Ashish Kothari: Could you both introduce yourselves to our readers?
Elandria Williams: I am Elandria Williams and I have a background in Community Organizing. I come from Powell, Tennessee in the United States.
Mabrouka Mbarek: I am Mabrouka Mbarek and I have followed a twin track career in academics and politics. I come from Tunisia.
AK: Two very different backgrounds! What brought the two of you together?
MM: We met last year in Quito, Ecuador. We were invited by the Global Working Group Beyond Development which is an institute supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. People from varied backgrounds came together to explore and learn from the Latin American experience of building Buen Vivir or living well from the bottom. As I was living in the US at that time, there was a connection between Elandria and me, right away.
EW: It was during the conference that Mabrouka approached me with an idea about writing a paper together – inspired by what we had experienced and withnessed in Ecuador and its possible applications on our own work. We wanted to undertake a journey, a learning journey around a few cities in the United States, and see for ourselves how various communities faced with the challenges of the current times were faring and how they were crafting their solutions.
AK: So, where all did your journey take you, who did you meet and what did you experience?
MM: So, just to give a little bit of a context. I live in Vermont, in the north-east of the United States and it’s not representative of the country at all. When I met Elandaria she would often talk about the “struggle”. I realised that even though I was living in the U.S., I didn’t quite understand how deep this issue was and how important it was for me to figure it out. So, it happened quite naturally… I just told her “Hey, I need to learn more about the “struggle”, and I need to go with you”. I trusted her and she pretty much organized our journey.
EW: Yes, so, we wove this journey around the people I’ve worked with over the last decade and these are places where I also have family connections. We went to Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama and Detroit, Michigan. We were going to add in Newark, New Jersey, too, but that became a bit more than we could bite. Jackson, Mississippi and Birmingham have had long histories of struggle since radical reconstruction, slavery, and the civil rights movement and people from Mississippi and Alabama went up to Detroit. In fact, Detroit- Mississippi connection and Detroit -Alabama connection are huge, as during the great migration people went from those places up to Detroit and then back down. So, people are actually migrating all the time from those places. It forms a little triangle with Chicago.
AK: And, you have been working on the issues that the African-American communities have been facing for a long time. So, could you just give us a little context to that and then also talk about the kind of transformatory actions and interventions that you were looking at in these places?
EW: Yeah, so, while it was really important for us to meet and talk to the people who are undertaking innovative activities , it was also our aim to engage with folks who’ve been organizing in these communities for a very long time; from elders to really young people because that is a true reflection of the black experience in the U.S. So, we are not starting just now, just today; instead it’s a 50-60-70 years old legacy, with people meaningfully engaged and involved with issues that are important to their communities.
The key issues that we wanted to explore were: what’s happening in terms of race and racism in United States? How is migration playing a role? What’s happening in terms of the solidarity economy? What are the emerging economic options for people? What does it look like in terms of the local government? People have been involved in radical politics for some time, now…trying to get electoral power, get control of the cities, especially the black cities since the 30s. So, what has been the impact of those efforts? And, then, what’s happening to the white elite which wields all the economic power, and what kind of a role does it continue to play in society? So, even if some black communities have gained political power, what does it mean when economic power base is still white and judiciary still likes to be supremacist? And, how do we contrast that to the large prison economy, which the black population, unfortunately, continues to be yoked to?
It’s always possible to be discouraged by the challenges which confront us. But, our communities are coming up with novel ways of responding to them. They are, for instance, trying to understand their relationship with their past and put it in a constructive context as regards their future. So, we have this term called ‘Afro- Futurism’, a creative formulation which helps us use science fiction as a way of going..where we want to be, not just where we have been – to imagine and envision what the future could look like. For example, when we talk about reparations, a concept that arises from our understanding of our past, a necessary part of how black people look at compensation for the free labor that built the United States for hundreds of years, we want to figure out what would that mean for our families, for ourselves, what does it mean for the land which received our free labor, what does it mean for the entire way in which we relate to it and to our larger surroundings. In a way, this exploration has tremendous spiritual significance. We are very spiritually rooted whether it is African-Hebrew religions, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. So, how do the different religious and spiritual ways in which we interact with each other show up in how we want to relate to the economy and politics that impact our lives? For us that’s important, because we really do believe that building community and building spiritual fortitude is extremely necessary to withstand all the challenges that the system throws at us.
In these communities, the people’s response to their immediate circumstances has been amazing. Faced with the gradual disappearance of the manufacturing tradition, for instance, they are, now, pursuing the concept of fabrication technology. They also want their legacy and knowledge of farming to continue to live and prosper, so they’re trying to figure out urban farming, now. They want to know how to use plants for medicine?
The larger immediate threat facing all three of these cities, Birmingham, Jackson, and Detroit is that they are all basically bankrupt. There is no tax base because all the money has moved out of the city into white flight areas. In fact, all black cities in United States are faced with the challenge of how to exist with no tax base, right? How should they rebuild a tax base that is sustainable? They have to look for ideas and inspiration from within the communities.
The other aspect of the struggle and the search for transformation is to explore relationships with similar efforts underway, globally. For instance, global migration is an expanding phenomenon, and for us, the term, Black-U.S. doesn’t mean African-American, it means ‘Black’. So, that’s just not people from Africa, it means people from India, it means people from Peru and it means people from all over the world. And, so, when we think about ‘Blackness’ as a social construct, how do its various manifestations in the U.S. relate to its meaning in the rest of the world? It also means that we have to have an international perspective on our struggle so that we understand our role as complicit in US domination, and stregthen our role as people who are pushing back against it.
AK: Thanks a lot, Elandria, on your read on these crucial issues. Mabrouka would you like to add something more on the transformatory actions and ideas that you experienced on that journey?
MM: When I went to these cities I was amazed by what I experienced and got really inspired by how each struggle actually responds to its challenges. So, in any transformative alternative that is being implemented there are dimensions of struggle against existing patterns of domination, whether it is against police violence, whether it is against water privatization, and so on. So, there are always manifestations of struggle against patriarchy, against capitalism. And, in terms of the alternatives, the one thing that really struck me was the creativity of the idea of Afro-Futurism for being so proactive in imagining a collective future. It also helped the communities alter their relationship with nature, where nature ceased to become this material world that you extract from. Instead, it became a source of inspiration. So, for example, we found a lot of people in Detroit looking at nature as a source of knowledge and wisdom and applying this into the fabrication lab that they were working on.
Personally, this learning journey has been amazing and I am taking the experiences and knowledge that I’ve gained back to Africa. One of things that Elandria just touched upon is that in my country and in that region, there is still this idea that United States is a powerful, uniformly prosperous country, right? And above all it’s a thriving democracy. And I think it’s really important that we question that narrative, and share these alternative stories about the struggle of the black community, about poverty, about violence. It is really important that people understand and deconstruct the existing reality and are able to then organize their own struggles against these patterns of domination whether it’s capitalism, neoliberalism, neoimperialism, racism, patriarchy and the predatory relationship with nature.
AK: That certainly is an important point. Any quick last words, Elandria?
EW: I would just say that one thing that was very powerful was Mabrouka being part of this journey, because as much as this experience was meaningful for her, the people, in turn, also learned so much from Mabrouka’s experience in Tunisia. Firstly, it assured people that they were not alone in their efforts, and secondly, they were inspired by the Tunisian revolution, and how this amazing civil resistance movement ushered in democracy in that country. It left them with a sense of power and possibility – that our struggles are similar and we we must continue to pursue our goals with purpose and strength. People really felt inspired and blessed.
AK: Thank you, both.
MM: And thank you, Ashish!
Ashish Kothari is a co-founder of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, India.
Elandria Williams is a community organizer with multiple expertise. She is the training director at PeoplesHub, an interactive online training school that supports people and groups where they live. Elandria also provides cooperative development support to cooperatives mostly in the Southern United States and is a co-editor of Beautiful Solutions, a project that is gathering some of the most promising and contagious stories, solutions, strategies and big questions for building a more just, democratic, and resilient world.
Mabrouka Mbarek is a Tunisian academic and politician who was a member of the Constitution Assembly Of Tunisia.
The interviews in the RED Conversation series are not an exact transcription of the recorded interview. They are an approximation based on an interpretation as well as a summation of the original interview. The original interview can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMvauqfRVls&t=191s
This interview was transcribed by Shrishtee Bajpayi
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