Gender & Organizing: Intra Group Prefigurative Politics
A distinct activist culture of the community developed around prefigurative politics, or applying their alternative cognitive frameworks to daily activities and interactions. The prefigurative politics within the network are experimental and the need for autonomy from the sources of social injustice, namely the state, require collective reliance in the development of alternative models. Members’ participation confirms their belonging through shared difference and cultural practices.
Dissent does not always have a clear political goal or target. The enemy activists are combatting cultural, based in power, typically articulated as the state, capitalism, and their derived cultures. Specifically activists identify the government as maintaining and perpetrating various forms of oppression, or as cleverly stated in one zine circulated within the community, the state ‘MANufactures roles of unequal power” (Social Detox). Dismantling hierarchical organization and challenging current power structures is pivitol to the collective solidarity of the community. The goal is not retreatist, in that participants in the community do not desire to remove themselves from society, but instead attempt to realize and retain social justice within society.
These ideologies theorize the interconnection of various forms of oppression as maintained or perpetrated by the government and social customs. Activists recognize patterns of inequality along race, class, gender, and sexuality and engage in a continuous dialogue of reflexivity, privilege, and calls for ‘solidarity.’ The aim is not oneness and awareness of intersections is not the same as unity of interests or approaches. More precisely, the goal is to support one another across a changing heterogeneous landscape in such a way that there is no hierarchy and no charity. “Solidarity means connecting the dots. Seeing struggle as interconnected” and moving past “single issue struggles” (Social Detox).
When applied, these prefigurative politics incorporate acknowledgement of social stratification and counteraction through non hierarchical structure. Intragroup routines reflect shared social justice politics. Activists have established a meeting framework and tenets used across the community, with different groups making modifications. Activists make adjustments to account for their belief “we are socialized to compete with one another rather than collaborate; to hide our authentic feelings rather than share them, and to silence our unique voices rather than practice strengthening them” (Denitzio, McIntyre, Schemmer, and Wadkins). The familiar expression ‘another world is possible’ demonstrates the conviction in these prefigurative politics and endeavors at social justice organizing.
As stated in the previous chapter the activist community is made up of affinity groups. These groups are the primary organizational formation of the community. They are the medium by which the community operates. Affinity groups are usually associated with an explicit issue or cause. They are unofficial; anyone can start a group whenever they want. Some groups might last for years, others fold over the course of weeks.
Many activist affinity groups are open to new participants. Throughout this dissertation I use member and participant interchangeably because in most groups there is no official, designated membership. The act of participation itself constitutes membership. Open membership means anyone can join and there are no prerequisites or fees. Various people come together to work towards a goal and support an issue. The lack of restriction enables the group to tap into a larger network of people and bring in more outside resources, people, and ideas. Though there is an ebb and flow to involvement, a core group of organizers and activists anchor affinity groups.
Strategically, these groups must account for the flux of new people and ideas. Membership instability can lead to difficulty in the transmission and understanding of the ideological underpinnings of a group. Typically affinity groups create a written statement of purpose articulating their political distinction posted online or printed in a pamphlet or zine for circulation. But even if in writing, statements of purpose are not always understood. These groups tend to have less coherence or nuance in ideology. Experienced activists form clear tasks for new participants. Involvement in activities and events require roles that are interchangeable and actions straightforward.
However, the core members take on most of the responsibilities and become a reservoir of the group’s knowledge and resources. Administrative issues are left to core members, such as checking the group’s email, scheduling when and where to hold meetings, publicizing group and meetings, procuring resources and addressing any problems that may arise. While this might counteract the impermanence of participation, it also discourages neophyte’s continued involvement. If established activists do not communicate with new participants or explain to them the particular tasks, then they will lack the ability and want to participate. In many cases, the dynamic of open groups results in unintended leaders and unofficial hierarchies.
The aforementioned group Food Not Bombs is a clear example of such a group. There were core organizers as well as fluctuating novices, some of who came once, others who continued with the group. We collectively created a pamphlet about the group and had copies available at all food shares to communicate the group’s purpose and actions. We assembled and distributed the food in public locations in the hope of introducing a passerby to the group or encouraging them to join.
The basic tasks involved are finding food sources, gathering or procuring the food, bringing the food to the designated location, sorting the food, deciding what to cook, cooking the food, setting up tables and food, possibly plating the cooked food using serving utensils (groups differ in this practice), disposing of garbage and recycling, and cleaning and packing the tables, dishes, and kitchen. In our informational pamphlet, under ‘How Can I Help?’ we listed the following
- Come cook with us at 123 on Saturdays 12 – 3 PM
- Come to 123 benefit shows, as well as their other programs and activities
- Help pick up donations! We really need folks with vehicles! Lots of the donations are too large to carry by anything other than car. We’ll meet you, drive to a supermarket, pick up the food, and then drive somewhere it can be stored. The most crucial tiems are Friday night and Saturday morning. You can volunteer just once or on an ongoing basis. These donations are what allows us to continue sharing food with the community, so if you have a car, please help!
- People who can work on educational flyers
- Connections! to local restaurants, supermarkets, community gardens, coops and other food sources
Of these bullet points, people came to cook with us on Saturdays and came to benefit shows, but we received few volunteers for the other roles. With the exception of finding food sources, gathering food, and bringing the food to the distribution location, these jobs are not complex, do not necessitate specialized knowledge, and do not require additional travel or time outside of group meetings. Despite different participants’ varying degrees of experience in kitchens, there are roles for all to take on. We would break into groups of two or three, each working on a specific dish. Because our group was part of an Anarchist Community Space with an after school program and bike building workshop, we often had a few children spending time at the space and cooking and sorting food.
Core group members carry out the more involved, often unseen, work. Along with the administrative issues mentioned above, for FNB this included finding where and how to obtain food, procuring and transporting food, obtaining a kitchen, pots, pans, serving dishes, plates, utensils, extra plastic bags, as well as storage of all equipment. In our group, this meant me and one other member (S) creating letterhead to receive large donations from the Brooklyn and 14th Street Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods in Long Island, calling or emailing neighborhood CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), asking local grocery stores, and dumpster diving. All members were encouraged to solicit donations. (S) lived on Long Island and had a car we used for food pick ups during the weekends. Sometimes (Z), a casual participant, would volunteer a van he owned and do food pick ups. Myself and another member picked up food from CSAs during the week using shopping carts and the subway.
The 5 or so core members spent time together outside of food sharing. I proposed FNB becoming a component of the preexisting Anarchist Community Space and using their kitchen. When the space reached consensus on the FNB proposal, we, as core members, agreed to be responsible for portion of rent, which then required more labor to plan benefits or fundraisers. Together we hosted and attended parties, activist and otherwise, spending most of the weekend together and developing close friendships. After a ‘food share’ we would usually meet for dinner at a vegan restaurant and go out together that evening. Newer participants were not intentionally excluded, yet they rarely accompanied us.
FNB also had issues with communicating the purpose of the group. Though ‘Not Charity, Solidarity’ was a common saying, occasionally new participants would proceed on a charity model, such as creating a strong barrier between those behind the table and those in front of the table. The group’s ‘Who Are We?’ section of our pamphlet while I was a member was as follows
“Bed Stuy Food Not Bombs is a fully autonomous chapter of Food Not Bombs composed of members of the Bed Stuy community working to improve our lives and those of our neighbors. We are not affiliated with any political party. We come together out of a belief that there is enough food for everyone if it is distributed in a more equitable manner.”
In addition, earlier organizers created and posted images such as the following online for all FNB chapters to use in their pamphlets and propaganda. The use of the anarchy symbol, the word ‘revolution,’ the fliers stating ‘Rent is Theft,’ and a raised fist all indicate the larger political scope of FNB. Some of our interactions with one another and members of the Bed Stuy community lead to our group having conversations about the primarily racially white makeup of our group, as well as community space, being located in a primarily black neighborhood. The group used language, such as ‘food share’ to emphasize the difference between the anarchist model and charity models.
Relatedly, issues can arise when new members do not understand the existing interpersonal relationships and prefigurative politics in the field. One such instance was when a group bottom lined by a controversial abusive male activist tabled a feminist people of color event. The activists tabling and the organizers of the event were not aware of the issue, and because the particular male was not present, many of us assumed he was no longer with the group. The assumption was incorrect and resulted in email/web based exchanges between the groups and individuals.
Along with open affinity groups, there are ‘closed’ groups referred to as ‘collectives.’ Collectives are groups that have designated membership concentrating on specific issues, such as race, gender, or sexuality. The language used indicates the coming together of people and the importance of their solidarity with one another and the cause, a balance of the independence and the community.
‘Closed’ collectives regulate membership. These groups are relatively small, typically ranging from 5 to 15 members. If focused on issues around a demographic, the collective would likely limit membership to a set demographic or identity, e.g. all members must be people of color or transgender men. Aspiring members often already know at least one person in the collective or are familiar with their work. There is a screening process such as an essay or interview to ensure the new member ideologically alines with the group.
‘Closed’ collectives can be more deliberate in their intent and action. They revolve around their relative founding issues and are not as broad in scope of interest as most open collectives. The constancy in participation results in members discussing, instituting, and modifying opinions. Group members establish fundamental issues or policies early on and interweave them into the politics of the collective. ‘Closed’ collectives consider longterm goals, tasks, and collaborations in their decision making.
Due to fewer numbers, members experience tighter connections and more emotional and temporal investment. Over time group members develop relationships with one another and the group as a collective develops relationships with other groups. If a ‘collective’ has a strong sense of purpose and character, then the individual’s sense of self becomes tied to this identity, thereby feeling as though they are part of something larger than themselves.
In closed collectives the health of internal relationships and the every day lives of members is of greater priority. One tactic used is altering the meeting framework to include ‘check-ins,’ or at the beginning of the meeting, each member sequentially sharing whatever is happening in their personal lives and their feelings about the group. ‘Check-outs’ comprise each member’s evaluation of the meeting.
Another policy incorporated in some collectives is the use of ‘trigger warnings’ and having a ‘safeword.’ The zine So You Want to Start a Feminist Collective argues these enable members to “identify in the moment the times [they] felt triggered, put down, or uncomfortable with someone else’s words” and to “‘press pause’” on a discussion (Denitzio, McIntyre, Schemmer, and Wadkins). The intimacy and internal support of closed collectives solidifies a sense of belonging and the integration of the collective and sense of self, clearly demonstrating “the personal is political.”
The previously introduced For the Birds Collective and Distro (FTB) is an example of a ‘closed’ collective. The collective wrote the following mission statement during my membership:
“For the Birds is a NYC-based feminist collective working to combat social inequality and challenge all forms of oppression through an intersectional feminist analysis of power both within our collective and in our larger society. As a collective we value collaboration, shared knowledge, self-expression, and meaningful communication. We seek to combat transphobia, sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, capitalism and other forms of oppression, and to reflect on our own privileges. Our activism emphasizes the need for accessibility, safer spaces, and support within our communities.”
The collective is feminist and we explicitly limited membership to female identified people. When I joined the group, the first step to becoming a member was filling out an application, with questions about past activist experience, discussing ‘your feminisms,’ personal politics, and goals for yourself as an individual and the group as a whole. The next step was two trial meetings before becoming a member. During my tenure membership ranged from 5 to 10 people, all of whom were cisgender female and primarily white.
FTB was very reflexive in its roles and practices. The group had check ins in which “Every Bird gets 2 minutes to check in, and we have a timekeeper to keep track, giving a hand signal at the one minute and two minute time intervals. In this time, no one responds to each other, as it is a sacred space for each Bird to be heard” (Denitzio, McIntyre, Schemmer, and Wadkins). We also were very aware of the roles required to maintain a collective. We created a role we designated “Bird on the Wire,” who would handle all communications including email, facebook, twitter, and mailing out zines. We took turns and traded the role at our weekly meetings. During the time I was a member this became too overwhelming for one person and the work was split into two roles.
All FTB events and activities had policies in place to combat sexist and racist behaviors. These policies were not debated within the group, as they were in other groups, because our members had a similar understanding and approach to feminism and social justice so that all shared the opinion that they are necessary. There were other feminist groups, however, who did not have policies in place or did not agree on the method to combat these issues at events.
Commonalities among members can lead to unintentional exclusions. While FTB was intentionally all female, the group was primarily white and had been critiqued in the past for being unintentionally racially exclusionary. When I joined the group the white group members were holding separate meetings to discuss white privilege and anti racist tactics. Still, there were several times our group failed to take into account experiences other than our own. For example, we only realized after we had created, printed, and distributed a flier that we forgot to arrange free childcare at our annual event, the Big She Bang.
The groups constituting the community have an internal arrangement reflecting the prevailing radical ideology and interpretation of agency into regular community practices. Groups are non hierarchical or horizontal, with no participants having greater authority or rank over others. As stated in a now defunct community group’s information pamphlet: “there are no leaders and no hierarchy. All volunteers or people involved in what is happening at the space have equal access to decision-making power” (123 Community Space).
While not hierarchical, groups still have an order or framework. Meetings last roughly two hours, though there is rarely a time limit or official end time for a meeting. First an agenda is collectively created. Sometimes activists use internet websites, such as google docs, to create an agenda before meeting face to face. In other cases, activists pass around a sheet of paper for agenda items before a meeting begins. Agenda items include making decisions such as logistics dealing with an up coming event, deciding whether to ‘table’ at an event, the wording of a new brochure or zine, dealing with group funds or collaboration with another group.
Frequently this agenda includes ‘report backs’ and ‘processing.’ Members who took part in an activist or related event give a ‘report back,’ or tell the other members about what happened at the event and if they exchanged information with related people or groups. The group might then decide to employ similar tactics or coordinate with or for a previously unknown group. After organizing an event, a group will usually add ‘processing’ to the agenda. Members each evaluate the event, discussing unexpected problems, positive interactions, and ideas and improvements for the future.
Meeting attendees take on different roles in the consensus approach. One person volunteers to moderate or facilitate the meeting, prioritizing the agenda items, reading them aloud, being conscientious of time, facilitating discussion, and managing the consensus process. Another person takes notes, typically typed and shared via an online email group or forum. The note taker records who is in attendance, the date and time, the agenda items, and the major discussion points, including who has volunteered to take on various tasks during the meeting. In groups with regular membership, they are conscientious as to the distribution of duties, trading off taking on these roles from week to week.
Decision making requires consensus. Early on during a meeting of the community space I mistakenly used the word ‘vote.’ Another, more experienced anarchist activist quickly corrected me, explaining that no one ‘voted,’ but that we as a group would come to a shared agreement. Instead of majority rule, the group recognizes everyone’s opinion and must be in agreement. Everyone in the group must state whether they agree, disagree, or abstain from the decision. Consensus provides clear, established channels for speaking and offering opinions, discouraging the monopolization of conversation. Although consensus is usually verbal, in the more feminist and queer leaning groups ‘sparkle fingers,’ or wiggling fingers pointing upward were used as a signal of agreement. Later, Occupy Wall Street meetings used ‘sparkle fingers’ or “feminist jazz hands” during meetings (Johnston 2015).
If someone disagrees they state why they disagree or ask any questions that might change or clarify their judgment. If multiple people have questions and comments, they go on ‘stack,’ or a queue determined by the order in which people have signaled a want to speak. Members with concerns then ask questions and discussion continues until all agree. No one should be silenced or interrupted while speaking. Yet the method can become arduous and meetings prolonged. Occasionally, there were meetings where we ‘tabled,’ or moved to the next week’s agenda seemingly endless disagreements. Ideally consensus means there are no resentments, alliances, or alienation between individuals. No one should do or participate in something they do not agree with, thereby creating an environment of mutual appreciation and empowerment.
On numerous occasions women and people of color have stated they were talked over, not taken seriously, or ignored. The Thunder Collective’s What to Do When?, a zine circulated in the community, asserts “It’s too often the case…that men talk of equality in voices so loud that women can’t be heard” (Thunder). In doing so, women and people of color can be made to feel uncomfortable and demoralized, particularly if expressing a dissenting opinion. One activist observed that during the early stages of school occupations “[m]en constantly stood up on chairs and delivered grandiose monologues about the revolution. Women kept getting talked over” (Exposito 2011). While I experienced subtle sexism throughout my participant observation, it became unmistakable when a female identified friend and I sat in on a meeting of a housing rights group. She and I made up two of only three female identified people at the meeting of roughly 15 people. Worse yet, there were only two people of color present, one of which was both interrupted and ignored by the moderator. The two de facto leaders of this group where white men, one of whom was very vocal about identifying as a feminist.
Activists sometimes adjust the consensus process to insure all have an opportunity to be heard. Though most groups have some awareness of racial, gender, or sexual privilege in meeting spaces, some groups have an explicit ‘step up, step back’ policy. ‘Step up, step back,’ or the non ableist alternative ‘take space, make space,’ is shorthand for encouraging those who do not usually speak or do not have privilege to ‘step up’ and voice their opinions. Those that are notably vocal in their opinions or who have privilege are to ‘step back’ and dedicate themselves to listening to others. For the policy to be effective activists must be reflexive and acknowledge their past behaviors and entitlement.
However infrequent, at times organizers do not use consensus or circumvent the process. One or few activists make decisions for the group, justified as simplifying or hastening a process. The bypass leaves other, possibly dissenting, opinions out of the discussion. This can be exclusionary toward women and people of color. For one activist in the NYC community this occurred when Take Back the Night, which she had co organized the previous year, was organized by men without her input or knowledge. “The men mapped the route for us; they chose the room, the time and date without our consensus…It was like being fed the food you cooked yourself, after being chewed by someone else” (Exposito 2011).
While these groups theoretically operate outside of hierarchies, leaders inevitably emerge. Some within the community believe those in leadership positions are reflective of sexism, with most being cisgender male, or identified as male at birth and self identifies as male. As a zine distributed in the community contends “A structureless, ‘leaderless’ organization will often have a de-facto leader, usually a man, who get his way by force of will and experience” (Strangers 2006). Without structure there is “no means of balancing those with certain privileges with those who are oppressed” (Beallor). People who have privilege in the rest of society mirror their position within radical groups.
In the innumerable meetings I attended over the years no group named an official leader, nonetheless recurrently there was a leader. When one group came together for our weekly meeting, there was an important item on the agenda. A male activist was unable to be at the meeting and those in attendance, most of whom were female, postponed the topic until the next week, citing the need for more time to consider the issue. The following week, he again could not come to a meeting and again the group tabled the agenda item. Though not recognized or made explicit, members of the group did not want to make a critical decision without the input of our leader.
One exception outside of gender specific women’s groups was my leadership of Food Not Bombs. I did not intend to take charge of our various projects and did not hold an official position, but I was the leader in practice. One reason for this anomaly is that early on there was only one other regular participant, the person who decided to start the group. The other important reason is the group centers on cooking food. Early on it became clear that I was the member with the most experience cooking, and more particularly, cooking vegan food from whole food ingredients. Since women in the U.S. spend more than twice the amount of time preparing food as compared to men, my proficiency in a kitchen conforms to traditional gender roles (Bureau of Labor Statics 2013). When the group transitioned to cooking less and giving away more groceries leadership transitioned to a male who owned a vehicle and did not have a day job that would interfere with food pick ups.
Division of Labor
There are numerous responsibilities required for the day to day existence of activist groups. Active members maintain emails, social media accounts, and blogs, create and copy promotional and educational materials, attend meetings, and organize events and fundraisers. Activists multitask and combine activities, silk screening shirts during a potluck or folding zines during a group meeting. In sharing these tasks, participants get to know one another more closely, creating and strengthening social ties.
When things are usually done DIY, as will be discussed in the following chapter, the amount of labor involved makes equality important. Yet, labor often falls on a core group of organizers. These divisions are not intentional, but are pervasive across the community. Despite the implementation of strategies within the meeting structure to address inequality, there are rarely policies in place to hinder the over commitment of some activists or ensure the equitable division of labor.
Despite radical ideologies, many activists believe there are gender and sexual inequalities in the distribution of labor. Though stereotype might assume women are visual dressing while men do the ‘real’ work, within activism, as well as other subcultures, the opposite is true. Habitually women take on making copies, folding, and stapling zines, maintaining blogs and email addresses, planning benefits, making posters, food collections and more. Some activists see men as dominating public spaces and images. As discussed by one community member in a comic written about her experiences, “[women of color] were made invisible by the showy actions of their white male peers” (Exposito 2011).
These problems are not new. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, The Weather Underground, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Black Panthers were all faced with the problem of sexism. In “Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo,” two women involved in SNCC reflect on their experiences in activism, point to the lack of dialogue about gender in the movement, and raise questions about the operating division of labour. “[W]ho cleans the freedom house…who holds leadership positions…who does secretarial work…who acts as a spokesman for groups” are all issues of concern (Hayden and King 1965). A year earlier, a SNCC manifesto, entitled “Women in the Movement,” listed 11 instances of sexism, including “Although there are some women…who have been working as long as some of the men, the leadership group…is all men,” and “Any woman in SNCC, no matter what her position or experience, has been asked to take minutes in a meeting when she and other women are outnumbered by men” (Hayden and King 1964). This list is not all inclusive as it “could continue as far as there are women in the movement” and notes the parallel privilege of whiteness. There is disagreement, however, as to if these feelings of marginalization were experienced by all women, or only white women organizing as “civil rights workers” as opposed to African American women organizing as “community people” (Parker et al 2004). Though this manifesto ends on a hopeful note, the problem persists.
If “our ‘communities’ are not exempt,” these inequalities manifest in unique forms, adapting to the interpersonal dynamics of activist subcultures (Thunder 2008). Activists consider some roles and tasks preferable, or more fun or glamorous, than others. Collectively cooking together versus cleaning dishes; helping with a banner for a block party versus going to a community board meeting; tabling zines at a benefit show versus copying and stapling two hundred zines.
Only when doing activism in explicitly feminist groups did I find groups taking measures to address this inequality. These groups are aware of women’s roles in activism and are conscious of the division of labour and not overburdening one person. When members know what is happening in another’s personal life, they might preemptively stop them from volunteering for too many tasks and becoming overwhelmed. This approach is explicitly explored in the For the Birds Collective Zine, So You Want to Start a Feminist Collective…:
“we also began to pay careful attention to who volunteers for what and tried to recognize and label what had previously been invisible labor tasks such as checking email accounts, creating meeting agendas, facilitating meetings, taking meeting minutes, and volunteering to help with different aspects of events…[creating roles] ensures that members are recognized for the responsibilities they assume within the collective, and prevents resentment from building up in group members who are taking on more than their fair share of work”
Some members vocalized preference for specific types of work or had access to resources not available to other members, but members equitably distributed the quantity of work amongst themselves. In doing so, the collective is able to be productive and remain constant when some members might need to step back for personal reasons and individuals are not overburdened or resentful.
Because much of the labor falls on few people, involvement in collectives can be draining on the individual. Activists are concerned with burnout, or exhaustion and disengagement from activism. Dividing labor amongst current members and the entry of new participants are necessary to alleviate those who are overwhelmed or leaving the community. Strategies to address and maintain sustainability include self care and the integration of politics and pleasure.
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