Above Photo: Tesson/Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
Political education used to happen in person.
We should bring that practice back.
I spent a number of weekend mornings in small rooms attending workshops across downtown Chicago in my early 20s, around 2015. In one, abolitionist Mariame Kaba taught some two dozen participants about the legacy of the women in Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalist movement, connecting their organizing in the 1920s with the framework Black feminist abolitionists were creating a century later.
Learning that history was valuable in itself. Equally important was Kaba’s assurance that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel — there was no analysis or strategy we were considering that hadn’t been used in the past. That might sound like reason for despair, but for me it was immediately empowering; white supremacy doesn’t want abolitionist organizers to know how close we’ve gotten to a common goal. As a Black feminist, it was a lightbulb moment: “We been doing this shit!” For once, I felt ok not having an original thought. There is a deep well of organizing history to draw on for the questions of today.
That tradition of political education, of learning together, is something our movements dearly need to recover.
Over the past two years, parts of our movements have become stagnant as organizers contend with burnout and groups struggle to replenish their ranks. It often feels like we’ve forgotten the importance of political education, for both new and existing members. Some of us have also forgotten that our work includes a lifelong commitment to learning — not just from texts, but from study groups and book clubs, workshops and teach-ins, discussions around dining tables or tucked in library corners.
Creating these shared learning moments allows us to sharpen our analyses, evaluate strategies and see how the landscape is changing. As my fellow organizer Santera Matthews says, it “helps us dream bigger.”
Without those opportunities, organizing spaces can fall into bad habits. The knowledge of political theory, organizing histories and essential contexts can become a tool for gatekeeping. The work can come to feel transactional. Opportunities for collaboration are lost when curious people are told they don’t need to know X to do Y and Z. Ultimately, members search for new political homes.
This absence isn’t just about in-person gatherings. The pandemic undoubtedly hindered our ability to gather, but it also created ways to find comrades from livestreams and virtual whiteboards, to join in from the road or while an infant naps. Today, many new discussion forums are short-lived due to a seeming lack of interest, external obligations, internal strife or changes to discourse wrought by social media. Fortunately, there are projects trying to withstand these challenges. Founded in 2019, rapper Noname’s eponymous book club and worker cooperative uplifts work from BIPOC authors, sends books to incarcerated people each month and aims to build community through political education.
Mariame Kaba can now be found sharing wisdom through Interrupting Criminalization, a research initiative she created with fellow abolitionist Andrea Ritchie, to foster cross-movement learning and build organizing capacity. The resource hub serves as one model for keeping our organizations flexible, intact, healthy and — most importantly — places where curiosity can thrive.
There remains something special about being in a room with a dozen other people who choose to be there. I miss it all deeply: post-workshop discussions and arguments on the L train home. Crowding a café table to pass around a legendary essay that illuminates everything. New comrades who start their sentences, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about [fill-in-the-blank].”
But the most important lesson I learned from those workshops is that community is at the heart of all we pursue. Regardless of platform, we can and must find ways to recreate that vital organizing space where humility and lightbulb moments can flourish. As Kaba reminds us, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.”