By Shauntrice L. Martin
“You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.” – Ella Baker
Ella Baker played a critical role in several prominent social justice organizations. I will acknowledge that immediately. The disconnect exists when individuals consider themselves revolutionaries simply because their charter or mission statement has some vague, possibly provocative language regarding activism.
I want to make a clear distinction between the existence of organizations and the need for people to organize. My experience lends credibility to the argument that organizing is key; particularly in dealing with an un-unified and jaded youth population. That same experience, however, has also shown me the pitfalls of joining an organization. Change is going to happen regardless of what we do. Revolution, however, is the result of direct and purposeful action towards the destruction of state along with the deconstruction of internal struggles of inferiority. The other main issue with organizations is the infinite opportunities for corruption.
Don’t believe me? Let’s do a brief role call of organizations that have fallen to either corruption or complacency from the 19th century to now: The Black Panther Party, the NAACP, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the US organization, the communist party, SNCC, the SCLC, The Louisville Debate Project, and the list, much like the beat(ing) goes on.
Conversely, movements that successfully achieved its objective(s) include: the Underground Railroad, the free breakfast programs (which although started by the Black Panther Party, was run largely by women who were neccessarily official members, but instead were simply interested in preventing the starvation of Black children), and the Harlem Renaissance.
These denominations of social activist serve as ideological gangs, which are acutely suseptable to dogmatism. Strict norms and preocedures develop, making it taboo to stray from the mission statement. Eventually divisions occur and the original goal is lost. Even more often than that, the movement becomes more about the leader than the oppression being fought against. Look back to “King’s Civil Rights Movement” or “Farrakhan’s NOI” or “Huey’s Black Panthers”. After a while, some troubled rising star in the group stakes his claim (I say “his”, rather than “his or her” because women don’t generally participate in this intergroup foolishness) to the coveted position of decision maker and before you know it, there is an irreconcilable split.
Navigating back to the initial discussion of Ella Baker’s work, we can’t keep waiting for leaders to create change. We also can’t just join an organization and think attending meetings will solve our community issues. Paying financial dues and having programs is cool, I guess, but why do we have to rely so heavily on that model when even the naive understanding of history negates the success of such a strategy? Y’all know good and well that people who want to do the work will do the work and those who don’t want to wont. To paraphrase Antonio Gramsci’s definition of an organic intellectual, we should focus more on building coalition with oppositional groups. Formally joining an organization should not be a prerequisite, because it then opens the door for accepted complacency wherein members take credit for group actions instead of being active participants in the struggle.
I think we have to be more willing to work without recognition. Those of us old enough to remember what we were doing when Tupac died have an intellectual responsibility to LISTEN to young people and their perception of the world, rather than attempting to covertly indoctrinate them with our illusions of our own ideological fantasies. Ella Baker was a mentor to some of our greatest leaders–most of which will never be recognized in a traditional school setting.
I don’t claim to be the foremost scholar on Ella Baker’s philosophies–honestly, I need to read a lot more about what she did and how she navigated white supremacy. I am simply expressing the way her work has influenced my thinking. As much as we may try to fight it, we often forget people like her when considering what our people must do to move forward. Ella Baker should serve as a model for anyone striving to create a better world for oppressed people.
Image (c) by in2jazz
Shauntrice L. Martin is the director of the Justice Resource Center and long time youth advocate. Shauntrice has taught in Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, and the Dominican Republic. She is originally from Louisville, Kentucky and currently works with youth to sustain social justice movements in the District and beyond.