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Imagining Ourselves Outside of What We Know

Chris Dixon
Date Published: 
November 1, 2008


“Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”

                                                —Robin Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

The question of vision, as Robin Kelley reminds us, is pressing for all of us who struggle to build a fundamentally transformed world: What is the new society we are trying to create? And how are we going to get there? When we discuss vision, though, we too easily talk in abstract terms, disconnected from the activist and organizing work we are doing and the campaigns and organizations we are building. And yet when we discuss our day-to-day work in all its nitty-gritty details, we often talk in terms that are disconnected from our deeper political goals and longer-term aspirations.

The following special section on vision and organizing in this issue of Left Turn tries to bring these conversations together in ways that challenge the terms of both. It is our attempt to open up some new approaches for bringing vision into our grassroots organizing work and developing the vision already present in it. These approaches take questions as their starting-points: How can we shape our organizing to manifest our visions and politics while staying relevant and grounded? How do we develop audacious yet calculated strategies to get us to where we want to go? How do we make sure that our organizing is based on what we’re trying to achieve rather than on what’s narrowly understood as “possible” or “winnable”? And how do we resolve the contradictions when what we’re doing day-to-day doesn’t actually match up with our visions and deeply held political principles?

The activists and organizers featured in this section invite us to join them as they grapple with these questions and others. In the first article, folks from Picture the Homeless (PTH) in New York City discuss how they understand homelessness as a “systemic consequence” of the way our society and economy are structured. Based on their vision of housing as a human right, the authors describe some of the new forms of organizing they are developing together and how their approach, at times, comes up against the limitations of the nonprofit structure. Importantly, they also challenge a longstanding dichotomy on the Left between “reform” and “revolution.” The people from PTH suggest instead that we understand reform struggles as ways to “to illuminate what it is that we want and what it is going to take to get it.”

The second article in this section comes from the LA Crew, a collective of people in Los Angeles who are involved in organizing with the Garment Workers Center, United Teachers of Los Angeles, and health care workers and patients. They give us a glimpse into their collective process of reflecting on their own grassroots work, studying histories of struggle and radical politics, and developing visionary political principles. Drawing on examples from their organizing experiences, these folks explain two of their core commitments. One is “non-hierarchy,” the principle of opposing all forms of exploitation and oppression while developing collective leadership and shared power among people in struggle. The other is “unbreakapartability,” the principle that all forms of oppression are interconnected and that we have to struggle against them in interconnected ways. The LA crew, through their ideas and experiences, suggests how crucial it is that our organizing enacts our transformative aspirations.

These articles each offer us useful lessons for connecting visionary thinking and grassroots organizing. Through the collective writing processes that both groups used, these contributions also show how important and powerful it is for all of us to carve out spaces in our work to reflect with others about what we’re doing, where we’re going, what we’re trying to achieve, and how these things are all connected. But make no mistake: collectively, we must to push ourselves. As Atlanta-based organizer Stephanie Guilloud says, “We have to imagine ourselves outside of what we know.” We need to cultivate our dreams and nourish our longings while keeping them firmly planted in the ground where we struggle. We invite you to join in this process as together we develop the strategies and visions that we so desperately need in order to build a new world.

Chris Dixon is a longtime activist and educator, and a PhD student in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He lives in Sudbury, Ontario, Atikameksheng Anishnawbek Territory