Interview: John Lindsay-Poland

John Lindsay-Poland has been active in movements for Latin American human rights and solidarity and demilitarization of US policy. He currently coordinates the Wage Peace program in San Francisco of the American Friends Service Committee, an organization founded in 1917 that promotes peace and non-violence. He resides in Oakland, California.

How long have you been involved in organizing and social movements?

There were certain things that I did in high school like student government, and when I was in the fifth grade I started a little environmental club in my school. I suppose you might say that’s being involved in a social movement. Then when I was nineteen in 1979 I participated in a direct action at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. In some ways those are different questions, there’s a difference between social movements and organizing.

How would you define a social movement?

A social movement is a set of many different groups and individuals who are responding to a social problem and seeking a social change, and they are not necessarily organically connected. There’s some way in which they are responding to the moment from wherever they are, and not necessarily composed of one organizational entity.

At nineteen you were involved in the anti-nuclear power movement; what movement would you say you’ve been involved in the most?

Around that time I was also involved in the nuclear disarmament movement, in the 80s the Central American human rights solidarity movement, and more broadly in Latin American solidarity movements for many years. There was a movement for closing foreign military bases, which in many ways was a network of movements, and as part of that I was involved in movements of Puerto Rica and the Puerto Rican diaspora to stop U.S. naval bombing in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Also, I’ve been involved in the movement around the drug war within the U.S. and in concert with Latin America and Central America.

How do you manage to be involved in so many different things?

(Laughs) Well I’ve been doing it for a long time. I haven’t been involved equally in all those things. Movements have their apogees. There are moments when there’s mass involvement and moments when it’s much more selected or self-selected. For example the Vieques movement was really a mass movement between 1999 and 2003. I was involved a little bit before that and some after, but not very long after. I would say the same about nuclear disarmament. Late 70s, early to mid-80s was when it was the strongest and I was involved most in those years.

There are movements that connect with each other. I got involved with nuclear disarmament because of the nuclear power action. There’s a connection between the production of nuclear weapons and the production of nuclear power. Once you begin to see those similarities, or begin to know people who are involved laterally, you can make those connections.

The other thing is that I’ve had the privilege of doing it as a paid job for a number of years, so that allows you to do more. If you’re not spending your work days doing something else then you have more opportunities.

Were the types of organizations you were involved in typically professional groups, or were they horizontal organizations or bureaucratic?

That’s also varied. I think the nature of social change activism has changed a lot in the last thirty years. Until 1989 I was always involved as a volunteer. One organization for example was Peace Brigades International which does human rights accompaniment. That’s an organization that is pretty committed to horizontalism and decision-making by consensus. It’s a complex system when you have an international organization. You have people who are geographically located in different places and participating in decisions, and they’re also coming from different cultures and languages. I became involved with Peace Brigades in 1986 when there was very little staff and very little money, and over the course of time it’s become very “professional,” but it is still committed to horizontal decision-making. It’s interesting because it is more bureaucratic, but also a consensus organization.

For many years I worked with Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which is not committed to consensus. It’s the type of culture where people would like more consensus, but it still has an executive director and a board who call the shots. The movement around nuclear power was very committed to consensus, and was composed of many affinity groups and included spokes councils that made decisions by consensus. At the same time I’ve been involved in many organizations that are more top-down.

Do you have a preference of which type of organization you’d like to be involved in?

I think I prefer consensus in general, but I can operate in either. The most important thing is that the decision-making process is clear, and that there’s buy-in by the people that are participating. If you have buy-in in a hierarchical process, then it’s all clear. In either model if people are not clear about what the process is, or you have people that are actively or passively not agreeing with that process, then it can’t work. The clarity and the sense that we’re in this together and agree with the process; that’s the most important thing. It doesn’t work in a consensus group when people are like, ‘well, sometimes we operate by consensus and sometimes we don’t.’ That kind of stuff drives me crazy.

I’ve been trying to experiment with consensus myself, and what you’re saying reminds me of some of the dangers of informal authority. I wonder if it’s a top-down or vertical structure, does that make the decision-making process more clear? Or, at least that group is being more honest, whereas with consensus groups there’s maybe a danger of being disingenuous with the process? Do consensus groups typically become controlled by a small group, or does the decision-making process become unclear?

No I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily true. There are groups that make the process of coming to consensus very detailed and laid-out. You always have the role of strong personalities, of potential institutional racism and sexism, or where someone who’s been around longer has more power because they have more information or developed more relationships. All of those things are always operating, regardless of what type of organization you’re involved in. I think it’s important to be aware of them, and assessing whether or not that’s interfering or creating conflict with the process.

There are also a lot of organizations that use consensus that by their nature are ephemeral. One example I think of is the affinity group I was a part of. We were a group of friends that wanted to take political action, and we wanted to do it by consensus. That lasted for about six or seven years, and then people moved away and there weren’t the same kind of actions still happening, so it ended. If you think of it this way, you can find consensus in everyday life. If you’re going out with friends and want to decide where to eat, you have the experience of a consensus decision. You can have someone who’s quiet and doesn’t want to go to that place, but others will still come to a decision and that person allows it to happen. Occupy was another example, the whole thing was ephemeral. Yet it was a way of showing, ‘look, there’s a way where everyone’s preferences, decisions, and ideas can all be included in whatever we’re going to decide. We’re going to create meeting technologies that will facilitate it.’ I don’t think that was disingenuous. There were certainly abuses of power in the Occupy movement, but I don’t think it was flawed for that reason.

What do you think is necessary to keep things from being ephemeral, or to maintain sustainability of organizations and social movements?

There’s a difference between the sustainability of movements and the sustainability of organizations. For me, the most important thing is the relationships in whichever of these things we’re talking about. What keeps it sustainable is when we’re committed to the people we are connected to, whether it’s donors, or the media, or power brokers, or people impacted by the issues. All of those different things that are touched and are touched by social movements makes it sustainable.

For building organizations, the clarity of decision-making and leadership leads to sustainability. As well as the clarity of goals and objectives, which I think is very important. Sometimes that’s where a lot of people drift away, when they say, ‘well I thought that was the goal, but maybe it wasn’t?’ Or when there’s a goal that is utopian, it’s necessarily going to attract a small number of people. This can be sustainable for that small number of people, but it’s not necessarily going to be sustainable for a large group of people—unless there’s some intermediate goals where people can feel that they’re making progress. I believe in utopias, but I also believe in trying to be effective on our way there.

Before you had said that you believe the methods toward social change is different today than it was before. What do you think is different?

The non-profit industrial complex. I think it’s good that people study social movements, you’re studying it and I think that’s good. And I think it’s good that people theorize about it, but I don’t think that takes the place of people experimenting. For some people there’s a separation between their interior life and their professional commitment to non-profits. Non-profit work can become more expedient, and more instrumentalist, and we don’t learn as much. It’s part and parcel sometimes the idea is that ‘I’m helping other people.’ Whereas in a lot of powerful social movements the participants are changed by the movement; you can’t see things the same way anymore, and you can’t do things the same way anymore—in a good way.

Something else that has changed is that the economic possibility for young people is much more limited. You have a lot more young people in debt, and particularly school debt, and the cost of living is higher. That means that it’s harder to have a part-time job, and then be able to participate in social movements. Much harder. Part-time jobs won’t sustain you, or help you alleviate your debt. For many years I did things part-time, and I was able to do a lot, even go out of town for weekend actions. That’s less possible now.

Do you see any way of resisting the non-profit complex or changing the situation for young people?

It’s important that people realize there are different ways of bringing about change that do not require us to join a non-profit. There are different kinds of non-profits. There’s a spectrum of how driven a non-profit is by their funders and grants, and how driven they are by the mission and the need. The needs shifts; certain things are constant like if you’re a non-profit serving homeless needs it’s something that goes on and on. But the ways in which you reach people and connect with people shifts. It’s really important to be creative. Meaning: re-thinking connections, respecting and using art, joining planning with spontaneity, and being guided by people that are suffering from an issue. I just went to a ceremony where a woman was being awarded for working with families of homicide victims. I realized as I was listening to this amazing woman who lost her own son to a homicide, someone who has given up a lot and works very closely with people, that she’s working with things that are downstream. She’s working with all sorts of people who are impacted and have needs because they lost someone. There’s also needs that are upstream, like where are the jobs, what are the police doing about this, what’s happening with the justice system? A lot of it is being focused on how we’re going to address what’s hurting people, and not get caught up in the organizational needs. Organizations are a means, they’re useful tools for getting things done. You need them, but it’s not the end all.

In terms of young people, I think joining the existing activism around student debt with other more established social movements and funders would be a very interesting alliance. If older activists and funders recognized that they have an investment in younger people not being enslaved to school debt, then students could have some powerful allies. Also, activism requires some risk-taking, personal risk-taking. Which means you don’t know how it’s going to work out. There’s a certain kind of leaping, where you decide you’re going to try something without knowing what’s going to happen or where you’re going to be working, but you try it anyway and see what happens. That risk-taking is important.

The third thing I would say is that the purpose of academic pursuits needs to be seriously considered. I didn’t receive my BA until I was 43, and I’m sure there’s some things that probably were not available to me because of that, but I’m certain that it was the right choice. A close examination of what the degree offers is good, and not being wedded to that degree. If you’re interested in social change and movements, then use the degree for that specific purpose—if it doesn’t serve that purpose, then young people should accept that it’s not the right pursuit.


Interview conducted by Alexander Riccio

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