By Matt Dineen
In his book A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen articulates the dilemma of following one’s passions while surviving in a capitalist society: “Wishing away the wage economy did not make it cease to exist, and my determination to stop selling my hours did not lessen my need for food, nor for a place to stay. In other words, despite my highfalutin philosophy, I still had to find a way to earn some cash.” Chris Crass is a political organizer who has grappled with this dilemma for years.
I had read Chris’s articles in Clamor and HeartattaCk before, but I didn’t meet him until the summer of 2003, while participating in a workshop that Chris led on the role of leadership within progressive and radical movements. His writings and activist work continue to inspire other activists to develop strategies of dismantling structural oppression and creating new models of organizing. He currently serves as the coordinator of the Catalyst Project, a center for political education and movement building.
I met up with Chris again during the week after the 2005 San Francisco Anarchist Book Fair in a raucous coffee shop right across the street from the Catalyst Project office.
When people ask you, “What do you do?” how do you usually respond to that?
It kind of depends on who’s asking me. My general response is that I work with an organization that does anti-racist education with other white people to stand against racism and stand up for social justice. If it’s people who are already connected to left/radical politics then my general response is that I primarily do political education work and alliance-building work. Trying to help mostly white sectors of the global justice/anti-war movement develop a stronger analysis and commitment to anti-racist politics, with the goal of building multi-racial movements against capitalism and for collective liberation. And then if people who ask me are just sort of, maybe they’re progressive or kind of interested in some different issues or just starting to get into activism, if they say, “Oh, what do you do?” Then I’ll say, I mostly try to deal with issues around: How does institutional racism play out in society? What are ways that we can be trying to, for myself as a white person, really look at how racism impacts my life and impacts the world around me, and how to be trying to take action to transform the situation. And really looking at how racism is both historical and institutional and is a primary way that the society is organized. So for people who believe in justice, who believe in democracy, who believe in equality: we really need to do organizing in our communities to change and transform the ways that systems of oppression play out in our lives. And then if people who ask me are conservatives then I make an assessment about how useful it is to actually engage or not. What I do say is something more broad to clearly indicate that I am a left anti-racist through a comment against the war or for immigrant rights or something like that.
So, what kinds of responses to you usually get to that? Is there usually a follow-up to that where people ask if that’s really your job or assume that you couldn’t possibly be doing that for a living?
In terms of how work is understood in society, like with my extended family, that’s a different thing: I do education work. I’m a teacher. There’s certain things that you can say where there’s an image that comes to mind of what that kind of job or work looks like. If you say, “Oh yeah, I’m a left organizer trying to build power to overthrow capitalism and trying to build a free society for all people…” There’s not too many positive images of what that looks like for white middle class people, you know? They’re usually negative images, like somebody who’s crazy, out of their mind, advocating violence against random individuals. For different families and different communities - working class, queer, of color, then there may be different images. People who are like, “Oh yeah, the labor movement, union organizer” where there’s some connotation. But for a lot of people that I talk to, I try to just connect a word or a concept that I think they will be able to understand—like educator—and then from there start attaching radical politics to that concept, something that people can grasp onto. But usually if I say I’m an organizer people are like, “Oh, does that mean that you make a grocery list everyday? Do you try to make sure your refrigerator is full? Does that mean that you throw a lot of parties?” (Laughs)
There are all different kinds of organizers so just in general conversation I think it’s difficult because these kinds of labels also carry a lot of meaning. So if you tell somebody, “I’m an investment banker.” It’s like, “Oh wow!” That must mean that you’re fairly successful, meaning that you have access to a lot resources, meaning you have money. You probably went to some business school and have a good degree, meaning that it’s profitable in this society and you can get a really good house and that you have access to health care. And if you want to have kids they’d be able to get a better future than you did because you’ll be able to send them to the best schools. But if I say—even a concept that people know like educator—it’s like: public schools, teachers, people who are really busting their ass and getting paid very little. My housemate is an art teacher in high school—almost an endangered species in the state of California—and that means working long hours, getting paid not very well, and having the governor and people in power blaming teachers for the conditions of the schools. So even though you might have a concept that means something, there’s all kinds of other stuff that gets associated with it.
Also, in conversations with people when you talk about what you do, there’s just all kinds of status, all kinds of stuff about power and access to resources. And it plays out depending on the person that you’re talking to, what kind of language you use, what kinds of words you use, and the assumptions built into that. So yeah, it’s really difficult particularly for folks who are radical/left people doing all kinds of different jobs. If you’re doing this work there’s generally not a lot of access to resources, to being able to have health care and to develop a savings and things like that. So there’s also a certain level of reality to these different assumptions. But the assumptions are also: What are the real values that you have and what values really have meaning? So that question of, “What do you do?” is basically asking: “Who are you? What does that mean? What contribution are you making to the world?” And it’s usually not “contribution to the world” in terms of, “How are you trying to help communities be healthier?” but: “What are you doing? What do you have to prove that you’re a valuable person, a worthy person?”
“What is your status?”
A status, exactly. So yeah, the question of “What do you do?” is a pretty loaded one. And I think for a lot of us on the Left, we have a lot of hesitation and a lot of ambiguity around answering that, particularly for someone like myself who’s younger. I’m 31, at this point I should have some sort of mid-level management job somewhere, but I don’t. Particularly, I think, also for someone like myself raised a middle-class white guy there’s a certain sense of where you’re suppose to be in this society at this point in your life. So for me, there’s also a lot of connotations about, “What do you do?” There’s also a lot of class and race and gender stuff very much embedded within that of, “Well, where are you? Where are you going?” Those kinds of things. So yeah, that question—it can be anything from a very simple question that you talk about at a party to a soul-searching question. My thinking these days is that most people want to get to know you, for left political people it's really important to normalize anti-imperialism, anti-racism and so on, meaning that you talk about it from a place of confidence that most people are anti-war, believe in justice and so on...
Check out Toward Freedom to read the interview in its entirety.