A real leader doesn't keep lessons learned to themselves. They wanna share it and hook up with others who are there or challenge the process of epiphany in the spirit of collective action and liberation. A real leader is able to facilitate change in other people in terms of their own personal-political journey and skill development.

Grounding Power: An Interview with Nrinder Nindy Kaur Nann

by Chris Crass

Nrinder Nindy Kaur Nann is fiercely dedicated to equality in her personal life, in her community based organizing and through her work in Ottawa, Ontario, as the National Representative on Youth Issues for the Canadian Labour Congress, the national umbrella group of unions in Canada.

Since August 1998, Nrinder has worked in the education and campaigns department of the CLC, developing and delivering innovative youth-focused educational programming and campaigns for young workers, with an emphasis on popular education.

Nrinder is also active with a number of activist collectives that work on the local impacts of globalization and challenge movement-wide systems of oppression. During demonstrations and resistance actions, Nrinder has been known to whip out pompoms for some radical cheerleading or play with chalk, paints and crayons to creatively express her resistance.

Nrinder finds herself empowered by ancestral spirit and is actively searching for balance in work, health, healing and love. I first met her through Colours of Resistance, a loose network of organizers of color and anti-racist white activists working to further anti-racist/anti-oppression politics in the global justice movement. Her innovative approaches as an anti-authoritarian working in the labour movement connecting anti-oppression politics to working class-based and youth of colour-focused organizing has long been a source of inspiration to me and many others.

CC: What does organizing mean to you?

NNKN: Organizing, for me, is definitely not grouping people enraged with the system and status quo into neatly structured groups. It is more about people coming together to make change happen – folks dedicated to the work, struggle and resistance involved in collective liberation, but also committed to a creative, loving and supportive process which fosters equal and active participation in actualizing the change.

Organizing is people getting over their personal shit and learning to deal with life among others. Organizing brings folks together in the spirit of resistance rooted in equality and solidarity. Organizing is a tool and method for resistance and making change happen.

CC: What were some of your influences to becoming an organizer with radical politics?

NNKN: I grew up in a small, predominantly working class, rodeo-loving, country music-listening, community of 8,000 residents in the interior of British Columbia. A daughter of two hard working immigrants and sister to two older brothers, supported by a posse of extended family and a community of Sikhs and immigrant families from the Punjab region of India.

There were three dominant ethnic groups: first nations, white and Indo-Canadian. There was plenty of racial tension. The rich, mainly white, folk lived on the “upper lands” and the working class communities lived in and around sawmills (lumber mills). I think at one time it was even called a “tinderbox of racism” on national radio when a series of high school group fights broke out among young men of colour and white guys. Typical stuff, you know, young men of colour demanding their place and having to defend their rights physically in a community that wanted to maintain a particular power and privilege base accessible to select people on its terms.

Growing up with often violent explosions of racism, power struggles and people rising up against it, organizing was more than just a political choice “to do the right thing” – it was a way of surviving, living life on my terms and choosing to enact my rights as a person born in Canada. In high school, we set up anti-racism groups, held teach-ins around racism, went to other cities to talk to students where similar shit was going down. That was my first crack at organizing.

Then came electoral politics – engaging on this level was pretty natural. Growing up, folks seemed pretty interested in elections. And in some ways, in a community like where I grew up, electoral politics was about all you could do, even at the age of 15. My focus shifted from municipal politics to provincial because one of my uncle’s was the first Indo-Canadian to run and win in the riding constituency. Plus I grew up, graduated high school, left town and broadened my scope.

By the time I moved to the larger, urban centre of Surrey, a suburban city on the edge of Vancouver, I was active in youth-based activism: at first, through the New Democratic Party youth wing, then campus-based stuff, then rooted in my community around women’s issues and fighting off neo-nazis who threatened the safety of elders from my community and finally as a young worker around corporate greed and capitalism.

Like most people, my organizing priorities shifted and grew with my awareness and understanding of oppression, its systemic nature and how to make change happen.

CC: As the National Representative on Youth Issues for the Canadian Labour Congress, you do political education with young people on economic inequality and building working class resistance. In working with young people you’ve also talked about developing youth leadership and increasing their capacity to fight back. As an anti-authoritarian what does leadership mean to you, and how do you incorporate leadership development into your work?

NNKN: I don’t like the term “leader” because of the whole power thang. Who deems who a leader?

I think what happens well among activists committed to anti-oppression is encouragement, development and sharing of skills, tools and roles which folks are empowered to harness, use and change. An example in the paid work I do is Solidarity WORKS!, a three-week paid, hands-on activist skill development session for young workers run through the Canadian Labour Congress with our provincial and local counterparts. Designed by and for youth, it brings together non-unionized and unionized youth to learn from each other’s experiences and develop each other’s skills through popular education. After a week of intensive learning sessions, folks go into unions and community organizations to put into practice newly learned organizing strategies.

At the beginning of the program, we go through an activity where participants reflect on the strengths they have or draw on within themselves to deal with daily struggle. Positive, self-affirming qualities emerge like, “I’m a great listener,” “I’m creative,” “I enjoy working with other like-minded folks,” “I’m fiercely committed to equality,” “I’m approachable,” “I like to take action,” etc. The group list is saved and unveiled later in the program.

Later in the week, after dismantling the systemic nature of oppression in society and in progressive movements, folks take some time to critique “leadership” and establish their own guidelines of effective, equality-based organizing. Another activity at this stage has participants list off what they feel a good organizer/ leader should be. After running the program seven times, we’ve found participants list, without realizing, the same traits, qualities they see in themselves.

We do a cross comparison, and it is amazing the self-realization that goes on. What happens is more than just patting each other the back and saying, “yeah, we can all do this.” But folks go through an intensive group and individual experience of reflection, analysis and critique not only of what goes down in the structures of mainstream movements – who is “seen” on the frontline in summit-hops and what we define as “radical” – but also journey inward and critique their own behaviour, become aware of their own privileges and redefine what equality means to them and how they can be active in creating it. And all this goes on while engaging in organizing both in unions and in the community through the two-week, hands-on placements.

They reach personal epiphanies of understanding their own power and control in order to challenge, resist and change the current economic and societal structure and systems. In Regina, Saskatchewan, this summer, participants had such a growth experience that they formed their own affinity group called Young Workers Organized Resisting (K)apitalism (Y-WORK). Now, they pop around town once a month engaging in creative direct action exposing employers with shitty employment practices.

CC: Can you say more about leadership?

NNKN: A real leader doesn’t keep lessons learned to themselves. They wanna share it and hook up with others who are there or challenge the process of epiphany in the spirit of collective action and liberation. A real leader is able to facilitate change in other people in terms of their own personal-political journey and skill development.

Leadership is not about complacency and the masses looking to be led. Instead, everybody is a leader – an agent of change – sharing skills, resources, ideas, thoughts, critiques, analysis, lived experiences in order to collectively change shit. And this work must be based in honesty, respect and the spirit of true solidarity and equality.

I think at one time, folks defined leaders as people with lots of self-confidence able to rile a crowd to take to the streets – the lone wolf. These days, I think an ever-growing pack of folks are stepping up to make change happen. They choose not to define themselves as leaders and actively fight off the title. More people are willing to acknowledge the supportive community around them which ultimately builds, shapes, grows and sustains them and the actions they chose to initiate or engage in.

I think effective, honest capacity building and people-based leadership is exactly what anti-authoritarian resistance is all about: empowerment to enact change for yourself and others, to defy the system of privilege and power to instead create organic growth among people and communities to fulfill their own, collective needs. So, real leadership is based in sharing power, being honest and having an openness to critique, growth and change within while at the same time, learning skills and sharing insights, lessons and other things to empower others to engage in making change happen beside you.

CC: How have you learned about respectful leadership?

NNKN: You know, the more time I spend reflecting on my father’s life the clearer it becomes how much I learned about life, organizing and effective community involvement from him. He used to really take time to listen. And when asked, he would offer his thoughts and perspectives on situations. He was active in the Gurdwara (where Sikhs communally practice their religion; hold community forums; share langar, a communal meal shared after spiritual ceremonies and readings; etc.), speaking to issues facing the community equipped with his interpretation and understanding of the political messages in the Adi Granth Sahibji (Sikh “holy text” which is a compilation of teachings written by the 10 gurus of Sikhi and regarded as the final “guru”). He would actively share lessons and engage where needed. He would offer time to friends, family and community members for reflection and survive the daily struggle. Sometimes, that would take the form of every other weekend spent among friends in the bush fishing or hunting – but mainly spending time in nature to touch base and facilitate growth. Which raises another important point: effective organizers and “leaders” take time to rest and nourish themselves and others.

CC: What do you think about U.S. pop culture images of Canadian society?

NNKN: Have you seen Bowling for Columbine? I think Michael Moore hams up Canada a bit too much in the film, making up here appear like a people’s utopia.

If you really wanna get into what is up with the perceived image of Canadian society, we’ll have to devote a few articles to that. Ya better believe we aren’t far off from the way things are going in the States. Don’t have to dive too deep into progressive accounts of Canadian history in order to learn that. Heck, just review our policies since 9-11 and the increases to our military budget vs. our acclaimed (and quickly eroding) healthcare system, education system, environmental standards, labour standards, etc.

As for “Canada’s left” – it’s pretty diverse, at least the “left” I’m active with. Most people I see pushing for a better way of life in Canada are young, of colour, women, Aboriginal, of the First Nations, immigrant, descendants from “homelands,” from urban centres and rural communities and often working their asses off to survive.

CC: Why is leadership development important to building mass based, multiracial, anti-racist, feminist, queer and trans liberationist, multigenerational, anti-capitalist movements working for collective liberation?

NNKN: When a person decides to take action, learn more about a topic or develops a desire to change the status quo, an unjust situation, or anything else, they are on a journey of taking ownership of making change happen. This may well be the only form of ownership that really matters. It is rooted in empowerment rather than power. And most often, a person doesn’t do this alone. We hook up with others to get things done. I believe radical liberation rooted in equality and anti-oppression leads us through personal liberation and has direct impact on how the collective liberation happens. This means we embark on a journey of critical self-work and implant ourselves into the society of organization and resistance. This contributes to the make up, operation and culture of the resistance and creation. As we participate in clusters, communities, gatherings and crews, we share this individual and group process. We experience education, ignorance, respect, love and solidarity. We learn how things can be and how the rest of it ought to be.

Collective action and collective leadership based in this will build mass based anti-capitalist movements rooted in multiracial, anti-racist, feminist, queer and trans liberationist, multigenerational, and anti-ableist reality. Yup, we’ve all got a whole lot of work still to do.

Chris Crass is an organizer deeply inspired by the millions of people leading struggles for liberation around the world.