Introducing Lux’s first advice column. Our guest columnist for this issue is Demita Frazier, a Black feminist activist, writer, and educator. She is a founding member of the Combahee River Collective and co-author of their essential 1977 manifesto, in which they coined the term “identity politics” and laid the groundwork for intersectional feminist analysis, noting how difficult it is “to separate race, class, and sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.” Frazier began her activism in high school in Chicago, where she helped organize student protests against the Vietnam War. Later, she was involved with the Black Panther Party Breakfast Program and the Illinois Women’s Abortion Action Coalition, a group allied with the Jane Collective, an underground network that provided safe abortions.
Often, we have to organize or work with people who we find deeply aggravating (either because they are bad or because our ego prevents us from listening). How do you handle difficult people, particularly when they are freely volunteering their time for grassroots organizing? And has your approach to working with others evolved over time?
—Caro (Brooklyn, NY)
Hello there Demita,
How do you deal with academics and NGO staff monopolizing organizing spaces and using their credentials to establish authority and push other organizers and voices to the margins?
—Opie (Atlanta, GA)
I am a member of an all-volunteer feminist collective that operates on non-hierarchical principles. Members of the collective cannot all devote the same amount of time to collective activities due to their jobs, families, and other obligations. How can we limit the concentration of power among those with more time to devote to the collective? How can those with more time and energy avoid becoming authoritarian and suffocating their colleagues?
—Maja (Czech Republic)
For this issue, each chosen query was about an eternal conundrum: How do we humanely, democratically, and effectively manage ourselves and our organizations? How do we engender a culture of respectful communication with consistent, demonstrable examples of equitable engagement? How do we build the organizational participation models based on evolved relational membership and leadership?
Full disclosure: I’m making these observations based on my experiences as a Black intersectional feminist political activist committed to the practice of coalition building in pursuit of a shared radical vision of societal transformation. I’ve come to understand the challenges we face as I’ve seen, participated in, and experienced organizations flounder when they don’t pay attention to what’s happening around them, with them, and to themselves as they try to become functioning change agents. The struggle, as they say, is real.
So rather than answering each of you in turn, I’m going to respond by asking you to do a self-assessment because I suspect the answers will likely present themselves once you do.
All of these questions had one thing in common: the difficulties that people encounter when attempting to work in coalition with a diverse array of individuals at the intersecting lines of race/gender/class/ability/age/status (in truth, only the word limit of this column limits the list) — a beautiful, powerful idea that evinces a stellium of complications.
When we join activist organizations, we are often drawn in by the social justice issue(s) they work on. We believe that by adopting rules and structures, we can address organizational development in activist-political spheres and that, once adopted as our operating format, we’re done.
We make unspoken agreements about so many things, and we rely heavily on assumptions about who we are, what we believe we stand for, where we want to go, and the best way to get there. And then reality calls, and we’re undone by our assumptions, our apparently unshared philosophical and political beliefs, our very vulnerable humanity, and an awareness that we’re not really capable of being fully honest and forthcoming about the ways we don’t function. The resulting frustrations, anger, and disappointments prevent us from engaging deeply in the work itself.
We operate as if we share, at a minimum, a certain cultural competence, which we believe is based on a shared familiarity with and consumption of popular culture (i.e., the sense you may think you know about Black folks because you’re an avid consumer of Black culture). But popular culture isn’t a reliable indicator in that regard because its commodified representations are driven by a narrative of selective inclusion — what do we know, really?
So, Caro and Maja, when we decide to work with others to change society, we rarely ask ourselves, from a purely personal perspective:
What are my personal expectations of this group? New friends? A new community? Something less?
What are my limitations in terms of participation — how much time do I want to devote to the work I do with this group? Are limitations, boundaries, and the right to say no respected? Are people penalized as members if they establish those boundaries? Is that a fear I carry?
What are my expectations for the group’s ethics, philosophy, political stances, etc. in relation to my own identity/identities? What do I need in this regard?
Maja, when you look at the way the group operates, ask yourself, based on your experiences and observations:
Do we truly have a shared understanding of what we mean when we use terms like “feminist,” “non-hierarchical,” “collective,” “democratic socialist,” and other descriptors of political ideology? How do we go about building that common understanding?
Do certain patterns of behavior stand out, such as shutting down folks who disagree or present another point of view, allowing certain members to dominate discussions or strategizing, and how, if at all, are they addressed? Do assumptions seem to go unquestioned in the face of obvious evidence that they obscure certain truths?
Are there intimate personal relationships between members, especially the leadership? Do those relationships have a negative impact on organizational effectiveness?
Does the group believe it is important to periodically take time to assess itself, its goals and mission, and its daily functioning? Do you think that doing so is important?
We typically join groups without delving deeply into the history of the group’s organizational culture — we see the organization taking action to confront a wrong and onboard without making those inquiries, and we’re undone when we’re at odds, feel blindsided and gaslighted by power plays, displays of passive aggressive sniping, narcissistic leadership, dominance, and especially poor communication, etc., that are readily apparent or surface over time. The origin story and the evolution of the group’s identity can teach you a lot, but keep in mind that you’re likely to get many versions depending on who you ask. These will all be useful reflections, but none will be necessarily or solely definitive.
And here are some more questions for all three of you:
When confronted by behaviors based on racism, misogyny, misogynoir, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, and so on, how do individuals organize internally to address, rectify, and eliminate the barriers to solid organizing possibilities created by failing to address those biases? Are you the only one raising the issue, or are there other folks on board who are prepared to have that conversation?
How do you feel about risk: Are you risk-taking or risk-averse? That self-awareness is important; it can be daunting to be the one who chooses to “pull back the curtain” and deal with difficult individuals, negative dynamics, and so on alone, particularly if those ways of functioning are historic and crystallized.
If a group is resistant to efforts to attend to these toxic, damaging dynamics, when is it time to check out and find another activist home? To create the home you envision?
Your life force, energy, and willingness to engage in these efforts are precious elements; you will have to work with all sorts of characters: difficult personalities, human frailties, egos — it’s the humans! Finding that right fit — where you value and are valued by your members, where you can show up fully present, where you learn and deepen — that’s the journey.
Questions about life, love, or leftist organizing? We’ve got thoughts. Send your queries for the next issue’s column to firstname.lastname@example.org.