Kelly Hayes talks with Mariame Kaba about storytelling and building power.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to movement memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes. Today’s guest is Mariame Kaba. Mariame is an abolitionist organizer, educator, and curator whose groundbreaking work has helped free countless people from jails, prisons and detention centers around the country. Her work focuses on ending violence, dismantling the prison industrial complex, transformative justice, and supporting youth leadership development. From erasing millions of dollars of medical debt in Chicago, New York, and Flint, Michigan to efforts to secure freedom for incarcerated survivors of gender violence, Mariame’s organizing both online and in person has had impacts that are nothing short of historic. In fact, the only bad thing I can say about her is that she doesn’t like cats. Mariame Kaba, welcome to the show.
Mariame Kaba: Thank you very much, Kelly, for inviting me and for having me. It’s really true. I do not like cats. We’re not going to go through why, but it’s true. And now I think I’ve lost probably 75% of your listeners. Thank you for starting with that.
KH: It’s true. That revelation may have alienated some folks, but we’ll get them back. How are you doing today, friend?
MK: All right. I’m doing all right. I was just saying to somebody, we’re in the midst of trying to pressure the governor here in New York, Governor Cuomo, to actually offer clemency, which is in his unique discretion, for more people who are currently incarcerated, especially under these circumstances of COVID-19 and the pandemic. And so I’m actually currently trying to work on an event that we have coming up on Friday where we’re going to try to contextualize a prisoner resistance over a period of time, the past to the present, so that we can better understand how we can be in better solidarity with incarcerated people. So that’s what I’m up to this morning and afternoon.
KH: Well, that’s amazing. I look forward to seeing more about that work. It’s been a rough week in terms of tragedies unfolding. But on a happier note, today is the five year anniversary of the passage of the reparations ordinance in Chicago, an effort that you played a key role in that won reparations for police torture survivors. It was a win that a lot of people didn’t think was possible. And to this day, it’s an example I turn to when people argue in favor of making realistic demands rather than bold ones.
MK: Yes. Oh my goodness. Can you believe it’s been five years?
KH: Not even.
MK: You know, you were such, such a big part of that campaign as well. And I just can’t believe it’s been five years. The experience of being a called lead organizer on that campaign for me is one of the most, just fulfilling experiences of my life. I am so, so grateful that I got a chance to organize alongside, you know, so many amazing, brilliant, just kind, generous people. It was such a beautiful experience and hard as every campaign is, but I’ll never forget it. And we did the thing that I think a lot of folks constantly want to know is, “Did you make a material difference in people’s lives?” And to be able to say, “Yes, we really did,” is so amazing. And I think for me, one day, I want to write more about that campaign from the perspective of how campaigns build on years of previous organizing. Like we don’t, you know, you don’t just come out of nowhere to win, that you have to build off of legacies that came before. And in our case for this, for, you know, the #RahmRepNow, the #ReparationsNow campaign, that is so evident in the fact that we had, it was a real intergenerational campaign, like in, in all the good ways of that. And the second thing is the importance of an abolitionist framework in organizing campaigns. That is a campaign that did all the things that we want abolitionists campaigns to do. It took power away, rather than putting more resources into the thing we want to dismantle. And I just, I’m just really proud of it and it’s, and it will always be one of the most significant and important campaigns of my life.
KH: I feel the same and it’s really surreal in so many ways, looking back on it now, one of which is that the home stretch of that campaign for about six months, we just had direct action after direct action. It was relentless, sort of very in person stuff that was happening and to be where we are now, where we’re trying to kind of reimagine the work that we’re going to do, while we’re in a more isolated place. Oh wow. Just kind of one of those, “Wow, how things change” moments.
MK: I agree. Kelly, I think how they change, but then how they actually also stay the same. And then also, here’s the point that I do always want to remind people about: One of the most important aspects of that campaign was digital organizing. We did a lot of in-person direct action. But we used the tools of digital organizing to reach many more people than we ever could have through just direct action. And, you know, you were integral to that in, you know, helping us with images and imagery online. You know, Sarah-Ji, you know, and Sarah’s photos that traveled the world quite literally. The ways that we very intentionally matched when we were in person to broadcasting, you know, to a digital audience. These were all innovations that were integral to getting us to the point where we could develop enough power to actually get our target to give us what we wanted. So I think, you know, one thing I want to make sure we are gonna talk about today is a lot of the skepticism that people have about the digital sphere to me is something that effective organizers really aren’t in an argument about, because it’s been a both/and rather than an either/or since before the pandemic. Millions of people exist in digital space. So what organizer worth their salt doesn’t actively engage them?
KH: Absolutely. And that brings us to something that I think we need to talk about before we dive into larger questions about digital organizing. I think that a lot of times when people claim that online organizing is futile, they’re pointing at things that aren’t really organizing. So I think it’s important to establish some shared language as we get this conversation going with our listeners. What does that word mean? It’s kind of like the word community and that it’s a word people use all the time and they use it quite passionately and often lack any shared understanding of the concept. So what does the word “organizing” mean to you?
MK: Well, thank you for asking that because that is absolutely true. It’s a word that’s imbued with so much meaning with so much history, and with so much subjectivity. Because I have found over the years that you know, I always ask people when they say they’re engaged in organizing, I’m like, that’s great. What kind of organizing? Like at what level are you organizing? Are you talking to me about community-based organizing? Are you talking about labor organizing in workplaces? Are you talking about electoral organizing? Are you trying to do like legislative organizing? For me, I started and came out of community based organizing, particularly in New York city. One of my kind of first experiences of door knocking was for an affordable housing organization in Harlem when I was 15 years old. And that was a community-based organizing model that I was steeped in, both getting formally trained and then actually just learning by doing, and for me, that kind of organizing is really different than electoral organizing or labor organizing or any other type of organizing that you might be doing. And for me, generally, I’ve always liked the turn of phrase that “community organizing is turning personal troubles into public issues.” Kind of the process of building power through involving a base of people in identifying problems that they share and figuring out together the solutions to those problems that they actually desire. And you know, there are other parts to that, but that’s basically where we are steeped in thinking about community based organizing. You know, identify the people and the structures that can make your solutions possible. Get your targets enlisted in an effort through confrontation sometimes, pressure always, in order to be able to get them to give you the demand. The demand is the thing you want in your particular organizing campaign. So I just think it’s so critical for us to be super clear about what we’re talking about when we talk about the term organizing, and then, what we talk about within organizing itself, which are lots of terms we use kind of as shorthand, but that are very specific to this work and I’m talking in this case of community organizing. You know, what is the direct action? What is a campaign? What is an issue? What do you mean when you say your base and a constituency? What actually is door knocking? What is the goal? How do you figure that out? What’s your strategy? What is a strategy? Right? A plan to win. What is a leader? What is the organizer? What is the problem? What’s your target? What’s the value like, you know, these are all things that for people who’ve been doing organizing of a certain kind for many years, particularly those of us who were trained initially, formally in Alinsky style organizing, there’s a vocabulary that connotes certain kinds of ideas that we use. And the last thing I want to say about this is, I don’t understand people who get very upset that you don’t do things one way. Right? I don’t think we need to be precious. I think it’s good to know the foundation of things and to know definitions of things in order to decide you don’t care about those things and you want to do it in a totally different way. But it seems ridiculous to me that we always talk about organizing as a static thing when it’s so dynamic. So context specific, so tied to the particular cultural backgrounds of the community members that are actually taking it on. So I just wanted to kind of open up with those ideas because I think we get so stuck in language and that language means something, it really does. It’s tied to values and it’s tied to theory and it’s tied to practice. So I really think those things are important. It’s tied to history, which is so important as well. But yeah, I think it’s really important to get clear on those things.
KH: I completely agree. And what you’re saying makes me think a lot about how people sometimes confuse tactics with strategies. I think people often confuse things that are helpful in organizing, or it can be really important with an organizing, with the organizing itself, like it’s really useful to, you know, build an online presence and you know, if you can get a bunch of followers, so you can raise the profile of an issue very quickly, like that’s great, but getting those followers and them liking the things you have to say, and expressing yourself politically and getting lots of retweets, like these things aren’t in and of themselves organizing. And I think people get confused about that. I think that there’s been a lot that’s happened in recent years on the internet where ideas get conflated. And folks, folks think that, well, you know, I’m explaining this, I’m giving you the facts. And they kind of get the idea of being convincing mixed up with organizing because if me making a convincing argument and relaying the facts, got everybody on board, we’d be living in a just world by now.
MK: No, I think you’re right. I do wonder, can you say more about what you were pointing to around the difference between strategy and tactics? I think that might be super helpful to listeners as well as they think about that. And kind of expand a little bit on what you mean by that.
KH: Well, I think sometimes we can get really caught up in the specific tactic we have associated with what we’re trying to do, a good example would be during Occupy, the tent kind of became this floating signifier. So everyone’s primary objective was to get an encampment. That made sense because there was some uniformity around that goal around the country, and a lot of people with very different perspectives were able to come together and sort of project their desire for something different, something better onto that floating signifier. It gave people something to unite around and also to be real, we did not have the ideological cohesion to actually present a list of demands, which is what people kept expecting at the time. So creating the symbology was super important, but here in Chicago, it became clear really quickly that they weren’t going to let us have an encampment. We took something like 300 arrests trying to make the encampment happen, and there came a point where we had to recognize that continuing to take all these arrests was not going to end the way we wanted it to end, but also that arrests are a resource and we were spending them all in one place. So at that point, we started to participate in more of the ongoing community struggles that were happening. Some of us work to bring the momentum of Occupy into the Mental Health Movement’s fight to save Chicago’s publicly funded mental health clinics. So I definitely don’t want to get down on Occupy because a lot of people do and I think the movement actually did a lot of good. But I do think our early efforts in Chicago offer a good lesson in not getting too married to a tactic and being willing to put the tactic down if it’s not strategic in a given situation
MK: I love that. I love your, I love that. And I’ve been thinking a lot,, you know, and this is always something that I know you also understand and do very well. You know, to organize, you have to be able to tell a story very well. A story that is credible to people, that gives people a plan and some things to do, that people think can actually succeed. Right? That all those things are super important. So as organizers, we often rely on storytelling to kind of build relationships, to kind of unite our constituencies, to figure out how to name problems, to mobilize people. You know, we do, we use storytelling in those ways to try to support and propel organizing forward. And I think maybe part of what you were mentioning about the online sphere is that people confuse telling with storytelling.
MK: You know, like telling somebody something is not the same thing as storytelling, which kind of asks questions of people, which forces you’re doing storytelling to kind of listen actively as you’re telling the story. Because that story is critical to the building of the relationships we’re going to need to actually. Be able to build the power that we need to win. So I think that, you know, a lot of times I see the digital sphere serving as a broadcasting mechanism, sometimes, as opposed to the storytelling as central to the relationship building part.
KH: You know, I couldn’t agree more and I really wish people would spend more time kind of being kind to themselves and giving themselves space to explore their skills as storytellers and giving themselves kind creative exercises that really indulge what’s special about, you know, their worldview and their ability to kind of envision something and tell a story. I think that having studied creative writing and philosophy prepared me for direct action as much as anything, like getting my mind around narrative and what makes people feel things.
MK: Yes. So important. What makes people feel things and also what makes people believe you. Believe you and not necessarily believe you, it doesn’t almost matter, like, not believe you about the topic you’re ranting about, but rather believe you. That what you say you believe and that you believe you can win. Like those things are important in doing this work. You know, like folks have to believe you and they have to believe that you believe it’s possible to actually make this thing happen. And that’s why people are going to be more likely to join. There’s always this tension between like the Alinsky model that some of us grew up in, which was, you know, you appeal to people’s self interest, and that’s the way, you know, you agitate people, you rub the sores of discontent, you do like these kinds of ways of thinking, which always felt off to me. And it became clear later on why it was off to me because, you know, it didn’t meet, it didn’t fit my cultural upbringing. It didn’t fit my, you know, racial, kind of socialization. It didn’t fit like my, like there were many other things that motivated people, beyond self-interest, it turned out, you know, and so I just had, you know, I could only develop a critique of that work by actually doing the work and figuring out what it was that didn’t sit well with me by trial and error over time. And something I want to also raise here, since we’re talking a lot about terminology of organizing and kind of what we mean by all of these words, I always am also very concerned when we don’t pretty early on talk about power when we are talking about organizing, that ultimately, you know, when we use the term “building power,” it’s the ability to make your target, the person who has the unique power to give you what you want, right? That’s your target. The ability to make your target give you your demand. That’s power.
MK: Like, right? But we don’t actually talk clearly enough about like, that’s what we’re, that’s why we’re building “power,” is to be able to do that, to gain the ability to make our targets give us what our demands are, what we want. And something important within the concept of power, also, there’s different types of power, based on the type of organizing work that you’re doing. If you are at a negotiating table at your workplace and you’re trying to get your boss to do something, the kind of power you need to bring to bear is going to be different than in an electoral organizing campaign where ultimately what people care about is votes. Getting them and getting people out to vote for them. Right? The metrics of how to deploy power are very contingent on the type of organizing you’re actually doing. And you know, how would you know that? You would only know that if you’re actually engaged in doing that work to figure it out over a period of time, which is why a lot of arguments that people have, not just online, but in person to me, are devoid from actual context because most of these people haven’t actually done any organizing on any of these levels, and they’re speaking in some abstractions that aren’t belied by the facts on the ground that you’re dealing with on a regular basis, you know? So I just wanted, these are just ideas and thoughts that were in my mind as we began our conversation that I really feel like I haven’t heard a lot of conversations kind of breaking this stuff down for folks in that kind of way, outside of being in a training.
KH: You know, I completely agree and it reminds me of something else you said recently about the distinction between belief and trust. That you can believe someone, but not know them well enough to have trust in them. And also makes me think of, you know, you can trust someone without believing a particular thing that they’re saying. Maybe they believe it, but like when, for example, when you brought up to me that we needed to shift energy towards the reparations ordinance in that home stretch and that we needed to channel some of this energy that was happening in the streets toward that. I remember that moment so clearly because I almost like almost spit out my coffee. I was like, “The Reparations Ordinance. We’re never going to get that passed.” I’m like, “What are you asking me to do with my time?”
MK: This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about, right? You may not have believed me when I said we would be enough to come on the journey.
KH: I definitely didn’t believe you.
MK: I love that. I love that. That’s funny. It’s so true. But yeah, so I mean, so all that stuff is in the mix, right? Is it, it’s part of the soup of this work and it’s part of what makes all of this so joyful, but also so painful and so hard.
KH: Well, you’ve built some incredible digital projects and campaigns in recent years from from defense committee work for incarcerated survivors to fundraising and targeted campaigns, your work has had a profound impact on people’s lives. You also organized an effort pressuring Harvard to rescind a fellowship. Uh, the university had offered former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, who oversaw the catastrophic response to the Flint water crisis. That effort turned what could have been a moment of adulation for the ex-governor into the kind of embarrassment he richly deserves. Can you say a bit about your process when doing this work? Do you have frameworks that you tend to rely on when launching these efforts, or is your creativity sort of specific to the moment?
MK: Thank you for asking. So I want to say a couple of things that I think are just true for me. I don’t, in the same way that some people want to make kind of binary distinctions between things, I really try to resist that in my life and in my work. And one of the things I always say is what makes me a good digital organizer is what makes me a good organizer, right?
MK: I think about all the time I plan based on, what is our goal, what’s the right plan to win that goal? What are the right tactics to use in service of that strategy? And in the end, how is it that we are going to be able to build a team of folks who are going to help with kind of, you know, offering solutions and ideas, making that thing happen, so that we can fight together to win it. So these things are pretty similar for me at all times. I’m always trying to, you know, and again, a digital campaign that’s going to live in the digital world, is going to basically follow similar kinds of an arc for me, at least, as what I would do in a campaign on the ground, where I’m mostly doing work quote in “face to face,” you know, interactions that way. So I’m always like, what’s the specific problem? You know, who are the allies to reach out to? Who agrees with me? Who has the power to actually solve this problem? How do I figure out how to get the people with power? How do I put a plan in action? You know, these are the things that I’m always thinking about all the time. So in the case of when it’s just a discreet fundraising thing, then it’s very different. Cause that’s, you know, I’m asking, I use the idea of, like I mentioned to you before, of telling a story, getting people to believe me. Again, so it’s not so important that they believe the story, but they believe me that I believe in the story and that I am going to do what I need to do to actually be part of making this thing a success in some way that I’m going to give of my own resources. And those resources are often time and money, and that they can come along and have trust that their investment of their time and their money is going to lead to a good outcome. Right? So that, so that’s really how I operate along those lines. And so I’ll give a couple of concrete examples since people might want to, you know, think about what that all looks like. So, in the case of bail, for example. And you were integral to helping me, I guess it was in the, was it 2017? The first year that New Year’s Eve, for #FreeThePeopleDay, and so what #FreeThePeopleDay was previously connected to was me going to a meeting in January of 2017 in Atlanta with a bunch of black organizers where Mary Hooks presented the idea of, “Hey y’all, why don’t we take Mother’s Day to free black mamas from jail?” Let’s use the bailout tactic as a way to heighten the contradictions that exist, get people to understand what bail actually does, what it means, and get them to agree that we ought to end money bond, and for me, end pretrial detention altogether. So I’m in that room, I’m hearing this suggestion, I offered to co-author a curriculum called the Transformative Bail Curriculum, which would serve as a tool for political education in our communities to get our folks to understand the long legacy, the racist, classist, sexist, all the things, legacy of bail, and to use the tactic of bailing out as the tactic that would allow us to tell a larger story of why pretrial detention needed to go. Right? Why money bail needed to go and by the end of the year, as more and more people from, I think even before then, right, because like you, you know, both of us in Chicago at the time, I was on the founding advisory board of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which is an incredible organization that everybody should support cause they are an abolitionist bail fund. They understand what this work needs to be. They connect the bailout tactic to a larger campaign that’s trying to end pretrial detention altogether. So we ended up in this position where, as a part of a trajectory, because you know, I’d been part of that work before the mama’s day bailout, but Free Black Mamas, which people now see online, and now we’re a couple of days from Mother’s Day, you know, people can support free black mamas, they continue to raise money, and continue to bail out and now have a leadership development component where the mamas that are bailed out get to learn organizing skills and become organizers themselves in their communities to end cash bail and end pretrial detention. You see how these things, if they’re organized correctly, build more leadership amongst the most impacted people to have them be the ones who lead these campaigns going forward. Right? So there you can see there the connection between on the ground direct work with people to creating political education tools that get more people on board with the work, and then using a digital moment of using that as a fundraising space to raise millions of dollars to do the actions, to then be able to support the development of leadership of the folks who are most impacted who should be at the center of the work in the first place. That’s just an example. So for us, from then, we had already kind of a pool of folks who had been activated online, after the mama’s day bail out to then be like, “Hey, let’s use the end of the year to take this opportunity for you to donate the cost of a drink that you would buy maybe, instead give that over to free people so people can have a good start to the new year, right.” Being out of cages, out of prisons, out of jail, out of jail, sorry, not out of prison, but out of jails. So like that. You could. See the momentum that builds over time, that you educate people over time and then people are ready to take an action that’s a low risk action for them, and then hopefully you can escalate over time the asks, so that people get more and more involved and become activated by that work, and maybe they go off and do stuff in their own communities around this very work. Right? So that’s just one example that I wanted to kind of offer here as a concrete, so people can see there’s a lineage to stuff, there’s a method to it. There’s an opportunity that you take on and that continues on. That’s not just for the moment that you’re doing the work in.
KH: Thank you for that. And you know what you were saying about, you know, online organizing principles being, you know, in person organizing principles and the connectivity and constancy of these ideas, it made me think about, well, for one thing, I think that a lot of folks who asked for advice, like, how can I be better at digital organizing? The answer is, you know, get an organizing 101 training and those principles will translate. But I do know a lot of great organizers who function beautifully in in-person environments who kind of struggle to translate that work online effectively. And part of it is that they don’t function in online spaces the way that they function in-person. Like they wouldn’t walk into a room of people to potentially organize and find the rudest, most irate, ignorant people there and fight with them. It wouldn’t be their goal. Just sort of passingly approvingly wave at the people who agree with you and then make a beeline to the rude person. And that’s, we do that a lot on social media. We’ll click like on the people who we agree with and then we’ll waste all this time arguing with people who are just terrible, who are never going to change their minds. And we all get sucked into that sometimes. But I mean, for me, a lot changed when I realized that I had to fight that impulse, even though it was still going to happen sometimes it was like, I need to be intentional about the way I’m relating to people. I have to be relating to people in the same way that I would be in a room, which is that like their voice matters, I care about what they’re going through, I have reasons that I’m going to give them why I think they should invest in this thing that I’m talking about and why it matters. I think we need to kind of let go of a lot of these norms that we’ve allowed ourselves to embrace about how things work on social media and understand that those aren’t our norms. We have to be asking ourselves, what does it mean to educate people in this space? What does it mean to persuade people in this space? What does it mean to move people to action with me in this realm? Because we cannot do the things other people do that just take up their time and stress them out and, you know, accomplish nothing and expect that we’re going to be able to do the kind of work that we do. You know, it’s like, why are we on social media? Why are we spending our time there and how are we making valuable use of that time?
MK: I think you’re right. I think you’re really right. I also think, I’m, you know, it just baffles me. You know, people that… yes, there’s a lot of kind of trolls and bots and all this other stuff on social media and in on the internet in general, but I think we don’t do enough to think about like, where do people hang out in digital spaces? Right? They’re not just hanging out on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. They’re also like playing games with each other. They’re also in kind of closed groups. They’re also in other spaces, like we just have to find people where they are. Connect with those people. Start thinking. The thing I always ask, and I, you know, you know this because you know me, I’m always, my question to people is, what do you want people to actually do? What do you want them to do? Like what is the point of constantly being angry at people or kind of yelling about a theory of change about how the world ought to be? What are the concrete asks of people? What are the first low level asks that then escalate over time? And if you can’t figure out what you want people to actually do, then you should stop yelling. It’s a good way of being less angry in the world. You know, if you want to use your social media just for venting, I’m pro that too. I vent all the time, but if you’re really trying to like get people to change something, if you’re trying to build an organizing campaign, like what are you asking people to do, exactly? And how can they do it in ways that are kind of within their capacity to deliver? And that capacity will increase over time. I can’t tell you how many people, Kelly, I hear from social media who took a resource I shared, or a thread I shared on a particular thing and tried it out in their own communities and they get back to me and say, “I did it. I actually did this thing that you suggested and it actually was scary at first. It’s hard sometimes, but I’m so happy I’m doing it.” Right? Actionable ways for people to actually change their environment, to do something that feels worthwhile to them. It just, you know, it can’t be overestimated how important that is.
KH: Yes. And we need to, you know, we need to check in with ourselves about whether the way we’re talking and acting actually invites people to do the thing that we say that we want them to do. Sometimes I think folks get this attitude of, well, I shouldn’t have to be nice about this. I shouldn’t have to incentivize this. I shouldn’t have to, I shouldn’t have to. It’s like, well, we shouldn’t have to do any of this because injustice shouldn’t be a thing. But here we are having to persuade people. And when we wanted folks to start doing this mutual aid work at the onset of quarantine, we weren’t, you know, on Twitter yelling at everyone saying, “If you really cared, you’d be buying groceries!” We related to people about the fact that we were all upset and worried and feeling empathy towards folks who were scared, and that we all wanted them to have food. So confronting that together in terms of what can we do about this. I think we tend to emote a lot and kind of perform emotions and perform political opinions on social media and not necessarily ask ourselves before we hit tweet or post whether this is effective persuasion, whether this is really going to like, if I read this and it wasn’t something I was already interested in doing, would I feel moved to do it? Or would I just be kind of offended that this person thinks I’m a bad person for not already doing this?
MK: You know, it’s so true. I think that’s so, so important. And I would say, you know, I know, if people are listening to this day at different levels, I think we’re trying to offer some steps along the way or questions or terminologies that they can go and read more about and learn more about. I just want to say that for me, and in the moment we’re in right now, which is a moment where there’s a lot that is negated in terms of us being able to be in physical distance with each other, that there are still so many creative ways that people are mobilizing. And I will make available to you. I’ll send to you Kelly, a Google doc of a list of 300 different kinds of actions people are taking during quarantine time. That people are taking, that are about action, that are about mobilization. So it’s just like we’re only limited by our imagination as to what we can be doing and people are doing it. That’s the thing that, and you know, this is something I’ve said to you a million times, which is, I have zero patience for people who say to me, “No one is doing X.” And I’m like, you just don’t know who’s doing it. Do you know? And that may be partly because people are doing it one million miles away from where you are, but it isn’t true that no one is doing X. In fact, it’s always true that someone is doing X. Maybe they’re not doing it to your satisfaction. Maybe again, it’s outside of your view, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not getting done. And frankly, I would say this, in this moment that we’re in right now, it gives me great comfort to know that there are millions of people activated around the globe doing a bunch of stuff I don’t know about. That gives me great comfort. It actually makes me feel hope, you know? I’m like, thank God I don’t know everything that’s happening. Cause if I did that would be a tiny, small world and we would have no chance. Okay. Like I love the idea that there are, there’s this decentralized crew of folks everywhere, in every town and every municipality in every state, in every country, just plugging away at doing and trying and being creative, creating all sorts of ways to be able to disrupt, but also to be able to meet people’s material needs on a, like I, it’s just, this is such a good thing. And I don’t understand the kind of, you know, I guess it’s why I’m, I’m always hopeful because I feel very much like people are doing stuff all the time. Like, they don’t need me around saying, “Nobody’s ever,” no! Of course somebody thought about it. Of course they have. I mean, what kind of hubris is this? You know?
KH: Yeah, absolutely. So something else I wanted to talk about is relationship building. And you know, obviously very important to the organizing that we do, both online and in person. But I think that folks don’t know really what that looks like necessarily in digital spaces. It can be kind of confusing because you know, there’s an anonymity that exists and people maybe are afraid of being taken in by someone or, you know, misled in some way. And some of this just aren’t as good at communicating in different forms. Like it works very well for me because I like to write, and so I feel most comfortable expressing myself in written words, but some people have a difficult time with building actual relationships in that way. What advice do you have or how do you really see, that aspect of organizing in the digital world? Building relationships?
MK: That’s a good question. Well, I mean, I think you know this, I know you know this about me, is that I really don’t like people, so… I really don’t, and I’m an incredible introvert. As I said to somebody the other day, my mother keeps laughing at the fact that I ended up in the life that I have, which, you know, forces me to be social with people when I’m deeply, deeply antisocial. So I think sometimes people think that you have to be this extroverted, you know, love people kind of person to build strong relationships with people, and I’m here to tell you that’s not true. You just, you can build relationships with people, understanding that those relationships are about reciprocal care. And you don’t need to love people to be engaged in reciprocal care, you know? And so I think about, at least for me and the way that I’ve used social media for myself over the last few years, in terms of building relationships with other people, I’m a huge question asker. Like I ask questions, I’m like, what do people think about blahzay blah, right? Cause I’m genuinely curious and wanting to know what people think about blahzay blah. I try to listen, by kind of listening to responses like that, but also just listening all around me all the time to what people are saying and most importantly, what they’re not saying. I think it’s so much easier to build relationships when you are, again, inviting people to join you in doing something. I don’t believe in, and this I believe in not, this is not a digital versus in-person kind of. I think this is true across the board. Right? That you offer people invitations to join into something and through working together is how your relationships get built. I don’t believe in the other way around, which is you spend all this time and nebulous relationship building land, and then you get to work. I believe that the work helps build relationships with people and with each other that are stronger and will survive more than spending all our time just in a false sense of “we’re just trying to get to know you,” you know, we’re not really, you know, for a lot of times we’re, we’re trying to understand what people want, what they need, what they’re willing to do, what their interests are like. We’re trying to get information that will lead towards this other work that will hopefully lead towards this, you know, win of a campaign or whatever. So people may see that as instrumental and utilitarian. It’s not. It is like based in something that we’re trying to do together. Right? And so I think that that’s, to me, that it’s always like, just offering lots of little invitations over time, asking lots of questions, trying to listen, actively offering resources that you know, and that you have, and over time that builds trust. People see you move in the world in a certain way and they are like, “I like that person. I think what they’re trying to do is probably good.” You know what I mean? Like what, “What are they trying to do? Let me learn more.” Like, they’re just more willing to engage with you when you appear to be an actual human being that is, you know, trying to do stuff in the world. So I think about that a lot. And I guess a lot of people go to trainings where like, they have these consultants tell them things like, you know, “Do 10 contacts with people on a regular basis, then, you know, 10 emails in a week. This title of an email is the best way to get people to open your email.” All that stuff is true, but consistency in how you spread your message over time, so many organizations, even the ones that don’t, that are small or whatever, you have a capacity of getting a couple of volunteers together to post regularly on your Facebook page, to post regularly on your Twitter account, to engage people in letting them know what you’re up to, to asking questions of the people who are like responding to the comments that are placed, this builds trust over time because people start to say like, “Oh, these folks are engaged. Oh, look at what they’re doing. How can I help?” Like this is the way that we kind of develop relationships in digital organizing, in my opinion, but it’s how we build relationships in life too.
KH: I love that. And it makes so much sense. And has me thinking of this, a question that somebody asked, you know, when I was on Facebook this week asking people, “What would you like to learn from a discussion of digital organizing?” And someone said to me that they wanted to know about how do we organize online actions that have teeth. And you know, it kind of goes to me, it goes back to what you were saying before, where you know, the weaknesses in our in-person work or going to be the weaknesses in our digital work many times. And what does it mean for an action to have teeth? You know, cause I think people when they hear that probably jumped to really aggressive, like bold, daring actions, like blockades and things, which I love and I think are great. And I love building them. But. It’s like, well, what’s the strategy behind the tactic? And if teeth means that you’re like really putting pressure on your target and you’re really, you know, really hitting it hard and making their life more difficult and making it harder for them not to do the thing you want, like of course there are ways to do that on the internet, but in our, in our, like in-person work, we fall out of that thinking sometimes too. And we’re trying to do… we’ll just do the rally. We’ll do the march. We’ll do these things that we’re used to doing that feel familiar, that feel right, and aren’t necessarily responses to the questions of, “Okay, what is the target’s weakness? Whose opinion do they care about? You know, maybe they’re invested in that business over there. Maybe we go and make that, you know, make those people miserable. So now they’re mad at this person and want them to make this go away. It’s like all of that kind of targeted pressure and strategic work, of course, it can exist online. It just doesn’t necessarily exist in the way that people would immediately imagine it, but that’s because we’re not always imagining our in-person work in the most effective and strategic way possible.
MK: I would just say that I think it’s important to ask like, “What is an action?” You know, it’s a collective activity that brings people with a common problem in direct confrontation with an individual who has the power to actually influence or solve the problem, by meeting the demands of that group. That’s what an action is. You know, there are multiple types of actions, right? Some with more, like you mentioned, that are riskier, that are more disruptive and less disruptive, and we have a scale. But at bottom, that’s an action. What’s a good action? I mean, you know, you, you learn this in community organizing 101. A good action is winnable. A good action surprises your target. A good action is fun for your members and the base folks. You know, a good action, it definitely develops leadership amongst your members. A good action unites us against them. You know, a good action involves, ideally, a lot of people. And so that means digital actions are even more potentially “with teeth” because they involve a lot more people. You and I know those of us who’ve done direct action, that’s been more risky, direct action or you know, blockades or any number of things over time where you’re taking some arrest, where you’re like, you’re often not trying to involve everybody and their mother in that. You know, like that, like there’s a whole bunch of limitations to that, but direct action through a digital sphere can be so powerful and what you want to do, again, direct actions are about fundamentally about disruption. So you have to make it impossible for your target to go about their business as usual. And that means, you know, you’re going to try to be escalating pressure on them over time. When people say to me things like, you know, “Oh, we’re talking to people and we’re asking them to speak out on the school to prison pipeline.” That’s not a fricking direct action! If you’re going to do an offline or online action, you got to make sure that you’re using it to pressure your target, to give you your demand. That’s it, period. That’s the situation. And so if you can do that and your demands should actually create a real impact in people’s lives, it should make a difference in people’s lives. Otherwise, what the hell are you trying to do? Right? And so I think about that a lot when I’m just like, you can do so many things. You can do petitions that like get millions of signatures. That’s a metric you, instead of, you know, we used to do handwritten, signed petitions where we would be on the street corners in the 1980s. We could barely find enough to photocopy. You couldn’t go to Kinko’s, you know, like you were on the street and getting people to literally sign by hand, petitions. Think of how time-intensive how, you know, you got to speak to you when people barely wanted to speak to you, in that time, they would just maybe sign and run as they were walking. You can be doing that. You can do daily digital actions in a way that you would burn you base out, if you ask them to go daily and do action in person at somebody’s office or in the street or like, you wouldn’t be able to sustain that. You know, there is so much power in, in tweet storms. People say, well, how can I tell if my thing… well, you know what? If you send out an email to your folks and you said, we are trying to get 1000 emails out to this one target over time, right? Well, did you meet that goal? That’s how you know if your action had teeth? Did you meet and the next time did you get twice that number? Like, I don’t, I’m so confused, and I’m saying this in a real way. I am so confused when people say to me like, “I don’t know how I’ll know.” I’m like, how do you know in general, right? Like how, how would you tell offline that your metrics were applying the pressure you want? You know, sometimes the digital organizing gets you 10 articles written about your action. That’s huge. In fact, you have a better chance sometimes of getting coverage of what you’re doing when you’re doing digital rather than in person, because every frigging reporter is on Twitter and Facebook and other places, so they see the things you’re doing. You probably more likely to get national attention for your actions than you ever would have in any other case, which is why, again, false binary about the digital versus the “in-real life,” false binary! People say things like to me, “Oh, well not everybody has a smartphone.” Well, you know what? Apparently 75% of the people in the country do. So that means you’ve got a chance to reach that many people in a country of 325 million people. Please, please, we’re still going to do in-person work after this social, this physical distancing stuff. You know, shifts in different kinds of ways. We’re still gonna do that work. That’s going to be there forever and it matters and it’s good. But you know what? Digital organizing matters and is good too. And you will reach many, many more by factor of 20 people than you will in your meeting of 10 people in your basement of your community center. Again, super important to do that work. That relational work, that getting to know each of the work, that trust building work in person. Great. But I think, again, false distinctions, complete ridiculous binaries of either/or -ness do not serve us trying to do what we want to do, which is win. So what tactics, what strategies and what ways of kind of planning are we going to be able to do to actually do that, to win? The last thing I’ll say is we are trying all the time, at least I am in campaigns that I’ve run to grow our membership, to grow our supports and supporters to whatever, digital organizing allows you to do that exponentially. Why would you not want to jump on that and learn how to be better at it? That does not make any sense to me, if you’re trying to be effective. I don’t get it.
KH: Oh yeah. I completely agree. There was, uh, years ago, I can remember having a conversation. I think it was probably pre- Black Lives Matter, but one of my mentors in direct action made some comments about Facebook, like, “Oh, I hate it so much. I just wish we weren’t even on it.” I’m like, “But, but we have to go where the people are. If we are going to organize people, we have to go where they are. And there were a lot of people there.”
MK: Can you imagine anybody that you know is an organizer saying, “Boy, I just wish we didn’t have to like in a real sense, like, I wish we didn’t have to do meetings.” Like, is it organizing 90% meetings? You know, like, these are things we have to do. And I don’t, you know, I whine about everything that I have to do. Do not get me wrong. I am no saint of whatever. No. I whine and I come clean and I’m miserable and I’m grumbly.
KH: I can confirm this.
MK: But I know, right? Like I’m a curmudgeon. All these things are true, but I know I have to do this stuff. So, yeah. So I think, I mean, I hope that people will take from our conversation today, at least for me, like three things: The first for me is just a reminder that what you’ve mentioned, which is we go, if you’re an organizer, you go where people are. You go where people are, you meet them where they are. You try to engage them by asking questions, by deep listening, by invitations to do some things with you, by building trust over time, through the work, like these are the things that we want to be doing. Secondly. I do not understand and never will understand the like again, the bifurcation and binary. This is digital organizing. This is in real life organizing. Then not just the binary, but one is more authentic and real than the other. What does that mean in 2020? Can someone please let me know how you’ve evolved the theories of change of organizing over time? Like we are not in the same conditions that we were in in 1960 and I’d like people to act accordingly. Like, what does that mean? And in myself, I’m constantly challenged by younger people who do a lot of this digital stuff much better than I ever will. Right? Like I don’t look at that and be like, “They’re not doing real organizing. I’m like, what are they doing? How are they doing it? What are the metrics of success for them? How do I learn more? How do I engage, like invite them in to teach me some skills on how to do some things better for myself?” I mean, I’m going to be 50 next year. I am not in a place where I was when I was 15 door knocking. You know, and I don’t want to be either. So like we have to adapt and we have to be able to find ways to respect people who are doing things in a different medium than we are doing. You know, instead of being critical and sitting around and being like, whatever, that’s not me. And I don’t know, you know, I’m always just like, what are you doing? I’m curious. I want to know. I want to learn in spite of myself. Right? And then the last thing I want to just say is, for me, fundraising is part of organizing. It is true that it is a kind of truism of all that, but fundraising is friend-raising. The reason I’m a good fundraiser is because I’m a good organizer. Like these things are not actually distinct from each other. I use the same kinds of ideas of storytelling, of invitations, of putting myself out there first, of listening to people who have suggestions of when they make offerings of, “I can do a meme for you.” There’s a young person who is based in Rhode Island, Abdula who’s been so helpful over time. Like, just, we’ll go out, I’ll be doing a fundraising thing and what does he make next? He knows I don’t know how to make memes. He’ll send me a bunch of memes. Do you know what I mean? Like, so I can circulate on that. Did I even ask, you know, initially I would ask because he made offers that he would support, you know, organizing in that way, digital organizing and fundraising in that way. But now he’ll see that I’m posting something and he sends that stuff to me directly without even like, here, here’s a way to, you know, improve your, the posts that you’re going to put out there. Right? That like, that means that somebody who has built like, trusts me enough and feels like he can contribute or they can contribute to the work that I’m doing in this very specific way, which I so deeply appreciate, because I do not know how to do this thing, you know?
And it just makes a difference, you know? Not just having texts, but having images and whatever critical to the work we’re doing. So again, invitations for everybody. Understanding that like organizing is a complex organism. And that there are multiple ways to do it and that we shouldn’t be too precious and that we should be decent to each other in all forums that we’re in, to the extent that we can, and you are allowed to block people on social media, by the way, that’s also a part of being decent to each other is to be like, “Ahh, this person is abusive. I’m not dealing with them.” Whatever. You do that in real life all the time. So… I’m not saying you, Kelly, I’m saying I do.
KH: Oh, I do.
MK: But you know, I’m used to canceling people like bad checks. I’m not gonna put up with abuse. I don’t care.
KH: I love that you set your limits.
MK: We have to have respect for each other. Meeting people where they are does not mean you take their abuse. Okay?
KH: Sometimes you have to leave them where they’re at.
MK: You know what? You’re going to get letters for that.
KH: I am. I am. It’s going to go badly for me. And I’ll own that. I also just want to add quickly, to what you were saying about social media allowing us to welcome more people into the moment, when we hold events. Because some years back, when you and I were both working on the #FreeBresha campaign, to get our young friend Bresha Meadows out of detention, my collective had an action here in Chicago that was about to be cancelled. We got a look at the weather forecast and we could see that it would actually be dangerous to have people out in the weather that was coming. So we transformed the action. The original plan was to have an art exhibition outside a youth detention center, and we just moved it onto twitter. Rachael Perrota, who has done so much amazing digital work over the years, helped us shape how we would present the images. We adapted the #FreeBresha hashtag to differentiate the event and used the tag #FreeBreshaNow, and that art moved people. We shared facts about the case, we shared our feelings about why this mattered, and why children shouldn’t be in cages, and the event trended nationally. So while we didn’t get to have the action we intended to have, we managed to create something that was viewed by millions of people. So I think we need to be ready to adapt, and sometimes, that creative process leads us to outcomes that are greater than anything we could have foreseen. And now, of course, many things have happened since that action and Bresha is now free and actually, part of my collective, the Lifted Voices collective, so as you said, when we are doing it right, we help people get free, and we welcome them into the work, if that’s where they want to be.
MK: I think that’s amazing and great. I think we’re way past our time, aren’t we? Chatting and chatting. People are going to be like, “What’s going on here?” I do think one, I want to say a couple of things before we end, and one thing I wanted to make sure I kind of uplift is that, I learned the most by doing, and I have learned the most by doing and making a ton of mistakes over time, and I’m also blessed because I was able to get some formal training. And for folks who are interested in organizing at any level, whether it’s labor organizing or electoral organizing or community based organizing or legislative organizing, whatever form of organizing you’re interested in, I really recommend that you consider taking a course, and right now, one of the things that the pandemic has done is it’s going to make those courses and those trainings and those workshops much more available to more people. So if you’re in a small town in Iowa somewhere where you couldn’t previously go to Chicago to get a training, you’re going to be able to do that now, in a way that you wouldn’t have been able to do because a lot of these trainers are moving their trainings digitally who had not been doing that. One of the examples of that is the Midwest Academy is offering their training digitally this year. Their five day, I think it’s the first time they’ve done it. They usually do in-person. So people can check out the Midwest Academy. There’s a great group called Momentum that does a lot of training of folks as well. And I think Momentum’s trainings are going to be a lot of them digital. Training for Change, is another place people can look to try to get more consistent. You know, the things we opened with, in this conversation with, you know, terminology. You know, they’ll get a lot more history. They’ll get a lot, you know, and you’ll get a group of folks who are also in it that you will be able to rely on. Because I will tell you that one of the most important things for me over the years has been the community of folks I’ve developed who I have fought with over the years and organized with, you know, fought with to win and fought with to lose, who have remained part of my kind of movement, organizing family that help a great deal when things get hard. So I think having building those kinds of relationships over time can be helpful with people who are going through that type of training. So I want to encourage people to, you know, take the time to get some formal a training, because at least you’ll know what you don’t want to be doing anymore, when you’ve gotten more practice and doing more stuff, and you’ll think about the formal training you got, and some parts of it will be very applicable and some parts of it you’ll be like, now that doesn’t actually work for the context that I’m in, but we often don’t know what we don’t know, and one of the ways that we can actually address that is by putting ourselves in positions where we can do some formal training with other people.
KH: Absolutely. Well, this has been a great conversation and I am so grateful to you for joining us today, Mariame. I think your wisdom is just invaluable right now and I am always grateful for the chance to spend some time with you.
MK: Thank you. I appreciate and love you and I think this podcast is terrific. I hope people will listen, you know, for time immemorial. I want to also just end with a call to action, because I always do, and it’s really, really important right now that if you’re able, that you heed the calls that are being put out for mass release, we really need people to be freed from jails and prisons and detention centers, which are jails, right now. We need to pressure our governors to actually do clemency applications, put those through in mass numbers. These torture chambers are death camps, and we have seen that COVID is right, just completely ripping through so many of these torture chambers and killing people, and making hundreds of people, thousands of people ill, so please follow Free Them All for Public Heath, as the hashtag #FreeThemAll. Look around your community. I’m certain there are people, there are people in every single state and now in Canada and other parts of the world who are agitating, mobilizing, organizing for mass release. I really, really want to encourage people to do what you can and in these, in this case, doing what you can, is sending emails, making phone calls, donating money to commissary funds where people are giving mutual aid relief to people on the inside who aren’t getting fed properly and need to go to the commissary to get overpriced food. But at least they can get some food. You know, start soap drives and hygiene product drives. Call up the correctional facilities and let them know that you see what is happening and you find it… the conditions have to be drastically improved for people. So I hope that folks are going to take this moment and join us in a fight to end all of these systems of death making that are just ruinous for so many of us. We’re all implicated in this. We’re all interrelated. So please, please, please support that. And then Kelly, last thing is that I’m going to share with you a great thing that I found years ago, that’s the NAACP put out a direct action toolkit in the 1940s. And for those folks who are interested in direct action and the history is of direct action, I encourage you to read through it. And to think of two questions as you read through it, what’s the same and what’s different and why. That’s their homework for listening to this podcast. And I’ll send it to Kelly, the link so that you all can access it and use it for your organizing moving forward.
KH: Thank you. I’m very excited to have a look at that and we’ll be sure to link that in the transcript. Where can people go specifically, are there websites you would like people to hit up to learn more about what you’re working on and how they can help with these decarceration efforts?
MK: Sure. Everybody can usually find me on Twitter, @prisonculture. Right now, I’m not taking, um, I’m locked. I’m locked. Because I need some respite, but you can also follow me at @ProjectNIA, our organization Project NIA, you can follow, Survived and Punished, both our Facebook page and our Twitter page. You can follow Survived and Punished – New York. I’m doing work with Interrupting Criminalization, which is a think tank-y thing that I started with Andrea Ritchie a couple of years ago. Basically, there’s no place you can find me. If you want to find me, you can find me in some space digitally, less so obviously in person these days because I’m South quarantining, or not quarantining, I’m self, I’m sheltering in place because I’m immunocompromised and uh, I don’t want to die.
MK: I know this is not, I’m not quite ready to go yet, so I’m just trying to like figure out how to stay safe and I hope everybody else is as well. And I’m washing my hands 17 times a day, even though I’m not going anywhere. So yeah, so those are places that people can go. You can also go to the website for #FreeThemAll4PublicHealth in order to find more actions that you can take around decarceration particularly in the New York area.
KH: Wonderful. Well, thank you again, Mariame, for being with us. And I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. Remember our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time I’ll see in the streets.
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