By Matt Dineen
It was a warm summer night in Western Massachusetts when I first met anti-poverty activist James Tracy. He was on tour at the time, performing with the Molotov Mouths Outspoken Word Troupe. On the road from San Francisco, Tracy and his poetic comrades filled a kitchen with words of political intensity and inspiring visions. Soon after that night I came across “The Civil Disobedience Handbook” which he edited as tool for “the Politically Disenchanted.” Tracy’s dedicated community organizing work adds yet another dimension to a life deeply committed to the struggle for social change. I spoke with him earlier this year at the Left Forum in New York City where he participated in a panel on “Non-Reformist Reforms,” or what he simply calls “reforms worth fighting for.”
Let’s start with living in San Francisco and the evolution of your time there in the past 10 years or so, in terms of incorporating your politics into everyday life and the challenges of living in that area amidst all the dramatic changes that have taken place.
In San Francisco, really up until about 1993, it used to be a place where people could come and create counter-institutions. The rent was low enough that somebody with a dream about doing an infoshop or alternative health stuff could do it and the jobs were plentiful enough that you could work part-time, for your wages. You didn’t have to be a trust fund kid to get cool projects going. Building counter-institutions goes all the way back to the sixties with the newspapers and things like that. So now because of the sky-rocketing cost of housing it’s a lot harder to do those things. People don’t have the time to just take off. Some people I know do a really good job at working minimally for wage work. But those tend to be people who either have access to highly specialized skills where they can work two or three days out of the week with web design or what not. Or they have a lot of money. Or they’re just really, really good and highly skilled at living in a way that doesn’t consume much.
And I’m not really any of those. I work for a living. I’m an adult-ed teacher, in a way that’s increasingly political. I’ve always had a job and done politics on the side. Part of that is just financial. You know, you just gotta pay your rent. And then part of it is even though the sacrifice of working and doing your politics and following your creative passions is hard, it’s hard to manage your time, I’ve always felt that not divorcing myself from everybody else definitely enriches those things. My politics are enriched by the fact that I’ve driven trucks and wiped butts and bussed tables instead of kind of going the alternative lifestyle route. I’m not dissing the alternative lifestyle people it just hasn’t been my thing.
Can you talk more about how those experiences working jobs that have enriched your politics?
Yeah, like when I was a truck driver, I was already political, but I picked up sofas and delivered sofas all over the place and noticed how the city was laid out. It was right when the dot-com eviction boom was happening and my coworker and I just started noticing that we were doing a lot of pick ups for these landlords. People who they evicted had left some stuff behind so they donated it to the thrift store we were working at. So even though there’s a lot of theory behind the economics of housing and cities that are important to learn, it wasn’t theoretical—we were seeing it everyday, and hearing people’s stories saying, “Hey, that’s my sofa! Can you drive over here instead of donating it?” So it was a school. I’ve always felt that work was a form of the academy. It just helps with staying connected more than a lifestyle approach.
With your community organizing work have you had jobs where you’re a full-time, paid organizer?
Can you talk about that experience more and how it differed from those times in your life when you were working another job and doing politics on the side?
Yeah, my one full-time paid organizing job was at the Coalition on Homelessness and it was fun. I got to help them build their Right to a Roof program and we got a lot of really tangible things done. It was very enriching. I mean, the wages were shit. So it’s not like I was working for a labor union or something where you’re starting at 40 [thousand] and might be pulling down 60 in a few years. We were always laying ourselves off and things like that, but technically it was paid and I got to do it full-time. And I got to really build up a project that I was then able to turn back over to folks that had been homeless and at some point it was healthy. So that was nice because it allowed me the time to build something really quickly and do it well because that’s what I was suppose to do from 9 to 5.
And before that I had been part of a group that I helped found called the Eviction Defense Network where we only got paid stipends. The idea was that everyone that was getting a stipend would still be a worker. But your stipend would either allow you to work a little bit less out in the rest of the world and dedicate a little bit more time to the group, or it would just allow you to make up for the sacrifice of coming to meetings and outreaches and stuff that was really fucking tiring. I think we were getting paid like a 250 bucks stipend.
I actually like that model a lot. The core community organizers should get a little stipend. You shouldn’t necessarily be getting a full-time thing because when you’re a paid organizer full-time, even if you’re getting paid shit wages like we did at the coalition, you forget things like scheduling meetings when people can actually make them and things like that. When you’re scheduling around the 9 to 5 your sensitivity to those things tend to go down over time. It’s around your busy schedule not the busy schedule of people trying to form a tenants union or whatever you’re supposed to be there for. And I’m not against paid, full-time organizing. I’m just against it as a religion, as the only one model of social change. And there’s tons of problems with it, but it’s necessary at times.
In that job organizing tenants how did these questions differ for the people you were organizing compared with your experiences and that of other activists in terms of their survival and trying to identify what they really wanted to be doing with their lives despite the economic realities limiting that. Or did it differ at all?
Oh, it really differed—especially now with the conversation on the Left around the “non-profit industrial complex,” and questioning the coordinator class and who’s in it and who ain’t and all that. You know, we can sit around and talk about this shit forever, and talk in circles, and only on alternative Tuesdays actually get to something that’s productive and useful. But when I was organizing tenants they all had jobs. They didn’t want to be a paid organizer. They wanted to do what they had done. And they were glad that there was somebody who was being paid to be able to help them collectivize their energies, because it’s a big sacrifice to have somebody have to come out to a demo or a meeting after work. They were glad that someone was transcribing the notes and stuff like that.
I’m mainly thinking of these two buildings I helped organize—and I don’t like to think of organizing in terms of “I organize” and “they are organized,” because that sounds too much like colonizer and colonize. But if it’s a healthy situation where it’s transparent and you’re accountable, people definitely liked having a resource. It was almost like being their secretary, to make their self-activity more effective. The ideal model is: you build organizations where folks from whatever base take over all the positions and all the decision-making. But in real life, sometimes people are like, “I’m happy being a teacher. I’m a janitor. I don’t want your job.” It’s just a gray area thing. If you do it well and if you do it in an accountable way many people are glad to have the resource, if you’re actually just being a resource for folks.
Can you talk about the relationship between your politics and the more creative, artistic projects you’re involved with and the struggle to put time and energy into that in addition to political organizing and working to pay the bills?
Art is something I do because it makes my head feel better. You know, I can get really, really stressed out doing this stuff and writing, story telling is a part of mental health for me. I think I would be a really cynical sectarian bastard without it, so it’s something I gotta do. But luckily for the most part, if I’m writing poetry, it’s something I can do on the bus. I have a little notebook that I can scribble things down in. Of course there’s a revision process because I’m very much into craft, but I don’t have to buy a canvass for it. I don’t build fighting robots as my artistic expression. [Laughs] I can write on the back of a napkin, you know, so it fits in really well. But it’s hard.
The creative process is really nice, but everybody wishes they had more time for it. Without really listening to all the people I’m inspired by and getting to know them, my poetry would probably just be some kind of weird Baudelaire type of stuff. Which is fine—I like that stuff too—but it would be a lot less rich if I didn’t have the insights of folks. And hopefully I can amplify their voices and their stuff in a non-exploitative way. It goes up and down. Right now, a project I’m working on that’s nonfiction is a lot harder. Sometimes I get really aggravated and wish that I had all this access to the academy just to write. But if I had that access and fellowships, I’d probably end up being divorced from my real passion. And the real source of creative passion for me is the political work, the community work.
Well, you mentioned the academy. Have you ever thought about going in that direction more as a way to sort of solve these issues on some level? Would you plug into academia so you wouldn’t have to worry as much about financial security?
Well, it wouldn’t work right now, but in the future who knows? There’s a lot of good models—like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a wonderful model of a down, amazing public intellectual who uses her resources. But the thing that gets me about the academy and organizing and privilege is that a lot of professors are making a shittier salary than a lot of janitors these days, but their privilege comes in different ways other than finance. The people who got in a long time ago are making real good money and they have all these resources. But the people who are being hired now into the academy—it’s not guaranteed that you’re gonna have any resources. You used to be able to get the college to pay for speakers and now you can give them a little 25 bucks, like Roxanne has talked about. So it’s not guaranteed...It’s a possibility but it’s not where I’m going right now.
Is there anything else you want to add about this whole issue of passions and survival?
I just really think, as the great dub reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson said, we need more time. There’s all these great campaigns going on and most of them are completely worthy of our support. Certainly before we start thinking about agitating for the 30 hour week we need to put an end to this murderous fucking war. But we also have to think about, as we’re talking about economic justice and racial justice, reclaiming time so we can develop our capacity to participate more fully in the world and enrich ourselves as human beings that live in communities. We’ve had the 40 hour work week for a hundred and something years. So now it’s time to go for the 30. We need more of just about everything. I mean, I condemn consumerism but I’m really skeptical of the folks that are saying the only solution is this individualistic: “consume less, consume less.” I think we should be talking about more for everybody. Not more mindless consumer shit, but more resources and more money. But most of all more time because that’s where you can create more pleasure and more happiness. And that’s a reform worth working for.
Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Northampton, MA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org