An Interview with Chris Crass


{mosmedia} In his book A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen articulates the dilemma of following one’s passions while surviving in a capitalist society: “Wishing away the wage economy did not make it cease to exist, and my determination to stop selling my hours did not lessen my need for food, nor for a place to stay. In other words, despite my highfalutin philosophy, I still had to find a way to earn some cash.”  Chris Crass is a political organizer who has grappled with this dilemma for years. 

I had read Chris’s articles in Clamor and HeartattaCk before, but I didn’t meet him until the summer of 2003, while participating in a workshop that Chris led on the role of leadership within progressive and radical movements. His writings and activist work continue to inspire other activists to develop strategies of dismantling structural oppression and creating new models of organizing. He currently serves as the coordinator of the Catalyst Project, a center for political education and movement building.

I met up with Chris again during the week after the 2005 San Francisco Anarchist Book Fair in a raucous coffee shop right across the street from the Catalyst Project office.

When people ask you, “What do you do?” how do you usually respond to that?

It kind of depends on who’s asking me.  My general response is that I work with an organization that does anti-racist education with other white people to stand against racism and stand up for social justice.  If it’s people who are already connected to left/radical politics then my general response is that I primarily do political education work and alliance-building work. Trying to help mostly white sectors of the global justice/anti-war movement develop a stronger analysis and commitment to anti-racist politics, with the goal of building multi-racial movements against capitalism and for collective liberation. And then if people who ask me are just sort of, maybe they’re progressive or kind of interested in some different issues or just starting to get into activism, if they say, “Oh, what do you do?” Then I’ll say, I mostly try to deal with issues around: How does institutional racism play out in society? What are ways that we can be trying to, for myself as a white person, really look at how racism impacts my life and impacts the world around me, and how to be trying to take action to transform the situation. And really looking at how racism is both historical and institutional and is a primary way that the society is organized. So for people who believe in justice, who believe in democracy, who believe in equality: we really need to do organizing in our communities to change and transform the ways that systems of oppression play out in our lives.  And then if people who ask me are conservatives then I make an assessment about how useful it is to actually engage or not.  What I do say is something more broad to clearly indicate that I am a left anti-racist through a comment against the war or for immigrant rights or something like that.

So, what kinds of responses to you usually get to that? Is there usually a follow-up to that where people ask if that’s really your job or assume that you couldn’t possibly be doing that for a living?

In terms of how work is understood in society, like with my extended family, that’s a different thing: I do education work. I’m a teacher. There’s certain things that you can say where there’s an image that comes to mind of what that kind of job or work looks like. If you say, “Oh yeah, I’m a left organizer trying to build power to overthrow capitalism and trying to build a free society for all people…” There’s not too many positive images of what that looks like for white middle class people, you know? They’re usually negative images, like somebody who’s crazy, out of their mind, advocating violence against random individuals.  For different families and different communities – working class, queer, of color, then there may be different images. People who are like, “Oh yeah, the labor movement, union organizer” where there’s some connotation. But for a lot of people that I talk to, I try to just connect a word or a concept that I think they will be able to understand-like educator-and then from there start attaching radical politics to that concept, something that people can grasp onto. But usually if I say I’m an organizer people are like, “Oh, does that mean that you make a grocery list everyday? Do you try to make sure your refrigerator is full? Does that mean that you throw a lot of parties?” (Laughs)

There are all different kinds of organizers so just in general conversation I think it’s difficult because these kinds of labels also carry a lot of meaning. So if you tell somebody, “I’m an investment banker.” It’s like, “Oh wow!” That must mean that you’re fairly successful, meaning that you have access to a lot resources, meaning you have money. You probably went to some business school and have a good degree, meaning that it’s profitable in this society and you can get a really good house and that you have access to health care. And if you want to have kids they’d be able to get a better future than you did because you’ll be able to send them to the best schools. But if I say-even a concept that people know like educator-it’s like: public schools, teachers, people who are really busting their ass and getting paid very little. My housemate is an art teacher in high school-almost an endangered species in the state of California-and that means working long hours, getting paid not very well, and having the governor and people in power blaming teachers for the conditions of the schools. So even though you might have a concept that means something, there’s all kinds of other stuff that gets associated with it.

Also, in conversations with people when you talk about what you do, there’s just all kinds of status, all kinds of stuff about power and access to resources. And it plays out depending on the person that you’re talking to, what kind of language you use, what kinds of words you use, and the assumptions built into that. So yeah, it’s really difficult particularly for folks who are radical/left people doing all kinds of different jobs. If you’re doing this work there’s generally not a lot of access to resources, to being able to have health care and to develop a savings and things like that. So there’s also a certain level of reality to these different assumptions. But the assumptions are also: What are the real values that you have and what values really have meaning? So that question of, “What do you do?” is basically asking: “Who are you? What does that mean? What contribution are you making to the world?” And it’s usually not “contribution to the world” in terms of, “How are you trying to help communities be healthier?” but: “What are you doing? What do you have to prove that you’re a valuable person, a worthy person?”

“What is your status?”

A status, exactly. So yeah, the question of “What do you do?” is a pretty loaded one. And I think for a lot of us on the Left, we have a lot of hesitation and a lot of ambiguity around answering that, particularly for someone like myself who’s younger. I’m 31, at this point I should have some sort of mid-level management job somewhere, but I don’t. Particularly, I think, also for someone like myself raised a middle-class white guy there’s a certain sense of where you’re suppose to be in this society at this point in your life. So for me, there’s also a lot of connotations about, “What do you do?” There’s also a lot of class and race and gender stuff very much embedded within that of, “Well, where are you? Where are you going?” Those kinds of things. So yeah, that question-it can be anything from a very simple question that you talk about at a party to a soul-searching question.  My thinking these days is that most people want to get to know you, for left political people it’s really important to normalize anti-imperialism, anti-racism and so on, meaning that you talk about it from a place of confidence that most people are anti-war, believe in justice and so on.

Can you talk more specifically about your work? When people hear that you’re a political organizer they probably wonder if you get paid to do that. Are you able to pay your rent and other expenses?

Well, for most of my life after moving out of my parents’ house and high school and everything, for many years I worked as a video store clerk. Which is a very excellent job if you don’t have kids or you’re able to survive on a relatively little amount of money. So I worked as a video store clerk for about 8 years. Fantastic job. I highly recommend it. There’s always been a certain level of radical tradition connected to video store clerks as well and it should be strengthened. So what I do now: I’m the coordinator of the Catalyst Project, which is a center for political education and movement building. We primarily do workshops and trainings with community organizations, student groups, and activist groups around the country, as well as doing workshops and trainings at conferences. So that’s a big part of what we do. We also focus on doing leadership development and supporting folks who are in organizations who are working to advance anti-racist politics, thinking more in terms of long-term strategy. Thinking about, how can the work that we’re doing connect up with work that other folks are doing, in terms of alliance building?

The way that I make money is that about three years ago, as an organization, we decided that we wanted to have a full-time staff person. And so what that meant was that we were gonna put in some resources into trying to figure out how to make that happen. So that meant people within the group-which is small, just four people doing this work-putting our own money into the project to get this thing going. And before this that’s what was happening with the overwhelming number of volunteer hours people were putting into the project, which is what I was doing as well. But basically the work has really accelerated. There’s a lot of need, a lot of demand. There’s a lot of coordination and administrative work, keeping in contact with people, helping set things up logistically. As well as having somebody to really think about the work and try to help the group move forward in terms of planning agendas for meetings and facilitating-all kinds of different stuff. And a big part of it means trying to figure out how to support people who are doing volunteer hours within the organization and trying to support their projects through doing logistical support and things like that. Organizationally we made a commitment to having a staff person who will evaluate how it’s going. So that meant that we made a conscious decision to start trying to focus more on doing grassroots fundraising, including fee for service workshops. When we work with organizations around the country some of those organizations have no budgets but are a political priority, meaning: they’re doing really good work, they’re grassroots folks, and we want to support what they’re doing. So we figure out how to make that happen.

There’s a lot of organizations that have some level of resources, particularly at colleges and universities. The right wing has been extremely effective at knowing how to use speakers and do different kinds of things to pull money out of schools. There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in the schools. For example, we went and did a week of workshops at one school and got a couple thousand dollars. We were like, “Oh my god, this is fantastic!” Charlton Heston, as the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), did a one-hour speech and got thirty thousand plus dollars. I’m sure he took a portion of it, but most of that went into the NRA. And there’s a lot of right wing think tanks, in particular, that really know how to go around to different universities and collect large speaker fees. We’re not talking about a hundred bucks for your gas. We’re talking about ten thousand, twenty thousand, thirty thousand dollars for doing these speaking gigs at different places and all of that money is going into right wing think tanks.

The left on the other hand, and particularly anarchist/anti-authoritarian folks like myself, asking somebody: “Would it be cool to get a stipend of, like, fifty dollars?” is a really big challenge. So that’s one of the things we’ve been trying to do with grassroots fundraising. The right wing has really been taking advantage of how much money there is in the schools, and a lot of that money came through struggles to win public education, to win access to schools. So there’s also a lot of left/radical folks who have figured out how to utilize more of those resources. I know different people who have taken over their student governments at different places purely because they were then able to get access to a fifty thousand dollar student budget. And then to be able to use some of that money to support on-campus organizing and also help bring Angela Davis or a representative from the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), all these different folks to their campuses.

What it means for us, with the grassroots fundraising, is trying to figure out how we are able to do workshops fee for service. So we usually ask for a stipend of a few hundred bucks to a thousand bucks, depending on what it is that we’re doing. We also, as part of grassroots fundraising, look to get support from our comrades, our families, our friends. Part of being able to have sustainable organizations means that the people who you work with-the people who you’re connected to-are people wanting to support that work. And generally people do want to support the work that we’re doing. Every year we just hit folks up saying, “Hey, this is what we’re up to, we really need support to be able to continue this. If you don’t have any money to contribute, don’t worry about it.” The main thing is just doing this work and most of the people who we’re in relation to are also doing political work. But we work with hundreds of different people around the country so it’s partly about having folks put some money into the institutions on the left, in radical communities, to be able to help support them. We’ve also done some level of giving foundation grants, but we haven’t done very much of that. So it’s a matter of just trying to raise money to be able to support the organization.

I know that’s a long answer to that question. But with grassroots fundraising the main thing I’m trying to get across here is that there’s a lot of resources that go untapped, particularly by students and people who actually do have some level of connection to resources. And whether or not it’s because there’s class guilt or race guilt (i.e. pretending to not have access to any resources) or different stuff going on, it gets people confused about what resources mean. Like for myself, I grew up comfortably middle class, but my aesthetics were all about punk and looking a certain way and wearing the same clothes all time. And that’s all cool, but when it comes down to actually thinking about what kinds of resources do you have access to-to be able to try to build organizations and institutions that are fighting for justice…So often we’ll talk to people who will say, “I don’t have any resources at all.” Then we’ll just ask a few questions and then they’ll be like, “Oh, actually I do have access to a lot of resources.” Resources doesn’t mean just a fat check or a big savings account. It means being able to have access to different kinds of technology, or a nice space where people are able to have meetings, having a community of friends to pull together parties to raise money or through benefit shows. That’s a resource. The main resource though is people’s time. There’s an enormous amount of time that people put in and it’s just important for us on the left to recognize that as a real resource. Not just in terms of, “How can people be doing work?” but really appreciating how much work people do. Some get burnt out and overwhelmed and it’s just really important that we take people’s time as a resource really seriously and to appreciate what people are doing.

It seems really essential for you and the Catalyst Project to have you do this as your full-time job because the amount of work you’re doing wouldn’t be possible if you were waiting tables somewhere and trying to do this in your spare time. So that’s great that you could create that position.  Can you talk about how living in an urban environment, and San Francisco in particular, affects your lifestyle and the relationship between living here and the work you do?

Yeah, living in San Francisco has an enormous impact on my way of life and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to move here. Partly because there are a lot of long-standing organizations and individuals who have been committed to left/radical politics who have really fought. There are people who have been fighting all over the country, but in San Francisco some significant gains were won. San Francisco State and Berkeley University were the two campuses that ethnic studies student strikes were set off in 1968 and ’69 that swept the country. To the queer liberation movement where some real gains have been made. Just having institutions, neighborhoods and places where a certain politics is on the table and has won in some instances. And that doesn’t mean that San Francisco doesn’t have right wing politics and ongoing battles locally, but it also means that there’s a certain level of institutional memory and institutional resources for somebody like myself to be able to have access to. There are a lot of different organizations in San Francisco-which means that there are a lot of people that we’re able to work with-particularly doing anti-racism work, multi-racial alliance building work. A lot are led by folks of color that are doing really fantastic work around economic and racial justice. They’re all over the country but in the Bay Area there are definitely a large number of folks who are doing work with a clear anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist framework.

Part of it is that there are strong connections between generations. With the Catalyst Project, some of our advisors-meaning people who give us guidance, who make themselves available to talk with us about things going on in our group, who helps us out-include Elizabeth Betina Martinez who came out of the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s and was one of the main people of the Chicano Power Movement. We have Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz who was a major leader of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Max Elbaum who was part of the New Communist Movement, Paul Kivel who has spent the majority of his life doing anti-sexism work with men and political education work, Linda Evans who was part of Weather Underground and has done a lot of incredible work during her life. So there are different people that we’ve been able to build relationships with and that’s just enormously helpful and useful in terms of how we think about the work that we’re doing and how to have a long term perspective. Which doesn’t mean that we have it; it means that we’re trying to develop it and we’ve got people that are trying to help us think about it, which is very cool.

But in terms of the economic, day to day stuff, San Francisco is incredibly expensive. When I first moved here, we moved into the Mission District in the early ’90s when gentrification was not quite out there but the first initial waves were starting to build, with mostly younger white punks and artists who were moving into the neighborhood. And I was a part of that. Then a couple years later that meant that because more and more alternative white folks were around it made the environment a little more-quote, unquote-“safe” for other white folks to start moving in who didn’t care about the community. Or maybe they did care, but just the very fact that more white folks were moving into the neighborhood meant that there were more stores opening up, serving to that clientele. Then the police began saying that they were trying to protect the neighborhood for all these folks who were moving in and all that kind of stuff. My rent went up from $300 a month to $570 a month because of gentrification, because we were fighting with the landlord. The landlord was able to jack up our rent even in the late ’90s.

So living in San Francisco is pretty hard on that front-how expensive it is-which means that we have to put a lot of time and energy into just trying to survive, in terms of raising enough money to pay rent and eat. Two of my housemates-one of whom is an art teacher-they have a two and half year-old daughter who’s amazing, she’s fantastic, and they work really hard to try to raise enough money to be able to survive themselves and also make sure that she’s got food and trying to figure out where she’s gonna go to school and how that will all play out. It is really challenging to be spending a considerable amount of your time doing political organizing because…I’m really lucky. It’s a real privilege to, at this time in my life, to be doing fulltime political work. I feel a high level of accountability to the people who support me and the people in my organization who I’m responsible to. But trying to do political work and pay rent and eat food and have some level of being able to just hang out and get some coffee or go see a movie or whatever is definitely challenging.

You’ve articulated that your main passion in life is political organizing around social justice issues. Can you talk about the difference between the time when you were working at the video store and your current situation in which these passions are completely integrated into the work that you do and your means for survival?                                          

Well, before when I was working at the video store I was also going to school at San Francisco State and the majority of my political work was Food Not Bombs. So, as a fulltime student and a fulltime member of Food Not Bombs and working at the video store, it was great. Work became the least stressful aspect of my life. It’s also useful when you have a workspace where you can do a lot of your organizing, like making phone calls and different stuff like that. As well as just trying to relax. If you can have a job where you’re able to do some level of political work and relax and try to get some money to be able to survive that’s really good.

But in terms of what’s changed since then, I don’t think you need to be a paid organizer to be able to live your political ideals. For me, with my situation at the Catalyst Project, a lot of it is about: What can I do? Because I am paid, and have more of consistency in what I’m doing. What does that mean in terms of the responsibility to really try to support the people who are in the organization or the people who are close allies to us? How can that job be a way to really try to support other folks to be able to do their political work? So it’s not as much staff for an organization that is going to do it all because they’re working full-time. It’s more like: How can people pull together resources to then be able to have some folks who are doing a lot of work? But a lot of that is about trying to support others doing their organizing work.

The way it is integrated, like with San Francisco Food Not Bombs (FNB), the way a lot of us tried to think about survival was: collective houses, a lot people living in a house to be able to divide the rent, divide our food, there’s less expenses. It’s a way to also have people in your life, in your house, who share politics and political commitment who are then able to do work together. So in our house, Praxis House, everybody was in FNB for years so everybody was committed to a certain politics and doing a certain kind of work. And we also tried to utilize DIY kind of stuff like a micro-powered radio station, collecting food through FNB, being able then to supply all of our houses with bread and some vegetables. But just really trying to think of what are some ways to be able to support each other to be able to spend as much of our time doing political work and not so much of our time doing paid work.

But it’s really difficult to sustain that, particularly as we get older. Being in your early 20’s, for me, was really different to be able to do that kind work than when you’re in your late 20’s or early 30’s and as more of the people around you or yourself start having kids, or wanting to have kids. Some people’s parents are starting to have illnesses or health issues that mean that people need to start helping out taking care of their parents or grandparents or family. And the way that this economy is organized is to-for large numbers of us-for working class folks, folks of color, queer folks, completely eliminate as much as possible any level of social support for health care, for food, for child care, for any of these things.

Things are getting horrible, in terms of just how much has been gutted from any kind of social service programs that came out of working class struggles in the ’30s primarily and for decades building up. In the ’30s a lot of concessions were won by working class folks to be able to get a lot of the social services that then allowed for people to have a little bit more support. Ideally, the goal is to win some reforms to build up power to fight for more and keep going. So with more social services being cut it means that more of our lives, in terms of being able to take care of kids, take care of family, is falling more and more on us. So it makes it really hard to be able to then be like, “Oh, I’m just gonna dumpster dive. I’ll just make my own clothes” Which are all cool things, but it’s not sustainable in terms of building a broad social movement to win world transformation of society. It’s really different to have kids and be talking about living off of FNB and things like that. It’s totally different.

So for where I’m at now, you can’t just form counter-culture activist communities and expect that to be the base from which radical change happens. We can form those, those are cool and they’re useful and they can be a good place for people to connect to politics and grow and learn a lot and do different kinds of good work, but there needs to be a lot more than that because to a lot of communities that just doesn’t make sense. For communities of color and working class communities a lot of it comes down much more to forming stronger organizations. To be able to do work in the community, whether it’s unions or organizations that are fighting for a living wage or for health care; all these different kinds of fights to try to improve conditions for people.

This isn’t a critique saying that people shouldn’t have alternative lifestyles, but it is a critique of a politics that champions alternative lifestyles over institutional change.  Because if we can fight and win child care as a subsidized program in communities around the country-there was a successful fight here in San Francisco for a living wage-those are real gains that bring more money into working class communities and communities of color and those allow us to have more space to breathe and live and fight.  The movements of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s built off of the real gains that working class movements won in the 30’s.  We’re organizing today in conditions – material and ideological – that shifted dramatically in the 80’s.  So in terms of how I think about my politics now it’s not so much thinking about, how do we form alternative communities? But how do we organize to really transform society towards social justice?

Is there anything else you want to add about this dilemma of trying to do what you love to do while still getting by?

I don’t know. It’s such a complex question. It’s really good to be thinking about this in collective ways. A lot of us are trying to deal with these questions. I talk to people all the time about this. It’s one thing to be a left activist, a radical activist for a couple years. It’s pretty doable. Or every now and then, just do this campaign here and do this thing here. But for a lot us, we’re really committed to trying to build left/radical movement in this country and that means a whole lot of different things. From trying to instill healthy, empowering values in the kids that we’re raising and learning from our kids, to being school teachers in public schools to being nurses and doctors; there’s all kinds of different ways. I don’t want to make it sound like the way we do social change work is that everyone’s supposed to get a job as a paid organizer. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. What I am trying to say is that we need to be able to talk with each other about these kinds of struggles and to help each other figure things out. I think the project that you’re doing is really useful because a lot of us take on a very individualized sense of these issues: “It’s about my own self-worth. It’s about, who am I in this world?” And it becomes this soul searching thing, like the question of “Oh, what do you do?” Next thing you know, for a lot of radical activists it’s like, “Yeah, what do I do?” and “Who am I? How can I communicate with other people about who and what I am? Are people going to look at me like I’m this alien that’s speaking an unknown language?” So it does become a real thing for people in terms of identity and who we are and all this kind of stuff.

But to really try to think collectively both about talking about these kinds of issues, talking with each other about it and getting feedback and ideas from each other, but also what are collective ways to try to solve these problems. And ultimately it’s going to be collective power that transforms society so that’s what we also need to look toward to think about these kinds of questions. So as much as possible, people being part of organizations who are working on different issues, to support each other and staying involved. Particularly younger generation people trying to build relationships with older generation people who have been doing political work. It’s just incredibly valuable to have people saying, “You know what, I went through this too. You’re not gonna die. Relax, take a deep breath.” It is challenging. It is hard. But there’s also real ways to think about how to do your work in a way that makes sense, that’s healthy, that’s sustainable, where you’re taking care of yourself and you’re making real contributions to trying to tear down capitalism, and white supremacy, and patriarchy, and heterosexism-these institutions that reek havoc on our lives.

So being collective about these issues, trying to be whatever you can, trying to develop intergenerational relationships with older folks to talk about these issues, and to really think about radical activism in a really holistic way. There are hundreds of ways that people put radical politics into practice and try to live their lives in a way that’s advancing social justice. So I appreciate that you’re doing this and that you’re talking to people and trying to make this a public conversation because a lot of us are trying to figure this shit out. I’m talking a lot because you’re interviewing me, but ultimately I want to be listening because I’m really excited to hear what other people have to say about these kinds of questions. And I think we need to figure a lot of shit out, but I also feel like we’re making some real progress. Particularly if more and more of us are like, “You know, I want to have kids and I’m fighting for revolutionary change.” Because a lot of activist communities aren’t supportive of people who want to have kids. When people are getting older and more folks are like, “I’m gonna keep building. I’m gonna keep organizing.” Like how the Montreal Anarchist Book Fair has a huge parents and kids space-not just a place for kids to hang out-but with games, shows and music and all this kind of stuff, which is awesome. That’s part of activist communities changing so that people can stay involved for the long haul, activist communities becoming supportive of older folks being involved, and kids being involved. So…collectively and intergenerational.

Matt Dineen is currently living in Northampton, MA after a one year affair with Madison, WI. He is struggling with the dilemma of following his passion for writing, music, and radical social change with the harsh reality of trying to get by and pay off debt. When he’s not filling out job applications at health food stores and restaurants Matt interns at Class Action, a non-profit organization working to bridge the class divide and create justice, equity, and sustainability for all.

Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of interviews for TF which Matt will be conducting with people exploring the dilemma of following one’s passions while surviving in a capitalist society.