A lot of times we do a lot of work without really examining the assumptions we're operating from and those assumptions lead us to places that reinforce domination. If we don't take the time to examine out assumptions and create new guiding principles and new goals, then often times we end up banging our heads against the wall and give up because we feel like we've done everything we can but nothing is working.

Anti-Racism for Collective Liberation: An Interview with the Catalyst Project

by Marla Zubel, Project Collective

On January 28th the Catalyst Project came to University of California, Santa Cruz to facilitate a day-long workshop titled, “Anti-Racism for Collective Liberation.” The workshop was designed as a way for white social justice activists, from a variety of organizations (including Students Against War, the Student and Worker Coalition for Justice, the Student Environmental Center, and The Project) to deepen both their understandings of white supremacy and their commitments to anti-racist organizing.

The Catalyst Project is a center for political education based in the SF Bay Area. It was founded in 2000 as a collaboration between white anti-racists from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 60’s and 70’s and a younger generation of white activist from primarily the global justice and anti-war movements. In the past five years Catalyst has lead over 100 workshops with over 4500 participants. Clare Bayard and Chris Crass, facilitated the UCSC workshop. Afterwards, I sat down with them to learn more about the organization and their experiences as white anti-racist activists.

Marla: How and why did you each get involved in doing these types of anti-racist workshops?

Chris: At the time that we were really developing the Catalyst Project, it was right after the WTO mass actions in Seattle in ’99. It was coming at a time when there was a huge sense of power and possibility amongst left, anarchist activists who we were working with and who we were coming from. We saw anti-racism as something that could really help build, sustain, and empower that work, take it to another level. For us, it seemed like a really strategic time to focus on anti-racism because there was such a broad discussion happening in the movement. We could really try to support the broader movement we were a part of. Over time, it’s become a way to talk about a lot of deeper issues. When we open up conversations about anti-racism it starts to open up conversations about vision, strategy, organizing, leadership, power, and eventually you start talking about the overall conceptions of what people are doing, and why are people doing it. So it’s opened up conversations that we feel have been strategic around overall movement building, overall strategy, and overall vision.

Clare: In the wake of Seattle, a lot of us white folks were trying to take up the call to do more anti-racist work with other white people. Political education seemed like one of the clearest ways to start doing that. For me, workshops are useful as a way of learning and I’ve seen them be very powerful. Doing really focused political education work that is about trying to do skill-building and knowledge-sharing, and create spaces for discussions that are going to help people grow, is a really important part of all of this work. The people who are in an organization who are really trying to do anti-racism in a longterm way can use the workshop itself as an organizing tool, but the impact is also about how do you build from there.

Marla: The title of the workshop that you did at UCSC is called, “Anti-racism for Collective Liberation.” Could you please explain a little bit about what you mean by the terms “anti-racism” and “collective liberation?”

Clare: Well, one of the things about white privilege and the ways whiteness is constructed in this country is that there’s this myth that a lot of us white folks internalize, that white people are just individuals and are not part of a power structure, particularly not part of the power structure that is about helping to replicate oppression.

Chris: For us, anti-racism is a process and a commitment to struggle and so collective liberation is the vision that guides us in that struggle. Anti-racism is not just about, ‘I need to do something to help people of color,’ but this is a commitment to collective struggle–meaning, struggle around the shape and future of our society and how all the people in our society relate to one another and either benefit or are oppressed in that society. And so, collective liberation is also about wanting to have a positive vision around doing anti-racism work as well as thinking about a vision to help me, not only continue to do this work, but to see how my liberation is connected to the liberation of all people, and how my humanity is deformed as a result of racism.

Marla: What would you say to white activist who think they have anti-racism all figured out and therefore do not need to attend a workshop like this?

Chris: You don’t have it all figured out. None of us do. For myself as someone who’s been doing these workshops, there is so much to learn, there is so much to be engaged in. And it’s not something where you just suddenly get to a point where you have it figured out, but it’s an on-going process of learning how to put this stuff into practice, learning how to live it, learning how to build organizations and movements based on our principles to be able to really transform society. And so, to think that there is nothing to learn means that the question of why to do this work hasn’t really been addressed.

Marla: What do you think are the most important things white people can do today to fight racial injustice?

Clare: Its important to start at a really basic level. I think the two pieces of it are: to support liberation struggles that are lead by radical, left folks of color, and to commit to working alongside other white activists to build more anti-racist analysis and practice in white communities and to try to be part of building bridges between those two.

Chris: So much of the narrative around what you are supposed to do to be anti-racist for people who have privilege is really narrow, ‘I’m transforming my self and society, and so I need to take the time to figure out what those things actually mean to me, what are some goals to help guide me, and then, how I can build relationships with other people around these goals.’ A lot of times we do a lot of work without really examining the assumptions we’re operating from and those assumptions lead us to places that reinforce domination. If we don’t take the time to examine out assumptions and create new guiding principles and new goals, then often times we end up banging our heads against the wall and give up because we feel like we’ve done everything we can but nothing is working.

Marla: Both of you spend a great deal of time traveling around the country working with social justice activists. These experiences must give you a unique insight into the state of the movement. How would you characterize activism and racism in the movement today and how does this compare with the environment in which you began facilitating these workshops?

Chris: There’s been a lot of things that have been really hopeful and positive around doing the workshops. A lot of it is the relationships between different organizations with each other. For example, United Students Against Sweatshops was primarily focused on doing solidarity with struggles outside the United States– struggles in the global south–sweatshop conditions in Indonesia or other parts of the world–which is fantastic work, but they weren’t connected to struggles lead by immigrant workers in the U.S. That’s really changed in the past couple years after doing a lot of work with them around anti-racism and white-privilege and how that oftentimes creates blinders for white activists to see the organizing going on around them. They’ve really been prioritizing building relationships with immigrant worker struggles lead by women in the U.S. and that’s lead to some really effective work. Another example is, after September 11th, and with the rise of the Bush administration’s war on the world, a really strong anti-imperialist analysis has been developing in our movements, that connects the long histories of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism in the U.S. to the role the U.S. plays in the broader world. A lot of white activist groups are developing stronger relationships with people of color and working-class lead struggles in the U.S., as well as a broader sense of a locally-based economic and racial justice movement that has a world-wide perspective.

Clare: Yeah, that’s been a big shift. The movement that we come out of, the majority white, global justice movement, which after September 11th also became, in part, an anti-war movement, was really struggling several years after Seattle to figure out what making the local-global connection meant, knowing that that was really important, and knowing that that was a big piece of why that movement was and is disproportionately white and middle class. We experimented with different ways of trying to do collaborative organizing, trying to be very reflective and self-critical about the mass mobilizations model. Years down the road, obviously a lot of the challenges and questions are still open questions, but there’s been a shift on a deep level around people being able to see that the corporate globalization that middle class white folks primarily have been targeting is connected to histories of economic and military colonization. Because of that, people are able to see how resistance movements lead by third world folks actually have had a continuity of struggle through hundreds of years and that the IMF and WTO are the most recent forms of what’s been going on for a long time. The connection between that and local racial and economic justice work, including and especially work that’s lead by people of color, is easier for people to see. Which is not to say that there is not still fragmentation, but it feels like an entirely different playing field than it did in 1999. There’s been really significant progress made towards having the fundamental understandings that need to happen in order to see how these different pieces of the bigger movement fit together.

Marla: What keeps each of you inspired to continue the struggle for a better world?

Clare: I think that it is a privilege, in the good sense, to be able to be part of such vibrant, beautiful movements. We are part of millions of people who are constantly, everyday dedicating their lives to justice. That to me is so profoundly moving, satisfying, and reassuring. Globally we’re in the majority, we being those of us who are on the side of justice. There’s more of us than there are of them. And when I wake up every morning, I’m also waking up in a house with a three-year old that I’m helping to raise. It sounds very cheesy and cliché in some ways to say it, but I am still very much trying to shift my ways of thinking from two years out to multiple generations out. Which is an effort for me. But it’s so much more concrete when I’m looking at someone who is the next generation and thinking about what we are leaving for her. It’s constantly inspiring knowing that there are amazing people now and that she’s an amazing person and that the works going to carry on well beyond me. And that’s hard in the sense that I won’t see all the changes I want to see in my lifetime, but we all have really important roles to play.

Chris: The more that we struggle the more capacity there is for more options in terms of how we live and how we experience justice and liberation. Right now in this country things feel extremely narrow in terms of how democracy can function and how people can have all their needs met, how people’s desires and potentials can be supported. But what inspires me is knowing that the more we commit to struggling for liberation, that each step we take towards that, opens up new potentials, new ways of thinking, creates a greater base of power to be able to work for even grander visions. As we struggle, we’re also creating new visions in our own lives in terms of how we live, how we relate to each other, and how our own imaginations are being decolonized to even be able to imagine just and liberatory possibilities. So I hold on to the knowledge that the more we struggle, the more potential there is for liberation.