On Grassroots Leadership

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Photo credit: Murray Bush

The following is an excerpt from Chinatown Action Group organizer Stephanie Fung’s speech at the Hospital Employees’ Union Fall School (Oct. 15, 2017):

So I’ve been asked to come here today to speak about resilient leadership and what it means to be a grassroots leader. The more I reflected on leadership in Chinatown Action Group, the more I wondered about what it is that’s the real work we do. Beyond facilitating study groups, beyond organizing direct actions, what is our real job as grassroots organizers in the larger scheme of things? The way I see it is this: our greatest, and probably most difficult, task is to identify and develop leaders who want to build leadership in others.

For me, building resilient leadership means not only dedicating my own time and energy to various efforts for social change, but also working to move others to take action. It means helping them develop skills, political analysis, and confidence to organize so that in the long term they can continue to help sustain the movement by identifying, recruiting, and training other leaders who themselves will develop other leaders, and so on and so forth. This is the process of building a mass organization and building grassroots community power. It’s hard work. It involves tremendous labour and we don’t expect fast results. Organizing at the core is about building relationships. It’s about developing collective power through developing leaders. It’s about learning how to be patient through struggles and how to care for each other as we grow. This is a long-term project where the fruits of our work can take a long time to see.

Chinatown Action Group’s organizing model draws from and is inspired by grassroots organizing of the American Civil Rights Movement. Community organizers like Ella Baker, Septima Clark, and Myles Horton challenged the limits on the ability of the oppressed to transform their own lives. They engaged in participatory democracy where decisions were consensus-based. Ella Baker once stated: “I have always thought what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership in others… Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

What makes you get out of bed every morning? What does it take for all of us in this room to persuade ourselves to pick up and go?

If we’re not developing leaders, then we’re not building the organization. We start with where people are at. We share stories. Start with what matters most to our base and work with them in a way that they see themselves as having the right to fully participate in transforming their lives. We don’t empower people because people already have power; they don’t need us to liberate them from anything. Instead, we move each other to take action. We move each other to build capacity to use our power to change the material conditions of our lives.

How do we do this? Here are some concrete ways of how we build leadership in CAG:

    1. We have work parties as a hands-on, low-commitment way to get people involved. We bring people together to do action-oriented tasks so that they feel a sense of purpose right from the start.
    2. We build strong and organic relationships with others in the organization. This means members develop one-on-one relationships with volunteers to bring them into CAG. We also have mentorships between core members.
    3. We develop relationships with Chinese seniors in Chinatown by listening to them share their life experiences. Working class seniors who live in Chinatown make up a large part of the base that we organize and they love to talk about their life experiences. This is where they are experts—they have wisdom, they have life experience that we don’t have, and this is where we want them to feel the most confident in articulating. Seniors have endured a lot, and it is important to validate their experience and acknowledge that they have survived through tremendous hardships, that the injustice they face is real, but their existence is important and should not be invisibilized or marginalized. Their stories convince us that the work we do matters.
    4. We engage in grassroots education. We organize study sessions to learn about histories of grassroots organizing and movements. We develop power and class analyses.
    5. We develop a Vision and Basis of Unity where we bring people on the same page and create a sense of vision to understand the importance of our work in a more historical context and that we are part of the broader movement for social and economic justice.

Strengthening our relationships with each other through sharing stories, listening, and caring about each others’ growth and struggles—these are all things that build a community. I’m interested in how grassroots spaces might offer possibilities to shape our power beyond hierarchical cultures, in ways that can build momentum and allow us to relate to each other. That’s really the heart of organizing: to develop ourselves and more importantly, each other as leaders so that we can use our power together to create stories that address social issues and move more people to act on the side of justice.

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