Alternate Support Structures: What You Can Do Right Now

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TL;DR

This is going to a longer and kind of rough post, so here’s your TL;DR: We’re most likely going to see a catastrophic decline in public services at a federal and state level over the next four years. Now is the time to start working with at-risk communities to establish ALTERNATE, SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY BASED support systems to fill in those gaps.

This essay is organized with concrete ideas first, historical and theoretical guidance and background last. Please read what will be useful to you.

WHAT ARE THINGS YOU CAN DO RIGHT NOW

I was talking to someone close to me today who works in the Pennsylvania Department of Education, someone who has spent almost their entire professional life working to preserve for the educational rights of underserved Pennsylvanians. They’re an old school Democrat who was adamant that, look, there are some things that are the responsibility of government, and that they were going to stay exactly where they were and continue fighting to educate (and feed and clothe) the youth of my home state. I don’t disagree. I argue that anyone who is in a position of power in local, state, or federal government now has a duty to stay EXACTLY where they are and protect the rights of those people under their care. If you are in possession of both a position of power and a moral center, for fuckssake stay there.

But.

This is a state of emergency. It is manifestly clear that the incoming administration has every intention to abdicate the federal government’s responsibilities for the care of the people of the US. When government refuses to care for its citizenry, or promises to actively harm them, what are our options, the options of people not in a position to resist from inside government?

We are what we’ve got left. We are our best strength in this time.

We’re most likely going to see a catastrophic decline in public services at a federal and state level over the next four years. Now is the time to start working with at-risk communities to establish ALTERNATE, SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY BASED support systems to fill in those gaps. This does not mean that we are abandoning faith and hope in effective government. But we should be prepared to exit from failing civic structures (which can and often are weaponized by a predatory state and used to surveil, coerce, and damage at-risk communities) and establish services which are controlled and maintained by communities themselves.

CONCRETE ISSUES YOU CAN WORK ON RIGHT NOW

Here is a by-no-means-complete-list of community-based alternatives we can predict will become necessary in the coming years. If you are looking for things you can start working on in your community right now, start here. PLEASE reach out to organizations in at-risk communities to see what they are already doing on these issues before you decide to roll your own solution:

-food banks/free lunch/breakfast programs for children and others affected by food insecurity

-affordable and accessible child care solutions for working parents

-accessible legal aid for immigrants and other targeted communities

-alternative models of community policing that does not require at-risk populations to interact with state police forces

-alternate housing solutions (co-ops, communes, house shares, rent assistance, please see the history of squatting/housing occupations in Western Europe for examples of this)

-alternative/informal financial/savings institutions to counteract market instability/collapsing retirement savings/banking restrictions faced by undocumented workers and others

-support for community clinics and access to medical services and prescription drugs (please see the history of the AIDS crisis, ACT UP, and women’s health history for examples of these alternate structures)

-accessible curricula for supplementary/alternative schooling and education

-transportation infrastructure in many rural and urban areas underserved by public transit (see recent New Yorker article on “dollar vans” for examples of community-based solutions to this)

-accessible and useable comms infrastructure that supports privacy and encryption

-funding and legal protection for accessible reporting and research on climate change and other issues

-economic organizing to pressure businesses directly to acknowledge and fight global warming

-support strategies to ensure that ALL eligible voters have the education, means, required materials, and legal support to vote in the mid term elections two years from now, and in the next presidential election four years from now.

MORE CONTEXT AND GUIDANCE FROM RECENT HISTORY

I spent most of last year reading a huge pile of books on the history and theory of social movements for my qualifying exams. So let’s put that education to some use. I want to talk to you about a book called EXIT, VOICE, AND LOYALTY, and I want to talk to you about history, specifically the Black Panthers.

Albert O Hischman’s EXIT, VOICE, AND LOYALTY was published in the 1970s, and analyzes the potential responses to the decline in economic firms, organizations, and states. EXIT and VOICE are the two dissenting strategies he describes, and they pretty much are what they sound like. VOICE is the public, demonstrative voicing of dissent while staying within a given failing system. EXIT is the removal of oneself from a given failing system.

Now, if someone feels that they need to leave the US to feel safe and stay sane and productive, and that option is open to them, I urge them to take it. (I recognize that this seems to be in contradiction to the statement I made earlier in this post regarding the duty of those in government to stay in government. For now I am putting a pin in that contradiction and will address it in more detail in a later post.)

But exit can mean more than just leaving the country altogether. There are many historical examples Exit from given system within the state, coupled with the establishment of alternative, accessible infrastructures of support that are community-based and *not* corporate or profit-oriented in nature. One of the best historical examples of this is the direct community service performed by the Black Panthers during the 1960s and 1970s.

BLACK AGAINST EMPIRE is an excellent overview of the history of the Black Panthers and the repressive response of the state. I recommend reading this book in full, but right now I want to focus on the Black Panther’s extensive record community service and support within their underserve and actively antagonized community. As Bloom and Martin describe in BLACK AGAINST EMPIRE, the Panthers’ community service programs included:

“Free Breakfast for Children; liberation schools; free health clinics; Free Food Distribution Program; Free Clothing Distribution Program; child development centers; the Free Shoe Program; the Free Busing to Prison Program; the Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation; free housing cooperatives; the Free Pest Control Program; the Free Plumbing and Maintenance Program; renter’s assistance; legal aid; the Seniors Escorts Program; and the Free Ambulance Program. Virtually all chapters ran at least a Free Breakfast for Children Program at some point.”

These programs served diverse communities, providing concrete and necessary aid that the state was failing to provide. They also highlighted the states failures to step in and meet the basic needs of its people, particularly in underserved communities, while at the same time giving local communities knowledge and experience in “understanding of the process of grassroots institutional development — how to create and sustain their own much needed institutions from the ground up”.

What is critical here is that last point: these were not parachute programs run at a distance by outsiders. These programs involved the community that they served, meaning those communities were not made further reliant on outsiders for their welfare. The community served had control over these programs. In the modern context, this type of control might manifest as the presence of community members on a board of directors, as co-design consultants, or by employing Open Source/Free Software principles in the design and distribution of technical solutions.

Because the Panthers’ programs were public and visible, they served as both Exit and Voice: they were both the establishment of available alternatives and a public statement that the services provided by the state were vastly inadequate. However, this meant that such programs were also open to targeting and disruption by a hostile state, which they were, through police action and bureaucratic rule-lawyering. It should be up to communities to calculate their own risk profile and determine what level of publicness is appropriate for any given alternative support structure.

If your alternate structures are not SPECIFICALLY and EXPLICITLY accessible and governed by those marginalized populations that will be most negatively impacted by the policies of the coming administration, they are more likely to be a balm for you than a help to others. This is a time for those people with money, with privilege, with a degree of security, to turn to these populations and ask “What do you need and how can we help?”

Challenges may come from unexpected and potentially banal directions. For example: setting up a free breakfast or free lunch program is a good start. But what if you live in a rural area with poor public transportation? How can you get food to children when school is not in session? Figure out what the challenges are faced by the communities you intend to serve, and work to address those challenges WITH the community, not FOR them.

A good resource for techniques for designing solutions with communities is the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, which has a great track record in working with communities and educating designers in best-co-design practices.

I’ll stop here for now. More to come in the future.

Stay strong, and stay fierce, friends.

CONTEXTUAL DISCLOSURE

I am an American citizen currently living in Canada. I’ve lived here for the past three years and plan to be here for at least two more. I’m here on a student visa, pursuant to my doctoral work at McGill University in Montreal. My work is supported by a federal Canadian grant. My partner is Canadian and here with me in Canada. My family and most of my friends are in States.

Your assigned reading from this post:

Center for Civic Media Co Design Resources

Bloom, Joshua and Waldo Martin Jr. Black Against Empire. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA. (2013)

Rosenfeld, Seth. Subversives The FBI’S War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. New York, New York. (2012)

Hirschman, Albert O. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. (1970)

I’ve written previously about alternate infrastructures as a model of protest here.