Abigail is an associate organiser in Lambeth who came into organising through her university, King’s College London. Whilst a student, she co-founded a community organising society, King’s 4 Change, which started off her organising journey in Lambeth. She co-edits the Iron Rule Blog.
When I started at Citizens UK in October my line manager Paulina gave me a book called Heart of the Race. The book is a collection of interview excerpts which tell the story of Black women living and organising in Britain after the Second World War up until the 1980s. Women of the Windrush generation and their daughters paint a vivid picture of struggling to exist and thrive under the spectre of dehumanising education, health, labour and welfare systems. You should read the book.
The stories of these women made me reflect on the story of my mother and the family she raised. My mother is not from the Caribbean. She came to the UK in the 1980s and raised children here in the 90s and 00s. In these ways she is different from the women in the book. Nevertheless, it is both heartening and disheartening to see in her experiences those of the countless women before her who fought for their dignity and protected their children from a country that grew tired of them.
Let’s start with the negatives. It is disheartening because I recall her fighting almost daily with teachers in schools who tried to isolate and demonise my brother because he was not sufficiently docile for their rigid standards. She gave up opportunities for her own development and social mobility so she could be present in countless school meetings and ready for every phone call; so she could speak out against the unjust treatment of a Black boy in school. It is disheartening because I see the women of the book a decade, two decades, three decades before doing the exact same thing and I think:
Why has nothing changed?
I am forced to shake myself out of the pessimism of this question when I remember that this book is as much about power as it is about pain. It is heartening to read of the courage and self-awareness that these injustices engendered in the women of before and I see the same courage and self-awareness in my mother. She succeeded in defending my brother and in making her children proud but she did so at great personal cost.
Which brings me to the topic of sacrifice and its place in community organising. In organising language, my mother had to give up, at least for a time, her immediate self-interest so she could protect my brother. For years she had worked nights as a healthcare assistant so she could earn whilst taking care of us and she was embarking on a nursing degree that would transform her prospects and enlarge her freedoms. She chose to withdraw from university several times because she was not able to be fully present for my brother and for herself simultaneously. This delayed her fulfilling her dream for several years. Some might call this kind of sacrifice self-denial and might argue that it is paradoxical to what we understand self-interest to be. Some might pity her and call her situation unfortunate. I disagree. My mother exemplified a nuanced and strategic understanding of her own self-interest. She knew her limits and her strengths. She recognised that the different things she wanted to achieve all required more from her than she would be able to give if she kept them at equal priority. This is why she chose to channel all her energy into what was to her most important at the time: justice for her son.
It seems to me that many of the historical struggles for freedom and justice that we draw from in organising have been stories of a careful balance of sacrifice and self-interest. As a Christian, I think of my Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, and how He perfectly demonstrated His own words:
“Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.” Luke 17 v 33.
He gave his own life so that His people could have everlasting life and in so doing beautifully weaved together self-interest and sacrifice. When He was crucified on Calvary’s cross, as we celebrate on Good Friday, He not only died a physical death but suffered for our sins, “that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3 v 16. He loved His people so much that He was willing to sacrifice Himself so they could be saved. Millions of martyrs over the course of history have given their lives to this same end and many continue to do so to this day.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) argued that it was necessary for Black Americans to, for a time, sacrifice the possibility of enfranchisement for the sake of civil peace and the economic advancement of his people. Born into chattel slavery and well versed in its dehumanising impacts, he still believed such a sacrifice was worthwhile because it would ultimately result in freedom.
Martin Luther King, pretty much the only ‘activist’ I could confidently name as a child, saw himself as a living sacrifice in a somewhat different fight. He felt that leadership in the struggle for Black civil rights had been thrust upon him and knew he would give his life for it. In this way his life was no longer his own; it was a sizable drop in the bucket of a future he believed in but would never see: “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11 v 1.
I see in my mother, in these men and in many others, an intense desire for a better life for themselves, their loved ones and their community. This desire had such a sharpness to it that it allowed them to precisely discern what was necessary for the achievement of this better life and what was an obstacle. As I reflect on their lives, I ask myself, “what do I desire this intensely and what am I willing to give up for it?” I spend each day listening to and organising around the desires of community leaders but in order for me to best guide them to a sharp, clear understanding of their own self-interest I think I need to do that work on myself first. For those of us who choose to dwell in the organising universe, the battles we fight require us to look inward and determine what we need to do now and what we need to leave until tomorrow, what dreams we need to put on hold while we take on other fights and hopefully, in the process, become more capable of realising those dreams when their time comes.