Revisiting Rhode Island: Reflections on Movement Building (The Great Escape)
By John Cronan Jr at Jan 23, 2008
Every trip back home to Rhode Island is met with mixed feelings. Of course, it is always nice to go back to the place of your birth, where I spent 20 years of my life. I get to see my immediate family (mom, step mom, dad, step dad, brother, sister, two step brothers, brother in law, nephew, two nieces, and can't forget the two bulldogs), and on-- occasion I even get to see my extended family, which is too large to list here (especially on the Irish side). It is also comforting to be free from some of my responsibilities--work and organizing being the two major ones. However, the source of much of my delight in Rhode Island, seeing my family, also becomes the source of my "returning to Rhode Island " stress. This can range from my ceremonial argument with my mother (or as I call her, Ma), to trying to comfort my brother after his/our friend almost died from a drug overdose--something that has become an all too common reason for returning home.
The "drama" that I encounter when returning has been something I have come to expect, unfortunately so. The difference for me as an actor in these life dramas, however, is that my stint in the performance is always short lived. I know that in just a matter of time I will be on a train back to Manhattan. The problems and experiences will still be on my mind, and often impact me greatly, but I am able to be out of sight--something that I have come to realize makes a big difference. Though I have plenty of my own issues to deal with in NYC, in a way I am able to escape from the certain networks of influence that many of my family and friends back home cannot. These networks are not always necessarily bad. For example, when my sister's kids get sick and she has to go to work, she usually has someone available to help, whether it be my mom or my brother. However. at the same time, for those that might help her out, though it is voluntary, they have an extra layer of possible burden that they carry every day. This burden not only includes the act of watching the kids but entering into a social arrangement that requires accountability. Accountability to the immediate parties--in this case, my sister and the kids--but, also, accountability to everyone in the social and familial network that my sister and her kids are apart of. Now this makes things a little more cumbersome. If my brother watched the kids and something went wrong, depending on the severity, he might have to answer to dozens of people, all of whom are affected.
Of course, I still maintain a level of responsibility and obligation to my family, but I can escape much of the risk of being held accountable for most of what goes on with my family in Rhode Island. Because I physically cannot even volunteer to fill some of these roles, I void myself from having to be accountable to most of it. On the other hand, I also void myself from having influence over issues that could possibly affect me.--like in the case of something bad happening to my nieces and nephew.
So what does this have to do with organizing and movement building, you ask? Well, I drew several notable lessons from reflecting on these experiences
In the course of our organizing, those of us who are "transplants," especially students and recent grads, living and organizing in a city separate from our familiar social and familial networks need to realize that most people are not like us, in this regard. They do not have the luxury of hopping on a train to escape the stressful trials and tribulations that they were born into. And by luxury, I do not mean merely having the monetary means to do so--though that can be a major factor. I am just talking about the reality of the circumstances. They live within these networks; therefore they need to deal with them. We do not; therefore we do not have to deal with them to the same degree. I know this seems simple, but I feel people often fail to take into account the true ramifications this needs to have for our movements. What this needs to reflect in our movements, I think, is actually a structure and orientation that exhibits the best of the social and familial networks we have escaped. You know, the parts I actually like to go home to.
We need to have reform issues on our agenda, such as free daycare and shorter work days, that alleviate some of the daily pains of people and make it easier to deal with such everyday burdens. At the same time, our movements need to build our own infrastructure that can be supportive of people's needs in the absence of services being provided by the State, existing NGOs, and businesses, as much as is possible within the current system; of course, there are huge limitations but certainly things we can realistically imagine. This can include childcare at movement events and meetings, conflict resolution networks, stipends for travel to those who need it, movement schools, and just more social events where people can actually have a good time without thinking about how everything sucks. If we do not do this, we cannot expect our movements to grow to the proportions we would like to see. They will simply not be conducive to the constituencies and amounts of people we need to do so.
Another lesson I drew has to do with movement accountability. Through my recent trips back home, I realized that though I do save myself from certain levels of accountability from family and social networks by partly escaping them, I never really escape them completely. My actions will always affect them and their's affect me. Granted, in some cases it will be to a lesser extent, but this does not warrant complete exodus from taking them into account; and nor should I want to be void of accountability to the people in these networks, for the same reason. This is the same with movements, for a few reasons. 1)There is a tendency for activists to stay clear from being held accountable in the name of autonomy. However, we need to realize that many of our actions affect others, either in the movement or in our specific organization, and when they do, those we should expect to be held accountable by those affected. However, many times accountability is avoided by shying away from actual structures and mechanisms that will ensure accountability. For example, a member of an organization may speak at a rally espousing a message that is detrimental to the organization, even if not done intentionally. In the name of autonomy, the said organization has no official spokespeople, or no way to collectively decide who should speak and what the message should be, because they don't have the structure to do so. What we see here is that there is a lack of responsibility and accountability for one's actions to the larger group--even though they are affected.
2) Many times, in instances of national or regional direct actions where out -of -towners will be plentiful, there is a tendency for those out -of- towners to not take into account the long term ramifications of their actions. What usually ends up happening is that the local communities are left to clean up the mess, while those who made it return home scotch free. This brings to mind times when I might have an argument with my mom, and then the rest of my family has to deal with the aftermath--even though, I feel, it is not my fault for starting the argument. Again, the same holds true for activists and organizers, and the example I gave is just one of many.
The last thing I realized from this idea of being able to "escape" is a little more straight forward. Families shouldn't be a place where people should want to get away from. However, with the current familial roles and institutions, and the larger societal setting they exist, it is no surprise this is the case. If we want to build a new world, a participatory and liberatory world, and we are serious about it, we need to present a vision of what good familial institutions will look like. We should preserve the best of what exists and, without regrets, toss out the rest. We will not know if we are making progress, if we don't know where we want to be.