Why I gave up on activism and decided to build power

Not long after I got sober, I developed a sense of urgency toward the world I’d spent so much of my life trying to escape. If I wasn’t sleeping or at work, I was facilitating trans-inclusivity workshops, writing this column, lobbying at the capitol, attending direct action trainings, organizing fundraisers, or fighting for changes in my workplace. Within five years’ time, I had burned myself out. And everywhere I looked, things were only getting worse: for trans people, BIPOC, tenants, and workers. I felt inadequate, isolated, and powerless. 

Advocacy: harm-reduction or negligence? 

When I started managing for Heine Brothers’ in 2018, I did so believing that in a “leadership role” I would be better able to advocate for trans workers like myself. (Of course, that wasn’t the only reason I accepted the promotion. The manager position paid $13 an hour, $4 more than I was making as an AM, and like most of my coworkers, I could barely keep my head above water.) I did not yet realize that my concept of “leadership,” like so many of the concepts I had inherited from capitalism, was full of contradictions.

A leader is someone who has followers: people who look to them for direction, people they’re accountable to. If you had asked me who I was accountable to back then, I would have said “my staff.” But my staff couldn’t fire me, demote me, or shut down my store. In reality, like every manager, I was accountable to my employer. 

From the moment we enter the workforce we are taught to use “leader” and “manager” interchangeably. But the terms are not synonyms. Workers who are actual leaders present a serious threat to their employers, and to capitalism in general. In the manager role, would-be leaders are severed from their fellow workers (their would-be followers) and used to exploit them for profit. This is why even the coolest, most compassionate managers are class traitors. 

Enticed by a shred of security, I gave up true power and became an arm of the company. I may have been a good manager, but I wasn’t a leader. 

During my five years with the company, I got good at crafting proposals that would withstand the scrutiny of everyone at the table (ops, HR, financials, etc.). Thanks to my advocacy, the company implemented a number of practices that make trans employees’ lives a little more bearable without hurting the bottom line. Which is to say: the bar was in hell, and I helped raise it an inch or two off of the floor. 

In 2019, I started facilitating trans-inclusivity workshops. As a believer in harm reduction, and as someone who transitioned in a non-inclusive work environment, I still genuinely believe in the value of these workshops. The problem lies in how (and by whom) they are funded, where those funds could be going instead, what work is being neglected by the would-be leaders who facilitate them, and what this costs the movement.

The same is true of advocacy organizations. Advocates seek to secure protections for historically oppressed groups through the courts, congress, election polls, and other approved channels. The inadequacy of advocacy lies in its relationship to power. Because advocacy orgs are usually connected to wealthy funders, they often have better relationships with investors and politicians than they do with impacted people. They are therefore likely to fold under political pressure to weaken their demands. 

In hindsight, my advocacy efforts benefited my employer as much, if not much more, than the workers I was advocating for. And like the best practices I recommended to my workshop clients, the reforms won by liberal advocacy organizations necessarily enable the system to remain intact. In return, the system pays their executives’ salaries. It’s a symbiotic relationship that disincentivizes progress. When Congress passes some Draconian policy that sets progress back ten years, service orgs are flooded with grants and donations. In normal times, when we aren’t losing ground, the money slows to a trickle. The sicker society gets, the more these orgs benefit. And when we are healed, there will be no need for them. 

“Well that’s why I’m an activist—not an advocate,” someone might respond; “I haven’t sold my soul to the non-profit industrial complex.” 

I also said something to that effect, once, and had to eat my words.

Action! (And those who co-opt them)

In July of 2020, a group of protesters 100+ deep blocked the 600 block of E. Market Street, formerly the Clarksdale Housing Projects, to protest the gentrification of the neighborhood and the displacement of the Clarksdale residents. 76 protesters, at least half of us queer, were arrested. 

Photo by KYDroneGuy

The action made waves, illuminating gentrification’s role in racial capitalism and police brutality at a moment when the whole world was watching. But that moment was short-lived. The last protestor had not even been released from jail yet when the NuLu Business Association, one of our targets, went on the record dismissing our demands and announcing that they were in the process of starting a DEI committee (as if that was the antidote to gentrification), a process that was allegedly underway before the action took place (as if that was relevant to our demands). Then “Godfather of NuLu” himself, Gill Holland, rewarded the NBA’s performative allyship with his own performative gesture, to the tune of 50 thousand dollars.

Photo source: LEO Weekly 

Despite 126 days of consecutive protests, which resulted in over 500 arrests, the officers who murdered Breonna Taylor walked free for over two years after her death. Not one year after the officers were arrested, Metro council approved an amended fiscal budget, the largest chunk of which will go to LMPD. Just two months prior, the Department of Justice released the LMPD investigation report. The report cites 61 incidents of alleged misconduct and states that LMPD “practiced an aggressive style of policing that it deploys selectively, especially against Black people, but also against vulnerable people throughout the city.” If activism/direct action was capable of effecting deep structural change, then there is no explaining this sequence of events.

Direct action is a tactic, not a strategy. On a scale of escalation, or as part of a campaign, it can have an impact, but once-and-done (or even 126-and-done) actions rarely yield material changes or sway those in power to concede to our demands.  

The selfish/selfless binary: who benefits from it?  

Why are increasingly many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, buried in debt, unable to find affordable housing, and/or being priced out of their homes? It’s not because we are all lazy, or because Republicans control the House and Senate. It’s because the ruling class is clear about their self-interest, and the rest of us are not.

From the moment we enter the workforce, we are conditioned to believe that our worth is based on our usefulness, our labor potential. We are trained to be selfless, to take one for the team, to think of the greater good. Whether it’s picking up a shift, agreeing to a coffee date, or sitting on a board or at a booth, we do what is asked of us compulsively, to avoid the guilt and shame that arises when we deny someone our time, our shoulder, or our labor without a “legitimate excuse.” The ruling class, on the other hand, is trained to be selfish: to look out for number one, to ask “what’s in it for me?”, to take more than they need when others needs are unmet, and to not feel bad about it. 

In a capitalist society, selfishness and selflessness are two sides of the same coin. Paying your employees less than a living wage so that you can make a profit is selfish. Compulsively doing your employer a favor while they exploit you is selfless. We are very familiar with both sides of this coin. We are less familiar with a third concept, the concept of self-interest. Declining to do your employer a favor (when there’s no incentive, and no risk of retaliation) is self-interest. 

“Self interest” is something we all possess. It’s the innate concern each person has for their material, emotional, and spiritual well-being, and that of their community. Self-interest isn’t selfishness, because as social beings, our well-being is intertwined with that of our community. Stealing from the worker co-op I’m a part of might have short-term advantages, but it would be bad for the co-op and for my comrades, on which my livelihood depends. 

Helping someone move on my day off might not be my idea of fun, but I need my community to be housed, safe, and stable, because we take care of us. It’s in my self-interest to help if I am able, regardless of whether or not they return the favor.

When we’re clear on our self-interest, we start to identify others who share that self-interest: neighbors, coworkers, folks on the bus, the Uber driver, the barista. As we converse and learn more about each other, we uncover common needs, wants, and barriers. We realize we’re not alone. Maybe you find out that a lot of your neighbors have had their rent increased, while Air BnNs are popping up all over the neighborhood. So you decide to put your heads together and come up with a plan to stop the trend before you’re all priced out of your homes. This is called organizing. 

Unlike advocacy and activism, the goal of organizing is to build power. Power, like self-interest, is neutral. It’s simply the ability to make things happen. Not having power means not being able to take care of yourself and your loved ones, not having a say in the decisions that affect you, or in the society to which you contribute.

The type of political organization that uses relationship building and leadership development to build power and fight for change is called a “power organization.”  Unlike the other types of political organizations, power organizations are accountable to no one but their members. Their power doesn’t come from grants and donations, but from their numbers and their shared self-interest. Their independence is one of the things that makes them so dangerous.

If the thought of being powerful makes you uncomfortable, try to see what’s at the bottom of that discomfort. Do most of your experiences with power involve someone who has power over you using that power for personal gain, and benefiting at your expense? Do you associate power with selfishness, rather than self-interest? Or do you believe that you are unworthy, or undeserving, of power? Are these beliefs serving you? Who are they serving?

One-to-ones, risk-taking, and growing pains 

I had never heard of a “power organization” before I was introduced to the Louisville Tenants Union (LTU). One of the very few power organizations in Kentucky, LTU is a multiracial, multigenerational, member-led organization that is fighting to make housing a human right and end all evictions. 

We are your landlord’s worst nightmare. 

When I attended my first LTU meeting, the first thing I noticed was that the room was packed full all kinds of people. There were young kids, seniors, thirty-somethings like myself, and everything in between. There were Black, Brown, and white people of multiple ethnicities, ability levels, and gender expressions. One burly white dude rolled up on a Harley. 

It took me a couple of months to get my bearings, and to understand the LTU’s method of organizing. My instinct was to look for a way to be useful, to find a task that needed to be completed and “plug in.” The organizer smiled and said “Thank you, but that’s not really how we do things.” Then he asked to schedule a 1:1 with me. 

In organizing, a 1:1 is a conversation with a particular purpose: to get to know someone, and help them uncover their self-interest. I agreed to the meeting, despite not fully grasping its purpose. The organizer had asked for two hours, which seemed like an exorbitant amount of time to spend talking about ourselves. Wasn’t there some work we could be doing?

The 1:1 is the foundation of our power. It violates  the norms of respectability and professionalism, shedding light on the ways we’ve been disfigured by capitalism. It disarms our enemies, bonds us to our comrades, and prepares us to take the kinds of risks that are required to win.

During that first 1:1, I found myself getting squirrelly. I hardly knew this person, and he was asking me to share things I had only ever shared with my closest confidantes. I gave a number of vague responses, said “ummm” a lot, and pleaded the 5th. It took several 1:1s before I started opening up. I was surprised to discover how many masks, filters, and scripts I needed just to get through the day. Every time I removed one of my masks in a 1:1 or training, revealing a scar, contradiction, or weakness, I’d close my eyes, hold my breath, and wait to be judged or rejected. And every time I wasn’t, I got a little bit bolder, and a little more trusting.

The process is ongoing, and it isn’t anything but comfortable, but it’s worth it.

Serious inquiries only!

Because of LTU’s organizing, Louisville is at the center of a national campaign called the Homes Guarantee campaign. The Homes Guarantee campaign is within striking distance of winning limits on rent hikes and adding tenant protections to a quarter of all apartments in the U.S.

LTU is also in the home stretch of getting Metro council to pass Louisville’s first-ever anti-displacement policy, which will: 1) prevent public resources from going toward development projects that would result in displacement, 2) create a pathway to prioritize current residents in gaining access to city programs, and 3) create a pathway to restore land that was wrongfully taken from families by the government.

Our demands are not compromises. They are not modest, nor vague. And we are not playing. 

The longer I am involved with LTU, the less interested I am in projects, causes, or organizations that lack LTU’s clarity and precision, that don’t share my self-interest, or that aren’t serious about winning material changes for their base. That’s not to say I won’t continue advocating and participating in mutual aid. Those tasks are integral to everything I do, and they’re never finished, especially under capitalism. But I’m not going to make a career out of managing symptoms when I’ve found a cure. 

If you are serious about winning, I encourage you to ask yourself the below questions, to get clear about whether the causes, projects, and organizations you’re invested in align with your self-interest. Because you deserve more than influencers and diplomats. You deserve comrades. And we will be here when you’re ready to start building power.