An ongoing challenge for us activist organizers is that the route to winning takes people out of their comfort zones. The positive side is not only that the campaign gets a chance to win, but also that enduring discomfort usually strengthens people — it puts them in touch with their power.
Sports trainers know this just as well as social change organizers do. The question for all of us is: How do we persuade people to tolerate it?
Discovering the power of empowerment
A call came in from a union organizer in Reading, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. The employees of a nursing home were on strike against the Canada-based multinational corporation that had recently bought it. The workers felt they were being abused and management was refusing to negotiate in good faith. They’d decided they needed to escalate their struggle by adding the tactic of civil disobedience.
This was 1983, and I asked Barbara Smith to co-facilitate the training workshop the union requested. Barbara had recently come on board the Philadelphia Jobs with Peace Campaign to help me manage it. Jobs with Peace was an interracial alliance of labor, neighborhood groups, environmentalists and peace activists. While Barbara was enthusiastic about coalition-building, she wanted to learn the training game as well. She pointed out that she had teaching experience and, as a Black woman, could broaden our training capacity, which was heavily white.
With her large, expressive eyes and commanding presence, Barbara attracted attention as easily as breathing. Already I’d found that she had a great nose for bullshit, as well as an actor’s flair for knowing when to confront it with anger and when to confront it with charm. Barbara also knew how to integrate theory; unlike some trainers who dispense theory in lofty clumps not likely to be applied, Barbara ran each social change principle through her own life experience. The result was a series of stories, metaphors and idiomatic expressions of mother-wit that grounded discussion and made it real.
As we designed the workshop, I told Barbara what I knew about the union members, which was mainly that they were scared of taking this step of civil disobedience. “These are working-class people who pride themselves on never having been in trouble with the law,” I explained to Barbara. “They’ve never even gone on strike before, and some of them have worked for this nursing home most of their lives. We’ll need our briefing from the organizer.”
We drove together to Reading on a stormy evening, arriving early for the 7 p.m. workshop at the union hall. The organizer was there to meet us, stressing again how big a step this was for his members to take. “You can expect 40 or so people,” he said. “They want to do this because they’re so frustrated at being stonewalled by management. But they hate to do it at the same time. This is scary shit.”
Our design worked well, and the longer the evening went, the more confident the workers seemed to become. I was tired and, believing we’d nailed it, I was ready to wrap up and go home. “Let’s circle up for our closing,” Barbara said with her broad smile. “We’ll go around and each one of you will get to say why it is you care so much that you’re willing to commit civil disobedience.”
I groaned inwardly as I looked around. Forty-five people describing their motivation to go to jail! “Oh, Barbara,” I thought to myself, “how could you? This will take forever! Can’t we just go home?”
Barbara beamed at the first person to begin, and we went around the circle in order. I surrendered and began to support the process, inwardly cheering the participants on and finding myself moved by the depth of their sharing.
A young woman said, “I’m here because of Gladys over there.” She nodded to an old woman across the circle from her. “Gladys has worked at the nursing home all her life, and she deserves respect in her last years here.” When we got to Gladys, her eyes were moist and voice quavery. “I’m a mite surprised to hear Susan say what she said, because I was going to say that I’m here because of Susan. This is Susan’s first job, and she deserves a workplace where she finds out how good it can be to be a worker.” I looked around and saw wet eyes around the circle.
Two days later the organizer called me with the news. Management had done an about-face and begun to negotiate seriously. There would be no need for the civil disobedience after all.
“Why did it happen?” I asked.
“Well, we knew that the training would have a management stool pigeon there, to go right away and tell management what the training was like. I think they were blown away by how well prepared we are and how much trouble we’ll be.
“And, you know what?” he went on. “What clinched it was that closing circle. Who could doubt our unity after that?”
This is the time of the year I find myself thinking of Barbara. She died late in the summer a couple of decades ago from cancer, at age 54. She’d succeeded me as director of the Jobs with Peace Campaign and did a whole lot else — from confronting drug sales in her neighborhood to becoming a national media chairperson for the Million Women March. She also joined me in co-founding Training for Change, a hub of empowerment of activists still going after three decades. Bread & Roses Community Fund founded the Barbara Smith Community School in her honor.
Barbara’s impact in her shortened career as an activist leader was heightened by her own willingness to go outside her comfort zone. It was a marvel to watch her courage unfold.
Baptism by fire
“You can’t do that,” the mayor said to me as he reached for another chicken leg. We’d run into each other at a backyard barbecue. “But Wilson, your budget proposal this year — I mean, you of all people cutting support for the homeless and AIDS prevention — we figured we had to take drastic action.”
Mayor Wilson Goode turned fully to me, having put a large spoon of potato salad on his plate. “George, you just can’t do that!”
He looked at me. The large yard was full of Democratic loyalists laughing and socializing; most had a chicken leg in their hands. I wasn’t a Democratic loyalist, and didn’t eat meat, but the party was hosted by a friend, and I was happy to be there.
“Well, we did it, and we’ll have to do more if you don’t revise that budget.” Mayor Goode turned away, looking for less confrontational company.
I didn’t blame him for feeling exasperated. The day before, Barbara Smith and I joined a sit-down that blocked traffic around City Hall at rush hour on a Friday afternoon. It was a giant mess. Any big-city mayor is used to disruptive activities by people he doesn’t know, but Wilson Goode respected Barbara and me. To make matters more frustrating for Mayor Goode, we were also joined by Rev. Paul Washington, an Episcopal priest held in awe by the entire city, including the mayor.
The march down Broad Street had been spirited and loud, with enough chanting so it was hard to have much conversation with Paul and Barbara. Paul was the President of Jobs with Peace and Barbara by now had become the deputy director; she would later succeed me as director, becoming the first African American woman to lead a peace organization in Pennsylvania.
As the march re-formed into a rally at City Hall, the three of us went into a huddle. “You can tell from the tenor of the speakers that we’ll be urged to go into the street,” Paul said. He’d participated in hundreds of marches and knew a manipulative situation when he saw one. He also knew the organizers and knew they frequently had a hidden agenda, planning a dimension of the action that they didn’t reveal ahead of time to the activists they were recruiting.
“What shall we do then?” asked Barbara. She was a natural leader but was coming into her own as an activist only in her 30s. My guess was that in her younger days she might have been too scared by her own passion. Barbara had been one of the many Black working-class teenagers of her generation moved by the rhetoric of Malcolm X but who were then left in a strategic vacuum — too militant to join nonviolent campaigns but too sensible (as was Malcolm X himself) to try to organize armed struggle.
Now Barbara was growing in her personal power. I could tell she was ready to risk arrest if we were.
“I’m in,” I said. “This budget proposal is outrageous, there are plenty of allies on City Council and in the lobbying groups. Civil disobedience might be just right to catalyze more pressure for revising the budget.”
Barbara and I both looked at Paul. The rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, he was nationally known as a modern-day prophet with massive integrity. When the Black Panther Party organized its national convention in Philadelphia — and then had its venue taken away at the last minute — Paul invited them to meet in his church, a decision that rocked the Episcopal Diocese but got the backing of his bishop. After decades of marching and risking for Black freedom and justice for the poor, he made headlines again by hosting the ordination of 11 women as Episcopal priests before the National Church agreed to open the priesthood to women.
Paul smiled. “I agree that this is timely. Let’s do it together.”
Just then, the current rally speaker began a chant: “Into the streets for justice! Into the streets for justice!” Some of the rally organizers began to set the example. Barbara, Paul and I followed. Horns started blaring, police hastily made a stand at the far lane to prevent marchers from blocking all lanes, and television cameras cruised around. Barbara looked tense, but grinned back when I grabbed her hand.
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At that point a brigade of police horses appeared and the tension among the marchers soared. “This is where it gets dangerous,” I yelled to Paul and Barbara above the noise of the crowd. “Let’s get people to sit down — it’s the safest way to deal with horses.”
They nodded, understanding.
“We’ll need to yell together a few times, then we sit down and others will follow,” I shouted to Barbara and Paul. “Sit down! Sit down!” I began.
Barbara with her cheerleader’s voice and Paul with his bass preaching voice joined in: “Sit down! Sit down!”
We sat, and the people immediately around us sat down, joining our chorus. The ripple started as hundreds of people, even those distant from us, finally sat down. I could feel the tension lower as the chaos turned into order: the activists sitting on the street, the police high on their horses, the press walking around interviewing, our allies on the sidewalks cheering for us. To me, it was pretty as a picture.
But that’s not how Wilson Goode saw it from inside City Hall. I knew he had a good heart, but in his role as mayor he was under tremendous pressure from corporate interests while he juggled budget priorities. When he first ran for mayor in 1983, Wilson endorsed the Jobs with Peace referendum question; he knew as well as we did that President Ronald Reagan was taking money away from the cities to fund missiles for the escalating arms race.
To a politician, however, the voice of a good heart and the voice of political principle are only two voices in their internal chorus at decision time. A couple of years into his administration, Goode’s budget proposed cuts in a range of equity areas. Only “people power” could alter the sound of the chorus in his head.
The police began their chore of arresting hundreds of people as traffic continued to back up in a monstrous traffic jam. Barbara, Paul and I found ourselves in the same paddy wagon despite the confusion of bodies. Barbara’s eyes sparkled; she was definitely the warrior I believed her to be. She started chants several times for the gang inside the police van. I felt honored to be with her in her baptism by fire.
Paul was bouncing on the floor of the van with the rest of us but his dignity didn’t suffer. That’s why so many of us loved him. He even chuckled when his old bones creaked, as he pulled himself out of the police van and straightened up.
After paperwork and fingerprinting, we were released on our own promise that we’d return for the court date, a date I was looking forward to as another chance to press our case. As it turned out, charges against those arrested were dropped — and funding was restored to essential city programs.
People power won again. It’s even sweeter when won with trusted comrades.
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