This essay appears in print in On Solidarity.
Organizing is not a process of ideological matchmaking. Most people’s politics will not mirror our own, and even people who identify with us strongly on some points will often differ sharply on others. When organizers do not fully understand each other’s beliefs or identities, people will often stumble and offend one another, even if they earnestly wish to build from a place of solidarity. Efforts to build diverse, intergenerational movements will always generate conflict and discomfort. But the desire to shrink groups down to spaces of easy agreement is not conducive to movement building.
The forces that oppress us may compete and make war with one another, but when it comes to maintaining the order of capitalism and the hierarchy of white supremacy, they collaborate and work together based on their death-making and eliminationist shared interests. Oppressed people, on the other hand, often demand ideological alignment or even affinity when seeking to interrupt or upend structural violence. This tendency lends an advantage to the powerful that is not easily overcome.
Put simply, we need more people. What do we mean by this? We are not talking about launching search parties to find an undiscovered army of people with already-perfected politics with whom we will easily and naturally align. Instead, organizing on the scale that our struggles demand means finding common ground with a broad spectrum of people, many of whom we would never otherwise interact with, and building a shared practice of politics in the pursuit of more just outcomes. It’s a process that can bring us into the company of people who share our beliefs quite explicitly, but to create movements, rather than clubhouses, we need to engage with people with whom we do not fully identify and may even dislike. We can build upon our expectations of such people and negotiate protocols around matters of respect, but the truth is, we will sometimes be uncomfortable or even offended. We will, at times, have to constructively critique people’s behavior or simply allow them room to grow. There will be other times, of course, when we have to draw hard lines, but if we cannot organize beyond the bounds of our comfort zones, we will never build movements large enough to combat the forces that would destroy us.
Some groups have learned to navigate difference and animus out of necessity. Incarcerated people organizing within prisons, for example, often learn to put feuds, rivalries, and personal differences aside because they recognize the necessity of building with who is there.
As Kelly and organizer Ejeris Dixon wrote in Truthout in June 2020, when discussing solidarity in the face of right-wing violence and the rise of fascism:
Not everyone we work with on a particular issue has to have deep ideological alignment with us. A skilled organizer should be able to work with people who aren’t of their own choosing, including people they don’t like. It’s really as simple as being attacked by fascist police in the streets. Once the attack begins, there are two sides: armed police inflicting violence and everyone else. We need to be able to see each other in those terms, reeling in the face of unthinkable violence, scrambling to stay alive and uncaged, and doing the work to protect one another.
This will not come easily, because white supremacy and classism have forced many wedges between our communities. Great harms have been committed and very difficult conversations are needed, but refusing to do that work, in this historical moment, is an abdication of responsibility. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole world is at stake, and we cannot afford to minimize what that demands of us.
This is not to say that we should seek no respite from the messiness and occasional discomfort of large-scale movement work. We all need spaces where we can operate within our comfort zone. Whether these take the shape of a collective, an affinity group, a processing space, a caucus, or a group of friends, we need people with whom we can feel fully seen and heard and with whose values we feel deeply aligned. In such a violent and oppressive world, we are all entitled to some amount of sanctuary. Many organizers have tight-knit political homes, sometimes grounded in shared identity, in addition to participating in broader organizing efforts.
But broader movements are struggles, not sanctuaries. They are full of contradiction and challenges we may feel unprepared for.
Effective organizers operate beyond the bounds of their comfort zones, moving into what we might call their “stretch zone,” when necessary. No one has to be able to work with everyone, but how far beyond the bounds of easy agreement can you reach? How much empathy can you extend to people who do not fully understand your identity or experience or who have not had the same access to liberatory ideas? How much discomfort can you navigate for what you believe is truly at stake?
These are not questions anyone can answer for you, as we must all make autonomous choices about who we connect and build with, but if we do not challenge ourselves to navigate some amount of discomfort, our political reach will have terminal limits. To expand the practice of our politics in the world, we have to be able to organize outside of our comfort zones. People whose words and ideas don’t yet align with our own often need room to grow, and some people grow by building relationships and doing work—often in fumbling and imperfect ways.
Political transformation is not as simple as handing newcomers a new set of politics and telling them, “Yours are bad, use these instead.” Instead, we will sometimes have to accompany people along messy transformational journeys. And we must also remember that no matter how far we have come, we are still on our own messy journeys, and our own transformations will continue as we grow.
To do this kind of work, a person has to hone multiple skills, including the ability to listen.
When people delve into activism, they often grapple with questions like, “Am I willing to get arrested?” when often the more pressing question for a new activist is, “Am I willing to listen, even when it’s hard?”
For organizer and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, it was her time in Alcoholics Anonymous that helped her transform her practice of listening. “The main thing that I learned,” Gilmore told us, “especially in the first couple years that I was going to meetings, was the beauty of the rule against crosstalk. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, that I couldn’t say shit to anybody. I had to listen, and I had to learn to listen.” The urge to interject or object ran deep for Gilmore. “I’ve always been a nerd, yet I’ve always been a know-it-all,” she told us, “so there’s this tension between my nerdiness that wants to know everything and my know-it-all-ness that wants everybody to know that I know it all already.”
At first, listening did not come easily—or feel particularly productive—to Gilmore. “I would sit in these meetings, and I listened to people talk, and listened to them, and listened to them, and at first I was like, ‘I don’t get this, I don’t get this.’ And so for me in the early days, it was just a performance of words. I mean, my main thing was, ‘I won’t drink when I leave this meeting. I won’t drink, and I won’t use.’”
But over time, Gilmore began to appreciate the role of listening in the group’s collective struggle to avoid drugs and alcohol—even when she did not appreciate what was being said. “I would be getting more and more wound up, because there’d be the sexist guy going on about women and his wife, and then there’d be somebody else talking nonsense about whatever, [but I was] learning to just sit there, and listen, and keep my eye on the prize, which was not just that I wasn’t going to drink but that the only way I could not drink was if all of us didn’t drink.”
Being committed to the sobriety of every person in the room, which meant listening to their story and being invested in their well-being, helped Gilmore develop a deeper practice of patience. “That was kind of this transformation for me that carried into the organizing that I already used to do before I got sober,” she told us.
It is our ability to constructively engage with other people that will ultimately power our efforts. We have to nurture that ability and respect its importance in all of the ways that our society does not. And that skill of constructive engagement starts with listening.
Like so many other aspects of organizing, listening is a practice, and at times, it’s a strategic one.
We might need to hear something true that makes us uncomfortable. Listening deeply makes space for that to happen. But even if the person who’s talking is off base, we can often still learn by listening to them. Why do they feel the way they do? What sources informed or convinced them? What influences them? What strengthens their resolve? What makes them hesitant to get more involved or to engage more boldly? If you are in an organizing space together, how has that issue brought them into a shared space with you despite your differences? What points of agreement might you build upon? What is surprising about them? A good organizer wants to understand these things about the people around them, and you cannot truly understand these things about a person without listening.
Organizers will often repeat the maxim, “We have to meet people where they are at.” It is difficult to meet someone where they’re at when you do not know where they are. Until you have heard someone out, you do not know where they are, so how could you hope to meet them there? Relationships are not built through presumption or through the deployment of tropes or stereotypes. We must understand people as having their own unique experiences, traumas, struggles, ideas, and motivations that will inform how they show up to organizing spaces.
Some task-focused activists brush off activities that involve “talking about our feelings.” This is a common sentiment among bad listeners. The fundamental skill of patiently absorbing another person’s words in a respectful and thoughtful manner is desperately lacking in our society. For this reason, it is folly to expect this skill to manifest itself fully formed when it is most needed, such as in a heated meeting, if we are not building a greater culture of listening in our work.
A group culture that helps participants build their listening skills is an important component of successful organizing. Political education can create opportunities for people to practice listening to one another, without interruption, and interacting meaningfully with what others have contributed. For example, during the Great Depression, communist union organizers in Bessemer, Alabama, developed a practice of devoting thirty minutes of each meeting to political education. For thirty minutes, material would be read aloud—creating space to collectively listen while also allowing members who could not read the opportunity to hear the information. Members would then spend fifteen minutes discussing the material, listening to each other’s thoughts in response to the work.
In organizing, we sometimes expect people, including ourselves, to shed the habits this society has embedded in us through sheer force of will, when in reality we all need practice. Activities that help us hone our practice of listening can make us better organizers, improve our personal relationships, and help us build stronger and longer-lasting movements.
As we work to build more sustainable movements, we must think hard about our strategies for responding when organizers make mistakes. Social media can often foster a “zero-tolerance” attitude about political ignorance or missteps. Platforms like Twitter have helped facilitate tremendous accomplishments in movement work, but they have also created an arena for political performance and critique that is often divorced from relationship building or strategic aims. For many people, social media is not an organizing tool but a realm of political performance and spectatorship. A trend has emerged in which some organizers will demand performances of solidarity and awareness on social media but then critique or even tear apart those performances when they fall short or are deemed insincere. As with reality television, favorites emerge, and people are sometimes voted off the island.
When the performance of solidarity via the replication of the right words or slogans becomes our central focus, it’s not surprising that responses might read as empty or even insincere. Sloganizing is not organizing, and paying righteous lip service to a cause, in the preferred language of the moment, does not empty any cages or transform anyone’s material conditions. Rather than fixating on the grammar of people’s politics, we organizers must ask ourselves what we want people to do.
When debates arise around language, we must also understand the extent to which the language of dissent and liberation has shifted over time. The terms and jargon we use today do not represent an “arrival” at the “correct” words that were always out there, waiting to be found, while our predecessors flailed about in search of them. The language we uplift in movements today represents an unending process of grappling—a search for words that embody the experiences of oppressed people in relation to their history, their current conditions, and the culture they are presently experiencing. Policing language, as though our phrasing is written in law, misunderstands that pursuit and the purpose it serves. If these words merely exist to divide us into categories—those who can properly discuss ideas and those who cannot—what is their value in the pursuit of liberation?
While it is important to trouble terminology and to engage with its evolution, the mastery of language does not spur systemic change or alter anyone’s material conditions. The concept of “allyship,” for example, is often grounded in presentation rather than substantive action. Similarly, people who believe they are “good people” often view goodness as a fixed identity, evidenced by their expressed feelings about injustice rather than a set of practices or actions. Goodness, to them, is a designation to be defended rather than something that they seek to generate in the world in concert with other people. Mainstream liberals often fall prey to this line of thinking because liberal politics play very heavily into political identity as being determinant of whether a person is good or bad (Democrats are good, Republicans bad). But the left can fall into its own version of this trap by treating politics as a test of how well we can perform language or recite ideas.
Our movements are not driven by getting the words just right. They are driven by the goal of enacting change through collective struggle as we endeavor to both understand ideas and turn them into action. Fumbling is inevitable, but as Gilmore tells us, “practice makes different.”
Dixon emphasizes that people will show up imperfectly and that organizers have to anticipate that mistakes and harm will happen. “I worry we’re creating a culture now where people are so afraid to make mistakes,” she told us. “They’re afraid to not have the analysis before they open their mouth. The bonds that I’m really trying to build within organizing are the bonds where we can divulge the things that we are nervous about, or ashamed of, or the things we need to learn, all of those areas, because that’s when I know we’re building the kind of intimacy that takes care of each other around heightened threats.”
Dixon points out that when trust is lost, organizing not only becomes more difficult, but it also becomes more vulnerable to surveillance and infiltration: “A huge piece of COINTELPRO was around seeding distrust.” Therefore, she says, a key part of organizing is building bonds of trust, and that can only happen within a context where people are allowed to be vulnerable and make mistakes.
Learning and growing in front of other people can be embarrassing, and even intimidating, particularly for people who have been put down or made to feel diminished in the past. Even seasoned organizers like Dixon often worry about derailing their work with a verbal misstep. “I have a small crew of other organizers where I think our text thread is mostly questions we are afraid to ask publicly,” she acknowledged. “It’s our own little political education circle, where we ask, ‘What does this mean?’ Or, ‘Is this fucked up?’ Or, ‘What is the right way to say this? Because I don’t think this is right.’” Dixon says that she believes “everyone needs that text thread,” but she also hopes that more of our movement spaces can operate in the same spirit and offer opportunities for people to “feel safe in their process of transforming.”
Creating trust-based movement spaces also puts us in a better place to confront harm and conflict, Dixon says.
“The biggest part of the work is how we maintain relationships while navigating harm,” she told us. “Because that’s the thing, that will break your group. That’ll break any project.” Dixon stresses the importance of conflict resolution and accountability mechanisms within groups—that is, group- or community-based methods of confronting harm, such as peace circles and transformative justice. But she also reminds us that in order for accountability mechanisms to serve their purpose, people need room and opportunities to grow. “People need to build skills and mechanisms to navigate conflict. Sometimes we’re not apologizing. Sometimes we’re not accountable. Sometimes we have done harmful things. Sometimes we’re doing things we were never told go against the norms [of the group] and then are being held accountable.”
In an organizing space, accountability should not be about policing or punishment, but our punitive impulses can sometimes twist accountability mechanisms into those shapes. It’s easy to forget how imperfectly we ourselves have shown up in movement spaces and throughout our lives. Sometimes our aggravation with others is rooted in pain or trauma we have experienced; sometimes it is rooted in our uneasiness about things we may have said or done that were equally upsetting because we did not always know what we know now. And regardless of how much we believe we have learned, as the saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know. Many of us would not be in this work today if someone along the way had not been patient with us.
Even if we never develop a sense of mutual respect and understanding, or even come to like the people we’re working with, we can still build power with them. In many cases, we must. After all, the whole world is at stake. We must ask ourselves, how much discomfort is the whole world worth?
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Editors’ Note: This essay is adapted with permission from Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care, published in 2023 by Haymarket Books.