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Where I Come From

How to Be Politically Active Without Looking Like a Poser and Other Things the Author Learned Over Couscous

I have a confession to make. Despite being a proud Baltimore native, for as long as I can remember I’ve viewed what many see as a hallmark of this city’s authenticity and charm with disdain. The culprit? Hyperlocalism—the license we’ve given anyone with a piece of cardboard and a marker to call himself an “activist.” Spoken-word artists shouting down “The Man” in rambling half-rhymes, septuagenarians asking me to honk for peace—I found these people well meaning but weird, passionate but ineffectual, as I struggled to sort out for myself what type of work might actually make a difference.

This prejudice and a couscous/cranberry medley were what I brought to a small potluck speaker series called Teacher Action recently. The brainchild of several local Teach for America alumni, the monthly series gives civic-minded twenty- and thirtysomethings an audience with experts on local issues. I just thought I’d eat well and meet some interesting people. I left with much more than I’d expected.

That Friday’s speaker was Lester Spence, Johns Hopkins University assistant professor of political science and Africana studies. Spence is an expert on black and urban politics, and that evening he talked about the way neoliberalism, an ideology that tries to transplant the logic of the free market (productivity, efficiency, the impetus to reduce everything to its perceived monetary value), deepens inequalities across society as a whole as well as within the African-American community. It’s the subject of what will become his second book.

As we ate our buffalo wings and crudite, the problems Spence framed—over-incarceration, skewed public-health priorities, economic policies that punish the poor and middle class—were huge, which is why I was surprised to hear that the answers he seemed most interested in were small. Be strategic. Act locally. Do what you can where you are. In other words, become an activist.

Skeptical but intrigued, I interviewed Spence afterward to see if he could elaborate. He started with a story. A few days earlier, he’d been part of a panel of speakers drawing connections between unequal health outcomes among different communities and public policy. Some at the conference, Spence said, told “these really big stories about how racism works at a global and national level to diminish the life chances of black people. For me, everything they said was accurate,” he continued, but the challenge in telling such a big story is that “you can’t get a handle on it, and it tends to reduce your capacity for action.”

Citing the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, which helped spur a national civil rights movement in the 1950s, Rosa Parks and her fellow protesters, Spence said, “didn’t make a decision to end Jim Crow. What they wanted to do was end bus segregation. Now they had a long organizing history, and they understood there could be a steamrolling effect, but what they wanted to do was stop one specific thing.” 

Grassroots organizing like this is hampered today in part, Spence said, by how narrowly political action has been defined and the way some voices and styles of expression are valued much more than others.

He could, however, think of many local groups who employ the type of time-tested tactics he respects, groups such as the Baltimore Algebra Project, which uses math as an organizing tool for school-aged students. Using a context such as school, which immediately turns young people into experts; the one-on-one, peer-to-peer teaching model; and the disciplined, strategic way members are taught to address issues and audiences, Spence argued, represent Good Organizing 101.

After Spence explained how political action not only could but should start at home, I thought about the first group that tried to convince me I had a voice: the church. It’s a community I’m not very active in right now because of the wall I felt we put up between the righteous and the rest. But in our best moments, we were true egalitarians, a cross section of black life moving together, confident that God heard and loved each of us just the same. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to recreate the hope and dynamism I saw on Sundays, minus the brimstone.

I don’t know that you have to believe in God to believe wholeheartedly in the power of people. Still, I like the way my friend Moray Thomas, an Anglican priest I met in London, put it a few years ago in an e-mail about faith and action. “God has given us each a very small kingdom over which we rule,” Moray wrote—namely, our thoughts, words, and deeds. This territory is so small as to be, at times, invisible. Thoughts, words—they don’t take up much space—but they were his, Moray wrote. Humbly yet tenaciously, he summed up his purpose in life in a way that grabbed my attention and, I suspect, might resonate with a lot of people, including Lester Spence, Algebra Project students, and open-mic faithfuls everywhere. His charge, wrote Moray, was simply this: to “possess [that small kingdom] with all the energy I can muster.”

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