Praxis Makes Perfect: the New Youth Organizing

14 09 2007

Madeline Gardner and I were asked to contribute a chapter to a new book coming out on AK Press called Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century, edited by Chris Spannos of Znet.

madeline gardner and joshua kahn russell with an easel from their strategy training

this is what we wrote:

Praxis Makes Perfect: The New Youth Organizing

by Madeline Gardner and Josh Kahn Russell

“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”

– Japanese Proverb


Young people have always played a crucial role in revolutionary change. Young people are creative, passionate, idealistic, brilliant, and fearless.


We are both youth organizers. We have worked in movements for racial, economic, and environmental justice since high school. We’ve been part of struggles for gender equality and indigenous rights. We are currently focusing our energy on engaging majority-white anti-authoritarian sections of the Left, and trying to build another kind of politics: one that takes seriously the issue of race and oppression in our movements, one that is strategic, one that is horizontal, bottom-up, serious, and committed to winning a participatory society.


Strategy is a central thread in our work. Strategy means we make a plan to win concrete changes that work toward building a movement that will win our vision of society. To do that, we integrate the concept of praxis into everything we do. Praxis is the cycle of theory, action, and evaluation/revision (which then modifies your theory and starts the cycle over again). With praxis, each action, whether it’s how we go about coalition building, our outreach plan, or how we run a meeting, holds lessons that will deepen our theory of how change is made. So we develop explicit theories about what will work and why, and constantly re-work them by taking time to learn from our practical experience. Praxis is a commitment to continued learning and openness.


Praxis may seem like an obvious concept. Of course we should evaluate each action we take and try to learn from it. Yet our generation faces some deep and often unexamined assumptions that leave young activists to constantly reinvent the wheel. The result is that people look for formulas – often in the anti-authoritarian youth culture we first came to politics in, that means “franchise activism” – things like food not bombs, critical mass, expressive protest, etc. It’s not that those tactics are bad, it’s that they are contextual and often not part of an escalating plan to make tangible systemic changes that effect large numbers of people. Sometimes formulas work, and sometimes they don’t. The search for formulas has been the logic behind the worst sectarianism and dogmatic authoritarian Left, and produced front groups that continue to co-opt and subvert movements today. In the past, the formulaic impulse translated into the problematic idea that revolution was a hard science. In youth culture today, it often translates into romanticizing a narrow definition of “direct action” for its own sake, confusing an even narrower definition of “militancy” for radicalism, mistaking subculture for social movement, and taking certain simplistic and absolutist notions around “leadership” and “decentralization” as gospel.



Without a culture of praxis and strategy, social change becomes mysterious and looks arbitrary – it seems like magic. Often form becomes more important than function – concrete tangible changes are no longer the goal, but the act of protest in itself is the point.


In response to these often stagnant cycles, a new youth activism has been bubbling under the surface and is just beginning to flourish. This activism is directly confronting the cynicism with which our generation was raised. Our generation knows change is necessary, but we have been raised to be skeptical of anyone saying that it’s actually possible. All it takes is to see that campaigns can be won, collective power can be built, and that cynicism melts away.


In the last few years we have seen the birth of a host of inspiring organizations that have been breathing life into young activism. These groups are cutting and pasting from diverse organizing models. They are forging something new by drawing the best from decentralized anarchist networks, socialist party-building, feminist consciousness-raising circles, community base-building organizations, Zapatista caracoles, and many others.

Learning from these models and building a movement more successful than ever before is the challenge of our generation.


Young folks today have more questions than answers, to be sure. But the questions themselves reveal a new line of thinking in our organizing. Some of the most pressing ones for movement building are:


– How do we communicate radical ideas to millions of people?

– What does it mean to organize in ways that are accountable to those most impacted to the issue at hand?

– How do we avoid marginalization? How do we channel youth rebellion into a force that extends beyond subculture?

– What does anti-authoritarian leadership look like?

– How do we facilitate participation by people with varying levels of commitment, capacity, time, experience, and analysis?

– How do we meaningfully account for the way race has historically divided (and continues to divide) social movements?

– How do we make our movement more fun, nurturing, and accessible than ever?


In searching for answers to questions like these, the two of us have been engaged in projects that are putting forth new models of youth organizing. Below are three quick examples of many groups we work in and have been helping build.


1) Beyond the Choir is an organization dedicated to strategy, training, and analysis. It focuses on helping to create a greater culture of strategy with local grassroots groups working on a variety of issues. Beyond the Choir publishes articles and pamphlets, and is made up of trainers who do workshops with groups across the country. Beyond the Choir’s work draws on lessons from past social movements, works to translate social movement theory into accessible language, and is a vehicle to engage in peer-mentorship and leadership development for movement building.


2) The “new” Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) is a mass-based multi-issue organization that has gained thousands of members and hundreds of chapters within its first year and a half of existence. SDSers across the country are working on national issues including anti-war and just immigration policy. Recently a number of chapters have also won local campaigns for living wages for campus custodial workers, and forced corrupt University Presidents to resign. SDS is 100% run by students and young people. SDS is pulling from multiple traditions; a wide spectrum of the political left is represented in its ranks. Ideologues range from Anarchist to Leninist, but most SDSers see themselves as unaffiliated radicals. SDS is in a process of growth and learning, and is struggling to find ways to embody its core principle of participatory democracy. There are competing visions for SDS, and the rich debates around organizing and structure have themselves helped shape a new generation of radicals. It is the first time in recent U.S. history that such a large group of (mostly) self-defined anti-authoritarians have participated in building a mass organization that challenges the limits of loose network models.


3) The new youth network being built by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) is another example of mixing models – RAN is in the early stages of developing a system of chapters uncommon for nonprofits of its size. Unlike the standard nonprofit model of building small clones of itself on campuses and in communities, RAN chapters are semi-autonomous and self directed. They are developing ways to collaborate with large institutions to participate in international campaigns and leverage non-profit resources to do grassroots work.


In our experiences helping to build these organizations and networks, we have attempted to distill a set of organizing concepts useful to young activists today. The concepts below were first articulated in an SDS organizational vision document we co-drafted with fellow SDSers Kelly Lenora Lee, Michael Gould-Wartofsky, Kateri Woestman, and Nick Martin.


Our intention for the document was that unlike a vision for the society we want to win, these could form a vision for the kind of organization we want to become. Rather than a laundry list of things we are for or against, these concepts serve as organizational building blocks that both challenge dominant assumptions and offer us tools with which to do our organizing.

Included below are the revised and edited concepts in that vision document that are both relevant to, and emblematic of, our new generation of youth and student organizing. While they were initially drafted for SDS, we find the excerpts below to be relevant to a much broader audience on the left.


We want to win.


We really believe we can create a more just society. It is possible, and we can do it – therefore we have a responsibility to do it. Our activism is not simply a matter of “fighting the good fight,” or some jaded push toward insularity or purism, but instead is grounded in the day-to-day reality of what it takes to build a movement that can win concrete objectives and ultimately transform society.


We are in it for the long-haul.

Realizing that we can win, we think about what it means to be involved in long-haul struggle, and what it really means to do this for our whole lives. We believe there is more to a movement than taking to the streets for a day. We are building our power over the long haul. This helps give perspective on our collective goals and how we achieve them. We think about how we want the movement – and our organization – to look in five years, in ten years, in twenty years. We think about what we need to do now to get there. We will keep our eyes on the prize.

We are organizers.

Activists are people who take action to make change in society. Organizers are activists who additionally work to bring many other people into movements. They help build organizations and spaces that engage and activate new people. As organizers, we try to meet people where they are, listen to their concerns, and help to amplify their voices. As organizers, we constantly reach out to new people and build alliances where-ever we can. As organizers, we strive to see the big picture – not simply our own viewpoint and agenda. We collectively take responsibility for the direction of our organizations and groups.


We must be relevant.

Our actions will be relevant to a context, a community, a target, and a movement. We believe change will be made by many, many people working collectively, not by an elite “vanguard” or a crew of professional activists. Real change is made by mass movements, and we see our organization as part of a mass movement for social change. We will therefore organize around issues that provide tangible, concrete gains to meet real needs in our campuses and communities.

In order to be relevant and build power, our organization must grow. We have to continually grow in numbers and chapters, as well as in our capacity and the depth and sophistication of our organizing. We will continually reach beyond existing circles, building our base and expanding our scope. We will not allow ourselves to become activist cliques, nor allow our movement to be limited to one culture or subculture.

We seek to be an organization that students and youth from all walks of life can see themselves joining. We seek to build an organization with which groups and communities in struggle can ally themselves. We strive to be inclusive and accessible.

A large majority of young people in our society are ready for change. We will appeal to the positive values already commonly held in our society and demonstrate how they are antithetical to the way our current system operates.

To build the movement, it is crucial that we maintain humble and open-minded attitudes. Elitist attitudes discourage new voices and ideas. We take seriously the way activist language, attitudes, and subcultures have been alienating and intimidating and kept us marginal. We can be ourselves while being mindful and attentive to the needs of others in their communities, respectfully, without putting appearances above and beyond the goals of changing the world.

We believe in mentorship and leadership development.


We want organizations and movements that create the space for new folks to learn organizing and activist skills. Mentorship must occur intergenerationally between youth and movement elders and veterans, as well as internally among our members of various experience levels. We view every new member of our group as a peer-mentor, someone to learn from, as well as encourage and teach.


Mentorship is also about leadership development. We reject leadership that centers on charismatic individuals whom others blindly follow. Instead, we strive to create a space where everyone can develop the skills and analysis to be an empowered change maker. We believe in collective leadership. We will strive for leadership development that pushes everyone up. We can all be leaders in a way that the different talents, skills and experience we each bring will be used for the good of the group. If we are all leaders, we must each take responsibility for our choices and think about the group as a whole, not just ourselves. It is on us to develop each other’s leadership – to see the potential in one another and encourage it. We will build one another up and support each other in becoming leaders and taking on responsibilities.

We will learn from the past. We will reinvent our movement.

Younger generations, without realizing it, often re-invent ways of organizing and thinking about change that have been tried before. However, we know we don’t have to do that. We can ground ourselves in a real sense of our organizing history, valuing the lessons of the movements that have come before us. We are committed to a process of asking questions about past social movements and organizations. We will ask why and how the movements of the past have succeeded or failed. We will study each situation so that we are ready to build a stronger movement than ever before. To this, we will add our creativity and unique insights. If we hope to win, our generation must engage in a process of reinvention, on its own terms.

We are building toward Collective Liberation

Oppressed people are at the forefront of movements for liberation. We understand that our work must target structures of domination in order to build powerful diverse movements for change. We realize that lines of power cut deep in our society, and we must be grounded in the work of combating systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, heterosexism, transphobia, and the many other forms of oppression thoughtfully and strategically.

We realize that having a verbal commitment to this work is not enough. We must be doing this work. We will make personal commitments to learning how oppression operates and how we can transform it. We are committed to leveraging whatever resources we as students and individuals have thoughtfully, respectfully, and transparently, for the benefit of the larger movements we participate in.

We are committed to listening to, learning from, and amplifying the voices of oppressed communities and their allies. On our campuses, we will prioritize worker rights, gender justice, affirmative action, defense of Ethnic, Women’s, Queer, and African/a Studies Departments, and other issues relevant to oppressed members of our community.

We know that peoples not traditionally recognized as part of the student movement have always been and still are organizing, at the forefront. We recognize that activism and knowledge are not the sole province of peoples of certain colors, languages, nationalities, or genders, and that our movement must equally and accountably nurture and connect the struggles of all. We will not let ourselves be limited by standards and scripts of activism and action that do not account for the experiences of peoples engaged in a variety of struggles. We recognize the diverse and significant ways in which ordinary people resist and combat oppression daily. We recognize and support acts of resistance that empower people, whether or not such acts fit nicely into an activist mold.

We will be Accountable and Rooted in Solidarity

Our work must be grounded in strong human relationships. We seek to build relationships on solidarity and trust, stand together and recognize others’ struggles as our own. Our organization will not simply proclaim itself “in solidarity,” but actively practice solidarity with communities, workers, oppressed peoples, and all allied movements in struggle.

We will build strong movements where we live that can both combat oppression at home as well as have the capacity to offer meaningful support to other movements and communities. Our solidarity will be locally rooted and nationally/globally linked. It will be solidarity across borders, and solidarity against borders. Our solidarity will be horizontal, shared from below. In order to win, we must be able to rely on each other’s solidarity.

We will also strive to be an accountable movement, one that recognizes, respects, and responds to the collective agency of those struggling for liberation. We affirm our commitment to make our organizing actively accountable to the communities it occurs in and to people organizing from within these communities. We respect the experience, recognize the leadership of, and actively support the struggles of those directly affected.

We will be Strategic

Our actions will be strategic, fitted to a collective purpose, a direction, and a need. Strategy is a lens with which we approach our organizing. We will have a clear sense of our goals, and evaluate how our actions move us toward them. We will always act with respect to the community and context in which we find ourselves. We will always think about how to build our organization, develop new allies, and support other movements.

Strategic action is not a “line” – not a mandated set of rules, but a shared orientation. Therefore, strategic action looks different in different places. Our strategy will guide our tactics – not the other way around. Tactics are like a toolbox. If you are building a house, you need different tools at different times – sometimes you need a hammer, other times you need a screwdriver. But you need those tools to be part of a strategy if you want to build the house. More than any tactic for its own sake, we are committed to strategic action to win our goals.

We will Practice Participatory Democracy

We believe all of our members have a right to meaningful participation in decision-making in the organization. People have a right to participate in decisions proportionate to the degree they are affected by them. Everyone is encouraged to access channels to decision-making and those who do access them will be held accountable, wherever possible, to the rest of the organization.

Having good, well facilitated processes ensures that all voices get heard. We are committed to setting up our organization in a way that those with limited time constraints and resources can all participate. We understand that if our movement is limited only to people who have time for endless meetings, it is not participatory at all. If a space does not nurture diverse voices, it is not democratic. When process becomes a free-for-all it ceases to be participatory – democracy does not mean everyone must speak to every issue in order to make a decision. Accountable delegation is democratic. Recallable delegates are democratic. Roles and responsibilities are democratic.

Participatory democracy is horizontal and organized.

Our Culture…

Beyond our shared vision and principles we share a certain culture in our organization. A culture can’t be written down on paper and agreed to at a convention. It must be made every day, every time we interact with each other.


The culture we build in our group will greatly influence our ability to retain membership, increase commitment, and foster healthy debate between us. If we really do want to win a new society, and thus really are committed to long-haul struggle, our movements and organizations must support us as whole people. They must be fun, nurturing, accepting, and positive. We can’t martyr ourselves to the cause and in return get only endless meetings.


Instead, we commit to supporting each other in our work for personal and collective transformation. We will see one another as allies, even when we disagree, and will work to find common ground. We are on the same team. This does not mean shirking away from important debates, or minimizing divisions – dissent and disagreement is what democracy thrives on. But it does mean we will give each other the benefit of the doubt. We will not fall into listserv-demonizing, holier-than-thou posturing, or self-righteous condemnation. We will hold one another accountable to the larger community we are working in.


If we are going to change the world together, we must work to build trust in one another. That can be difficult, but we are up to the task. We recognize that radicalization is a process. We know we all come into the movement at varying levels of political understanding and experience. We will support each other’s processes. We will move forward together.




There is a new wave of energy and activity washing over our social movements right now. Students and young people can play a pivotal role in the push to build a participatory society. By grounding ourselves in our situation and thinking strategically, we begin to approach organizing by answering the question posed by Paulo Freire, “What can we do today, so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?” Today we can do a whole lot. Tomorrow we will be able to do a lot more. We’re ready to build. Will you join with us?




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