Striving for Solidarity: Lessons in Anti-Racism Organizing

Striving for Solidarity:
Lessons in Anti-Racism Organizing
from the Anti-Racist Working Group of Common Ground
Written by current and former members of the Anti-Racist Working Group, Summer 2007

We are only part way through this battle, so we cannot yet tell how Katrina will be remembered decades from now. But it currently holds fast in media images, memories, and popular imagination as a time of levee failures, a time of flooding. However, post-Katrina New Orleans saw many other floods, equally powerful and disruptive: the Diaspora of thousands of families and communities forcibly scattered to all areas of the country; the onrush of media, developers, military and police, and corporate contractors, all intent on pursuing further profit and increasing oppression; the influx of volunteers, manual laborers, relief organizations, and humanitarian aid workers, guided by the desire to help with the rebuilding of a city.

Most all of us in the Anti-Racist Working Group (hereinafter the ARWG) entered New Orleans as a part of this latter flood, specifically through the vehicle of Common Ground, one of many relief organizations that started up immediately after the levees broke. Katrina was the source of a lot of sudden tragedy, but it’s important to note that structural racism had been slowly devastating Black New Orleans for a long time before. It’s also important to contextualize Common Ground as an organization that came into being at a time when local organizations were fractured and flood-damaged, with community, staff and members scattered.
Since the hurricane struck on August 29, 2005, volunteers in the city have had both positive and negative impacts on the struggle for a just rebuilding in New Orleans. Immediately after the flood was a time of intense crisis— hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced, and federal, state and city governments provided little to no assistance in the rebuilding effort of working class and Black and Vietnamese neighborhoods. Volunteers from across the United States helped gut out thousands of homes, churches, and community centers, which was a vital step in the rebuilding process. Volunteers tarped roofs, rebuilt houses, staffed distribution centers, provided medical care, collected data, and provided all sorts of support work for local organizations struggling on the ground to rebuild their communities. This work has been incredibly important in the struggle for the right of return for all New Orleanians.
However, the influx of out-of-town volunteers, particularly white volunteers, has also created new problems for local organizers. Since we as white people bring with us the racism that society teaches us, the social justice work that we do will reflect that racism within us unless we are constantly learning to recognize and challenge it. Since shortly after the storm, local organizers in New Orleans, including many well-respected local organizers of color, recognized that unless white folks in particular, but also all volunteers from out of town, grappled with our privileges and came to an understanding of how the struggle in New Orleans impacts and relates to the struggles for justice where we come from, the work we do in New Orleans will only ever be an act charity and not in true solidarity with the people of New Orleans.
Common Ground operates under the slogan “solidarity not charity,” which the ARWG understands to mean that our goal is to provide concrete support to an oppressed group so that they can more easily use their own power to change the conditions of their lives. We see charity as something that often ends up reinforcing existing relationships of power instead of transforming them, and we see solidarity as working with people who are struggling for their own liberation in a way that means our future gets bound up with theirs. The ARWG has tried to step up to this critique of charity both by challenging each other to work from anti-racist principles. We also try to work with other Common Ground volunteers to confront their own privileged and racist assumptions and to bring an anti-racist analysis, practice, and commitment to their current and future activism or organizing.

History of Common Ground and the ARWG

Common Ground Collective was formed by two Algiers community activists, and some local and regional allies in the immediate days after the hurricane. Malik Rahim, a longtime organizer from Algiers, put out a national call for solidarity, in part to respond to the white vigilante violence they were experiencing as they self-organized hurricane relief in the community. They were soon joined by a group of medical first responders and activists from across the country. Initially, its members distributed food, clothing, water, and cleaning supplies, and began operating a first aid station in the local mosque. Within a few months, the Collective had evolved into two distinct organizations, each providing quite different, and equally essential services—the first aid station became a permanent free healthcare clinic, offering primary care, herbal medicine, massage therapy, vaccines, and medications; while the distribution site turned into an vast house-gutting project where residents could sign up to have their roof tarped, and the damaged and mold-infested interiors removed by an all-volunteer work crew. These two organizations—the Common Ground Health Clinic (hereinafter the Clinic), and the Common Ground Relief Organization (hereinafter Common Ground)—formally separated in November, 2005, although they remain allies in the struggle for a just reconstruction of New Orleans today.
Thousands of volunteers from all over the country would work with Common Ground and the Clinic in the 20 months that followed. Since the first days after the storm Common Ground has been making incredible and significant contributions to the movement for a just reconstruction of the Gulf Coast.
Many of the current and former top leaders of the organization are Black organizers. While Common Ground has consistently hosted a multiracial volunteer force, most of the main coordinators and the majority of short-term volunteers are white, many being middle class and college educated. Because of this large base of mostly white volunteers, Common Ground is known throughout New Orleans as a predominantly white organization, and it has led to complex racial dynamics within and around Common Ground’s work.
While the demographic of volunteers may have made it particularly challenging for Common Ground to embody our vision of “solidarity, not charity,” the race and class privilege of most Common Ground volunteers also provided particular opportunities. For example, many white and class-privileged folks have had the ability to travel down to the Gulf Coast much more easily than people of color and low-income or working class people, and therefore Common Ground has had many more volunteers than other social justice organizations in New Orleans. In large part because of our access to privileges, Common Ground volunteers have built an incredible network that has effectively brought resources from our own communities and universities throughout the country to the organization.
In addition, the ARWG believes that because Common Ground serves as a major gateway for white volunteers coming to New Orleans, at its best it could have the capacity to provide many young white activists with transformative experiences that will bring racial justice closer to the center of their work in the future. Because of this, local and national anti-racist organizers saw early on that the ARWG’s role needed to be not just confronting racism within the organization but to try and mitigate the effects that the institutionalized racism of Common Ground was having on the larger movement for justice in the Gulf Coast. At its worst, the racism within Common Ground was causing the organization to stand in the way of local people-of-color-led organizing, duplicating projects that organizations of color were working on rather than using its resources and energy to support those projects, or putting resources toward white Common Ground volunteers rather than the people-of-color-led movements et cetera. The reason the racism of Common Ground volunteers was devastating to the movement is grounded in generations-long legacies of oppression of people of color in New Orleans.
The ARWG was founded in January 2006 to support work within Common Ground to internalize and institutionalize principles of anti-racist organizing. The New Orleans-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (hereafter “People’s Institute”) identifies racism as the primary barrier to social justice and has been working with Common Ground practically since its inception. In the late fall of 2005, organizers from People’s Institute started providing pieces of their anti-racism workshops for Common Ground volunteers, and after an organization-wide “Undoing Racism” workshop in January 2006, the ARWG was founded. ARWG has a core of long-term Common Ground volunteers, many shorter-term volunteers who have come and gone, and a network of allies and mentors in New Orleans and elsewhere.

ARWG Principles

We believe that a failure to confront white supremacy within our organizations prevents us from building strong organizations and coalitions that build the possibility of stronger movements. We believe that in order to have healthy coalitions with other grassroots organizations in the city, Common Ground must understand its access to privilege through its volunteers relative to allies, and use that access to support the capacity of organizations beyond our own We believe that this work begins with individual volunteers and organizers understanding their own positions of race and privilege in the context of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Since 2006 we have worked within Common Ground organizations to achieve our 5 mission points:

1. Build relationships and accountability with racial justice organizations in New Orleans.
2. Support and help institute more comprehensive anti-racist political education for Common Ground volunteers.
3. Support anti-racist leadership in Common Ground.
a. Support existing leadership to do anti-racism work.
b. Build leadership from within the ARWG.
4. Support more people at all levels in Common Ground becoming active in anti-racist work.
5. Support each other to approach this work with commitment, humility, and openness to learning.

ARWG Programs

Our work has been constantly evolving since our inception. Listed below are some of the strategies that we have used at different times to accomplish each of our mission points:

1. To develop the skills, capacity and leadership of members of the ARWG

We started by building personal relationships with organizers of color from People’s Institute, with members of European Dissent (a white antiracist group accountable to and affiliated with the People’s Institute), and with each other. These personal relationships supported us in building shared analysis around racism in Common Ground and in our own personal experiences. When political education programs within Common Ground started up, ARWG members took on roles of organizing and facilitating workshops and caucuses; more experienced members worked with less experienced members in building facilitation skills. As the ARWG became a more defined part of Common Ground, ARWG member delegates began attending Common Ground leadership meetings and otherwise building relationships with Common Ground leadership. ARWG members, when appropriate for each person’s growth, also began to work within other racial justice organizations and to individually build relationships of accountability through collaborative work.
ARWG has been a space to receive continual mentorship from our peers, elders, and more experienced anti-racist organizers. Catalyst Project, a San Francisco Bay area-based white anti-racist organization, helped us form the ARWG, further our understanding of the principles of the People’s Institute, and helped us put those principles into action in our organizing. We have also been supported by many New Orleans based organizations outside of Common Ground, including: People’s Institute, European Dissent, People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, and others. Through these relationships we have been able to learn more about what accountability means and looks like, how to bring an anti-racist framework to relief work, and how to get support putting anti-racist principles into action.

2. To develop and support anti-racist leadership within Common Ground.

In order for the ARWG to become institutionalized as part of Common Ground, ARWG members prioritized building working relationships and friendships with site and project coordinators and other Common Ground leadership, and tried to be responsive to their feedback about our work and approach. We worked with leaders to address issues of sustainability, accountability, and privilege in their work within Common Ground and in their lives. In particular we tried to support leaders who were already working from an anti-racist framework to do that work even more strongly. We also supported volunteers with anti-racist analysis to move into leadership by putting energy into initiatives they put forth. To the ARWG, building anti-racist leadership is not the same thing as having people in power who think certain things about race. To us, it’s ultimately about working towards building power in communities of color and taking steps to get there, like building accountable relationships with organizations led by people of color, et cetera. So we prioritized working with the people whom we felt could help move Common Ground solidly towards that vision.

3. To provide anti-racist political education for Common Ground volunteers

The political education piece of the ARWG’s work has shifted over the past year and a half according to our relationship to Common Ground leadership, the size and demographics of the volunteer base, and the demographic and capacity of the ARWG. The first phase of ARWG’s political education programs, which began in spring 2006 when thousands of volunteers were in town, involved day-long People’s Institute trainings and race-based caucusing (space for volunteers to self-reflect on their experiences in relation to their own racial identity in post-Katrina New Orleans). The trainings were facilitated by members of European Dissent, People’s Institute, and ARWG members. Also beginning that spring the ARWG organized the Community Voices program, which provides space for local leadership of color and local white anti-racist organizers to speak to Common Ground volunteers about their work. When the spring break influx of volunteers in New Orleans subsided, People’s Institute stepped back from regular political education. At this time the ARWG stepped up to organize and facilitate the political education program. Over the summer ARWG members continued to facilitate weekly caucuses and invite in organizers for the Community Voices program.
During the fall and winter “Home for the Holidays,” a collaborative resource-sharing project between Common Ground and People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, the ARWG worked with People’s Hurricane Relief Fund to create and implement a weekly political education schedule that included Community Voices speakers, orientations designed both to provide historical context and to initiate conversations about privilege, and structured workshops about systems of oppression and ways to support the movement for Black self-determination in the Gulf Coast. Throughout the winter the ARWG provided political education workshops three days a week. Recently, we have moved back to prioritizing Community Voices. There have been weekly reading groups on and off in which volunteers read writings by local and national racial justice activists and women of color feminists, and discuss how their ideas apply to our work in New Orleans. Our goal with political education is to offer volunteers a structured opportunity to think about how we can best support the self-determination of communities of color and of low-income people in New Orleans and back home, a space to learn about race in the US historically and currently, and ways to get inspired about how we might play accountable roles in revolutionary transformations of power in this country.
At the Clinic, political education has been more informal. Most importantly, everyone who works at the clinic has attended an “Undoing Racism” workshop. In addition, we have organized caucuses, worked to bring anti-racist analysis into all Clinic discussions, and strategically worked with Clinic staff, volunteers, and our board of directors through one-on-one conversations.

4. To develop accountable relationships with local racial justice organizations and concretely support their work.

Through support from European Dissent and People’s Institute, the ARWG came to see that our strategy and mission needed to come out of both personal and group relationships of accountability with local and national anti-racist organizations. We learned a lot from these two organizations about the meaning of accountability, and it’s still a concept we struggle to understand more deeply. People’s Institute and European Dissent helped us facilitate relationship-building between Common Ground white leadership and leadership of other organizations.
A main focus during the spring and summer of 2006 was on sharing resources (labor, volunteers, materials) with local racial justice organizations. Our work facilitating the development of a political education program with “Home for the Holidays” was part of this focus. Through this collaboration, we developed an advisory relationship with People’s Hurricane Relief Fund around the ARWG’s strategies and direction.
In the winter and spring of 2007, we focused on doing work within local racial justice organizations in order to support their struggles for a just rebuilding in New Orleans. We also see these working relationships with local organizers as an important piece of the ARWG’s accountability to local racial justice movements. We have worked with groups such as: People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, Critical Resistance New Orleans, Safe Streets—Strong Communities, Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA), Survivor’s Village, The Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, People’s Organizing Committee, the Craige Cultural Center, Stronghold, and the Ovah da Rivah Cultural Village. Most recently, we have started organizing anti-racism potlucks with other out-of-town volunteers from other organizations to discuss how we can best contribute to the struggle for a just New Orleans and struggles to navigate how to do that in an accountable way.
5. To support each other to approach this work with commitment, humility, and an openness to learning.

We understand that in order for us as individuals to remain, long-term, working effectively in the struggle for racial justice, we must approach the work with humility and love. We try to model this in our relationships within the ARWG, by having weekly check-ins at meetings about how we are doing, and by building friendships with each other that embody love, humility, a sense of humor, and commitment to each others’ growth and accountability to this work. We have also worked to confront dynamics of gender, race, and class within the ARWG as a collective.
Through the ARWG’s own process of struggling with accountability to Common Ground and to other local organizations, ARWG’s members are continually learning about what it means to be accountable in all of our personal and political relationships. We understand that our ideas of accountability and solidarity will continue to shift over time as we learn from our experiences.

Justice in the Gulf begins at Home

At a talk by women of color organizers from New Orleans put together by Catalyst Project, panel members were asked about the role of allies for the struggle for justice in the Gulf Coast. Local Critical Resistance organizer Mayaba Liebenthal responded, “when allies come to New Orleans, it’s really important to do work in your own communities as well, especially to undo the racism that we’ve been taught and that’s reinforced in every breath and step we take. What I want is for people to look into their own communities and organize around that kind of mentality.” 1
The goal of the ARWG of Common Ground has been to step up to the challenges made by local organizers and communities of color to confront the racism in our organizations and personal work. Our work within our community of Common Ground has deepened our understanding of accountability and solidarity, and deepened our understanding of the urgent need to eradicate racism in order to build multiracial movements for social justice in New Orleans and everywhere.

We are deeply indebted to all of our mentors, the past and present members of the ARWG, and to the people of New Orleans.

Justice for the Gulf Coast!