Ella Baker, Dream Activists, and Lessons Learned

Blog post by Terence Courtney, BAJI Southeast Regional Organizer

As I approach 2013, I can’t help but reflect on 2012 to help jump start conceiving of future strategies that will advance the  mission of BAJI (Racial Equity, Economic Justice, & Immigrant Rights)  next year.  This time of year seems to call us to it.  I ask myself what have been some common themes from the victories and failures that have fundamentally affected the forward march of our cause?  What have been some powerful tactical approaches that changed the dynamics for creating social justice?  Are there historical roots and corollaries that will help inform a theory I can learn from and apply today?  These are deep questions.  And while I can’t say I say I know all the answers, I believe I am starting to see some patterns.

December 13th 2013 will mark the one hundred tenth birthday of Ella Josephine Baker.  Baker was an outstanding and extraordinary civil and human rights organizer who is often overlooked when we talk about leaders from the Civil Rights era.  With a career that covered some of the most turbulent periods in US history (the 1930’s through 80’s), Ella Baker worked with and helped found some of the most iconic organizations in black American history.  When we think of organizations like the NAACP, the SCLC, SNCC, and others, we have to place Baker as powerful agent for change in their pantheon of heroes.  She often would travel throughout the south –alone- organizing people to fight Jim Crow.  And this was during a time when it was extremely dangerous for black people to organize alone, especially black women.

Besides her heroism, Baker was brilliant theoretician.  She developed a method of organizing that was set apart from what was traditionally being done.  Her model of organizing called upon a more collectivized and egalitarian process that in many ways radically challenged the status quo, and gave people a vision of bettering their lives without falling into traps.  And from what I see in the successes over the past year -one way or another- the lessons that Ella Baker taught so many years ago are alive and working.

Consider that Baker’s theory for change called upon 3 main elements:  (1) Focus on grassroots organizing, or organizing that is rooted and springs forth from a community and their concerns, where they get to make decisions about their lives; (2) Prioritizing the people in that community who are most impacted by the issues, because they have the most at stake; and (3) prioritizing the use of Direct Action, to destroy fear and seriously challenge unjust powers.  And one group in the Immigrant Rights struggle that has achieved victory by –perhaps not consciously- using the Ella Baker model is the Dream Activists.  I’m very impressed by these young people who have changed minuses into pluses by going deeper.

Being undocumented, many Dream Activists are illegible to vote, and they live under the constant threat of imprisonment and deportation.  Yet, they have not let those hurdles stop them from making real change.  Like black people under Jim Crow who similarly found themselves disenfranchised, Dream Activists found that they had more than one way to improve their lives; they began to organize their communities, prioritize those most affected by the attack on Immigrants, and utilize direct action.  As one blog written on the Dream Activist website says, they got Back to Basics.   And doing this enabled them to bypass the morass of Washington DC, and force the hand of Obama; making him sign an Executive Order called the “Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.”  And whereas many groups would have rested on the laurels of this improvement, the Dream Activists that I’ve spoken with are not placated by the Order, its small scope, or expiration date of Feb 28, 2013.  They know that if they can achieve this victory, there is more to come if they keep doing what they’re doing.

My hats off to them, and I think Ella Baker would be proud.  So, it seems to me that there are some lessons the rest of us who are concerned with Immigrant Rights, Human Rights, or even Civil Rights can learn, or re-learn from Dream Activist and the Ella Baker model.  As the centrists and right wingers continue to try to chip away at our voting rights, we need to keep in mind that we secured our voting rights by using direct action, and it perhaps by using these lessons we can protect past gains, and fight for more.

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