The Nation’s Gary Younge writes in a recent piece tellingly titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of the American Left” that more often than not, organizations and conferences organized to assist those in need are missing a very important component: the poor and minority community members they’ve set out to help. This is not to say, he explains, that those who are white and wealthy should be banned from activism, but it’s important to integrate members of all socioeconomic backgrounds in order for the progressive movement to be successful. Most importantly, Younge poignantly writes, “It’s not that these [minorities and low-income families] don’t have a voice. It’s that even when they’re shouting at the top of their lungs, their voices are too rarely heard by those who would much rather speak for them than listen to them.”
“However rebellious children may be, they have their parents’ genes,” wrote Andrew Kopkind in 1968. “American radicals are Americans. They cannot easily cross class lines to organize groups above or below their own station. They are caught in the same status traps as everyone else, even if they react self-consciously.”
...The point here is not that only minorities or the poor can run organizations that advocate on issues that primarily affect minorities and the poor. That way madness lies. There is nothing inherent in an identity or a circumstance that automatically makes someone a better leader. Michael Manley, John Brown, Joe Slovo—history is not teeming with examples of the wealthy and light providing leadership for the poor and dark, but they do exist. People have to be judged on what they do, not who they are. This is not simply about optics. What an organization looks like is relevant; but what it does is paramount.
The point is that for a healthy and organic relationship to develop between an organization and its base, the organization must be representative of and engaged with those whose needs it purports to serve. In other words, to do good work one should not speak on behalf of the people but empower them to speak for themselves. Once empowered, the people may exert pressure to change the organization’s agenda in unexpected ways—and that’s a good thing.
It’s not as though there aren’t examples out there…
—Posted by Natasha Hakimi Zapata
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