Suzanne Pharr’s book Transformation: Towards a People’s Democracy collects articles and speeches from her four decades of work fighting what she calls “the three pillars of racism, sexism and economic injustice.” To celebrate publication of the book, Catalyst Project convened a conversation between Pharr and Linda Evans, another queer white anti-racist activist.
As an organizer and strategist, Pharr has brought her Southern roots and feminist grounding into numerous efforts to connect people in broad-based justice movements. She was the founder of the Women’s Project in Arkansas, a feminist, multiracial, multi-issue organization. Pharr co-founded Southerners on New Ground in 1993, and served as the director of the Highlander Center from 1999 – 2004. Beginning in the mid-’80s, she focused on identifying and organizing against the Right, both in the South and in Oregon. Today she’s active in the Southern Movement Assembly and National Council of Elders.
Linda Evans spent 16-plus years as an anti-imperialist political prisoner. When she was released in 2001, she began organizing formerly incarcerated people and co-founded All of Us or None. Now she is active in the Immigrant Defense Taskforce, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and the Drop LWOP Coalition, which aims to end “life without the possibility of parole” (LWOP) prison sentences.
Catalyst Project works to build and support multiracial movements for collective liberation that are led by and center poor and working class Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color. Its role within that is to work with white activists, organizers, organizations and movement sectors to build their ability to center racial justice in their social justice work.
Pharr, Evans and a couple members of Catalyst Project met three times to prepare for the public conversation, which took place in November 2021, and they have continued to talk since then. The following reflects a part of their dialogue, edited slightly for easier reading. Catalyst’s Elisabeth Long moderated the November event.
Elisabeth Long: Suzanne, can you talk a bit about the history you recall in the book—how we got where we are today?
Suzanne Pharr: I’m going to talk about Ronald Reagan’s years, because I write so much about them.
Ronald Reagan talked about his shining city on a hill that he wanted to create, and this was a celebration of individual freedom, material prosperity, and American exceptionalism. Let me be clear that his vision was not one of fairness and justice. It was a vision of power for dismantling the gains that we had made, the gains in the civil rights movements and the movements that followed that. And he used it to fuel people, and to encourage them towards the idea of dismantling the social contract, destroying unions and pushing back civil rights.
Instead of producing an equitable and just society, he put a dollar sign on it, and it grew consumer capitalism, competition, and individualism. He rode the wave of resentment against the civil rights movement and built on that resentment in order to move people to follow his idea, which was that of the strong man.
Right out of the gate, he embraced the people who put him in office, three groups in particular: the Moral Majority, which was made up mostly of evangelicals who were seeking Christian authoritarianism, the free market capitalists who sought unchecked wealth, and those who opposed the civil rights movement, who sought the permanence of white power.
Through shared early strategies, the male authoritarian Right was joined with Christian authoritarians in the creation of culture wars that had women at the center: abortion, sex education, construction of family, gender diversity, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Women who sought control of their bodies and lives were characterized as destroying the mores of the country.
Linda Evans: I really urge people to get Suzanne’s book and read it because it shows so clearly the continuum of some of these elements in our society that we have to fight against. To be able to trace the origins and actual development of that pattern–and how white supremacy and white male authoritarianism re-emerge at different times in different forms –is so crucial because then we can learn from the actions and activities of people that opposed white supremacy in the past.
Part of the philosophy that Reagan was perpetrating was about self-sufficiency and how people should not depend on each other, or our society, or a safety net of any kind. He built on people’s resentment against the civil rights movement and the progress that was made by Black people during that time, and I think we see not a mirror image but a reflection in Trump and how he utilized the backlash against Obama to really motivate a white supremacist space and make it ever more radical. So it’s key for us to be able to follow the pattern and learn those lessons, because even though we have made progress, they have also created new tactics and confront us with new challenges.
The right evolves: from clinic blockades to vote-count disruption
I was very interested in the part of your book where you described the New Right, because some of those tactics, like the development of blockades at abortion clinics, have been massified, and I see that that model of right-wing grassroots organizing is being used again, even in the work that Trump did against the election results. All major players within the field of the Right have coalesced from this election. And now there is a broad, powerful and active base of people who are anti-vaxxers, anti-abortion, anti-sex education, anti-trans and queer, and anti-Black history and culture. And they are organized to vote. Meanwhile, violence rages against women, trans and queer people, and people of color.
And this violence will be perpetrated into generations to come via the takeover of state legislatures by the right wing: bans against transgender young people in sports, bans against the teaching of true history (labeled as critical race theory), bans against books, and the Texas law that empowers and rewards right-wing individual vigilantes to attack women seeking abortions, as well as those who support them. These bans are the result of the very successful right-wing strategy to take over state legislatures.
Pharr: One of the things that the Right did so well was to create institutions to support its strategy—create the strategy, then support the strategy so it’s layered. And critical to that was mobilizing people on the ground. You hate to praise something that has been so destructive, but just in terms of organizing work, that was critically important.
Evans: You were talking about the consolidation of the Right, and I think it’s very important for us to recognize that that consolidation continues. And even though there are many, many organizations within it, Charlottesville was a really clear example of their efforts to unite the Right, and unite it in violence and terror. Their consolidation is a really critical part of what they’re doing right now. It’s a way for them to build power—and obviously I think we need to consolidate our power too. This means finding campaigns where our Left organizations can unite to create concrete changes in peoples’ lives, while continuing our processes of internal analysis, political education, and growth. This can only happen if we recognize the interconnectedness of the issues that confront us, and work to enact multi-layered solutions.
Pharr: One of the things the theocratic Right has that we don’t have in full form is places for people to gather where you can go and organize them. These are the churches. Once a week, you can hold your people in front of you and deliver information, deliver specifically how to vote, specifically how to go into school boards, how to change those. . . whereas we tend to have offices, and good media skills, but we don’t have those physical places where we can easily get to our people on a regular basis.
Long: Institutions are embedded in our movement culture. Can you talk a bit about what it means to be a collective, supportive culture?
Evans: In our movement we face a lot of structural questions about how to really build power and build the ability to care collectively for each other and create a different or a new culture, a new culture of caring.
In our community here in Santa Rosa I think that we’re developing that approach.
After the fires in 2017, undocumented people had nothing. Many of them were burned out completely. They lost everything, and they were of course not eligible for any kind of aid from any government entity. So, organizations here including North Bay Organizing Project, Jobs With Justice and the Rapid Response Network (which of course was active during the Trump years trying to support people from being arrested by ICE) came together and developed something called UndocuFund. That was a way for us to funnel large amounts of money—we raised over $5 million—to undocumented people for immediate care, immediate recovery. You know, buying shoes, buying clothes, buying food to replace what they lost.
Another example of a way that we are trying to build collective care is in the work of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), where people on the outside actively support women and trans people in California prisons in all kinds of ways. During COVID we were actually providing some commissary money so that people could communicate both with CCWP and with their families, because visits were canceled. The J-Pay tablets cost money to use and repair, but are prisoners’ best communication method.
Building capacity for collective decision-making
Even more important is the support and connection to community that CCWP is able to provide to the people that are in California women’s prisons, because we are fighting with them, and taking their words and their direction seriously. We look to them for an understanding and for leadership in terms of what is actually going on in the prisons.
Breaking down those kinds of barriers between people, in the same way that we’re trying to break down the barriers between immigrant communities and white people in our town, is really an important part of developing a collective way of making decisions and allocating resources.
Pharr: Yes, I was sitting with the board members of SONG on the weekend that Katrina hit, and we were struck by how we didn’t have trained organizers to go to New Orleans to help our people and made a commitment at that time that we were going to do that. We were going to get our people trained up in the South, so that we could work side by side with people to figure out how to survive this disaster that happened. The Southern Movement Assembly in large part grew out of that crisis. It brings organizations from around the South to share a landscape analysis, strategies, training, and support, both organizational and individual. SONG is also one of its members.
We also recognize that it doesn’t just happen, it’s not just organizers coming; it’s going to be the connections on the inside of the town or the city. Many of us are thinking about what is the way that you can do mutual aid, for example, that is more than service and providing things for people. How do you create the connections among people, and the relationships among people, and work with inequities within whatever situation you’re in to change them?
Long: How does this collective care feed our strategy for organizing?
Pharr: I think there are conversations in lots of places about this. Maybe in this time of terrific division one of the places you could do training and building of community around preparation for crisis as part of something that is going to affect everyone. Everyone’s probably going to be in some sort of crisis, whether it be fires or floods or tornadoes. Crises are going to come and we know that. Maybe we can begin organizing not based on what your opinion is on this or that, but on how we as human beings survive. How do we make those connections, how do we build on them?
Many people feel a tremendous loss of community, and since COVID even more so. Such a sense of loss of connection. So the question is how to make the connection to each other and how to work with people coming together with different kinds of capacity, different kinds of privilege, and different kinds of resources.
I’m longing myself for that place where you can bring people together across these divisions, many of which are artificial divisions—and do it on something that’s practical, that’s place-based and people-based. I really feel like Grace Lee Boggs was right when she said that the primary job of the 21st century is to learn how we are human, to figure out where we are as humans in what many of us think is a pretty disastrous time–finding where that humanity lives–and how we organize with that knowledge to make change.
Evans: In disasters people know they have to come together to survive, they understand others’ experience better. There’s an opportunity for us to build empathy and some recognition of the inequities and therefore that they must be eradicated.
For example, after the fires in Sonoma County, there has been a much wider recognition of the need for language justice, so that people not only have access to safety—people who speak Spanish, and other Indigenous languages—but actually have access to a voice in government, some political power. Here we have about 10,000 farmworkers, the majority of whom speak indigenous languages. So, the question of language justice and inclusion in community is a big challenge—and building community is critically important for a totality of survival.
Language justice is also critical in reducing the incredible disparities between immigrant and undocumented people – mostly people of color – and other residents and citizens. A very disheartening example is that Latinx people in our County have been infected by COVID at 9 times the rate of white people because of disparities in healthcare, employment, and housing.
Pharr: These are a lot of the seeds, the things that are needed: cooperation, community, connection. I believe that we’ve got to figure out our future from the ground up. I don’t think we’re going to have a big swooping strategy that’s going to take care of everything. It’s going to be multiple strategies in many different places and lots of approaches. . .
We tend to think that everything has to be extremely big, massive, if it’s to save us. I think it also has to be very small, granular. You can’t build a house without developing the idea for the foundation, and that is not always fun work, but I think it’s work that is very much upon us. Our hard work is not with just those who try to do us in. The hard work is to build a concept of what a free society would look like, what a people’s democracy would be.
Long: Can you talk just a bit about what can give us staying power in the movement?
Evans: One thing that has really developed in the community of formerly incarcerated people is a recognition of the need for healing. Because there’s so much violence directed against people of color in prison and on the street, there’s a real need for processing and healing, and it isn’t met anywhere but by our community organizations. And that’s another place, in these healing circles, that a lot of organizing and dissemination of truth and political education is going on. Building community is critically important for the rejuvenation of all of our people, but also because these circles are places where organizing takes place, and momentum takes place towards solving the problems that we’re suffering from.
Pharr: I would say it’s living the work. . . And I feel that I was given my very best friends and deepest friends from the movement, so it’s very hard for me to think about “there’s the movement, and then there’s my life,” because it’s the source of so much balance, so much joy, so much fulfillment of what I desire in life.
So I would say lean heavily, really heavily into your relationships and bring to them what I would call the integrity of joining your political beliefs with your beliefs in humanity and integrate those into a whole.