My Disillusionment With Social Justice Organizing in Kansas City

While originated with a rather different context, Elvis’ line “A little less conversation, a little more action, please” dances through my head when I reflect on the state of social justice organizing in Kansas City. The following thoughts come from observing, co-founding, and being employed by social justice groups here over the past few years. They represent my biggest concerns. As I will emphasize at the end, these problems don’t apply to all organizations nor are they always seen to the same degree.

First, many social justice groups focus heavily on events and gatherings where people simply sit around and talk. For some groups, this is literally all they do — either someone talking at the attendees, participants speaking with each other, or some combination of both. The primary purpose is education, raising awareness, whether concerning ideology, a social issue, an organization’s affairs, and so forth.

Now, this has value. Education, discussion, and perspective-taking are important and have value. But how much I somewhat question (especially speaking comparatively; see next section). The people who come to monthly meetings, community forums, panels, and so on are mostly going to be people who already care about whatever issue or ideology is being discussed, and thus already know something about it. It’s true, no one is ever done learning or listening; and it is further true that there will always be a few newcomers who don’t know anything about racism or socialism or what it means to have no healthcare. But most people who attend probably know a great deal about these things, through personal experience or study or earlier thought and discussion. One gets that impression by observation, at any rate. That’s why I suspect there are real limits to the value of these kinds of events due to the prior interest, knowledge, and worldview of most of the audience. That is not to say they should never be held! It’s simply to question why they should be the majority or totality of a group’s efforts.

Things worsen when these events grow repetitive. There are some organizations’ events I pop into every once in a while, and unfortunately confirm they’re basically the same thing every time. And having been on the planning side of things, I understand why, or at least one of the reasons why: you’re always thinking of the few newcomers. If you dive too deep into an education newcomers will get utterly lost, or at least you fear they will. So you end up sticking with the basics, and boring anyone who knows a bit about the issue.

Therefore, it’s easy to simply stop going to the gatherings of groups whose ideals you earnestly support. You may enjoy conversing with your friends and fellows, and hearing the perspectives of others, but in the end you may not feel you’re learning all that much, things may get repetitive and boring, and it dawns on you that while all this isn’t without value it’s not bringing about social change as speedily as other possibilities. Is sitting and talking really the best use of our time, energy, and money? All this is my experience, anyway. (I recently quit my job over this very issue; it gnawed at me for months, and finally one day I stood up at a conference of social justice groups in D.C., told everyone this was a waste of money and time that could have been better used, and walked out.)

There has to be something beyond sitting and talking. You have to give people who care about these issues something to do. But too often that isn’t coming; organizers and attendees pat themselves on the back as if they’ve accomplished something (I sense that white people at conversations on race especially feel like they’ve done something useful, alleviating their white guilt but not really bettering society much), then everyone starts preparing for the next monthly meeting.

Most importantly, the majority of what many organizations do does not confront power. Resources, time, and human energy poured into sitting and talking aren’t being poured into activities and tactics that put pressure on decision-makers, which does more good for society. Educating yourself and others is just Step One; it is just the first tool in the toolbox of social change. Then you actually get to work. Get out the vote for policies and candidates (if your organization legally can). Put your own initiatives on ballots. Harass the powerful in business and politics with petitions, messages, and calls. Boycott businesses. Protest and march outside workplaces and representatives’ offices. Go on strike, refusing to return to work until your demands are met. Engage in acts of civil disobedience: sit in and occupy your workplace or a political chamber, block streets as the powerful try to head to work, chain yourself to trees, and other illegal acts, facing down the risk of arrest or violence by police or bystanders. And you keep doing these things until you win. That’s how social movements succeed.

We need to shift from education to agitation. Imagine if instead of regular meetings, groups organized regular phonebanking, signature gathering, protesting, civil disobedience, and so forth. Imagine constant disruption on a host of issues. Imagine the impact. We should set specific, measurable goals (local control of the police for instance) and do those things until we win. As long as it takes.

We could combine agitation with service. We could raise money to help pay off people’s medical debts, help create strike funds for workers, organize volunteer efforts to clean up long-neglected neighborhoods, and other tangible ways of helping others. Such things don’t put pressure on power (though they can grow organizations, and solidarity among the people), and they address symptoms rather than the diseases agitation seeks to eradicate, but they’re better than sitting around.

I simply feel that some social justice organizations need to ask themselves: How much of what we do puts the pressure on? Is our money, energy, and time confronting corporate power, political power, police power? Why settle for just 5% or 10% of your activities actually pressuring someone? Why not make it 75% or 80%, and drive social change forward faster, doing more to better people’s lives?

True, some groups face obstacles. You may have very limited resources, making cheap meetings tempting. If you’re a 501(c)(3), you can’t support candidates. If you’re a grant-funded nonprofit, your energy may have to go into what is dictated by (oftentimes corporate) funders. See, what one may wish to do may not have a grant that will fund it; one then must do things according to grants that exist; the requirements to fulfill such grants may not do much good for anyone. It’s a systemic problem. But I nevertheless imagine most slow-moving groups could find some room to shift from education to agitation, despite the challenges. If the limit is 55, why go 25?

Finally, the Left is fractured, which helps no one. Often Kansas City’s communists, socialists, and anarchists are all at each other’s throats. Differences between anti-capitalist ideologies have led some groups to simply declare they’re never working with these other groups ever again. And of course the radical Left as a whole often refuses to work with liberal or center-left groups that aren’t anti-capitalist, even when they’re fighting for a number of identical or near-identical policies. The liberal and center-left groups naturally don’t want to be associated with radicals who carry red flags, wear black masks, and talk about revolution. Yes, there are limits to cooperation here (you’re not going to get some revolutionaries to get out the vote for anything or anyone), and that’s fine, but there are many areas where cooperation is possible but is not being pursued for fairly stupid reasons. It is vital to the future of social justice work, and the future of countless people, for groups to find common ground and stand there in solidarity with each other, despite stark or maddening differences that lie outside such ground.

These divisions are so great that some groups won’t attend any protest or other event unless it’s their own. Unless they’re brought on board as a sponsor, some organizations wouldn’t dream of promoting important actions and activities being conducted by others. It’s not ours, why would we? That’s the attitude, one I’ve wrestled with professionally. Perhaps we feel it makes our own organization seem less legitimate: less of a leader or less independent or less active. Perhaps it’s the fear of lack of reciprocity. We’re spreading the word about their stuff, why aren’t they doing the same for us? There should really be some sort of formal agreement of mutual support for actions and activities that relate to shared values. You don’t have to help organize and plan everything everyone else is doing; just advertise it to your networks to help drive turnout and involvement in confronting power. You don’t have to promote things or participate in things you disagree with, just those you do. That’s solidarity, right?

This article certainly isn’t meant to indict all organizations in Kansas City. There are some that focus their efforts on pressuring the powerful and work with anyone who agrees on the solutions to specific problems. It’s urgent others move in that direction. That’s how we can be most effective at changing society in positive ways and do work we can take pride in.

On Monday, June 11, 2018, I will again be arrested for an act of civil disobedience with Stand Up KC and the Poor People’s Campaign. The time for sitting and talking is over.

If you feel as I do, join us.