May 8, 2009

Post #8: Movement is in the Heart

Carrying over from yesterday's post, I had a piece of a conversation with a coworker about what some of the older movement folks did: living and working alongside the "community" they spoke about and advocated/organized with. She seemed skeptical of the whole thing: suggesting to me that there was still appropriation and//or crossing of lines in her mind: those with the privilege to decide where they want to live, and the ability to decide that they want to work as a laborer, even though they possibly had other options, was questionable to her.

I think part of it may be related to something I read in my poverty law class when I was in school: while other groups can coalesce around an identity, as a source of power and a foundation for organizing, the author argued that poor people are not proud to be poor, and poor people don't want to remain poor, particularly in the American system, but likely anywhere you go in the world. And for immigrants, the extrapolation goes, that should go double, because many were poor back home, and after years of backbreaking work in a hostile environment, the last thing they want is to remain in that same condition. I don't know either way.

But while I don't think that I idealize the harsh conditions that workers (or low-income renters) deal with every day, I do think that a part of me always feels disingenuous as I do the work that I've done and even as I do what I'm doing now. It's still a "career" to practice public interest law, and I'm still very much in a (c)(3) box. No matter what my message about peoples' power is while I'm at work, nor even if my personal vision for this work were crystal clear, it still feels like an act sometimes. Perhaps it's just because it's hard for me to reconcile "movement" with "career" - I think you could say this is a defining part of your life, but if you get paid for the work, and if you are not in control of how you spend all of your time, then there is a gap between that theory and practice.

I don't know if there's an ideal, but sometimes I wonder if people who volunteer are, in a way, more pure than those people who work on community-based projects as a paid job. I raise this only because it's so easy to be distracted by the day-to-day, or to get too comfortable (particularly as a lawyer, because you have that club card that non-lawyers do not have, even if firm big-shots don't acknowledge that you have the same training as they did.

For a long time, I've been saying that "policy" positions and jobs are bullshit: ultimately, you're just getting paid to spew your opinion in a more formalized, backed-by-quantitative-facts kind of way. But I'm seriously wondering if all community-based "jobs" are bullshit as well. As long as we make a career out of this work, there are potential conflicts between a more pure vision of what a movement or peoples' struggle should be, and what the constraints of your employer are and how they limit actions to support a radical social change agenda.

Perhaps movement is in the heart, to borrow from Carlos Bulosan, and not in the effort to get more funded positions to talk about it. And perhaps that movement is dying with those who are leaving us so quickly (Richard Aoki, now Manong Al Robles).

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