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Left Strategy

LeftRoot’s journal about liberatory strategy

The introduction of the first-ever issue of Out to Win! LeftRoot’s journal that explores strategy to win socialist liberation from the perspective of leftists on the frontlines of movement struggles inside the belly of the beast.


Click here to download the full edition


Liberatory strategy in this moment

Any discussion of strategy to win a certain future must begin with an assessment of the present. So let’s start with some broad points about this moment that we (you and LeftRoots) probably agree on (since, after all, you are reading this brand-new LeftRoots publication).

Since you picked up or downloaded the journal, we probably agree that we are in a moment filled with dangerous reaction and unprecedented possibility. That human activity is threatening humanity’s very existence. That right now, a ruling class hell-bent on intensifying imperialist war, neoliberal austerity, unfettered extraction of natural resources, and militarized crackdowns is dominating the planet. That overlapping crises—economic crisis, ecological crisis, as well as crisis of empire—are raining chaos and misery on the world.

And, like us, you’ve found power in the face of all of this by coming together with others to take action. You’ve knocked on doors. You’ve attended and organized marches and rallies. You’ve gone to political education trainings. You’ve done everything you can think of. Like us, you take hope as you see people all around the world rise up in search of genuine solutions.

The nature of this historical moment—an oppressive system in deep crisis—makes fundamental change possible, but it does not make it inevitable. Scattered and disconnected action alone, no matter how heartfelt, will not be enough to overcome the powerful forces of reaction lined up against us and against the planet.

This fact, then, begs a vital question the Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire posed often: What can we do today, so that tomorrow we can achieve what seems impossible today?

That’s where liberatory strategy comes in.


Who is LeftRoots?

In the last weeks and months, working people across the country have taken action to win better schools, to win quality healthcare and wages for hotel workers, and to force the federal government to re-open. Community members have rallied to win justice for survivors of police brutality. Everyday people have elected a wave of politicians promising to enact progressive and radical policy at the state and federal levels.

Committed and talented organizers and activists— guided by a critique of exploitation, white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, and colonialism, by a vision of a better future, and by a belief that that future is achievable—have worked tirelessly behind the scenes of all of those struggles. Drawing on the insights of the Chilean political activist Marta Harnecker, we call this growing group ‘the social movement left’. LeftRoots grows out of this social movement left.

We are a national organization of social movement leftists with a shared conviction that people like us—leftists engaged in mass organizations and social movements— have a unique, but as yet unfulfilled, role to play in helping to reimagine and give life to a broad U.S. left that is as radical as it is grounded in mass struggles. In LeftRoots, we are preparing ourselves and one another to play that role.

Because the forces fighting for a better future will battle that monstrous triumvirate of capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy, LeftRoots has intentionally cultivated a membership with super-majorities both of people of color and of women and gender-oppressed people. Most of us became active in the movement in just the last ten years, and for most of us, LeftRoots is our first experience in a self-described socialist organization. And while we might not look like what most people in the United States think of when they think about socialists, we know that a strong and vibrant left committed to winning liberation for all people and the planet must draw many, many more people from our communities.

Our central purposes are to:
1. Develop strategy to build 21st century socialism; and 

2. Develop cadres with the individual and collective 
skills to formulate, evaluate, and carry out such a strategy. 

Together, we hope to help pave the way for the type of revolutionary organization in the U.S. that will successfully link diverse struggles into a common quest to bring about a system which achieves freedom, equality, and self-determination for all. This means a global social and economic system based on popular participation in politics, the economy, and all aspects of civil society that is in balance with the planet’s regenerative capacities.

We call this system “twenty-first century socialism”. Others use different terms to describe similar visions. Whatever we call it, we cannot win it without grounded and comprehensive strategy. And the ability to develop, evaluate, and carry out strategy is a skill we all can learn.

Unfortunately, we haven’t cultivated it yet. Far too few social movement leftists in the United States have been trained as liberatory strategists. That is not because of any individual short-comings. Historical and structural realities have made it difficult for U.S. organizers and activists radicalized over the past thirty years to get the training we need. We plan to explore some of those reasons in future issues of this journal but for now, it is enough to say that social movement leftists can and must learn to be socialist strategists. It is our only hope for winning the future our people and planet deserve.

We hope Out to Win! will help all of us develop the strategic capacities that our movement and our future need.


A toolkit for liberatory strategy

Okay, strategy is important, but what is it, exactly? When LeftRoots says ‘liberatory strategy’, we mean a theory of change that describes how a set of aligned forces might, on ever-changing terrain and against opposing forces, shift the balance of power in order to make fundamental change in a society.

Since the reality of ‘fundamental change’ can seem so far over the horizon, many of us are likely to have different theories of what it will take to get us there. After all, many ‘21st century socialists’ will have different visions in mind for a truly liberated society, and many will have different assessments of where we are starting from now. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But without
a common framework for how we turn our various visions and assessments into coherent strategies, those differences can produce unnecessary confusion and conflict between individuals, organizations, sectors and regions that need to learn from each other if we intend to win.

To support social movement leftists clarifying their own strategic orientations and to facilitate more productive debate and discussion, LeftRoots is working to develop a framework for liberatory strategy based on our work, study, and reflection—our praxis. So far, this framework has eight components:

1. Vision. Liberatory strategy must be grounded in a clear vision of a liberated society that brings an end to capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. This vision offers not only a sense of direction, it also informs what capacities, practices, and commitments we must develop to make the vision real.

2. Systemic Analysis provides a structural assessment of the society’s base and superstructure. This systemic analysis both informs the basic categories of how society is organized as well as reveals whether that system can support the grounding vision.

3. Conjunctural Analysis is an assessment of the concrete conditions of the moment and of the terrain we’re fighting on. Our struggles take place in existing conditions, not ideal or abstract ones, so a grounded analysis of what is actually happening now, of the state of and shifts in social, economic, political, and cultural systems, is critical.

4. Strategy provides the narrative throughline of how the vision can be achieved despite the opposition’s resistance.

5. With Scenario Planning we can prepare to respond to possible, near-future events in ways that advance the strategy. These scenarios grow from the conjunctural analysis and an assessment of how change is happening.

6. Hypothesis are building blocks of strategy: answers to key strategic questions that must be proven or disproven in practice. Guided by materialist curiosity, the movement should gear its actions toward testing the validity of a strategy’s hypotheses.

7. Action. Strategy alone does not guarantee victory. We have to do the work, and social movement leftists need to be skilled in many areas in order to carry out the diverse set of activities a successful movement will require of them.

8. Evaluation & Assessment. Strategy is not chiseled into stone. It is living, evolving theory that must incorporate lessons and new information over time. With evaluation and assessment, we can determine what worked, what didn’t, and why. This should happen throughout the strategy development process so we can make any necessary adjustments to make our work more effective in the future.

Needless to say, each of these components relates to the others. None of them exists in isolation. But we distinguish them within this framework in hopes that it supports our collective ability to discuss and debate strategy in ways that advance and strengthen our work.

Future issues of Out to Win! will explore these components in more depth, but as you will see, all of the articles in this issue will be tagged to the component each one addresses most directly.


Why publish this journal now?

After our founding in 2014, LeftRoots spent its first three years developing our individual and collective capacities for liberatory strategy. As the rising tide of right-wing nationalism and Trumpism came into sharper relief in 2016, we felt an incredible sense of urgency and sped up our process.

In April 2017, nine LeftRoots cadres, elected by the membership and the leadership, formed an ‘advance team’ to produce a discussion document that would give us something concrete to reference and play with as we began organization-wide conversations about liberatory strategy. In September 2017, after just six months of working together, that team completed the first document in this issue, “We Believe That We Can Win”. The organization spent the next year discussing and debating its content and developing a plan to share some of our discussions with the movement.


“We Believe That We Can Win”

It is important to note that “We Believe that We Can Win” is not LeftRoots’ line. It will not provide the singular basis for all of LeftRoots’ (or LeftRoots cadres’) activities internally or externally as we move forward, nor is it something around which we are trying to align other movement forces. It is the starting point for LeftRoots’ (and we hope the movement’s) continuing discussion about liberatory strategy.

“We Believe that We Can Win” simply represents the consensus of the advance team that wrote it. It was their best effort—given their current skill and knowledge and the time limits they were working with—to produce an example of a strategic orientation that could guide not just a campaign or an organization, but an entire revolutionary movement. It is sweeping and ambitious, and we believe that it can foster the types of discussion about liberatory strategy that we need.

It can be hard to remember how quickly conditions have changed in the past two years. As we publish the first issue of Out to Win!, “We Believe that We Can Win” is now more than a year old. Some events it imagined have come to pass and are now part of what many of us understand as the ‘new normal’ but they were not that in the spring of 2017. And, of course, many things have happened that it did not anticipate. Despite the monumental shifts in U.S. and world politics since its writing, though, we think that “We Believe that We Can Win” remains an important document to share and discuss.

It builds on the three prior years of organizational discussions to synthesize and articulate our framework for liberatory strategy, while moving beyond that framework to put informational and analytic flesh on the skeleton it provides. For the (non-LeftRoots) reader, it provides a peek inside the early stages of our development as strategists.

The organizational discussions about “We Believe that We Can Win” that began in the spring of 2017 are ongoing. They have revealed major weaknesses in places where the ideas are underdeveloped and entire questions remain unexplored. They have also uncovered debates within LeftRoots, where we lack organizational consensus and need to more fully explore our differences and to subject some of those differences to testing in practice.

This document does not mark the end of a process but the beginning of one. It is one example of a set of strategic hypotheses based in the context of current conditions. It is a discussion document, produced by nine of our comrades, that has pushed our collective thinking forward, and we hope it will do the same for others.


Articles submitted in response to “We believe…”

As stated above, LeftRoots’ internal discussions about “We Believe that We Can Win” have revealed differences and debates within our membership. As we prepared to share “We Believe that We Can Win”, several teams LeftRoots cadres came together to write critiques of and responses to “We Believe that We Can Win” that would be published alongside it. This inaugural issue of Out to Win! includes not only “We Believe that We Can Win”, but also seven response articles:


We are losing, but we can win: caravans, imperialism and waging the war of position for 21st century socialism

by the LeftRoots Ad Hoc Anti-Imperialism Working Group

“As of this writing the U.S. is actively attempting to overthrow the government of Venezuela
and there is a very real threat of a U.S. backed coup or even a U.S. invasion and thus far social movements here in the U.S. are engaging in very little organized resistance to this intervention … As social movement leftists it is imperative that we work within our organizations, particularly mass-based base-building organizations, to incorporate anti-imperialism and internationalism into the way we frame our campaigns and develop our strategy.”


Liberation for our people and our planet: ecological justice and the struggle for 21st century socialism

by LeftRoots’ Environmental Justice and Climate Justice Praxis

“The scale of the crisis, which will impact millions (or likely, billions) of people, presents opportunities to unite a large number of social forces in a broad, counter-hegemonic united front that can advance the kind of transformative, and ultimately anti-capitalist, program we need…The united front will need to contend with a devastatingly short timeline that demands radical results on climate change faster than we are likely to be able to assemble the forces necessary to fully overthrow capital and realize our vision for an ecologically just socialism of the 21st century. This has profound implications for strategy, tactics, and program.”


Taking account of state violence: A proposed revision of We believe that We can Win

by the Ad Hoc State Violence Study Team

“[W]e find that “We Believe That We Can Win,” fails to foreground the role of the state, and its coercive capabilities, throughout its assessment of the system and our current conjuncture. In essence, the role of the state as an instrument of coercion in “We Believe That We Can Win,” remains underdeveloped and understated… Perhaps more so than any other factor, the racialized violence of domestic policing and immigrant detention, mass imprisonment and military intervention have the potential to bring together [Black, Latinx and Indigenous people from the lower layers of the working class], while also building a coalition inclusive of the associated social forces.”

Gender oppressions and revolutionary strategy

by the Unicorn Collective. Unicorns include: Adlemy, Cynthia, Erika, Luz, Najla, Rose, Tara, and more

“Class, race, gender, sexuality, and planet are essential parts of our vision, our assessment, and our strategy…Those of us who came together as a collective to write about these intersections felt an analysis of cisheteropatriarchy was underdeveloped in “We Believe That We Can Win,” and that the 21st century socialism that we are working towards cannot exist without dismantling multiple oppressive systems at once.”

The Role of Asian American and Pacific Islander Movements: Race, nationality oppression and revolutionary strategy

by Carolyn Chou, Cecilia Lim, Lydia Lowe, Don Misumi, Sian Miranda Singh ÓFaoláin, Jensine Raihan, Helena Wong

“Strategy still needs to emerge from collective practice, analysis, and struggle, so it is premature for LeftRoots to name specific “driving forces” at this moment. We believe that social movement activists, including LR cadre, need to learn more about the role of AAPIs in the US …[W]e believe that the vast majority of AAPIs of all classes have a stake in the struggle against racial monopoly capitalism and that the struggles of the most exploited sectors of the AAPI working class have particularly advanced and continue to advance the interests of the entire working class and benefit all of US society.”

The Nonprofit Industrial Complex is a master’s tool

by the Nonprofits and Revolutionary Strategy Study Team

“One of the defenses of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex from leftists who run nonprofits is that nonprofits are just a tool we can use to do revolutionary work. We argue that the NPIC is not a neutral tool, but rather a master’s tool as Lorde describes it. Working in a social movement nonprofit puts us squarely in a neoliberal institution, within the master’s house, where our interests as a working-class are obscured and our strategies and practices become aligned with the capitalist class interests that drive the system.”

The revolutionary potential of a revived union movement

by members of the LeftRoots Labor Praxis Circle

We argue that the features of the unions make the union movement critical to the labor movement, and the labor movement as a whole is vital to (a)
the defeat of Trumpism and (b) our ability to build a 21st-century socialist movement to scale… Our praxis circle plans to do further study, which will draw from our experiences and from the experiences of other left unionists …We invite unionists to become part of Left Roots and join us on this journey!

Strategy & base: A praxis for power

by members of LeftRoots’ Basebuilding Praxis Circle

“Given the interlocking ecological, political, and economic crises impacting the vast majority of humanity, why aren’t exploited and oppressed communities flooding into community organizations and committing their lives to overhauling society? … Because we are anchored in basebuilding organizations across different sectors and geography nationally, LeftRoots is in a unique position to convene movement leaders to synthesize, test out, and further develop a transformative basebuilding praxis.”


Reading these articles in context

Each of these articles was drafted by LeftRoots members in some collective process. In most cases, the writing offers a glimpse into months of internal discussion, debate, theory, and practice. Like “We Believe that We Can Win”, they do not reflect a unity among all LeftRoots members; rather, they represent the views of the groups that drafted them.

For many, it was the first time trying to write about strategy and strategic questions in this way. As in every issue of Out to Win!, we hope the pieces here offer grounded assessments, sharp analysis, and an intersection of theory, practice, and reflection. We also know that writing such pieces is a skill that we will develop over time, and that we will stumble at times along the way.

For this inaugural edition of Out to Win!, our editorial team worked with the writing groups to present their arguments as strongly and clearly as possible. We have been very mindful to avoid editing the ideas and arguments themselves, though, and it has been up to the authors to determine the shape and content of their final articles. As such, each article presents the distinctive views of its authors, and not of the editorial team, the National Coordinating Committee, or the organization as a whole.


Click here to download the journal

Summary of 2018 LeftRoots Congress

Marking a key milestone in its development, LeftRoots held its first National Congress in Oakland, California from February 15 to 18, 2018. Roughly 200 LeftRoots cadres travelled from various corners of the United States to attend. In preparation for the Congress, these cadres had been participating in rigorous study, discussion and debate over an initial strategy document, We Believe that We Can Win. Developed by a nine-member Strategy Lab Advance Team, We Believe…would serve as the basis for identifying areas of alignment and disagreement within this national formation of Left social movement organizers and activists.

In looking towards the Congress, LeftRoots had four overall goals:

  • deepen the camaraderie amongst the members of its branches,
  • take a leap in cadrefication – as in, developing the capacities related to becoming effective cadres – through nuanced discussion and debate of the political moment and the appropriate strategy,
  • launch the next phase of the Strategy Get Down, a multiyear process for further developing one or more strategies to win socialist liberation, by assessing alignment withWe Believe…, and
  • strengthen organizational leadership and cadre protagonism, or political agency, during the period leading up to the 2021 Congress.

From the outset, cadres received a warm welcome with a range of LeftRoots swag, from a t-shirt and a red-and-black scarf featuring the iconic phrase “¡make the impossible possible!” by Chilean philosopher Marta Harnecker (who prepared a solidarity greeting) to a small notebook, LeftRoots stickers and pin buttons.

With its theme of “Seeing what’s Possible,” the first day started with a grounding honoring cadres’ ancestors. Through a collective breathing exercise, cadres honored the indigenous peoples’ land upon which the four-day event would be taking place, remembered the revolutionary history of the Bay Area, and shared deep gratitude to all of those who paved the way for this first Congress. Cadres also remembered the four-year history of LeftRoots, touching on the growth it has made and scale it has achieved in a relatively brief period of time.

In the afternoon, cadres participated in two key exercises.  Focused on the need to strengthen collective vision, the first exercise called for cadres to break into small groups to practice making assessments, refining their strategy. Called “The Story of How We Won,” this exercise emphasized the challenge of dealing with a rapidly changing political moment, forcing each of the small groups to adhere to their vision of socialist liberation, while responding to a series of scenarios. In contrast, the second exercise introduced cadres to examining both the correlation and momentum of forces to make a conjunctural analysis of the various factors shaping the current moment’s strategic implications. Working again in small groups, cadres pieced together a shared assessment of the current conjuncture, particularly the strength and character of forces on the left and the right. At the end of this exercise, each small group offered its assessment of Left social movement forces, ranking them as closer to being in “disorientation”, than “an accumulation of forces,” and a long way from “a revolutionary,” or even, “a pre-revolutionary moment.”

The second day’s theme was “Trust through Rigor.” Recognizing the importance of culture as a weapon in political struggle, LeftRoots cadres observed a Dragon Dance, a traditional Chinese performance celebrating the Lunar New Year. Cadres then moved into a spectrogram exercise, organized to illustrate the range of opinions on some of the most contentious hypotheses in We Believe…. Identified through a pre-Congress cadre survey, these hypotheses included:

  • We Believe…’s analysis and mentions of imperialism is good but not enough.
  • I have a clear idea of what an effective international solidarity strategy looks like.
  • I agree withWe Believe…’s assessment that we are unlikely to build socialist hegemony in the time necessary to avoid the onset of catastrophic environmental crises.
  • I agree withWe Believe…’s recommendation that in the first phase, left forces should be open to viable proposals to curb carbon emissions even if they rely on market mechanisms.
  • We must engage in electoral work in order to defeat Trump and the forces he represents.
  • Leftists will have to employ an inside/outside approach with the Democratic Party to work not only with progressives but also neoliberals with whom we have important political differences.

Facilitated so as to model principled and comradely debate, this exercise sparked a rich conversation that helped identify areas of growth for cadrefication and to deepen analysis with an eye towards the 2021 Congress. In contrast to the morning’s exercise, the afternoon schedule offered cadres an opportunity to participate in a range of breakout sessions. In these sessions, cadres met according to their caucus, praxis circles, or working groups to prepare strategies and explore joint work to be carried out after the Congress. This second day also featured the election of LeftRoots’ National Secretary, with cadres tapping Steve Williams from the Bay Area chapter to continue serving in this role for the next two years. And to close out the day, the National Coordinating Committee hosted a consulta, an open question and answer process through which cadres provided input and feedback on the organization’s strengths and weaknesses.

The third day set the tone for launching the next phase of LeftRoots’ development. Under the theme of “Ready to Struggle, Ready to Learn,” cadres once again met in their praxis circles and working groups to further their strategic analysis and firm up several proposals for joint work. The day’s schedule also set aside time for the members of each of the seven branches to meet, including those located in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, as well as the two at-large branches, which held their first in-person meetings. These breakout sessions provided branch members with an opportunity to collectively reflect on their experience of the Congress and brainstorm how best to advance the call for organizational growth and cadre protagonism. The closing for the third day highlighted the range of political experience within LeftRoots, with cadres identifying their formative moments of politicization during decades that ranged from the 1960s to the 2010s. Standing shoulder to shoulder, cadres arranged themselves in a large circle and sang “I’m a socialist,” a song inspired by the South African Freedom struggle and used to end branch meetings.

Just as each day of the Congress had been designed to strengthen different analytical skills and political capacities, each evening included an event that prioritized camaraderie, creativity, and simply enjoying each other’s company. From dining together at a local Vietnamese restaurant to cheering on cadre performances in the inaugural “No-Talent talent show” and enjoying the Oakland nightlife (in their LeftRoots t-shirts), the first National Congress gave cadres ample opportunity to form and deepen relationships amongst comrades.

On the fourth day, the Congress ended with an opening weekend viewing of the movie Black Panther. Prior to this exclusive screening, a panel of LeftRoots cadres spoke to the political and cultural significance of 1960s era Black Panther comic as well as the movie’s resonance with contemporary politics. Afterwards, many cadres left for the airport, while others used the last few hours together to share a meal or visit the Redwood National Park.

Following the Congress, all of those who has been in attendance spoke of their greater sense of LeftRoots as a consolidated force, while also expressing a sense of feeling more connected to the individuals in it. By bringing cadres together from around the country, the Congress succeeded in leaving a lasting impression on cadres of their role within the organization as well as their collective capacity. Moreover, most of those who attended expressed a deeper understanding of LeftRoots and a commitment to taking on work within the organization, while many of them also conveyed a greater sense of clarity about the Strategy Get Down process and a willingness to play a leadership role within this process. Overall, the 2018 Congress laid a significant foundation upon which LeftRoots cadres will look to build over the months and years to come.


‘Ideas for the Struggle’: required reading for activists in these challenging times

By Steve Williams, co-founder and National Secretary of LeftRoots.

Ideas for the Struggle should be required reading for all organizers, political activists and would-be revolutionaries in these troubling and challenging times.

Knocking on doors of people we don’t know. Facilitating meetings where strangers gather to share their problems and find solutions together. Crafting campaigns and taking action with others to demand change. Helping people find their own power. Evaluating all of that work, and doing it all again. This is the work of an organizer, and that’s what I’ve done for more than 20 years in the city of San Francisco.

Day and night, I have worked to bring working class people, people of color, women, and immigrants together to fight for their liberation, the liberation of others and of myself. I’ve done so in the service of a vision, a dream that everyday people can lead in the construction of an alternative to the tyranny of capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and U.S. imperialism.

Along the way, I have worked with and learned from many amazingly talented and committed comrades, and our efforts have won many important victories— like free public transportation for young people, labor protections for domestic workers, and increased wages for welfare recipients and low-wage workers. None of these victories came easily. The opposition fought us at every turn, and we won only because brave and audacious people took action together. Over the last two decades, there have been similar organizing efforts fighting and winning all over the globe.

It is vital that we recognize and celebrate victories like these that a generation of organizers and political activists helped to make real. But the last several years have made clear once again that local fights for justice and accountability are only one small part of a vast, global struggle against the neoliberal onslaught. Hundreds of thousands of people around the globe have taken part in popular uprisings that have shifted the terrain on which we live and struggle. From the Middle East to the streets and squares of Europe to the barrios and favelas of Latin America, everyday people have seized their rightful place on the stage of history. Even inside the imperial center of the United States, people have taken to the streets and inspired others around the world. Most recently, the Movement for Black Lives has unapologetically declared that #BlackLivesMatter. These upsurges have transformed the political landscape and have activated a new generation of political activists.

All of these developments are most welcome, and have generated a great deal of excitement among those of us who still long for a world rooted in solidarity, justice, and love. But we must be careful to avoid triumphalism, the unfounded idea that our success is right around the corner, that the future has been written and we are to be the winners. Whatever our victories, no clear-eyed assessment can help but see that the tide of political change over the past twenty years has been moving swiftly and relentlessly against us. Our defeats and setbacks—far too numerous to list in this short introduction—have imposed constraints on the nature of resistance everywhere. We have all had to fight against not just the ascendency of the neoliberal bloc and the reactionary right, but we have also had to push back also our own pessimism, a pessimism that capitalist hegemony is all too happy to nurture and feed.

It doesn’t help that, with the defeat of the socialist experiments of the 20th century, two generations of organizers and activists have now come of age politically with few visible and viable alternatives to imperialism and neoliberalism. The fight against the enemy, as trying as it has been, has been no more difficult than our internal struggle with the troubling idea that noble, doomed resistance may be all that is left to us. I’ve spent too many sleepless hours haunted by the fear that victory may be nothing more than an unattainable dream.

The danger in this insidious notion is profound. Without a clear conviction that another world is indeed possible, we resign ourselves all too easily to the idea that simply “putting up a good fight” is enough. We absolve ourselves of the responsibility of finding ways forward. We forgive our own shoddy, sloppy practice, just as we forgive our comrades’. We quickly lose all incentive for rigorous reflection on and evaluation of our work. We stop striving for improvement and excellence. The doubt takes control: what’s the point, anyway?

Ideas for the Struggle is a much-needed antidote to this pessimism. Marta Harnecker insists that victory is possible—but only if social movement organizers and activists sharpen the revolutionary edge of our work through rigorous reflection and evaluation. Paulo Freire called this combination of theory and practice, of learning and doing, praxis. He argued that it is instrumental to any successful revolutionary movement. As he observed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “revolution is achieved with neither verbalism nor activism, but rather with praxis, that is, with reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.”

Too often, movement organizers and activists carry out their work with an unexamined faith about what the outcomes will be. We pledge blind fealty to our imagined conceptions of how past generations of activists have operated. By failing to assess the nature of our actual conditions or measure our outcomes against our predictions, we leave learning and improvement to chance and weaken our ability to seize upon the opportunities that this conjuncture holds. Ideas for the Struggle demands that we return practice-based learning to the center of our approach. It is a serious challenge that grows from Harnecker’s respect for movement activists as the generators of new ideas. She demolishes the walls of the ivory tower and looks to movement organizers as intellectuals as well as activists.

One especially provocative notion that Harnecker draws from her engagement with movements in Latin America is the relationship between political instruments and “protagonism”— a practice-based conception of democracy that asserts that all people can and should be the protagonists in their own life stories, actively creating their own destinies and, along with the rest of their communities, shaping the world around them. Harnecker’s emphasis on and exploration of the role of political instruments in promoting protagonism has pushed me and many of my comrades to re-examine and refine both our practice and our notions of politics and political action.

Ideas for the Struggle, like the best of our movements, breaks out of the narrow confines of national borders and represents a compilation of the best practices and most promising experiments of social movements around the globe. It helps us break out of a dangerous parochialism that can rob us of the wisdom of activists in different communities. The text does not provide deep historical examinations of where and when certain ideas or practices emerged. Instead, Harnecker tries to make Ideas as useful as possible for frontline organizers and activists, systematizing the experiences and lessons of various movements and presenting them as a compelling and coherent set of considerations and recommendations suited to our times. But the breadcrumbs are there for organizers and activists to explore the organizations and movements from which these ideas derive.

In Ideas for the Struggle, Harnecker tackles key questions that have generated decades, even centuries, of debate, but she does so with new insights that lead one to consider new practices. For example, by emphasizing both the importance of popular protagonism and the necessity of political leadership, Harnecker begins to build a bridge between activists who identify more with the communist tradition from those who place themselves in the anti-authoritarian or anarchist tendencies.

Not everyone will agree with all everything Harnecker puts forward. Universal consensus is not her goal. Instead, she offers key ideas about the common features and needs of movements and then invites organizers and activists— young and old—to generate and offer their own assessments and prescriptions by combining a self-propelling circuit of action, reflection and sharing within and between movements. This type of critical reflection and sharing will be essential if we are to move our work from resistance at the margins to building a revolutionary movement capable of transforming the world we share.

We are at a critical point in history. With the dire condition of people and of the planet, the stakes are high and rising. Opportunities for socialist liberation are emerging as are opportunities for reactionary barbarism. Harnecker insists that the quality of our organizing and movement-building work matters. The opposition is constantly revamping and refining, improving and innovating. Our success demands excellence. It is not enough for us to simply try; as Mao once warned, we have to dare to win.

Victory on that scale will require many ideas for the struggle. Those that Marta Harnecker shares here are a great place to start.

I hope that Ideas for the Struggle sparks reading groups and online discussions and new on-the-ground experiments. The pamphlet in your hands (or on your screen) is only a starting point. I’m hungry for the new media—articles, books, songs, posters, videos—that movements and organizations will create to give voice to their ideas for the struggle. Because those ideas, forged in the fires of collective practice and reflection, will be the tools with which we build the world of tomorrow, the world we are all fighting for every day.


Steve Williams is the co-founder and National Secretary of LeftRoots.


Revolutionary Black Nationalism for the Twenty-First Century: Interview with Kali Akuno

by Riad Azar and Saulo Colón

Originally published in New Politics, summer of 2015.

Kali Akuno served as the coordinator of special projects and external funding for Jackson Mississippi’s late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. He is co-founder and director of Cooperation Jackson as well as an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. He was interviewed by email by Riad Azar and Saulo Colón, both members of the New Politics editorial board. Saulo Colón is also a member of LeftRoots.

New Politics: Kali, part of your work and that of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) has been strategically and organizationally focused on the South. Can you explain the thinking behind this and also how it connects to your understanding of the specificity of the South (especially due to its changing demographics because of the recent migrations of Latino workers) in terms of capitalist power and racism?

Kali Akuno: First and foremost, it is critical to understand that the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is a revolutionary nationalist organization that is part of the New Afrikan Independence Movement. Revolutionary nationalism is a left-wing variant of nationalism, practiced by colonized and oppressed peoples, that seeks to liberate them from the yoke of their colonizers and oppressors and replace the capitalist-imperialist social order imposed upon them with a socialist social system. The New Afrikan Independence Movement is a multi-tendency movement struggling to liberate the southeastern portion of the so-called mainland territories now colonized by the United States government. The New Afrikan Independence Movement recognizes that territories it is claiming for its national territory rightfully belong to the indigenous nations of Turtle Island, and makes no claims that supersede their just claims. However, our aim is to unite with indigenous peoples and with other oppressed peoples throughout the United States empire and break the back of white supremacy and the settler-colonial project through a unified anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist struggle. So, it is critical to understand MXGM, and its parent organization, the New Afrikan People’s Organization, and their commitment to the South in this context.

It is also critical to understand the economic and political role of the South within the colonial-imperial framework of the United States government. Since the defeat of the Confederacy, the South has largely operated as an internal colony from which cheap natural resources and labor could be readily drawn. This strategic site of super-exploitation provided critical capital accumulation and other developmental competitive advantages to the U.S. settler-colonial project in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that played a critical role in the ascendency of U.S. imperialism on a global scale later in the twentieth century. And given the structural acknowledgement of colonialism and slavery within the U.S. political framework—specifically the creation of the electoral college, the unrepresentative Senate, and the limited number of congressional districts—the South has always played a disproportionate role in determining the overall politics of the empire. The South typically plays a decisive role in deciding the presidency and the makeup of the Congress, bending both toward right-wing settler-colonialism. This historic reality is what gives rise to the phrase, “as the South goes, so goes the nation.”

The changing demographics of the South, from our point of view, are a welcome phenomenon, in that they offer an opportunity to radically transform the South and the United States overall. In some respects, part of the rapid growth in the Latino population can be viewed as a re-indigenization of the Southeast and U.S.-held portions of North America. Overall this growth potentially weakens the base of white supremacy in the South. We say “potentially” because there is no guarantee that large numbers of Latinos won’t seek to be assimilated and incorporated into the white population, following patterns pursued by southern European immigrant communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There have to be a lot of mutual and intentional unity-building efforts between Blacks and Latinos in order for the transformative potential of this historical development to be realized. Revolutionaries of all nationalities, races, and ethnicities in the South have a decisive role to play in calling for and forging this unity.

NP: A founder and leading member of MXGM, Chokwe Lumumba (who unfortunately and unexpectedly passed away in 2014) was elected Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. Part of his political work and the organizing behind his campaign was the Peoples Assemblies. Can you explain what they are, where the idea came from, and how they are functioning now?

KA: I would refer people to three works that tackle this question more deeply, these include the “Jackson-Kush Plan” (see, the “People’s Assembly Overview” (see, and “Casting Shadows” (see

But, in brief, the People’s Assembly is a form of democratic social organization that allows people to exercise their agency, exert their power, and practice democracy in its broadest terms, entailing making direct decisions about the economic, social, and cultural operations of our community, and not just the contractual or electoral and legislative aspects of the social order. The germinating source of the Assembly comes, in the final analysis, from our people’s desire to exercise self-determination.

The People’s Assembly draws from many sources and traditions, going back to the Negro Conventions of thenineteenth century, which were very influential in Mississippi in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the mass meetings of the 1950s and 1960s that fueled the civil rights movement in the state. They also draw heavily on international experiences that include everything from the Paris Commune to the People’s Assemblies in Guinea-Bissau in the 1960s and 1970s, to the Zapatista Assemblies of the 1990s on.

The People’s Assembly is starting to regroup and expand its horizons since the electoral defeat of the deceased mayor’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, in April 2014. It is still debating and assimilating the critical lessons from the last three years and is consciously working to incorporate these into its work to be a more effective instrument of dual power in Jackson going forward. The primary thing the Assembly is working on now is defeating the effort being led by white reactionary forces in the metropolitan region to seize control of Jackson’s water system, either by regionalizing its control board or privatizing it.

NP: The People’s Assembly seems to intentionally encourage, and build upon, an anti-racist consciousness that can arise through participatory practices and the building of solidarity between diverse communities. Can you explain the political strategy of people’s assemblies and your evaluation of them as mechanisms of popular democracy? Also, how would you compare them to the General Assembly that was part of Occupy?

KA: This is an excellent, but complex question. First, it should be known that national/racial diversity is rather limited in Jackson. Jackson is 80 percent Black, and more than 90 percent of the participants in our Assembly are Black. The greatest expression of diversity in the Assembly is class diversity. The overwhelming number of participants is drawn from the various sectors of the working class. But, there are a fair number of participants that hail from the Black petit bourgeoisie, namely small business owners and professionals (lawyers, doctors, and so on).

By weight of its membership, the Assembly has a working-class character, but it does strategically try to represent a broad multi-class people’s front. The reason is that its power is ultimately constrained by the forces of white supremacy that control the economy of Jackson and the statewide political apparatus. White supremacy is still very visceral and apparent in this state, and that creates the imperative for multi-class political forces amongst the Black community in Mississippi.

There are more differences than similarities between the General Assembly of Occupy and the People’s Assembly of Jackson. Occupy, at its best, was a classic example of a mass assembly. These types of assemblies are normally short-lived phenomena that emerge during times of acute crisis. Occupy was a product of the acute crisis of 2008, prompted by the bursting of the housing bubble that shook Wall Street and international financial markets. The Jackson Assembly, on the other hand, was intentionally built to last and to address the long-term systemic crisis of white supremacy, colonial subjugation, and capitalist exploitation that confronts Black people in the city of Jackson. As such, it is more of a representational assembly at this point in time, and its leadership, the People’s Task Force, is clear that the participation of the masses can and will fluctuate over time. But, the commitment to direct democracy, I believe, is ultimately shared by both.

NP: The assemblies also foster alternative economic models outside the logic of capital, specifically Cooperation Jackson where you currently work. Could you discuss how this model of cooperative economics has been practiced in Black communities and how they connect to your vision of Black Liberation and economic emancipation?

KA: To gain a deeper knowledge of how cooperative economics has been employed in Black communities, I would encourage everyone to read Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Action. It’s a must read.

Cooperation Jackson is a vehicle to advance and execute the vision of economic democracy and transformation contained within the Jackson-Kush Plan. Cooperation Jackson is an emerging vehicle for sustainable community development, economic democracy, and community ownership. Cooperation Jackson is working to develop a cooperative network in Jackson that will consist of four interconnected and interdependent institutions: an emerging federation of local worker cooperatives, a developing-cooperative incubator, a cooperative education and training center (called the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development), and a cooperative financial institution. To learn more about Cooperation Jackson visit

Now, it is critical to note that while cooperatives have a long history within the Black community, particularly in Mississippi, there are two things that make Cooperation Jackson’s experiment unique. First, it is largely an operation to start a network of predominantly worker cooperatives, and, second, it is in an urban setting. Working in urban environments has been limited in the South, and worker cooperatives have been very limited in the South. So, we are treading on some new ground and there will be a great deal of experimentation over the course of the coming years and decades in our work.

The drive to build cooperatives is first and foremost driven by the need to break the back of the white-controlled paternalistic capitalism that exists in Mississippi. On a deeper level, however, it is an effort to create economic democracy in our city and the state and to facilitate a just transition from the agricultural, extractive economy that dominates our local economy (and that of the world). Our people are clear that they no longer want to be the “speaking tools” of capitalist exploitation and are seeking creative ways to end this psychotic system.

NP: Could you talk about the role of MXGM and other similar organizations in supporting and helping to build the movement that has developed since Ferguson? Please also discuss the impact of the report Operation Ghetto Stormthat your organization released in 2012 and 2013.

KA: There is a spontaneous side and a historic buildup side to the current reawakening of the Black Liberation Movement that has emerged in the wake of the Ferguson rebellion.

MXGM without question has played a central role in the historic buildup over the past twenty years, but particularly the past ten years. I think we have to look at the current reawakening as a response to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. The disaster in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina exposed that the U.S. government was politically willing to discard Black people en masse, particularly those sectors of the Black working class that have largely become surplus and superfluous to the cycle of capitalist production in the United States. Black radical consciousness, I argue, has been gradually transforming and advancing in the wake of this catastrophe in qualitative ways. If we look back critically, we see a pattern of Black mass resistance that emerged in 2006 – 2007 and that started with the movement to defend the Jena 6. This pattern of mass outrage and mobilization continued and advanced after the extrajudicial killing of Oscar Grant in 2009 and has remained consistent in various ways since (Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, on down).

Operation Ghetto Storm (better known as the Every 28 Hours Report), I believe, laid a solid foundation for the reawakening that we are experiencing now. It revealed the extent to which Black people are considered disposable by the state and started a dialogue regarding what we can and must do about it. Unfortunately, most of the analyses, demands, and program that were contained in that work and its supporting works, including “Let Your Motto Be Resistance” (see and “We Charge Genocide Again” (see, have not yet been fully digested by the movement. But this is part and parcel of the ideological and political struggle that takes place within any mass movement. Going forward, it is critical that MXGM and organizations like it struggle with the masses to get them to understand that the U.S. settler-colonial project is beyond reform and that the capitalist-imperialist world system must be transformed and overcome and replaced by an new social system that respects the limits of the Earth’s productive capacities if our species is going to survive.

NP: The most well-known expression coming out of this movement has been “Black Lives Matter,” which shares an acronym with the Black Liberation Movement. How would you describe this movement in terms of civil and human rights versus revolutionary Black Nationalism? What does Black Nationalism mean in the context of neoliberal capitalism and the fact that the United States will be majority minority at some point?

KA: Black Lives Matter must be understood as a multi-tendency formation and budding movement. In my opinion it should be contrasted with the Black Liberation Movement, but must be seen as an expression of this long movement. Black Lives Matter, as both organization and movement, is still growing and still defining itself. It has developed some demands, but these are still very much in flux and advancing (or contracting, depending on chapter and context, as I understand it) with each passing day, and each emerging location of struggle—as can be seen from its recent responses to the Baltimore rebellion. Its most distinguishing feature and contribution to date, I think, has been an elevation and highlighting of women’s and queer struggles within the Black community. In this regard it is simultaneously an internal challenge to the community itself as well as an external challenge to the society at large, both of which are needed.

Now, Black Lives Matter as an organization has radical leadership, who I know are all committed anti-capitalists and anti-imperialists. However, moving the organization and the movement in this direction is going to be a struggle and it is going to take some time. The overall weakness of anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist movements in the United States means that the broad base that the organization is drawing from has little experience with these radical ideologies and social systems. We’ve confronted this limitation within MXGM for over 25 years, so we know the challenges. But, this is a new moment where folks are learning more in a few days then most typically learn in decades. So, one shouldn’t discount where this movement might land in terms of its politics and ideology. It’s too premature to do that.

That said, the movement is contending with the dominant accommodationist tendency that exists within Black politics. The organization and the movement have had to contend with efforts to distort and water down the meaning of the slogan and with its appropriation to advance narrow demands by many of the established civil rights groups. How the organization and the movement deals with this struggle will be telling, because the pull of the accommodationist forces and the capitalist and Democratic Party forces that back them is very, very strong. All I can say is that for my part, I’m going to continue engaging and encouraging this organization, and the many organizations that developed since the Ferguson rebellion, to adopt revolutionary ideology and politics and not become appendages of the Democratic Party.

Now, on the second part of your question, I think it should be made clear that it is the revolutionary nationalist tradition that has carried the banner of human rights within the long Black Liberation Movement. The civil rights and accommodationist tendencies fundamentally jettisoned the struggle for human rights in the early 1950s, when they succumbed to anti-Communist “red-scare” politics and made a Faustian bargain with the United States government for the limited degree of civil and political rights the settler-ruling class was prepared to offer. This narrowed the struggles for self-determination and economic, social, and cultural rights, and we are living with and trying to overcome the horrible outcomes of this bargain now.

Now, the question regarding the relationship between Black Nationalism and neoliberalism is complex, one that would take several volumes to satisfactorily address. But, let me say this, that as with all nationalist movements, there are left, right, and center tendencies. Some of the more right-leaning nationalist tendencies have accommodated themselves to the logic and imperatives of neoliberalism quite comfortably. In fact, it supports certain long-standing but narrow calls for Black capitalism, in the form of promoting types of Black ownership and businesses that only foster and create capitalist formations. It also expresses itself socially, for example, in calls for things, like private schools and even charter schools, that don’t seek to serve an anti-colonial or anti-imperialist agenda, but merely a variant ethnic or racial self-interest.

The revolutionary nationalist tradition understands neoliberalism to be another form of capitalist accumulation and imperialist domination and vehemently opposes it. But, the ascendancy of neoliberalism has seriously undermined the revolutionary nationalist movement in a number of ways, and the movement still has not adequately addressed its weaknesses in the face of this ideological, political, and social onslaught. And if we don’t get a grip on this, the changing demographics will count for nothing transformative, as the system will adeptly pit one people against another people, one working class sector against another, and each individual against all. So, we have some major, major work to do on this front.

NP: Could you discuss the impact of past World and U.S. Social forums on the development of current movement work, as well as give an update on the upcoming social forum in the summer of 2015 and its people’s movement assembly?

KA: To be honest, at first the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was not too excited by the World Social Forum (WSF). We thought it was too liberal and possibly a distraction from the growing anti-globalization movement that was emerging on the scene when the WSF first got started in 2000. Initially we were much more invested in more explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist international movements and convergences like the International League of People’s Struggles, which emerged slightly before it.

Overall, our assessment of the WSF being very liberal hasn’t changed, but our stance on engagement has. The shift for us was Hurricane Katrina and the recognition that our people and our movement had entered into a new historic phase relative to the systems of white supremacy, U.S. colonial subjugation, and imperialism: a phase of disposal. To try and counter this we figured that we needed to galvanize the broadest possible level of support for our people and our movement, and the WSF was one of many venues to do that.

Now, overall, I think the WSF played a tremendous role in facilitating linkages between social movements throughout the world in the 2000s, particularly in the absence of radical international forces such as the Communist International and the demise of the movements linking the radical national liberation and socialist movements that existed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, with formations like the non-aligned movement, the tri-continental movement, the movement for a new international economic order, and so on. This contribution cannot be discounted or diminished.

But, there are many questions as to whether the convergence model employed by the WSF and its regional and national expressions, like the U.S. Social Forum, can lead to the necessary movement coherence that is needed to eliminate capitalism and the ever-growing threat of climate change and ecocide. The 2015 U.S. Social Forum is an effort to change the model to facilitate concentrated dialogue about movement coherence. But, the organizing process for this forum has confronted many challenges, some due to perceived sectarianism (real or imagined), more drawn from concerns about what premature notions of coherence might mean (or damage), and some drawn from the fear of funders about what a genuine left force in the United States might foster. Time will tell.

In Jackson, Cooperation Jackson is engaging the 2015 U.S. Social Forum by hosting a Southern-oriented People’s Movement Assembly focused on a just transition. This Assembly is part of the Climate Justice Alliance’s Our Power Campaign’s “Summer of Our Power” (see The People’s Movement Assembly is going to be held on Friday, June 26 through Sunday, June 28, 2015, at the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development, located at 939 W. Capitol Street, Jackson, Mississippi 39203.

NP: Could you introduce Grassroots Global Justice Alliance? What’s does GGJ do and why? 

KA: MXGM is a proud member of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and has been a member since 2006. GGJ is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year (2015).

GGJ was initially born to facilitate the participation of U.S.-based grassroots organizations with the WSF. Its aim was to further the development of grassroots internationalism between forces in the United States and those in the global South. It has remained true to this mission, but has steadily enhanced the mission—and its vision—since 2005. There are now nearly 70 organizations in the alliance, and it is now key to the grassroots struggle against climate change in the U.S. and recently facilitated the start of the first U.S.-based chapter of the World March of Women. So, GGJ is on the move. For more information about GGJ visit

NP: What’s your view of the politics of solidarity in the United States in light of these assemblies and forums, as well as the increase in direct action protests by diverse allies responding to their understanding of their role in, and critiques by, Black-led movements?

KA: In short, the growth of these activities is good, and the politics of solidarity is advancing by leaps and bounds. But by no means has it grown deep or broad enough for it to be transformative yet. We still have a long way to go to build the strength needed to transform the United States, meaning the end of its colonial domination of North America and its imperialist grip on the rest of the world and ending the capitalist system and the threat of climate change. We can’t settle for easy victories where we know there is far more work to be done.


Organizing Transformation: Best Practices in the Transformative Organizing Model

By Steve Williams.

Published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York Office, May 2015.

Download the PDF here »

With corporate profits rising along with the number of children living in poverty, the state-sanctioned killings of Black civilians, the record-number of deportations of undocumented immigrants and the irrefutable evidence coming crisis caused by capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels, the need for systematic change is more and more urgent everyday. But as the great Guinea-Bissauan revolutionary Amílcar Cabral once cautioned, “We are not going to eliminate imperialism by shouting insults against it.”[1] Toppling the old order requires building broad, radical and confident social movements that grow out of the social sectors whose interests lie in a future based on justice and solidarity.

To talk of movement building rightly leads one to the challenge of workplace and community organizing. In the United States (and some other parts of the Western world), this often leads to the books of Saul Alinsky. While celebrating collective action, the model described in Alinsky’s books discourages organizers and organizations to take up the ideological tasks necessary to analyze and undermine long-lasting systems of exploitation and oppression. In recent years, a model of organizing has been emerging in communities and workplaces across the United States with efforts to build power amongst domestic workers, residents facing eviction, queer young people and people fighting climate change. This model attempts to link democratic efforts to build the collective power while also challenging the deeply rooted systems of white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. Many have referred to this emerging model as transformative organizing.

While the model of transformative organizing is new and still in development, it is also rooted in a rich historical tradition. Many of the organizers who use the term ‘transformative organizing’ acknowledge that their approach draws from the practices and the lessons drawn from past efforts in the United States and around the globe to build popular power to challenge and change the systems of oppression and exploitation that degrade the quality of life for people, communities and the planet. Drawing from the experiences of organizations like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the Wobblies, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the women of color feminism of the 1970s, many of these efforts are trying to weave together the work of individual organizations with the goal of building a broad and united social movement capable of confronting and ending the systems of oppression and exploitation.

What is Transformative Organizing

There is also something innovative about the practices transformative organizing. When asked to define transformative organizing, Hashim Benford for Power U Center for Social Change in Miami offered this: “These systems of oppression that we interface with on a daily basis— white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy— they’re not just abstract concepts, and they don’t just shape unequal material conditions, but they also impact us as human beings… Transformative organizing seeks to transform people and society. It unpacks the interpersonal and individual effects of oppression and trauma in our lives as part of the process of doing societal, social, community-level change work. When I think of transformative that’s the ultimate vision.”[2] His definition brings together two strands that are central to all of the organizations’ approaches to the emerging model— commitment to changing social systems while supporting people’s individual and collective ability to learn and put into practice different ways of relating to the world, to their communities, to their families (however those are defined) and to themselves.

This study aims to explore the components of this transformative organizing model through a study of four different organizations’ work. An earlier article entitled “Demand Everything” offered an examination of the transformative organizing model which drew from the author’s experience of more than twenty years as a community organizer in San Francisco with the Coalition on Homelessness and POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights).[3] That article identified nine components of the transformative organizing model:

  1. Walk with Vision;
  2. Reach Out to Listen and Learn;
  3. Revolutionary Edge of Reform;
  4. Democracy is Power;
  5. Cultivate Leaders;
  6. Build Strategic Alliances;
  7. Commit to Movement;
  8. Extract Every Lesson; and
  9. Personal is Political.

Recognizing that the power of the transformative organizing model comes from its application of certain over-arching principles in a very specific context with a particular set of social forces, this article examines how distinct organizations are applying aspects of the transformative organizing model. It examines the work of four organizations whose work is breaking new ground and helping to shape the definition of the term. Those organizations include Causa Justa :: Just Cause in the San Francisco Bay Area; Power U Center for Social Change in Miami, FL; National People’s Action, a network of almost than thirty affiliated grassroots organizations; and the Vermont Workers Center, a statewide grassroots organization. Whether these organizations use the term ‘transformative organizing’ or not, their practice offers a compelling example of organizations attempting to embody a commitment to transforming systems and transforming ourselves.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause

Causa Justa :: Just Cause (CJJC) is a grassroots organization which organizes working class tenants to fight for housing rights in the real estate-dominated context of the San Francisco Bay Area. In a region where tenants rights laws protect long-term tenants from market-rate rent increases, landlords have taken to bullying and harassing their tenants in hopes that those tenants will move out thereby making room for tenants willing to pay higher rent. Today, the Oakland rent board receives as many as two-hundred calls per month from tenants complaining of landlord harassment.[4]

In the fall of 2014, CJJC led a coalition calling on the Oakland City Council to pass legislation to stop landlords from bullying and harassing their tenants in hopes that those tenants will move out thereby making room for tenants willing to pay higher rent. As one woman testified to Council members, “[My landlord] has failed to provide basic services. He did not pay (the gas and electricity bill) so we were without heat and hot water for a week in the winter.”[5] In October, CJJC won some relief for the City’s tenants when the Oakland City Council passed the Tenant Protection Ordinance, making it easier for renters to stand up against landlord harassment. The story of CJJC and its path to building a united base of African American and Latino tenants is a study of transformative organizing.

All transformative organizing begins with a collective intention— the intention to struggle against a cultural, economic and political hegemony that perpetrates and reproduces capitalism, white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy. There is no singular path to this intention. Different organizations take different routes to arrive at such an intention. The clarity of the intention, as well as the integrity of the organization, can guide the organization’s practice and compel the group to experiment with approaches that might otherwise seem uncommon and superfluous.

In the case of CJJC, their practice has been driven by an intention to forge working class unity. However, building working class unity is no small under-taking in twenty-first century United States where the Marxist concept of class has been so bastardized to be seen as synonymous with level of income. In this neoliberal empire where class consciousness amongst working people is extremely low, the leadership of CJJC knew that it would need to find a round-about route to the concept of class. They looked to the incisive vision of Stuart Hall who famously wrote that “Race is, in short, the modality in which class is lived, the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and fought through.”[6] The insights of this maxim unlocked the potential of CJJC’s organizational intention.

CJJC’s looked upon racial identities as the critical entry point towards building class consciousness and working class unity, and this led to CJJC’s decision to take up an intentional focus on building Black-and-Brown unity. CJJC is the product of a 2010 merger between a Black organization based in Oakland, Just Cause Oakland, and a Latino immigrant organization based in San Francisco called St. Peter’s Housing Committee.[7] The decision to merge was significant. Both organizations recognized that such a consolidation would require substantial shifts in each organization’s culture, practice and structures. Nevertheless, the leadership of each organization decided to move forward with the merger based on a shared analysis of the larger conditions in which they operated. Today, the organization has twenty-six staff and more than 3,000 members in San Francisco, Oakland and the surrounding region.

At the national level, Black and Latino families have been hit hard by the economic crisis. In 2011, the Pew Research Center reported that median wealth in white households is 20 times that of black households, and 18 times that of Latino households. Their report continued to note that from 2005 to 2009, wealth fell by 66% among Latino households, and by 53% among black households, compared to 16% among white households.[8] The similarity of conditions holds true in the Bay Area for low-income and working class African American and Latino households. Although the communities face similar issues of unsafe, inadequate and excessively expensive housing, alliances are rare between these communities. As the organization’s leadership observed:

Living in the same neighborhood, having the same landlord, or going to the same polls does not itself create solidarity. Even when people have the same material interests, there is no guarantee that they will identify those interests, or see themselves as tied to others with the same interests. And, while Black and Latino communities have the same interests in the long term, in the short term our interests do sometimes come into conflict. In fact, we often come into contact with each other most significantly only once when we have been pitted against each other, in a competition for employment opportunities, affordable housing, or basic services.[9]

Talking about difference did not heighten conflict; rather it forged basis of solidarity.

The starting-point for CJJC’s work, as it should be for any grassroots organization, is building strong and organic connections to the constituency. As María Poblet, one of the organization’s co-founders and its current Executive Director once said, “The grassroots foundation of our work is something that we must constantly be building. There are millions of people who should be involved in the project of black and brown unity. We must constantly be bringing working-class people into community organizing fights for reforms that affect their lives and give them the opportunity to develop themselves as fighters and as thinkers. Building and sustaining community-based organizations is the core of this work.”[10] In addition to traditional door-to-door organizing, CJJC staff provide counseling and advocacy services every month to hundreds of low-income tenants in San Francisco and Oakland. CJJC also anchors coalitional efforts to build national and international movement infrastructure and to mobilize working class people in the Bay Area to vote in local and national elections. CJJC is in position to build, listen and work in and with the community.

CJJC has instituted a number of practices that have facilitated their intention of building class unity through Black-and-Brown unity. The first has been creating multiple spaces for organizers and member-leaders to integrate the principle of Black-and-Brown unity into the organization’s ongoing work. One example of this is that every three months, CJJC runs an internal think tank which is a one- or two-day long meeting in which staff and member leaders explore the relationship between different aspects of the group’s work to Black-and-Brown unity. One past think tank connected the group’s participation in a national anti-gentrification network in a session entitled Black-and-Brown unity in the Right to the City. A different space, the Assata Shakur University, a three-month series of weekly two-hour sessions, allows members to engage with the organization’s goals, work and structure. In addition, the organization publishes a quarterly newsletter. Each newsletter features at least one article written by a rotating pair of staff and members. All of these spaces serve to further strengthen the leadership of staff and member leaders as well as allow the leadership to refine the organization’s understanding and application of the concept of Black-and-Brown unity.

By creating a broad base of staff and members who are familiar with and actively engaging with the implications of the organization’s focus on Black-and-Brown unity, CCJC is better able to carry out the second best practice— introducing the organizational intention in multiple ways. All new members, upon joining CJJC, are required to participate in a new member orientation session. Along with introducing new members to the group’s history, current work and structures, this session Introduces all members to the concept of Black-and-Brown unity. This is especially important since most members are recruited from spaces that are not multi-racial. The new member orientation helps to facilitate new members’ entry into a space of racial and language diversity that is unfamiliar to most working class people of color in the Bay Area. CJJC provides simultaneous interpretation at all of its meetings. At these meetings, members hear unfamiliar names and historical references. The orientation ensures the focus of Black-and-Brown unity is nothing that will come as a surprise to new members. In addition to the new member orientation, CJJC uses its quarterly newsletter and website to shine a consistent light on this aspect of the organization’s work.

A fourth aspect of building Black-and-Brown unity within CJJC has been waging organizing campaigns that address the unique issues impacting the African American and Latino communities. As stated earlier, CJJC’s approach to building working class unity has been stressed the importance of acknowledging and confronting the differences in the communities, rather than turning a blind-eye towards those differences to focus only on the similarities. In this vein, CJJC has been an active participant in the national campaign fighting for the rights of immigrants in the United States. CJJC’s organizational objective in this work was to create a space for its Latino members to strengthen the unity in the Latino community. As María Poblet said, “The goal was not to get Black members to support a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants… The goal was to create a space where Latino members could organize in their own interests. Our work is premised on the idea that you also need to understand your own experience, and that will make it possible to make alliances.”[11] It has been a positive by-product that many of CJJC’s African American members have become strong and active supporters of just immigration reform, and that unity has been built on the basis of the demands that the Latino members themselves identified. Along with the staff and members of POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), CJJC is currently developing a similar organizing project to create a space for African American members to identify for themselves the demands that will advance their community’s interests. CJJC’s practice operates from the understanding that unity which ignores difference is fragile. Only by acknowledging differences can unity take the qualitative leap to becoming solidarity. Creating these organizing efforts that focus on the interests identified by each community makes multi-racial unity more concrete. As one of CJJC’s organizational reflections asserts, “Unity can’t be built in the abstract.”[12]

Finally, CJJC has invested in connecting organizational work to the objective of building a transformative movement that is rooted in grassroots, working class struggles. CJJC has been one of the anchor organizations within a number of national networks of grassroots organizations including Grassroots Global Justice and the Right to the City. Participation in these spaces pulls scarce resources away from the immediate work of local and regional campaigns, but the organization’s leadership has seen the way that allowing staff and member leaders to engage in spaces that transcend the local and organizational contexts in which CJJC operates. As María Poblet wrote about her experience at the 2013 World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunisia, “My experience at the WSF gave me a deeper understanding of the challenges looming for the progressive movement, and for feminists in particular, in Tunisia and in the whole region… Our movements need to reach towards international scale and impact, so these connections and solidarity can take organizational form. The world’s 1% have their World Trade Organization, their World Bank, their agreements and coordinated plans. We, the global 99%, need that scale of functioning too. It’s the only way we can win the internationalist feminist change we need.”[13] This commitment to exposing staff and members leaders to movement spaces— such as national networks, international gatherings and political training opportunities— has contributed to the organization’s willingness to experiment with unique and non-traditional tactics and has helped it become a strong and vibrant force in the social justice movement in the Bay Area and beyond.

All of these structures and practices are informed by the organization’s approach to building black-and-brown unity which is shaped by three key conditions which CJJC believes either need to be in place or which need to be cultivated. These three conditions are Black unity; Latino unity; and an Internationalist vision.

The success of CJJC’s efforts to build multi-racial working class unity were evident at the culmination of the campaign to pass the Tenant Protection Ordinance. As Oakland’s City Council voted to pass the new legislation, dozens of CJJC members stood proudly by, African Americans and Latinos who had built a new bridge of solidarity together.

Poblet acknowledges the difficulty of building Black-and-Brown unity. “Uniting these two sectors of society could re-invigorate the Left because uniting these two communities brings you to a conversation about class in a way that has truly transformative potential… We can see the transformative potential when Black and Latino people start to see themselves on the same team. It changes everything for the movement. That’s not where we’re at right now in the United States, or even in the Bay Area; but when we do it, so much more becomes possible.”[14] There is no road-map, but building multi-racial unity amongst the working class is an essential task for activists hoping to revitalize the movement in the United States.

Power U Center for Social Change

The Power U Center for Social Change was founded in 1998 to build an organizing base around issues in low-income communities in Miami, Florida. Much of the organization’s work has centered around a comprehensive approach towards education justice issues, and they have developed a strong base of members and leaders in that time. In 2001, these members and leaders forced local officials to invest more than $1 million to improve inner city schools. The organization has also conducted campaigns on housing and development issues as well as a call for birth justice to combat the growing disparity in infant morality rates between Black and White communities. This intersectional analysis has driven Power U’s recent campaign to end the School to Jailhouse Pipeline.[15]

All of the organizations highlighted in this study are structured as non-profits organizations which allows them to subsidize their operations with state-sanctioned, tax-deductible donations. All of the organizational representatives interviewed made mention of the challenges that come from trying to conduct transformative organizing work while relying on donations from institutions that distribute funds from various sections of the bourgeoisie.[16] One specific aspect of these challenges is the geographic disparity in funding. In particular, the few charitable foundations in the United States that fund organizing efforts rarely fund organizations in the Southern part of the country despite the inspiring work taking place throughout this region by organizations like Southern Echo, Cooperation Jackson, Project South, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Black Workers for Justice and the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights among many, many others. As a result, most organizations in the South, especially those that attempt to employ the transformative organizing model, struggle with a chronic lack of financial resources. This has pushed many organizations to make important adaptations. Power U’s example highlights an important aspect of transformative organizing.

Recognizing that they would never have the financial resources to employ a vast team of paid organizers, Power U has placed a strong emphasis on developing the leadership capacity of rank-and-file community members. In particular, Power U has placed a central focus on developing the leadership of young people in their community because, “We’re reproducing leaders for the movement,” observed Power U Executive Director Hashim Benford. “We’re not just developing leaders for Power U. Our goal is to produce leaders that are going to be social justice movement leaders for the rest of their lives.”[17] He then went on to cite the example of a young person who joined the organization while in middle school. This person joined Power U’s staff after completing her studies at an Ivy League university and recently joined the Board of Directors of a Southern social justice network. The potential power of developing young people as leaders was a point echoed by CJJC’s Executive Director María Poblet who herself joined the movement as a young person. “Transformative organizing allows us to contend with the reality that human beings are always in the process of development. Youth organizing is especially strong in recognizing this. Somebody who is 16-years old; you don’t know who they’ll be when they’re twenty-five. What you do know is that this experience (of joining an organizing campaign) is something that could shape who they become. That’s also true when you’re forty or sixty-five years old too. Certainly if you’re facing a crisis like a deportation or an incarceration of a family member or loosing your home, those are crisis moments when people transform themselves. in the context of collective action, they can transform others.”[18]

Too often, movement institutions regard leadership as an inevitable outcome of organizing; or it’s seen as something that is not worth the investment. In either case, the result is that the people from affected communities are not given the opportunity to take agency and shape the direction of a group’s efforts. As Power U member leader Keno Walker observed, “Organizing is not simple. You have to know the terrain. You have to know who’s the target. You have to know your people…” Power U has organized it work around the intention to help members and staff develop these capacities, and this intention shapes the organization’s transformative approach.

First, leadership development begins at Power U by seeing recruitment and retention of members as the irreplaceable first step towards cultivating new leaders. As Walker noted, “People are in the process of becoming leaders as soon as they join.”[19] If someone does not get involved in Power U, all of the organization’s leadership development work would be in vain. Like many other base-building organizations, Power U puts a premium on first getting potential members through the organization’s door. Staff organizers conduct door-to-door outreach and organizing at key locations in the community. They also do outreach at schools and host open mic cultural events, but Benford observed that most of Power U’s members first got involved because they were recruited by someone they knew. “The most effective outreach comes from people tapping into their own social networks… You’re leveraging existing bases of trust. Many organizations have under-estimated this approach to recruitment.”[20] Recruitment can take many forms, but it is always the first step to developing leadership.

Power U has committed to systematizing the on-going development of leadership capacities amongst its members. The process cannot end once someone joins an organization. Deciding to get involved is just the first step. There must be “a deliberate and intentional process. It doesn’t just happen by being part of an organization or being part of a movement. You can be part of an organization for many, many years without developing your leadership,” said Benford.[21] Addressing this, Power U developed a framework which they refer to as the Leadership Circles to facilitate members’ development from general members to core members to organizational members and to movement leaders. Each of these circles has a defined set of responsibilities and characteristics of what leadership looks like at each stage. Developing such a framework has helped Power U to make transparent the organization’s emphasis on developing the leadership capacity of members and staff. In these descriptions, Power U is intentional about avoiding a one-dimensional perspective of leadership. While very aware of the pitfalls of only acknowledging the leadership of charismatic orators, Power U operates from the perspective that “different kinds of leadership is a good thing and makes for a strong organization and a strong movement.”[22]

Inside the organization, Power U takes an effective approach towards developing leadership development plans by engaging members in discussions with the organizing staff to identify the areas that they would like to develop their leadership capacities. Organizers meet with leaders to develop individualized leadership development plans and objectives. As a result, members are more invested in the work necessary to develop in these areas, and the organization, then commits to supporting that member in her process. This approach is rooted in the perspective that leadership is a collective project, not solitary quest. “Developing leadership often means people working with you to identify where you want to develop, what are the benchmarks for that development and what needs to happen in order for you to get to where you’re trying to go.”[23] POWER U’s collective approach towards developing leadership involves tactics like ongoing political training sessions as well as workshops that address current issues. For example, Power U quickly organized a workshop on gender justice after President Barack Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper imitative. Exploring the need to address patriarchy, Power U’s series, entitled My Sister’s Keeper Too, created a space within the organization to promote the leadership of young women in the organization. These sessions are often interactive and grow from the members lived experiences. But workshops are not the end.

These political training sessions represent a core aspect of the organization’s approach to developing leadership capacities, but as member leader Keno Walker pointed out, workshops are not the only part of the approach. They are only one part of a larger effort. Another piece is devoting time and energy to draw out the lessons from the experience of joining together with others to take collective action. All organizing efforts look to mobilize people to take collective action, but without taking the time to analyze the context and events of those actions, organizations loose a valuable opportunity to draw out meaningful lessons that can deepen a member’s commitment and leadership. Reflecting on his own experience with Power U, Walker remembered that he got involved with Power U in 2008 as the organization was preparing to testify before the Miami School Board calling for an overhaul of the district’s disciplinary policies and practices. Walker said he wasn’t especially political and he didn’t know a lot about Power U, but his best friend recruited him so Walker started coming to the planning meetings. He said, “I didn’t think that what we were calling for was such a big deal. I didn’t think it would be controversial. What shocked me was how disrespectful (the members of the School Board) were to us. They were on their phones. They were eating and sleeping. When the group de-briefed the hearing, I saw even more clearly how this is how the system treats us. It wasn’t just the School Board. It was the whole system, and I saw that we had a group so I decided that I was going to stick with it.”[24] After that action, Walker met with Power U organizers who helped him draw the lessons from that experience which, in turn, deepened his commitment to the organization.

From a certain perspective, Power U’s focus on developing leadership seems innocuous and almost obvious, but in recent years, the very question of leadership has become controversial in movement discussions. Some movement activists have gone so far as to explain the effectiveness of recent popular mobilizations around the world as being a result of their being ‘leaderless.’ Power U takes issue with such claims. To say that there is a “Leaderless movement is inauthentic because there are always leadership dynamics. It is possible to have movements that are more horizontal where leadership is shared, but leadership happens. If it’s not named, then it can’t be held accountable. At Power U, we don’t have a single leader. We want to develop everyone’s leadership.”[25] POWER U provides an important example of the transformative potential of leaderful movements.

Nevertheless, Power U’s leadership acknowledges the trade-offs. While their approach has demonstrated the ability to develop a new rank of movement leaders, especially amongst women, young people and people of color, this labor-intensive approach means that it is unlikely that Power U will ever be an organization of hundreds of thousands, much less millions, of members. “Power U has gone through a series of organizational visioning processes, and we have doubled down on the mission of developing leadership as a central component of who we are. This means that with our limited resources and capacity, the time and energy that we’re spending with individuals means that we’re not out there trying to reach thousands of people at any given time. The strategic question for us becomes, then: How is our work of leadership development and developing a community cadre connected to the institutions that have a broader reach?”[26] As the Power U’s leadership noted, this decision assumes the existence of other organizations playing different, albeit coordinated, roles. Developing leadership, especially amongst constituencies that have been under-valued and under-represented as leaders, is an investment to building the type of broader movement that we want and need.

National People’s Action

All of the organizations profiled so far have focused their work at a local level. There are strengths that this form of organization is able to leverage. The organizations are able to focus their resources and attention to a very specific community or workplace over a prolonged period of time which can foster a higher level of trust with the constituency. Locally-based organizing also facilitates grassroots members’ having more direct engagement with the organization’s decision-making apparatus. But transformative organizing is not the exclusive domain of local-based organizations. Regional and national organizations and networks are experimenting with the transformative organizing model too. The scope of these organizations’ work provides their own advantages including allowing organizations to engage and confront political and economic actors who shape national and regional policy but who often do not operate within a local organization’s jurisdiction.

National People’s Action (NPA) offers an interesting perspective on the emerging model of transformative organization because they are a national network of grassroots organizations in 14 different states across the United States. Today, NPA has over 200 organizers working to build the collective power of working class people in cities, towns and rural communities across the country, from family farmers in rural Iowa to young people in New York’s South Bronx. Organizations affiliated with NPA do community organizing, hold house meetings and engage in direct actions. Nationally, NPA coordinates three local, state and national campaigns to advance economic and racial justice: Bank Accountability, Housing Justice and Immigrant and Worker’s Rights.[27]

They are also interesting because they were not founded in the transformative organizing tradition. NPA was founded in 1972 by organizers in Chicago as a network of grassroots organizations across the country fighting to fighting to reclaim democracy and advance racial and economic justice. During its early years, much of NPA’s work was aimed towards holding banks and corporations accountable to the communities they claimed to serve. Their organizing efforts helped pass the Federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act in 1975 which exposed banks’ red-lining and denying loans to people based on their race and where they lived, regardless of their credit worthiness as well as to the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977.

As NPA Executive Director George Goehl said, “Most of us have spent most of our political lives in oppositional struggle. It was never with the vision to be in power or to have power but to have enough power to contest with somebody bigger than us. That’s how so many of us were developed and all that we had ever experienced. Operating from what’s the best thing possible in the current ideological and political landscape was where most of us sat versus being powerful and thoughtful actors shifting the landscape to our benefit.”[28] All of this changed with the financial crisis of 2007-08. Although NPA was not born out of the transformative organizing model, their practice has drawn heavily from the this emerging model, especially in the last seven years, and has made important contributions that deepen and expand the transformative organizing model.

When the financial titans of the world crashed the economy causing the Great Recession of 2007-08, NPA, like many other organizations across the United States, found itself struggling with existential questions about how best to move forward— questions like: “What are the kinds of structural reforms NPA wants to be part of bringing about? What campaigns should we be building in the next five years that take advantage of current opportunities but also allow us to move in the direction of realizing a long-term agenda? What kinds of alliances do we need and with whom?”[29] Despite having staged several actions which directly challenged the CEOs of some of the nation’s largest predatory financial institutions, NPA’s leadership recognized that the organization was ill-prepared to confront the scale of the challenges facing working class people throughout the country. Simply doing more of the same would not be sufficient. Inspired by the scale and audacity of what had happened with the Occupy encampments, NPA made a bold decision to go back to the drawing board. The process that the organization undertook has many lessons for transformative organizing efforts.

Conducting ongoing and sober assessments of the shifting terrain is the first of the best practices demonstrated in the strategic inquiry process which NPA undertook after the crash. Ultimately, NPA staff, members and affiliates went through an extensive process to assess the strategy of corporate forces, to envision the political and economic system that would produce justice and to identify the fights that would enable the organization to move towards its vision. Each affiliate organization which participated in the process was required to involve at least twenty-five staff and member leaders in a year-long process of study, discussion and visioning. This was a significant re-allocation of resources at a time when it must have been tempting to continue relying on tried and true attempts to turn up street heat. The participants in this reflective process included family farmers, trailer park residents, clergy, unemployed workers, public housing residents from across the country. Allocating the resources necessary to conduct such a process, especially as it represented a departure from the organization’s previous practice, was only possible because there was a shared assessment that the severity of the crisis demanded that NPA adopt new practices.

Given the novelty of the strategic inquiry process, NPA recognized that it the process would be strengthened by drawing on the support of allies outside the organization. Early on, NPA sought the assistance of the Grassroots Policy Project (GPP), an initiative which provides consulting and training assistance to social movement organizations. NPA’s training staff, most notably Bree Carlson, led the process with ongoing support from GPP staff who brought a wide range of skills and experiences to the process that grew from their own diverse experiences in different social movements, electoral initiatives and Left party-building efforts. This process ultimately produced an eight-page agenda, “National People’s Action: Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy” which calls for transforming economic and political systems.[30] This agenda is more comprehensive and far-reaching and that was possible because of the allies’ support throughout the process. Points in the agenda include: democratic control of capital, racial justice, corporations serve the common good; real democracy; and ecological sustainability.

All national organization must find an appropriate balance between the need for unified direction and local autonomy. This is especially true for national network of grassroots organizations like NPA. The group is choosing to navigate this contradiction by providing space for local experimentation while ensuring organizational coherence and strategic direction for those experiments through the collective ownership of the long-term agenda that emerged from this process. This allows the affiliates to exert tactical independence based on the local conditions while allowing those local actions to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Clearly, this approach is only feasible because the process was engaged members at all levels of the network and encouraged the participants to take genuine ownership over its development. As NPA Executive Director George Goehl recounted, “This was the most democratic process that NPA has ever gone through. This was not a matter of the staff merely bringing proposals to the members for ratification. Members grappled with big questions. I was getting calls from members asking: ‘What do we mean by democratic control of capital?’ or ‘What will be the role of the state?’ That’s when I knew this was something different.”[31] With the content having been debated and the agenda drafted, the document has become a consistent reference point for the affiliates. Most use the agenda to begin their process of developing campaign plans and demands. In addition, the agenda’s content was translated into various multimedia presentations.[32] It has helped to foster a situation in which the affiliates see one another as partners in a common struggle.

The final practice that NPA’s process of strategic inquiry offers is perhaps the most important for any organization attempting to do transformative work from within the constraints of the non-profit industrial complex. It is a practice exemplified by all of the organizations included this case study, and this is being wiling to undertake work deemed to be important— even if it’s not funded. As Goehl said, “No foundation gave us money to do this work. We just did it because we were committed to how important it was.”[33] One of the central dangers of operating a project whose aim it is to build the power of working and popular classes to challenge the systems of capitalism, white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy is that few institutions within the capitalist economy are eager to fund such projects. If the leadership of a transformative organizing project is unwilling to venture outside of what is fund-able, the revolutionary potential of that project will inevitably wither and poison the ground for future efforts. As all of the representatives noted, transformative organizing must in the long run develop new sources of funding that are not tied to the logic of capitalist hegemony if it hopes to expand, but in the short-run this model insists that organizations be willing to carry out strategically important work even if there is no funding. There are now foundations that are interested in funding the campaigns that emerge from this process, but none seem interested in the process that gave birth to these campaigns. According to Goehl, “In the end, NPA’s strategic inquiry process has provided the clarity that the organization was looking for when the financial crisis first broke. It has transformed the organization. It’s one of the main reasons that people are in NPA and one of the main reasons that groups affiliate with NPA. It’s not for any particular transaction. It’s for being a part of that— being part of a group that wants to do that and think like that! It’s a loving place to be but it’s not a comfortable place to be because we’re all challenging each other to think differently and bigger. We’re acting like we want the movement to become.”[34]

Vermont Workers’ Center

The Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC) was founded in 1998 as a workers’ rights organization. In its first years, the organization’s work centered on maintaining a workers’ rights hotline which received phone calls from thousands of workers throughout the state whose rights had been violated. The sheer number of the calls convinced the organization’s leadership that “the only real way for working people to improve workplace conditions was to get together to form unions to bargain a contract with their employer or demand elected officials change the laws.”[35] As a result, the organization began partnering with different trade union locals and community organizations to support different worker struggles. In 1999, the VWC joined the Vermonters for a Living Wage Campaign which successfully raised the state’s minimum wage. Coming out of these campaigns and a separate effort to build a downtown workers union in Montpelier with the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), the VWC staff and leadership increasingly realized that the problems workers face are not limited to the workplace. One issue that came up frequently and forcibly from members was the failure of the employer-based healthcare system and its organization as a market-based commodity. VWC’s leadership saw that the healthcare crisis was the primary issue driving workers in factories and staff in schools to decide to go on strike.

Recognizing their still limited capacity (at the time, the VWC had only one staff person and a small membership centered around Burlington), the VWC decided to partner with other organizations and unions and to enter into a series of statewide coalitions fighting for a universal healthcare system. In deciding to enter into these coalitions, the VWC members identified three principles that they wanted to see reflected in the coalitions’ demands: 1. Healthcare must be framed as a human right; 2. The provision of healthcare must be de-coupled from whether or not a person has employment; and 3. The healthcare system must be publicly funded. These principles continue to frame the VWC’s engagement on healthcare issues. The other coalition partners at least tentatively agreed to these three points although some of the larger partner organizations attempted to water down some of these demands. With this agreement in hand, the VWC staff and members participated in various healthcare coalitions from 2003 to 2006.[36]

The decision to focus on the healthcare crisis was pivotal for the VWC. They came to see that this was an issue that a wide range of people across the state cared about, and it was an issue around which people were prepared to take action with others. Quickly, the organization’s work was gaining momentum, and they were able to expand the number of organizers on staff from one to twelve in just a few of years. This campaign had a lot of potential, but it was also clear that waging the campaign through coalitions was not unleashing the full potential of this issue. Although several coalitional partners had larger membership bases and staffs, it was the VWC who was the prime mover of much of the coalition’s work. As the VWC Executive Director recalled, “That’s when we re-envisioned VWC as a grassroots base-building organization that includes everyone in every region of the state… VWC wanted to use the healthcare campaign to build a state-wide organization around where communities would be permanently on a year-round basis. It was hard to imagine any issue would do that better.”[37]

For the next five years, the members and staff of the VWC waged an important struggle to address the healthcare crisis in a way that acknowledges healthcare as a basic human right. They were eventually successful in pushing the state legislature to pass ground-breaking legislation in 2011 “which commits Vermont to creating a healthcare system providing healthcare as a public good and ensuring everyone can get the healthcare they need, when they need it.”[38] It is important to note that although this campaign was well underway by the time the federal government launched its reform of the national healthcare system, the VWC had to display incredible tactical flexibility and tenaciousness in order to avoid being trapped by the worst aspects of the federal framework which relies on a market-based solution. The approach and tactical decisions that the VWC made throughout the healthcare is a human right campaign provide important glimpses at some of the best practices emerging from the transformative organizing model.

The first best practice that the VWC’s Healthcare is a Human Right campaign demonstrates is the commitment to incorporating the insights and experiences of the constituency and membership when developing the organization’s campaign and demands. The founding purpose of the VWC was to address bosses’ mistreatment of workers in the workplace. Some might have disregarded as peripheral workers’ frequent complaints about the dysfunctional healthcare system, and others might have rationalized that once the workers organized and won contracts that provided higher wages that those workers would be able to navigate the healthcare bureaucracy on their own. Both of these responses would have undermined the organization’s potential to embolden people to take collective action, but it also required an important level of humility for the organization’s membership and leadership to be willing to shift its organizing focus. It was also important that the VWC was not listening only to its membership. They also took into account the voices and perspectives of the larger working class, including people who had not yet joined the VWC or the larger movement. Although the VWC did not give them decision-making authority within the organization’s structures, by accounting for the perspectives of their constituency, the organization positioned itself to wage a campaign on terms that synthesized what they’d heard into a campaign and demands that both reflected popular sentiments and pointed towards an alternative to the dominant system.

Opportunities to hear the perspectives of members and constituents rarely present themselves, so the VWC has been intention in creating spaces for members to participate in developing major initiatives. To strengthen member involvement in the next phase of the healthcare campaign, the organization launched an extensive, internal campaign from December 2012 to December 2013 to clarify expectations of VWC members. The process began with discussion at the annual statewide membership assembly at the end of 2012. A team of staff and member leaders then took the main points from that discussion and drafted a survey which was used by organizing committees throughout the state. This survey also served as the basis for more than 100 one-on-one meetings with members that took place in the spring and summer of 2013. The committee re-convened in late summer to collect the input from all of these meetings, and they developed a proposal to clarify the definition of membership and the membership dues. In September and October of 2013, this proposal was brought back out to the statewide organizing committees for feedback. In November, the committee revised its initial proposal, and that proposal became the proposal which the members ultimately adopted at the membership assembly in December 2013, a full year after this process had begun. At several points throughout this process, the organization held leadership retreats where organizational staff and leaders came together to study how organizations like the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil make large decisions. Haslam points out that the VWC does not use this model for every decision the organization makes, but for major initiatives, they find that extensive processes like these ultimately ensure that the organization makes better decisions in ways that strengthens the members’ connection to one another and to the organization; “other times we do the best that we can to make good and sound decisions.”[39]

A second best practice exemplified by the VWC’s healthcare campaign is using political education to insulate against the possible attacks of the opposition. As noted earlier, one of the principles guiding the organization’s campaign was that healthcare must be universal, that “everyone can get the healthcare they need, when they need it.”[40] The organization recognized that their opponents might attempt to attack this component of their proposal, in particular the calls to cover undocumented immigrants and women’s reproductive services. Taking into account the fact the VWC’s membership is predominantly White, the organization decided to conduct a series of workshops throughout the campaign about racism and racial justice for leaders as well as interested supporters. Allies from the Bay Area-based Catalyst Project came in to help with the seven workshops which eventually involved more than 170 VWC members. The workshops covered, among other themes, why the proposal’s call for universal coverage was so critical to the such of the program and to building a larger movement. This move proved to be prescient, because just as the proposed legislation was going before the State Senate for its final vote, the body passed an amendment 22 to 8 to exclude undocumented immigrants from coverage. Pundits told the VWC that there was nothing that could be done. The VWC responded by helping to organize two massive rallies on the steps of the state building that in the end forced the legislature to withdrawal the amendment. As Haslam reflected, this victory “would not have been possible if we had not done a lot of that work with the members from the get-go preparing people to take on that issue.”[41]

A third practice that is important to understand from the VWC’s campaign for healthcare is their speaking to the needs and interests of a broad section of the community without sacrificing their constituencies’ interests. Many transformative organizations have rooted themselves amongst constituencies that have historically been some of the most exploited, oppressed and marginalized social sectors. One danger that can stem from this decision is voicing the interests of only a small section of society and discounting the possibility to make alliances with other social actors who might be impacted by the same issues. Doing so, squanders the opportunity to show how the interests of the organization’s constituency are in fact the in line with the interests of society at large. Another error on the other end is watering down the demands which would provide relief to those social sectors that are most politically vulnerable in an effort to broaden the base of support. Doing so trades public relations spin for concrete campaigns that can embolden a movement— win or loose. The VWC was able to navigate this contradiction by organizing public forums around the state that allowed a wide array of people to share their healthcare stories and conducting deliberate political training to underscore the strategic importance of their principle of universality amongst key staff, leaders and supporters. Our movement’s ability to navigate this contradiction more effectively could spark the emergence of an unstoppable movement.

The VWC success in passing the healthcare is a human right legislation is important not only because it represents a popular movement’s victory during a period when those have been hard to come by. It is certainly important for this reason. This is undeniable, but it is also important because it provides features locally-based organizers intentionally seeking out openings for social movements to push the largely disappointing federal healthcare overhaul in a more left and progressive direction. This is the fourth best practice that grows from the VWC’s campaign. The organization was clear about this from the beginning, and it represents another best practice, that of seeking out political openings in the local context that might serve as precedents which open space for social movement organizers in other parts of the country. Before 2008, a number of elected officials in Vermont had stated publicly that they supported a single-payer healthcare system, but that such a program was impossible given the political climate in Washington, DC. The VWC launched their healthcare is a human right to take advantage of this somewhat favorable context and “to build a strong enough statewide grassroots people’s movement to change what is politically possible.”[42] Their success can be judged by the fact that social movement organizations in Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other states are all now organizing their own healthcare Is a human right campaigns.


As these profiles reveal, there are a lot of commonalities between the approach and practice of these four organizations as well as differences. These differences grow from two important points. First, each of these transformative organizing efforts are taking place in different conditions with distinct constituencies, and the organizing is shaped by those conditions. As a result, transformative organizing in different contexts will inevitably and appropriately look different from one place to another.

Another important reason for the differences in approach and practice of the organizations profiled is because the transformative organizing model is still emerging as a model. All of these organizations are experimenting in their own rights. It is only recently that many of these organizations have begun to articulate and share with one another their own experiences in trying to forge new approaches to making transformative change. Organizers are developing the model as they try to resolve particular challenges in their work and contradictions in society. It is an unfolding process, but it is one that is increasingly becoming a process that organizers are taking up.

Sadly, there are few resources which comprehensively document the transformative organizing model. This is sorely needed in order to provide a space for organizers to reflect and refine their own practices and to provide guidance for up-and-coming organizers. This article does not offer such a comprehensive instruction of the transformative organizing model. Hopefully, it can be a small step towards bringing together such a resource.

All of the experiments profiled are ongoing, and one can see important commonalities emerging through the differences. As the article “Demand Everything” and this case study demonstrate, transformative organizations often incorporate a firm commitment to developing the capacity of members to take on genuine and authentic leadership in their organizations and the larger movement while struggling to make fundamental transformations in the social, economic and political systems that perpetuate exploitation, oppression and ecological degradation. This connection grows from an acknowledgement that in addition to creating conditions of war, poverty and climate catastrophe, the dominant systems stunt the full development of all people. The attention paid to leadership development is a part of what Amílcar Cabral referred to as the “struggle against our own weakness.”[43] It must be a central part of any attempt to realize dreams of liberation, justice and dignity. As Cuban philosophy professor Georgina Alfonso explained at the 2013 World Social Forum, “Personal development can’t occur without the opportunity for collective development… Our task, then, is to build relationships that break the logic reproducing discrimination and patriarchy within the struggle for a better world.”[44]

Possibly the most telling statement that a number of the interviewed organizers offered is that their organization’s approach to transformative organizing is a integrated model. It’s not a mix-and-match approach in which an organizer can take one piece and disregard the others. Organizations eager to develop the type of leaders from the profiled organizations must understand that those leaders do not simply emerge because of workshops. Leadership is cultivated in all aspects of these organizations work— in developing counter-hegemonic demands, in taking responsibility for crafting campaign plans and forging relationships with potential allies. Transformative organizing demands a comprehensive and integrated approach that aims to transform society’s structures as well as how communities relate to one another and how we see ourselves.

However, the transformative organizing approach is not without it’s own challenges. All of the organizers interviewed made a point of acknowledging the challenges of building organization and struggling for justice for people and the planet during an era of neoliberal austerity. As María Poblet observed, “It’s challenging work. Even when you have the people power to do it, it’s challenging work. There are breakthrough moments that make you think that all change is possible, and there are a lot of moments that are not that. There are countless instances of trying to convince someone to come the meeting, cajoling somebody to talk more in a meeting or to listen a little more…. The story of organizing often glosses over those early moments of trying to build trust, failing and trying again.”[45]

There are indeed many challenges to the transformative organizing model, just as there is promise. This case study continues what should be a more prolonged and extensive examination of the implementation of this old and emergent approach to building organizations designed to confront and change the world. During an era which is seeing people taking to the streets in resistance to war, austerity and the tyranny of the 1%, the transformative organizing model stands as an important contribution to the construction of popular movements able to confronting old systems and establishing the building blocks for a more liberatory, equitable and just future.



[1] Amílcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory” Address delivered to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January, 1966. p. 1.

[2] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[3] Steve Williams, “Demand Everything: Lessons of the Transformative Organizing Model.” March 2013,

[4] “Oakland tenants say bully landlords taking advantage of market,” Will Kane. 2014 October 21. San Francisco Chronicle,

[5] “Oakland City Council Approves Tenant Protection Ordinance After Increasing Complaints About Landlord Harassment,” Chris Fillippi. 2014 October 22. KCBS,

[6] Stuart Hall, “Race Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance,” Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, ed. UNESCO (Paris: UNESCO, 1980), p. 342.

[7] Causa Justa :: Just Cause is currently undergoing a merger with POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), another San Francisco organization that has focused on building unity between working class African American and Latino tenants and workers. In 1997, the author was one of the co-founders of POWER.

[8] “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Heights Between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics,” Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry and Paul Taylor, Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends, PEW Research Center Publications, 2011.

[9]“Towards Black and Brown Unity: A Grassroots Perspective— Reflections on the experience of Causa Justa :: Just Cause.” Causa Justa :: Just Cause, page. 3.

[10] Ibid, page. 7.

[11] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.

[12] “Towards Black and Brown Unity: A Grassroots Perspective— Reflections on the experience of Causa Justa :: Just Cause.” Causa Justa :: Just Cause, page. 1.

[13] María Poblet, “Reflections on the World Social Forum,”ía-poblets-blog/529-reflections-on-the-world-social-forum.

[14] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.

[15] Power U Center for Social Change website,

[16] The Revolution Will Not be Funded by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (South End Press, 2007) places many of these challenges within a broader historical context within the development of the capitalist political economy.

[17] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[18] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.

[19] Keno Walker. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[20] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Keno Walker. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[25] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[26] Ibid.

[27] National People’s Action website,

[28] National People’s Action website,

[29] National People’s Action, “Guiding Questions for NPA Strategic Inquiry,” 2012.

[30] The entire agenda, “National People’s Action: Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy,” can be found on the NPA website,

[31] George Goehl. Interview with the author, November 3, 2014.

[32] Among the various presentations of the agenda is a Prezi presentation,

[33] George Goehl. Interview with the author, November 3, 2014.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Vermont Workers’ Center website,

[36] James Haslam. Interview with the author, November 21, 2014.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Vermont Workers’ Center website,

[39] James Haslam. Interview with the author, November 21, 2014.

[40] Vermont Workers’ Center website,

[41] James Haslam. Interview with the author, November 21, 2014.

[42] Vermont Workers’ Center website,

[43] Amílcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory” Address delivered to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January, 1966. p. 1.

[44] María Poblet, “Until Every One of Us is Free,”

[45] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.


Towards a Transformational Strategy

by N’Tanya Lee, Cinthya Muñoz, Maria Poblet, Josh Warren-White, and Steve Williams on behalf of the LeftRoots Coordinating Committee

We are living in times of great instability and crisis. Everywhere there are troubling signs of collapse: mass shootings; widespread unemployment; potentially irreversible ecological devastation; and the consolidation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands. The interpenetrating crises within the economic system, the ecological system, and the system of empire are pushing the 1% to implement massive austerity programs, militarization, and further disenfranchisement of oppressed communities. But not everything is gloom and doom. In the face of the ruling class’ savage attacks, heroic struggles are breaking out around the world against the manifestations of imperialism, capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. Details


Why LeftRoots?

We need a radical and grounded Left

LeftRoots is a national formation of social movement organizers and activists who want to connect grassroots struggles to a strategy that can win liberation for all people and the planet. Mass organizations must be central features of strong and vibrant social movements, and Left cadre formations are as well. The U.S. Left, due in part to external assaults and in part from internal weaknesses, is at this point unable to cohere these mass struggles into an effective force for revolution. This must change if humanity has any hope of surviving, much less thriving. This is a central task of a rekindled Left, and Leftists engaged in mass organizations and social movements have a unique, yet unfulfilled, role to play in helping to reimagine and give life to a Left that is as radical as it is grounded in mass struggles. Details


No Shortcuts: We Need Strategy

By N’Tanya Lee and Steve Williams

The need to develop a strategy that can cohere the different parts of our movement has never been clearer.

Both of us have been shaped by years of organizing the young, homeless people, and working-class African Americans and Latinas. After each spending more than a decade building different organizations in San Francisco, we teamed in 2012 up to interview more than 150 organizers and activists in some of the most active social-movement struggles across the country. One of the themes that emerged from our conversations is that although movement activists often use the same words, what we mean by those words can vary from person to person. Details


More than We Imagined: Activists’ Assessments of the Moment and the Way Forward

By N’Tanya Lee & Steve Williams

More Than We Imagined is the final report of a year-long project called Ear to the Ground, co-directed by Steve Williams and NTanya Lee. Over nine months, more than 150 social justice organizers in 30 communities across the country were asked to reflect on the nature of this moment of history, their assessment of social justice forces, and what ‘the movement’ should do to respond to the unique challenges and opportunities of this period.

Download the report »

“Rare in its breadth, candor, and independence, More Than We Imagined provides us with an important opportunity to reflect more deeply on where our movements are headed in the 21st century.” – Gihan Perera

Download the Report