White Progressives: It’s Time to Get to Work, Not Just Have Opinions

We need to start building a movement by acknowledging we actually are deeply uninformed about what is happening in this country, and then find some ways to get more informed.We need to start building a movement by acknowledging we actually are deeply uninformed about what is happening in this country, and then find some ways to get more informed. (Photo: Tim Green / Flickr)

The morning after the election I woke up feeling like the excess layers of cynicism, pettiness, and muddled thinking that have grown on me over the years had burned off in my few short hours of sleep. I felt like I was all bones, muscle and skin  —  the way I used to feel when I first became an organizer. I felt made up only of the core of what I know most deeply, as an organizer rooted in intersectional LGBTQ movement-building, and as a person who sees herself as spiritual, and for these purposes all I mean by that is as a person who values life beyond my own, and times besides the one I live in. From that place, I try to answer the question I am being asked a lot right now: What do you think? What do you know? What should we do? We’ve got to start somewhere. I personally think strong, thoughtful assessment is first step. But then  —  so much organizing to do. Here is where I am starting my thoughts.

White People: This Is On Us

I am already hearing implications that Latinx and Black voters are to blame for a Trump presidency. We have to push back hard on that idea, y’all. White people elected Trump: across age, across gender, across geography, and across class  —  with mostly wealthier white people sitting at the core of the voters who built his win. As white progressives, we have failed to organize a large enough block of white people who share our core values, or who at least feel fundamentally neutral about those values, and unthreatened by them. We need a radically different strategy for white-on-white organizing, and we need it right now.

Stop Blaming Movements

This did not happen to us because “movements went too fast.” That idea is like blaming a survivor who is being repeatedly punched for defending themselves. Black, Indigenous, Brown and LGBTQ movements are defending our families, our basic dignity, and our actual lives. Only people who have a real buffer from day to day hustle, struggle, anguish and terror would blame our movements and communities right now. I want to see us, as white progressives, engage people who believe this around why they have the luxury to blame movements right now and how a different perspective is needed.

The Moment Requires a Different Kind of Leadership

I start this point while looking in the mirror. I see an organizer who loves justice but who has allowed herself to spend more time at conferences than organizing her neighborhood. More time with her clique and crew than building an ever-expanding base. More time talking about organizing other white people than actually doing it. I have allowed funders and liberal organizations to talk me into strategies that my heart knows are not the most needed in our time, and not effective for building mass-based social movements. So, what does all that tell me? That we need to start by acknowledging we actually are deeply uninformed about what is happening in this country, and then find some ways to get more informed. After that, we will need organization and leadership, and we will need it differently and (again) we need it now.

Those of us who know how to walk down the street and talk to anyone we meet: We need you now. Alliance creators, base builders, grimy messy organizers who make thoughtful assessment and then work their asses off and don’t quit: We need you now. Anyone who knows how to organize with people who do not agree with them on everything: We need you now. People who know how to organize those new to organizing: We desperately need you now. Anyone who knows what it means to not quit even when campaigns break our hearts, when we lose, and when people on our team actually die: We need you now.

There is no shame if you do not know how to do these things or cannot do them, but if that is the case then you still are on the hook: We need you to support these efforts and figure out how to plug in the skills and resources you have, to build an effective movement — starting right now.

Veterans of Organizing Efforts in Red States: Let’s Step Forward

Veterans of organizing efforts in red states: We have to move forward and lead white-on-white organizing. We need to share what we know. We need white people on the blue coasts to pull us forward and center us. Why? Because we know what it means to live without policy protections every day. In states with no ‘friendly targets’ to appeal to. In places where funders don’t fund and donors don’t give. In places where we don’t have the luxury of walking away from a coalition because we disagree with someone, because there just are not enough of us organizing. Because we had to sit around and read the words of organizers on the blue coasts writing about there being no difference between Clinton and Trump presidencies. We knew that was a lie, and we knew deep down there was some chance that Trump could win.

White Working-Class People: We Need to Insist on What We Know

Working-class white people, mixed-class white people and white class ascenders: I am also talking to us. We have allowed the white-on-white organizing conversations to be led by upper-middle-class people. We have allowed them to tell us how to organize in ways that we know are patronizing and will not help us win. We have been quiet or polite when they parachute in and tell us how to do this work when we know they are wrong. Given what’s at stake, we cannot be silent anymore, we cannot be polite anymore, we have to be lovingly and radically honest.

I am not talking about us because I think poor and working class white people are the most to blame for Trump’s rise. (I don’t.) I am talking to us (and about us) because we know what it means to have a genuine political conversation with someone who has a fifth-grade education level: We can teach other white people to do that. We know how to talk to a much wider group of white people than wealthier white people do. We may come from deeply racially segregated communities, but we are not sheltered. We are not pampered, and no one promised us the whole damn world. Most of us heard messages like the one I heard from my mom: “You are gonna have to work every damn day of your life. So try to find a way to work that doesn’t break you.” And the way in which we see work is important right now. Because this moment will take real and very hard work.

Many of us grew up in homes where people were judged based on what they did, not what they said. That will be important now because what we say on social media will begin to matter less or differently. We simply do not walk around with the same kind of entitlement: that will also be important because we have no right to be arrogant right now. Many of our communities are deeply bigoted and have gained from whiteness. But we are not spoiled with the same forms of class entitlement. I have watched the class dynamics among white organizers for years: how it plays out, who “gets to the top,” and how people do the work  —  and I have held my tongue. But, this moment has no time for that kind of hesitation. Pound for pound, we have under-utilized organizing potential in these communities and I am calling our name. We need middle-class white people too, but working-class white people, poor white people and class ascenders must play major leadership roles.

Let’s Organize the Media

The role of national media should be to inform. This election shows the media (progressive and mainstream), by and large, is completely unable to do that. Most media outlets do not have any idea what is actually happening in this country, and even when they do cover key events, they are often so out of touch that they are unable to tell stories with any accuracy or context. There are literally millions of white people we need to be talking to  —  and they can’t hear from us because media puts pundits and irrelevant opinion makers on mainstream news. It’s like putting people on TV who study carpentry rather than carpenters. We need to explore the different ways to reach people. Trump’s strategy focused almost exclusively on paid social media ads, targeting exactly whom his campaign wanted to reach. The media have organized us  so that we only see information from people who think like we do. We need solutions — both to get informed and reach new people. We need to organize so they do that. Time is of the essence. We honestly do not know what media repression will exist starting in January.

Local Organizing as Hope

The night Trump was elected, we also defeated Sheriff Joe Arpaio here in Phoenix, Arizona. For 23 years, he has been torturing immigrant families, families of color and poor families here. He has put the community in outdoor jails with 120-degree heat in the summer; he has build chain gangs for women and youth prisoners. I have not lived in Phoenix long, nor am I from here in any way. But, to see a massive landslide victory based on working-class and poor people organizing thousands and thousands of people in their own community (who no one else is talking to or listening to) has been incredible. There is a generation of organizers here born out of the struggle. They are strong. They are ready to protect and defend this city and county. They are willing to do this work and they know how. They are majority of color and working class  —  and some of them walked out of their high schools Thursday for the third day in a row by the hundreds.

We have to support people to build strong organizing where they live. We have to leave it all on the dance floor in the service of building local leadership and local campaigns. Parachuting people in won’t work long term  —  we have to support people to protect and defend right where they are.

My progressive white family: We have the opportunity of a lifetime to fight like hell for what we say we believe. This is not a drill. We do not have be perfect and we will not have all the answers, but we do have to take responsibility, and we do have to be humble, flexible and brave. Let’s organize.

Note: An earlier version of this piece ran on Medium.