Organizer as a Catalyst: An Interview with Laura Close
Laura Close moves fast. I first met her at a student activist conference when she was on tour with Call to Action giving workshops around the country. In between leading workshops on group decision making and strategic planning she would stop for a minute to talk with other young activists. I’d hear her say things like ‘We need to learn the skills, to build our movements, to build our power, to win concrete demands and stick with it for the long haul’. At 21 she was the national organizer of the STARC Alliance, Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations. She’s been to over 70 campuses around the United States and given over 100 workshops. She teamed up with Nisha Anand to lead anti-racism trainings in the majority white sections of the global justice movement. She helped put together a training program with STARC that now includes grassroots organizing, direct action, women’s leadership and against classism workshops. She worked with a team of organizers to develop an 8-week intensive training program for student activists to learn organizing skills and develop their political analysis. Her work is guided by a commitment to developing other people’s leadership
Many have said that the mass actions in Seattle helped launch a new generation of activists and I agree. But often movement building is talked about as if it’s a spontaneous phenomenon. I do believe that material conditions of systemic injustice and the fundamental drive for dignity and justice are at the core of why movements develop. And I also believe that the billions (literally) of hours of hard work by people like Laura Close are at the heart of how movements grow. Charles Payne, an historian of the Civil Rights movement, writes in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, “Overemphasizing the movement’s more dramatic features, we undervalue the patient and sustained effort, the slow, respectful work, that made the dramatic moments possible.” That work has been and continues to be overwhelmingly done by women. The struggle for effective organizing that winds justice is very much connected to building movement that develops, promotes, recognizes and values women’s leadership. Laura Close has taught me much about sustained and respectful work over the years and organizers like her around the world are building our movements for liberation.
CC: How did you get into politics and what led you to become an organizer?
LC: My Jewish mother passed on a rich tradition of protest to me that began with my family arriving in the US during WWII. She taught me to be very self-aware; she was also an organizer while I was growing up. First she worked with Results a national grassroots network started in the seventies to pressure the US government to fund hunger programs, they also emphasize supporting people in discovering their ability to affect political change. Later when the first Bush ran for office she signed on with the Democratic Party as precinct leader for the Dukakis campaign. I remember door knocking in our neighborhood when I was 8, my mom was trying to engage people in political conversations and all I could think about was needing to pee and whether or not they’d let me use the bathroom. My step-father who joined us when I was 7 is also radical and raised me on a diet of philosophy and current politics. So I was raised politically, but it wasn’t until I had participated in Earth First! and other white anarchist groups, a successful campus anti-sweatshop campaign, and several mass protests that I began to value organizing.
Initially, as an activist, I hated the divide I perceived between activism & organizing. But since that time I have engaged in organizing work and you can just feel the difference. It was my friend Dara Silverman who first encouraged me to call myself an “organizer” and take pride in my work. Organizing is about building power, and building people’s organizations that can stick around to win not only one victory, but many thereafter. I think the majority white activist world I participated in for years was essentially scared of power. It seems to me that we felt so powerless in the face of mainstream society’s death march that we created myths out of corporations and the government. We made them into devils and we made them so out of reach that the very idea of having power or building it was inherently evil because that’s what we associated with them—power.
As activists, never had a conversation about increasing our power to fight back, we primarily talked and operated from a perspective of lashing out: an action here, a covert event there, a conference here, and a mobilization there. The question of how effective these events and actions were was sometimes debated but ultimately people seemed offended if the topic was pursued too long.
It seemed that at the end of the day, everything we did was inherently justified by our intent (to destroy the government/capitalism, save the forest, end sweatshop labor). In organizing I find my work justified by the effectiveness (how much money was directed to low income families, which new person is gaining skills and confidence, which government official we held accountable), which is how I think it should be. Intent is nice but it doesn’t bring down the government.
As my hunger to see an effective people’s movement in the United States grew, I began looking around me for people and groups modeling effective, liberation focused work. I found that community organizers were doing the hardest most amazing work–building skills and confidence with the people most hurt by oppression. And for me, women and trangendered folks who believe in themselves continue to be an inspiration within that world of community organizing. My friends Nisha Anand and Kim Marks were some of the first women to really model self-love as well as unashamed public leadership to me.
CC: You were the national organizer for Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations and have been involved in student activism for years. What is STARC and what role do you see it playing in the broader student movement?
LC: STARC is a network of student and youth activist groups across the country who at their core agree with our principles of anti-racism, liberation, and quality organizing. The typical kid (like me) comes into STARC all fired up to save the world and comes out skilled, and ready to focus locally & strategically and a lot more dedicated to the long haul that is movement building. I highly recommend that anyone reading this article apply for our 8 week Summer Organizing Institute in San Francisco at http://www.starcalliance.org
I joined STARC at the start of my sophomore year of college, having seen the power of national coordination play out in the WTO protests in Seattle I realized that the work we were doing locally at University of Oregon might improve if we were in contact with other young activists. I went on to become west coast coordinator and called students from Hawaii to Southern California to Wyoming on a regular basis and began to understand we were facing a mutual problem: lack of skills. Well, that’s normal since we were all young and just really getting involved in many ways. The problem was we (including myself) basically thought if we tried hard enough we could just make it all up. Well, that’s called “reinventing the wheel” since there is a basic skill set to organizing that you need to learn, you can use it when and how you see fit. But it’s sort of vocational, I would never tell a car mechanic or an organizer that they had an easy job, ya know?
That’s why STARC is so amazing, we work with young activists who are typically white and middle class who are just waking up to their outrage. Demographically, a lot of these kids start on their radical path motivated by their anger at powerful corporations. So we work with them in that belief and we support them in building skills, building an analysis of power in the US, building confidence and building our community of resistance. Typically STARCies, including myself, graduate from our corporate rage to a more complex outlook that focuses on our role as middle class allies in the struggle and informs our political work.
The year I was national organizer for STARC I visited over a dozen campuses and our Summer Organizing Institute was created by myself, the previous year’s organizer Eric Romann and a team of other folks. We were motivated to create a stable institution that energetic student activists can look to as a place to learn skills and reflect on the work they’ve already done. So spread the word people.
CC: You’ve put an enormous amount of time and energy into anti-oppression work in the mostly white sections the student movement and global justice movement. You and your training partner Nisha Anand have done anti-racism workshops with groups all over the country. Could you talk about what anti-oppression work is, how you’ve been practicing it and how it relates to building social justice movements?
LC: These days my definition is that Anti-Oppression work is the practice of liberating yourself in order to act as an effective force for social justice. You just can’t do this work unless you’re willing to look inside yourself and be changed in your core. The work is not about Helping The Oppressed, as a person with skin/class privilege its about changing my life and behaviors. And that shit is h-a-r-d. I change my life and behaviors because I understand that my intent not to be racist is beautiful, but when my actions don’t reflect my intent, well, the impact is that I perpetuate oppression on the people without skin/class privilege that I interact with.
A couple big things I work on currently are: Concretely supporting the organizers of color I work with and making space for my white friends from poor families. Something that became evident when I reflected on the first couple years of my anti-racist ally practices was that my practice was very externally focused. Not only was I not keeping the work in my heart/internal to myself, I was not really focusing on the organizers and activists of color who I saw and worked with on a regular basis. I was doing the work for people of color everywhere keeping it specific and real was very hard. So now I try to take my friends out to lunch, make a point of publicly thanking them for their contribution, of asking them questions like “do you need any help? If so, can I help?” or “what are you working on right now?” A key thing is also publicly supporting their suggestions and ideas when the opportunity arises in meetings and events. I also like to ask my friends of color to give me feedback on my current strategies and plans, building those casual but consistent forms of accountability.
As far as supporting my white friends from working class and poor families, this relates to learning my anti-racism from white men. Not only did I try to keep race and class really separate, but I was also mildly traumatized by white guys who would freak out about their class oppression and then use it as a wall to hide from their racism. So I stopped talking about class, which was unhealthy to say the least. I constantly struggle with the “charity” thing that us middle class femme whiteys are hit hard with. That is, basing my work out of desire to help the needy rather than reclaim myself and fight oppression. So talking about class is really important to my own well being and contributes mightily to my ability to really be changed by the ideas, stories, and concerns that my working class friends bring to the table.
CC: As a white anti-racist what are some challenges you’ve faced and what are some lessons you’ve learned?
LC: As I already mentioned, I learned my anti-racism from white men. Like all other places in the movement it seems white men are too often held up as experts on anti-racism. Well, the result was me thinking that we had to separate race, from class, from ethnicity, from gender, from sexuality. What a mess. This approach ultimately enabled the guys to retain power over me and other gender oppressed people by using anti-racism to hide from their sexism. Reading Audrey Lorde and working with people of color, women and trans folks has helped me to move and now honor the complex identities that each person brings to the table. Yeah, when I get confused I turn to multiracial feminist books from the late seventies, that material is killer it always rocks my world.
The second big lesson that I struggle with every day is extracting anti-racism from my intellectual side, my brain, and keeping it focused on and grounded in my heart. More specifically, I’ve observed that I and most white people usually make the biggest mistakes when we’re acting cerebral, only reading books for instance, or rationalizing our behavior. We have the most success when we are grounded in our own ability to have hurt feelings, our desire to change our own lives, when we establish genuine relationships with people of color. Operating out of a heart based place is very difficult, but imperative to my work.
CC: In working with student groups nationally, you’ve written about the importance of building confidence in young people, the importance of supporting women’s leadership and the need for men to be allies to each other in the struggle against sexism. Can you say more about each of these?
LC: I talk about building confidence in young people and others due two main reasons. One, I had my own confidence in my ability to take leadership built up and felt the difference, and two, my friend Dara Silverman explained to me that organizing is the task of building powerful organizations by building skills, confidence, and analysis one person at a time. That saying really contextualized my lived experience. As my confidence was built I was able to more effectively build the organizations I worked in. This has made me a big advocate of confidence building.
Basically as a woman I know we get acceptance & approval when we fulfill our gender role and place ourselves second. So we work our asses off in movement organizations accommodating and supporting the leadership of others. I was doing that for sure, and then I got the chance to go on a tour in fall of 2000 and lead women’s groups at 25 different locations from NYC to Arkansas to Iowa to LA. These consciousness raising groups allowed the women participating to understand that their lived oppression was a shared experience. That sexism still exists. Sexism is not the only battle of course, but good lord– the value of consciousness raising groups cannot be underestimated. It was definitely a little depressing to think that this work is going to always be needed with each generation, to renew our understandings that we each participate in a shared, systemic oppression. What sticks with me are the looks on these women’s faces as they shared their stories as they were listened to and validated on topics ranging from rape in their activist community to the lack of recognition for their activism to how hard it is to love themselves.
To men reading this I’d say, please publicly support each other in becoming allies to women and trans people in your groups. Most important I think is mentoring the incoming younger or newer men to the movement. Make a point of taking them out to coffee and sharing with them the ways in which you struggle with sexism. Keeping these relationships public helps to establish a cultural norm of men discussing their sexism with each other. Having recently returned to college and thus college organizing locally, I am reintroduced to the profound need for male to male mentors among my group members. [Note: here in Portland there is a men’s group established which I have great hope for.] This all of course is hopefully complimented by women and trans people working to decolonize our minds through consciousness raising and other tools. As part of the decolonization process I feel there’s a never ending need to publicly recognize and honor the hard work of these people who are consistently and systematically made invisible.
CC: What keeps you going when it seems like ruling class forces are winning and that racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism strengthen their power while they undermine the power of social justice movements?
LC: My (white anti-racist) women’s group, my partner, my local network of friends whom I have very intentionally invested energy into after the revelation that I *deserve* friends.
Many activists and organizers suffer because we do hard social justice work and deny ourselves the luxury of friends. I learned that if I do not have a network of supportive people it is all my doing. I also depend on political hip-hop, bell hooks, multiracial feminist literature, and my unflagging desire for a people’s uprising.
CC: As a young person who has been heavily involved in activism what does it mean to you to be healthy and take care of yourself so you can be in the struggle for the long haul?
LC: Oh god I need health care. We all need health care. Anyone reading this who is bored: go out and organize around health care. I want to have babies so I would like an organizing job that I can support many people on [I would like capitalism to end, but in the mean time I’d like better pay].
Having recently enjoyed an instance of it in my own life, I need more men in the movement to take a private and public stand to own their sexism. I am starving for that work.
I also need ongoing trainings and workshops that allow reflection on my actions. Most critically I need people who are as committed like me to watch movies with, strategize with, bake for, lockdown to, push me/be pushed, give me back rubs and ass kickings when appropriate.