Around the country Black people are echoing a longstanding call for white people, in large numbers, to step forward and confront white supremacy. From the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, to the national outrages of Cleveland and McKinney, to the white racist terrorist attack of the Charleston Massacre, the violence of institutional, cultural and individual white supremacy is tearing the country apart. The long line of racist violence isn’t new, and while there has always been Black-led resistance, the defiance and courage of the people’s movement in Ferguson ignited Black liberation and #BlackLivesMatter movement and has brought a whole new generation of Black leadership to the forefront, with Black women, queers, trans, youth and working class activists not only leading, but leading differently, cultivating a leaderful movement. And leaders in Black Lives Matter, like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi have continued to call for white people to step up against racism and for Black liberation.
For the past six years, white anti-racists from around the country have been building up a national network to engage and move white people towards racial justice action. Rooted in longstanding white anti-racist efforts and leadership, along with strong relationships with organizers and leaders of color, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) has been building infrastructure, relationships, shared values, and membership to respond to the call from Black leaders and leaders of color to move white people into action. From the Arizona anti-immigration struggle in 2010, to the murder of Trayvon Martin, SURJ has been bringing national leadership to help give focus, energy, and effective to white anti-racist efforts. Since, Ferguson, SURJ has literally been surging with new members, new chapters, and a growing role of convening national calls to help inform, equip, and mobilize a massively expanding base of white people into racial justice action.
This interview with national leaders of SURJ, Sam Hamlin, Dara Silverman, and Carla Wallace, which was conducted before the Charleston Massacre, draws out lessons from their work to help all of us who want to move more white people into effective and accountable racial justice action. In the wake of the Charleston Massacre, the need to galvanize white people with vision, strategy, and concrete next steps is ever pressing, and this is why SURJ came into existence.
Chris: How are you working to move white people into racial justice movement in this time? What’s working? And what are you learning from what works?
Sam: Our current focus is on strengthening white anti-racist leadership locally and nationally with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). SURJ is a national network of affiliated groups committed to organizing white people for racial justice. SURJ is putting energy into building up infrastructure to support leadership development and capacity building on the local and regional level. We do this through recruitment, leadership development, mentorship, and providing people with multiple meaningful and accessible entry points, and action steps in solidarity with the movement for black lives. We encourage an approach that centers peer support and skill-sharing. We’re now working with 75 local groups and affiliates across the country and thousands of individuals.
We are in a moment in history where the violence of police brutality against communities of color, as well as powerful black-led struggles for justice are in the national spotlight. For the first time in many years, millions of white people in the U.S. are being forced to confront the issue of racism and inevitably, to make a choice of which side of history we are on: are we going to align with institutions of white supremacy that justify the murder of people of color at the hands of police? Or are we going to be on the side of the powerful black-led resistance and the movement for collective freedom and justice? It is times like these that hold the potential for shifts of consciousness on society-wide levels. We are seeing that with the thousands of white people who are wanting to take action in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives.
What has really struck me about organizing in this time, is how many white people are wanting to do something, and how absolutely necessary it is for folks to have meaningful ways to move into action, and ways to sustain that movement for the long haul. We have been addressing this need by providing clear action steps that can be taken up and adapted for local contexts, reducing isolation by creating spaces where local leaders can share successes, challenges, and questions, and building leadership through trainings, mentorship, and moving deeper into the work together nationally.
Carla: Ever since we began SURJ in the midst of the racial backlash to the election of the nation’s first Black president, the work has been driven by the urgency to grow the numbers of white people challenging racism and creating a visible, different way to be white for other white people to gravitate to. Our sisters and brothers of color asked this of us in 2009 and have been asking this since the 1960’s. SURJ was founded after Barack Obama was elected when there was a marked rise in right-wing militias and increased attacks on people of color. Leaders of color came to the founders of SURJ and said we need there to be more white people speaking up and taking action against this, not just people of color. While there have always been white people who have broken with white supremacy and supported racial justice in this country’s history, we have been unable to organize the numbers needed, when joined with people of color, to break the divide by which those in power, maintain oppressive control.
With so many white people trying to find their way into effective, meaningful work for racial justice, we feel a great responsibility in SURJ to help that happen. SURJ supports local people already engaged in racial justice to organize other white people into visible, effective action in accountable relationship to people of color led efforts. We want to reach white people who are already in action for social justice, and white people who care, to show up in action for racial justice and to grow the regional and national connections among white people doing this work.
What seems to be working is supporting people on the ground, doing this work (or wanting to) around the country. With the need for SURJ support exploding in the wake of the killings of Black young people by police, including Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and queer Latina Jessie Hernandez, and so many others, initiating contact with and responding to the need for organizing support has stretched the SURJ capacity to the limit. So, supporting people to grow relationships with one another, and setting up opportunities for people to meet on conference calls and when possible in person, is key.
The SURJ Basebuilding team is focused on growing the support for local organizing and among people dong this work in places around the country. One way we do this is by hosting regular national calls that feature local voices, offer lessons out of real on the ground stories, and share resources that support education and organizing. Topics emerge from the local work, from our people of color accountability relationships, and from our own observations based on what we are seeing as opportunities and challenges. Over the past three years, calls have included discussions of what Freedom Summer can teach us now, white people and immigration work, building your core leadership, how to start a group, rural organizing, and moving from talking to action.
SURJ Basebuilding helps not only by lifting up examples of local work we can all learn from, but by breaking the isolation among individuals, and among different efforts, state to state, city to city, or town to town. When the reality of oppression is underlined almost daily in the death of yet another Black person at the hands of police, and by the unprecedented marginalization of Black, Brown and Native people, growing the sense that all our efforts add up to something matters a lot.
For example, several weeks ago, two of us from the Louisville SURJ (LSURJ) leadership collective met with four people from Henderson, a town in Western Kentucky. They wanted to talk about what they want to do and how SURJ can support them to begin organizing for racial justice. These four white, straight members of a United Church of Christ church there, one a former mayor of the town, had been part of the struggle for LGBTQ equality in their town and recently were part of a reading group with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. We were able to share with them about SURJ and what others are trying to do around the country, and what we are doing in Louisville. They said that just affirming that what they are doing has meaning, and the fact that they can call on SURJ for resources and coaching was a big help. A couple of their leaders were able to join the SURJ Basebuilding call about starting a SURJ affiliate group. To me, knowing that in the small town of Henderson, Kentucky 21 people recently came together to educate and take action for racial justice, is so exciting.
Dara: I love the way Carla and Pam McMichael (one of the other founders of SURJ and the Executive Director of the Highlander Center), talk about the founding of SURJ- because they speak about it as responding to the call from people of color but really committing to doing our own work with white people. I was just doing a training with Tema Okun, a long-time trainer and SURJ member in North Carolina and in response to a question she said, “One thing I know for sure is I need to really love white people. To do this work we as white people really need to love and care for our white people.” I feel that Tema articulated for me a big part of what is working in SURJ- over the past two years especially, we have been successful at bringing more people into this work and building the tent of white people who see racial justice as a framework for their lives, relationships and actions. We are living in a moment of huge opportunity and promise, but the question is- will white people move into this challenge and be a part of a black-led movement for liberation? More and more white people are saying yes- in the streets- from Baltimore, MD, to Charleston, SC, from Dallas, TX to Urbana, IL.
Five days after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, SURJ hosted a national call on taking action in solidarity with Ferguson. 1100 people signed up and with over 600 people from around the country it was amazing opportunity to share information and offer clear ways that people in Ferguson were asking for white people to take action . For a few years, the SURJ Action Team had created toolkits to create and compile resources for white people to take actions on a range of issues. We had been in direct communication with folks on the ground from Ferguson Action, Black Lives Matter, the Anti-Racism Collective of the Justice Committee and MORE. This was the first time we hosted a national call with steps for white people to take action. All of a sudden, we had people coming out of the woodwork wanting to work with us. We hosted a second call with Alicia Garza from Black Lives Matter and Maurice Mitchell from Ferguson Action. Alicia said to us, “We need you defecting from white supremacy and changing the narrative of white supremacy by breaking white silence.”
Because of the work that SURJ had done, trainings around the country, creating accessible tools, and supporting groups through the Basebuilding team and mentorship, some people knew of our work. Because of the moment, a much bigger group was looking for support, and we had to set up the infrastructure and strengthen relationships on the ground to be able to respond quickly. In addition to the 75 groups SURJ is working with across the country, our trainings, the tool-kits we create and the phone calls we host, SURJ has been approached by a number of movement organizations to find ways to support and develop their efforts to build a racial justice analysis into their work, their campaigns, and to develop deeper partnerships. From environmental groups like the Sierra Club and 350.org to religous groups including the United Methodist Women, the Presbyterian Diocese and Transform, from parents groups across the country, to college students to political groups like Moveon.org, Move to Amend, Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and the LGBT Task Force, the desire to more deeply engage and transform social justice organizations and movements is deep, urgent and neccesary. We also have a network of people, we call them SURJ Connectors (including Mutulu Olugbala aka M1 from dead prez, Tim Wise, Piper Kerman, Paul Kivel, Debby Irving, Chris Crass, JLove Calderon, and many others) who are public figures, out in the world who help spread the word about SURJ, connect folks to local groups and encourage white people to plug in and take action.
Chris: How do you think about effectiveness and how do you measure it? Can you share an experience that helps you think about effective work in white communities for racial justice?
Sam: I think that it is necessary to look at the long term when thinking of effectiveness. Though there are moments of deep openings and mass shifts in consciousness, I believe that long-term transformation can also be slow and gradual. I understand effectiveness through the depths and durability of relationships that are built, as well as how well we are able to bring new folks into leadership. Opening up space for others to step into leadership, and building mutually supportive relationships with seasoned and new leaders, is the work that makes my heart beam and feels the most impactful for the long term struggle. I believe that we must win concrete victories that change people’s everyday lives. But if we do this without investing in each other as people and leaders, we won’t be able to sustain our movement for the long term. I believe in celebrating campaign wins as well as moments where someone in our community moves deeper into leadership.
Carla: If there are white people wanting to become active in challenging racism, (and there are more and more every day) then I think part of measuring effectiveness has to be whether or not we are helping them engage. This means we need to be developing various ways, many ways, for people to be active in their local community, and also in SURJ as a regional and national effort. This is an area we need more work on, and more learning from other effective organizing efforts. In the struggle to expand justice, and make democracy real in this country, we have powerful examples of effective base building and organizing work. We have examples of white people defecting from white supremacy and joining people of color-led struggles for change. But there is not a lot of history of large enough numbers of white people rising up against racism in this country. So part of this work is, as the saying goes, is making the path as we are walking it.
One new project SURJ has undertaken that I am really excited about is outreach in white neighborhoods. We have just put out a call for white people to go door to door in white neighborhoods to have conversations with our neighbors about what is happening in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and in this country that denies opportunity, livelihood, and freedom to Black Americans. The conversation includes asking if we can put a Black Lives Matter yard sign in their yard. We hope this project will not only further train SURJ supporters in how to talk about race with other white people, and provide an experience for other white people to take a stand for Black lives, but identify racial justice supporters as well. This project, inspired by work already underway in St. Louis, and with the support of black lives matter leaders, can be used to garner white support for local campaigns led by Black and other people of color against police violence, mass incarceration, disproportionate school suspensions, and more.
Dara: Coming out of a community organizing background, I was taught to measure effectiveness in concrete wins. Are we increasing the minimum wage? How much? How quickly? Part of my evolution as an organizer has been to move from a transactional framework towards a transformational framework. This means that it isn’t just about what we win, how many actions we do, how much news coverage we get, but what is the quality of the relationships. How are we supporting local groups of white people to listen and build trusting connections and partnerships with local communities of color? This looks different in Vermont then it does in Minneapolis.
Some of the feedback we’ve gotten from our partnerships with Black leaders and groups is to go slow by respecting their decision-making process. I struggle with this individually, and because of all my white training, but ultimately, for us to be effective it is all about the relationships. This is why when we do trainings across the country, we base it in an organizing model of one-to-one conversations, relationship building and connection. The need for belonging and connection for white people doing racial justice work is deep. A big part of making our work effective is supporting groups to build a local community, a culture, and take action from a basis of relationships. For example, we have a new SURJ chapter in Chicago. They’ve been meeting for months, going to actions, supporting the work of local people of color led groups. They just co-sponsored their first action- a memorial for #RekiaBoyd and other Black women and girls who were killed by the police in Chicago.
Chris: What are the goals and strategies (as emergent, planned, messy, and sophisticated, basic as it is) you’re operating from?
Sam: In order to end structural racism and to truly transform the world, we need everyone. So white folks must be moved to challenge racism within ourselves, our communities, and the racist systems within which we live. I am invested in building strong infrastructure to support white racial justice organizing across the U.S. I have experienced the difficulty and isolation of doing this work in massively under-resourced areas, with a lack of models and mentors to look to for support and strategies. Several years ago, I was part of forming a white anti-racist organizing group in Tucson, Arizona, where the lack of resources for white people wanting to take leadership in organizing our own communities, was discouraging. Through our affiliation with SURJ, we were able to connect with organizations around the country invested in similar kinds of work. I’ve found breaking isolation and sharing lessons across regions and movements to be crucial for building and sustaining the work, and in realizing that we are not starting from scratch. We are connected to larger histories of white people organizing against racism.
Much of our work in SURJ is creating space for these connections. For instance, recently someone working with a group of white people who work in primarily white environmental organizations in Alaska contacted us for support. We were able to connect him to an environmental justice organizer in New York state to talk about what folks in other places are doing within the environmental movement to address racism. Creating avenues for local leaders to share what’s working, to strategize together, and to draw inspiration from each other, helps strengthen all of our work.
Something we talk a lot about in SURJ is the strategy of connecting with our own mutual interest as white people with that of people of color in ending racism. I come from a Southern, working-class rural family. We are a people who have known in our bones what it means to struggle to live with dignity day-to-day. Yet, many people in my family are bound by deep racism, which strips them of their humanity and often pushes them to align against their own economic interests. It is in our direct interest to unite with other poor and working class folks, many of whom are people of color, to end racism and capitalism. I know that my people cannot get free unless we end white supremacy. So on both a soul and economic level, we have a mutual interest in ending systemic racism. Entering the struggle to organize other white people from this place has enabled me to connect with others on why we need to be in this fight for racial justice. If white folks understand what our stakes are in ending racism, we can build stronger relationships with other each other, and can form a more deeply committed and invested base of white people to join the multiracial movement for justice.
Carla: I love being asked about goals and strategies in a question with the word messy in it. For indeed, the SURJ journey has been far from linear, or neat, or certain. We have big, broad goals like getting a critical mass of white people to break with white supremacy, and become part of a people of color-led, multiracial movement for transformative change. And we carry big broad questions around how we support the leadership of poor and working class white people, why that is critical, how we grapple with differences in this work, and how we really meet people where they are, not where we think they should be but aren’t. And we have to create opportunities for white people to break silence and inaction in the face of racism and fight it, as white southern civil rights activist and journalist Anne Braden said, “as if our lives depended on it, for in fact, they do”. This takes a lot of steps that may seem small, like responding to a white activist beginning SURJ work in Dallas about how to do a white privilege conference (and connect it to action), to talking with someone in Bellamy, Oregon to learn about their campaign for police accountability, or to encouraging a sister wanting to start something in southern Indiana.
Supporting, encouraging, and in some cases sparking local work to engage white people in racial justice is what we are doing. If we can be there for people trying to do this in spaces all over this country, it can add up to more than our individual parts, and more than just SURJ organizationally. The possibility, and indeed the hope, is that our numbers and impact, when joined with people of color-led efforts, can become a significant challenge to local, national and indeed international expressions of US white supremacy on the road to transformational change and collective liberation.
For Louisville SURJ, an example of this would be the campaign to expose and challenge the Cordish Company, notorious for racial profiling, and worker abuse, and police harassment around the country. For over ten years, their Fourth Street Live! entertainment district in downtown Louisville got away with this, despite Black civil rights concerns. When Louisville SURJ formed, we were asked by those activists to help get Cordish’s attention. By assembling a coalition that includes the ACLU of Kentucky, the LGBTQ Fairness Campaign, (both largely white base groups), and along with key leaders of color, LSURJ helped shine the light on Cordish racism, and pressure for change. We were able to leverage white privilege for antiracism and suddenly the powers that be in Louisville government and corporate circles were paying attention.
Dara: Right now, we’re really focused on the door-knocking efforts that Carla mentioned earlier. We see this as a great way to build the skills and capacity of the 40 local groups around the country that are participating. The skill and the muscle of being able to engage a wide swath of white people in motion- people who are recognizing that the system is rigged and are looking to put their efforts into taking action to transform the system into one which is not set up to privilege whiteness-is critical. We’re in conversations with people from Black Lives Matter, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice and other Black-led groups about the best ways to work together, and the role of SURJ as the biggest network of white people organizing white people to specifically engage other white people for racial justice in the US. We want to build the skills and capacity of all SURJ members and groups to be able to do outreach in white communities, to take principled stands with elected officials and the police, to shift culture through the arts, to be arrested; and to see all these tactics as part of a larger strategy to challenge the powers that perpetuate racial injustice, and to challenge and change the political system locally regionally and nationally.
Another one of our principles within in SURJ is that there is enough for all. One of the things that capitalism teaches us is a model of scarcity. It is a system that privileges the few at the expense of the many. We see part of the role of white people in racial justice work as bringing more resources into the movement. For each sign that a SURJ group buys, $1 goes to Black Lives matter. Similarly, some of our groups are hosting fundraisers that benefit people of color led organizing. From a house-party in suburban Maryland to a walkathon/race being planned for this summer in Central Vermont, we believe that part of accountability is white people raising funds for people of color movement work. A lot of times white groups have more access to resources, and so we ask anyone who gives to SURJ to make an equal or greater gift to people of color-led organizing.
We are in conversations with our accountability council and an internal process exploring launching a campaign this fall against police brutality and for community control of community resources. This would be our first national campaign, and it would be a real effort to reflect the multiple parts of SURJ, and to identify a campaign that can have local, regional and national targets for change. The goal is not just legislative reform but what can lead to a transformation in the way we see safety in communities, and what it would look like to have neighborhood and city control of resources. Our planning for this will be grounded in conversation with our accountability partners in Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives more broadly and with other people of color led groups and organizations.
Chris: What challenges are you facing? How are you trying to overcome them? What are you learning from these experiences?
Sam: I see many white anti-racist groups struggling with moving beyond a small core and building a broad base. There is a lot of anxiety around prioritizing the work with other white people. I have felt a huge amount of shame about my whiteness, and in the past have tried to distance myself from “bad white people” to try to establish myself as a “good white person.” Many of the people I determined were “bad white people” are members of my family and my home community, and this shame only heightened the distance between myself and my people–the people in my life with whom I relate to in some of the most deep and fundamental ways. If we can’t hold our own communities together with love, how can we move forward together and transform the current oppressive and dehumanizing conditions?
On the national and local level, I’ve found that approaching this work with deep love for my people has been absolutely necessary for me to move through that shame, and has enabled me to connect with the people who I work with in much deeper and genuine ways. At SURJ, we hold the value of calling people in, rather than calling people out. This means holding the tensions that arise in our differences, building deep relationships of trust and mutual respect, continuing to call people deeper into the work as they are, and challenging each other with love. This also means making sure that our spaces are accessible for everyone, in particular to people beyond what are often exclusive, activist circles.
Shame and fear-based culture is a huge barrier to organizing other white folks as well. Critical self-reflection and deep relationships of accountability with organizers of color are absolutely crucial for this work. Also, if we get stuck in our fear of making mistakes, we are doing a great disservice to ourselves and the larger movement. As Maurice Mitchell said on one of our early calls about Ferguson, “Your anxiety about getting it right has nothing to do with black liberation.” The truth is that this work is often uncomfortable, and I believe that we need to take risks and push ourselves beyond our comfort zone. I am certain that we will make mistakes–we are not perfect and we are paving this road as we walk in many ways. I believe that accountability means continuing to show up, to keep coming back to the table with an open heart, and to build strength from the lessons that we learn from our mistakes.
Carla: One of the challenges we are facing is whether or not we are growing a culture of engagement in which we as white people can be in this not just today, but for the long haul, and not just as individuals, but as people who are growing collectively. We have to take on the issue of what is holding white people back, and not just chalk that up to white privilege, which, though part of it, is not the whole story. What if we could look at how we can engage white people from a place of welcome, support and affirmation? What if we help each other through our mistakes, and be open about the fact that we all make them? What if we ground our commitment in the mutual interest we all have, people of color and white people, in joining together to fight for a society that values all of us? And what if we understand that no matter how nervous and unsure we are about how to take action, taking action is a core element of growing accountable relationships with people of color and people of color led struggles?
SURJ is using what we are calling “core organizing values” to create a culture of white anti- racism work that helps people engage: Calling In, Taking Risks/Making Mistakes, Mutual Interest, and Accountability through Action. We use these values in our trainings, in our basebuilding work and in the co coaching we are doing with people around the country.
They resonate. It is as if people are hungry for a way to do this work that is uplifting, affirming, and values creativity – a way to do this work where we can actually love one another through all our imperfection, and yes, our whiteness. Though we have been asked to do this work for decades by people of color, we remain uneasy with the idea that focusing on organizing other white people is actually a valuable, necessary thing we must do.
Here in Louisville, when in response to the non indictment in the police killing of Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter and Ferguson Action were asking for action at Department of Justice offices throughout the country, Louisville SURJ decided to answer that call. We conferred with local Black Lives Matter activists of color, and LSURJ organized the rally.
Our focus was to reach out to white people to show up, and a large group did. At the same time, a largely people of color led action disrupted business as usual at Metro City Hall. At a later point, the two actions joined each other and closed out together. One of the challenges for us in LSURJ was whether or not it was okay for our white group to play a leadership role, and what that should look like. We were able to move through these challenges in an effective and accountable way, not only because of the cross-race relationships built long before this particular action, but based on our understanding that stepping into leadership in engaging other white people is what we need to be doing. When this question of whether or not there is a role for white leadership in this work festers, the conditions for uncertainty, hesitation and inaction hold everyone back. But, and this is critical in this conversation, the white leadership we need is about engaging other white people, not about trying to take over people of color led efforts, or organizing in communities of color. I think those of us who are white will make more progress on the very real and critical issues of accountability to people of color when we get clearer about showing up to organize other white people.
Dara: Our biggest challenges in SURJ right now are around capacity and moving members from talk into action. We’ve had such a huge growth in interest, engagement and membership in the past nine months. We have jumped from being a fairly small, low to the ground network of 15 groups, to now more than 75 groups, multiple partnerships, and thousands of supporters, facebook, and twitter followers. It is a huge leap. We know that history holds moments like this, and we’ve all been stretching to meet the needs of the time. For us to get to scale–where we can amplify our local organizing into an effective, national movement–is an exciting challenge to have in front of us.
As Carla and Sam talked about, a lot of our member groups get really stuck moving from the theory of opposing white supremacy to taking public action to engage other white people. Everyone is waiting for a leader of color to tell them or their group to take action. But here’s the thing- we know that police brutality is wrong, we know that a black person is killed by the police (or some form of security forces) #Every28Hours. This is why it is so crucial for all of us as white people to take action even knowing that we will make mistakes.
It’s also been a real balancing act for me to fight my inclination to be engaging with SURJ members all the time. It’s been crucial for me to set limits on my SURJ time, not plug my phone in in the bedroom, making time to exercise, grow food, meditate and spend time with kids in my life. These practices are crucial for me to stay in this work for the long haul.
Chris: How are you developing your own leadership and the leadership of people around you to step up in these profound, painful and powerful Black Lives Matter movement time?
Sam: Critical to my own development as an organizer has been mentorship and the development of deep relationships with other organizers who are in this work for the long haul. When I connected with SURJ, as well as with rural organizers in Oregon and from the South, I found a political and spiritual home. I was able to understand myself and my people as a part of a larger history. I was able to place myself within the legacy of anti-racist white Southern queers and women who dedicate their lives to the struggle for collective freedom. This connection grounds me. I find this grounding to be absolutely necessary to sustain long-term movement work.
As a young organizer, I find myself needing to constantly challenge myself to step up into leadership. I’ve struggled with self-confidence for my whole life, and it is really easy for me believe that other people can always do things better. When we were forming our organizing group in Tucson, we decided that it would be really important to start with a leadership development series, in order to build trust and shared political analysis with our core. I felt that I needed more training before I could lead something like that, but in Arizona, we don’t have the same resources and training opportunities as there are in large cities with larger movement infrastructures. A small core of us planned a 12 week leadership development and organizing training that we facilitated ourselves, and out of that grew some really powerful immigrant rights solidarity work in Tucson. Through that experience I realized that some of the best learning comes from taking action and learning along the way. I have been learning to challenge myself and to step up, all while holding myself with love and understanding that I won’t be perfect. Practicing self-love and continuing to come back to my love for my people and my deep desire for full liberation for everyone is what enables me to stay in the work and to grow with all of the beautiful folks that I move alongside in the struggle.
Dara: I am lucky to have had great mentors, co-workers and fellow travellers over the past 20 years when I worked as a community organizer. I’m also lucky to have been studying somatics over the past four years with the Strozzi Institute and Generative Somatics. Somatics is a transformative practice that offers physical and emotional practices to help sustain and transform participants to be our most grounded selves. We’re lucky in SURJ to be embarking on a movement partnership with Generative Somatics to train 60+ of our leaders in 2016 in embodied leadership and organizing skills.
Carla: I will be forever grateful for the influence in my own journey of the Black Liberation Movement, the liberation struggles against US colonialism and imperialism, the labor movement, and other examples of people fighting for democracy, peace and justice. I grew up in privilege, seeing from an early age that a very few people, including my own family, had too much, and so many people did not have enough. But as I opened my eyes and heart, I also discovered community, and a powerful legacy of resistance. I learned that when people organize collective power against oppressive systems, change can happen. From the artists, the poet activists like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Audre Lorde and Mahmoud Darwish, I learned that the spirit must and can refuse all efforts to dehumanize us, and that when we each bring our gifts for the benefit of the whole, we all win. So for me, learning from the history of anti oppression struggle, learning from the cultural activists and door to door organizers is all critical to our own leadership development. Because of the way this helps me stay hopeful and focused, I want to share this with others. At the same time, I believe that the leaders we need most are leaders who see supporting others to lead as part of our own heartbeat, something we cannot live without. This means always developing structures that engage more rather than less people, building in ways that make various forms and levels of engagement possible, and being open to and curious about how people want to come into this work, the gifts we each bring. Only through collective action and collective leadership, can we grow something we actually want and need to be part of. A collection of disconnected individuals or disconnected actions, no matter how “right” they may be, will not grow what is necessary for us to bring.
When we forget this, we are lost. When we remember this, and practice this, there is nothing that can stop the justice journey.
Sam Hamlin is a community organizer and educator in Tucson, Arizona. She is currently the Volunteer Coordinator for Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and a member of the Tucson Solidarity Group.
Carla F Wallace works to build justice community and collective leadership in Louisville, Kentucky as part of Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice, as part of the national SURJ leadership and its Basebuilding Team.
Dara Silverman is the National Coordinator of SURJ and is based in Beacon, NY. Previously, she worked as a coach, consultant, yoga teacher and community organizer. She supports leaders to be in the movement for the long haul.