Sunday, April 26, 2009

When the People Lead, the Leaders Will Follow

A long time ago i decided that there was something wrong with the way we made, followed, elevated leaders such that i eschewed ever wanting to be such a thing. I learned the language of "leadership" from the work of Movement for a New Society gang as represented by books like Resource Manual for Living Revolution and Leadership for Change: Toward a Feminist Model. And i reflected (principally through reading everything that Alice Miller ever wrote) on my problems with "authority" that threatened to make me a reactionary anti-leader guy. Learning about Paulo Freire's work, i committed myself to the praxis of popular education and i have followed that path ever since. Popular education, i believe, represents a different paradigm of leadership - one that not only flies "below the radar" of most leadership thinking but moves in a different universe entirely. I have come to believe that popular education is closer to the buddhist notions of mindfulness and right action than to the traditions of western individualism which find their ultimate expression in the American notion of individual liberties (which, oddly enough, the US chooses to extend to corporations under the rubric of corporate personhood).

I think the popular education ethic which i am addressing here is nicely summed up by Ronnie Gilbert, member of the Weavers singing group:
I worry when 'activists' are lionized that people will say, Oh, that is such an extraordinary person - look at all she does - she must be some kind of Superwoman. We all want models and examples to inspire us. But it seems to me that the single mother who campaigns for daycare is the activist, the woman who works for battered women, the ex-battered woman who turns her experience into a teaching project for school children, the precinct worker, leafleter, petition circulator, the person who supports with letters and money and/or physical presence the fight for reproductive rights or divestment from South Africa, who opens her doors or her church's to Central American refugees, who takes whatever small but firm bites out of her small or large resources to end religious, racial or political persecution ANYWHERE, and she who gives of some part of herself to prevent nuclear disaster - she is where the action is. (in HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics # 20Activists, Organizers, Progressives, Heroines, Visionaries..., 1985 )
Angela Davis' October 10, 2006 talk (at UC Davis) titled How Does Change Happen? includes a wonderfully lucid critique of the over-attention given charismatic leaders and which is often at the expense of the often thankless, slogging work of organizing carried out by people who often remain forever unrecognized in social change work - and, of course, many of these people, if not the vast majority, are women. As Angela Davis says: "Often those who contribute most powerfully to movements for radical social change are erased in the histories that are transmitted from generation to generation." I recommend listening to this entire talk - it is rich in critical reflection that remains urgently relevent. You can fast-forward to 15:40 if you wish specifically to listen to Angela Davis' comments on leadership. And following is the transcript of that stretch of the talk:
Often those who contribute most powerfully to movements for radical social change are erased in the histories that are transmitted from generation to generation. And I’d like to use the civil rights movement as an example. Because it’s historical for me – I was quite young, so I have an experience of it but I have to think about it as history as well. And also because everybody in this country knows who Reverend Martin Luther King is. Everybody knows. Can you think of any person in the United States of America who has not heard the name Martin Luther King? I mean, even in places like Arizona where… you know… they really resisted the observance of the birthday.

And I think this is great. This is a change that happened. But it may not have been entirely the change that we wanted because we aren’t really informed about the conditions under which that particular leadership developed. And we assumed that because there was someone called Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. … he appeared on the scene in Montgomery, he was the Messiah, and this whole movement developed. I mean that’s what I call the “Messiah Complex” in terms of our notions of leadership. And it seems to me that the greatness of Dr. King resided precisely in his capacity to learn his leadership abilities, to acquire his leadership abilities from the people who had organized that movement… to listen to them. As a matter of fact, most people don’t even know that it was a group of black women who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Most people haven’t heard of the name Jo Ann Robinson even though she wrote a book called The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. Because that method was the paradigm, right; you’re supposed to think that it is these great, heroic, male leaders who are the motors of history. And how could you possibly measure up to someone like that? And what you don’t realize is that the real work happened long before Dr. King ever thought of associating himself with those struggles.

As a matter of fact, do you know why he ended up being the spokesperson? Because all the black ministers in Montgomery had been involved in all these confusing debates and there were contradictions and you couldn’t ask this one… And so the idea was to choose this young man who had just arrived in town and who hadn’t had an opportunity to get embroiled in all of the debates and who really didn’t know very much anyway; which isn’t to say that young people don’t know very much, they do, they know a great deal. But he was considered to be the easiest choice.

And so, basically, the women selected Dr. King as the spokesperson for the work that they were doing. And this isn’t the history that we learn, is it? And we don’t know about Jo Ann Robinson who taught at Alabama State University and was the chair of the Alabama Women’s Political Association - how she and the members of her organization were trying to start a boycott - they had planned that. And they had tried on several occasions; and then, finally, when Rosa Parks got arrested – and Rosa Parks was an organizer; she wasn’t a tired woman, you know – she wasn’t the individual you always see portrayed, especially in the visual portrayals of her: the one black woman who manages to make it to the ranks of the heroic-historical figures – alone. She was an organizer. She was a trained organizer. And when she was arrested, Jo Ann Robinson got a couple of her students, they stayed up all night long … mimeographing … it was hard work. They stayed up all night long making those leaflets. And that’s how the bus boycott got started.

And I say this because that was really unglamorous work. It’s work that we would not necessarily think about as being that significant. But that was what helped to create that movement. If they hadn’t stayed up all night, if they hadn’t worked that mimeograph machine, if they hadn’t gotten people to go out and distribute all of those leaflets at six o’clock in the morning when people – particularly when people who were domestic servants were getting on the bus – it never would have happened. I’m not saying that the struggle for civil rights wouldn’t have happened; but it wouldn’t have happened in the way that it did. And that’s a very different story. It’s a story about people just like you. It is not a story about heroic individualism. And it’s a story about the erasure of women’s contributions.

And so I could talk about other movements as well. I could talk about the Chicano Movement, the Latino Movements, the American Indian Movement, the Asian-American Movements. And I could talk about the contributions that women made to those movements during my time in the late sixties and the seventies that will be lost if we don’t figure out how to rectify the tendency to tell history in this way that privileges heroic individualism. And keep in mind that I’m going to be using “individualism” for the rest of my talk. Because it’s dangerous; it’s really, really dangerous.
(Thanks to Rob Howarth for telling me about Angela Davis talk!)

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