Movement-Building Outside Metropolis

Last week, at a solidarity rally with Elsipogtog on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, I was struck once again by how incredibly unique radical activism and organizing is in big cities. After living for five years in Sudbury, a small and largely working-class mining city in northern Ontario, I’m still stunned to go to activist events in Ottawa and see lots of people I’ve never encountered before. And this, I’ve come to realize, is just one of many unique aspects of metropolitan activism.

My time in Sudbury, along with earlier stints living in small cities and towns in Alaska and Oregon, has made me much more sensitive to the specificities of place for movement-building. Over the last several years, I’ve started to notice how much the ideas and models that circulate on the Left tend to assume metropolitan contexts, and how little attention radicals tend to devote to the world outside big cities, which includes suburbs, smaller cities, towns, reservations and reserves, and rural areas. This nearly exclusive focus on big cities, it seems to me, creates a bunch of problems for our movements in the U.S. and Canadian contexts. I’ll mention two here.

First, when we solely pay attention to big cities, we ignore the huge numbers of people who don’t live in urban centers. We don’t see how crucial they are for building powerful movements to transform our society. Significant sections of the Right don’t make the same mistake; they understand that people living in nonmetropolitan areas can be foundational participants in broad-based movements. Amy Dudley, a former organizer with the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) in Oregon, sums this up in an excellent interview in Towards Collective Liberation: “The Right has targeted rural white communities as their base and we must counter that.”

Second, when we focus only on major urban centers, we end up developing and using city-centric organizing models. For instance, we assume that people have regular access to the internet, can easily transport themselves to and from meetings, or are comfortable moving at the particular pace of big city life. Perhaps most significantly, we assume that we can rely on a geographically concentrated community of like-minded activists to make things happen. InA View from the Plains,” R. Spourgitis insightfully describes this:

There is something different going on in big cities, something in the way of an aggregate population with greater numbers of militants, radicals and the like-minded who can push already existing organizations, or build new ones more radically. Some form of leftist framework may be in place, such as a living history of political organizing from past struggles, community centers with a social justice purpose, sympathetic religious congregations, and so forth. These are potential spaces and resources where many come together in the form of liberal or radical community organizations or groups, and often it seems combinations thereof, even within one grouping or organization. As marginal and problematic as such spaces and projects may be, the degree to which they act as staging grounds and support networks for militants is perhaps overlooked. In my experiences in smaller areas, the severe lack of such a framework changes what is possible with a given project model, a model which may implicitly presuppose such supports.

These sorts of metropolitan assumptions mostly aren’t practical or realistic outside of big cities. As Scott Neigh has pointed out, they can be very limiting even in urban centers, where they put real limits on who feels welcome and able to participate in movement work and who gets noticed by self-identified radical groups.

It’s also important to mention that there is a crucial, if complicated, class dimension to what Dudley calls “the Left’s urban-centric tendency.” While cities are full of poor and working-class people, nonmetropolitan areas – especially rural areas but also increasingly suburbs – tend to be overwhelmingly poor and working-class. And the poverty in these areas often takes a very different shape than in big cities. We should bear in mind that class and geography are related even as we also understand that nonmetropolitan areas are by no means homogenous racially, culturally, or otherwise.

With these kinds of problems in mind, I’ve been trying to follow and learn from organizing work outside the metropoles. Just to mention a handful of examples, I’m encouraged by ROP’s work in Oregon, Indigenous land struggles linked through initiatives such as Defenders of the Land, the regional multi-racial queer organizing of Southerners on New Ground, the economic justice work of the Vermont Workers’ Center, and community-based fights against resource extraction and transportation happening all over North America right now. I’m also excited about efforts such as the Building Resistance Tour that Rising Tide – Vancouver Coast Salish Territories organized to learn from and support organizing in rural communities throughout British Columbia last spring. I suspect too that there is still much to learn from the recent experiences of the occupy movement outside the major cities.

What kinds of non-metropolitan movement-building efforts are you excited about? I want to know!