Notes from Kalamazoo

These are slightly edited notes from the day of conversation at Kalamazoo College, first with the Center for Social Justice Leadership Planning Committee, and then with select faculty and students on the topic of Leadership. The intention was to really bring nonviolent direct action into the definition of leadership skills, and to focus on the power of networks (and other collaborative, locally grounded formations) for organizing.

First, we had some Q+A with the planning committee, where they shared where they’re at in the process of the Center, and what their key questions are now.

1. How do we keep the funky side of organizing when a Center at a college is inherently an institution?
– Know the history of nonviolent direct action – it isn’t just the funky part of the work, every social justice movement in history has used NVDA to advance their negotiations. A lot of folks don’t know the role that NVDA plays in movement building and actual wins. And you don’t have to recreate it – we at Ruckus and many other groups teach the history and the theory (helping folks determine whether nonviolence is for them). Ruckus focuses on the best practices of actual action skills. Bring in folks to share these skills.
– Have folks read science fiction, watch documentaries, learn in ways other reflect what we can learn from what the culture is presenting back as key lessons from the margins.

2. How do we develop interesting, out of the box leadership?
– Outside the classroom – apprenticeship and experiential learning. We learn to walk by walking, not by someone giving us a class about it.
– Train folks to participate in collaborative efforts, networks, alliances more than institutions. The age of the institution might be passing at this point…the age of big large growth based thinking might be passed, so we don’t want to invest in things that have to grow exponentially to survive. Networks are organic bodies, each community doing its own work but then connecting to share practices and information.
– Creating a network of people with a shared experience to offer the world. The folks who come through the center shouldn’t see themselves as “leaders”, but as people who have developed the skills of “leadership” – that there are many ways to practice leadership and the skills can be modeled and passed on.
– For really out the box leaders – develop facilitators! Develop folks who practice facilitative leadership. Train folks to facilitate, to hold listening and truth and reconciliation practices…I think that’s more powerful than public speaking and other skills.

3. What are we looking for in a director for this program?
– Someone who defines radical as Visionary, rather than Angry.
– Someone committed to balancing theory and practice.

4. Is organizing something you should teach? How do you do that responsibly with students…and who do they organize?
– I deeply believe organizing is something people should learn by doing. In their community. So campus organizing is totally necessary and a great learning environment for students, and their home communities during the summer. THAT SAID, a social justice framework and a sensibility to fight for your human rights can be taught, and must be taught. You have to undo the training of most public/private early school years, which says to obey, work, obey, work, retire. All teachers can play a part in reframing the world as a place that requires and responds to your actions.

5. Please reiterate the harm reduction stuff you told the students!
I learned harm reduction philosophy so early in my career and I now apply it to EVERYTHING else I do. It’s all about the people setting their own goals, it’s about self-determination, it’s about having compassion for the choices and directions of your life, it’s about releasing judgment, but acknowledging the real world. check it out at www.harmreduction.org – that to me is a fundamental justice analysis that i use throughout my life.

Then the conversation opened up.

Invincible (of Emergence and Detroit Summer) had traveled with Roxana and I to Kalamazoo, and we convinced her to come share about the remarkable work of Detroit Summer’s Live Arts Media Project. She shared their audio hip-hop documentary and the 12 Steps to Illumination comic that comes inside the CD case.

Roxana shared her experience of learning leadership as a young person in Detroit Summer: “The youth dialogues were powerful cause youth chose the topics, after 8 hours of working together, cooking, eating together, etc. And then we facilitated ourselves, and we really got into the topics. We learned to think and challenge and learn and reconcile – it was our space.”

Then they both shared some of the key ideas they have learned from Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs: dialectical humanism (the spiral of learning, doing, reflecting, and living in cycle); that our role is to birth a movement that is already emerging (not create a movement from our minds).

I spoke about how leadership has a lot to do with having a strategic mind (rather than a strategic plan), because everything changes all the time. And I love that – I am influenced by Octavia Butler’s concept in the Parable of the Sower that “change is god” – and I believe learning that to navigate change with grace is the greatest skill.

The group physicist, Jan, pointed out to us that our leadership model is based on the idea that exponential growth is good. Now, it is becoming clearer that “exponential growth is unsustainable,” and that we need to develop models of leadership that focus on prosperity, abundance, equity, deeply local and small models.

I reiterated my thoughts that this is a time of birth – while folks are experiencing economic “crisis” as a dark moment, the great recession…we can experience this darkness like a womb that is birthing sustainable societies.

Then I got so into the conversation that I stopped taking notes – but here were some key points I jotted down:

BAN PASSIVE AGGRESSIVENESS

READ borderlands

Angle Kyodo Williams says its overwhelming what’s happening in the world and we haven’t developed the soul capacity to handle it. Our communities need to “grow our souls” as Grace Lee Boggs says. I think it helps to localize it to your own community and move through that space.

The sweet spot for where to bring your leadership in your community is where your passion/interest meet you skill set and converge on the need. It’s a triangle.

READ Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements

Something we are experiencing right now with Ruckus is that the experience of the community (awareness, composting, shared chores, localized healthy food, etc) had just as much impact as the action training. That is to say, the skills are necessary, AND our leadership shows up in how we ARE with each other, as much as what we are teaching.

That’s all for now! Kalamazoo is lovely and we wish them luck and hope Ruckus trains a lot of folks there in nonviolent direct action!

I, Radical.

The role of the ‘radical’ is no longer to be angry – it’s to be visionary, loving and solution oriented.

Can I say this?

I have heard others voice this redefinition, and when I hear it I feel a big amen inside me.

And then I start thinking of solution-oriented direct actions, since that’s my field. Liberating heat and water to communities when the government shuts them off. Guerilla gardens on rooftops and in abandoned lots. Reclaiming space to serve communities. Not thinking of front lines as spaces for aid and help, but as the actual front line in a battle for How we will be as humans, a line which we advance with our actions.

**************

This is on my mind because today I joined my friend Roxana Zuniga, a PhD candidate at Wayne State, to speak with a group of students at Kalamazoo College, where a Center for Social Justice Leadership is being launched. Tomorrow we will speak with teachers and administrators at the college, but today was for the students.

Their questions had a lot to do with how to organize, how to go in and work with “marginalized” and “disenfranchised” communities, and how to make the impact long-lasting.

I realized listening to their questions, and their perspectives on their lives, how radical my perspective has always been, but how my definition of radical has shifted. I have felt and been fueled by righteous anger, but it wasn’t until I started honing my skill in developing vision and solutions that I truly became effective.

I also realized, as I always do with students, that there are key things I wish I had been told when I was a student, full of energy and wanting to change the world.

Here are some key points that emerged from our conversation as essential for a young college radical today:

1. Don’t come to help! Come to work and transform. Absolutely let yourself be moved into action by injustice, but start the transformation by looking around you. Look at your own practices – where you spend money, your taxes, how you treat people. Look at your family, your community…what could you change in your home or community that would have an impact regionally, nationally, or globally? Work to transform yourself and your community before you hop on a plane, train or bus to go “help” others.

2. Always learn (and teach) people to fish. Your impact will multiply if you think of every interaction as a potential exchange of ideas and skills that will continue to serve you and the community long after you leave. Don’t make folks dependent on you, especially if you’re out at the end of the semester or study abroad or summer.

3. Be clear about whether you are making a short-term or long-term commitment. If you’re in a space for a few hours, days, weeks, or even months, don’t pretend you are impacted in the same way that those who live there are, or that you know more than they do about what’s needed. If you chose to be there, and you can leave whenever you want, recognize that privilege.

An additional practice: learn to be in temporary community. Ruckus sets up action camps where folks can practice being in a community of action, equality, awareness, composting, outhouses, camping, and shared chores. We aren’t making a life-long commitment to hold these participants – we’re making a week-long commitment. The clearer we are about our commitment, the more present we can be.

4. The world is yours to experience, not experiment with. Keep a beginner’s mind, a learning mind, and look for the wisdom in everything, but honor and respect all the ways people are surviving in this world. Other humans are not yours to try things out on.

Other thoughts that occurred to me today:

Stop observing! Release the false notion that you can be objective, and recognize that you invest in a path for all of humanity with how you live, breath, think, and spend. Get off the wall and dance.

Read more science fiction! (Octavia Butler, William Gibson, Philip K Dick, Samuel R. Delaney and Ursula K. LeGuin to start with.) (Specifically, Parable of the Sower, Neuromancer, A Scanner Darkly, Dhalgren and The Left Hand of Darkness.)

Also, read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. All the way through. At least three times before you’re 25.

More tomorrow!