Building Catalyst – Historical Background

The Challenging White Supremacy Workshop

Catalyst began as a project of the Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) Workshops in 2000.  CWS was founded by Sharon Martinas and Mickey Ellinger in 1993.  Sharon and Mickey are long-time white anti-racist organizers who were politicized by the Black Freedom struggle in the Civil Rights, Black Power and Anti-War movements of the 1960s and 1970s.  In the late 1960s the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which played a leading role in defining the political developments of the period, put forward an analysis and strategy that white people needed to organize other white people to challenge racism as a central barrier to building a multiracial movement for justice.  Sharon and Mickey, along with thousands of other white people at the time, committed themselves to that work.  CWS was started on the basis of that strategy.

Sharon and Mickey founded CWS after they went through a People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond workshop in New Orleans.  The African-American led training program moved them to do similar workshops with white people.  The purpose of the CWS workshop was to ‘train principled and effective grassroots anti-racist organizers’ and welcomed all activists who wanted to work for racial justice and challenge white privilege in all their social justice work.  CWS believed that anti-racist training for white activists complements and supports grassroots organizing and leadership development in communities of color.  Both kinds of work, they maintained, are necessary to help build radical, mass-based, multi-racial social justice movements.

Catalyst Project Emerges

From 1993 to 1998 CWS led two 15-week-long sessions a year in the Bay Area, working with hundreds of social justice activists.  Shortly after the mass actions in Seattle that rocked the WTO, Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez encouraged Sharon to develop political education specifically to work with the growing Global Justice movement.  Sharon recruited younger generation left/radical anti-racists to build a new phase of CWS called ‘Anti-Racism for Global Justice’.  While continuing to run the 15-week workshop series, the new project that became Catalyst quickly developed into a national training program.  Over the next 5 years over 5000 participants from local groups and national networks went through Catalyst trainings.  Catalyst developed through intergenerational mentorship and a commitment to non-sectarian left/radical movement building.  Intergeneration mentorship has been a process by which we have connected to the lived history of social movements before us to draw lessons and inspiration for our work.  In addition to sharing insights, movement veterans have been mentors supporting us to reflect on and draw lessons from our work.  They have helped us to believe in ourselves, while also providing long-term perspective.  Through such mentorship and our own political practice, we developed our commitment to a non-sectarian movement building framework committed to bringing forward the best of many left/radical traditions.  We are committed to a praxis-based approach to political education and organizing.  Sharon Martinas, Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, Paul Kivel, Nisha Anand and our other advisers supported us.

Four Key Political Developments

The political development and work of the Catalyst Project has been shaped by four primary factors since 1999.  We focus on these factors here to root ourselves both in the historical conditions in which we work and in the social movements from which we come from and work with.

Building the Global Justice Movement

First, the mass direct actions and mobilizations of the Global Justice movement at the turn of the century.  From Seattle ’99 through Washington D.C. ’00, Los Angeles ’00, Philadelphia ’00, Quebec ’01, and Genoa ’01,where the ruling class gathered to advance their globalized profit before people agenda, growing people’s movements in the Global North, led primarily by movements in the South, confronted them.  The Zapatistas in Mexico have played a major leadership role in developing the political framework of the Global Justice movement.  Not only did they spark a new level of resistance to global capitalism with their uprising in 1994 (the day NAFTA went into effect), but also they brought together thousands of activists from around the world in the late 90’s for gatherings/encuentros against neo-liberalism and for humanity.

Out of these mass meetings, People’s Global Action (PGA) formed in 1998 as a network of global collaboration and coordination among movements with a majority of participating movements coming from the South.  PGA identified world economic summits as a strategic site of struggle and called for militant direct action against the WTO in particular.  The mass convergences in Seattle and so on brought together many organizations, campaigns, social movements and sectors of society under the common themes of “Globalize Liberation not Corporate Power” and “Our World is Not for Sale”.  Running throughout these convergences, which captured headlines and imaginations around the world, was a growing anti-capitalist politic and an ethic of global solidarity.

Members of Catalyst were either in organizations that played a leading role in the emergence of a Global Justice movement in the U.S. or were radicalized in the organizing of the mass actions themselves.  In particular, we were rooted in the anarchist/anti-authoritarian organizations that advanced the call to “Shut Down the WTO” and used innovative, democratic strategies to make it happen.  We thus approach our work from the position of U.S.-based grassroots activists in a global struggle for justice, self-determination and empowered people’s democracy.  We approach our political education and movement building work grounded in the complex reality of building grassroots organizations in a time of Right-wing political reaction and neo-liberal economics.  We approach our work deeply inspired and moved by the mass convergences of organizations, campaigns, social movements and different sectors of society demonstrating our critique of what is and beginning to practice our visions of what can be.

White Supremacy and Movement-Wide Discussions on Organizing

Second, the vital critique of white privilege in the Global Justice movement that was initiated by Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez in her essay “Where Was the Color in Seattle”.  That essay and others that followed it made race and power burning issues throughout the movement.  The debate quickly became a much wider discussion about the historic role of white supremacy as a fundamental organizing principle of the U.S. political and economic systems, as well as how white privilege has strategically been used by the ruling class to cement alliances between white people of all classes and divide and conquer the majority of the people under a profit before people agenda.  Out of the mass action convergences a powerful intergenerational dialogue, with people of color and women’s leadership at the center, brought issues of white supremacy, anti-racism, strategy, organizing, leadership and vision to the forefront.

Catalyst members were deeply influenced by these debates and played active roles in both furthering them and working to implement anti-racist strategies in mostly white sectors of the global justice movement.  With mentorship from older generation left/radicals, we joined with other activists and organizers of our generation – of color and white – to struggle with the analytical and practical questions before us.  We thus approach our work as white anti-racists using political education to ground current activism in history, strengthen vision and strategy and support/develop leadership in mostly white communities to stand for racial justice as core to an overall liberation agenda.  We have come to understand the many ways in which leadership operates and we have committed ourselves to support younger generation left/radical leadership rooted in organizations and communities working for justice.  We have come to see anti-racism based in a collective liberation analysis and multiracial alliance building based on shared politics as catalysts to building powerful movements for justice.

U.S. Imperialism and the Resurgence of the Anti-War Movement

Third, the ‘permanent war’ launched by the U.S. government in the wake of Sept. 11th and the resurgence of the worldwide anti-war movement on a new scale.  With the nation recovering from the tragedy of Sept. 11th, the Bush administration launched war against Afghanistan and then Iraq and gave a green light to Israel to intensify its war against the Palestinians.  In the U.S., detentions of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians intensified, rationalized by government officials as a strategy of counter-terrorism.  Meanwhile Democrats and Republicans passed the Patriot Act, which is an assault on baseline constitutional rights.  Together, the ruling parties mobilized a traumatized society, using fear and revenge to justify racial profiling, torture of prisoners held without charges, pre-emptive war, violation of international law and slashing funds for health care, emergency preparedness and schools so as to pay for occupation of other countries.

In response, millions of people around the world have taken to the streets against war.  The largest anti-war mobilization in history took place in February of 2003, with coordinated actions of over 15 million people around the world.  In San Francisco, the day after the war on Iraq began, over 20,000 took over and shut down the Financial District using non-violent direct action.  At the Republican National Convention in 2004, the largest protest at a presidential convention in U.S. history took place with over 500,000 people in the streets of New York City.  As the corporate agenda has increasing become defined by U.S.-led imperialism, a growing anti-imperialist consciousness that links white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and the state is developing in the grassroots movements for racial and economic justice, for global justice and against war.

We thus approach our work as white anti-imperialists committed to building community power by strengthen our economic, racial, gender and environmental struggles for health and justice in the center of empire.  We reaffirm our belief that organization is key to the struggle for liberation.  We believe left/radicals have a responsibility to join and strengthen existing organizations and/or build new ones to further our goals.  We see organizations as structures to develop shared understanding of the world, shared meaning of one’s role and relationship in the world and a shared culture of justice to make change in the world.  We believe organizations are not just a utilitarian tool to get work done, but that grassroots fighting organizations can support people’s political development as leaders and serve as a space to practice our politics while working to transform society.  We believe that relationships of respect and accountability built on principles of justice and democracy are the foundation of effective organizations.  We therefore approach our political education work as a component in supporting organization-building and developing dynamic and democratic leadership rooted in relationships of respect and accountability.

White Supremacy, Capitalism and Building Grassroots Power After Katrina

Fourth, the man-made disaster in the Gulf Coast of the United States as millions of poor people and people of color struggled to survive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Social spending, won through a long history of working class struggle in the U.S., has repeatedly been cut and redirected to corporate profits through war profiteering.  The basic infrastructure of society is deteriorating, and the broken levees in New Orleans broke open the mainstream consciousness of institutional white supremacy as foundational to the political economy of our society.  With poor Black people were left to die in the flooded city of New Orleans, the Bush administration and the state on all levels prioritized protecting property over poor people.  The people of New Orleans relied on one another to survive.  The stories of people opening their homes, of people risking their lives for one another, of families coming together were ignored in the corporate media.  Instead, poor Black people struggling to survive were described as looters and criminals. The systemic poverty and racism of this society, all of which was supposedly ended by the Civil Rights movement in mainstream white consciousness, was up for the world to see.

In the aftermath, community organizations and people in the communities most negatively impacted worked to rebuild.  From Community Labor United, People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, Critical Resistance, the People’s Institute and the Common Ground Collective, grassroots relief efforts led by longtime left and radical organizers clarified the tremendous need for social movements of millions of people to create institutions, communities and systems which foster and sustain economic, racial and social justice in our day-to-day lives.

We believe that working-class people, people of color and poor people are the leading forces in the struggle to build a just society.  We work to support and join with community-based organizations building power in these communities.  We believe that leadership of working-class people, people of color, poor people, women and queer people is central in the overall process of building the infrastructure of liberation.  We also believe there is tremendous need for anti-racist leadership and organization in white communities and we work with other white anti-racists and organizers of color to develop this kind of leadership and organization.

We thus approach our work by prioritizing anti-racism work with mostly white sectors of the left with a focus on the global justice and anti-war movements and economic and racial justice movements.  Catalyst works with a strategy that prioritizes leadership development, building grassroots organizations and multiracial alliance building.  In this we focus on supporting the leadership of those most negatively impacted by the systems of oppression we are fighting. Catalyst works within an informal network of hundreds of anti-racist, anti-imperialists, with the majority of the leadership coming from women, people of color trans and genderqueer folks, working-class people, Jewish people, youth, and leaders from other marginalized and oppressed communities.

We believe in the power of organized communities to make history.  We understand that it is often a long and difficult process building effective, healthy organizations along with powerful and democratic social movements.  We approach our work grounded in respect for those who have struggled before us and love for the people we work alongside today. We join with millions around the world organizing to build democracy and socialism.