Avalon Publishing Group/Nation Books firm published in November 2005 a book of letters from various younger Movement activists, titled Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out. The book was co-edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin and Kenyon Farrow. It also contains a preface by former Weather Underground fugitive Bernardine Dohrn, who was one of the 1960s anti-war activists interviewed in the Oscar-nominated documentary film of a few years ago, The Weather Underground. (Co-editor Boudin’s still-imprisoned father, David Gilbert, was another of the 1960s anti-war activists interviewed in The Weather Underground movie). Toward Freedom recently interviewed Dan Berger about the Letters From Young Activists book project.
Toward Freedom: Why do you think there was a need these days for a book like Letters From Young Activists?
Dan Berger: Since at least the 1960s, the Left has insisted that young people are at the forefront of social change. Since the 1980s, the mainstream media has decried the apathy of young people (a claim reiterated with each new gadget to hit the market). Since the 1999 demonstrations that shut down the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, there has been increased focus on the “New New Left,” on the activists of today.
And yet throughout these competing claims, from both the mainstream and the Left, young activists themselves were missing. Older activists or pundits would discuss our activism or our apathy, what we were or were not or should be doing. More often than not, such discussions were frightfully off base and out of touch with the on-the-ground reality. So my co-editors and I came together to create a space for today’s activists and organizers to define the issues on their/our terms, to challenge the notion of gen-x apathy, to expand the Left’s notions of who counts as an activist and what counts as politics, to showcase the great work young people are doing across the country. In short, we wanted to get beyond the spin and rhetoric, to give voice to today’s Movement, to the myriad of social justice endeavors now in motion.
It seems like we really struck a nerve: events have repeatedly packed bookstores and other venues, fostered provocative discussions, brought a slew of activists together, and reinvigorated activists young and old. The book went into its second printing one month after its release.
TF: How do you think Letters From Young Activists is different from most of the other books about U.S. politics and activism that U.S. anti-war readers can find on the bookstore and library shelves these days?
DB: One of the main differences is to be found in the format of the book. As editors, the three of us strongly felt that the letters format enabled a more genuine and passionate discussion of politics-a way to deal with politics on both intellectual and emotional levels, rather than juxtaposing the two, as is so often the case. We worked hard to ensure that everything in the book was an actual letter, and not just an essay that begins with “dear” and ends with “love,” because we find it to be a more democratic and egalitarian way of engaging in political debate.
The fact that we “limited” our contributors to young activists while also broadening our focus to include as many movements as possible makes the book further stand out. There aren’t many books I know of that explicitly give people, especially on the Left, under 35 a chance to speak their mind. And young folks have a lot to say! We view the book as an organizing tool, which means it in part functions as a critical intervention in ways other books do not. The book provides a glimpse at current organizing initiatives as much as it calls the Movement to task for its shortcomings. Young activists write to their parents, to older activists, to authorities, to each other, to the future-letters are addressed to an impressive array of audiences, sparking dialogue about politics and relationships that are rarely engaged in as they are here.
I also think that the way the book came together showcases its unique contribution among the small collection of books about the Movement.
TF: How did you go about obtaining letters for the book?
DB: Each of us invited friends and comrades to contribute to the project, although the bulk of the forty-five authors in the book are not people any of us knew beforehand. (Which has been a refreshing aspect of the project-the Movement is not as small and insular as it may seem in our daily lives!) The three of us crafted a general vision for the project, and sent calls for submissions to every activist listserv or organization we could think of. From there, letters accumulated rapidly-we were on a tight deadline-and we revised our outline accordingly, adding or eliminating chapters as dictated by the submissions.
While no trio could claim to speak for the Movement, we recognized early on in the process that, given the realities of who the three of us are, we especially could not. As three men-two white and one Black-we needed to ensure that we created as honest and accountable a book as possible. Our vision of the Movement, as well as the reality of who is doing cutting edge organizing today, is not all male and two-thirds white. Part of the way we tried to model accountability was by establishing a group of older activists, all women of color, to serve as our advisory board. Kai Lumumba Barrow, Yuri Kochiyama, Elizabeth Betita Martinez, and Zoharah Simmons all read and commented on the manuscript, helping us fill in gaps of voices or content. With their advice and our own consciousness, we examined each letter both for what it said and for who was saying it to ensure that no one group or set of politics dominated. The result is a book of people ranging in age from 10 to 31, spread throughout the country, half people of color, and one-third queer.
Inevitably, there are still holes in the book, voices and ideas that should be included that are not-because of space considerations or who contributed or the timing of the project. That is, I think, a reality of any project, especially one as ambitious in scope as this one. But on the whole I feel quite positive about the process we engaged in to put this book together.
TF: How did you decide which letters to include in the book? How democratic was the selection process? Were there any political disagreements among the co-editors about which letters to include in the book or any complaints from those activists whose letters were not included in the book?
DB: The three of us read and edited each letter. Then we discussed each one with the advisory board and with Bernardine Dohrn, a longtime activist who wrote the preface, and had subsequent conversations based on the feedback we received and our own ideas. As with any project, there were debates and differences; we don’t love each letter equally, but we all agreed on what letters were to be included. Due to publishing constraints, we also had to cut a few letters at the last minute, which is an unfortunate part of the book world. But we had good communication with our authors throughout, and many of the letters that we could not include in the book are going up on our website.
TF: Will the activists whose letters appear in Letters From Young Activists receive any money from the Avalon Publishing Group/Nation Books firm, if the book sells well on the U.S. anti-war consumer book market?
DB: So far, any pittance we’ve gotten has gone into promoting the book: website design and maintenance, advertising, and so forth. Even when books do well, little of it reaches the authors. Our priority all along has been to get the book into as many hands as possible.
TF: Does Letters From Young Activists include any letters from activists who are involved in labor union activism and organizing? Are there any letters from U.S. activists of color whose parents are U.S. political prisoners?
DB: The book features people involved in array of organizing projects, although it’s not readily apparent in each letter what organizations the author is involved in. Someone heavily involved in the ongoing NYU grad student strike wrote a letter about the potentials and pitfalls of punk rock activism. A paid labor organizer wrote a letter about being a genderqueer union organizer, challenging homo- and gender-phobia in the labor movement. A lot of ground is covered!
It’s worth mentioning that, while many movements are discussed and represented in the book, the two most common are Palestine solidarity and prison justice. This is an accomplishment, in my view, given how central both issues are in today’s world and in shaping the consciousness of many young radicals. Much as in the Movement itself, the letters aren’t all coming from the same place: Palestinians discuss the pain of occupation; Jews wrestle with Jewish and Israeli identity in the face of both Israeli occupation and ongoing anti-Semitism; children of incarcerated parents grapple with prison reform versus abolition, while also struggling with the fact that their loved ones may have made regrettable choices; radicals discuss the mentoring received from political prisoners and wonder aloud what the future holds for people such as Mumia Abu-Jamal. However they are framed, letters repeatedly grapple with defining issues of our time in resisting white supremacy and occupation.
TF: Have many book readings been held around the United States to launch the book? Are there any book readings planned in 2006?
DB: The book officially launched on November 8. We had an event that night at Bluestockings, a feminist bookstore in New York City, and have been going strong ever since. We’ve done events throughout the Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and the Bay area. They’ve mostly been at independent bookstores, but we’ve done some in corporate bookstores, in people’s homes, at political meetings-and discussion has sizzled throughout.
We’re currently working on trying to get funds to set up gigs in places where we haven’t been able to go yet, such as the South and the Northwest. And there are still a ton of events in the coming months throughout New York City, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. People can find an updated listing of events at our website, www.lettersfromyoungactivists.org.
TF: Have you been given much opportunity to talk about Letters From Young Activists on any of the mainstream or alternative media television or radio talk shows?
DB: We’ve each done a few radio appearances-mainly WBAI in New York City (the local Pacifica affiliate), and local NPR stations. So far, we haven’t gotten much attention on television or radio. That may change in the coming months, but I think it’s important to bear in mind the ways of reaching people today are not just through these traditional mediums. Lots of people know about the book through reviews, blogs, and word-of-mouth.
TF: What kind of questions and comments have you been getting from the audience at your book readings? Are you finding that the people attending the initial book readings are generally older than the activists whose letters are contained in the book? If this has been the case, what do you think would be the possible reasons?
DB: The age demographics of event attendance has varied depending on where we’re speaking and what kind of organizing and publicity the venue did beforehand. Usually, though, events have had an eclectic mix of older activists interested in the current generation of radicals, and young folks who want to talk politics. Regardless of age, events have brought out both radicals and non-activists who are angry at the state of the world and not quite sure what to do about it-people who are beginning to see that the issue(s) they feel passionately about are related to broader systemic questions of power and privilege. Given the current state of the world, many people are coming to events with questions of political strategy and direction-what is the Movement, how do we build a bigger or more unified Left, what should we be doing, where do we find hope, how do today’s activists differ from or relate to previous generations, and so on. It’s a time period, I think, when people are getting increasingly upset at the way things are going: in Iraq, in New Orleans, in Washington, in their/our neighborhood, wherever. And so people are excited about the passion young people are bringing to remaking the world, hopeful that it can catalyze progressive change.
TF: Have there been many reviews of the book published yet in the U.S. mainstream and alternative media press?
DB: The book came out in November, so reviews are just starting to come in now. So far, it hasn’t gotten much mainstream attention (that I know of), but has received favorable reviews in High Times and Left Turn magazines, and online with Alternet.org and Bookslut.com. More reviews, from both mainstream and alternative sources, will be appearing in the coming months-and we of course welcome and encourage people to review the book for publications and blogs they are in contact with.
TF: The 2004 book Bushwomen by Laura Flanders contained a chapter that seemed much more morally critical of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s career choices than the letter to Condoleezza Rice which was included in Letters From Young Activists. Do you think the political viewpoint expressed in the book’s letter to Condoleezza Rice reflects the political viewpoint of most younger activists these days?
DB: The letter you’re asking about is written by Kenyon Farrow, one of the other book’s editors. In his letter, available in the book and now on the Toward Freedom website, Kenyon argues that Condoleeza Rice took one of the only options available to Black people who know how to play the game. Her association with the Bush clan is undoubtedly repulsive, but the deeper issue is that U.S. white supremacy leaves Black people few options: “Your ascendance to the role of secretary of state, for me, simply is what it is-a reflection of a racist society that isolates brilliant Black people from themselves and forces them to serve America’s imperial interests.” The point is to target white supremacy as the enemy, not Condoleeza Rice-to focus on the real power brokers and eradicate the system that makes such choices an option. As Kenyon said in a recent event we did at the Riverside Church in New York City, we should be clear that Condoleeza works for the enemy but is not the enemy herself.
One of the fascinating things for me in doing book events and having conversations about the book is seeing that while lots of people appreciate and learn from Kenyon’s letter, those that question it disapprove are almost universally white. Black audiences, in my experience, have loved the letter-because in it can be found a humanity and palpable concern for the plight of Black people writ large, and not just the ones the white Left happens to agree with or approve of.
Looking more broadly, I think one of the book’s greatest strengths is its diversity of voices, the fact that no one author epitomizes this generation of young activists. Letters in the book disagree with each other, some with more subtlety than others. Many young activists, in my view, are currently trying to build a Movement that is both cohesive and nuanced, to reject the lowest-common-denominator forms of unity for a vision of solidarity that is strategic, accountable, and allows for differences. That, to me, is a positive development.
TF: How can Toward Freedom readers who can’t make it to the future book readings go about ordering Letters From Young Activists, obtaining more information about the book, or setting up their own book reading event?
DB: We established a website, www.lettersfromyoungactivists.org, to help spread the word about the project, publish letters we couldn’t fit in the book but still wanted to help put out in the world, and be accessible to wider groups of people. People can get more information about the book, its editors and contributors, and our various contact information through the website.
TF: Are other books by any of the Letters From Young Activists co-editors or contributors going to be published in 2006?
DB: Yes, as a matter of fact! My book on the Weather Underground, entitled “Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity,” will be out with AK Press in February. (While that book is a broad history of the Weather Underground, it particularly builds off of my longstanding friendship with David Gilbert, Chesa’s biological father, who is a political prisoner in New York state.) Chesa translated a book of interviews with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called “Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution” that Monthly Review Press put out, and Chesa co-wrote a book called “The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions-100 Answers” that Thunders Mouth Press will be putting out, also in February. Kenyon is busy working on a book about the current state of Black politics in multiracial/multicultural America. (More of his writings can be found on his blog, www.everyshuteyeaintsleep.blogspot.com). And the contributors to “Letters From Young Activists” continue to write, rant, and stir up trouble wherever they live: a generation on the rise.
Visit www.lettersfromyoungactivists.org for more information.