Stimulating Social Change, Then and Now

Stimulating Social Change, Then and Now

by Suzanne Pharr

Recently, I went to the Kentucky Social Forum, and spent time talking with a co-worker and friend from the Astrea Lesbian Foundation for Justice about movement building and a progressive agenda. In our conversation, I kept coming back to economic injustice and violence.

For 19 years I worked at the Women’s Project in Little Rock, Arkansas, a town where in the 1980s there was no fuzziness in identifying sexism and racism. There was no liberal veneer covering them. It was a wonderful place to work for social change.

©Emma Amos; “All I know of Wonder” 2008

Because the issues were so clear and dominated the culture, we were brash in setting our goal to eliminate sexism and racism. We vowed to work on the two oppressions simultaneously because we believed they were inextricably linked. Because the two oppressions historically had been viewed as separate, our work was to find a straightforward way to show their connection.

Our commitment was to be an organization with major leadership from African American women that was feminist, multi-racial, multi-issued and intersectional in its politics. It did not take us long to find the common denominator in women’s experiences of sexism and racism: economic injustice, violence, power and control. At the same time, we learned that these three methods are the key elements in all oppressions.

Moving on Multiple Fronts

We came to understand there are many systems that keep sexism and racism in place and many methods for working against them. However, we always saw economic injustice at the core of gender and racial oppression. We learned that violence, both personal and institutional, was a primary means of dominance based on gender and race.

We worked on multiple fronts to end economic injustice and violence against women. We developed a non-traditional jobs program; worked with women in prison; helped create battered women’s programs and a statewide coalition of those programs; developed programs to educate about child sexual abuse; held African American women’s conferences that addressed economics and violence; documented the murders of women in Arkansas; worked against far right racist groups, as well as the right-wing and its messages of coded racism and its violence against the reproductive rights movement.

Every day we witnessed the intersection of gender and racial oppression. Every day we looked for ideas, large and small, to bring about justice and equality.

Now, fast-forward two decades to my current work coordinating the movement-building program at the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. This program provides multi-year funding and support (my job) to 12 queer people of color autonomous groups and people of color-led multi-racial groups. All are multi-gendered, feminist, intergenerational and intersectional in their politics. All groups are linked through their analysis of economic injustice and their desire to build a movement.

Our work together has given us rare opportunities to discuss the large issues of our times. We are growing together as we think about movement building, about gender and race and economics. We have been profoundly affected by the legacies of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Labor Movement. And now, we learn, as well, from movements from other parts of the world, such as the Zapatistas.

A Longer List of Who We Are

We recognize that we are in a time when feminism comes in many forms, without one ideology but with many manifestations. Now, some of the strongest feminist beliefs and practices come from those who don’t call themselves feminist or identify with a movement. Many of us who came of the age in the women’s movement are now doing intersectional work and call ourselves feminist in a longer list of who we are.

Some of the strongest
feminist practices
come from those
who don’t call themselves

Along with an entire generation of young activists that we join in this work, we don’t have adequate language to describe ourselves. Feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, progressive are some of our terms. Our genders are on an often-changing continuum: we are bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex, heterosexual, lesbian, straight, gay, queer, female and male. Again, no matter how we expand it, we do not have adequate language to describe the subtleties of who we are.

For many of us, we do not focus on the idea of one movement that is based on identity, but a broad movement that has clear principles of justice, equality, solidarity, inclusion, shared power and resources. We want a movement that takes action based on these principles, a progressive agenda that works toward a larger vision.

Thinking about movement building today, my Astrea co-worker Mai Kiang and I began to focus on economic justice and how we might be in a time of new possibilities.

What came to mind was the economic crisis and stimulus dollars. It’s our taxpayer money that will provide the way out. Why not use it to create a program that will help move young people out of poverty and away from the social control and warehousing by prisons and the military? That will give young women and trans people a chance for economic independence? That will take young people away from the violence of the streets? That will put young people of all races on the same footing through providing training, employment, and education? That will provide a living wage to young people and let them use their dollars to stimulate the economy?

We began thinking about using stimulus dollars to create a public works program that would:

  • Employ people under 25 at a living wage, enabling them to get training and work experience and healthcare, as well as to survive economically;
  • Include everyone — across race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, religion — prioritizing those who historically have been excluded;
  • Build people and build our communities with strong management of the program, good training, and concrete rewards for work;
  • Rebuild the social and physical infrastructure of the country by creating public spaces, building community centers and support programs, establishing community gardens, staffing social justice organizations, creating childcare programs, developing environmental programs, creating public art, and more;
  • Provide a year’s tuition to a state college or university or trade school for each year worked;
  • Return stimulus dollars to communities while building people and ways to support their lives;
  • Replace the options of military service or imprisonment or dead-end employment with involvement in the larger community and a work life that supports people over time.

This is a program that is similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps, but it is not just for white, unemployed men, and it is not for conservation only but for rebuilding. It is for people of all genders, of all races.

There is money for this work. We have used U.S. tax dollars to destroy countries and to rebuild them; to build hundreds of prisons and military installations; to build a wall between countries.

This program that Mai and I call Public Works/People Work could build an infrastructure for equality, justice and peace. It does not call for an equal playing field, but for a field of equal work and pay, independence and interdependence. Sounds feminist to me.

Suzanne Pharr founded the Women’s Project in Arkansas in 1981, was a co-founder of Southerners on New Ground in 1984, and was the director of the Highlander Center 1999-2004. She is an organizer and political strategist who has spent her adult life working to build a broad-based social and economic justice movement. Suzanne is the author of Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, and In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation.

Also see Taking on Postracialism by Rinku Sen in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see Andrea Smith in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.