations suddenly faced the idea that older activists were “aging out” and younger people would be needed at the heart of movement work. What followed were countless gatherings to discuss “intergenerational work,” “transitioning leadership,” “youth organizing and leadership development,” etc., etc. The funding followed the trend.

My take on this situation in general has been that too much talking is taking place between people who have not worked across generations, side by side. For two generations, young people have told me that there were few opportunities for them to grow and have leadership in social change organizations. They complained that older activists began most conversations with references to “back in the day.” Older activists told me that this new generation is not engaged, is unwilling to work hard, looks for entertainment instead of the development of ideas and strategy. As one solution, people began putting an emphasis on youth organizing as well as adjunct youth groups in organizations led by older people.

Neither approach has worked well as a means of multi-generational work.

What has worked best for me, as a 68 year old organizer, is the practice of co-mentorship. Because those of younger generations grew up in very different conditions from those I experienced in rural Georgia in the 40s and 50s, I am educated daily by hearing about their life experiences and the skills they acquired. In return, I share what I know to be true as viewed through a different generational (and perhaps race/class/gender) lens. We mentor each other through this moment, this present day that requires complex understanding and skills. Here’s what I know; tell me what you know—how can we figure this out together?

This co-mentorship works for me both in my large, multi-generational family as well as in my social change work. A large number of the people I strategize and organize with are under 30. Were it not for this co-mentorship, I would not be writing on a blog at this moment. It was smart young activists who, over a period of several resistant years, pushed me to do it. And how else would I have learned what I know about trans lives, issues and concerns? About the shifting forms of race and gender? And what would ever have motivated me to do text messaging on a regular basis?

Co-mentorship is a gift that is offered all of us every day. It requires only the fundamental belief that we are all people of worth, possessing a wide variety of experiences and skills. Its methods are asking questions and listening intently and respectfully for the answers. Where it leads us is toward the sometimes illusive dream of equality and justice—which can contain all our best ideas without requiring an age i.d.

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.

Beyond November

Suzanne Pharr February 20th, 2008

This is the comment I wish I had posted yesterday—before Obama swept Wisconsin and Hawaii—because it is not about Obama or Hillary or Mac. It is about the people’s great roar for change and involvement in the political process. It’s about people moving from stunned and despairing to inspired and hopeful. It is about a window opening, about fresh air, about the spirit moving.

While I am moved by the drama of the individual candidates as I watch much too much cable news reporting, I am most keenly affected by the voters, their voices speaking everywhere, their feet eager to get to the polls. I can’t get enough of the interviews, of the analysis of exit polls, of the pundits looking foolish in their failed predictions.

It is one of those amazing moments in history when almost everyone is caught off guard. A year ago, who would have thought? Republicans saying they don’t want to rehash the Vietnam War. Young people, written off by so many people over 40, rushing to register to vote (550,000 on Rock the Votes web site alone), campaigning for candidates, and getting their friends and families to vote. Ardent feminists, thought to be sealed along gender lines, voting for a black man. Religious conservatives threatening not to vote at all. Who among us could have predicted this?

And no one is caught more out of step than progressive people. Here is what looks like a sea change of thinking (and desire), and I cannot think of many individuals or groups that are prepared to work with the moment.

My question is this: who will cradle and nourish this hope and activism after the election? Certainly, no President can fulfill that hope in an immediate way. There’s sure to be disappointment, maybe disillusionment—unless there are collective ways for people to get involved in the process of making change.

That’s the local and national discussion I would like to be part of: what happens after November? What is our best thinking for catching and moving with this moment of change? It is time for expanding vision, for responding to longing and desire, for moving to our best selves and claiming a new day.