An interview with DrewChristopher Joy of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center on building up anti-racist white working class leadership.
The Black Lives Matter movement has changed the political landscape of the country towards racial justice with Black Liberation vision, strategy, culture, resilience, and resistance at the forefront, with a new generation of Black leadership rising to meet the challenges of our time. Around the country there are also white racial justice organizers and leaders who are working to engage, educate, mobilize and organize white people to join in this Black-led multiracial movement time and throw down against white supremacy and work for the structural and cultural changes that Black Lives Matter demands.
With tens of thousands of white people coming into consciousness in these times and similar numbers trying to figure out how to be effective in these times, I am launching this interview series with white racial justice organizers and leaders from around the country, to draw out examples of what white are doing and can do, along with insights and lessons born from years of experience.
My goal is to help equip white people to be courageous, humble, visionary, accountable, loving, and effective as we, as white people, work to save white communities from the death culture of white supremacy and unite our people with the deeply life affirming, liberatory power of the Black Lives Matter movement. While white people need to be mindful of how white privilege operates, we must also be powerful for collective liberation, knowing that the time for us to rise against structural racism is now. This first interview is with my longtime comrade, DrewChristopher Joy, who is building up anti-racist white working class leadership and multiracial movement for economic justice in rural and urban Maine.
CC: 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?
DCJ: At the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, I’m working to support a majority-white working class membership to understand their relationship to a broader struggle for racial justice. My own political perspective is rooted in anti-racism and an intersectional understanding of racial, economic, and gender-based oppression; this lens consistently shapes how I think about, lead, and organize for workers’ rights. For me organizing white people into movements for racial justice is fundamentally about love for my people through both our struggles and our privileges.
The SMWC strives to keep conversations about systemic racism at the forefront of our campaign work, underscoring links between the economic issues that directly impact our white working class communities and the oppressions faced by communities of color. The ultimate goal is to develop campaigns and leadership that can confront the realities of class-based economic injustice while working toward the potential of a multi-racial united front, and centering racial justice as integral to systemic change and collective liberation.
Our work toward this vision is played out through two programing committees: Work With Dignity (WWD), currently running a campaign to raise the minimum wage in Portland and Health Care is a Human Right (HCHR), currently involved in a statewide campaign for universal, publically-funded health care. These are base-building campaigns, which means that we are out in the streets and at community events talking to new folks about living wages and health care for all. We see these interactions as opportunities to connect people to their own experiences of injustice while pushing them on issues of racism, and we work to train up our members to engage with folks on each of these levels.
At a recent HCHR member meeting, we focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and related actions that were happening in Maine. We wanted our members to feel inspired by these actions and think about how we as the HCHR campaign can respond to this political moment. We also role played organizing conversations that regularly happen during outreach, thinking about how to address people who say things like, “I believe that health care is a human right, but we shouldn’t pay for immigrants health care” and “but don’t all lives matter?”
The SMWC uses a set of human rights principles—equity, accountability, transparency, universality, participation—that we adopted from the Vermont Workers’ Center to guide our HCHR campaign. We’ve found that universality and equity in particular are great tools for pushing back against racism. I’ve had conversations with white people who have had a really hard time accessing healthcare who are excited about our campaign, but quickly move into scarcity thinking, worried that they might get left behind in efforts to increase access. Telling people that a central component to our campaign is universality—that everyone, without exception, by virtue of being human, is entitled to health care is a great way to shift the conversation. A follow-up question about why is that important to the campaign often ends with the individual realizing, “right, because if we start excluding some people, then the door opens to excluding more people and then I might be left out again.”
We can follow this up by saying: “under a system that is being equitably funded, in which everyone puts in what they can afford, and gets out what we need, it turns out that there really is enough for everyone. When we build a system the works for immigrants in our community, we’re building a system that works for all of us.” This is just an opening conversation. As we follow up with new members we bring them into a stronger anti-racist analysis through committee work, political education trainings, and most importantly, participation in actions and events organized by people of color-led coalitions and organizations.
This approach integrates working class and poor white workers into a the racial justice movement, pushing them to take action in solidarity against racism as they lead campaigns around issues that they are directly impacted by.
CC: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?
DCJ: The Southern Maine Workers’ Center organizing model involves making contact with hundreds of people every year and engaging with them about the economic justice issues relevant to their lives. In the past year, we’ve had conversations with over 900 Mainers, signed up 80 members, held two large events attended by over 70 people, and tabled or presented at over 40 events across the state. We also cosponsored five events directly related to the Black Lives Matter movement, working in solidarity with organizations such as the NAACP and Portland’s Racial Justice Congress. We see the growth of our membership and the deepening of our community engagement as indicators of our increasing effectiveness. People are responding to our work and our political framework because they want to be part of an organization that is fighting for concrete victories for working class people and building up leaders for systemic change.
Other measures of effectiveness can be harder to quantify and define. Our serious investments in relationships with other people and other organizations have meaningful, long-term implications, even though this work takes time and doesn’t often happen on a mass scale. Similarly, when we see thousands of people on the streets it can be hard to remember that the one-on-one conversations I’m having—with strangers, with our members, and with other emerging leaders in the movement— also make a meaningful contribution. It can feel slow moving. However, I do believe that this work is contributing to the cultural and political shifts in the state being lead by people of color. Ultimately, the question of effectiveness is a hard one when anti-racism is not an end goal or a campaign victory rather it is a practice.
Last week I spoke on a panel of activists for a multi-racial audience of high school students in Portland. I was invited to speak about SMWC’s work for a higher minimum wage in the city. It became clear early on in the conversation that the most pressing issue for the young people in that room was trying to make sense of the Baltimore uprising and racism in this Black Lives Matter movement time. This event was really the heart of what I’m trying to do with my organizing: the door gets opened through the issue of raising the minimum wage, but the real opportunity is to talk about racism and racial justice.
The take-away was that many white students really want to understand enough to be in solidarity. They get their own situations—being queer and trans, being poor, watching people they love suffer. The question is how to move people from their own experiences to understanding root causes of systemic injustice. As an organizer, my job is to really show up with love and patience to those conversations while holding a strong anti-racist line and hopefully move people to action.
CC: What are the goals and strategies (as emergent, planned, messy, and sophisticated, basic as it is) you’re operating from?
DCJ: The SMWC is currently working on institutionalizing our strategies so that our political framework doesn’t depend on particular organizers or members. In January, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement emerging nationally and locally, we created a document called “Together We Will Find the Way: Our Anti-Racist Organizing Commitments,” which outlines a set of principles to guide our racial justice work. That statement reads:
We believe that it is crucial at this time to take a bold and uncompromising stance against racism. We must actively counter the politics of scarcity and fear with transformative anti-racist organizing which is the politics of abundance. As a majority white, multi-racial organization, we don’t claim to have all the answers, but we know that we must seek them. As this anti-racist movement continues to grow in the months and years ahead, the Southern Maine Workers’ Center makes the following commitments:
- We will act in solidarity with people of color led organizing in Maine and across the nation.
- We will organize around issues identified as priorities by people of color in our membership and communities.
- We will prioritize the leadership of people of color within our organization.
- We will organize white people into a movement for racial justice and collective liberation.
This framework gives us a directive to engage with the Black Lives Matter movement, encourages coalition building with and direct support of local people of color-led organizing, centers anti-racist practices within our organization, and requires us to engage in ongoing evaluation as we learn about what works and what doesn’t. You can read the full text our statement here: http://www.maineworkers.org/together-we-will-find-the-way-our-anti-racist-organizing-commitments-2/
CC: What challenges are you facing? How are you trying to overcome them? What are you learning from these experiences?
DCJ: Organizing other white people requires both a faith in our own and each other’s capacity for personal and societal transformation. This faith can be hard to hold onto. In organizing we often talk about “meeting people where they are at,” and while we strive to have low barriers for people to get involved, we still want to push folks to move into deeper political analysis and commitment. I’ve said a lot about how we think about the work and what our framework is. The challenge, of course, is in implementation.
As a white person, I’m concerned with making sure that I’m meeting people where they are without letting them off the hook. How do we hold each other and ourselves lovingly accountable? How do we make sure that we are always centering an intersectional anti-oppression framework, even when speaking from our own experiences of oppression? As much as there is real potential in organizing white folks, there is also the inherent risk of de-racializing issues for the sake of unity, conflating our struggles with the struggles of people of color, or replicating racism in our own organization. I make these kinds of mistakes all the time, and when I do I try to take responsibility for them, evaluate what to do differently next time, and keep moving forward. The stakes are too high to let ourselves be held back by fears of doing it wrong.
CC: 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?
DCJ: Mentorship is key to this moment. I’ve been fortunate to have received some really good training and political development over the years from white anti-racist and Black organizers in particular. These are the folks who urged me to move back to Maine and organize in majority white communities here. I am grateful to the people who have invested in me and loved me through my process. Mentorship is a huge gift. During the Black Lives Matter movement, I look to these mentors to help guide my work and be my political compass.
In Maine we feel the urgency of the Black Lives Matter platform in profound ways, so fostering new leadership within this movement is crucial. Our state is majority white and very working class, and we are currently seeing racism and xenophobia being used to sow fear and suspicion so that elected leaders can implement programs of austerity and state violence. These were the conditions we were working from before the Black Lives Matter movement really started to pop off, but the landscape has changed in the last five months as new organizing for racial justice has emerged in Portland and across the state, boosting existing efforts.
The moment calls for us to step up our organizing work alongside the work of people of color-led organizations. We need to be helping each other skill up fast in order to respond to the moment. This means allowing new leaders to emerge more quickly than we might be used to, an adjustment for many of us, who are accustomed to organizing developing at a slower pace, in which moving someone into a leadership position takes months or years. Overall, these times require flexibility in planning and letting go of some of our long-term plans in order to meet the challenges of the current moment.
Over the past few years as part of SMWC, I’ve done my best to pass on what I’ve learned to folks who are stepping up into leadership. In the past few months, I’ve tried to step up to support emerging leaders while also stepping back to make sure there is space for new leadership. As part of a majority white Workers’ Center with a firm commitment to ending racism, I see the current moment as an opportunity to work in coalition with organizations and movements with Black leadership. I’m simultaneously continuing to push myself to better understand the conditions in Maine, implement the most effective strategies for our work, and become a better organizer in these quickly shifting conditions.
DrewChristopher Joy is a white, queer, genderqueer organizer and carpenter who came up in a working class extended family that strove to uphold a commitment to racial justice in a context of struggling to make ends meet. Drew’s love for white people comes from their family and the lessons they passed on. Drew is the chair of the board of directors for the Southern Maine Workers’ Center (SMWC), a multiracial, mixed-class membership organization that seeks to improve the lives, working conditions, and terms of employment for all Maine workers.