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How It Would Feel to be Free: A Review of Transformative Organizing

Max Uhlenbeck
Date Published: 
December 1, 2010



If there is anything we have learned from the political struggles of the 20th-century United States, it has been the great importance of grassroots and mass-based organizing. From the IWW to the CIO, the early Communist Party to the rise of the civil rights movement, the question of how to organize and refine best practices has always remained central.

Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC) in Los Angeles, produced the pamphlet The 7 Components of Transformative Organizing Theory in anticipation of the 2010 US Social Forum. These ideas will be further explored in a book to be published next year, The 21 Qualities of the Successful Organizer: A Journey in Transformative Organizing. Mann lays out LCSC’s concept of Transformative Organizing (TO) by attempting to place it in historical context.

Following from the proud tradition of indigenous resistance to European colonialism and the early anti-slavery abolitionists, Mann describes TO as “characterized by a militant opposition to racism, war, and the abuses of the US empire, strategized by a broad array of people who self-identify as revolutionary, radical, liberal or progressive.” This is juxtaposed to two other major approaches driving social change: right-wing organizing, “as reflected in the Klan, White Citizens Councils, Christian conservatives, and today the vigilantes and the Tea Party reactionaries,” and pragmatic organizing, which has “fought for specific reforms in the interest of working people that have often been limited in scope, characterized by anti-left ideology, and, at times, an implicit deal with the US empire.”

Mann, a veteran of the civil rights movement, has focused much of his recent years on work with LCSC’s flagship project, the Bus Riders Union. He argues that TO at once works to transform the system itself as well as the consciousness of the people who participate in the process of building organizations and movements, especially the organizers, “as they stand up to the right, reach out to the people, and take on the system.”

He is careful not to antagonize LCSC’s allies in the pragmatic camp, seeing the debate as a question of strategy rather than morality. Pragmatic organizing institutions and individuals are often allied with TO partners, and do much important work in working-class communities across the country. However, they are inherently limited, according to Mann, because their analysis does not see that the US is a structurally racist, imperialist power. “Transformative organizing, therefore, is situated in a worldwide movement with a strategy to challenge the US empire… Transformative organizers challenge the moral legitimacy and ideological hegemony of the capitalist system and its historical master narrative of empire building.”

The strength of Mann’s writing lies in his masterful ability to accessibly and sharply summarize the rich and various traditions of US radicalism, the demands those organizations and movements put forward, and the underlying political principles which should guide any transformative organizing as we move forward. The part of Mann’s text that still leaves something to be desired lies in his deliberate emphasis on this relatively new term, ‘transformative organizing,’ without adequately and clearly defining what it is, and specifically what distinguishes TO within the larger tendencies of mass-based organizing with a left or anti-imperialist framework. Mann’s writings have long successfully articulated vital movement analysis, but he does not quite break new ground, at least in the pamphlet version of his TO text.
Crucial intentions

This is where the NYC-based Social Justice Leadership (SJL) picks up, with their pamphlet Transformative Organizing: Toward Liberation of Self and Society. Asserting that we are at a turning point in history, and also potentially a turning point in the evolution of grassroots organizing, SJL poses the question, “Will the social justice movement of the 21st century meet the demands of the changing times, or will we be swept into the dustbin of history?” Arguing that “most social justice organizing in the US has focused outward… its potential greatly limited by its strict focus on external fights and short-term change,” SJL differentiates Transformative Organizing as a practice “which combines an ambitious emphasis on long-term vision, ideology and movement building with attention to internal personal and organizational transformation.”

For years, SJL has developed trainings and convened movement discussions with organizations like Domestic Workers United, Make the Road, and Mothers on the Move. SJL outlines four crucial principles of TO.  Transformation begins with self-awareness; intentional practice leads to transformation; transformation requires vision; transforming society requires ideological, strategic, mass-based organizing. Putting forth these accessible yet deeply profound principles, SJL takes on the challenge of combining elements of traditional mass-based organizing strategies with new practices of personal grounding and self-care that transcend the often individualistic responses to these issues within the consumer-capitalist framework.

The concept of intentional practice is particularly exciting. SJL writes that “intentional practices are those we undertake to change how we show up in the world, and they can manifest as personal practices or political practices. They are new actions that we take to change our physical, emotional, and mental orientation. By practicing different ways of acting, we can align our actions with our vision for who we want to be and how we want to act. Intentional practices interrupt our old way of being, and they create the possibility for new action.”

While much of the writing within activist communities addressing such important concerns as personal trauma or spiritual growth has been limited in its inward or small-group orientation, SJL sees the concept of TO as something that can and must be built to scale. Millions of people must be organized if we are to reach a scale that can challenge the current power structure and contend with society’s embodied practices. Organizing efforts must reach mammoth proportions and model compelling democratic processes if we are to wield sufficient power to democratize the broader society.

The concept of transformative organizing, something still very much in development, is certainly a most welcome theoretical contribution to the current literature and conversation about organizing strategies at this critical juncture in human history. Credit Eric Mann and the LCSC with doing the hard work of articulating what a transformative organizing framework might look like, and SJL for pushing that concept further towards a practice that will actually get us there.

—Max Uhlenbeck