Humbly Growing Older on the Left

The Summer 2019 issue of Canadian Dimension features this piece, my “writing with movements” column for the magazine. I’m reposting it here with links included.

I’ve recently returned to a something I wrote in my twenties. Back in 2005, I contributed a “Letter to older activists” to the book Letters from Young Activists. In that piece, I described a kind of “advice” that older leftists sometimes give to younger leftists that “sounds more like condescending lecturing than sincere sharing.” I elaborated:

Those of you who do this are often socially positioned in ways that lead you to feel deeply entitled to your expertise. And when you wield your age, experience, and achievements with self-righteous certainty, I find it hard to trust you. I’m thinking, for example, of some of you who are veterans of the often-mythologized “sixties.” There is certainly much we can all learn from the 1960s, as well as from many other historical moments. But the danger lies in romanticizing or demonizing the past, turning it into something that wholly trumps our new and creative ideas in changing circumstances. Young activists don’t need your status plays or your simplistic impositions of your past onto the present. Rather, we need you to recognize self-consciously how your past forms you, how it shapes your experience and understanding of the present in both limiting and illuminating ways.

From my now older vantage point, I can’t help but read this as cautionary guidance.

Many of us have been at an activist event when, during the question and answer session, an older leftist (frequently white, usually a man) steps up to the microphone and lambasts everyone present with a list of why whatever initiative at hand is insufficient or misguided.

Since turning forty, I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of conduct. I increasingly recognize aspects of it in myself and others I know. In recent years, I’ve witnessed radicals my age and older dismissively discuss newer movement efforts, including the Movement for Black Lives, labor organizing campaigns, anti-fascist mobilizations, climate justice activism, and feminist and queer initiatives. Even if they don’t step up to a microphone, they don’t hesitate to share their criticisms in smaller discussions and online.

For sure, critical discussion can strengthen movements, and even comradely debates can sometimes be harsh. At the same time, I’m concerned with the responsibilities that older radicals have in how we deploy our knowledge and social statuses in criticizing movement activities, particularly the efforts of younger people and people newer to activism. This is something with which I struggle myself: How should I distinguish between useful and harmful criticisms? When is it appropriate to raise reservations and how? How can I avoid taking a corrosive, self-certain approach?

I’m trying to answer these questions for myself by looking to experienced radicals who have solid track records of cross-generational collaboration. One of these people is Mariame Kaba, a longtime organizer involved in struggles against the prison industrial complex and for transformative justice. In a 2017 interview, Kaba offered some advice that has stuck with me: “if you’re a veteran organizer it is your duty, I believe, to come into spaces with an open heart and an open ear and not to go in there with your arms crossed, ready to pounce, on how these young folks are doing everything wrong all the time.”

Part of what I take from Kaba is about intentionally cultivating curiosity about other people’s activities – and nourishing those dimensions that are most promising. So often in political work, clarifying questions are more useful than sharp criticisms or aphoristic wisdom.

Another person to whom I look is Silvia Federici, a veteran feminist activist and theorist. In a 2016 interview, Federici remarked, “I’ve made it a principle not to indulge in speech that is destructive.” As I understand it, this principle calls for deep thoughtfulness about the effects of our words and actions on others engaged in struggle, even – and maybe especially – when we have disagreements.

In that same interview, Federici also emphasized learning “to be more humble.” This is key, I think. Part of being humble is being courageously and compassionately self-critical. Some of the greatest gifts I have received from older radicals in my life have been frank reflections on their uncertainties, miscalculations, and mistakes. That kind of vulnerability, especially from those who are relatively privileged, is tremendously valuable. It encourages us all to examine what we take to be certain, and to admit when we’ve got something wrong.

If we show up with open hearts and ears, intentional curiosity, thoughtfulness about our words and actions, and humbleness and vulnerability, we aging activists can offer so much more than criticism to movements today.

Study for Struggle: All Our Trials

The work of INCITE! and Critical Resistance has crucially propelled the development of anti-racist feminist and prison abolitionist politics over the last two decades. But as most experienced activists know, these politics have much longer lineages, which are well worth exploring and learning from. Emily Thuma’s book All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence, just published by University of Illinois Press, is an enormous contribution to this process of exploration. Thuma introduces us to anticarceral feminist efforts of the 1970s and early 1980s, which challenged the mainstream feminist movement’s turn towards cops and courts as a way to deal with interpersonal violence. Carefully drawing on archives and interviews, she looks at participatory defense campaigns, organizations that supported incarcerated women, long-running collectively-produced women’s prison newsletters, and community-based coalitional efforts that attempted to tackle gender, racial, and economic violence. Thuma packs tremendous detail and insight into this short, well-written book. I recommend it!

Here’s one gem from Thuma’s book:

Across the United States, in and outside of prisons, grassroots women activists participated in collective actions that illuminated the interconnections between interpersonal violence against women and the racial and gender violence of policing and imprisonment. These mobilizations were spearheaded by radical women of color and antiracist white women, many of them lesbian-identified. They cultivated a distinctive left antiviolence politics that was defined by a critique of state violence; an understanding of race, gender, class, and sexuality as mutually constructed systems of power and meaning; and a practice of coalition-based organizing. […] Anticarceral feminist politics grew in the cracks of prison walls and at the interfaces between numerous social movements, including those for racial and economic justice, prisoners’ and psychiatric patients’ rights, and gender and sexual liberation. Through the process of building coalitions that transected these social justice struggles, the activists at the center of this study produced a broad and layered understanding of ‘violence against women’ that encompassed the structural violence of social inequalities, the violence of state institutions and agents, and interpersonal forms of violence, including rape, battering, and sexual coercion. This expansive analysis directly clashed with the ‘tough-on-crime’ ethos of the 1970s and the mainstream women’s movement’s increasing embrace of criminalization as a frontline solution to interpersonal violence.

Training for Movements

The Winter 2019 issue of Canadian Dimension features this piece, my “writing with movements” column for the magazine. I’m reposting it here with links included.

We can learn a lot about movements by looking at how – and how much – they train people.

Many activist spaces these days spend time developing critical analysis through events, writing, and discussion. But as much as we might wish otherwise, sharp analysis doesn’t automatically translate into the skills necessary for working in groups, making collaborative plans, and taking effective action. Successful movements create intentional mechanisms for helping people to learn such organizing skills.

There are lots of examples in recent history. The U.S. civil rights movement set up intensive civil disobedience trainings as well as freedom schools. The women’s liberation movement generated consciousness raising groups, peer-to-peer education practices, and touring workshops. The labor movement created summer schools, labor colleges, and worker education programs; although much less widespread today, some of these spaces continue to exist.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the direct action anti-nuclear movement developed a culture of training inspired by the civil rights and feminist movements. In preparation for large-scale civil disobedience actions involving hundreds of people, organizers regularly held workshops on decision-making, direct action, and campaign-building, among other topics. These trainings, some of which were day-long, combined presentations, facilitated discussions, and participatory activities, often with role-playing.

As historian and activist Andrew Cornell points out, this culture of training carried on into many subsequent movements. It was definitely influential as I came into radical politics in the 1990s. This was a period when activist skill-building workshops and open, training-oriented movement gatherings were much more common than they are today.

During this time, a network of experienced Earth First! organizers offered frequent workshops and touring “roadshows” focused on popular education around specific campaigns. Copwatch groups trained interested people in other cities about how to monitor and record local police activity. Similarly, Anti-Racist Action groups trained people across the continent in methods for countering white supremacist organizing. Many activists also routinely traveled to multi-day conferences and other gatherings that offered workshops on everything from blockades to banner-making, meeting facilitation to media outreach.

Arguably, this culture of training peaked with the so-called anti-globalization movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s. What we called “convergences” – gatherings for training and planning – preceded most of the large summit protests of that era. And during those years, it was common for groups involved in the movement to hold periodic workshops on topics such as anti-oppression, consensus decision-making, and direct action, as well as more specialized trainings for legal observers, street medics, and others.

Since then, there has been a noticeable downturn in training. Although many experienced activists have mentioned this to me, anarchist sociologist Lesley Wood is the only one I know who has looked carefully at the trend. Focusing on North American anarchist gatherings, Wood has recently documented a marked decline in skill-building workshops since the 1980s. This is consistent with my experiences at movement gatherings and left spaces more generally over the last two decades: there seem to be fewer skill-based workshops and training-oriented gatherings, and the activist trainings that do happen tend to be less frequent and shorter.

What accounts for this decline? As with most everything, I’m sure there are many contributing factors. But I suspect that it has a lot to do with prevailing life circumstances amidst 21st-century neoliberalism. The material realities of most people’s lives right now involve lots of precarious low-paid work, much harm and trauma, tremendous debt, and pressing responsibilities to care for children and older family members. So many of us feel exhausted, scattered, anxious, and sped-up. In these circumstances, creating space for training is understandably challenging and all the more crucial.

I find hope in training initiatives that are persevering – and growing – in these difficult circumstances. This is particularly the case in the U.S., where there are both longstanding organizations, such as Project South and Training for Change, and newer efforts, such as the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking and The Wildfire Project. In the Canadian context, most university-based Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) host workshops and, more ambitiously, Tools for Change organizes an annual series of trainings in Toronto. As well, some labor unions continue to hold trainings and experiment with online educational spaces for rank-and-file members. At the time of this writing, I’m also excited about the upcoming PowerShift: Young and Rising conference in Ottawa, which promises a weekend full of workshops for climate justice activists and organizers.

What can we learn about current movements based on how they’re training people? Activists are struggling mightily, but our collective capacity is lower than in some previous periods. To build the large-scale, sustained, combative movements we need, we will have to generate new and relevant mechanisms for spreading skills.

Organizing Against the Canadian Petro-State

I was so honored to make another appearance on Against the Grain, one of my top favorite shows! AtG host Sasha Lilley invited me on to offer a basic introduction for U.S.-based listeners to the groundswell of struggle in the Canadian context against resource extraction and for climate justice. Anyone already familiar with that terrain of struggle won’t hear me say anything that many smarter and more experienced people haven’t already said. But if you are less familiar with that context, you may find this episode illuminating! I doubt it will surprise anyone to hear me emphasize that fighting for climate justice requires fighting against colonialism.

For a Grieving Optimism

The Fall 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension features this piece, my “writing with movements” column for the magazine. This one is co-written with Alexis Shotwell. I’m reposting it here with links included.

Climate change is hitting hard. The heat waves and fires of this past summer – and this fall’s storms and tornados – are just the most recent manifestations.

We are living in a future many people worked to prevent, which is also a future some actively accept even though it produces ecological destruction in service to profit. The science fiction writer William Gibson is often quoted as saying, “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” Usually we think of this in terms of the distributions of good things. However, as anti-poverty activist and scholar Virginia Eubanks notes, Gibson’s quote can also help us see the uneven distribution of suffering. And, indeed, the people most directly experiencing the pain and death of climate change are not the people responsible for causing it.

But global transformation is coming even for those who have been most protected so far. Increasingly, we see reporting of the possibility that it is too late to stop the effects of global warming or that we are simply doomed.

Common responses to this unfolding transformation include denial (“we’re just having a hot summer”), despair (“there’s nothing we can do, might as well take long plane trips while we can”), and an approach we could call dystopian (“there’s nothing we can do, but we should actively know about how truly terrible things are”). This last approach calls for more attention to the catastrophe humanity faces. In this vein, the Marxist writer Richard Seymour contends that the apocalyptic tone about climate change needs to go further: “If you think something can be done, you will be serious and urgent rather than facetious. The catastrophists are the optimists here.”

While Seymour elaborates many of the ways that things are catastrophically bad, he doesn’t offer a picture of what kind of optimist it’s possible for catastrophists to be. And just focusing on scaring people has limited effects; at least in encouraging people to shift their behaviors around health, we know that fear sometimes works for one-time changes, but not for ongoing, systematic change efforts. As radical writer and broadcaster Sasha Lilley points out, we should thus be wary of catastrophism on the left: “An awareness of the scale or severity of catastrophe does not ineluctably steer one down a path of radical politics.” It’s not necessarily the case that things have to feel much worse before we work on making them much better.

Here, we think of Tank Girl, a comic book character living in a devastated world. In one frame, she pulls on her boots for the day, cigarette dangling from her mouth and a coffee cup beside her. She thinks, “I can’t let things be this way. We can be wonderful. We can be magnificent. We can turn this shit around.” What can we learn from Tank Girl?

Perhaps we can be grieving optimists. We can have what Italian communist Antonio Gramsci popularized as “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Pessimism of the intellect means refusing to shy away from how bad things are; instead, it is to examine the world realistically and seriously consider worst-case scenarios. It also means understanding that destroying places and people for profit is not human nature; it is capitalism. And in this moment, mourning comes along with understanding: the human and non-human beings, ecosystems, ways of life, and ordinary happinesses that we have lost and will lose deserve our grief.

We can also organize. Optimism of the will means that, although we perceive how bad things are, we act anyhow. Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim TallBear observes that Indigenous people have been living in a post-apocalyptic world for centuries. Those of us who are settlers could learn something about carrying on after devastation; there is grief, but there is also persistence and resurgence.

Optimism of the will isn’t about individual heroism. It’s about acting with other people to create conditions so that what currently seems impossible becomes possible. We’ve witnessed this most recently in fights against resource extraction and transport projects. The victory represented by the August Federal Court of Appeal ruling on the Trans Mountain Pipeline is one clear example. That ruling was propelled by Indigenous-led struggles that, through fierce collective action across the Canadian context, shifted the project from a done deal to an open question.

Organizing out of our grief for this planet and all of us on it rests on the certain knowledge that, for the vast majority of us who are not rich, most of the problems facing us now are at a scale beyond our individual capacity to solve. The way to be a grieving optimist is to band together with others who care about this world, and to struggle.

We can be wonderful. We can be magnificent. We can turn this shit around.

Study for Struggle: Ohpikiihaakan-ohpihmeh (Raised somewhere else)

Thanks to determined grassroots Indigenous efforts, there is a growing public discussion in the Canadian context about what is known as the “60s scoop.” This was the period, starting in the late 1950s, when over 20,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families, lands, and cultures and trafficked across provinces, borders, and overseas to be raised in non-Indigenous households. Colleen Cardinal, a survivor of the 60s scoop and a fierce activist, has made a major contribution to this discussion with her book Ohpikiihaakan-ohpihmeh (Raised somewhere else): A 60s Scoop Adoptee’s Story of Coming Home, published last year by Fernwood Publishing. Cardinal generously – and unflinchingly – shares her life with us, illuminating the everyday violence of Canadian colonialism and tracing her own journey of healing and resistance. I recommend this book!

Here’s one gem from Cardinal’s book:

In recent years, I have been able to change my perspective of myself as a victim by examining my experiences over the decades and tracing the colonial violence in my family right back to the making of Canada. I was never meant to find out what happened to my family, let alone find my parents, endure the violence, heal from the trauma and put the pieces together about how the state intended to assimilate me into the mindless tax-paying Canadian citizenry. The state has never been invested in making sure I retained my culture, land base or knowledge, nor was it concerned that my health and well-being as a First Nations ward of the Crown was protected. This would lead me to believe that everything I had learned up to this point about the state in its dealings with First Nations people was deliberate in its intent to erase us from the history of this country.

Study for Struggle: Feminisms in Motion

As a faithful subscriber to make/shift magazine for its decade-long run, I was really sad when it ended in 2017. The magazine was a crucial, if underappreciated, anti-racist feminist space for discussion and experimentation. That’s why I’m so grateful to the former editors, Jessica Hoffman and Darla Yudacufski, and to AK Press for putting out Feminisms in Motion, a wonderful collection of some of the many outstanding interviews and articles that the magazine published over the years. Check it out!

Here’s one gem from Hoffman and Yudacufski’s Introduction:

Intersectional feminism didn’t appear a few years ago. It has roots that go back forever, and it has been voiced and otherwise nurtured by women of color for generations. It is like a river moving through time, communities, and other contexts, full of differences and always changing. We have always envisioned make/shift as dipping into, reflecting on, and contributing to this river, putting into print a few of its moments and voices from a particular time. From 2007 to 2017, we published work by about 350 people who have added to the burbling of that river. It started flowing way before us and will continue long after us, and it is always bigger and more full of possibility than any one of us. It is multifaceted, simultaneous, and constantly shifting, a space where past, present, and future voices and actions flow together, overlap, diverge, and keep moving to make a world where everyone can be free.

Learning from the Past, Fighting in the Present

The Summer 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension features this piece, my inaugural “writing with movements” column for the magazine. I’m reposting it here with links included.

“How do you avoid the feeling that you should be working ALL THE TIME given the urgency of the state of the world?” My friend Heather Hax, an experienced activist, recently posted that question on Facebook. This sense of urgency is completely justified, and many of us are feeling it. We live in a profoundly frightening and unpredictable period, faced with the challenges of colonialism and climate catastrophe, economic austerity and state violence, and emboldened white supremacy and xenophobia.

The election of a Conservative government in Ontario is just the latest dispiriting episode in an international resurgence of reactionary politics. And although Doug Ford is not Donald Trump, I’m witnessing similar feelings of grief and panic among activists in Ontario as I saw while traveling around the U.S. last year. It’s terrifying to watch the far right exercising power, both in government and in the streets.

In these circumstances, I’ve been heartened to see activists and organizers turning toward social movement history for lessons and grounding. In Ontario, for instance, there has been renewed interest in learning from the Days of Action and other movement efforts during the Harris years. While I suspect there is still some serious reckoning we have to do with that period, this is definitely a promising approach.

Facing an urgent present, why dig into history? The short answer is that it’s invaluable for helping us to struggle more effectively. In the pace of movements and mobilizations, years can sometimes feel like decades and, with frequent activist turnover, we all too easily end up repeating similar mistakes and debates over and over again. Coming to know movement history can help us to learn from our missteps, build on our strengths, and have new discussions that propel us forward.

Let me offer some examples. Looking over recent histories of struggle, here are three lessons relevant to our current circumstances:

First, movements generally grow when they connect individual hardships to systemic realities. Organizing is about helping people to understand the difficulties in their lives as not just bad things happening to them individually, but rather as the result of social relations that benefit some people and hurt others. This is part of what consciousness-raising groups, at their best, achieved in the women’s liberation movement: spaces for women to understand their individual hardships as linked to shared experiences of oppression. In fostering such spaces, it’s worth remembering that people tend to respond better to questions about their lives than lectures about them.

Second, movements can generate power when they defend the most vulnerable and build bottom-up solidarity. Although the current arrangement of power harms most people in this society, we are not all affected in the same ways. As anti-racist feminists have illuminated, race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and ability operate with and through one another in shaping the forms and intensities of hardships that we face. If we want to challenge the system that benefits from our hardships, we have to acknowledge where we’re starting from and enact solidarity practically as we struggle. The experiences of direct action AIDS activists in Ontario during the early 1990s are instructive here. While fighting to establish public funding for drug access, they refused a government-proposed plan that would have only covered people living with HIV or AIDS; instead, they insisted that it cover all people with catastrophic illnesses and, through persistent and confrontational organizing, they ultimately won.

Third, movements tend to have more far-reaching effects when they are creative and bold. Circumstances are constantly changing and, if we want to intervene in them effectively, we shouldn’t be afraid to renovate old political approaches and try new ones. And sometimes audacity, grounded in solid organizing, can take us a surprisingly long way. I’m thinking here about the efforts of No One Is Illegal-Vancouver Coast Salish Territories in 2007 to support Laibar Singh, a paralyzed refugee from India. That campaign culminated in a stunning action in which some 2000 people, largely South Asian, blockaded the Vancouver International Airport to stop Singh’s impending deportation. In that action, migrant justice organizers took a bold tactic from European activists and creatively shaped it for their own situation.

There are many more histories to learn from and many more lessons we can draw. Returning to Heather Hax’s question, perhaps one of the most profound lessons to take is this: other people, in other times, faced urgent crises in overwhelming circumstances, lived full lives, fought hard, and won victories. We can too.

Study for Struggle: Policing Black Lives

We are lucky to be living through a period of resurgent Black freedom struggle, and this upsurge, like others before it, is propelling brilliant intellectual work. Robyn Maynard’s book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, published last year by Fernwood, is a major contribution to this body of work. Drawing on extensive research, Maynard decisively demolishes the mythology of the Canadian state as a bastion of multiculturalism and racial equality. With great attention to both historical detail and lived experiences, she traces how anti-Black racism, deeply intertwined with settler colonialism, has structured ruling institutions and relations across the Canadian context over the last four centuries. Just as important, Maynard focuses on not only policing and prisons, but also many other key sites of racist state violence, including borders, schools, social assistance offices, and the child welfare system. Her analysis is expansive, accessible, and carefully considered. I highly recommend this book!

Here’s one gem from Maynard:

When state violence is mentioned, images of police brutality are often the first that come to mind. However, state violence can be administered by other institutions outside of the criminal justice system, including institutions regarded by most as administrative, such as immigration and child welfare departments, social services, schools and medical institutions. These institutions nonetheless expose marginalized persons to social control, surveillance and punishment, or what Canadian criminologist Gillian Balfour calls ‘non-legal forms of governmentality.’ These bureaucratic agencies, too, have the repressive powers generally presumed to belong only to law enforcement. They can police – that is, surveil, confine, control and punish – the behavior of state subjects. Policing, indeed, describes not only cops on their beat, but also the past and present surveillance of Black women by social assistance agents, the over-disciplining and racially-targeted expulsion of Black children and youth in schools, and the acute surveillance and detention of Black migrants by border control agencies. Many poor Black mothers, for example, have experienced child welfare agents entering and searching their homes with neither warrant nor warning – in some instances seizing children – as a result of an anonymous phone call. Further, state violence can occur without an individual directly harming or even interacting with another. It can be, in short, structured into societal institutions.

Getting It Together

The March/April 2018 issue of Briarpatch Magazine features this article that I co-wrote with the other members of Punch Up Collective: Alexis Shotwell, Amanda Wilson, and Dan Sawyer. I’m re-posting it here. This is a companion piece to a workshop that we have developed that focuses on starting and sustaining functional, effective collectives.

Every year since 2002, a small group of people has produced the Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners calendar, a showcase for gorgeous political artwork and thoughtful radical writing, and a fundraising tool used by activist groups across North America. Impressively, the people who produce the calendar do so in collaboration with three political prisoners incarcerated in upstate New York.

How do they manage to accomplish all of this year after year? Relationships, creativity, tenacity, and broader movement support are crucial. But there is clearly another key feature that has kept this project going: Certain Days is run by people organized as a collective – a small group in which all members share decision-making power, rotate leadership and responsibilities, and work collaboratively.

Four years ago, a group of us decided to start our own collective in Ottawa, on unceded Algonquin land. We came together after regularly encountering one another in local activist efforts. We discussed shared politics, investigated our terrain of struggle, identified potential alliances, and established goals for our activity. And then we got to work as the Punch Up Collective – pitching in with protests, organizing educational events, fundraising for campaigns, and constantly trying to learn from our accomplishments and mistakes.

We believe that collectives offer a promising approach to building something that we need in our movements and that can sustain us as people.

The importance of organization

In Ottawa, as in other places, many social justice initiatives are ad hoc and short-lived. Few activist groups manage to stick around longer than a year or two in any consistent form. It often feels as though we’re starting from scratch rather than expanding or strengthening our organizations and networks.

There are many reasons why groups don’t last. Most of us are working and living in precarious circumstances that produce isolation and disorganization. Beyond our material circumstances, it may be that movements also have difficulty being good spaces for people to stick around. In his essay “Someday We’ll Be Ready, and We’ll Be Enough: Building Anti-Authoritarian Movements with the Size and Resilience to Win,”activist Jeremy Louzao perceptively describes this: “Our movements themselves, their structures and attitudes, their narrowness and cultural insularity, their straight-up meanness, pettiness, and violence are all just as much to blame as any outside forces for the ways that we are constantly shedding solid and well-meaning people.”

What’s more, to create and sustain social justice efforts often means learning how to organize, and this isn’t easy to do. As Toronto-based organizer Syed Hussan puts it in a recent blog post, “Organizing is a skill set, it’s not just a set of ideals, and those skills must be honed. There are no schools, and few mentors.”

All of this makes the idea of getting from where we are now to creating movements that are broad-based and powerful enough to fundamentally change society seem incredibly daunting. When people primarily experience social justice efforts through small, often-dysfunctional groups that fade out quickly, it becomes hard to even picture what long-lasting, sustainable organizing might look like.

But it is possible to build organized, widespread, and resilient left infrastructure that can sustain itself over the long haul. This begins with stronger groups. Organizations, at their best, unleash collective capacities that are greater than the sum of the individuals involved. As Hussan writes, “One person can’t change anything. But a few people, working together, in comradeship[,] certainly can.” Organizations make it possible for people to be visionary and courageous, while also more focused, responsible, and effective.

What is a collective?

There are many useful kinds of organizations, including membership organizations, traditional unions, campaign-based groups, and more. But it’s collectives that we’re keen on. A collective is a non-hierarchical organization, usually with fewer than 20 members. One core aim of collective structure is to reduce the tendency for certain group members, whether formally or informally, to hold more power and influence than other members. For this reason, collectives generally make decisions using consensus or highly deliberative democracy, and many collectives emphasize skill-sharing and mutual support.

In collectives, tasks and roles are shared, often rotating among members so that no one person is always the one, for instance, speaking to the media or doing dishes. In her book Undoing Border Imperialism, Vancouver-based organizer Harsha Walia lays out the reasoning behind this: “Sharing tasks within our groups decentralizes knowledge, ensures a more sustainable division of labor, encourages learning, builds confidence with new skills, and strengthens interpersonal bonds as we work on projects together. Instead of only a few people being ‘in the know,’ this approach fosters a shared sense of responsibility and ownership over the group’s work.”

Collectives can take many different forms. Some collectives are open, always accepting new members, while others are closed, only admitting new people under certain circumstances. Collectives can be defined by their focus: identity-based, as with some groups in the Movement for Black Lives; project-based, as with the collective that runs the AKA Autonomous Social Centre in Kingston; or campaign-based, as with many No One Is Illegal groups. Some, such as the Graphic History Collective, go on indefinitely, while others are based on a particular moment or struggle, like the student activist collectives during the Quebec student strike of 2012.

Collectives, past and present

Collectives have been important formations throughout left history. During the Spanish revolution, grupos de afinidad (affinity groups) were building blocks of radical regional and national organizations. In the women’s liberation movement, collectives were central to organizing activities and running clinics and shelters. Collectives have also been crucial in the feminist organizing of women of colour. Two groundbreaking examples are the Black Women’s Collective in Toronto and the Combahee River Collective in Boston, the latter a group of Black feminists who formulated one of the earliest understandings of what is now called intersectional analysis. There is also a long tradition of collectively run left bookstores, including the Toronto Women’s BookstoreL’Androgyne in Montreal, and Spartacus Books in Vancouver.

In Ottawa, several successful, long-running projects were organized as collectives. The Ticket Defence Program, which provided free representation in municipal court for individuals charged with panhandling-related bylaw infractions, operated as a collective from 2003 through 2009, and still exists, though its structure has changed. The Carleton Food Collective, also known as the Garden Spot, was founded in 2001 and continues to operate a free soup kitchen. The 7-Year Squat defendants, arrested following the occupation of an abandoned building in 2002, collectively organized their own legal defence during several years of court proceedings, culminating in a month-long jury trial and complete acquittal on all charges.

Activists have used collectives in the anti-globalization movement, Indigenous solidarity work, migrant justice organizing, and many other efforts. Presently, collectives across North America run campaigns, produce activist media projects, coordinate radical spaces, provide legal support, conduct research for movements, and provide training, among a wide range of other activities.

Why build collectives?

Starting a collective doesn’t require significant resources or large numbers of people. It’s something you can do with a handful of people you see regularly and with whom you share some values. In circumstances of widespread isolation and disorganization, building a collective is a low-stakes entry point for those with limited time and energy who are trying to figure out how to engage in activism.

Collectives can also facilitate putting our visions into practice. In an interview in Chris Crass’ book Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy, former Heads Up Collective member Rahula Janowski elaborates on this: “Many of the things I hope to see in that world are best manifested in the here and now through collectives – things like shared leadership; attention to interpersonal dynamics and how they reflect larger social issues; sharing of resources, be they material goods, relationships, or skills; and accountability to the people you live and work with.”

Importantly, collectives encourage a high level of political affinity and trust among members. Even if all members aren’t friends, membership can enable mutual support. This is best when it’s grounded in a shared sense of responsibility, alongside enough support and redundancy that members are able to pass on specific responsibilities to others when necessary. Collectives can also facilitate organizational, rather than individual, collaboration and accountability with other groups and campaigns.

At their best, collectives help people to stay politically involved, become more effective, and keep growing. Perhaps most importantly, collectives can enable members to turn their individual values and aspirations for a better world into ongoing collaborative work and, in turn, to reflect on and learn from that work.

Challenges and considerations

While a collective structure helps to address some common challenges for activists, organizing in collectives can present its own set of obstacles. One of the most pernicious and frequent problems occurs when people pretend that their collectives are structureless or leaderless, or that working in a collective nullifies the social relations of harm and benefit that run through the rest of the world. The problem here, as Walia writes, is that “the denial of structure and leadership just creates a layer of unspoken leadership, and informal hierarchies emerge. Based on systemic power imbalances around race, gender, and education level, as well as experience and comfort in activist circles, certain voices tend to dominate over others.” This is something we’ve witnessed time and again; it frequently leads to collectives falling apart, or certain members leaving, though often without a framework to explicitly name what’s happening.

Other times the collective structure itself can act as a barrier to addressing conflict. For instance, in a collectively run pirate radio station with which one of us was previously involved, the combination of shared vision, commitment to working together, and a meaningful project sometimes actively stood in the way of naming and responding to interpersonal harm and political disjuncture within the group. It’s vital for our political work to not stop simply because we’ve found a group of people with whom we are working on something we care about.

Even though collectives represent a non-hierarchical mode of organizing, this does not mean that they should not have structure. Quite the opposite!

Explicit politics and practices can contribute to shared power and collective leadership by making it plain to all members what is expected of them and their comrades, how decisions are made, and who is responsible for what. Early on, we established a conflict resolution and accountability framework, and we talked explicitly about our priorities for political work and our pace of activity. As a small collective of four people, it felt a bit silly to establish formal policies to guide our interactions and ways of working together, but these policies and explicit practices form a crucial foundation for our collective, enabling us to grow and work through difficult situations when they arise.

We’ve found, too, that collectives work best when they are based on clearly articulated shared aims and politics, and when they see themselves functioning as part of an ecosystem of broader movements. This can help to limit navel-gazing or an insular orientation and encourage the building of relationships among collectives and other organizing formations. Functional collectives also have shared understandings of the skills and capacities of members and actively work to develop these further.

Experimenting with answers

We often have many unanswered questions about how best to build and coordinate collectives, how to develop complementary vision and strategy, and how to fit our approach within a dynamic ecosystem of movements. However, all of us can more easily experiment with answers to such questions if we take a first step of coming together with other people in organized, sustained groups. Collectives are not the only way forward, but they represent a relatively easy and effective way to get organized and work together with mutual aid, co-operation, and care.

This is a moment of significant opportunity. Thousands of people are mobilizing for the first time, or rejoining the struggle after some time away. We firmly believe that well-organized collectives can contribute to resilient left infrastructure that will help us find one another, share knowledge and experience, stick it out over the long haul, and grow large-scale, formidable movements. Let’s build!