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Opinion: Tough advice for activists from somebody who knows

In the Sunday New York Times Opinion Section, in an article titled “The Fever Is Breaking,” writer Michelle Goldberg discusses the turmoil that apparently exists inside many activist groups and nonprofits. She writes, “privately, I’ve heard countless people on the professional left-especially those over say, 35—bemoan the irrational demands and manipulative dogmatism of some younger colleagues.”

Maurice Mitchell of The Progressive Working Families’ Party

Goldberg’s column then went on to examine a 6,000-word essay written last month by Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the progressive Working Families’ Party that is critical of “the fallacies and rhetorical traps plaguing activist culture.” Michell is described on the party’s website as, “a nationally-recognized social movement strategist, a visionary leader in the Movement for Black Lives, and a community organizer for racial, social, and economic justice.” In 2014 Mitchell relocated to Ferguson, Missouri, to support organizations on the ground after Mike Brown was killed by police.

In the essay with the unobtrusive title “Building Resilient Organizations, Mitchell challenges activist orthodoxy as counter-productive. He critiques some on the left who overplay the identity card. Some examples:

  • “One’s racial or gender identity, sex, or membership in any marginalized community is, in and of itself, insufficient information to position someone in leadership or mandate that their perspective be adopted… We infantilize members of historically marginalized or oppressed groups by seeking to placate or pander instead of being in a right relationship, which requires struggle, debate, disagreement, and hard work.”
  • Mitchell defines maximalism as, “considering anything less than the most idealistic position as a betrayal of core values and evidence of corruption, cowardice, lack of commitment, or vision. Relatedly, a righteous refusal to engage with people who do not already share our views and values.” He explains, “Our organizations and movements need to grow. Holding on to tactics and overly idealistic demands that keep us small but pure ignores the basic strategic imperative of building power.”
  • He warns against what he calls disproportionality in the use of language, noting a person’s sense of discomfort is not only described as unacceptable by activists but is often inappropriately termed “violent.” “This tendency ultimately weakens meaning, dulls analysis, and robs us of the ability to acknowledge and process instances of violence and oppression. If everything is “violent,” nothing really is. If every slight is “oppression,” nothing is.”

Mitchell’s article goes on to prescribe a number of solutions to the shortcomings he identifies, including taking emotional maturity into account when hiring. He also favours unionization as a means of addressing grievances. While his criticisms of the activist movement may ruffle some feathers, he sees addressing the errors as the way forward towards “building power so we can defeat an authoritarian movement that wants to take away democracy.”

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