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Let This Conversation With Mariame Kaba Radicalize You

“Hope for me is in the doing of things,” says Mariame Kaba.

Part of the Series

“Hope for me is in the doing of things,” says Mariame Kaba. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with Mariame Kaba about their upcoming book, Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care.

Music by Son Monarcas and David Celeste

TRANSCRIPT

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 organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. We are in the homestretch of this season of Movement Memos, with four episodes remaining before we take a break for the month of June. In these final episodes, we are going to mark the upcoming release of my book with Mariame Kaba, Let This Radicalize You, by diving into some of the topics we covered in it. In some cases, we may go deeper into a subject than we were able to in the book. We may also look at new developments , because the world is changing quickly, and a lot can happen between the completion of a book and its publication. My guests and I will be discussing Palestine, policing, conflict resolution and more, but today, we are going to begin with a conversation between me and my co-author, Mariame Kaba.

Mariame is a grassroots organizer, an educator, and the founder of multiple organizations, including Survived and Punished, Project NIA, the Chicago Freedom School, and Interrupting Criminalization. She is the author of We Do This Til’ We Free Us and co-author of No More Police along with Andrea Ritchie. Mariame is also the cofounder of Sojourners for Justice Press, which is a micro press that publishes zines, pamphlets, and booklets that engage DIY, Black feminist and abolitionist philosophies. In addition to those accomplishments, and many more, Mariame is also one of the most important people in my life. She is a friend, a co-struggler, a mentor, a co-creator, and someone I have wept and laughed alongside for over a decade, as we have done the work of organizing together or in concert. I have learned so much from Mariame, and I really wouldn’t be the person I am today, if she hadn’t come into my life. So it was a great honor for me to set out on the adventure of writing a book with Mariame about the work of organizing.

It was our goal to create something that might serve as a resource for organizers who are new to movement work. We have been thrilled by the early praise the book has received, and we are so excited to share it with you all. This project began as a pamphlet, and we had no idea that it would turn into a book, or that we would wind up writing it during a global pandemic, when the world and our own lives were thrown into upheaval in ways that we had never anticipated. The creation of this book was a learning journey, and so has been my relationship with Mariame. There are some people who we never stop learning from, no matter how long we’ve known them. I think this is especially true of organizers, because an organizer who takes their craft seriously, never stops learning or sharing what they’ve learned. The conversation we are sharing with you today was a serious one, but also joyful, and I hope you all will get as much out of it as I did.

Well, friend, I am so glad to have you back on the show, and I am wondering if you could begin by saying a few words about how and why this book happened.

Mariame Kaba: I’m not an advice giver, I’m more of a question asker. But I’m constantly asked for advice, particularly by new and younger activists and organizers. For years I really thought that it would be fun to work with you on creating a small zine that would offer encouragement, accompaniment, maybe just a distillation of some ideas about organizing and activism from experienced organizers to newer ones. And of course, that turned into, then this book, much to both of our consternation. I mean, for me the origin was really that small zine that I thought it could be useful, just again, based on the kinds of questions that I would get from younger and newer organizers to put something on paper. What was your thought about it?

KH: Well, I was on a Zoom call with Harsha Walia and Robyn Maynard recently, and I was talking about how this book happened, and I said, “Well, Mariame asked me to co-author this pamphlet, and the first draft was terrible.”

MK: It was terrible.

KH: It was such a mess. And you had these really smart people coming to look at the Google Doc to give us advice, and I was like, “Oh no, don’t look at that. We’re a mess.”

MK: That’s true. It’s true.

KH: So the book, which I believe is quite good, began as a pamphlet, which was very bad.

MK: It’s true. And that maybe gives other people some encouragement for their projects, which is that, you know, the first draft is always terrible.

KH: And I think we needed that terrible first draft of a pamphlet to understand that the project had to be a book. Because the ideas we were trying to convey needed to be unpacked and explained, and also explored with other people. We needed the collaboration that came from talking to so many organizers about their experience, and what they’ve learned along the way.

MK: I agree. I agree.

KH: So on the subject of not giving up when things are going poorly, we talk a lot in the book about the concept of doom, and how it gets deployed in our movements. We talk about how organizers often emphasize doom and looming catastrophe in order to try to get people to move, and how this often doesn’t work out the way we want. What do you think a sense of doom might be costing our movements, in this moment?

MK: I was thinking about how this book is really clear-eyed about the reality of the problems and the ongoing calamities and catastrophes our world faces. We don’t attempt to sugarcoat what’s right in front of us, but I think we’re also clear that as Elizabeth Alexander says, “This is not the only news.” We write in the book, really that good and bad things happen in parallel, and that this is actually the clear-eyed assessment of the world that we need. Because both of us, I think, choose to act in the world cognizant of that fact, that good and bad things are always happening at the same time. And reciting, what is it that Ruthie says? “Reciting the terribles,” or I forgot what the quote that she uses is. But that is not a way to engage people in broad social fights.

In the first chapter we talk about how facts are not enough to motivate people. I think people are seeing that more and more across different areas of work and focus and organizing. That’s always been true. Folks are not, come to the table to end racism. That’s huge, right? That’s a huge problem. What am I supposed to do about racism? What part of racism am I actually being called to do work around? And if it’s all just problems, I think it’s really difficult to get people to come forward.

For me, I’ve always found doom, and particularly I’ve found cynicism is turbo fuel for the opposition. I actually want to beat our opposition, so I plan to deprive them of fuel. This is how I’m operating in my life. It’s like, the people who hate me, what do they need to thrive? And I feel like they need a sense of me feeling like we are doomed. Everything is going to be crappy. They need that for their fuel to continue going. And you know what? How I know they don’t actually believe that? Is they’re fighting extremely hard on their side all the time, right? If everything was foretold and things were already done, why would they continue to do the things they are doing on the other side? They know it’s contested. They know that they sometimes win and sometimes lose. It’s the same on our side.

I don’t know. I’ve been feeling a lot that it feels like we’re living right now through this lull, a time when people are worried and questioning whether we’re going to win, however, they conceptualize this idea of winning. And to me, and in my organizing experience, I have experienced countless losses, but there have also been some magnificent wins, so I know that these are possible. And I say it all the time, and it is true. If we fight, we might lose. But if we don’t fight, we’re definitely going to lose. And I think that this book ultimately encourages us to fight, to keep fighting, to stay in the game, to refuse to abandon each other through the ongoing struggle that we’re all engaged in. So yeah, I think that the sense of doom costs us an ability to rally, to find a way to keep pushing forward, to experience the good side of life too. I don’t know, I think that’s really what I see in terms of that end of things. How about you?

KH: I think that one of the biggest problems we face, which is something John Jost talks about in his book Left and Right, is that a lot of people find the inevitability of something bad easier to process than uncertainty. Most of us have an epistemic need to reduce uncertainty. So it’s actually easier for a lot of people to tell themselves that they already know what’s going to happen, and that it’s going to be bad, and to just sort of suppress their feelings about that, instead of challenging the direction that things are taking, or imagining a way to make things better. People really struggle to inhabit the tumult of not knowing what’s going to happen to us, and to the world, so when we just present people with a lot of damning projections and probabilities, in a lot of cases, we aren’t really setting off sparks in their imaginations about what’s possible. We are giving them a narrative that, to their minds, means that it’s already over and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t underestimate the ability of human beings to accept and rationalize bad conditions, and to just continue living in those conditions. The blaring of alarms, by itself, usually doesn’t have the effect we would like it to, as we discuss in the book, and that’s something I’ve learned through difficult experience, especially with the pandemic.

Early on, with COVID, I saw a lot of people acting in ways that didn’t make sense to me. I was really confused when I saw people I knew, people who shared my values, first, sort of denying that the pandemic was even happening, or that it was going to reshape our lives, and then, in some cases, ignoring safety protocols. I was outraged and heartbroken by those behaviors, but I knew it wasn’t as simple as the sort of good/bad person binary that was being deployed by a lot of people to explain it. A lot of people were saying, well these people just don’t care about other people, or they obviously don’t care about their families, and I knew it wasn’t that simple, across the board, but I also didn’t understand it. And it was really through our research for this book, when we looked at the sort of differing cognitive styles that shape people’s responses to major threats, like a pandemic, that I understood why people were acting this way. So that research for this book really helped me put down a lot of anger and a lot of bitterness, because I understood that we were dealing with something psychological that had to be engaged with strategically. And that has led me to dig deeper into learning about political psychology and trying to understand how we can leverage those insights in our work as organizers. Because we don’t all process threats and facts in the same way, so we have to try to understand how people take on information, instead of just judging the ways they react to information.

MK: I agree. I agree. I would also add that in the same way that you’ve been trying to read up on this, I have also been fascinated over the last decade right now about neuroscience research, which fascinates me to no end. And I learned through that research, that human thinking actually tends towards negativity, something I already knew. But it was nice to find the confirmation that that was actually true around neuro-scientific research. And it’s something they call negativity bias. So, it’s kind of part of our human natures to easily be able to identify everything that’s wrong. It’s just easier for us, mentally, based on our brains. And much, much harder for us to identify what’s right.

And over the past few years, I personally have been focused on changing my own negativity bias. And because our brains have plasticity, we can actually change this. I’ve spent the past two years trying to unlearn a focus on the negative all the time as the main thing. And because a focus on all our problems is draining, and it is super depressing and sometimes actually is debilitating. And something that organizing campaigns taught me early on was to focus less on problems, but to turn those problems into issues that people could maybe actually find a way to engage in to transform and change. And this has really kept me going over the years. I think oftentimes about, if I hadn’t been involved in organizing campaigns, what my life would have looked like, how much I probably would have been so depressed, you know, more depressed. Because I just think having a way to be able to see a way forward to transform and change my conditions is such a huge part for me of being able to live in the world. Anyway, so all those things together were such an interesting part of working on this project.

KH: So we are clear that just presenting scary facts isn’t necessarily politically transformative, for a lot of people. But I believe that witnessing and experiencing the power of reciprocal care can lead to political transformations. The title of our book is Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care. Is reciprocal care becoming more revolutionary in this era of forced normalcy around COVID?

MK: It’s a great question. This is something we didn’t write in the book, but it’s something I think about a lot, which is that these pandemic years really have changed everything. And I think that people know it even when they rage against this truth. We aren’t the same people that we were pre-COVID anywhere on the planet, we’re just not. And I think some people are having an easier time dealing with this than others are. I think regularly about the fact that we all got a glimpse of what is possible, that we can have free medical testing, free vaccines, that we could have generous food allowances, that we can have free health care for more people. I think we got a glimpse that our neighbors can in fact check on us and care for us and care about us. That many of us can absolutely work from home, though not all.

I think we saw that the people we needed the most were actually nurses, doctors, educators, people who picked up our garbage, delivery people. We got a glimpse of a world that could be possible. And this compulsory normalcy actually underscores the fact that nothing is actually normal. I think that people are feeling really dislocated because of the compulsory normalcy. It’s so jarring to our systems. It’s jarring to our thinking. It’s jarring to our emotional wellbeing.

And I say all that to preface the question of reciprocal care and this idea of compulsory normalcy. To say that reciprocal care is always about fostering a sense of belonging, and we discuss the idea of belonging in the first chapter and other places in the book. And frankly, we could have written a separate chapter just on this really foundational idea of belonging. But I have just noticed that because people saw what was possible, it’s harder to then “go back to normal.” It’s just more difficult to do. Even when people are pretending that they are compartmentalizing themselves back into some pre-COVID normalcy.

So, is it becoming more revolutionary? I don’t know. I certainly think it is staying with people and not leaving us, like, kind of got us around our necks, that this is the way we need to be in the world, that our interdependence is actually survival. That we absolutely have to work to understand how individual actions aren’t enough. That we need collective action, of course.

But here’s the thing. I think we learned from the COVID years, is that individual actions are also necessary. We talk about the efforts in the book that people undertook to get community members vaccinated, for example. And these were of course, individual efforts married to a collective infrastructure to support those individual acts. And we have a glimpse of what can be possible when we have institutional support for our individual actions. And I think that maybe that’s what could be revolutionary, is that if people really realize that we have to continue to move in that direction and expand those things, that that has a potential for revolution.

But yeah, I mean, I’ve been thinking, my thoughts on it are so all over the map. But I also feel like what COVID also just underscored, which I think we haven’t had a national debrief of what we’ve just been going through that’s still ongoing right now. But I think a lot of people had to have known now how foundational relationships are to a life well lived, but also how foundational relationships are to survival. That meaningful connections are so important to our well being as human beings, was so apparent throughout these pandemic years. And people are unsettled. We’re all unsettled about all of this. Those are some things that have been coming to mind for me as I’ve been trying to think through both the work of the book, but also just my own life. What is really going on here? What do we mean even when we think about reciprocal care? Those are some things that are coming to mind. How about you?

KH: I think reciprocal care, when practiced by groups of people in an intentional political way, has always been a threat to state power in this country. Because it disrupts ruling class narratives about who we are to each other, and what purpose government authority actually serves in our lives. And I think the radical nature of that kind of care is only going to intensify with time. I think that COVID is definitely a stage of that. Because in order to do the harm they want to do, the government and corporate forces need us to abandon each other. They need us to increasingly accept the mass sacrifice of other people for the sake of the status quo. And this is a very dangerous situation for us, psychologically, because, going back to John Jost’s work, people have a tendency to rationalize, justify, and even celebrate the status quo, particularly when it’s threatened, or when they, personally, feel threatened. So the ruling class needs us to be willing to cut other people loose and continue replicating these norms of capitalism. And we know that we, as a society, we are capable of this. We have a murderous and tortuous prison system that people are conditioned to ignore. We have the southern border of the United States, where thousands of people have died in the desert, by design, and where people are brutalized and abused and have their rights violated daily by Border Patrol, and most people are conditioned to ignore it. We are trained to think of all of this as inevitable and unavoidable. So we see this horrifying potential at work in our daily lives, and we see it at work in the normalization of COVID losses.

And then as you’re saying, we had these great outpourings and structures of care that emerged, early in the pandemic. We saw a lot of potential. And I also think, eventually, we hit a point where a lot of people were really starved for normalcy. They missed going to the mall and hitting the bar with their friends. People were tired and they wanted their old lives back so badly that when they were sold a story that didn’t really add up about a return to normalcy, a lot of people grabbed onto it. And they were willing to leave a lot of other folks behind in order to have that.

So I think that tendency is a big part of what we’re up against in these times, as organizers — people clinging to their own little corner of normalcy for as long as possible, while the world burns. Late-stage capitalism is also late-stage individualism. So that’s going to be a huge part of the struggle — caring when so many others are acting as though not caring is normal. It’s reciprocal care vs. inevitability, as defined by the ruling class. And it’s a truly self-injurious process, because we are all wounded by what’s happening to the world, but wounds don’t close when they’re unacknowledged.

MK: Absolutely, absolutely. And we talk about that in the section around hope and grief, right? That it is actually very important to grieve losses. It is actually very important to have rituals for grieving. It’s really important to be able to say, “I miss this person. I miss this situation. I miss this part of my life. I loved this person. I loved this particular part of my life. And it’s gone now, it doesn’t exist in the same way.” We have to be able to do that. And this culture is not very good at it in general. And I think to me, something that if you’re an activist or an organizer, something you must incorporate into your own life in order to be somebody who can hope to be on a path towards ongoing and continued wellness, is that grieving. Because where there is grief, there was love, right? And you have to be able to process that. Otherwise, it just sits somewhere in you, unprocessed and unexpressed. And that’s just not a recipe for wellness in my opinion. That’s all.

KH: Another topic we tackle in the book is the pedestaling of organizers and the perils of being hypervisible. What did working on that chapter bring up for you?

MK: Well, a lot, of course.

KH: Yes, definitely.

MK: Of course, of course. We write in the book that good organizers do not want fans, they want co-strugglers. That’s the T-shirt. That good organizers do not want fans, they want co-strugglers. And yes, that’s absolutely right. I think in that section we talk with many experienced organizers. I appreciated Barbara Ransby’s suggestion that we commit to a process of self-reflection as organizers and activists. I think that’s so, so important. I think both Aly [Wane] and Page [May] really bring to us this notion that we need to be accountable to a community of people and that that’s a way to keep us grounded. I could not agree more with that.

I think that you bring other people along with you always, the importance of not taking credit for group efforts that Ruthie brings up in her anecdote, so, so important. There’s so many reasons for why pedestalling organizers is not useful to movements. It’s for the organizer themselves, but it’s also for the movement. We want to be a movement where it’s not as easy to cut people down. We learned that over the years. Hopefully that’s a lesson that’s been internalized. We want a movement where lots of people get to decide on what the talking points are and how we are represented in the world. It’s not good for the individual organizers who end up oftentimes burnt out, left hanging, surveilled, harmed, harassed. It’s such a hard thing.

And I think often about how, for me at least, I spent the vast majority of my organizing life, just nobody knowing who the hell I was at all. And just being part of a collective group of people doing work, except for the people who knew me were the people I was directly working with. In the age of social media that changed a little bit. But something I’ve consistently been so grateful about was that it changed for me when I was already an established old person who knew my … Older person in my middle age who knew who I was already, who had already learned the lessons of the importance of being accountable to other people in your community.

I was thinking the other day that when I got honored a few years ago for an award by the Chicago Foundation for Women, I decided to also create an event to honor the women I knew in my communities who were people who I thought were lifting up our community. So we had an event over at the dining hall of the Hull-House Museum. At the time Lisa Lee was the director over there and Lisa covered the dinner cost for, I don’t know how many people there were, might even like 25 folks that were part of this Women to Celebrate project.

And it was my way of saying, “Yeah, okay, I was uplifted for this one thing, but look at all these people without whom I could not ever do anything that I’m being celebrated for right now. Here’s a way to bring you all along with me on that.” And you were one of the people I wanted to honor for all the contributions and work that you’d done for all the years that you’ve been doing it. And Women to Celebrate, for many years continued after that in large part because of your work and others who came on board to help continue to celebrate women and transgender and gender nonconforming people to celebrate. But yeah, I just think that it brings up a lot of stuff for me. It brings up emotions. It makes me think about how we can continue to make sure that we always are working and moving in community. That’s some of my thoughts about it.

KH: Well, that event, which became known as Solidarity to Celebrate, as it grew over time, became my favorite event of the year, pre-COVID. We have not done it in a couple of years, for reasons ranging from people’s capacity to the difficulty of gathering in-person, but I hope it makes a comeback, because I think there’s something very special about the way those events uplifted people. One thing that always comes to mind for me is that, in year two of the event, when I co-organized it with Page May, we decided that everyone being honored would receive two prints of the artwork that was created for honorees. The idea was that for every organizer whose work jumps out at us as being worthy of recognition, there are other people, who may be less visible, who are also making that work possible. And our honorees were best positioned to know who those people are. So part of the joy of being honored was being given the opportunity to choose someone to share that honor with. I really loved that part of the tradition because I think it’s good to recognize people’s contributions, but also, to, as you say, always be willing to widen the scope of that recognition, because none of us are out here organizing alone.

I also think it’s important to spare yourself as much disappointment as you can by recognizing that people are human. Because folks have a tendency to take a quote, or a speech or a book that they like, and kind of project that beloved work or moment over the entirety of a person, and then feel betrayed when that projection doesn’t match reality. We all do this, to some extent, but it’s important to check in with ourselves and remember that everyone whose work we admire is also flawed as fuck. I am always telling people, I am just an asshole who tries really hard. And that’s true of a lot of us, in our ways, whatever good we may be doing, because we are all full of flaws. Many of us are jerks, in various ways. We may wake up with a bad attitude, but we are trying.

MK: Yes.

KH: And I think that what’s important is to align ourselves with the people who are trying in the ways that we think are important.

MK: Yes. And to have some grace. Because I do think, again, I’m not saying excuse bad behavior, but I’m saying have some grace. Because you know yourself that you are constantly striving and trying to shrink the gap between your values and your actions all the time. And so, again, it’s the difference between excusing something and understanding it. And I think that we’re always in that struggle as well, all over the world, not just in the little world of organizing that we inhabit.

KH: Speaking of our own internal struggles, you mentioned the chapter of the book about holding hope and grief simultaneously. Can you say a bit about the importance of holding both hope and grief?

MK: Yeah, this is tricky, as you know, I have found, at least. We quote Joanna Macy and her co-writer in the book about her teachings around active hope. And I’ve learned a lot about hope from her work. And she has this way of differentiating between passive and active hope. And passive hope is, kind of, I think she talks about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire. And then active hope is about becoming an active participant in bringing about what we hope for.

I also always think about how she talks about how we have to take a clear view of reality. Because it’s really, really important, in her conceptualization of hope she talks about it. Active hope meaning doesn’t require a sense of optimism. And that because of that we can actually cultivate it, no matter how we’re actually feeling. You can cultivate hope while you grieve. You can cultivate hope while you are sad. I think to me that was really helpful in the frame as I was thinking about hope. I also rely on, obviously, Rebecca Solnit and her writing around Hope in the Dark, and Joan Halifax and how Joan Halifax talks about inviting us to lean into uncertainty and the unknown as we practice what she calls wise hope. We’re always going to be surprised in good and bad directions. So, lean into that uncertainty rather than fearing it. I think all those things are real.

People who are listening to this will have heard me talk about for myself, for me, that I have always seen hope in the last couple of decades as hope being a discipline. And by that, I mean that hope for me is a daily practice. It’s an ongoing commitment to action and to learning. That’s really the gist of it for me. Discipline derived from the root word discere, which means “to learn.”

I feel like what has been helpful to me and that I feel like what has kept me going in work around organizing over the years, is hope for me is in the doing of things. It’s rooted in our actions. When I think about the practice of it, it’s that I think on a daily basis I decide to begin anew. I decide this is a new day for action. I ask myself, “How can I help to lessen suffering today?” Because I know suffering is with us always. Those are the ways and the practices that allow me to be able to continue, to keep moving, to carry on.

And I recognize, some don’t like the idea of hope as a discipline. A lot of people don’t like fucking a lot of ideas. And I think to myself, “It’s okay, right?” Because I’ve seen some hostility to the idea over the years. I’m like, “That’s okay.” It’s an idea and a practice for me that has been supremely useful to me. Hope to me, it’s never been the belief that everything is going to turn out well. I don’t know. I said this at the very beginning. It could turn out well, and it could not. That’s the point, I don’t know. As a result of that, I’m going to take actions, and I think my actions at whatever level will matter. Because in and of themselves they’re going to matter. They matter because I’m taking them.

And I just think, again, something about rooting your hopes in action makes you feel less helpless. It makes you feel less acted upon. And I don’t think that’s naive. I don’t think that’s “magical thinking.” I don’t think … No, I believe very strongly that our present actions matter, even though we don’t have an idea of how the future is going to turn out. That’s really the basic point of it. I think it matters. I think as long as I’m alive, the point you made earlier, that you’re feeling like you’re a jerk who’s trying. For me, as long as I’m alive, I’m going to keep trying every single day. That’s my commitment. I’m going to keep trying, every morning that I have breath I’m going to choose to begin anew, to start again. And I think, to me, that’s valuable. It’s important to say that I believe that doing what we can to lessen suffering, whether it’s my own or others, is valuable work in and of itself, regardless of whether or not I know that that work is going to end up transforming everything.

For what it’s doing for me, and I hope for my comrades that I’m working with, is that it will keep us moving and carrying forward and doing the best that we can. And to me, not knowing how anything is going to turn out is actually very freeing. Now, I know that that is not the case for other people. Not knowing what’s going to happen for other people is very fear inducing, very anxiety provoking. Having uncertainty just unsettles people, some people. For me, that’s not the case. For me, not knowing how everything will turn out is actually freeing because it means I can try a lot of different kinds of things and see how it goes. This is something my brother called me years ago, he’s like, “You are a just in case kind of girl.” That’s absolutely true.

KH: So true.

MK: It’s true. He’s like, “You are a just in case kind of girl.” And what he meant by that is, “Okay, shit hitting the fan, just in case, let’s plant this tree. Just in case, the apocalypse is upon us. Just in case, let’s do this over here.” Because I don’t know what’s to come, right? I don’t know what’s to come. And that to me is actually a source of freedom, not a source of panic and anxiety. I think we talk more about the Joanna Macy forms of grief and whatever, I don’t go into a treatise on hope, that’s a discipline in the book. But I wanted to say that here because I do think that the despair as a protection, a cloak to protect oneself from being further hurt, totally, I get it. I 100% understand that. However, it just does not work for me. Because I don’t think that me pretending I don’t have any expectations for something is actually protecting me from anything at all.

My expectations are to continue to make things with other people, to continue to fight, to do the best I can to show up for the people I love in my communities. That’s my whole thing. And am I cognizant of all the things, all the suffering, all the harms, all the? Yes, always. It’s always in my direct view. And I don’t put my head in the sand about that stuff. I’m not like, “Everything’s great.” That’s not me. As you know, that is not me.

But at the same time, I’m also not, it’s all the worst thing. I love the quote by Dean [Spade] from “Movement Memos” that we include in the book. Because yeah, that too is a form of hope making for me, because it’s about action still being taken. Despite all the crap that’s going on. And you have a different way of thinking about hope, so I’d love to hear you speak to that. Because you’re not on my tip on it. But you are definitely a hopeful person, I find still, even if you, again, don’t see yourself that way. But yeah.

KH: Well, I think I am a hopeful person, definitely. I think we come at it from different cognitive places. While you take a lot of comfort in uncertainty and the openness and the spaciousness of it, I have a very low tolerance for uncertainty. And hilariously, as I’ve been reading this political psychology stuff, I’ve learned that actually, a person with a low tolerance for uncertainty is much more susceptible to conservative politics. It’s sort of a risk factor. And as we see, things didn’t go that way in this case, but very far in the other direction.

But I think that the reasons for that are significant. And I would say that a lot of that has to do with being shown that my worst conclusions about what was inevitable weren’t real in a number of cases. Sometimes they were. But in a number of cases over the years, I’ve been in situations where things did not go the way I thought they would go. And the reasons why tended to have to do with people making decisions together to take actions that changed the shape of the problem, or changed the shape of someone’s life, or changed the trajectory of a campaign. Seeing what my imagination hadn’t allowed me to envision become real changed me, over time. And I really needed to have my sense of certainty troubled in that way. Because I never realized, back then, that my pessimism was often coming from a defensive place. Unconsciously, I was sort of operating from this place of: I expect and prepare for the worst, so nothing can break my heart anymore. Of course, our hearts still break, and I was just starving myself of hope, for no good reason, but I would still probably be stuck in that cycle, if not for the gifts that organizing has given me.

I think our friendship has been a big part of my development in that regard. We talk in the book about how I didn’t believe Reparations NOW, the campaign for reparations for survivors of police torture under John Burge here in Chicago, I didn’t think it could be won.

MK: Yeah, I remember. I didn’t know that at the time though.

KH: No, I didn’t tell you.

MK: I didn’t know that you thought that for a long time.

KH: I just kept chewing on my food while you talked about it, and I just nodded.

MK: And now I think back to that, and I’m like, okay, so that whole time she’s sitting there I’m like, what was the lady thinking about?

KH: Well, it wasn’t a new idea for me, to sign up for a fight that I believed was a lost cause. I had signed on for other campaigns that I didn’t think were going to make it, but that I believed were worthy of a fight.

MK: Yes.

KH: Sometimes, I engaged with struggles that I thought weren’t going to prevail because I believed that the people involved deserved to be fought for, and that the ideas involved were worth fighting for.

MK: Yes.

KH: That even if this round couldn’t be won, then the next group of people that came along would have something to build from, and maybe know what they’re made of. And so I was approaching a lot of struggle with that perspective. Thinking, well, if people want to wage this fight, and they want my help, then I’m going to do my part to make it big, and make it good, and make it count. And when you talked about Reparations NOW, I thought, well, I don’t think we’re going to win, but this is going to be meaningful. So I should contribute to that in whatever way that I can. And then when Rahm Emanuel wound up in a runoff, I was like, holy shit, everything just changed. We could actually win. And it’s that thing you talk about where we don’t know enough.

MK: We don’t know enough.

KH: We don’t know enough to assume.

MK: We don’t know enough. We don’t know enough. We actually, as human beings are not Nostradamus, I want people to go there. Unless we are built with six billion clairvoyance, we don’t know enough. We don’t know enough. It’s possible that the thing could be different. That’s all. That’s all my proposition is, that it’s possible that the thing can be different. My other proposition is what my friend, Ashon Crowley teaches me all the time, is that we want the practice of hope to produce otherwise possibility, right? What he calls “otherwise possibility.” A break from the known and the knowable world. That’s what a practice of hope helps us to get towards, to move towards. For me, for me, that’s true. For other people, hope has … Because it’s got baggage, it means so many different kinds of things to so many different kinds of people, and folks talk about toxic hope as “positivity,” whatever. I’m going to tell somebody this. I am not a little Pollyannaish person. That is not my personality at all.

KH: Definitely not.

MK: I’m not, I’m not. But I am absolutely committed to understanding that I do not have enough information to be making declarative statements about a future I have not inhabited. Okay? What I can make a statement about is the present that I’m living in and the actions I wanna take in that present that I hope will help produce otherwise possibility. Right?

KH: Absolutely.

MK: That’s it? It’s that simple. To me that’s actually super simple. But it turns out that it’s actually not a simple thing at all. It’s a thing that is constantly contested, which I understand. And we all come at it, I thought the way you said it is, we come at it from different cognitive beginnings. We come at it also from our experiences, right? If you’ve lived a life where you’ve constantly been harmed and you’ve constantly been … We talk about this in the book, the role of trauma and how trauma has such an impact on our worldview and our sense of being and our lives. We’re just coming at these things from so many different kinds of beginnings. So many points of location on the spectrum.

And so, I just make it the humble offering that for me, a daily practice of consistently asking, “How might I lessen suffering, contribute to lessen suffering today?” It’s a helpful way to make it through the day. For me, it’s a helpful way for me to think about what actions I could be taking on a daily basis to help get towards that. It’s also helpful for me to think about what other actions can I offer invitations to others to do with me along the same line and along the same path?

KH: What is your hope for this book that we’ve made together? What purpose do you hope it will serve in the world?

MK: You know, from the very beginning, what I was hoping we could make with this book was have something that I wish I had had when I was first starting out as a young person, a very young person in organizing and activism. But I think that in this book we invite new activists and organizers to critique by creating, as Michelangelo said.

And this is what one of my early mentors taught me by asking me very early on in my activism and organizing what I had built. I think that actually making things with others humbles you. It makes you less intolerant or strident. You become somebody who doesn’t need to … You understand pretty quickly at that level that people aren’t really motivated by ideology. It gives you so many lessons and it changes your disposition to this ongoing work. And that we need a lot of people to take lots of different kinds of action. And I’m hoping maybe this book will help people to feel a little braver to do so, or give people a little bit more encouragement on their path.

And for me, that would be the best takeaway that I could imagine for somebody, is to think to themselves, “Oh, okay, I’m going to move from kind of armchair critiquing everything, and I’m just going to dive in to doing some stuff, getting messy, making mistakes, using those mistakes to build the other thing in a better, stronger way. And I’m going to get to do that from the time I’m just getting started. I’m not going to have to wait for years before I recognize this lesson and the importance of this lesson. I’m going to do it from the start.” If we can, oh my God, what amazing movements we can have if people were coming at it from that perspective from early on, rather than some of the people we talked about in the book. Political hobbyists and – just like, “Oh, let it go, y’all. Let it go. My God, we don’t need the 10th fucking argument about the same damn thing. What are you building? What are you building?”

KH: Yes.

MK: Oh my God, yeah. That’s what I hope folks walk away with from the book. It’s like, build something, try. Put it out there in the world. Be brave. Be courageous. Understand you’re going to come under fire, it’s okay. Do it with other people. Don’t be a lone ranger. Those are the things I’m really hoping the people who pick this up as new and younger organizers will take away from it.

KH: Absolutely. And I hope that the book will help people to engage with their own curiosity and creativity. Because we all have the power to build things that we believe should exist, and I want people to understand that about themselves.

MK: And also ditch cynicism. Ditch cynicism.

KH: Is there anything else you would like to share with or ask of the audience as we wrap up today?

MK: First of all, I just want to say, I’m so blessed and lucky in my co-strugglers, comrades and good friends that I get to work with all the time. And I am so lucky that I got to meet Kelly Hayes. I really am. Kelly has enriched my organizing life, but more than that has enriched my life in general. I’m so grateful. And writing this with you has been truly such an honor for me. It’s been a privilege and a joy, and I am just grateful for your brilliance, for the care you show. It’s okay that you can be a jerk, that’s totally fine with me. I’m also…

KH: Thank you for that.

MK: … so it works perfectly. And I just want you to know how meaningful it is to get to work with your folks to do projects together. And that that is a life worth living. And to me, writing this book that we’re making an offering to people, we’re not saying, “This is the law.” Calm down. We’re not saying, “You have to do all these things.” This is a book that I hope you take with you as a new person in organizing as accompaniment. That it is a thing you can return to, go back and read. If you’re struggling or you think you need some confirmation that you might be on the right path, or maybe you need to be disrupted off of the path that you’re currently taking, that this book serves as that for you. In that way, I hope that it has a long tail and that it can allow people to be able to do that.

I know veteran organizers who’ve read the book already, who are like, “This is useful for me too.” Okay, if you’re an experienced organizer and you take this book and it gives you fuel for continuing the work, we are thrilled about that as well. And so, that’s what I want to say about this book, about this experience, about my gratitude for Kelly. And I hope that people will read the book. I hope that you will share it with others. I hope that you will read it with other people. We have a discussion guide that’s going to be part of this. We’ve got a workbook that is coming out. Kelly and I are going to run a small few weeks of a small book group conversation that we’re going to do in October and November for new organizers. Stay tuned for more about that. And come and join us on May 16th when we launch the book.

KH: Thank you for that, Mariame. And as you know, I am forever grateful for you and our friendship, and I really wouldn’t be the person that I am today if I hadn’t met you. And so just basically every day and in every way, I’m always so grateful for you and the joy and all of the creativity and wonderful work that I’ve gotten to be a part of because we’re friends, and because we’ve been able to engage in these projects together. So I’m grateful for you and for that and for this conversation. Thank you so much for joining me.

MK: Thank you for having me.

[Musical transition]

KH: In 2016, when the Chicago organizing community absorbed the tough news that Mariame would be leaving us and moving back to New York City, some of my friends got together and made a plan to honor Mariame with a book full of letters about what we had learned from her, and what her mentorship has meant to us. I wrote a letter for that book, and I want to share a few words from it as we close today. I wrote to Mariame:

Working with you, developing ideas, planning actions, and laughing at ourselves at absurd hours when reasonable people were fast asleep, I learned to do something incredibly dangerous. I learned to not simply hope, but to actually trust that we could all do better. And that we would.

I learned that I could build the broken parts of myself into something worth sharing with others, and that communities can do the same.

I learned that it was alright to hurt and to fail and to tell the truth when no one wanted to hear it.

I learned that figuring out what justice looks like is a messy, ongoing process, and that hard-and-fast rules are usually bullshit.

I learned that my values, like my vision of community, were aspirational, and could always be fought for, even when I’d lost my way.

I learned to trust my creativity, mostly because you trusted it.

I learned what my oppressors never wanted me to know: that transformation is always possible.

I am so grateful for Mariame and also for the opportunity to share some of the lessons that I’ve learned from her and alongside her. I’m also grateful for the friends and touchstones who shared their insights and wisdom with us, in order to create a resource that I am just so proud of. If you would like to preorder the book or to attend our upcoming virtual launch on May 16, you can check out the show notes, at the end the transcript for this episode on our website at truthout.org. I am, as always, grateful for the opportunity to think and dream alongside one of my favorite people, my friend Mariame Kaba.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and 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 you in the streets.

Show Notes

  • You can preorder Let This Radicalize You here.
  • You can RSVP for Mariame and Kelly’s May 16 virtual book launch for Let This Radicalize You here.

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