Heather Wolford has been involved in Latin American solidarity, human rights accompaniment, and immigrants’ rights work for several years. She holds masters degrees in International Studies and Public Administration from the University of Oregon, where her academic work focused on political economy, public policy, and social movements in Latin America. She also became active in the labor movement as a member of the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF), and is considering returning to academia to pursue a PhD.
What experiences did you have that turned you toward organizing?
I grew up in a small town in rural Wisconsin where things like social justice, race, class, gender, etc., were simply not topics of conversation. Luckily, I had open-minded parents who supported me in exploring any- and everything, and who from an early age helped me become aware of my place in the global community.
During college, I was increasingly drawn to the study of Latin American history and social movements. I learned about the ugly truths of US imperialism and its impacts on the peoples of the Americas, and became enraged. The truly transformational experience for me was in 2008, when I traveled to Venezuela with an activist delegation. It was there that I saw that another world is not only possible, but that communities have long been doing the work to build it for themselves. In the years that followed, I was lucky enough to spend a significant amount of time working with various social movements in Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico, all the while learning the importance of organizing from folks for whom it is as central to life as breathing.
I am particularly attracted to the space where critical intellectual work and the lived experience of resistance intersect. For me, that is a magical space where I’m forced to examine my role in struggles for social justice, and consider what it will really take to achieve transformative social change.
Based on your experience in Latin America, what are the lessons for social justice organizing in the US?
I think there are so many lessons to be learned here. Recognizing the need to decenter our ideas about knowledge – who holds it, who produces it – is a great place to start. Movements generate so much knowledge, not only in terms of strategies and tactics of organizing, but also political, economic, and social analysis. The Zapatistas provide a particularly rich example here. They have drawn from the work of many theorists, but do not rely on others for an analysis of their own reality. They are explicit that their struggle is rooted in culture, history, and place, and as such their experience of resistance is not a model to be followed by anyone else. Our struggles intersect in fundamental ways and we can and should learn from one another, but at some point we have to go home and do our own work there.
There is also much to learn regarding the ways in which organizing isn’t just this thing that movements do – it becomes part of everything they do. Theirs are cultures of resistance, where daily life is imbued with revolutionary meaning. This is certainly not to say that every person in Latin America is the living incarnation of Che, but rather that the folks I’ve met who are steeped in social movements really don’t separate the work from other aspects of their lives. Organizing isn’t a profession or even an intentional task, but something that happens because people talk in very real ways about their realities and their struggles all the time. I’m not doing a great job of explaining it here, but hopefully the general point comes through.
Again, reflecting on these struggles should push us to question our roles, both individually and collectively, in changing the structures that oppress in this world. How do I contribute to them every day, and what can I do to change that? What will it take to defeat the racist, misogynist, homophobic (and obviously, classist) global capitalist system? The answers aren’t easy, but I think digging in and being really honest with ourselves is a first step on the path forward.
Who would you consider your social justice heroes?
We are blessed with so many incredible thinkers, artists, leaders who have made tremendous contributions to our understandings of history, our analyses of the present, and our abilities to imagine what is possible for the future. The people who I think of as the real heroes, however, are the millions who live every moment of their lives in resistance. The people who will stand their ground against military police, even when armed only with rocks and machetes. The indigenous groups who blockade roads to prevent mining companies from pillaging their lands. The youth who run community radio stations and speak truth to power. The sisters who were once my neighbors in a rural community, and spent their days in the field, their nights fishing, and every moment in between attending marches, organizing workshops, and raising the next generation of freedom fighters. The human rights defenders who risk their own lives because they refuse to be complicit in violence and oppression. They are the ones I think of when I’m feeling tired and don’t want to do the work.
What gives you hope for the future?
These same people I speak about above give me hope. To see people determined to keep on fighting, regardless of how materially difficult their lives are, and despite the risks. The people who say “we will win or die fighting.” The children who know more about the global capitalist system than most college-educated adults in the US. The energy you feel when you’re in the streets with tens of thousands of people. Having a glimpse into how resilient people really are. This all gives me more than enough hope.
What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?
This is difficult, as they are many and very real. The hegemony of consumer culture and its narrow definitions of success, progress, freedom. How that culture has shaped and limited our imaginations, our visions for the future. Particularly in the North, we have many distractions and often the privilege that allows us to disconnect if we choose. The elite control education, the media, and that makes it much harder to live a critical, engaged life. They’ve gotten good at convincing us to protect their interests without even realizing that those interests are counter to our own. They may have the money and structural power for now, but I am confident that with a whole lot of work, people power will prevail.
What books would you recommend people look at for social change?
This list will be forever incomplete, but here goes…
Definitely read what movements themselves are writing/producing! Zapatista communiqués and writings, and the books written by Subcomandante Marcos. There is no better way to learn about a movement than from its participants.
Open Veins of Latin America, and basically everything else by Eduardo Galeano.
Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity by Chandra Talpade Mohanty.
For deeper understandings of the global political economy, US imperialism, and social justice, I particularly like Arturo Escobar, David Harvey, Angela Davis, James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, and Noam Chomsky, among so many others.
The Nature and Logic of Capitalism by Richard Heilbroner and Baran & Sweezy’s Global Monopoly Capital, to understand the workings of the capitalist machine.
Journals/news outlets like Jacobin, Monthly Review, Counterpunch, Upside Down World, Truthout, to keep up on current struggles and conversations.
Also, great fiction that sheds light on the intersections of the personal and the political, such as the brilliant works of Gabriel García Márquez and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
Are there any movies you recommend for teaching about social justice and change?
A few thoughts:
Resistencia, an excellent new documentary about the struggle of small farmers in the Aguán Valley of Honduras in the wake of the 2009 coup d’état.
Revolutionary Medicine: A Story of the First Garifuna Hospital
The Revolution Will Not be Televised, which documents the attempted coup against Chávez in 2002.
Interview by Joseph Orosco, August 2015