South X Southwest Experiment
Building Bridges to Empower a True Majority
Jackson, MS July 26-July 29
by William Copeland
East Michigan Environmental Action Council (Detroit)
I was tasked to represent EMEAC at this SxSW convening. I had a powerful experience and I am writing some reflections. I expect to write 2-4 reports when all is said and done.
End of the first full day. Even though I missed a significant portion of the day because of dialysis, the day was very meaningful, and set the tone for not only inspirational learning experiences but also long term communication, solidarity, and collaboration.
From the beginning a light but focused tone was set for cultural sharing and political education. At the opening dinner, the hosts made lots of jokes and kept repeating “We’re going to work hard this weekend.” This process was anchored by Southern Echo (MS), Southwest Organizing Project (NM), Southwest Workers Union (TX) who set the triple context of the South x Southwest organizing in terms of the context of difficulty and social opposition, the deep (historical) population majorities of communities of color, and the depth of collaborative & intergenerational leadership that is poised to make national contributions.
The focus was on Black, Latino, and Native communities– They set the tone in terms I was familiar with: “We are under attack” “The war is real” I met a brother from Detroit (who actually grew up in the same hood as Rayven and had people in common) who graduated from Tougaloo in Jackson. He talked about how coming down to Mississippi helped him see the systematic struggles and societal warfare in ways that were invisible to him back home in Detroit.
During the first day’s orientation we saw a film that showed highlights of the first convening (San Antonio, November 2011). One thing that struck me was the political commitment to intergenerational organizing. In EMEAC and Detroit, we are growing youth organizing capabilities, but SxSWE organizations are including significant youth outreach, participation, and facilitation in their campaign work and political action. This weekend was thick with high school age youth up to young adults in their early 20s (I’d estimate 40% of attendees in this range). The workshops were designed to elicit significant political discussion and have enough energizers and interactive activities to keep young activists engaged for 8+ hours per day. This also is a testimony to how the young activists were prepared to be engaged in the space. At no point was there a separate “Youth Track”; they engaged with us on all questions and activities. There were some questions where it was asked “How can youth engage in making accountable community governance?” This intergenerational model of activism challenged me and gave me a lot to reflect on.
At the end of the first day we saw a powerful movie called “Precious Knowledge.” This film describes the struggle to develop and maintain Mexican American/La Raza Studies in Arizona, where state lawmakers called the courses “unpatriotic” and “critical of the founding fathers” and “pro-Marxism and revolutionary” and successfully fought to get these courses removed from public schools and universities. I was moved to the point of tears to see this youth organizing in action. Not just young people communicating to each other, but young people being transformed by Knowledge of Self and fighting the power structure to hold on to that dignity and demonstrate it in the public sphere. To see these youth fighting for the high stakes of their own education (and education of future generations) was powerful.
This concludes my first report. A running theme I wrestled with all weekend is the propensity of young Detroit activists (20s and 30s) to not engage with systems of powers. We spend time teaching youth practices of growing food, leadership development, and parallel structures. It’s as if we gave up on the system and democratic ideas and lean towards underground values. I know this comes out of a critical assessment of living in a society that has been underdeveloped and disinvested in the last 40 years (since before many of us were even born). With the struggles over Emergency Management, the continued gutting of our public school system, and the revisions to the city charter this is an appropriate time to analyze our models of organizing. I would like to engage with Detroiters and activists from other regions to gain clarity on effective long-term political strategies for building up the Detroit community.