Student organizing strategies (let’s talk power)

Ryan Perez, Contributing Writer

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I’m writing because I have a beef with some Macalester student organizers. We need to have a conversation about power.

I am a senior here, and I’ve been running in organizing circles on and off campus since my first year. Outside of Macalester at a nonprofit called COPAL, I organize with the Latinx community for citizenship, temporary protected status (TPS) and the environment. I also organize with Macalester students for democracy and voting. You’ve probably seen my name on social media or the Mac Daily, offering students, faculty and staff the chance to register to vote. I’m passionate about civic engagement because I believe it has intrinsic value for a people’s society, and I am energized by the real impact of individuals finding their own power. I’m a first-gen student, and my father is an immigrant who became a union steward. For me, narratives about community empowerment are deeply personal.

Here’s the problem: some of us are in the business of destroying our opponents, rather than building movements. We could, as organizers, be collaborating to educate ourselves on issues, advancing common goals and building lasting relationships that are the foundation for revolutionary change. Instead, we often compete in oppositional relationships with other organizations because they don’t live up to our high standards. While I can name several recent examples, I’ll give one that really stuck out as ineffective and bullyish organizing. One student group I was recently involved with, the “Anti-UAE Action Committee,” recently refused — to my dismay — an invitation to collaborate on an event with the student-led political science organization Pi Sigma Alpha. The event would have been an opportunity to educate the student body on the crisis in Yemen and the UAE’s war crimes. While both parties shared a goal to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis and ways to get involved, the Action Committee denounced Pi Sigma Alpha as “having values contrary to our own” and apparently “blacklisted” its members. Even though the collaboration would have created a platform to advance a shared goal, the Action Committee rejected the invitation from Pi Sigma Alpha on the grounds of ideological purity.

Let me offer an alternative vision. I learned a valuable lesson about organizing when a long-time Jewish community activist sat down with COPAL this summer for a workshop and made a distinction between dominant and relational power. Dominant power, or “power over,” is change-making through demeaning and diminishing the opposition. By “cancelling” everyone who doesn’t fit our mold, the story goes, we’ll win the war. Let’s contrast that weird, ineffective and toxicly-masculine form of power with another: relational power. Relational power is “power with.” This is the very essence of organizing and movement-building: activating and educating the mobile middle. By acknowledging that people who don’t share our values often have the potential to arrive at a place of understanding with us, by sharing our own truths and actively listening to people’s stories, we begin to make change by finding common ground. Relational power not only better reflects the ideal world we wish to pursue, but it’s also more effective in achieving political goals.

Fossil Free Mac’s recent success is a master-class in relational power. Rather than sticking to an initially unwinnable “full divestment now!” strategy, organizers succeeded in a compromise. At some point during my Macalester career, they changed their short-term ask from full divestment to a moratorium on private partnerships with oil and gas companies. They knew a moratorium wouldn’t be a full victory, but they would have a better chance of making progress with the trustees if they narrowed their ask. They acknowledged the concerns that trustees had about the financial impact of divestment, regardless of whether or not the organizers actually shared those concerns, and they found an agreeable solution. Inspired by Fossil Free Mac’s organizing, the trustees exceeded the ask and voted for Macalester to join Climate Action 100+, which lobbies corporations to push them towards action on climate change. In short, Fossil Free Mac built “power with” the trustees. Certainly, Fossil Free Mac will continue to fight for full divestment, but the progress they’ve made is indisputable. They’re holding Macalester to its values, showing us what more experienced organizers have taken years to learn — that relational power is not about flipping the script. It’s about rewriting it.

When it comes to building an equitable society, I have strong opinions, and I have struggled myself with relational power. I am a democratic socialist because I believe that the current extractive capitalist system is world-ending. Not in the future, but today. The world ends for a person who can’t afford their private insurance premiums, who has been subjected daily to toxic factory fumes, who has been incarcerated for decades for a non-violent offense. The world ends for a child separated from their family and for a low-income student denied their dreams because they can’t pay a tuition bill. I believe these problems require bold, system-rupturing policy solutions: Medicare-for-all, a green new deal, tuition-free public college. Yet, I also acknowledge that democratic political revolution requires a majority, and we have a lot of minds to change. Even though it can be painful, scary and infuriating, we need to sit down and talk to people with fundamental differences of opinion on issues that deeply affect our personal lives. I really wish I could “cancel” people with opinions and actions I find immoral, but as an organizer in a minority community, I often don’t have that privilege. I challenge Macalester organizers to make my job easier and become listeners who value differences of opinion and champion nuance in the interest of radical change.