August 19, 2020
Action Letters, Organizing
043 Introducing the Ideas to Action Field Guide
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“We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
James Baldwin via Craig White
Elif Demircan & Up With Community, 2020
Two days ago I found myself laying on the floor reading Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson, sobbing. Just big, globby tears…
To understand why, we need to go back about 18, actually make it 22 years.
Back then on my regular three-hour, two-bus, one-train journey to and from my Chicago public high school, I began to form knowledge about how power works in our society. I began to learn about our economy and our social identities, what was mine, what could be mine, what might never be mine… and why.
- Why do those buildings look like that, right next to those other ones that look really different?
- Why was that person screaming at all of us? Why am I scared? How can we help them?
- Why was that man allowed to touch my back and why did no one notice?
- Why do those folks not want to live in my neighborhood?
- Why am I one of the few kids from my neighborhood making this particular trip?
I didn’t have words for the knowledge that was growing inside me on those trains and buses, but I did find Saul Alinsky’s work. I was handed the liberatory frameworks of shifting paradigms. (No one has the truth, so go build it… thanks, Ms. Tookey.) My experiences at Lincoln Park High School confirmed my sense that I had a voice that mattered and, importantly, that voice doesn’t need to sound like anyone else’s.
Then I got fancy.
At a predominantly white college, hundreds of miles away from my Polish-Iindian roots, I spent four years wrestling with old white men in political science–Locke, Marx, Weber, Habermas–instructed by old men and women of all different races who believed in those historical figures quite a bit more than they believed in me.
I was (pretty desperately) trying to make meaning from my experiences on those buses and trains. People told me to read Marx to understand my experience, but my full experience wasn’t in there. Why do the professors teaching me about the economy not seem to connect to my experiences of class and race? Why do the folks who have a lot to say about race, gender and sexual orientation not seem to be talking about some pretty core parts of our economy and issues of class?
My circle of friends along with mentors at my university’s Intercultural Center (Rafael) and Black Cultural Center (Tim) gave me enough room to ask these questions. Writers like Fanon, Cesare, Kristeva, and Foucault offered clues, tantalizing hints–enough for me to survive on, but not to feel complete.
I left academia exhausted and disappointed. I stopped trying to find my answers in books and immersed myself in the courage and relationships of people fighting for their humanity in community organizing.
That’s when, about 15 years ago, I started what would become the UWC Ideas to Action Field Guide.
All those years ago I started saving, clipping, photocopying the bits and pieces that we would one day weave together into this field guide. Three years ago, Ashley Mills and I began working together to make meaning of what I had found. What we created was the nascent online guide, a treasure trove of resources to help make sense of the world and better understand identity and systems of power. We brought together tools geared toward adult learning, forming more effective teams, and making the world more just.
I started to understand that what we have is a mapping of a different terrain for learning–this represents a liberatory landscape. The field guide offers different ways of connecting power, spirit, identity, body and knowledge to create different possibilities for the impact of action.
In order to support independent learning, we didn’t want to start from the place of simply offering answers. Instead, we wanted to offer this mapping of a new landscape, allowing you to explore its diverse regions from different entryways.
We envision this resource helping folks in a few ways:
- As a place for inspiration and alignment before a training.
- As a source of tools for implementation after a training.
- At the start, middle or end of a project that gets stuck.
- As a back scratcher for an itch that is hard to reach.
- To offer the curious–particularly those interested in adult learning–with free tools for personal growth.
- To help educators, organizers, activists and managers put their ambitious ideas into action.
Most of all, we hope it is a seed. Nothing here is entirely new–it’s born of the hard work and sweat of generations of our ancestors, saving their own seeds for future harvests and passing them down to us to sow.
We also offer this resource with gratitude:
- For the people who offered me help on this learning journey and left their imprint.
- For the incredible folks – teachers, guides, trainers, consultants – who are enabling us to share their resources through this guide. (Check them out. Donate to their projects. Go to their trainings. Hire them!)
- Carol Wishcamper, Nicole Thomas, Gwendolyn Forrest, and Craig White for your support and reflections during our beta test–high five!
- Ben Chin for helping me learn to hike (literally and figuratively) in this landscape and talking with me the whole way.
- Meghan Lambert for your kick-butt designs–but maybe more for being able to read my spirit and mind.
- Ashley Mills for being my partner in the wilds out there.
- Maine Creative for breathing life into this site and all our social engagements and for always holding the flashlight.
We’re far from done! This is a living guide, and in order for it to survive and grow we needed to start sharing it. Please help us in that effort, in whatever way you can – offering a tool, testing it out and sharing feedback, connecting us to a new resource. We have about eight more boxes of (virtual) stuff to go through, sort and post.
I am aware of many of the holes we have left to fill, pages that are incomplete, areas that have not yet been charted.
And that brings us back to me sobbing over Black Marxism this week.
As we were building the field guide, I felt again that emptiness caused by my numerous questions on the buses and train all those years ago. I had a few resources on race and class, but they didn’t quite get at the heart of the intangible ideas for which I didn’t even yet have words.
Then friend Michael Kebede wrote this goose-bump inducing op-ed: Black Lives Matters is the Latest Flower of the Black Radical Tradition. My heart skipped a beat when I saw him reference the title Black Marxism in this piece.
I’m only at the start of this more-than-500 page book and Cedric Robinson’s words have already begun to offer encouragement:
- “The shared past is precious, not for itself, but because it is the basis of consciousness, of knowing, of being.”
- “For the younger brothers and sisters, and for those who identify with the Black struggle who are tempted by the transubstantiation of Black history to European radical theory, this book is a challenge.”
- “Black Marxism was not a site of contestation between Marxism and the tradition, nor a revision. It was a new vision centered on a theory of the cultural corruption of race… in short, as a scholar it was never my purpose to exhaust the subject, only to suggest that it was there.”
THIS! This is my hope for you, and for all who come to the field guide. I hope that you might find the seed of a world-changing concept, beginning as an urge within yourself, and be able to put that idea into action.