History can teach activists so much if we know how to engage with it. In “How to Read History like an Organizer, Part One,” I shared some suggestions for learning from history by reading the manifestos and statements from past organizations. In this section, I provide tips for learning from secondary historical sources.
Listen to Organizers talk about History: Lots of organizers are already sharing their thoughts about movements. Listening to them is a great way to understand what sort of lessons we can learn from the past. Here are a few examples of organizers talking about history topics that I think will especially interest readers of “If We Knew Trans History.”
Joey Mogel talks about Queer (In)Justice – Queer (In)Justice is one of my favorite books and Joey is an amazing Chicago activist. You’ll love this podcast.
Benji Hart talks about Susan Stryker’s Trans History – This is a great way to get an overview of trans history and insight into current trans struggle. Benji is fantastic!
Kay Whitlock talks movement history with Mariame Kaba – Two brilliant people talking to each other about movement building – especially the limitations of hate crime legislation.
You can find more organizers talking about history on one of my favorite podcasts “The Lit Review.”
Read Movement History Books Yourself
While history has tremendous potential to teach radical organizers, most history books aren’t especially useful to us. Many historians focus more on people in power than those who are oppressed. Furthermore, most historians employ methods and narrative techniques that don’t lend themselves to answering the kind of questions organizers ask. There certainly are lessons that can be learned from all sorts of histories. Nonetheless, when we are learning to read history like organizers, it’s easier (and more fun) to start off with the work of historians who were also interested in activism, movement building, and social justice. I recommend looking for books focus on groups, rather than individuals, and specific campaigns. Many of these histories will have key words like “movement,” “social history,” “people’s history,” “organizations,” “protest,” and “social justice.” Here are some books of this sort that I’ve enjoyed:
- The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail – the chapter on STAR is excellent!
- At the Dark End of the Street (TW rape) – This incredible history of the civil rights movement. Bonus: listen to Mariame Kaba talk about this book!
- Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times
Ask questions: For me, learning from history means asking questions that will help me reflect on my own organizing work. These are some of the question I ask myself when I am learning from history.
Community and Social Conditions
- Who was organizing? What social conditions confronted their community? What was their relationship to the state and dominate economic formations? How are those conditions similar today for that group? How are those conditions similar for me and my communities? What has changed and is different today? How are they different? Focusing on both the similarities and differences can be especially instructive because it helps me to understand why certain strategies and tactics may no longer work.
- How did organizers understand their relationships to their larger communities? How did organizers get new people to join their movement?
Theories of Social Change and Goals, Strategies, and Tactics
- What did the organizers believe about how social change takes place? Or to put it differently, what did they think would work and why? When I learn from movement history, I like to think of organizers as conducting experiments: I look for the hypothesis they made about how to make change, ask how that idea shaped their methods, and then examine their results. This allows me to come up with my own ideas about how and why social movements succeed and fail.
- How did organizers translate general injustices into specific organizing goals around which they could mobilize? Which goals attracted broad support from the community? Which were less successful? What can I learn about setting goals and mobilizing people?
- What strategies and tactics did organizers use? What worked? What didn’t? Which of these ideas and tactics might I like to try?
- Did organizers disagree about what to do? When and why?
- How did organizers change their strategies over time? What did they learn from organizing? What might I learn from their changes in thinking?
- What motivated organizers on a personal level? How did they motivate other people to get involved?
- What sustained organizers? What about self-care can I learn from their examples?
- What helped organizations stay together? What led to their breakdown? What similar dynamics do I see in my own work?
- What did people in the movement argue about? Do I see similar conflicts in organizations I work with?
- How were intragroup conflicts handled? Do I want to replicate the same conflict style or should I try to avoid making the same mistakes?
Opposition and Outside Forces
- Who opposed these organizers? How did state actors oppose them? What about non-state actors (like bosses, corporations, individuals, other organizations, etc.)?
- What did the opposition do to try to thwart organizers? Are the people who oppose my work using the same tactics?
- How did organizers respond to their oppositions? What might I learn from this dynamic?
- How did outside events (like economic crashes, wars, elections, etc.) impact the movement? How did organizers adapt to changing conditions?
I hope these questions are helpful to you. Happy history and happy organizing!