Z was my Mentor and it’s 4 Years Younger Than Me!

19 02 2008

I wrote this piece for Znet to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Z communications.

Z was my Mentor and it’s 4 Years Younger Than Me!
Joshua Kahn Russell

I first started “reading” Z magazine in middle school. I was around 14 years old, so Z must have been about 10. I guess I didn’t have many friends my own age. Growing up I had nearly zero access to Left political analysis, save for a couple magazine subscriptions and as many book orders as I could afford. Zmag’s hook for me was its comics; Z was my first experience with political cartoons. I didn’t even know Left political cartoons existed elsewhere. To confess – I actually pretty much only read the cartoons for a couple years. Oh sure I pretended to read the articles…but the “I read it for the articles” excuse is traditionally saved for less refined magazines.

On the topic of lack of refinement, that same year I started to write poorly-xeroxed political-punk zines in my small town, and even though I didn’t know any other “real activists,” those zines eventually went on to be distributed internationally. I would get letters from Sweden and Brazil, from other kids my age, often commenting on the cartoons…that I had cut and pasted directly from copies of Z. Busted. I’m coming clean. I stole the cartoons. I didn’t know any better! I was in 7th grade! Although it didn’t even occur to get in touch with Z (or the artists) for permission, I always gave credit, and never charged money. My analysis in my zines was mostly variations on you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do politics with such groundbreaking insights as: “corporations suck,” “mass media lies,” and “conformity is for assholes.” There were lots of four letter words involved. I didn’t need to actually have a political analysis (or facts) – I was self-righteous and angry enough to know I was right; owning copies of Z magazine were enough to reassure me that there was indeed a deep analysis out there, were I ever to need to engage it.

In high school, I was still politically alone (but with international pen pals!), and with no radicals in sight, I started organizing. Throughout my first crude attempts to organize my peers – starting a high school Gay / Straight Alliance, a Food Not Bombs chapter that didn’t serve anyone besides other kids, and scattered Global Justice protests – I started to read beyond the cartoon Left. Noam Chomsky and bell hooks came to the rescue, riding the wild stallions of Zmag and books emblazoned with a South End Press logo.

South End Press books were my staple diet through high school and college as I awkwardly stumbled from one activist project to the next. The more I learned through experience organizing, the more I would get out of reading those books. It was a sensation similar to finally understanding a lyrical reference and having a song you’ve heard a million times suddenly ‘click’ on the million-and-oneth time you hear it. ‘Oh that’s what bell hooks meant by white patriarchy in activist groups!’ ‘Oh, when Zinn writes about the history of Direct Action, he’s showing me that its part of a larger strategy! That’s why we kept losing!’ As I became a committed organizer, the books became tools for movement building.

The first semester of my senior year at Brandeis University I did an internship at South End Press. I was grateful for the opportunity to get to hang out in the SEP office, let alone work on any projects. I went to SEP expecting to do what interns always do – data entry or filing. Instead, before the first day, I was taught all about the concept of balanced job complexes; I was told that all types of work were shared, even among interns. There were no bosses. This was not a normal office. Not that I didn’t have my share of grunt work – though stuffing envelopes addressed to Angela Davis and Arundhati Roy were still unbelievably exciting for me. But to my surprise, within a month, I was reading and editing manuscripts, and even ended up doing graphic design and art for book covers. I learned how meetings could be collectively and efficiently facilitated. I watched as major roles in the office were transitioned in empowering ways. I learned how deep political relationships are built on mutual trust and investment in helping build a better world. Most of all, I learned that a small independent press, publishing dissenting books, can survive in a world set against it. Not only can it survive, but it can do it while embodying it’s principles and modeling the world it wishes to create. I worked at South End Press during a pivotal part of my own development as an organizer, struggling with deep questions of identity and my place in the movement. While I was probably a bit of a headache for the collective members as a result, it was a deeply influential in shaping who I am politically.

Almost two years later I found myself at the Z Media Institute (ZMI) – where I built relationships with the larger Z family for the first time. I discovered that South End Press and Z Magazine had been just some of the many projects under the Z umbrella. I found that there was a global community of people committed to developing both vision and strategy to build a new world. I was challenged to dig deeper into social movement history in the U.S. and across the world, challenged to build on successes and learn from mistakes of the past. I built relationships with people that are deepening through every collaborative project. Earlier this morning I wrote a perhaps cheesy email to Justin Podur, one of the ZMI faculty, and quoted Assata Shakur in saying “the best part about struggle is the people you meet.” Indeed. An intergenerational family, the Z community has brought together perspectives from across movements, countries, and generations, and I’m grateful to see so many Z projects flourishing that can help articulate this intersection of ideas.

The analysis put forward through the myriad of Z Communications projects is a tremendous service to everyone struggling for progressive change. It is defiantly radical at the same time that it is relevant. It refuses to be confined to the margins in a time when the Left has been all but pushed to the fringes and out of sight. It is proof that we can both embody our ideals and engage society at the same time. After 20 years of ruckus raising, Z Communications is stronger than ever. Let’s help build it even stronger.




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