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Mastering movements — An interview with immigrant rights activist Carlos Saavedra

Carlos Saavedra (Facebook)

Carlos Saavedra (Facebook)

At 26, Carlos Saavedra has trained over 4,000 people and had a hand in more progressive policy changes than most congressmen. After coming to Boston from Peru at age 12, he joined the immigrant rights movement as a teenager, co-founding the Student Immigrant Movement to fight for equal access to higher education for undocumented youth in Massachusetts. He later served as the national coordinator for United We Dream, helping to expand the network from a small coalition to a 52-member national organization instrumental in the passage of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and the DREAM Act — legislation that, combined, has resulted in legal relief for 1.7 million undocumented youth.

While continuing to serve as a consultant for immigrant rights organizations, Carlos recently co-founded the training institute Movement Mastery. I spoke to him last week about his most recent project.

How did you come to start Movement Mastery?

A couple years ago when I was 18 or 19 years old, I had this one-on-one meeting with a student leader in Boston about him joining the movement. I gave him my card, which said “Youth Organizer for the Student Immigrant Movement.” He asked me what organizing was, and if it was something you went to school for. I said, “No, we just learn it as we go.” He said, “Really? There are no manuals? No instructions?”

That left me thinking. So, I went to the library and asked for books about organizing. After looking through 20 books on how to organize your closet, I found Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. From there I started to learn the craft. I read all the books and went to as many trainings as I could; I quit college because I wanted to do this more, and eventually went off to work for United We Dream. A couple years after we built that network, people asked how we did it. I explained to them that, to me, the main lesson is that we were able to build United We Dream and keep it alive because we’ve always matched the amount of problems we’ve had with our capacity for learning. We learned dramatically — from other movements and other mentors. That’s how we were able to survive.

I wanted to continue to learn, and not just by myself, but also in community. How can we borrow from the fields of biology and psychology? How can we learn from all these traditions of organizing? How can we build all these fields towards a larger vision of building the world as we want it to be? I thought that the best way to do that was through a training institute, and that’s how we came to found Movement Mastery.

You mentioned that part of the work Movement Mastery does is combining different traditions of organizing. Could you talk about what those traditions are?

There are multiple traditions of organizing in the world, but there are two dominant ones in the United States. The first is a tradition of structure, which comes out of Saul Alinsky. It’s a tradition of creating organization, which means creating community groups of indigenous leaders from a locality by organizing churches or small committees. You get as many people as you can to talk to the target — the politician or boss — so they can give you what you want. The other is momentum, which in the United States emerged out of the Clamshell Alliance and their work in the anti-nuclear movement. It’s made of mass-scale organization, involving hundreds, maybe thousands of people in a struggle towards an objective. They’re more preoccupied with cultural changes — changing how people see each other — and changes that are more long-term. They’re waiting for a revolution that will change everything.

What we’ve found is that those two traditions have different tools, different elements. The people who’ve been able to do the best movement work have realized that these traditions have both strengths and weaknesses, and by integrating the strengths have had significant success — like the students of Otpor! in Serbia or Cesar Chavez and the [United Farm Workers] or Gandhi, and even the civil rights movement.

You mentioned also trying to draw on other fields that organizers don’t traditionally have much to say about: biology, psychology and therapy. Could you talk about that, and how you see these cross-disciplinary connections?

I’ve been to some trainings with biologists and therapists, and what I notice is that they all talk about the same things, but in different ways. For example, it’s very hard to explain racism in America without understanding it in a context of health. Here’s a metaphor: When you receive a massage, you get dehydrated. The therapist tells you that you should drink water, rest and replenish. So what is it that actually happens when you get a massage? The massage therapist is moving all your joints and muscles to release the toxicity from the food we’re eating, from not moving enough — it’s all within your body. The body thinks, “That’s a lot of toxicity to process at the same time! It’s too much!” So it increases the temperature of the body, and then releases massive amounts of water so you can sweat and let all that toxicity out. We’re living systems, and can’t take out all this toxicity without adding water.

Racism, class, all these relationships that are antagonistic are relationships that are toxic to the environment of our relationships as human beings — even our physical environments, as we’re seeing with climate change, our communities and our politics. We always want to deal with that toxicity without water. The heat always comes up: There’s always controversy, a fight, confrontation. That’s fine. I think organizations want to talk about race and power, but when they do it, it becomes highly toxic because they actually don’t have the tools first to understand the conversation, and second to have enough water — or mutual aid — to deal with the toxicity of it. We’re trying to create a more relational approach to the way we teach. All the disciplines are looking at the same realities, so why not use their tools and share with them?