I'm No Longer Interested In "Doing the Work"
“I do the work”, “we do the work”, “this is the work.”
“The work” is invoked so often and vaguely by self-described activists and organizers that whatever meaning it had (if it ever had any) is long gone. People brag about “the work” they’ve done without naming what it is, their goals, and who benefits, or use activism resumes as shields from criticisms and calls to action. With the concept of “work” being both hollowed out and weaponized, including against people it’s supposed to serve, we’re overdue for a chat about “the work”, what it means, and who it’s for.
A few days ago, I tweeted my disappointment when activists on Twitter quickly endorsed Noname’s “Radical Hood Library” as “the work”. My concern wasn’t that the library is “bad” but that gentrification by “young professionals” would mean poor Black folks being pushed out of the area can’t access it. I wanted to know if people had looked into this and have a larger conversation about amplifying and engaging in housing justice organizing as the end of eviction moratoriums and gentrification lead to mass homelessness and a lack of affordable housing nationwide. What came instead was hundreds of quote and sub tweets of backlash arguing “the work” is good, and I don’t get to criticize it if I’m not doing better “work.” But my criticism was never of said “work.” My actual critique, which went unaddressed, is of what I saw as a lack of vetting and the thought folks give (or don’t) to who they support, why, and impact on communities.
In response, some have said they know the library will do good because it’s an extension of work she’s been doing for years, to which I would ask how they know that work is good? “The work” is Noname’s Book Club, known for sending books to incarcerated people, something we likely all agree is needed. I have no criticisms of the book club. However, saying “this is good work” without talking to incarcerated members, contacting prisons to find out how it’s engaged, or asking if prisoners feel it’s meeting their needs is counterintuitive to lifting voices of the “most marginalized” and ensuring they are driving “the work.” The question remains, what goes into labeling something good “work”? Because if we’re impressed by any action for the “less fortunate,” how is that challenging the establishment-led, charity-dominated society we live in?
I’m not as concerned about the celebrities and professional activists our social and mass media are saturated with as I am how we engage them and this brand of activism. If the goal is to end power systems, resource hoarding, and hierarchies, I’m not sure how we do that without being extra critical, skeptical, and discerning of people with power. I’m not sure how we do that by assuming anyone who says the right things is part of our (or any) community, that they’re accountable to us or others, or moving as though class divides and opposing interests don’t exist.
This is particularly reckless in the wake of Black Lives Matter, when outsiders who appeared to mean well exploited whole communities for years and won’t be “held accountable” for it because accountability can only come from community, and these people were never part of any community. With Patrisse Cullors, Shaun King, and a whole class of activist grifters not even in our rearview yet, the question for those of us who continue to be trafficked is not an “if” it will happen again, but by who next. When one of the most pervasive harms of the Black Lives Matter scam is making “the work” no longer about sustained community organizing, accountability to one another, and building alternative communal systems to meet needs from a ground level, we have to ask these questions. It’s a problem that mainstream activism is now reacting to single events with no proactive solutions, platforming big names and the projects they announce, and strivers using “the work” to procure their next bag, byline, or book deal.
“The work” should be collectivism and fighting for communities’ rights to self-determination, and telling disempowered people what we need, what is “good” for us, how to resist is not that. Radical and revolutionary organizing is built through talking with, not over, people and strategizing to make sure needs are met, not standing at podiums telling us what those needs are. And “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” can’t work by pretending we all have the same ability or need. It’s the responsibility of those who can do more to do so. When people with fewer means demand this, it’s not “unfair” or expecting too much. You should never defend powerful people from those exploited for power systems to exist, or silence us when we criticize or even question them.
Collectivism also requires abandoning “charity down” activism in favor of dismantling from above. More money and proximity to power come with greater responsibility to dismantle the systems you benefit from through: wealth redistribution, sharing land for community housing, destroying policies that push poor folks into the gutter to protect the middle class, exposing and combating violence in your institutions (academia, media, tech, medical, etc.), building blockades to protect homeless encampments from police and prevent people from being evicted, organizing strikes in solidarity with low wage workers striking, radicalizing your middle class and rich relatives and peers — who are business owners, doctors, lawyers, celebrities, daycare owners, who have money and resources poor people need — to open their clinics, provide free childcare, share those resources with poor folks. If not doing it personally, you should be finding out who is and building connections to create more access.
No stakes, no sacrifice, no moving the needle, but a whole lot of speeches about what’s best for us and insistence they’re “on our side.” As long as “the work” remains convenient charity with no metric for who it serves, people will use it to distract from a lack of progress and to avoid naming who their politics are for and who they are accountable to.
No theory, practice, project, or anything else considered “the work” is inherently good. Who it serves, who funds it, how the community is engaged, and the costs and benefits to the community matter. A project that serves the wealthy or “privileged” while displacing poor folks is not a net good to the community. Neither is a project for poor folks with a million barriers that infringe on autonomy, exploit us, and reproduce/extend carceral violence. Not asking questions can lead to endorsing any of this because it sounded good, and people who know to ask questions often lose sight when it comes to people they place on pedestals and whose “work” they elevate beyond skepticism and critique.
Your “work” is less important than your community and politics. Whose security do you fight for, and whose voices do you uplift? Community is not a job or service you perform. Collectivism is a relationship-based survival process. We contribute in community toward everyone’s collective security based on our means and understanding what is necessary. We do it in love and through linking our security and freedom as tied to that of others. We do what we can, not what we want; what’s necessary, not what’s convenient. We extend ourselves and make sacrifices because we know none of us should eat and leave others hungry; none of us should be housed and leave others on the street.
Because none of us is free until we’re all free.
“I suggest the real contradiction may be that we really are not all about the same thing, the same goals, and some of us are not willing to admit it. Not yet anyway…” — Safiya Bukhari; “The War Before.”
If you enjoyed this and would like to support my writing, please subscribe to my Patreon here.