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Measure Leaders by What They Leave Behind

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Artwork depicting people going about their days on city streets

Grace and rigor, solidarity and commitment to training the next generation are all essential for movement leaders.

I became an organizer in the days before cell phones and social media. The union was built and nurtured in the front rooms of apartments and around kitchen tables. Sitting in someone’s home amidst their mementos, listening to their hopes and fears, you built deep connections. In those first years, I had hundreds of these conversations. I knew the families of many of the members at my local union. Relationships were strong; we’d been through fights with the boss and we’d dance in the streets when we won. I supported leaders who became shop stewards, or became elected officers of the local, or joined the staff of the local. But it wasn’t until I was asked to leave the local that I began to understand what leadership in a movement truly entails.

While reading Cathy Dang-Santa Anna’s “Leaders Need To Build Peer Accountability,” my head bobbed and I uttered several mm-hmms. Cathy deftly examines how to build rigor within a team to avoid individualistic tendencies. This is important, especially given the ego-expanding temptations of social media followings and clicks. It is easy to see leadership as a magical bestowment that only a few possess.

While some leadership roles do involve charisma, gravitas, and persuasion, left movement leadership is about accepting responsibility. It is a commitment to movement building that is accountable to people and responsive to historical moments. In my work, I have seen four other vital ways to live out this type of leadership: by being rigorous in our analysis, by developing new leaders, by acting in a spirit of solidarity, and by practicing self-critique.

A culture of rigor

I was asked to leave my local to take on a role at another union in Boston. After years of neglect by the deposed local president, Boston janitors and new local leadership were preparing for a major bargaining campaign that was headed for a strike. The job was a promotion and offered at a time when I prided myself on not wanting titles and power. I just wanted “to do the work.” I mulled it over and was prepared to turn down the job. Why leave? I liked my union; I loved the members. But before I said no, a colleague stopped me. “You’re being asked to help workers and are being told your skills are needed, and you’re still saying no. Why are you even doing this work?” This wasn’t about my ambition or my lack of it. It was about the needs of the movement and what role I was needed to play. This was one of the first leadership lessons I learned.

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Cathy describes the culture of community and rigor that she built in her team. Her essay provoked memories of my own political growth and places where I experienced a culture of rigor. I am a Justice for Janitors alumni. During the almost 13 years I spent organizing property service workers, I learned to be rigorous in examining power. You did not commence a campaign without clarity on who holds decision-making power. You then formulated a compelling theory on what pressure would move them to concede to the demands of the workers. Effective strategy begins by regarding things as they are, not as you wish them to be.

This kind of rigorous examination is needed in our current political circumstances. There is a tendency to exclusively blame politicians and the political system for the economy. There is of course complicity by the political establishment in the numbers of people who are hungry and unhoused in the wealthiest nation on the planet.

But we fail our movement and base when we do not name and talk about the actual corporations and wealthy people who are shaping both the political debate and the material conditions of people’s lives. As Amilcar Cabral, anti-colonial organizer and strategist admonished, we should not “claim easy victories” nor should we create easy enemies. Especially in a precarious political moment, like this one, we must be clear on who we are up against and how they are advancing their agenda.

Growing the next generation

I learned this analysis from veteran organizers who included me in strategy discussions. Participating in those discussions and understanding the rationale of the final strategy and tactics were critical to my development. My current organization, the Partnership for Working Families, places a high value on leadership development. We are committed to supporting those who are already in leadership roles, but we also place high importance on supporting the next generation.

Our movement is in need of greater numbers of individuals who can readily assume responsibility for the work. The leaders I most admire are those who have an incredible roster of people they have mentored. Bourgeois society teaches us that leadership is something that only has value in its scarcity. That is false. Developed left leaders know that their value is measured in what they leave behind. Have they grown new organizers, block captains, campaigners, or union leaders?

Solidarity creates magical moments

Twenty-five years in, I still love mass meetings. I enjoy observing the small social groups in the room, who arrives together and who sits together. Mass meetings are a venue for new relationships and friendships to emerge outside the bounds of a singular worksite or neighborhood. Fine dining restaurant workers learn about abuses in the mid-price casual dining brand of their company. Dominican workers hear about racial harassment faced by the Cape Verdean members.

Through these exchanges, people begin to see how they might act on behalf of others. Through listening and talking, workers from one worksite might decide it is more important to focus the campaign on the lowest paid members, knowing this may mean smaller raises for them. These are magical moments, movement moments. People step up as political actors, protagonists in a fight much bigger than their individual concerns. This is solidarity and it is a principle I learned from the working people I was lucky to work with over the last two decades.

Resist competition

A significant portion of the organizing left is concentrated in 501(c)(3) organizations. These are by definition small business enterprises. And the manner in which we fund our organizations can promote competition and a winner-takes-all mentality. We have to resist this tendency and be self-critical when it manifests. The success of the movement depends on the success of a multitude of nonprofits, collaboratives, and unions. How can we shift our inter-organizational interactions more towards a stance of solidarity? How are we accepting our roles which are bigger than our individual organizations? As Cathy writes, we need to be rigorous, engage in self-criticism, and be mindful of the ways in which capitalist competition influences how we treat those who should be our comrades.

This historical moment demands a great deal of all of us: our communities are facing intersecting and devastating crises, white nationalist organizing is surging, and the wealthy and powerful continue to consolidate power in politics, economy, and culture. Yet the largest uprising for racial justice in US history occurred despite the fears of a pandemic. Multi-racial coalitions emerged to get out the vote and stand up for multi-racial democracy and communities are developing mutual aid to care for their neighbors.

In the midst of great precarity, there is also great hope. How will we use our talents and skills to best meet the challenges of these times? How will we do what the movement most needs us to do? The answers to these questions are iterative – that is to say, the questions must be posed constantly. The answers can only be unearthed in community, within the organizations, or the circles to which we are accountable.

Those of us raised within liberal capitalist nations were shaped by systems that reward competition and individualism. We carry this weight with us even when engaged in struggle against those very systems. We must be willing to reflect on our past actions, accept our shortcomings, learn, and then adapt.

Perhaps that is the final lesson on leadership I have learned: grace, not liberalistic excuses. Growth and learning come from making and acknowledging mistakes and these lessons must be integrated into our actions. This is the work of perpetually dedicating ourselves to freedom and liberation for the communities with whom and for whom we struggle. We all must be leaders.


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