Thursday, December 1, 2016

A tentative good step toward galvanizing action and strengthening the spirit of resistance in the mid-Willamette Valley

From a great local activist and organizer:

On Tuesday night, community members interested in forming a “Salem-Coalition” of “progressive” or social-justice oriented community groups and individuals gathered in the SEIU 503 meeting hall. The meeting, conceived by Keith Quick and another community member, was intended to act as a converging point for existing organizations to meet one another and find other Salem area residents compelled to organize after the recent national elections.

Several community organizations were represented by one or several members – including the Racial Justice Organizing Committee, Mano a Mano, Latinos Unidos Siempre, Progressive Salem PAC, Climate 350, and Salem Social Justice Collective. There were several teachers present – from Roberts and other high schools – and staff members of the state of Oregon, Willamette University, and union members, all, of course, acting as individuals and not representatives of their organizations. Over all, there were about forty people in attendance. Ages ranged from a junior in high school, frustrated about her inability to vote in the recent election, to several retired people.

The meeting, facilitated by Quick and local organizer Mimi Khalili, began with a long, but potentially necessary period of introductions. Attendees introduced themselves with a wide range of identities, backgrounds, experiences in organizing and activism, and interests. Many were new to Salem, and just as many expressed that they had lived here for a very long time, and felt rather isolated in what they perceived as a conservative town. After the first series of introductions, Khalili asked the group if anyone would like to share their personal experiences with hate crimes or targeting, encouraging sharing because everyone could learn something by hearing one another’s experiences. She started by talking about how she had personally experienced racism and targeting since she was a child. Several others spoke up – mostly women – and told stories of harassment, violence, and abuse of force from citizens and law enforcement, some from farther in the past, and some having occurred in the most recent weeks. One woman told a particularly disturbing story of police officers tackling and handcuffing her father outside of his own apartment building in the middle of the night.

After sharing these experiences, the group moved on to begin to discuss the potential for action and organization. The majority of attendees seemed to not be currently attached to an organizing group, and were looking to find like-minded people to work with. This may have contributed to a lack of direction once the group began discussing how to proceed tactically. There also was a shift in space and speaking, as the balance in the conversation shifted to mainly older white men sharing their ideas and designs. One woman spoke up and suggested that everyone acknowledge and consider their positionality and be cognizant of the space they take up in the room. Everyone in the group seemed to appreciate this sentiment, although it can sometimes be a struggle, especially in large groups, to moderate the presence of voices. There were a few times when people suggested that the role of this organizing group should be focused on the current administration, but there was definite pushback to the idea that racism, violence, and systemic inequality were somehow new, or unique to our present political situation. Several folks also addressed their concerns with broadly organized networks and coalitions in the past, and emphasized the need to develop some time of internal structure.

The discussion became rather side-tracked for a while on discussing what the name of the group should be. Eventually, this decision was tabled for the next meeting. One woman spoke up bravely and pushed back against the word “progressive,” because, as she movingly stated, she associated that word with people and movements that seem to be leftist, but repeatedly and continually abandon and ostracize undocumented people from their struggle. After a bit of encouragement from two other individuals to acknowledge the significance of those statements, everyone was moved to assert that the presence, support for, and defense of undocumented people would be an intrinsic part of any Salem coalition. There will need to be a lot of action to stand behind those words, however, to make up for how “progressive” movements have failed marginalized people in the past.

In terms of tangible, productive steps, one attendee volunteered to create and send everyone in the room a survey regarding their goals and thoughts for the name, organization, role, and focus of the group. Kai Blevins volunteered to create a google doc and group that everyone could share and contribute to. This group would include a shared calendar that could be used to keep track of actions, meetings, rallies, fundraisers, etc. all over the Salem area. Several attendees also suggested planning efforts begin in Salem to organize a protest for inauguration day.

As is par for the course for an initial meeting, it wasn’t the most efficient or focused gathering, but there seemed to be a healthy amount of energy, commitment, and ideas – as well as enough folks ready to resist succumbing to watered-down, neo-liberalism type ideas. As the meeting came to a close, we set a date for the next meeting – December 14th – assigned two new facilitators (myself and Peter Bergel volunteered), agreed to send out google invites and surveys, and accepted the offer of one attendee to translate the next meeting into Spanish in order to start following through on making the group accessible and welcoming. For the next meeting, I believe it will be useful to initially address some concerns about dominance and power in group settings, and establish a self-imposed rule for how many times you should contribute to a conversation in order to not shut others out. I think it will also be imperative to address, before names or other logistical details, the nature of the group as a whole: will this be a “coalition” that simple acts as a network communicator and resource builder, connecting people to already existing organizations, helping facilitate volunteers, numbers, capital, etc? Will this be a group of individuals? What will the goals be? How precisely do these goals need to be defined? Is this group focused on community support and defense, or policy change?

Overall, this meeting seemed like a tentative good step toward galvanizing action and strengthening the spirit of resistance in the mid-valley.

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