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Risky Business, with Deborah Barron (New Left Accelerator) and Alex Tom (Center for Empowered Politics)

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Block & Build
Block & Build
Risky Business, with Deborah Barron (New Left Accelerator) and Alex Tom (Center for Empowered Politics)

This week, Cayden is joined by Executive Director of New Left Accelerator, Deborah Barron and Executive Director of the Center for Empowered Politics, Alex Tom to discuss risk. Any time we perform acts of civil disobedience, we subject ourselves to varying degrees of risk. As we’ve seen in the news lately in campus protests many risk personal arrest. Others, meanwhile, risk loss of funding, jobs, and more. The panel explores how to strategically make assessments of what risks we should take in the face of increasing tendencies of fascist power plays by the MAGA Right. They also take a look at how risk is currently and historically considered in left and progressive movements.

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[00:00:00] Cayden Mak: Welcome to Block and Build, a podcast from Convergence magazine. I’m your host and the publisher of Convergence, Caden Mock. On this show, we’re building a roadmap for people and organizations trying to unite anti fascist forces in order to build the influence of a progressive trend while blocking the rise of authoritarianism in the United States.

[00:00:17] Some headlines from this week. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose doubled down on his insistence that he was going to keep President Joe Biden off the general election ballot based on a minor procedural technicality that parties submit their candidate nominees to the Secretary of State 90 days ahead of the election date.

[00:00:33] As it stands, LaRose is saying that Biden will stay off the ballot unless the entire mid August DNC conven nomination processes is rescheduled. And last night the governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, called for a special session to be held next week to attempt to resolve this issue, assuring the president that he will be on the November ballot.

[00:00:53] We’ve also seen multiple examples this week of conservatives around the country trying to weaponize legislation against masking as a way to punish and prosecute students protesting the genocide in Gaza. Earlier this month, for example, two lone protesters at Cincinnati, Ohio’s Xavier University were arrested the morning of the school’s commencement.

[00:01:12] They were each charged with a felony specifically because they were wearing medical face masks. That charge was based on an 1800’s era law, originally intended to target the Ku Klux Klan. The charge was thankfully dropped days later by a grand jury. Meanwhile, the North Carolina State Senate passed a bill seeking more severe punishment for crimes committed while masked, Attempting to prevent, it.

[00:01:34] Even prevent exemption for masks worn for health reasons. The bill has been rejected in its current form by the House and will be sent back to a team of lawmakers for revisions. And finally, I would be remiss not to mention the fact that the Supreme Court ruled in a 6 3 decision to uphold a South Carolina electoral map that was redrawn after the 2020 census, which had been thrown out by a lower court for racial bias.

[00:01:57] The court ruled along the same lines. strictly ideological lines, with the conservative majority agreeing with the South Carolina GOP’s argument that they were just making a marginal district into a safe district for their candidates and the dissent arguing that this makes it harder for challengers and that the evidence of racial sorting was, and this is a direct quote, extensive.

[00:02:15] Joining me today to discuss some of the legal risks associated with our work these days and some of these headlines are the Executive Director of the New Left Accelerator, Deborah Barron, and Executive Director of the Center for Empowered Politics, Alex Tom. Both these folks are folks that I’ve known in a lot of different capacities over the past while, so it’s really great to have you both on the show.

[00:02:37] How’s it going, Debra? 

[00:02:39] Deborah Barron: Very good. Excited to be here. I’ve been a listener of the podcast, so it’s fun to be able to join you for a discussion. 

[00:02:46] Cayden Mak: Excellent. And it’s really good to see you, Alex. Oh, I see a furry friend in the background. Yes. 

[00:02:50] Alex Tom: I’ve had to put on these headphones.

[00:02:56] Cayden Mak: Awesome. It’s last night when Debra and I were prepping, we were talking about how not a lot of people get excited to talk about things like risk management and infrastructure, but I am also the kind of person who is excited to talk about risk management and infrastructure. Because I’ve seen firsthand in a lot of ways, like the big difference it makes.

[00:03:16] And I also think the audience for this show is probably the right audience for a thrilling conversation about risk management. This is also a really important conversation to me because I see the way that like, this is a lens or a frame to talk about the material conditions that we’re up against.

[00:03:34] In a year like this as we try to understand what block and build really means in practice. And things like things like the law are obviously a face of power that we have to grapple with. And one of the things that stuck out to me about the headlines that I just read is that a lot of them are about the fact that people who hold power will and do.

[00:03:57] wield the law as they see fit, as opposed to the way that it’s written. You know, I think that there’s a lot of that going on, both in the way that like very old laws are being deployed to restrict people’s right to assemble, for instance. What do you all think that tells us as activists and organizers about Kind of how we can understand this tension between the letter of the law as it’s written versus how power is enacted.

[00:04:26] In our society. Broadly. 

[00:04:29] Deborah Barron: It’s a big question there, Katie. 

[00:04:32] Cayden Mak: I didn’t come to 

[00:04:32] Deborah Barron: ask small questions. Apparently not.

[00:04:38] I could start a little bit. Maybe Alex, you can fill in. I think the highest level for me is that I think sometimes in our movement, we’re a little squeamish or uncomfortable with talking about power overtly or directly. It almost feels like Something dirty that maybe others have that we might not want that we have a different way of doing things.

[00:04:57] And I think it’s really important for us to get more comfortable with the concept of that we as a movement need and want to have. The power to implement and, you know, the agendas that we have, but also to transform the society that we live in to be a more just, equitable place. And that requires power.

[00:05:16] And I think we see it is both in how, when you have power, you are the folks who are enforcing the laws. And that’s not just the police. It’s also like the regulatory and administrative state. It is judges. And, in order for us to, you know, both have implementation of the laws that are passed but also how they’re interpreted.

[00:05:37] We do need to have power and authority in the halls of government and the places where decisions are made. And so I think just understanding and being more explicit and articulate about our relationship with power and how our work is connected to how are we building power and influence We have to first name that we actually want to build power and influence for our movements and then start thinking about what forms of power and influence.

[00:06:01] And I don’t know that we always have that conversation as explicitly as we need to in our movement.

[00:06:10] Cayden Mak: Yeah. Alex, do you have any thoughts about this? Also? 

[00:06:12] Alex Tom: I’m sure you do. I have many thoughts. Thank you for the question. I was going to share this a little later, but. You know, the organization that I had done most of my organizing, the Chinese Progressive Association, comes from a long lineage of movement activists, leftists, and they always told us that towards our very long arc, The collective liberation that we want.

[00:06:39] We just have to learn how to use all of the tools at our disposal and be ready. And I think that’s really important because in a lot of ways. Because we’re in this certain time, place and conditions, we do need to use the laws, we need to use the tax structures, and also prepare for other ways of building our power.

[00:07:01] But it’s towards this long arc of our movement, and also assessing the conditions. So that’s what I would add. Awesome. 

[00:07:10] Cayden Mak: Yeah, thank you for that. I think the thing that, uh, I’ve been thinking a lot about a lot regarding our sort of time, place and conditions and the sort of like threats that are posed to us.

[00:07:21] We’ve been talking over the past couple of weeks about the sort of proposed anti terrorism bill that would allow the IRS to strip legal status from organizations that are like. Express a pro Palestine opinion. And it’s funny. It came up a couple of weeks ago because we were talking about at our movement media roundtable about how it just, it smells like 2003 all over again, right?

[00:07:45] Like it’s a very like post 9 11 feeling thing. But I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about putting, again, putting this in context in terms of some of the sort of Risk assessment and the sort of like material conditions that we’re staring down now and what it bodes for us right in the coming months, perhaps coming years.

[00:08:04] For folks who may not have heard that previous conversation. This bill basically allows oh, nice. We have it. Pulled up here. So this bill suspends the tax exempt status of organizations that quote unquote are support terror organizations. And basically, similarly to like after 9 11, like we saw like similar rules like this in the Patriot Act being weaponized against people who are raising money for their family in we’re, like, trying to escape or escape violent situations in the Middle East and stuff like this, and that was applied overly broadly and politically to People in organizations deemed quote unquote terrorists.

[00:08:45] But yeah, I don’t know, Deborah, if you want to, if you want to start out talking about this a little bit in the way that you’re thinking about risk. 

[00:08:52] Deborah Barron: Sure. I think you know, risk is one of those words that I think you know, like power. We also sometimes have an uncomfortable relationship with it.

[00:09:01] But I think that With rising authoritarianism, potentially comes laws that show civic engagement and free speech and our rights to protest and assemble and protest our government. And that is targeted at the very type of social justice movements that most of the folks working, you know, listening to this podcast.

[00:09:21] Podcast are probably participating in. And so I think one of the, one of the risks of rising authoritarianism, and I think there’s been some really interesting articles looking at rising authoritarian regimes around the world and how they operationalize laws and the administrative state, right, the implementation of laws to actually really chill social justice movements and protest.

[00:09:45] And I think that this is. is a perfect example of that, right? And so to link it to our conversation about power the folks who pass the laws are often going to pass laws that seek to chill folks that are protesting them. And I think that the, because social justice movements tend to operate out of nonprofit legal structures and were regulated differently.

[00:10:07] And, you know, a lot of when corporations are organizing for their own interests, they’re using for profit structures are using corporate structures that have very limited and little regulation around them. But when we are organizing, we are often organizing, and this has more to do with funding than anything else.

[00:10:22] It’s not like we picked 501c3 or 501c4 tax statuses. Because they’re so great for accomplishing our mission. They’re chock full of regulations and limitations and they have problematic histories, right? They were really designed to get. Let’s be real white men tax breaks. And a lot of the limitations on political activity, you know, there’s a history of, you know, attempting to stop black churches from organizing.

[00:10:48] And so there’s a lot of problematic you know, problematic history in the structures that we use. Types of regulations and you see their targeted at the tax exempt status, right? So the government is wielding a threat over us that is essentially killing our speech and our ability to protest on critical social justice issues like Palestine.

[00:11:08] As a means of, by tying us to terrorism, right? And they can do that and regulate that because of the tax exempt status. So I think a couple things are at play here, you know, one is. the conversation about power. We need power because laws like this are coming our way under authoritarian state. And then two, we also should really be aware and have increasing awareness of the limitations and vulnerabilities of the tax status structure that we operate out of, particularly under, you know, rising authoritarianism.

[00:11:41] Alex Tom: Yeah, just build off that. I feel like the last period, and I know we’re going to get into this more more and more people in the social movement left are taking seriously building power and the need for state power, governing power. And I think partially it’s because the movement to fight for Palestine solidarity and the ceasefire work has been able to show us That you need a diversity of tactics, and you also still need to have power to pass ceasefire resolutions and, you know, defend the squad and all of that.

[00:12:17] And why I bring that up is because, for me, moving forward, even with all of these things that are happening, I’m just reminded about what happened during 9 11. And, There’s ways for us to be very vigilant and very prepared. And also we have to be able to be ready for different options of how we do our work.

[00:12:40] And so I look at history about how organizations and movements have Done above and underground work. And I think that’s what would, that should be the way we should like, think about how do we assess the climate and the risks and and yeah I feel like there’s a lot of people doing scenario planning right now and.

[00:13:02] We also, at the same time, need to not just prepare for the worst case scenario, but prevent the worst case scenario. So, it’s a little bit of both, and yeah, looking forward to talking more about it. 

[00:13:17] Cayden Mak: Cool, cool. Yeah, I think that you know, related to some of, I feel like there’s just a lot of things happening right now that sort of telegraph what some of those scenarios might be a little bit.

[00:13:27] And one of the things that. It keeps coming up. And for me as well is like all of these stories from the sort of the beginning of the month where I think it’s Politico was like framing the tides and Arabella advisors work as like the sort of like shady network or something like that. Where you know, this sort of practice of fiscal sponsorship has been.

[00:13:51] In place for quite a long time. But so political publishes the story at the beginning of the month. It’s like these outspoken groups who are against Biden and Israel are also attached to some of the biggest names and democratic funding. And just the sort of really I guess like almost like willful ignorance about the sort of like infrastructure that does exist as a, it almost feels like poisoning the well a little bit.

[00:14:14] Right. That’s they’re trying to frame this as I don’t know, like some sort of like weird like shadowy cabal when in reality, that’s this is a, like a kind of normal practice in nonprofit land that there’s something like. For those of us who have worked on the administrative side none of this is surprising, right?

[00:14:34] I’m curious if either of you have thoughts about what this telegraphs for the future and what the sort of What this says for us about emergent risk,

[00:14:48] Deborah Barron: Alex. Yeah, sure. Why not? Yeah, these are all 

[00:14:51] Alex Tom: really softball questions here.

[00:14:57] Yeah, you know, I, you know, I tend to go back to just telling stories because. To me, that’s what gives me. The light at the end of the tunnel and how we get through this long arc. And I think we just have to be ready for whatever the right wing is going to throw at us. And the main thing is that for all of our organizations, we need to have a pretty tight squad.

[00:15:27] That is not going to allow these right wing narratives to basically divide us, pit us against each other, to cannibalize each other, and also increase kind of external threats at the same time. But part of that is not just having quote unquote, operations infrastructure. It’s about having leadership.

[00:15:48] It’s about having the relationships before these moments happen and it’s about having the infrastructure to do the kinds of things that we’re, that we want to do. And I just remember this story with one of the SNCC elders. And I was sitting down with her and she just kept telling me about how political movement operations is.

[00:16:16] And she was literally one of the organizers of the Freedom Rides with Thousands of black and white young people. And she talked about just like how they were raising like hundreds of thousands of dollars, I think it was up to 800, 000 or even a million. And she’s like, how do you think we manage the logistics, getting the buses, you know, people stayed in churches money that had to move through churches.

[00:16:43] Some of it was like not It was like through just cash and the political security, all the chaperones. And so she just kept emphasizing how we, we need to make sure operations is very linked to our politics and it requires some of the most sophisticated people in our movement to be able to do that.

[00:17:05] But all of that is usually invisiblized in our organizations and our movement it’s under valued. It’s usually. very gendered, mostly women and queer folks doing it. And she was very clear about that. She said, yeah, people will never hear about the story of SNCC’s operations. We’ll hear about Stokely Carmichael and all of the external, mostly male activities and the flashpoints, but really not talking about the kind of important work, the connective tissue of how they, they weathered the storms when there was divisions.

[00:17:37] That either that was internal or external from the right wing.

[00:17:44] Cayden Mak: Yeah, that’s great. I actually feel like when I first learned about that history, it’s Like of things like the freedom rides, like you don’t think about the like massive logistical complexity of an operation like that. And like the more I started organizing and taking on logistics, even for like relatively small operations, I was, I remember thinking to myself after doing this capital occupation in Albany, New York, when I was in graduate school, being like, how did people do this before the internet?

[00:18:17] Also, right, it’s pretty wild to think about. And that’s just like a massive amount of like money and like complex details. 

[00:18:26] Deborah Barron: And it’s only before the internet, it’s before cell phones, right? It was like, there’s only landlines, which is my kids can’t believe that there was a period of time when I, you know, there was not cell phones, you know?

[00:18:37] And then you think about organizing without either the internet or the cell phones and it’s, It gives you, you know, 

[00:18:44] Cayden Mak: some deep appreciation. Yeah, absolutely. 

[00:18:50] Deborah Barron: I think it also speaks, I think that, you know, a lot of us are organizers, right? We, some people get into movements because they’re, what they want to do is logistics, but a lot of people come in for, you know, You know, they’re passionate about the issue.

[00:19:01] And I think we have a tendency to drive people into organizing. And also a lot of executive directors come from an organizing background. I myself do, I think Alex does as well. And sometimes it can be hard to really actually prioritize the value and put, you know, monetary value on your own operations.

[00:19:21] Lots of times for us. We get executive directors who make a deep commitment to their operational infrastructure, actually, after something has happened, you know, you get a fine, you get a lawsuit you know, something, you know, there’s an accident, there was an insurance you know, and I think one of the things that we’re talking a lot about, and I think there’s an increasing recognition in our movement is that we really have to start investing in operational infrastructure, and it’s both you know, protective because, as You know, if you think about the administrative state we were talking about particularly folks that are doing social justice organizing in a lot of red states, it is not uncommon for them to be investigated for their social justice work.

[00:20:01] We see it in Georgia. And it is particularly, you know, historically unrepresented. Folks. So it is organizations that are led by and organizing people of color and queer folks and women who are targeted as soon as they start to have power. And so it is a protective move. You get a lawsuit, you get a fine.

[00:20:19] It can be incredibly distracting it can really chill your work and demoralizing for staff and it’s not even necessarily that you did something wrong, right? It’s that. The administrative states being weaponized against you. People can file a lawsuit. It doesn’t mean they’re going to win, right?

[00:20:34] But you still have to answer the discovery and all of this. And so we do need to actually like really think intentionally about a movement, about how we actually build strong, healthy, secure movements. And that includes personal security. But it also includes really thinking about the organizational infrastructure that help us do, we like to say, bold work safely.

[00:20:56] And. And it doesn’t mean that we’re encouraging people to, that they must comply with the law in all circumstances. That’s not really what we’re talking about, but we do want people to be able to assess risks and make informed decisions that are the best in the best interest of their movements and their organizations.

[00:21:13] Cayden Mak: Yeah, that’s great. I definitely want to dive more into this question of risk assessment. Cause I feel like it can sound really technical and really I don’t know. Like complicated. I’m curious about the way that you like where organizers can go for trusted advice about risk assessment.

[00:21:32] You know, another thing we’ve been talking about internally is there’ve been an awful lot of, especially with a sort of explosion of like new folks getting involved in movements, just an explosion of just terrible advice about internet security right. And that in some ways, like one of the risks.

[00:21:46] is people being given like bad advice about how to understand their risks. But how, where do folks go and like, how do you help people think through this stuff?

[00:21:59] Deborah Barron: So it’s a great question. And I think, you know, maybe like Alex, this feels like a slightly a field story, but I will say that one of the things that I think we just don’t talk about risk very clearly, we actually don’t prioritize it or have a lot of conversations in our organizations about it.

[00:22:14] It just isn’t. Part of I think healthy organizational or organizational development culture in movements right now, and it’s starting to be, which I think is I think really promising but I think, you know, I was, you know, you know, part of reproductive justice kind of movement work.

[00:22:31] And one of the things that I found really interesting is that in a lot of the communities they encourage people to introduce themselves and tell their abortion story. And it really changed the way, you know. I think people experience that event in their life and felt permission to talk about it.

[00:22:48] And it’s really powerful, you know, as Alex was saying, the power of storytelling. And I think sometimes when we have compliance violations and things like that, like we, we don’t tend to tell those stories and we keep them hidden. We’re worried our funders are going to find out, or it feels like we made a mistake.

[00:23:03] And I think one of the things that I really hope about opening up the and encouraging people to have conversations about risk is that we change the narrative about risk. I think I was joking. Alex and I were joking about this before, but if you are a bold social justice organization, and you’re fighting for like social, gender, racial and economic justice, right?

[00:23:23] And somebody is not paying attention to sue you or try to have a violation, maybe you’re doing something wrong. Like maybe, you know, it’s all the best and most innovative folks have a violation of some kind in your past because you’re experimenting, you’re learning and As soon as you have power, you know, it’s almost a sign of congratulations.

[00:23:38] You’ve made it right. Somebody is paying attention enough. You have enough power that you’ve attracted the attention of the state or folks that want to sue you. And I think we need to just you know, switch our understanding around risk. Risk is inherent in social justice work in America today.

[00:23:52] And it always has been for those who are fighting against, you know, for their own liberation against, you know, oppressive governments or impressive social structures. And we don’t always surfaces and talk about it. And if we don’t talk about it we can’t begin to start to see how we solve it.

[00:24:09] And so that’s a little different about than where you get accurate information. But I think one of the things that we’re really hoping is folks really actually do risk assessments for their people, for their organizations, and that they understand that risks are not just the risk of doing things, the risk of a compliance violation or the risk of a lawsuit.

[00:24:28] But there’s also the risk of not doing things, right? There’s the risk of being chilled, so chilled by risk that we decide, Oh, the Supreme Court has told us that we can’t do race based organizing, right? So we’re so scared we’re going to stop doing that, right? And I think we really need to think about Sometimes risk.

[00:24:47] A healthy conversation with risk is about the trade offs, right? It’s not that you’re protected from all risk. It’s that you are actually making informed decisions. And sometimes you’re going to take on risk and then you’re going to do everything possible to mitigate the downsides of risk.

[00:25:03] But it does not mean, because you’re talking about risk, the outcome is let’s find the safest table to hide under and the, you know, fall to the corner of the least exposure of risk that is not our work built into our work is that we, the work we do has risk inherent in it, because we are often protesting the powers that be.

[00:25:24] And I think by talking about it and preparing for it, we can have much more informed conversations as a movement, not just as an organization, but how can funders and how can other people come in to start helping with risk mitigation strategies? How do they help and create legal funds? How do they make sure that organizations have access to legal and compliance folks?

[00:25:42] And this might switch into kind of where folks get good advice, right? I would say Alex and some of the organizations affiliated with for his work are one place for good advice. And so, you know, Alex, maybe you can talk a little bit about like operational infrastructure. And then we also do that type of work at NLA.

[00:25:59] We help people think about. Operational organizational infrastructure and risk management. 

[00:26:06] Alex Tom: Yeah, I was gonna say people should go to Debra. I just keep punting it around. Yeah, just we all know this, but first and foremost, it’s our politics and strategy that is that is like the first layer.

[00:26:22] And then. The risk assessment is after that, and the reason why that’s important is because, and why, you know, NLA and CEP, we’re working together is really, we want to redefine movement operations, right, because many of our organizations, because we’re doing more complex activities, we’re bringing in people who have never looked at the kind of work that we’re doing, which isn’t as Debra was saying, is inherently risky.

[00:26:53] But if it is towards our politics and our strategies, we know which risks that we are taking on and how to prepare for them. And I just think about is we are we have a granular approach that we are treating this like we’re an organizer, right? So for example, you might bring in some lawyers to say, Oh, we’re trying to do this.

[00:27:15] We’re trying to do this. And they’re like, Oh, that’s just no. that those that’s not compliant. And what we really need people to do is help us figure out how to reach our political objectives and our strategies, right? Those are the kinds of lawyers those are the kind of movement operators that we need because we know This system is inherently capitalist.

[00:27:36] It’s repressive, oppressive, right? And I think that is really what’s really important is like we needed new cadre people to be in movement operations that are movement aligned. And also really understand compliance, but also are really aligned to the kind of overall politics that’s needed.

[00:27:56] And one thing I was going to share one one story. And actually, this is, Debra was talking about how the real goal of what we’re trying to do is to build healthy, resilient, durable, like movement ecosystems, it just reminded me of something that happened in 2020 when the Chinese Progressive Association, where I was working for 15 years, we were in.

[00:28:23] Being attacked as a proxy to get to black futures lab, which was started by Alicia Garza, who also founded black lives matter and. We were attacked by the Heritage Foundation, Breitbart, and the allegation was that the money that was going to BFL, because Black Futures Lab, because we were fiscally sponsoring them, somehow was connected to the Communist Party in China, moving money to us and funding Black Lives Matter, Black Futures Lab, and so I think in the beginning, There was like this just cause it’s a right wing narrative and you know, there’s a lot of xenophobia and there’s already a lot of anti blackness.

[00:29:11] It was like to them, I think they’re pushing on this wedge as much as possible. It did freak everyone out and we’re like, okay but all of our stuff was compliant. Right. And I think. In that situation, we went through all of the checklists. We’re like, okay, we need to make sure all our stuff is compliant legally, this and that.

[00:29:30] And what it came down to was that we needed to tell our story. Right. And that was actually, so it was more around communications and practice that was more important. It’s like most of our organizations like Debra was saying, it’s we are all in compliance actually, but just because the right wing can lift up these narratives to make it seem like you’re doing something that is illegal or shady.

[00:29:55] We tend to cower in, but I learned from that situation, we did talk about how the Chinese Progressive Association, myself, have worked closely with Alicia Garza for many years, known her for many years, and talked about the solidarity, The practice was less about cowering in, but leaning into the story, and being affirmative about, and not letting the right wing take over the narrative.

[00:30:22] Cayden Mak: Yeah that’s great, and it also feels like an important example. When Debra and I were talking yesterday, I was also reminded very much of The Toni Morrison quote about the function of racism, right? It’s just to waste your time, right? And that you end up being diverted from the core of the work.

[00:30:39] And I think what’s interesting about realizing that moment is a storytelling moment, like a public communications moment is that that storytelling also then serves the work as opposed to like feeding into this, like fear narrative and like standing in the boldness and the truth of this is about a genuine relationship.

[00:30:59] This is about shared values. This is about like being part of a movement makes a lot more sense than being like, we just have to refute every like little thing that you all have to say. And that, that feels very powerful. 

[00:31:14] Deborah Barron: I think it’s an important thing to remember is that they want us to be afraid.

[00:31:18] Right. And I think that we were talking about this earlier, but I think with risk, you know, I think that there used to be a line and everybody was trying to stay below the line, which is the line of let’s try to not be sued. Right. And that was like a goal, something that, you know, funders and everybody else talked about, right.

[00:31:35] The goal was to not be 

[00:31:36] Cayden Mak: sued. It’s very corporate America. It’s very corporate America. Right. 

[00:31:39] Deborah Barron: And I think that conversation in and of itself really needs to switch. It is not necessarily that the goal here is to try to avoid, you know, litigation. Because if we are shaping our practices or shaping our norms or shaping our understanding of risk and the work we will do around trying to avoid being sued, then we just hand, you know, our opponents basically a really clear roadmap about how to chill our work.

[00:32:07] Right. How to stop our funding, how to freeze our organizations and how to make us more cautious. And when we are unnecessarily more cautious, we’re chilling our own power out of fear. And so I think it’s really important to recognize That I don’t think that the threshold now should be whether or not you’re sued, right?

[00:32:27] That’s not what we’re trying to avoid. We’re trying to actually be above the line, and we’re trying to change the conversation around risk and say, if you are doing bold social justice work, there’s a good chance in today’s current environment and you know, particularly in certain states that you may face lawsuits or investigations.

[00:32:44] And the answer is not trying to prevent it, it’s being prepared for it when it happens and making sure the movement is rallying around those in our ecosystem who face those challenges and recognizing that they need our support. This is not when we run away when the funders stop funding, it’s actually when we come in and surround.

[00:33:03] And folks need to start thinking about all right, how do I know if I’m sued, that I have done everything I can to remain, to be compliant. So you can tell the story that Alex just told, right, that actually you did dot your I’s and you did cross your T’s. And so you took the mitigating factors and you got sued anyway.

[00:33:20] And a lawsuit does not mean you did something wrong. It means somebody decided to sue you. And so that’s another conversation that I think we need to have as a movement. 

[00:33:29] Cayden Mak: Yeah. No, it’s really interesting because it reminds me of conversations that I’ve had with folks about politically flanking one another, but it’s also legally and logistically flanking one another, so that I don’t know, especially, you know, all of my experiences.

[00:33:45] leading organizations has been leading very small organizations and like really feeling like there are very few weeks that go by where I don’t feel the pressure of oh I’m responsible for the material well being of other adults who are part of my team and then the people that rely on them right that’s a very real pressure but knowing that there’s People who are out there and are thinking about these things understand that sometimes yeah, that it may not be a matter of us, quote, unquote, doing something wrong.

[00:34:16] But rather that regardless. We need flanking and that we need to flank each other. 

[00:34:22] Deborah Barron: Yeah. And how different would it feel if you were an executive director and you knew that you had access to legal counsel and professionalized accounting services and the things that you need to do your work safely and be compliantly from all those typical kind of administrative challenges.

[00:34:38] But then also, you know, when you draw a lawsuit for your bold social justice work, that there’s a fund that you can apply to, and you know, that you can get. Support to go through and navigate and stand up to the lawsuits that are trying to threaten your work. It would feel very different if our movement approached kind of liability and risk in the social justice movement with an affirmative plan to allocate that risk across the movement.

[00:35:04] And we surrounded and stood up and supported those that are facing those challenges. 

[00:35:09] Alex Tom: Yeah. I was just thinking maybe one way for the brief. Reframing of risk is really important for me because I think about it as how can we continue to be protagonists towards our long term vision? It’s like, how can we build bold movements?

[00:35:28] How can we have more resilient, durable infrastructure? How do we keep innovating, iterating, be more self determined in what we’re trying to do? And that’s a little bit of what we did for CPA when I was there, and we basically, because our work became more and more complex, we ended up helping to basically start a bunch of different kinds of projects, right?

[00:35:58] And you know, the Center for Empowered Politics, where I’m at right now, we do a lot of capacity building. And fiscal sponsorship. And we also created an LLC to do a lot of our backend across our backend operations across the C3, the C4, LLCs and PACs. And this just simplified a lot of our back. And so a lot of stuff around operations is true.

[00:36:23] It’s like shared resources, political security, but to the point that Debra was just raising, it’s created a community of people who know that we are going to have each other’s backs. Right. And so, so in some ways it’s, it helped us on the defense, but it also just really helped us to go on the offense.

[00:36:43] Right. So, so in these conversations, especially as we get into 2024, we do need to prepare for what’s to come like the worst case scenarios. The political violence, the contested election. I just saw Trump talk about hunting Chinese spies, you know, it’s there’s a lot of things that are coming up and we also need to do our best to prevent those scenarios.

[00:37:10] And so some of the ways that we are structured really is to go on the offense and to, at the same time doing Palestine solidarity, we can also really defeat Trump. Right. And that’s a really important thing. It’s like, how can we Model a certain kind of protagonism and a movement, which is really going on the offense, one struggle, many fronts.

[00:37:35] And of course, the devil’s in the details on how we do that, right? But I do think right now we’re really in a very difficult situation where you have Biden who is moving more and more to the right. And even within that, I would challenge us to think about the fact that. Biden is like on the right wing of neoliberals.

[00:38:01] And Trump is really on the far right, fascism, right? And it’s going to be important because I think there’s a lot of debate there. And I think my question is, do we have infrastructure that’s going to allow us to move under one struggle, to work together, to not trip over each other, not antagonize each other and honestly not make it easier for the right wing to take us down.

[00:38:29] It’s can we do. Can we do the work we need to do 2024 and beyond without becoming our own security risks, right? And I think that is really important because sometimes the right wing doesn’t need to do anything. They just need to watch us cannibalize each other. They still do things, don’t get me wrong, 

[00:38:46] Cayden Mak: but yeah, no, 

[00:38:47] Alex Tom: we just allow ourselves to trip over each other and we end up losing who is the real target.

[00:38:53] Cayden Mak: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I, yeah. I think that this is also perhaps really it feels relevant to this question about, like, why it’s so important to be creating sort of movement owned infrastructure for our organizations. Because I think that, I don’t know, there’s this balance between, I don’t think we need, necessarily need to all be fully in agreement about how to do any one thing, but Being able to understand why somebody else’s risk assessment is what it is, and also assessment of the political conditions, right?

[00:39:23] That a lot of our assessment of political conditions comes from where we are positioned both individually as human beings, but also as organizations in an ecosystem. And it seems to me that like one of the things you’re pointing to here is like, by understanding that ecosystem better, we can open up imagination space for what’s possible for our movements to do.

[00:39:45] Yeah I think I’m, again, this getting back to like, why I’m so excited about this risk assessment conversation is I think that deep inside of it is this nugget of like, how do we create a larger imagination space for our organizations and for our movements? 

[00:40:01] Deborah Barron: I love that because I really do feel like it is it can feel so boring.

[00:40:04] We’ve joked about, you know, different ways to make the conversations around operational infrastructure, you know, we kind of joke, it’s project make operations sexy, you know, and we talked a little bit about a sexy. Series that was like, I’m too sexy for my legal structure, you know, to call in George Michael

[00:40:20] I think Alex’s point about the use of for-profit structures, right? I think there’s a tendency for us to feel some kind of moral superiority to some degree that we use nonprofit structures without really interrogating why we’re in the structures we’re in, which has more to do with philanthropy and a funding structure that is like very much grounded in capitalism.

[00:40:41] . And non profit structures are, you know, to some degree highly paternalistic, like even the concept of boards, right, of social justice movements, like sometimes they work very well, but there’s, you know, some questions there about, you know, the notion that there needs to be this separate governing body from the people who are on the ground doing the work.

[00:40:59] Deborah Barron: And I think we should really interrogate the legal structures we use and be willing and open to look at other structures particularly for profit structures and not necessarily view them as, you know, inherently bad, but as potential tools and entities that have give, create different opportunities, have different profiles for liability, have fewer regulations and And in many ways are much better suited to the type of work many of us do.

[00:41:27] And maybe the only reason we’re not in them is because of funding. And I don’t want to downplay that like funding is a huge thing for us to think about, but like making part of what this conversation, I feel like the magic behind it is there’s so much innovation and I think there’s an opening right now in.

[00:41:45] Much of social justice work, first of all, let’s give kudos to all the people that operate out of any kind of legal structure at all, right? Much of the kind of most important movement work often happens outside of tax exempt structures or structures at all. That’s right. Much more organic, right?

[00:42:01] But talking about corporate structures and talking about all the innovation in different things that are popping up in our movement, if people really find new ways to respond to rising authoritarianism and what it will take to fight this effectively there’s so much like joy and creativity and reimagination happening.

[00:42:19] And I think we, as Alex said, we have to tell those stories too. You know, I 

[00:42:25] Alex Tom: love that. So what this is making me think about is that like what the elders have really emphasized with me is like we are going to need to use All this tools that we have at our disposal and we have to be aligned on a strategy.

[00:42:42] But what this is, this conversation is coming up for me is we don’t all have to be aligned and we don’t all have to be doing the same thing. It’s like what you were saying, Caden. And we do need a squad, a critical mass of people to continue to experiment. And for example, you know, right now there’s C3 capital.

[00:43:02] That we can leverage right now. And that may not be around, you know, it’s we don’t know what’s going to happen, right. But in the meantime, we’re not going to wait for things to happen. We should leverage the hell out of our current tools. We should just practice, use them and do enough to prepare to govern, to practice building that capacity.

[00:43:24] And And when shit hits the fan or if there’s a different kind of condition, we can go on the offense or on the defense. And I want to share this last story. Cause I know we’re getting closer to time. It’s if we were to talk to folks internationally, you know, it’s like their movements. are very diverse.

[00:43:42] They have an NGO wing. They have like farm workers, you know, they’ve got something with academics. Like it’s very it’s a multi sector approach. And I’ve talked to some folks who have gone through repressive governments and where they’re in, like basically their nonprofits are all shut down. And what do they do?

[00:44:04] The first thing they do is they start. Businesses, they start LLCs and you know, so I, it’s not a, just to say, it’s not just a US context conversations. It’s like there’s some movement physics here around how organizations and how leaders have had to really navigate political conditions. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from looking at other movements.

[00:44:27] Cayden Mak: Yeah, that’s huge. I really appreciate the scope out to be thinking about the fact that you know, we are talking about the specific legal and financial structures that exist in this country, but whatever the structure might be, I think is something that. Especially when we’re talking about the authoritarian surge that we’re living through is like any structure that exists might be part of that and like looking at other, the way that other countries do it is very, it’s always very interesting.

[00:44:53] Well, as we wrap up, I, you know, I feel like we tapped in, we tapped into a little of this excitement here, but I’m curious if each of you has a thing that you might want to recommend to to our audience to check out either something that is. Thanks. Explicitly movement related or not. That’s filling your cup.

[00:45:14] Go ahead, Deborah. . 

[00:45:15] Deborah Barron: All right. I’ll go first. Well, I’ve just, this kind of like leads in, it’s sitting right here, so I’ll actually show it. I’ve been reading if We Burn which is by Vincent Bevins. And it is a book about it’s about mass protests in what he calls the Missing Revolution.

[00:45:29] And it’s about protest movements around the world and how there’s. structured and what are the conditions that actually led to, to actually lasting social change? It’s a little bit depressing. So fill your cup may not be the exact thing, but I think I’ve really been craving pulling up into, as Alex said, just a larger context about like historic, like where have revolutions been successful.

[00:45:51] And under what conditions have, what, how have social movements and protests played a role in that. And so if you’re looking for something that’s a little more in the academic, but has a lot of storytelling in it I think that it’s a very, it’s providing an interesting framework for me to think about things a little bit now.

[00:46:04] But what is filling my cup right now is just science fiction. I need to leave the planet I think sometimes. So, I’ve been reading the Broken Earth trilogy and then yeah. Oh. That’s so good. And I feel like it’s both like inspirational and just unbelievably persistent. Like it just feels very, like very this moment in time to me.

[00:46:27] And but I, it’s also like a page turner. So I would definitely recommend that. 

[00:46:34] Cayden Mak: Awesome. We’ll toss to you, Alex. 

[00:46:37] Alex Tom: I am just going to take it back to My good friend, Bruce Lee, and I just feel like in these moments, what has really helped me a lot is a lot of his writings about fighting on the offense and defense at the same time.

[00:46:54] It’s, you could say block and build, you can say a lot of things, but his daughter just came out with a book called be water, my friend, and And it’s just a powerful just way of thinking about how do we stay centered in our purpose, but also how do we fight and win like hell, you know, so. 

[00:47:11] Cayden Mak: Yeah, amazing.

[00:47:12] I like the idea of Bruce Lee also as being an avatar of Block and Build. Seems good to me. 

[00:47:18] Deborah Barron: Get you an action figure, Kato. There you go, 

[00:47:21] Alex Tom: start it here. It’s perfect. It’s Egypt, you know, so. Yeah, 

[00:47:25] Cayden Mak: yeah. Amazing. Well, Alex, Debra, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a lovely conversation.

[00:47:34] It’s always good to see both of you. This show is produced by Convergence, a magazine for radical insights. I’m Kayden Mock, our producer is Josh Elstro, and this episode is made with editorial assistance from Salma Mirza. If you have something to say, or a question to ask please do drop me a line. You can send me an email that we will consider running on an upcoming Mailbag episode at mailbag at If you’d like to support the work that we do at Convergence, bringing our movements together to strategize, struggle, and win in this crucial historical moment, you can become a member at patreon. com slash convergencemag. A few bucks a month. It goes a long way to making sure our independent small team can continue to build a map for our movements.

[00:48:15] And, you can come watch this show every Friday, live as we record it on on YouTube. Until next week, take care, and I hope this helps.

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