White radicals need to go beyond their familiar circles and form coalitions with people of color with an understanding of how white activists in the past have betrayed people of color. White radicals need a strong race, class and gender analysis and it should be central to their political worldview.

Towards Social Justice: Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez and the Institute for MultiRacial Justice

by Chris Crass

“Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez is a national and international treasure. Her life and work provide a model of internationalism and solidarity, as well as local organizing. ‘Think globally, act locally’ was her practice long before the slogan was created. From work for decolonization at the United Nations, to the Civil Rights Movement, to pioneering the women’s liberation movement, to local organizing in New Mexico and California, to top-rate journalism and political theory, Betita continues to blaze trails and create priceless legacies, mentoring countless social activists, young and old, male and female, people of all colors, gay and straight, always with astonishing patience and intelligence.” This is how Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes her friend of 30 years. Dunbar-Ortiz has been involved in radical politics and activism since the sixties. She founded one of the first groups of the Womens Liberation Movement, Cell 16 and helped edit their journal, “No More Fun and Games”. She is the author of Red Dirt:Growing Up Okie and she’s a regular reader at the Anarchist Cafe nights in San Francisco.

Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez lives in the Mission District of San Francisco, where she is involved in many different projects and campaigns. Her main project is the Institute for MultiRacial Justice, which she co-founded in 1997. She serves as the co-chair of the Institute and edits the Institutes publication, Shades of Power.

The Institute aims to “serve as a resource center that will strengthen the struggle against White Supremacy by combating the tactics of divide-and-control and advancing solidarity among people of color” (from the group’s Mission Statement).

The Institute serves as a clearinghouse of information about joint work done by communities of color locally, regionally and eventually on a national basis. The Institute provides educational materials to help build greater understanding and respect between people of color. Working to build solidarity between communities of color, the Institute holds educational forums on topics and issues that are not only important to communities of color, but that have divided people of color. Forum topics have included immigrant rights and bilingual education and the these events bring together organizers from various groups to have a dialogue about the issues. These forums and other work done by the Institute try to provide a site for people from different communities of color to meet with each other and find ways to support one another.

In October of 99, Martinez and the Institute put together the Shades of Power Festival: Alliance Building With Film and Video. The festival’s program stated, “the movies show how different peoples of color in the U.S. have related and worked together in common struggles for social justice. A few of the videos focus on a single group whose struggle continues today and needs support from other people of color.” The festival featured movies about Ethnic Studies student strikes in 69-69, the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party, Angela Davis, June Jordan, Yuri Kochiyama, the Japanese Internment Camps during WWII, housing struggles by Latinos, Filipinos, African-Americans, repression and resistance at the U.S. Mexico border, labor organizing and envirnomental justice campaigns. In all, about 20 films were viewed. Between movies, there were four discussion panels with organizers from various groups on gentrification in San Fancisco, immigrant rights and environmental justice. Hundreds of people went to the festival.

The other main project of the Institute is publishing Shades of Power. It is published as a step in the direction of creating an anti-racist, anti-capitalist ideological climate. Shades of Power, which is currently on its 6th issue, is full of articles on organizing around environmental justice issues, police brutality, violence in public schools, workers’ rights, immigration and incarceration – to name a few. All of the articles focus on pro-active campaigns and positive activism with special attention paid to alliance building among people of color.

Shades of Power helps the Institute work towards their long-term goals. According to their mission statement, the Institute is “committed to linking the struggle of Third World unity with struggles to build a new society free of class relations, sexism, homophobia, environmental abuse, and the other diseases of our times”.

Working with women’s groups is a special focus of the Institute, “because women have often taken the lead in building alliances among people of color”. Organizing with youth is also a major focus of the Institute with the goal of developing autonomous youth initiatives. The Institute was active in the youth led campaign against Proposition 21 in California. Prop 21, the juvinile crime initiative, makes it easier to prosecute children as adults, broadly defines gangs and gang membership to include most aspects of hip-hop culture and criminalizes it and plays on social fears of crime committed by young people of color – regardless of the fact that violent youth crime has declined significantly in the last few years. When youth organizations like Third Eye Movement, Homey Network and the Critical Resistance Youth Task Force mobilized and organized thousands of young people, the Institute offered support and solidarity. As Roxanne stated earlier, Betita is a mentor to countless activists and organizers. Her years of experience, her firm dedication to radical social change and her wisdom and insights into organizing have influenced and inspired many who are active today, especially young women of color organizers.

In addition to the Institute, Martinez is also involved with many different organizations in the Bay Area, such as the Women of Color Resource Center and Media Alliance. Betita is also the author of the book De Colores Means All Of Us: Latina Views of a Multi-Colored Century, published by South End Press in 1998.

Betita’s book, De Colores Means All Of Us, which hit the shelves last year is a chronicle of organizing and alliance building throughout her years of work. The book is a collection of essays that range from discussions on attacks against immigrant rights and affirmative action to contemporary struggles for Ethnic Studies lead by Latina/o youth. Betita’s book is full of essays that develop a radical Chicana perspective and analysis on society, race relations, history, dynamics between men and women in past and present activism and on the future of building a multiracial, anti-racist, queer liberationist, feminist, anti-capitalist movement. The essays are packed with stories, examples of past activism, models of past and present organizing and inspiration to implement lessons in the book into our organizing efforts.

Elizabeth Martinez traces her political consciousness back to her childhood. Her father had moved from Mexico into the US and after quite a few years of financial hardship ended up working in Washington DC as a secretary in the Mexican Embassy. She remembers growing up with stories of the Mexican Revolution, Zapata and US imperialism. Also, Martinez grew up in a middle-class white suburb of DC and was the only person of color in school, which made her painfully aware of racism and white supremacy. After World War II, Martinez went to work at the United Nations as a researcher on colonialism decolonization efforts and strategies. During the McCarthy Era, her section chief and other co-workers at the UN were fired for having past or present connections with Communism. In 1959, three months after the Cuban Revolution claimed victory, Martinez went to Cuba to witness a successful anti-colonial, socialist struggle. This trip to Cuba had a profound impact on her.

In addition to Cuba, Martinez later traveled to the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Vietnam (during the war) and China to witness and observe how people were implementing socialism.

When the sit-in movement swept across the South in 1960, a new and exciting form of direct action organizing was taking shape which soon lead to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was one of the most important organizations of the 1960’s as it successfully experimented with various forms of community organizing, direct action tactics, radically democratic decision-making and an egalitarian vision that inspired and influenced countless other groups and projects in that 60’s and into today. While SNCC, along with the Southern Civil Rights Movement, is generally remembered as a Black led struggle with the involvement of whites – Betita was one of two Chicanas working full-time for SNCC; Maria Varela was also a SNCC organizer. Martinez origianlly served as the director of SNCC’s office in New York. Betita edited the photo history book, The Movement, which not only raised funds for SNCC, but also brought graphic images of the Civil Rights movement into homes across the United States. Martinez was an organizer with SNCC in 1964 during the Mississippi Summer project (often referred to as Freedom Summer).

In 1968, a year of revolution and repression around the world, she moved to New Mexico to work in the land grant movement of Chicanos/as struggling to recover lands lost when the US took over half of Mexico with the 1846-48 war. There she launched an important movement newspaper, El Grito del Norte (The Cry of the North), and continued publishing it for 5 years along with other activism. El Grito reported on international activism and sought to show connections between different struggles. At the Chicano Communications Center, which she co-founded in Albuquerque, she edited the bilingual pictorial volume 500 Years of Chicano History at a time when almost no books existed on the subject. The pictorial became the basis of her educational video Viva La Causa! which has been shown at film festivals and classrooms across the country. In all of this activism, she worked with and trained many young Chicanas/os.

In the late 60’s when the Women’s Liberation Movement exploded across the country with feminist groups, publications, protest actions, manifestos and speakers everywhere, Elizabeth Martinez was in New Mexico helping shape the newly developing movement. In her essay, “History Makes Us, We Make History” from the anthology, The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices From Women’s LIberation, Betita talks about developing a Chicana feminism that confronts race, class and gender inequality. In that essay she writes about the whiteness of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the sexism in the Chicano Movmement and the need to struggle against all forms of oppression. During this time, Betita was made an honorary member of WITCH (Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell).

Since 1976 she has been living in the Bay Area. Betita became deeply involved in leftist party building politics for 10 years. In 1982 she ran for Governor of California on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket; the first Chicana on the ballot for that office. She has also taught courses in Ethnic Studies amd Women Studies at Hayward State University. Martinez has traveled all across the United States speaking on colleges and in classrooms about race, class, gender issues and organizing. She has teamed up with longtime activist Elena Featherston, also a co-founder of the Institute, and they have done joint speaking tours called “Black and Brown – Get Down”, which aim at building alliances between people of color. She has consistently been a mentor over the years to new and long-time activists and organizers helping transfer skills, knowledge and experience in effort to build our movements. In addition to editing Shades of Power, she is also a regular contributor to Z Magazine and other publications.

The Institute for MultiRacial Justice is just the latest project in a long list of efforts to make the world a better place. Like her other projects, the Institute works to develop long-range goals and vision to guide activists from one struggle to the next. As we move from one crisis to the next – from welfare reform, to the ending of afirmative action, to the bombing of Kosovo, to Mumia’s execution – we become worn-down and burned-out. Betita reminds us that we must remember that we are part of a movement, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves and we are not alone in the struggle. She reminds us that while we confront budget cuts in Ethnic Studies programs or new attacks against the civil rights of homeless people, that we must hold onto our goals – solidarity, community, revolution, egalitarianism, a new world. She reminds us that as activists, as organizers, we have a responsibility to teach and train others – that we have a responsibility to actively build a new world.

Martinez also has much to say to us about how we build movements for social change. After the massive resistance to the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Martinez wrote the widely distributed and highly influencial essay, “Where Was the Color in Seattle? Looking for reasons why the Great Battle was so white“. She writes, “Understanding the reasons for the low level of color, and what can be learned from it, is crucial if we are to make Seattle’s promise of a new, international movement against imperialist globalization come true.” Through interviews and observations she writes about the lessons that organizers – people of color and white – must learn. We must connecting the issues of imperialist globalization to local community issues. White radicals need to develop and put forward an analysis of corporate domination that understands racial oppression in the third world and in the United States. She writes that radicals of color need to be networking and connecting their work with a global framwork. White radicals need to go beyond their familiar circles and form coalitions with people of color with an understanding of how white activists in the past have betrayed people of color. White radicals need a strong race, class and gender analysis and it should be central to their political worldview. It must be remembered that white radicals have a responsibility to develop anti-racist politics and actively confront white privilege. As radicals of color organize in communities of color, white radicals interested in movement building must strengthen the anti-racist politics of predominately white groups and activist communities.

Martinez also has much to say in her writings about the day-today organizing work that we engage in. She stresses that we must take education and training folks seriously. If we are to become a participatory, radically democratic, feminist, multi-racial, anti-capitalist, queer liberationist, internationalist movement – then we need to work at it. We need to teach each other skills, tactics, and political analysis so that we can all be leaders in a movement for our collective liberation.

Martinez and other radicals of her generation have much to teach the younger generation of today. It is critical that we listen, learn and develop relationships based on common respect.
For more information about the Institute for MultiRacial Justice or to receive Shades of Power write: 3311 Mission St., #170 SF, CA 94110 or email i4mrj@aol.com. For an inspiring read pick-up De Colores Means All Of Us.
Chris Crass is a writer working to bridge race, class and gender analysis with anarchist theory and practice. He is an anti-racist trainer and organizer in San Francisco. He is part of the Direct Action Network and Colours of Resistance, a multi-racial, anti-global capitalist working group.