Strategic Opportunities: the Heads Up Collective and White Anti-Racist Organizing
Strategic Opportunities: the Heads Up Collective and White Anti-Racist Organizing
Veteran organizer Suzanne Pharr wrote, "While the Right is united by their racism, sexism, and homophobia in their goal to dominate all of us, we are divided by our own racism, sexism, and homophobia.” In the days after September 11th, Pharr’s statement could be felt all around us. Those of us who would form Heads Up had been working to pro-actively take on these divisions in the global justice movement, focusing on anti-racism and multiracial alliance building. In the days after September 11th we knew that an anti-war movement would emerge to protest the war the Bush administration would launch. We knew that racial and economic justice organizations would work to build a movement against the war at home and the war abroad. We knew that a mostly white peace movement would become the most visible anti-war movement and that it would be largely disconnected from grassroots community organizing in working class communities and communities of color.
We also knew that there was an energized, radical, mostly, but not all, white anti-authoritarian wing of the global justice movement that would take action against the war. We had played major roles in internal debates in that movement about anti-racism, white privilege, the importance of locally based economic and racial justice organizing. With relationships in the anti-authoritarian, direct action, global justice movement and with economic and racial justice organizations in working class communities of color, the Heads Up Collective formed to build alliances by strengthening a white anti-racist/anti-imperialist sector of activists in the Bay Area. While knowing how powerful the divisions are that Pharr outlines, we also knew from history and our own experience, the power of movements that pro-actively challenge racism, sexism and homophobia as core to their work to build another world.
In the winter of 2006, celebrating the 5th anniversary of the group, this interview was conducted with members of Heads Up to reflect on their experience and draw lessons from the organization’s work. In addition to current members, several past members also participated.
Chris: Can you give us an overview of the history, politics, strategy and organizational structure of the Heads Up Collective?
Rahula Janowski: In 2001, after September 11th, a group of white anti-racists came together who were leaders in the Bay Area-based Challenging White Supremacy workshops and the Catalyst Project. The group decided they needed an autonomous group to take the politics embodied in their trainings and put them to work participating in actions and doing organizing work. They formed the Heads Up Collective. They were unified by anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics. Many of the founding and early members of Heads Up were experienced anarchist organizers coming out of years of work in San Francisco Food Not Bombs, the Direct Action Network, and other anarchist formations. In Heads Up, approaches to the work, as well as choices around structure and process, were deeply influenced by the experiences and lessons from that earlier work.
I joined Heads Up several months after it was formed. I was coming from a history of organizing and activism within the anarchist community on the West Coast, and like a lot of folks in that community, not only was I inspired and amazed by the huge demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, my eyes were opened by the huge discussions that flared up in the aftermath about the ways that racism played out in that resistance. Then, when 9/11 hit, I felt, like a lot of folks in my community, a lot of urgency about being organized to resist whatever may come, knowing that the brunt of it was going to fall largely on the heads of people of color. Heads Up was a perfect space for me to step into. Although it was not, and never has been, explicitly anarchist, many of the original members are anarchists and anarchist politics are core to how Heads Up operates and thinks about strategy and vision.
Anarchism is a political tradition and organizing practice that aims to challenge and dismantle patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism and the state. Anarchism is the political understanding that we can build cooperative, egalitarian and just relationships, organizations, institutions and societies based on mutual aid, socialism, ecological sustainability and solidarity. Anarchist organizing strongly incorporates prefigurative politics, the concept that one of the ways we make the world we seek to live in is through incorporating the values and practices of the world we seek to create into our daily practice, for example, we want a world of participatory democracy, so within our political work we practice participatory democracy, and we want a world free of dominance and so we actively challenge dominance when it manifests in our political work and community, while actively promoting and supporting the political leadership of traditionally oppressed peoples. Some of the more common models of anarchist organizations are affinity groups and collectives.
The overarching politics of Heads Up are anti-racist, and anti-imperialist. As it says in our mission statement, “we work from the foundation that all people have the right to housing, food, healthcare, meaningful work and healthy communities. We believe in the need for revolutionary change and the liberation of all people from the systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism, the gender binary system and imperialism."
We just passed the five-year mark of our existence as an organization, and we've ebbed and flowed over that time. Initially, the work was focused on direct support work for anti-war formations led by radical people of color, specifically the 911 Solidarity Committee and War Times (a free, radical newspaper dedicated to showing the true cost of the war). We've adapted and grown over the years, developing our goals, strategy, and work. Our overarching goal is to participate in the building of a multiracial, revolutionary movement in the Bay Area. Our strategies for working toward that goal include operating as a formation of white anti-racists within the broad movements in the Bay Area; supporting grassroots organizations, led by people of color and working class people, fighting domestic imperialism; developing and supporting anti-racist analysis, practice, and leadership in the mostly white sectors of the movement, in particular the anti-war and global justice movements; and encouraging and supporting a growing commitment to anti-racism in white activist and organizing communities.
Over the past year we've developed an organizing strategy that breaks our work into four main areas, all of which work toward our goals:
1. We work with other white activists to support the leadership of anti-imperialist, anti-racist white people doing work in the largely white sectors of the anti-war and global justice movements;
2. We work in solidarity with radical organizations led by people of color and working class people by providing political and material support;
3. We work to help build relationships, trust, and unity between individuals and organizations in various sectors of the movement through collaborative work, relationship building, and developing and sharing analysis and strategy
4. And we do internal development, working on developing our own skills and analysis while increasing our capacity to do work individually and as a group, and to provide leadership within our group and within our movements.
As for our organizational structure, Heads Up is a collective. Some of the broad characteristics of this kind of organizing model are: a commitment to egalitarianism within the group, consensus based decision making, and an adherence to prefigurative political practice. I came of age politically in anarchist organizations like Food Not Bombs, and in addition to most of my political work happening in collectives for the past decade, I've also been living in collective houses for the past 15 years. I currently live in a collective house that is ten years old, and am delighted to be raising my daughter in that setting, especially as I was raised on a commune myself. Like most folks who are engaged in social change work, my work is guided at least in part by a vision of the world I'd like to live in. Many of the things I hope to see in that world are best manifested in the here and now through collectives – things like egalitarian decision making, shared leadership, attention to interpersonal dynamics and how they reflect larger social issues, sharing of resources, be they material goods, relationships, or skills, and accountability to the people you live and work with. I think the collective is the best organizing model for practicing prefigurative politics.
However, Heads up has always been multi-tendency, with Anarchists, Marxists, and folks who don't fly any particular flag, and so being a collective is not just an outgrowth of the anarchist politics of some of the group's founders, it's a highly effective way for us to do our work. Like many collectives, we use consensus decision-making process, and we're a closed group. Being a closed group means that we bring in new members in an intentional way once or twice a year.
Although many of the organizations we are allied with have a non-profit structure, we're all volunteer, operating with no budget at all. This allows for a lot of autonomy and integrity, but it also leads to some capacity issues, as there is no one in the group not also working for a living on top of their work within the group.
Operating as a collective supports our approach to leadership, which is that each member is assumed to be capable of providing leadership and every person in the group is expected to do so. Leadership within the group is shared, shifting, and in some cases rotating. We provide leadership by being point people for certain areas of work or particular projects. We each step up to coordinate one of our monthly film nights, or one of our bimonthly home skools, which is our internal education and study program. Another way we have rotating leadership is through our internal coordinating body, called the IPG, the Internal Planning Group. This body is entrusted with keeping track of our internal process, mapping out when we have certain discussions, following decision-making processes through several meetings, making sure things don't fall through the cracks. The creation of the IPG formalized something that was already happening informally, by making it intentional, specific, and accountable; that is, there were always people who would do this kind of work, but it was not an acknowledged role, and thus not very accountable. Now it is, and it's a rotating role, which everyone in the group is expected to play at some point. The IPG provides leadership grounded in the collective leadership of the group, but does not dictate politics or actions. Developing our politics, our analysis, and strategies continues to be shared work, and decisions about what we will do are not made by the IPG. Our collective process around this kind of work leads to analysis and politics that are fuller and richer, not to mention more representative of the group, than if one or two people were in charge of this area of work.
Two other things that figure heavily into the ways we work as an organization are challenging internal oppressions and accountability. We have a strong emphasis on actively challenging oppressive structures internally when they arise, as they inevitably do in all political work. This means that we pay attention to things like sexism, homophobia, and classism as they manifest within our group. Not only does this make us stronger in the organization, it also helps us to be constantly noticing and challenging manifestations of oppressive structures throughout all of our work. So, although our main organizational focus often leads us to engaging around racism, we are just as committed to undermining, challenging, and ultimately, destroying, all systems of oppression.
As for accountability, we value and observe accountability on several levels. First of all, we are accountable to each other, and if we say we are going to do something, we do it or we are accountable about why not. We are accountable to each other about how we represent ourselves and our organization when we are engaged in political work, which means that when we are doing Heads Up work or related work, we need to be accountable to our mission, our goals, our politics, and our strategies. Finally, we are accountable to our allies, in particular the organizations led by people of color with whom we have relationships.
As someone who has been involved in a lot of collectives, Heads Up stands out by being a collective in every sense of the word, yet also being quite structured, with really intentional structure and process, possibly more than a lot of more traditional, authoritarian style organizations. We manage to be pretty darn efficient, and maintain a high level of unity, and we don't spend a lot of time bogged down in process or arguing over small stuff. We stay on track and manage to discuss the things we need to, make the decisions we need to make, and we only meet twice a month. Our experience supports the idea that, first of all, organization and being in organizations is key for building movements that can win, and that organization and being in organizations does not require authoritarian or top down structures, or that being collective and egalitarian doesn't mean you can't be structured and have good process.
A specific thing that sets us apart as a group is that we are a group of all white people. This isn't so much about identity politics or doing identity based work, so much as it is about looking strategically at our role as white folks. We understand the role racism has historically played in movements, dividing white workers from workers of color, white queers from queers of color, white women from women of color; and it has happened over and over that movements have been destroyed when white folks have chosen to win gains at the expense of their comrades of color. Anti-racist politics and practice need to take root deeply within the white dominated sectors of the anti-war and global justice movements if we want to see that ongoing history change.
Traditional solidarity politics, the practice of groups of white anti-racists working in direct support of organizations of color, certainly influences us and a certain amount of our work is still direct solidarity work; however, we do believe that anti-racist white folks have a role to play in the movement that goes beyond support, and that there are areas where leadership of white folks is needed and appropriate.
As white anti-racists within the movement, we play the particular role of building anti-racist analysis and practice, engaging with other white folks around fighting racism, and also modeling accountable relationships with organizations and organizers of color by working collaboratively with radical people of color and radical people of color led organizations. We work to move other white folks, especially other white activists and organizers, to fight white supremacy as part of an overall social and economic justice movement and to support the other white folks who are already engaged in anti-racist struggles. We see this as strategically crucial, and it's work that needs to be done by white folks. We also understand that in order to do this work accountably, we need to be grounded in the solidarity and collaborative work we do with other organizations. In addition to understanding that the leadership of white anti-racists is necessary in supporting anti-racist politics and practices in white dominated areas of the movement, Heads Up also believes that there are many roles for white people to play, including working in and being an accountable part of leadership in multiracial organizations.
Chris: Heads Up has been involved in the Palestinian Solidarity movement throughout the group's history. Why did you decide to make Palestinian Solidarity work a priority? Additionally, Heads Up has developed a specific political approach to that work. Can you explain the evolution of the group's work on Palestine and the political analysis that guides you?
Rahula Janowski: Since the beginning, Heads Up has had a strong focus on Palestine. The organizations we were most closely allied with, and were taking some political leadership from, in the early days of the group, such as the 911 Solidarity Committee, a people of color led group that formed immediately after the 9/11 attacks and War Times, had strong and clear politics around solidarity with the people of Palestine.
This reflects the strategic importance of Palestine within the broad movement against U.S. Imperialism around the world, and it's also consistent with Heads Up's commitment to the right of self-determination for indigenous peoples and other oppressed peoples. The occupation of Palestine is a remaining direct front of colonialism in this century, propped up by U.S. economic, political, and military support of Israel. At the same time, though, we have a vibrant and inspiring front in the anti-colonial struggle and struggle for national liberation. The resistance of the people of Palestine, both in Palestine and from the 6 million in the diaspora, is a huge inspiration, and those of us who are anti-racist, and those of us who are anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist, need to stand in solidarity with their struggle.
When I joined Heads Up shortly after it formed, I was personally in the process of becoming more and more politicized around Palestine as a result of following the events of the second Intifada. I'd gotten interested after noticing the huge disparities in the news I was hearing over Pacifica and Democracy Now! compared with what was being offered in the mainstream media. The more I learned, the more I realized how deeply unjust the situation was, and the more I wanted to engage in work to change that situation. Over the past five years, my politics around Palestine and the politics of Heads Up overall have developed and deepened quite a bit. Over the years, we've done a lot of internal education within Heads Up which has brought us to where we are now, with our Palestine solidarity work strongly grounded in Jewish liberation, queer liberation, and an understanding of the role that Christian hegemony plays in how the majority of non-Jewish, non Arab/Muslim Americans look at the situation in Israel/Palestine.
Getting there started with an intense and deep internal process in early 2002 which began with us signing on to the points of unity of the newly formed Justice In Palestine Coalition. These points of unity include supporting the right of return for the people of Palestine. The right of return refers to the right of Palestinians to return to the villages and homes from which they were forced out with the founding of the state of Israel. There are families living in refugee camps in occupied Palestine, but also throughout the whole Palestinian diaspora, who hold deeds to their land within the state of Israel that they are not allowed to set foot on. Right of return is a key demand, and it is supported by the United Nations, but a surprising number of liberal left organizations are unwilling to endorse it. Meanwhile, we were planning to organize an educational event about Palestine, and asked some of our allies in the 911 Solidarity Committee to speak at the event. In the course of preparing for that event, we were encouraged by these allies to declare ourselves specifically an anti-zionist organization.
Zionism is defined in wikipedia as "an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel." It is broadly understood as the ideology that justifies the formation of the state of Israel in Palestine and the subsequent expulsion of Palestinians and ongoing occupation of Palestine.
Some of the strongest advocates in the group for us to declare ourselves anti-zionist were Jewish. However, other members, mainly other Jewish members, were deeply uncomfortable with moving in that direction. For some people, especially a couple Jewish members of the group, the discomfort was about varying ideas of what "Zionism" means, and what it has meant historically as one vision of Jewish liberation. In addition, there were several non-Jews who had major concerns about moving in this direction because they associated anti-Zionist with being anti-Jewish. In the process of probing that discomfort and working to respond to the raised concerns, we had interesting and problematic dynamics come up. One was that most of us who are culturally Christian had a tendency to sit back and let the conflict manifest between the Jewish members of the group, largely due to not knowing how to appropriately engage in a debate about the meaning of Zionism amongst Jewish people.
We also realized that those of us who were not Jewish were not that strongly grounded in the histories of the oppression of Jewish people or the realities of anti-Jewish oppression that continues to this day.
So, we embarked upon a process that involved having a couple folks from the 911 Solidarity Committee do a presentation for us, as well as a handful of invited close allies, about the history of Palestine/Israel and the impacts of Zionism on the surrounding regions. Meanwhile, we engaged in internal study around the histories of Jewish oppression, reading different materials and having an internal meeting session on Jewish oppression. We also began to meet in Jewish and culturally Christian caucuses for several months, with the non-Jews taking on the work of educating ourselves about Christian hegemony – how it manifests in our organization, how it manifests in our movements, and how it manifests in the world. Christian hegemony refers to how Christianity is so pervasive and dominant that is assumed as normal and anything else is "other." On a simple level, Christian hegemony refers to things like the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas and everyone believes in the Judeo-Christian god, but in our work as the Christian caucus, we delved deeper into how Christian hegemony affects people who are not Christian, and how it influences everything from cultural norms to foreign policy. For example, Manifest Destiny was the ideology that God granted white Christians the right to colonize the United States and commit genocide against indigenous people.
In the end, we never did officially declare ourselves "anti-Zionist," but we deepened our collective understanding not just of what it means to be in solidarity with the people of Palestine, but also what it means to stand for Jewish liberation, and that really shaped our approach to this work. We also did sign on the Justice In Palestine Coalitions' points of unity, including right of return for the people of Palestine.
Since that time, the demographics of Heads Up have shifted, and at this point, there are no Jews in the group as many Jewish former Heads Up members prioritized being core members of Jews For a Free Palestine, with whom we have a close collaborative relationship. We owe a great debt to the Jewish members who asked uncomfortable questions, pointed out patterns of internal Christian dominance and areas of ignorance, grappled with the complexities, and really pushed us as individuals and as an organization.
We approach our Palestine solidarity work from a pro-Palestinian, pro-Jewish, and pro-Queer perspective. The Israeli/Palestinian situation is often framed as Arabs vs Jews, with no role other than bystander for culturally Christian Americans. However, the US and the Christian Right are major players through unconditional support of Israel, supplying money, weapons, political support, and that means that those of us in the United States with radical politics, with anti-racist politics, especially those of us who are culturally Christian, have a responsibility to step up and stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine and to offer strong support to our Jewish comrades who stand in solidarity with Palestine. One of the ways we support our Jewish comrades is through working to recognize and challenge the ways that anti-Jewish analysis is sometimes disguised as support for Palestine. One common example of this is the idea that Jews, or Israel, controls U.S. foreign policy, when in fact the U.S. supports Israel as part of its overall imperialist agenda, and if anything, the U.S. has heavy influence with Israel.
Even more than that, though, in Heads Up we see ourselves having a specific role around challenging this idea that the Israeli/Palestinian situation has "nothing to do with us," or that it is somehow different than other colonial situations, or that it's "too complicated" for folks to grapple with. Just as we see our role as anti-racist white folks as working with other white folks to fight racism, we see our role as culturally Christian Americans in the U.S. with an articulated politics around Palestine as working with other culturally Christian, mostly white people in the US to challenge the ways Christian hegemony keeps us apathetic and inactive about Palestine.
Over the years, our Palestine Solidarity work has been extensive. One of our earliest projects was assisting in distributing War Times, a free newspaper that offered a radical analysis of the war on Iraq and always had clear Palestine solidarity politics front and center. Heads Up members played significant roles in the local chapters of ISM (International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian led group that brings international observers to Palestine) and SUSTAIN (Stop U.S. Tax Aid To Israel Now), as well as Jews For A Free Palestine, a collective of radical Jews opposed to the occupation of Palestine. Several members of Heads Up went to Palestine with ISM, and then did report backs upon their return to the US. Two Heads Up members were, at different points, detained by Israel and refused entry into Palestine because of their political work, which generated mainstream media coverage. Over the years, Heads Up members have been involved in multiple direct actions and civil disobediences, and during the lead up to the war on Iraq, when Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) mobilized thousands of people to take to the streets, Heads Up members were part of an affinity group called Global Intifada, which worked to keep Palestine on the agenda of DASW. We've organized educational events specifically reaching out to the largely white sectors of the anti-war and global justice movements, and hosted film nights about Palestine as part of our monthly film series.
As part of the Justice In Palestine Coalition, we've provided security for over a dozen events and demonstrations. Over the past several years, a small but aggressive group of hardcore Israel supporters and the rightwing group "protest warrior" have mobilized to turn out for as many pro-Palestine events as they can manage. They often bring bullhorns and Israeli flags, and the things they have to say (or shout, as the case may be) are often inflammatory and racist. On several occasions they have physically assaulted people. In addition to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim crap, they often specifically verbally target pro-Palestinian Jews and queers. Our role as security for situations like this, which have happened at protests, cultural events, and conferences, has been to act as a buffer between these Zionists and the folks in the demonstration, with the understanding that while it may be objectionable to us to be face to face with someone spewing racist and hateful rhetoric, it's much easier for us than it is for the people they are targeting, people who may have lost family to Israel's occupation of Palestine, people who may themselves be refugees as a result of the occupation of Palestine. Any conflict would serve the purposes of the Zionists, and so part of our task is always to de-escalate any potentially volatile situations. When we coordinate security for such situations, we focus on helping people be prepared to keep their cool in the face of severe provocation. To do that, we need to discuss things like what it means when the Zionists target queers or Jews, particularly when queers and Jews are part of our security crew. So, each time we coordinate security, we conduct a training ahead of time, even if it's on site half an hour ahead of time, and the training involves suggestions on how to manifest de-escalative body language along with political education, and we are always clear about our politics around our role as culturally Christian people in the US. The other thing is that when we provide security, we do so with an understanding that we will call out anti-Jewish oppression when we see it, and that we expect (and get) the support of the leadership of the event. This usually means confronting a cast of usual suspects, mostly older white men who are pushing tired Jewish conspiracy theories.
Heads Up maintains strong ties with Jews For A Free Palestine, collaborating on events, and acting in direct support of their activities. For example, when Israel began bombing Lebanon in the spring of 2006, JFFP and other Jewish groups organized a massive demonstration of mostly Jews in front of the Israeli consulate in San
Francisco, as well as a civil disobedience that had about 15 Jews taking arrest in protest of the actions of the state of Israel. Heads Up helped with security and as a Heads Up member, I acted as the police liaison for this. Over the summer of 2006, an ad hoc group of Jews of conscience, including folks from JFFP, organized several civil disobediences, and Heads Up consistently offered logistical support, from acting as police liaison to posting photos of the actions on our local Independent Media Center.
Right now, the situation in Palestine, and in particular in Gaza, is really disturbing. Palestinian civil society has made a call for people of conscience to engage in a campaign of Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), to bring economic and political pressure to bear on the state of Israel. The Heads Up Collective is committed for the long haul to standing in solidarity with the people of Palestine, and also to working in whatever ways we can to push and support other folks from our broad community to take that stand as well.
Chris: Rahula mentioned Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW). Heads Up focused on building DASW through most of 2003. Can you explain what DASW was and the role it played in the growing anti-war movement at that time?
Libbey Goldberg: As the war on Iraq was escalating, so too was anti-war organizing internationally. Mass marches and direct action were taking place regularly. In the Bay Area, radical activists coming out of the global justice movement founded Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) in October 2002 following an overnight sit-in and morning blockade at the San Francisco Federal Building, in opposition to the U.S. Congress's authorization of the use of force against Iraq. DASW set out to up the level of effective, non-violent militant opposition and encouraged people to form affinity groups and prepare for a mass shut down of the financial district in San Francisco the day after the U.S. went to war. The movement in the U.S. was galvanized by the international anti-war movement and on February 15th, 2003, over 15 million people marched in 60 countries. This global day of action was the largest mobilization of people for peace and justice in history.
During this time, DASW held weekly spokescouncil meetings with representatives from a growing number of affinity groups. Affinity groups are tight political units in which 6-12 people come together on the basis of political or tactical unity and take action. A spokescouncil is a democratic decision making body in which representatives from affinity groups make decisions using consensus. Large spokescouncils, like DASW, also have workgroups that take on specific areas such as media, communications and medical and operate to advance the overall goals and plans established by the spokescouncil. A map of the financial district was drawn that highlighted dozens of targets that different affinity groups took responsibility for shutting down using creative non-violent direct action. Targets included corporations like Bechtel that profit from war, major intersections and freeway exits, and the Federal building. Just as in the Seattle shutdown of the WTO, affinity groups joined together to form clusters that could take on strategic targets. The goal was to exercise people power, shut down business as usual, galvanize the U.S. anti-war movement to step up against this empire and, finally, to send a message of solidarity to those struggling in the global south who are on the frontlines resisting U.S. imperialism.
I joined the Heads Up Collective in the winter of 2002. I was new to the Bay Area, looking for anti-racist political community, and enraged that we were about to drop bombs on the people of Iraq. As a result of this heartfelt rage, I was moved to take to the streets. I joined Global Intifada, because it was the affinity group within which I had friends and comrades. It was as simple as that for me at first. But as the U.S. invasion and ensuing occupation progressed and I became more familiar with the mostly white, direct action focused anti-war activists, I began to understand the significance of Heads Up's participation in DASW.
Global Intifada was rad. We were at the center of organizing and leadership within DASW, were the most visibly multiracial affinity group (along with Freedom Uprising), and took the lead on creative and militant actions that successfully made the connections between Iraq, Palestine, and U.S. imperialism across the globe. There were at least four members of Heads Up in Global Intifada, and our explicitly anti-racist politics and practice contributed to healthy internal working dynamics within the group and moved us to prioritize the leadership of activists of color within the larger DASW. Other members of Heads Up – women, queers, gender variant people, and Jews – were doing the same things in other corners of DASW. We had folks in leadership within the media working group, within other affinity groups, within the communications working group, and folks taking point on planning and facilitating democratic decision-making processes at meetings with upwards of 250 people in the days before the shutdown of the financial district.
One of the primary goals of Heads Up since its creation has been to bridge the gap between economic and racial justice struggles and the global justice and anti-war movements. We saw some specific possibilities for this within DASW that could greatly strengthen its efforts. One was to support the involvement and leadership of grassroots community-based organizations in DASW. In the media work group we advocated to have media spokespeople from racial and economic justice organizations as a way to connect the war at home and abroad. We then asked organizers in half a dozen organizations we had relationships with if they would be media spokes, explaining our goals for asking them and offering ways we could support their participation through the process. This resulted in leaders from racial and economic justice groups speaking at DASW press conferences and rallies and fielding interviews with the media. Our goal was not just to diversify who speaks for the anti-war movement, but to forefront a working class-based racial justice analysis of the war. One of the other ways we implemented this goal was to have intentional one-on-one conversations with other white activists within DASW about the importance of an anti-racist and anti-imperialist framework in the anti-war effort, about making the connections between the occupation in Palestine and the invasion of Iraq, and about taking leadership from organizers of color. Those of us in Heads Up involved in DASW set out to each have 1-3 of these one on one conversations, with the explicit goals of building relationships and trust, as opposed to accusing people of not being down enough.
Operating primarily through the use of affinity groups, work groups and the spokescouncil meetings, DASW democratically coordinated a mass effort by 10,000 to 20,000 people that successfully shut down the financial district in March 2003. This shutdown was by far and away the most inspiring direct action effort I’ve ever seen. There was not even a glimmer of chance that business could go as usual downtown that day – everywhere you looked, at every hour of the day, there was another shut down intersection or march down Market Street. It would have been damn near impossible for anyone in the vicinity of the financial district to not be aware of this resistance to the war. The cops couldn’t keep up. What was so brilliant was that so many prime locations and targets were hit, one after the next, sometimes simultaneously throughout the day. The DASW strategy of coordinating the actions but not controlling the details of them made this possible. The shutdown of SF greatly deepened my understanding of what people power means in the context of direct action and what is possible. DASW persisted through 2004, coordinating over a dozen local protests against corporations with ties to the war effort and sending hundreds of activists to protests in Cancun against the World Trade Organization, to Miami against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, and to New York against the Republican National Convention.
In May of 2003, we played major roles organizing a Racial Justice Day of Action. That day is the example that shines the most for me in highlighting the uncommon alliances made within DASW between anti-war direct action oriented activists and leaders from local economic and racial justice community organizations. This collaboration resulted in an overwhelmingly inspiring show of people power. It began with a press conference at city hall, a march down Market Street, and a large demonstration with a direct action component at the Israeli Consulate. The banners and visuals were tight, there was great turnout, and the tactics were successful. Freedom Uprising, Global Intifada, and others in DASW crafted participation and messaging that made the connections between the War at home against poor people, people of color, and immigrants, and the Wars abroad in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan. The day ended in Oakland with a rally for immigrant workers unionizing the hotels.
While all this was happening, Heads Up provided me with some much needed breathing room and community. Our meetings throughout this time were generally focused on the anti-war work and DASW and on supporting each other in the different ways that we were each engaging in that work. While it was a bit tiresome for those members less involved in DASW, it was a crucial space of affinity and support for many of us. Being such a small group with such aligned politics was a welcome respite from the DASW context. Also, since there was so much happening, it was awesome just to hear about what others in the group were up to and what they knew about. The practice of using our meetings to support each other’s individual way s of engaging in this anti-war work also laid the foundation for the group to take this kind of practice and support on as a defining goal of the collective.
While our efforts in DASW and the shutdown in San Francisco didn’t stop our government from invading and occupying Iraq (with conditions worsening by the day as we speak), we helped develop and strengthen relationships, politics, and practice towards multiracial grassroots movements for justice in this country and against U.S. imperialism abroad.
Chris: From the start, Heads Up worked in the immigrant rights movement. Why did you make that struggle a priority as an anti-imperialist collective? What goals guide the work and what strategies have you used to reach those goals?
Clare Bayard: Well, right before Heads Up formed due to 9/11, the immigrant rights movement in the U.S. was gaining ground in some significant ways, including a real possibility of pushing through not just driver’s licenses, but maybe even a general amnesty. 9/11 was particularly devastating to this movement. We formed to address the domestic war as well as wars abroad, and it was immediately clear that attacks on immigrants, particularly targeting West/South Asian and North African communities, was one of the primary fronts. But even more than that, Heads Up formed with people who had previously been doing solidarity and collaborative organizing with immigrant-led organizations, and we knew that some of these organizations were vital forces in moving forward radical, community-based politics bridging local racial and economic justice with a global justice framework.
Anti-war work, both addressing the national crackdown on immigrants of color, and also challenging the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, was being done in very solid and sophisticated ways by immigrant communities. We saw how the work of INS Watch, in forcing San Francisco to declare itself an INS Raid-Free Zone and pass sanctuary legislation, inspired other organizations like the All Nations Alliance in Denver in their work against the PATRIOT Act. We also looked to organizations like Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), based in New York City’s low-income South Asian community, which immediately after 9/11 engaged in path breaking anti-detention work.
So we saw solidarity work, supporting this existing organizing, as being a critical piece of building anti-imperialist struggle rooted in the targeted communities. Directly after 9/11, INS Watch, the SF Day Labor Program, and other self-organized immigrant organizations took a strong lead in not just fighting back against the immediate targeting of anyone perceived to be Arab and/or Muslim, but actively challenging the scapegoating of some immigrants as "terrorists and criminals" versus other "good immigrants." Immigrant communities in the U.S. have lots of experience in dealing with this divide and conquer strategy historically used to drive wedges between different communities of color whose common interests outweighed their differences. These organizations also took a strong role in the mobilizations of spring 2006 in developing “Black-Brown Unity” work to combat attempts to pit immigrants, especially Latin American and South Asian communities, against African-Americans.
An early lesson for Heads Up in this work came out of an unproductive open coalition meeting soon after 9/11. While the meeting was hosted by economic justice immigrant rights groups, the meeting itself was dominated by older white activists, mostly men, who ignored the leadership of immigrants in the room. We were outraged, but didn't know how to respond. After this meeting, the immigrant-based organizations we had relationships with decided to focus on building power in their communities. This was in the first 6 months post 9/11, when someone from the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights commented that it felt like they'd lost the last fifteen years of work. So it was logical for many reasons, but we also saw non-immigrant white folks disrespecting the priorities and goals set by immigrants.
Our work at that time took shape more clearly on two levels: continuing solidarity work to support the organizing efforts of immigrant-led economic justice groups; but also taking more initiative, along with other white anti-racists, to build commitment to immigrant rights in the mostly white antiwar/global justice movement. We started to do more political education and organizing aimed at our own folks to support organizations and turn out for actions and rallies against the domestic impacts of the war.
The goals of our work for the past five years have been (1) to support radical and progressive organizing based in immigrant communities, (2) to organize a larger, more effective, accountable movement of white people supporting immigrant justice, and (3) to contribute to bridge-building between the immigrant rights movement and the majority white antiwar/global justice movement that is often more focused abroad.
Building long-term relationships with immigrant organizations has been foundational to our ability to meet any of these goals. We have provided solidarity support in forms ranging from childcare, food support, collecting donations and resources, doing security on marches and actions, turning people out for actions, leading and supporting political education events, doing media work locally and nationally, door knocking, driving, recruiting volunteers, picketing, helping with outreach for ‘Know Your Rights’ trainings and so on. We’ve testified at police commissions, City Hall, and the state capital, speaking out as white citizens against attacks on immigrants, where the only other white people speaking out about immigration have been organized racist forces. We have worked on electoral campaigns to pass a living wage, defeat anti-poor people legislation and to elect pro-tenant, pro-worker, pro-immigrant candidates to local offices.
As a small volunteer-based group with limited capacity, we have always chosen to focus on a couple of key organizations in order to build accountable, long-term relationships. Our work with INS Watch and the Day Labor Program led to our participation as a founding member of the Deporten a la Migra Coalition, which formed in spring 2004 in response to INS raids at a San Francisco hotel. DLM, anchored by the amazing radical organizers at St. Peters’ Housing Committee, has been a major locus of building the left wing of the immigrant rights movement since its inception, spreading into regional work in 2005 and national work in 2006. We have tried to be responsive when specific moments of crisis or opportunity have come up. During 2002, when thousands of Cambodians were threatened with deportation and some were deported, we participated in the Oakland rally organized for the national day of action by APIForCE (Asian Pacific Islanders for Community Empowerment), a member group of Asian Pacific Islanders Coalition Against War, which we'd done march security for in the past. Or when the Taco Bell Truth Tour came through town, we came out to support Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who have been an important organization bridging working class immigrant-based resistance with the global justice movement.
At the end of 2003, after Direct Action to Stop the War’s major actions against the Iraq war that spring, DASW passed a major strategic proposal that didn’t address attacks on immigrants as part of its antiwar work. We brought serious concerns to that process, but were pushed to recognize that we had the work and relationships in this area that were necessary for DASW to do that work accountably, and basically that if we wanted to see it happen we needed to step up. So we formed the No Borders working group of DASW. The working group did some successful work but was always majority members of Heads Up, so as DASW lost momentum we streamlined back on the work. Deporten a la Migra had formed and we prioritized working in that coalition, with a goal of building bridges between DLM and the mostly white anti-war movement.
DLM formed to address INS abuses and state-sponsored attacks on immigrants, and to emphasize a radical immigrant rights agenda that “the land belongs to those who work it.” But with the explosion of the Minutemen, a new cycle of racist border vigilantes, DLM also took on challenging such overt white supremacist organizing connected, as it is, to legislative attacks. In this work, Heads Up was asked to start speaking more at actions as white people organized against attacks on immigrants, to challenge the Minutemen as white people, and to talk about our own self-interest in fighting for dignity and human rights for all immigrants. We also connected with the anarchist-identified formations that came together in reaction to the Minutemen, facilitating communication and planning with DLM’s organizations based in working class immigrant membership.
In the past year, we moved a step forward during the spring's mass street mobilizations led by immigrants around the country. With millions of people taking to the streets for immigrant rights, we organized a core of already motivated and passionate white anti-racist immigrant rights activists to do more intentional, collective work organizing in white communities.
This core of assorted folks strategized and worked together to turn out people for the mass mobilizations, including forming several delegations of white folks to consciously and visibly represent an organized presence of white people allying with immigrants. We developed talking points for outreach and for media; wrote to and shared letters with our families, friends, and co-workers about the importance of immigrant justice; wrote guest editorials in newspapers; and wrote petitions and open letters that we used as organizing tools to mobilize more white people for actions.
Heads Up has worked alongside white staff in immigrant organizations to improve our practice and analysis as white people in this movement, including co-writing a piece for the ACLU’s national anti-Minutemen action kit focused on white folks in this movement. We also wrote an open letter to white activists with our sister organization, the Catalyst Project. We have also built dialogue and relationships nationally with non-immigrant organizations with goals similar to ours, like New York's Immigrant Justice Solidarity Project and San Diego's O.R.G.A.N.I.C. Collective.
Chris: In 2004, Heads Up launched the Televising the Revolution Radical Film Series. Can you give an overview of the program and explain its objectives and strategy?
Mel Pilbin: The film series is a monthly movie night that benefits local grassroots economic and racial justice organizations and anti-war and global justice organizing. We see the program as a creative way to bring all the components of our strategy together into one night. Organizing the film series over the past few years has been an incredible learning experience, and we’ve been really surprised by how successful it has become. I’m not sure any of us thought we’d be entering our fourth year of hosting the night. The program has not only allowed us to provide material and political solidarity to radical grassroots organizations locally and internationally, but has challenged us to really articulate our anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics to a broad community of folks who turn out for the monthly event.
Let me give you an overview of the program. The fourth Tuesday of every month, on the back patio at El Rio (a local bar and community space), the four prongs of the Heads Up organizing strategy overlap and interact to create a fun, educational and strategic movement building opportunity. It’s not without its challenges and limitations, but the Televising the Revolution Radical Film Series has been a chance to provide solidarity, interact with other white activists and organizers around white supremacy and racial justice, do relationship and movement building, and provide a space for political education and internal political and leadership development.
The goals of the film series have mostly remained the same since its inception, although the benefits of the program have become more apparent as the series has evolved. We have three goals.
The first goal is to support local grassroots organizations, and international anti-imperialist movements, led by poor people and people of color. We do this in three ways. Raising money. Showing films that highlight issues affecting communities of color and poor and working class communities, and which highlight U.S. Imperialism at home and abroad. Giving radical local organizations a space to talk about their work and politics, give out literature, plug events and campaigns, and recruit volunteers and new supporters
The second goal is to create a space that encourages a growing commitment to anti-racism in mostly white communities. We do this by showing films that deepen analysis and political discussion around racism and imperialism. Keep in touch with people who attend film nights to alert them of upcoming actions and events through our Heads Up Racial and Economic Justice calendar. We reach out to people who would not normally come to an event in an activist space. We provide a space for political discussion following films, and handing out literature and articles. We use the forum to put out Heads Up politics around anti-racism and strategies for movement building. The people who turn out for film nights come from a broad range of backgrounds, but it’s usually majority white people. We aim to connect everyone to left political work, and we encourage white people to engage in anti-racist struggle.
The third goal is to develop the skills and capacity of Heads Up Collective members through the film night. We focus on the following skill areas; public speaking, political analysis development, alliance building, outreach and turnout, fundraising, and sound and tech skills.
Some of the weaknesses of the program relate to the location where it is held. Free and accessible community spaces are hard to come by these days, so we currently hold the event in a neighborhood bar. The bar, El Rio, has been a strong supporter of the film series, providing the space and all sound equipment for free, and they even cover the cost of our outreach materials so that all the money raised goes directly to the beneficiary. But, it is not a youth friendly space (21 and over) and is only semi-wheelchair accessible (the bathrooms are not to code for wheelchair accessibility). Lastly, a bar, even one that is as progressive and tied to the community as El Rio, is not a safe space for people in recovery or with drug and alcohol related problems. The film series event also takes place late on a work night, which limits the time allotted to get into deeper political discussion and community building and is not ideal for people who work two jobs or have families. Lastly, the event takes place in San Francisco, which can be a challenge when the beneficiary organization’s base is located in the East Bay.
In general, however, the film series has been a huge success. We’ve managed to raise a significant amount of money for each organization. One major strength is that little is required of the beneficiary organization other than showing up to give a short presentation about their work. We try and keep the event fun and social while rooting it in accountable anti-imperialist and anti-racist politics. The film series helps to provide exposure for a variety of grassroots organizations focused on base building in different communities and/or on different themes and issues. Through our Heads Up introductions, presentations by guest organizers, and the films and discussion, we hope to provide a space for shared political analysis and strategies for movement building.
Heads Up uses the film series to push ourselves to better articulate our own political vision. We share why we organize as a group of white folks working explicitly around imperialism and racism and how we see it as a strategy towards multi-racial movement building. It has also been a helpful space for me personally, to talk about what it means for me to be a white working class queer engaged in anti-racist work. There are many ways in which I materially benefit from this white supremacist system while at the same time I am also invested in working for my own liberation and the liberation of other poor and working class white people. I think it’s important to acknowledge that we all (aside from maybe ruling class whites) have something to gain from bringing down this system.
Through the combination of groups, films and themes, Heads Up works to put out complex analysis that challenges the either/or model and pushes folks to see the connections between movements. Let me give you a few examples. Last year, we did a benefit for Just Cause Oakland, a tenants’ rights organization dedicated to base building. Instead of showing a film about gentrification in Oakland, we screened a film about displacement in New Orleans post Katrina and one highlighting land struggle in Bolivia. This allowed for Just Cause to connect their local struggle to national and international struggles, which share the common themes of racism, displacement and land. In October, we did a benefit for the San Francisco Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) with a focus on Palestine. We invited a speaker from ADC as well as an Israeli activist who is part of the military resisters refusing to support the occupation. Heads Up also used the opportunity to put out our own politics around Palestine work, which Rahula described earlier. During Gay Pride month we hosted a Queers and Gentrification film night as a benefit for a local Filipino organization (a community that has faced major displacement by gentrification, particularly in San Francisco’s SOMA district). We had speakers discussing the role of class privileged white queers in gentrification. We invited organizers who had worked with FIERCE in New York City to fight gentrification efforts at the Christopher St. Pier. In this case, it was primarily poor and low income queers of color who were most impacted by the gentrification playing out. This film night was an attempt to reach out to different queer communities, develop anti-racist class-consciousness and get people involved.
The Televising the Revolution Film Series advances our Heads Up organizing strategy by allowing us the opportunity to provide solidarity to and build relationships with people of color and working-class led grassroots organizations. It is also a space to build community with other white activists engaged in radical organizing and promote and support anti-imperialist and anti-racist politics. As part of this, we developed the Heads Up Racial and Economic Justice listserv through which we maintain contact with people who have attended film nights over the years. This listserv is an organizing tool to promote local community-based and racial justice oriented events. We also put out one email a month with links to articles an analysis we find helpful. Lastly, we use the listserv to promote the film series.
The most recent development with the film series is our new internship program. The internship is a 6-month commitment, where interns work closely with Heads Up members to coordinate the film series while developing their political analysis, leadership skills and capacities as organizers.
As of March 2007, our collective has raised over $10,000 for 29 mostly local grassroots organizations and movements. Events often include a cultural aspect through music, spoken word, or theater and always include a presentation by Heads Up and the benefiting organization. Due to the organizing success and positive feedback we have received (from beneficiary organizations and people attending the event), we will be continuing the film series. Our goals remain the same although we hope to increase the turnout and the amount of money we are able to raise. We also plan to strengthen our ability to put out coherent anti-racist politics and strategies for movement building. In addition, we are working to add a media component including press releases and interviews with beneficiary organizations leading up to each event. We hope this will increase the exposure for the work and politics of beneficiary organizations as well as help publicize the events.
Chris: One of the primary goals of Heads Up is to support one another's development as effective, strategic and dynamic anti-racist organizers. Would you explain why this is a priority and how the group does this?
Marc Mascarenhas-Swan: Taking a step back, I feel that the act of joining or forming a permanent political organization can set the stage for a commitment to develop as an organizer, to be accountable to a group of people, and to see ourselves as part of our larger movements for justice; this is something that I found hard to do as an individual, or as a participant in more ad hoc groups.
Within this context, in Heads Up we endeavor to form structures and practices for mutual development as organizers who are thinking critically, committing to ongoing study, and supporting each other in advancing our collective strategy. So how and why do we do this?
From its inception, Heads Up has had a commitment to the goal of mutual development and support in anti-racist practice. Like many organizations we experienced growing pains as we realized we were in it for the long haul and applied ourselves to the task of articulating a clear, focused strategic direction. Sure, we were forming accountable relationships to mass based organizations, supporting and developing anti-racist leadership of white folks in our constituencies, and trying to bridge sectors; but how did we make the decisions of how to prioritize work? Did we have a collective understanding of why these different strands of work were important? How should we focus our internal political development? As we held these questions, simultaneously, we moved more consciously and confidently into identifying as members of Heads Up, and seeing the collective as our primary political home. Out of this we formed our Organizing Strategy in 2005, which Rahula outlined earlier.
Holding ourselves accountable to this strategy requires an ongoing commitment to evaluation and criticism of our work, and we have several mechanisms for this within the collective. Firstly, accountability to the group is structured into our meeting time as a fixed agenda item (accountability and recognition). This is a space to self criticize, hold each other accountable, and check in on how responsibilities and tasks are progressing. It is also a space to appreciate one another's contributions and give each other positive feedback.
Secondly we have a rotating internal planning group, that’s responsible for planning general meetings. The IPG, which Rahula explained, maintains a wider view, planning 2-3 months in advance to create space for reflection that the group has asked for, and then framing discussions with overarching goals that give us a sense of direction. It's easy to get caught up in the moment and lose track of priorities, so I find it helpful to have folks bottom lining rooting our day to day work in the bigger picture that we have collectively decided upon. Especially during slower periods following times of intense organizing, we will create a time for those taking leadership in a given area to present their thoughts on the work and evaluate with the collective. This gives members a chance to reflect on the work and draw out lessons that all of us gain from. As a group we have different perspectives, experiences and knowledge, and these differences are strengths when doing group reflection that encourages everyone's participation.
Lastly, we have annual retreats, when we have a space to go deep, challenge ourselves and celebrate, and connect as friends. In preparation for our retreats we reach out to allied organizations and movement elders to gather their perspectives on the state of the left and strategic opportunities. We ask them about the work they'll be prioritizing in the coming year and we factor this into our discussions. If we have worked closely with a group we will ask if they have feedback for us. We do this because we want to be accountable in our work to our allies and this helps each of us develop as more effective organizers.
In these spaces we try to promote an atmosphere that encourages criticism of oneself and others in balance with appreciation of oneself and others. We feel it is vital to consciously be building relationships with each other in work and play; this supports honest and healthy communication.
We endeavor to create an organizational structure and culture that creates space for us to play leadership roles in the organization, take responsibility for the functioning of the group, and move it forward; this includes each individual being responsible to sometimes step back to make space and other times push themselves to step up and participate. Also, we feel it is vital that folks more experienced in a particular area support and collaborate with those less experienced to support their growth. We have discussions about the ways that systems of oppression impact internal dynamics, particularly leadership. We recognize that people with privilege are socialized to be leaders while women and working class people in particular are socialized to take orders or face punishment. We need to be real about how this impacts our organization and take pro-active steps to build equality. We have a commitment to being a majority women and majority queer organization and we prioritize people from working class backgrounds. We do this because we believe that leadership from oppressed peoples is central to building effective movements.
To support our development as leaders and organizers we focus on internal development, not only to be more effective revolutionaries, but also to sustain the collective leadership of our organization. We have an ongoing commitment to skill sharing (which is generally built into regular meetings), for instance – devoting an hour to public speaking techniques and challenges, or how to do a fundraising pitch. We support each other in stepping up into new areas – assisting with writing an article, talking through challenging dynamics in other formations, or speaking at a rally. Also we have a series of political education sessions – we call Homeskools. We take turns in hosting – pulling together readings, and leading the sessions. We have covered topics like Palestine 101, Patriarchy and Imperialism, Anti-Racist Organizing in the White Working Class, Marxism, Anarchism, Community Organizing Models, and Immigrant Resistance. The goal of these sessions is to pull from different political traditions, to inform strategy and tactics, to understand the political landscape we are operating in, and to become better allies to those experiencing oppression and at the forefront of resistance.
Overall, I would say that the practice of facilitating Heads Up meetings, leading study sessions, and bottom lining roles in the organization has really helped me with my confidence and abilities as an organizer.
Chris: What are key lessons from your work with Heads Up?
Laura McNeill: During my involvement in Heads Up I learned a lot about creating the foundation for a collective, as I played an active role in leadership, listening and learning. I discovered some of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ different types of organizations are formed.
We came together for various reasons. Mine were out of a basic need to gather after 9/11 and get support from people I trusted who had similar anti-racist politics. I needed to talk about and process what was happening, and figure out how I could take action against the hate and racism that was playing out in my community and abroad. I wanted to understand the surge in nationalism and patriotism that was playing out as my neighbors passed out American flags to strangers. I wanted to attend the vigils for those who had died on 9/11, and be able to stand strong when I heard my family members making anti-Arab comments and when I received racist emails. I needed support to voice my own confusion and I needed to be challenged when my internal desires wanted to make things simple and place people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ roles.
In Heads Up I trusted folks enough to ask questions, be vulnerable and honest, and own my mistakes. One meeting stands out in particular – we were bringing our own definitions of what we thought Imperialism was/is, so we could have a discussion. I had written down some stuff, but really had no idea. In the meeting I was able to push through my uncomfortable feeling of not knowing and share my thoughts. Heads Up folks made me feel comfortable with not knowing everything and still supported me as an equal leader. This felt like a big deal to me in the heart of Bay Area politics and a good model for doing this work for the long haul.
Through the process of supporting one another where each of us were at, educating ourselves about the issues, practicing sharing leadership, and taking action in various forms, I built my own confidence to speak out and take action against the wars at home and abroad. Through sharing our stories, I developed a more complex understanding of the issues, learned the power of being vulnerable and honest and sharpened skills for dialoguing with people in my circles of influence as a way to make change. Through our actions, I gained a deeper sense of trust and commitment with Heads Up members. One project a couple of us worked on was the distribution of WarTimes, a community anti-war newspaper that was rooted in multi-racial leadership. I came to value myself more as an activist and leader for social change.
Moving to a new state after this experience, I realized how important it was to work collectively for the long haul, to never feel like you’re alone. Reflecting on many of my experiences with Heads Up, I have been able to gather with like minded individuals and form Groundwork, a collective that is taking action in various forms for racial and economic justice. Now that I have kids of my own, I realize in my heart that the work of trying to build a healthier world for all people is a lifelong process.
Josh Connor: The lessons that I learned from being a member of Heads Up are ongoing. I learned immensely from both the successes and challenges within Heads Up. I gained practical experience in long-term alliance building within anti-imperialist struggles for racial and economic justice. I refined and expanded my ideas about the role of leadership from white activists and organizers in the struggle against white supremacy.
Before joining Heads Up, I was confident that white activists should organize our own people against racism and that people of color should lead the struggle for racial justice. I was in the process of figuring out how to organize my people and to follow the leadership of people of color most effectively, but I worried that the best that I could do would be to prevent white people from being roadblocks on the path towards social justice. While I still see the very real possibility for white people to end up being roadblocks, I also see a great potential for white activists and organizers to play vital roles in multiracial alliances and to take on leadership roles within our work in solidarity with those people most negatively impacted by white supremacy.
One of the main ways that I have taken on leadership in the fight for racial and economic justice, and against white supremacy, is as a core member of the Bay Area Childcare Collective. The Childcare Collective is a solidarity organization that provides free childcare to grassroots organizations and movements composed of and led by low-income women of color and immigrants. We are part of a long-term effort to build a multi-generational movement with parents, women and children at its center. Some of the organizations we have worked with include the Women's Collective of the Day Labor Program, POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), and Just Cause Oakland.
Through my work in the Heads Up Collective, I developed a sense of the necessary balance between theory and practice, between political education and action. All the successes and challenges of working in a committed, collective organization have contributed to my current political work.
Rahula Janowski: Through my work with Heads Up I’ve learned an important thing about being politically engaged while being a parent, which is that people can only support you if you make it clear what your needs are. I became pregnant during the first year I was in Heads Up. Toward the end of my pregnancy, as I was getting ready to take a leave of absence from my paid work and from organizing, I was really worried abut being able to come back to the political work once my "maternity leave" was over. In general, this was because I've been politically active and engaged most of my adult life and it's important to me, but specifically, I was really excited about Heads Up and wanted to be able to remain a member of this new group that was so exciting and stimulating to me, and I wanted to be really sure that, once I'd had my baby, the group would continue to welcome me. So I made a request of the group: that Heads Up make a specific and articulated commitment to being a parent and child friendly organization. Although we were flying blind to a certain extent, because I didn't know what parenting a baby while engaging in political work would look like, and no one else in the group did either, the group did step up to my request and made that explicit commitment. How that looks has changed. In the early days, it was being open and welcoming to me bringing my child to meetings, and being supportive of my changing capacity to do work. When I have felt like I could be better supported, if I am specific about what I need, the group has always stepped up. I am not aware of any other radical left organization that is not focused on issues of parenting or childhood, that have made an explicit agreement to be family friendly and to specifically support the parents in their group. I would hope that Heads Up could be an example that could inspire other groups to take similar steps, because it hurts the movement when there's no room for experienced people to continue to participate once they have kids.
Clare Bayard: To follow up on that, when Heads Up made an intentional decision that we wanted to be a parent and kid friendly group, we didn't know exactly what that was going to look like but we knew it was an important choice. It was based both on how valuable the leadership of our parent-to-be (and future parents) was to the group, and also our desire to learn how to be more a part of multigenerational organizing culture. The parents in our group have held down major areas of our work, and Heads
Up would have suffered tremendously without their leadership and contributions. In addition, Heads Up members had been involved with starting and volunteering with the Childcare Collective, as Josh mentioned. On some level, we already agreed and understood that it's crucial for movements to include kids and parents. But we had little understanding of how to plan for it in our own group, and had to figure it out as we went along. It was a combination of the parent/s in the group offering ideas and expressing needs, and nonparents trying to share the responsibilities of making kid-friendly meetings and initiating check-ins.
There's another level too. Personally, I've only experienced a very diluted form of some of the things parents deal with daily in our particular circles. The overwhelming demands on capacity, resources and time is only one piece; I had never really noticed the extent to which parents of small children are so often made invisible, uncomfortable, or straight-up excluded from so many of the movement spaces I frequent. It has been a real gift to all the nonparents in Heads Up to start understanding a little more about some of the barriers to multigenerational organizing, particularly in the majority white, global justice movement.
Rahula Janowski: One of the hardest lessons I've learned in Heads Up, and probably the most important, at least for me personally, is around the importance of leadership development. I came of age politically in a community where we were all new to political work, and we were all the same age, with no mentors or more experienced activists around. In the years following, in all the various activist and organizing projects I was engaged with, leadership development was never discussed, much less practiced. It seemed like there was an unspoken assumption that you either had skills and an ability to provide leadership, or you didn't, and the people who did owed nothing to the people who didn't in terms of helping them develop those skills and abilities. Given how the various, interlocking systems of oppression work in our society, it's no wonder, then, that the leadership in much of the political work I engaged in was predominantly white, male, and class privileged. And because there was no practice of leadership development, our attempts to change the nature of the leadership were often unsuccessful and frustrating.
An example of this that stands out to me took place in San Francisco in the late 1990s. The Department of Public Works had put up fences around all of the grassy areas at UN Plaza, an area where homeless people congregated and where Food Not Bombs served nightly meals. As part of a regional Food Not Bombs gathering, we organized a direct action to remove those fences. And we needed a media spokesperson, someone to talk to the media when they arrived. We were tired of the public face of the media always being a dude, so we recruited a woman to be the spokesperson. She had never been a media spokes, had never talked to the media at all as far as I know, was relatively young and new to the group, and nobody tried to prepare her, share ideas of how to do it, or anything. So, when the action happened, she was so nervous and scared that she was unable to speak to the media at all, and so the more experienced people, who we were trying to move away from, stepped in. Sink or swim.
Now, Heads Up is a collective, and as such, all members are expected to take leadership and to do the work. However, for a long time, when we brought in new members, there was a very brief process and then they were pretty much expected to be able to do everything. Sometimes, this worked. However, other times it didn't, and I think it took us a while to realize that, even if the folks we're bringing in are experienced and have a similar set of politics, there needs to be some sustained and deliberate work around developing their leadership.
There's also a more personal component for me around this lesson. Coming from the anarchist movement where there is generally no emphasis on leadership development, I found myself impatient with people who didn't step right up, and at the same time, had a really hard time accepting the idea that I was in a leadership position in Heads Up. Not accepting that I was in a leadership position meant that I wasn't aware that if I expressed impatience or frustration with someone, it had a big impact. Because we have this collective structure where we're accountable to one another, a member of the group challenged me and we had a long and rough process around this. This person came from a much different political trajectory, being politicized by Marxists and then trained by a mass based organization, and with an emphasis on leadership development. It's hard to describe or to really get very detailed, but I'll say that once I was able to move past some pretty fierce defensiveness, I realized that if a group's approach is sink or swim, then ultimately the whole group sinks. I also realize that the skills and experience I have are resources, and it's my responsibility to share them with other members of the group…and with the movement. I honestly had never really considered that if I didn't like someone's suggestion, I could actually be supportive of that person in shaping a different suggestion instead of just shooting them down, or that it made a difference one way or the other.
I was able to go through this process in large part because of the nature of HUP, but I can't overlook the importance of a comrade being willing to struggle with me. And there's another lesson: principled and sustained struggle with our comrades can be a crucial part of building an organization’s politics and practice. My process around understanding the need for leadership development is one example; another example is the internal process Heads Up went through around Zionism, which I discussed earlier, that led to a much more fully developed politics around Palestine Solidarity work. When we don't gloss over differences but probe them, shine light on them and tease them out, if we engage with our differences in principled and respectful ways, so often it leads to a deeper understanding of our work, deeper relationships with each other, and far more developed politics.