Twenty years ago, in the spring of 1997, I was starving. I was an undergraduate at the New School for Social Research, on hunger strike for nineteen days with a battalion of peers known as The Mobilization, demanding much-needed change from the school’s administration: fair pay for campus security guards, equal pay for female faculty, hiring more professors of color, and making sure that one particular professor of color, Jacqui Alexander, could continue teaching the strongly feminist, trans-nationalist, postcolonial framework that had made her controversial and beloved.
As a young, straight, cisgendered white male, I felt it was important for people who looked like me to stand in solidarity with our friends who didn’t. I knew it wasn’t my place to take over, but I also knew that, unfortunately, America’s white supremacist society would take the movement more seriously if straight white men were starving too. “People of color in this institution are at risk,” I told the New York Daily News. “We have a vision of a world that is liberatory and just.”
Today, the internet has given students and other activists a louder megaphone, a greater sociopolitical and cultural reach. Where protests like the one I took part in then were of modest local interest, today’s demonstrators have national and international platforms. And while some critics are outraged at these “snowflakes” who act against systems of injustice, many of us are encouraged to see ideas, principles, and policies for which we’ve long advocated being aired in the public square.
****Laura Poitras’ Graduate Thesis Documentary on the Mobilization (check out a younger me at 15:30, but worth watching Part I and II)
Twenty years after going on hunger strike and seeing the movement I was part of successfully move an institution, I do have a few thoughts for the movements that are rising today. I realize I may seem very old — I am, after all, over forty — but experience does occasionally breed wisdom.
First and foremost, it’s important for white progressives to remember that when taking part in social movements which directly impact people of color, there’s a thin line between bringing focus and stealing focus. As a white person, your involvement can make other white people — especially those in power — pay attention in ways they might not if you weren’t involved. But it is essential to let people of color steer the ship, to not attempt to own someone else’s movement, however well-meaning you may be. To navigate this thin line, ask friends of color for guidance and really listen to what they say. The same goes for men in women’s movements, straight people in LGBT movements, and so on.
It’s also worth remembering that for all people involved in social movements, regardless of background, it’s better to cultivate allies than alienate them. I have been aghast at the ferocity with which people who are generally in agreement attack each other, especially online. The disdain from some quarters for Hillary Clinton’s most ardent supporters was not only politically misguided, it was counterproductive. The adversaries of social change are the people in the White House and Congress, not people who are two percent less “woke” than you are.
When dealing with people who truly are adversaries, it can be very useful to let them speak. In a world where anyone with an internet connection can have a global platform, the spectacle of trying to prevent someone’s voice from being heard in one specific geographic location only amplifies their voice in other forums. Hateful speech is horrific, but it is literally impossible to stamp it out, especially with modern technology. Better to counter their arguments at every turn, defeating disdainful points of view through superior argument and, above all, superior organizing.
Finally, it’s important to always, always act strategically — especially when lives are at stake. The third party vote in 2016 was greater than Hillary Clinton’s margin of defeat in each of the key swing states, resulting in real harm for marginalized communities. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a go. Undocumented immigrants are being rounded up. The bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform and de-incarceration that was ascendant only a year ago has been replaced by a Justice Department seeking to double down on those policies and impede African American voting. Clinton was far from perfect, but none of these crises would be unfolding under her watch.
Twenty years after The Mobilization at the New School, I am just as committed to social, economic, and environmental justice as I was then. I am out protesting almost every weekend with my seven year old son. I have worked my way into a career path that allows me to organize investments in renewable energy which can save our climate, to lead efforts that use innovative technologies to deliver humanitarian aid, and to work with large corporations to execute their new ventures in ways that minimize harm and maximize social good.
These are the ways that I personally can maximize my impact at this stage of my life. For others, the answers will be different. But it is essential for progressives to act strategically, for white progressives to know when to utilize their privilege and when to check it, for all of us who care about these issues to hold together despite disagreements within our factions — and not to demonize the allies with whom we disagree. With those guideposts in mind, we really can defeat the racist aspiring autocrat in the White House and his Congressional enablers.