Thursday, January 07, 2016

Activism, Accompaniment, and Being in a New City

A perennial question: How should I act next in the world to create the change that I need, that you need, that the world needs?

The shape of the question and the shape of the answer differ with the shape of the life in which it is being asked, of course. If you are born into a life in which just surviving requires a fight, and a big one, your answer has to do certain things. If you are born into a life where that is not the case, your answer (to the extent that you even have to give one) will look much different. That is, if the struggles you face personally are small enough, or the resources you have plentiful enough, you can pretend that your own fights are private and you can solve them mostly on your own – they aren't actually private, necessarily, and sometimes throwing (social or financial) resources at them is more like a buffer or just painful avoidance than a solution, but it is often the easier path. So in lives where fighting for survival is not base necessity, if – not when, but if – you take the step to asking this question in bigger ways, the potential shapes of your answers are likely to look quite different than in the former situation.

I'm in the latter camp, mostly. I wasn't born into a community-in-struggle. My nation isn't colonized, but rather colonizes. My people benefit more than we're harmed by how money and power flow around the world (though we're harmed too). I have clean water, food, shelter, and leisure. I'm not in prison. My experience of gender is one that makes my life easier far more than it harms me (though dominant forms of cis-masulinity harm those who enact them too). At this stage of my life, I'm able to do work that doesn't mean facing a horrible boss every day, and that I can largely define the terms of. For better or worse, the socially punishable ways I violate dominant norms are ones I've been able to organize into privacy, though not without stresses and strains and considerable political unease at that choice.

So how should I act next in the world to create the change that I need, that you need, that the world needs? And I ask this in the context of being a third of a year into living in a new town, where any answer is going to be new-to-me in at least some sense.

I've been thinking a lot, lately, about Staughton Lynd's idea of "accompaniment" as a way to frame my answer to that question.

Lynd is a veteran of the New Left era in the United States, from being one of the co-chairs of 1964's Freedom Summer in Mississippi, to doing years of work as a grassroots labour lawyer in a now-deindustrialized steel town, to more recent legal and movement support work with prisoners, as well as writing a number of books. His politics are an idiosyncratic blend of liberation theology, Wobbly-ish rank-and-file syndicalism, Rosa Luxembourg-inflected revolutionary socialism-from-below, an avid interest in anti-sectarian marxist/anarchist dialogue, and a resolute commitment to engaging with people wherever they might be at. I had the pleasure of doing an hour-long radio interview with him about 15 years ago, and I have read some but by no means all of the things he has written.

He has discussed accompaniment in a number of places, but in a very focused and accessible way in his book Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change, that I reviewed in 2013. Despite being an entire book on the subject, it does not offer a quick, quotable definition, but rather a series of meditations and illustrations from the decades that he and his wife Alice have been active and also from the life of martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Accompaniment is about being present, about being in relation with people – with draft resisters, with workers, and with prisoners, in the last few decades of Staughton and Alice's work. It is not a specialized, part-time activity, but a way of orienting a whole self. It is about being in relation over the long term, about practicing equality and listening, about neither imposing an external agenda on others nor renouncing your own vision and politics, principles and self. That is, it is not top-down organizing as has been historically practiced in North America, which has generally resulted in "a complex and restrictive institutional environment that stands in the way of creative and spontaneous action from below (as in the labor movement), or (in the heartbreaking case of the civil rights movement) a situation such that when the organizer leaves, some of the worst aspects of the way things were reassert themselves" (1). But neither is it simply being present in a community over the long term and engaging in a sort of activist self-effacement that denies one's own agency, responsibility, and politics. It is, rather, a horizontal, active, walking-together. In particular, Lynd argues that when you are someone coming from a place of privilege, it helps a great deal to enter into accompaniment with some sort of practical skill you can offer, beyond just an ability to organize and certainly beyond vague declarations of an abstract "solidarity." And despite the emphasis on actions that emerge organically from relationships and on horizontalism, as opposed to more utilitarian and hierarchical ways of thinking about organizing, it is not an approach that is against activities which might result in enduring organizations – not at all. It is just suspicious of pre-defined organizations and organizational models that enter communities with claims to have answers and that end up either subordinating autonomous activity or abandoning people, and it leans towards organizational forms that emerge within communities in the course of struggle.

I should say that I feel a bit of trepidation at publically taking up this notion of accompaniment. To me, the way that it brings together long-term commitment, listening, honesty about privilege, an explicit willingness to be part of struggle without having to be at its centre, accountability to those at the forefront of struggle, and deployment of movement-useful skills is very appealing. It is my sense that there are actually considerably more long-time activists/organizers/lefties out there – people I know, people I've interviewed – who do something like this than would actually recognize the term. But I also can hear anticipatory echoes of the scorn that, for instance, some socialists who have very different ideas about organizational form, or anarchists who are wholehearted partisans of the 'cult of the militant', might say about this way of framing involvement in struggle. And I also know that in among the unhelpful (and often patriarchal) radical posturing that underlies that scorn, there are also probably some criticisms worth listening to.

I also appreciate that there will inevitably and entirely legitimately be skepticism by marginalized folks of anyone who doesn't share the experience of marginalization in question, who is newly arrived, and who seems to want to be involved somehow. Lynd doesn't directly address questions of colonization and resistance to it, but it makes me think of the piece that has circulated in the last two years that instructs us to be accomplices with rather than allies to Indigenous people. As far as I can tell – and I'm open to being corrected – accompaniment taken up in the spirit in which Lynd intends it looks a lot like being an accomplice rather than an ally, in the sense of that piece. At the same time, it would also be incredibly easy to check off boxes and think you were engaging in accompaniment while doing all sorts of the politically destructive things that piece associates with "ally" identity. So skepticism is warranted, just as it is for any other framework for becoming involved in struggles to abolish oppressive relations from which you benefit, and starting from the framework of accompaniment doesn't inoculate against the possibility of engaging in harmful behaviours.

Nonetheless, I still think there is value and wisdom to be found in Lynd's approach. It feels relevant and useful to my situation.

My political involvement during the final few years of my time living in Sudbury, Ontario, looked something like accompaniment. Now, I'm not sure what Lynd would make of that claim. I'm not sure the kinds of writing/media/research/knowledge skills that I had to offer are really as practical as what he has in mind. And though the Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op provided me with opportunities to build organic, lasting relationships, and to offer of those skills -- both through their direct use and via opportunities to build the skills of others -- to people in struggle in different ways in the city, I know full well that it never fully realized whatever potential it had in theory as a means of enacting accompaniment. Nonetheless, it was for me a site of potential, a site from which I could ask and answer "How should I act next in the world to create the change that I need, that you need, that the world needs?" within a framework that seemed to me to bear some family resemblance to accompaniment, even if I was never fully satisfied with my answers.

And now, of course, I'm back in Hamilton, a city I lived in for most of the decade before I lived in Sudbury. I miss specific people in Sudbury rather a lot, but I had largely been taking the long view in terms of the change in communities -- there are lots of things I like about Sudbury as a political and social community, but there are also lots of things I like (and missed!) about Hamilton, so there was loss in this transition but also gain. But as I've been reflecting on these questions, and as I have reflected on accompaniment as a framework for thinking about engagement in struggles for social change in a more explicit way than I had for a couple of years, I realize that there is something concrete that I have lost in leaving Sudbury that I cannot directly replace: that context for accompaniment. I won't get into the details, but because of differences between the two cities, it does not make sense to try and duplicate here what we were trying to do in Sudbury.

Don't get me wrong: As I said, Hamilton is wonderful, and I'm happy to be living here. There are some interesting grassroots things that are happening, and I've done my best, in the last few months, to go to things as an attendee and participant. But I have thus far hesitated about committing to be a member in an ongoing way of any local group or initiative. Partly that's because I'm enjoying having a bit more time for the non-locally-focused movement-related writing and media work that has stayed much the same for me before and after the move, and for the time being that might continue to win out. But partly -- and this may be completely backwards -- it's because I'm hesitant about plunging too much of myself into something local, urgent, and immediate before I have developed a better sense of how I can be usefully present in Hamilton over the long term.

Given what I bring – the skills, the quirks, the strengths and weaknesses – how can I most usefully position myself for long-term contribution to struggles for justice and liberation in Hamilton and elsewhere?


Randy said...

Let's go for a beer and talk about it! :)

Scott Neigh said...

Yes!! :)