Revolutionary Movement Politics and Radical Inclusion

Vermont Crossroads Conference

November 11, 2017

Conference remarks

Representative Kiah Morris

So here we all are, ready and eager to do the good work put in front of us. We stand in this moment in time, in solidarity with brothers and sisters through our state, our nation and the globe who are using the power of the people to push forth courageous and necessary changes that our very survival on this planet are dependent upon. Today, you have built relationships with crucial organizations in our state who are working actively to ensure the will of the people is honored and activated. I would like to thank the organizers of this event and my sponsors and compatriots Rights and Democracy of Vermont and my husband James and son Jamal who are here today for making it possible for me to share this space and this moment in time with each of you.

My role here today is a unique one: I come to you today as a wife and mother of a young black son, as a daughter, sister, aunt, friend. I am the child of revolutionaries who were passionate about human rights and the liberation of people of color. I have been a member of Vermont’s working poor, caught in a constant liminality between a professional life and paychecks that force the tough questions of fuel oil or food that so many Vermonters wrestle with every day.

My life is not all that different from yours on a day to day basis, with one difference: my position as a legislator gives me direct access to and an ability to exercise political power in many spheres that our communities have been historically and currently marginalized and excluded from. I can take the mic at a school board meeting as a mother of a child at a local public school and express my concerns and praise for work underway and it carries a little more weight. I can take the stories of my friends and neighbors who struggle with addiction, the crushing weight of poverty, food insecurity, environmental injustice, exploitation in the workplaces and abuses of our criminal justice system and not only utilize them in a critical analysis but enact policies to end these systemic violations of our human rights.

By all conventional standards, I should not be here. I am a black woman in the second whitest state in the union. I made the decision to run for office at a time when I was facing devastating layoffs from my employer and needed childcare subsidy to keep my son in his pre-school program. I live on the farthest end of the state from our capitol and would have to make the choice to live away from my family, my young son for the majority of my weeks during the legislative session. I was neither wealthy nor retired which are typically the determinants of who gets to serve.  But I heard you, and I decided that running was a must and that the changes needed to open up our government would compel me to demand space in that space.

What got me to this place of power and what defines my movement within these power spaces is simple, it is what I consider political courage. For me, Political courage is the ability to push forth policy that is responsive to the people’s needs regardless of consequence. It is the ability drive agendas that may not be popular but are absolutely necessary. As a woman, and especially as a woman of color, my courage must work towards the eradication of issues of race, gender, class and civil rights. That courage must be centered on true social justice. I must be willing to not only speak the truths about what must change but accept that this power is not mine to hold and is granted to me by the people. My political courage is shaped by our collective morals and values. It is strengthened by your voices. It is defined by revolutionary movement politics.

As a leader with Rights and Democracy, I often consider the tenet of Movement Politics that challenges the narrative that some leader must save us. That the ability to destroy and dismantle systems of injustice can only be executed by a particular leader. Revolutionary movement politics requires that the systems of power become egalitarian and decentralized and that the leadership resides within us all. Without that structure, we become lazy and inept when our leaders are forcibly removed or disenfranchised from the process. It leaves us disappointed when those we sought to deliver us, fail to deliver on the promises that they gave and or that we projected on to them in our quest to find a movement messiah. I think of the election and tenure of Barack Hussein Obama. So much hope and promise imbued in that era that was also punctuated with critical departures from the social contract that drove his campaign.

I am blessed to have been in Chicago when President Barack Obama won the election. I remember riding the subway downtown to wait for the results with nearly a quarter of a million other souls in the heart of the city. Beautiful black and brown people crowded the streets adorned in head to toe “Obama gear.” The excitement and elation as the results were announced is a moment I will never forget. The next morning, my thoughts fell on the weight of it all, this movement that made history, the promise of so much change. And I thought, it is going to be heartbreaking for folks the first time that he disappoints them. It was an inevitability that he would be complicit in some policy or endorse some action that would result in real pain for some Americans. That may cost the lives of our military. That might result in further oppression of the poor. That normalize deportations and the destruction of our communities. 

Activist and scholar Angela Davis talked about the potential and problematic aspects of seeking a deified personhood to embody the revolutionary changes that we need to build a just society. She says: “The problem was that people [from the Obama campaign] who associated themselves with that movement did not continue to wield that collective power as pressure that might have compelled Obama to move in more progressive directions.” She says, that even as we are critical of Obama, what we lacked was not the “right president” but a well-organized mass movement. So once again, it is not seeking a singular savior of sorts to help guide us to the promised land but an intricate network of courageous truth tellers who will amplify the voices of the people to critically shape political will and redefine political courage.

When I speak to college students about what the core of political policy entails, I try to remind them every political movement from Stonewall to Standing Rock, from Adapt and Resist to the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the Brown Berets to the Black Lives Matter movement is fueled from the truth that the political is deeply personal. And that our laws, policies and governmental functions are to work in service to the values, morals and ethics of our society. For example, there should be no question in anyone’s mind that individuals with disabilities should be granted an ability to move in the world unencumbered. That baseline accommodations should not be a request, but a standard. We get that, yet it had to be reified with a national policy called the Americans With Disabilities Act or the ADA. The ADA is currently under attack. Yet, many of the movements that I am engaged do not have individuals from that community on their leadership teams.

Sister Davis reminds us that,

 “We have to extricate ourselves from narrow identarian thinking if we want to encourage progressive people to embrace these struggles as their own. Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles you will always defeat your own purposes if you cannot imagine the people around whom you are struggling as equal partners. Therefore, if you think of them simply the objects of charity of others, you are constituting them as inferior in the process of trying to liberate them.”

So I add that without the direct participation of marginalized communities in the development of your movement, your movement has no real meaning.

I often hear, there are no people of color in Vermont. I have heard this from many leaders in this state. The label of "whitest state in the union" becomes a crutch to keep us from doing the real work of meaningful, revolutionary inclusion. This is lazy leadership of the most tepid form. In reality, anxiety over presence of those people of color, is that their opinions might buck established group dynamics. The truth-telling of the real lived experiences of those leaders might challenge not only the assumptions of the movement they are engaged in but will likely push members of these groups to experience the discomfort of personal growth required to become truly anti-racist, meaningful allies and comrades in this work. You might just learn, that you are doing it all wrong. And that perhaps you have to begin again. I urge you to suck it up, and find the courage to do the work, whatever it takes. Lives are on the line and we must be willing to do so much more than we thought we are capable of doing to achieve what has not but should have been done ages ago.

If your website is not ADA compliant, then you have inadvertently excluded members of the disability community from the most basic components of your movement. They literally cannot engage with your functional communications. If your meetings do not provide childcare, then you have unwittingly cut out families who have no other means to participate in critical dialogues without having to overcome structural barriers that your movement has created.

My story is powerful. My story, narrated by someone else is not. Right now we need you deeply engaged with this work. Each of you. We need to share the load and care for one another. And we need to ask our friends and neighbors to get involved in ways that are meaningful for them. I leave you with a quote from Sanders campaign leader and co-author of the powerful book Rules for Revolutionaries, Becky Bond,

“One idea is to let all the people who are just waiting to be asked to do something big, to let them take on responsibility that's in scale to their skill and desire to be involved.

One of things we learned too on the campaign was people are so talented and committed that if you actually give them control and there's a strategy that makes sense to them, it will get us from the world where we are to the world where we want to be.”