Some structures are able to build in the prioritization of directly affected voices. One organizing structure I've seen that I'd like to use again was a group with a caucus made up of members of the group directly affected - in this case, First Nations people. This group met separately and made the decisions, then brought their direction and strategy back to the general meetings, to choose tactics and implement the campaign work.

Anti-Racism for Global Justice: An Activist Forum

courtesy of Left Turn

Left Turn as a network, and later a magazine, was born out of the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests that took place in Seattle during the fall of 1999. In the aftermath of those protests, a long time Chicana activist Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez wrote an important essay titled ‘Where was the color in Seattle‘ which appeared in Color Lines magazine. The article whose subtitle was ‘Looking for reasons why the Great Battle was so white’ was widely circulated throughout various activist communities and its wide-ranging impacts continue to be felt to this day.

In the wake of the 5th year anniversary of the Seattle protests, a new generation of activists and organizers have continued to struggle with the questions raised by Betita and others working for racial justice throughout history. The following forum – in which Max Uhlenbeck asked several activists and organizers to share their views – is Left Turn’s (modest) attempt to contribute to, and help further the ongoing, dialogue within the Global Justice movement around issues of Race and Racism.

Kenyon Farrow is a writer and organizer living in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently co-editing his first book project Letters from Young Activists with Dan Berger and Chesa Boudin, due out this fall with Nation Books.

Clare Bayard is an anarchist organizer with the Catalyst Project and the Heads Up Collective, working within the global justice movement around immigrant rights, challenging white supremacy, and ending US imperialism at home and abroad.

Curtis Muhammad was an active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s and 70s. He worked on the Freedom Vote and Freedom Schools initiatives in Mississippi and in the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, among many other social justice activities. More recently Curtis helped develop a coalition of organizations in New Orleans, called Community Labor United (CLU). CLU has recently joined with other national groups including the Algebra Project to build a national coalition and campaign for Quality Public School Education as a Civil Right.

Kate Rubin is an organizer with Critical Resistance-New York City (CR-NYC), a multi-racial organization of former prisoners, family-members, and other prison activists fighting to end the control prisons. She is a member of Ruby Affinity Group/Basement Cluster. “Ruby” is an affinity group of ten white activists who support each other’s work and discuss politics, and engage in direct action. Basement cluster was a “cluster of white-identified affinity groups and individuals who came together around the RNC.” Critical Resistance is online at

Marika Schwandt works primarily with two groups: No One Is Illegal -Toronto – in particular on the municipal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ campaign launched by the group – and the Toronto-based Prison Justice Action Committee. She also does case-work through the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

Left Turn: When you hear activists using the term ‘anti-racism’ relating to their organizing, what does that mean to you?

Curtis: It simply means that there is a group of folk with whom we can engage in dialogue on this subject…nothing more, nothing less.

Clare: I think many of us white activists have different interpretations and strategies around this term. Speaking to the work I’ve been involved in, we use ‘anti-racism’ to describe the commitment to challenging white privilege (internalized white superiority) and its destructive impacts on social justice movements, attacking structures of white supremacy on an institutional level, and developing a deeper analysis of how racism cuts through every issue we work on as activists and organizers in order to connect all our work into the broader struggles for racial justice. It’s important to be clear here that we’re coming from a politics that sees challenging racism as a critical component to any kind of social justice work, whatever its focus.

Kate: White activists come from a history of racist organizing. I mostly hear the term ‘anti-racist’ used by white organizers to separate themselves from that history and say, “I understand how much white-skin privilege I have but I don’t want to benefit from injustice; and I know that fighting racism is central to fighting injustice.” This is important, but any words can get worn out and lose their meaning if it isn’t backed up by action.

Kenyon: Honestly, it means that there are a lot of white people involved. Period.

LT: Where do you find yourself concentrating most of your efforts – building multiracial spaces and or coalitions, building power within predominantly people of color communities, or building anti-racist analysis among predominantly white activist communities? Why?

Kenyon: Well, I have gone through different phases. I continue to work with Critical Resistance because prison abolition is a very important political goal for me, and because the issue affects the lives of so many Black people. In general, I am finding myself wanting to do more work with Black people specifically, whose issues are being left out by ‘post 9-11’ rhetoric that dominates the multiracial left at this point. The message on the Left is, “everything has changed since 9-11” – which is the same rhetoric that the fascist Right is using as well, and that rhetoric on both sides has very severe consequences. For black folks, 9-11 has not seen a drop in our imprisonment, our neighborhoods gentrifying – which creates homelessness – or any other issues that black people are concerned about. For us, this period in history is a case of same shit, different day.

Curtis: My work center tries to encourage activists and organizers to center their work in primarily oppressed, exploited, and neglected communities. I attempt to create, maintain and nurture safe and attractive spaces for activists, organizers and community leaders in an effort to talk and reach consensus around common work.

Clare: My efforts are focused on white folks – working to center a historical analysis of white supremacy in all our work – and emphasizing the practice and the importance of building alliances and accountable relationships with left/radical people of color organizations. A large part of my grounding in working with other white folks has been building long-term alliances with (mostly local) racial and economic justice organizations, primarily around immigrant rights.

Kate: As Basement Cluster, it made sense for us to work as an all-white group because we were working with two groups who were mainly or exclusively people of color. But working with BC was scary for me because I thought an all-white group has to replicate the patterns of white supremacy or just be creepy, and in some ways we did/were: people’s personal relationships gave them more power; certain skills and knowledge were privileged, etc. But that experience also taught me that white anti-racist spaces can be too comfortable for me: I’m surrounded by people who, like me, mostly felt alienated by our white communities, critiqued them, left them, and were influenced early on by politics of rejection. I think I learn more and have more to offer in multi-racial formations, specifically in CR-NYC, but I’m flexible about the kind of structures that make sense at different moments to get the work done.

LT: Recently activists have started to use the term ‘people most affected’ or ‘most affected communities’ do you find this language helpful and how would you define that as it relates to your work? How do you incorporate an analysis of intersecting oppressions in your organizing?

Marika: I think that this term is important to identify who is more or less able to take leadership in work and to shape the direction of campaigns. Genuine solidarity means struggling side by side with people who are fighting on their own behalf. Using tactics developed by people fighting for themselves, and that honor past and present work done by communities struggling on their own behalf, is central to building movements. To do this it’s necessary to amplify or prioritize voices of people most affected.

Kate: I think the ‘most affected’ language is ok, but it seems better to just talk about people’s experiences. I’d rather talk about people whose families are locked up or who just got out of prison than “people most directly affected by prisons.” We’re always going to be struggling for language that is precise enough to mean something but broad enough to encompass multiple experiences and present a unified politic. What used to be national liberation movements or third world organizations are now called POC-led organizations or – the most vague term-‘grassroots organizations.’ I think we’re most powerful when we just talk about what we’re experiencing and observing and what we can do about it in a space where privilege and different experiences of oppression are acknowledged.

Kenyon: Well, I usually find that when people use the term ‘most affected,’ it usually means people of color, which are usually strikingly absent when the term is used, and people feel uncomfortable about that. I also am noticing a trend towards that term being used as a way to include white people in spaces, who can claim being ‘working class’ as a way to maintain power and take up space in what is, or should be, a space led for people of color. Also, a particular issue will affect the different peoples that make up the term ‘people of color’ in different ways.

LT: What are some concrete ways you have found to either build with or support most affected communities in your work? Or conversely, what are some concrete ways that you have found to either build with or access support from people less affected?

Clare: The best ways I’ve found to help support targeted communities has been to build principled, long-term alliances. These alliances often start with addressing the needs assessed by self-organized folks from within that community. There isn’t a blueprint around the needs, you have to ask and be patient when there’s not always a clear place for an ally. Material resources, fundraising, childcare, turning people out for door knocking – these have all been elements of support work that have been part of my working to build long-term relationships with organizations in targeted communities.

Marika: People’s vulnerabilities need to be recognized, if we don’t acknowledge how communities differ, it’s not possible to build real solidarity. I work with a lot of non-status immigrants from the Caribbean. In working around diverse coalitions like the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ campaign* and in more broad-based work around status and regularization, it’s been important to look at the different non-status communities in Toronto and recognize that people can organize in different spaces and that the work can take on different forms. There’s been unity built on differences – for example, a large meeting with representation from many non-status communities was able to agree on a shared set of principles for regularization that included no criminal check. Something that is vital for some communities and controversial in others.

LT: Talk about the idea of tokenizing and how you see that happen in the movement. What are some constructive ways in which you have seen activists struggle with this?

Kenyon: I have seen white activists pit a ‘most affected’ person of color who agrees with them on a particular point against another ‘activist’ person of color who may not agree with them – so the white activists can get their way on that particular issue. White activists play out their primitivist shit with people of color on this issue. The ‘most affected’ person is probably newer to the group, and may even be new to organizing, and those factors may cause them to not be as vocal or combative as a person of color who has history with people in the room, and as much (if not more) investment as the white activists. So, when the person of color in the room agrees with them, and usually has less education, or may be newer to organizing than the ‘activist’ person of color, white activists will use that to get their way because the ‘most affected’ person has spoken. This is ultimately very isolating for both people of color.

Curtis: When Blacks, women or folks of color leadership is chosen by a body that is predominantly white, it is tokenism. Given power concedes only to a demand, to paraphrase brother Fredrick Douglas. Thus power given can always be taken away. The most constructive ways I’ve seen where the contrary happens is when Blacks, women or folks of color organize among themselves as part of a larger group and make demands in their self-interest.

LT: How do you bridge the idea of non-hierarchical/horizontal organizing with the idea of building a movement led by those people most affected? Have you found this to be an issue?

Kate: ‘Non-hierarchical’ doesn’t mean ‘no leaders’ – it means no all-powerful leaders. It means that all of us are leaders but that different people take different kinds of leadership. In CR-NYC we are trying to stop the violence that prisons bring into people’s lives, so it makes sense to have the goal that important decisions be made by people who have been in jail or have been arrested a lot. It makes sense to intentionally encourage leadership from those people because most of the systems that we live in do exactly the opposite. As a white person, taking leadership is sometimes just having the confidence to work outside my comfort zone. I once worked in a multi-racial coalition where someone critiqued the role white people had played: “Taking leadership from people of color doesn’t mean y’all shouldn’t think for yourselves.” I have struggled to keep from using ‘taking leadership from POC’ as a cop-out when I’m just not sure of myself.

Marika: Some structures are able to build in the prioritization of directly affected voices. One organizing structure I’ve seen that I’d like to use again was a group with a caucus made up of members of the group directly affected – in this case, First Nations people. This group met separately and made the decisions, then brought their direction and strategy back to the general meetings, to choose tactics and implement the campaign work.

Kenyon: I think that in order for non-hierarchical organizing to happen, we have to change our notions of what organizing or activism is. If you think you know something that poor people and/or people of color don’t, or think you have a solution that ‘they’ haven’t tried, then you are sadly mistaken and need to sit down somewhere. You simply cannot organize effectively with people who do not trust one another. I think that before you want to do ‘work’ in some community you do not belong to – either geographically or because of identity, you should really ask yourself why.

Clare: I don’t think these are inherently contradictory. I think organizing which is based in communities and/or prioritizes leadership development of people from historically marginalized communities can be entirely complimentary with non-hierarchical organizing. Nonhierarchical organizing means we’ve got to develop everyone’s capacity for leadership. Having organizations with sufficient internal structure to recognize and work with peoples’ different skills and different levels of experience is much more conducive to supporting the development and voices of all people involved than some of the sink-or-swim ‘nonhierarchical’ projects I’ve been involved with. The reality of solid nonhierarchical organizing is that it involves more, rather than less, emphasis on intentional and patient leadership development, and honesty about power and privilege.

LT: How have you felt or seen anti-racist politics or analysis permeate throughout the larger ‘movement’? Specifically over the last 5 years since the historic WTO protests in Seattle?

Marika: I see more work being done in a way that acknowledges the effects of racism, but what I also see is white and privileged activists who feel they are entitled to work and take leadership on any given issue. These people don’t necessarily have an analysis of why this issue, why now, why me? I think the responsibility weighs heavily to do the most effective organizing work we can, given who we are – people with privilege to ‘choose’ between issues to work on often don’t take this responsibility seriously.

Clare: I think the current of anti-racist politics in majority white circles has expanded significantly since Seattle. More of the resistance I hear now to talking about race is either coming from apprehension around how that conversation gets framed, or from a more reactionary, anti-organizing sector. There is less resistance to accepting that dealing with racism and privilege is central to any kind of social change work. Enthusiasm and commitment to engaging in conversations about race has snowballed in the past five years as folks my age are observing and we’re hearing from our older generation mentors. The average conversation about race and privilege in organizing I’m connected to has moved from “How can we get more people of color to come and stay in our group?” to “How can we do effective, accountable work that contributes to broader racial justice struggles?”

LT: What advice would you give to newly politicized activists who have just recently started to struggle with these questions?

Kate: People sometimes make it sound like ‘taking risks’ always has to mean something that’s physically dangerous or that could mean going to jail. Sometimes it is, but often the most important risks you take have to do with taking action based on your principles and knowing that you might make a mistake and be subject to criticism. At its most sad and embarrassing, anti-racist organizing can be about proving that you’re most down with the most prominent POC-led organizations. That access is a kind of currency, and people are worried that if they make mistakes they’ll risk losing some currency. But for people to be willing to make mistakes, we as a movement have to make room to let them, and value people who don’t hold currency.

Clare: To white folks, I would say: jump in, find an organization to get involved with or talk with folks in the group you already work with. Find allies, find mentors, learn from peoples’ experiences – and don’t deny yourself the support we all need in taking on challenges. The more I can let go of my fears about messing up, the more useful I can be. For me as a white person, working against racism is not an act on behalf of people of color, but a realization of the many ways racism is destroying all our communities and our world, and we all have parts to play because we all have a stake in our collective liberation.

*a campaign pushing for a city policy that would prevent police and other city workers from asking about immigration status, denying access to city services based on status, or sharing status information on individuals with other government agencies like Citizenship and Immigration Canada