By Kaira Espinoza,
1998-99 Sisterhood Fund and Revitalizing Education and Learning (REAL Program)
Why organize? It seems like a logical question, but I would argue, why not
organize? Why not organize - when our basic things, like reproductive
rights, are being threatened and violated? Why not organize - when children
are in danger of growing up in a world that cares less and less each
day about their educational, recreational, and health rights? The sad
thing is that these are just the tip of the iceberg on the problems
we must diligently organize around. As I write this, millions of women
will be beaten, raped, killed, put down, humiliated, and commit suicide.
These are more reasons to organize towards building a world that puts
people as a priority instead of money.
These and many other reasons are what motivated me to write this article on why to organize. I hope to add valuable insight on how to organize and what things we must think about in order to make effective and long-lasting social change. But as you begin to read this, please remember that I would not even have had the opportunity to write this and you would not have had the opportunity to read this, had not it not been for the many brave women and girls who dedicated themselves to making sure that future generations of women would not have to start at square one in trying to fight for their rights. They knew we would have a long and tedious struggle to face, so they paved the road for us to march on.
Breaking Stereotypes About Youth
I first started getting involved in community work and activism during
my sophomore year in high school. The summer before, I had worked with
a group called Riot Act Theater Company (RATCO). The two directors/mentors
were so phenomenal in leading us twelve youth through a series of activities
and discussions. This interactive training sparked ideas for the play,
and slowly we had our theme - youth stereotypes. I share this story
because had it not been for the engaging activities and dedication with
which these mentors led our group, us youth would not have had that
empowering summer. Adult leaders need to pass on the tools to youth.
But it is more than that, the adult leaders have to be willing to change
some things to relate to the youth of today. They have to be passionate
and dedicated. It is also about older youth passing on tools and opportunities
to younger teens. This is a crucial part of organizing because it ensures
that accomplishments of today are enjoyed by the youth of tomorrow.
We know that right now we are in a backlash to the progress made by
people in the 1960's. Our children will need to know how to defend the
opportunities we create for them. Community organizing builds partnerships
between youth and adults, breaking the stereotype that they cannot work
Sometimes I wonder why I even felt the urge to get a theater or community job. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that my first childhood memories are of my dad getting drunk or mad or both and hitting my mom, while the cops always came too late and they never looked like they cared as I cried. I remember this one time, my mom was crying because he had just put out his cigarette on her bare shoulder and my sisters and I were all watching & crying. She was looking at us too, and then she began screaming at my dad, pointing at us, asking him if this is what he wanted us to grow up seeing. And I looked at my dad and he just had this confused look on his face and didn't say a word. After that my dad cut down on staying out at bars, eventually stopping the abuse of alcohol and my mom. Even at that young age, I remember thinking how strong my mom was and how - by speaking up - she had made him realize what he was causing.
From then on, my family memories were much happier. But that experience
taught me the importance of speaking up. It also raised questions in
my head as I got older and learned about sexism. That's when I realized
that community organizing was more than just a job. It was about my
life and other people's lives. Now I don't look at going to a protest
as something I have to go to like a job, or as a social event where
I can hang out with friends; instead I get mad and sad about the issue
that sparked the protest and I wish I could attend all of them. I have
come to understand that making positive social changes is about creating
a world where people will get along better, learn from their differences,
and not think of money as the only keeper of happiness. It is about
taking care of Earth Mother like she takes care of us. It is not just
about protesting - it is about thinking differently, respecting diversity,
and making our communities safe, fun, and empowering.
Taking on Proposition 21
In the recent amazing organizing efforts to defeat Proposition 21 (California's Youth Crime Bill), we saw plenty of adults and young people working together. Youth were the organizers, leaders, performers, and participants. And adults were the mentors, passing on tips on how to carry out an effective protest and march. Youth organized the Week Of Rage (February 21-25, 2000), which was a week of protest, workshops, and organizing to raise awareness about the criminalization of a generation. The kick-off event was in Oakland, CA. It included speakers and hip-hop performances, and ended with a march to the police station. When me and my friends first got there, we found out that earlier that day many elders had marched down to the police station to protest Prop 21. Their message was, "We'd rather you arrest us than our children." Many of them did, in fact, get arrested. This protest, and many others that preceded and followed it, got media attention. The Bay Area, which was where most of the protests took place, turned out to be one of the places in which the greatest number of people voted "no" on Proposition 21! Imagine if this organizing had gone on everywhere!
In organizing these events, there were many weekly meetings. Many different organizations collaborated and there were youth of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations involved. This is the power of the youth in the Bay Area. We, as young people growing up in a diverse atmosphere, recognize that racism is trying to be passed on to us. But because of Proposition 21, we were able to see that this was targeting all youth and we were all going to be affected by it, whether we got along with each other or not. By the diverse, non-violent events that have been going on, you can tell that young people are putting their differences aside.
After we found out that Proposition 21 passed, that same evening we marched down to the Hilton Hotel, which had given about $10,000 to fund it, and protested. About 200 adults and youth decided to do a sit-in protest and get arrested. The youth were taken to a police station in the Mission District and a lot of us protesters marched down in front of the police station, chanting, "Let our people go!" The protest at the Hilton began at around 5pm and by midnight there were still about 100 people protesting outside of the station where the youth had been taken.
After the Protest
Protesting and marching are an important part of activism because they show people that we are seriously concerned about an issue. But once the protest or march is over, we cannot go back to our ordinary lives. We must be willing to go to meetings, and organize workshops and celebrations. Instead of reacting to negative things, we need to build positive things. If we wait for the politicians to propose solutions, we will just have more protests. Politicians do not know what is good for our communities; they are interested in their own political gains. So, it is on us to propose solutions. It is on us to research the true causes of our oppression, like the lack of funding for schools, and then do something about it, like starting our own schools. Only by incorporating lessons of the past into movements of today, will our solutions be long lasting. Only by putting aside our differences and learning from them, will we stand strongly united.
Positive changes in society are never given to us. People always struggled daily and some, unfortunately, died. The changes we wish to see will only happen if we are persistent and passionate in our efforts towards making them a reality. Why organize? Because if we don't, we will gain the world, but lose our souls. What is organizing? It is having a discussion with your friends about social issues, going to meetings and getting involved, speaking out, writing, singing, performing about the struggles of you and your community. When did organizing start? People have been protesting unjust situations and policies since the beginning of history. People, especially young people and people of color, have made most of the positive social changes in this world! We just don't get taught about the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, American Indian Movements, and many other programs and people that have accomplished the essential things like integrated schools and ethnic studies. Where should you organize? Organize your life, community, society, and the world!
© 2000 by Individual Authors