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A Shared Meal & A Car Ride

16:55

Illustration: Angie Kang,

The co-founder of the FANG Collective reflects on what community organizing really means.

Transcript

Mayo Saji

Now Here This

October 16, 2018

A Shared Meal & a Car Ride

S: Sherrie

M: Mayo

You’ve never heard the saying Mayo? You know,  “the… way to be a good organizer is to organize yourself out of a job”

That’s Sherrie. I met them almost two years ago at one of their non violent direct action trainings. The training was being hosted by the FANG Collective—an environmental justice organization that Sherrie co-founded. FANG used to stand for Fighting Against Natural Gas. But throughout the years, they’ve picked up other issues like powerplants, police brutality, and ICE detainments. They’ve decided not to use the acronym anymore but kept the catchy title. It was right after Trump’s election, the start of a new year, and I wanted to do something. When the training ended, I gave them my contact info, and a few days later, Nick—the other co-founder of FANG—asked me if I would be willing to get arrested.

A month or so later, I found myself locking my neck to the entrance of Citizen’s Bank headquarters in downtown Providence, Rhode Island.

[clip from the action]

This is happening now, this is live in Providence, RI.

There are two folks right now locked down to the citizens plaza

Citizen’s Bank is the largest contributor in the Dakota Access Pipeline Project.

A year later Citizens Bank did end up cutting their funding to the Dakota Access Pipeline and other connected pipelines. But when I interviewed Sherrie last Spring, I was more interested in hearing about how FANG was started and how Sherrie saw their role in it. It started off with really basic questions like “How do you self-identify?” and turned into a 3-hour deep dive into Sherrie’s life.

We got dinner together, so there’s some background noise here My name is Sherrie Anne Andre… I mostly identify as an organizer, though I feel like that title has been thrust on me mostly because there’s no other title for the work I do…

Sherrie grew up in Bristol, Rhode Island, has done work advocating for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and while they identify as a community organizer, they feel as though they are more of a listener or strategist.

  

S: Historically, FANG started as a place for people of color to utilize non violent direct action in the environmental movement. Especially here on the northeast where I didn’t see people who looked like me, using direct action tactics to resist capitalistic infrastructure projects.

The Collective is made up of people across the Northeast. When they formed, their focus was on working together to fight the natural gas fracking projects that were being built across their communities.

S: And so that’s what it started as, and I still feel like it is a place for people of color to be trained to utilize direct action tactics whether it is for environmental based campaigns, or if they take it back to their communities to do with as they please.

Community organizing is in some ways, a job no one wants to do. At its hardest, it brings into question what being in community even means, and who gets to determine what that looks like. At its most basic function, Sherrie wants FANG to be a refuge for marginalized communities as well as a bridge to greater resources and training.

S: In movement work, we don’t allow for people of color to make mistakes because we fight so hard to get into a leadership position that if we fall, we’re so easily replaced by a white person. 

If we say something wrong, or we slip up or, you know, maybe we’re asked a question that we’re not personally knowledgeable about or maybe we are and we don’t feel comfortable saying how we truly feel in the space… If we fuck up, we’re…just knocked off very quickly and I wanted to create a space where people could.. not just make mistakes, but question themselves in a way that they weren’t putting themselves down. “Why am I doing this work?” “How can I do it better?…without people telling me that I’m doing it wrong all the time ”

One of my favorite things about Sherrie is their confidence in talking to white people about the needs and experiences of people of color. After we finished dinner together, at this small restaurant off Hope St., we decided to roam around downtown Providence in their car. I realized I’d never really asked Sherrie much about their life.

S: I started doing environmental organizing when I came home from one of my trips to South Dakota, and it was around the time that the Keystone XL was a big deal…

I started to work with a group that was based in Rhode Island… This was the first time I tried to engage with environmentalism as the lead, and it just like, I just couldn’t do it, without being told that it wasn’t important, it was like being told that any part of me wasn’t important

This group Sherrie started working with—before FANG was formed—was pretty dismissive of Sherrie’s inputs and reluctant to include communities of color when they talked about environmental harms. Their dismissiveness was something that didn’t make any sense to Sherrie from how they’ve seen and experienced environmental issues in their life.

People of color are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, they don’t have time for us to convince capitalistic structures or capitalistic systems to change the way that they are investing their money. They actually need you to stop allowing things from being constructed in their communities, which means we actually have to like physically stop them, and that means we have to utilize direct action and that was like a whole ‘nother conversation, that was a little bit difficult to have, because I found that white folks have their own perception of what is violent and what is not violent, and the act of sitting in or the act of risking arrest or utilizing civil disobedience is often called violent… unless we’re sitting around and reminiscing about Dr. King.

FANG sees direct action as critical, I think, because they’re seeing environmental issues in a way that actually puts communities, and marginalized people first—something that not many organizations really do. And this shows in how FANG is also dedicated to providing support to people in whichever way they are most needed, even if it’s not direct action based.

When FANG formed, we had all of these ideas of how we would hopefully be you know, supportive of people of color taking action in the ways that felt good, because it didn’t always mean doing direct action, it meant taking action in the ways that you felt you could take action to support your communities, we aren’t here to tell you what that looks like.

FANG is unique in this way—by becoming a resource for communities trying to organize rather than strictly a direct-action only organization. FANG also doesn’t try to take over communities or tell them what to do but works with as many community members as possible, providing the space and tools to help them organize themselves.

Part of this work for FANG, means helping people get things they otherwise don’t have access to.

S: Yeah… I think this is actually something too that I study is… (laughter) how… people of color navigate spaces that weren’t created for them, so they can access resources and bring them back to their communities

S: And I think that’s my job. I know you… yeah, when you asked me what do you think your role is or what it is you do, my job is to reallocate resources that have been taken away from communities of color and find a way to give them back to them. And not just communities of color… you know, even one of our first campaigns was with a low-income white community.

This movement eats up people who don’t look the way you want them to and don’t say the things that you want them to say.

Around this point in the interview, I became so engulfed in what Sherrie was saying, that my pre-planned questions just totally felt insufficient. I don’t think I was prepared for the weight of the answers I was receiving.

S: Community looks like knowing if my mom’s utilities get turned off, she’s 1. Not shamed and 2. Has somewhere to go if she needed to and that it would be turned on by dinner time because there are enough people aware of the need and are able to find a way to make it happen. I think community means… more than just sitting in a room in a meeting with people who are like minded and have a similar goal to fight something or shut something down, and then leave and don’t really care about how each other gets home and whether or not they made it safely. I can’t organize that way. I think community is not just a shared meal but… a collective of creating that meal together and having difficult conversations, holding each other accountable, creating spaces where, we’re really deconstructing all of the systems within ourselves that are making us harmful people because even if we’re trying really hard to be the best that we can be, we are impacted by systematic oppression in a way that we harm other people

Hearing Sherrie speak, it sounds like they have a total and beautiful vision of what communities should look like and how they can grow. But organizing and working with the FANG Collective is not something that Sherrie saw themselves doing forever or even for a few years. When FANG was founded, it was in a moment when they felt something like it was needed. They didn’t think they would be around for so long.

M: Do you think you’re happy with what you’ve done so far?

S: Well, that’s a loaded question.

M: I know I’m sorry. (laughter)

S: Um… no. With FANG, I’m not entirely happy, I think there’s a lot of work to be done.

I don’t think that there’s ever going to be a moment in time where I feel satisfied because, we haven’t won.

M: What would winning be?

S: Uh, I don’t know. I’m a utilitarian, (laughter) so I don’t know what that would look like. I think it would just look like the end of suffering for a lot of people. And I don’t think that’s going to happen within my life time.

So then what happens when you’re spending your life doing work that feels like a constant battle? And a fight that won’t be won within your lifetime? What are you giving up in dedicating so much time to such an emotionally draining job?

As an organizer who isn’t always paid and isn’t in a place of financial stability I’m not able to provide resources for my own family and so my mother has to work, you know, a shitty job and often doesn’t sleep and will have 24-hr shifts and I’m not able to supplement her income because I don’t make enough money or make any money doing this work and I think that’s a big source of pain and frustration and definitely like guilt of like trying to make this decision.

I have chosen to work within this quote-on-quote movement/struggle that I think sometimes is glamorized by folks who don’t actually know what it’s like to be poor. And.. that sucks, and it’s definitely something that weighs on me every day when I have to make choices. Of, do I continue to risk arrest or do I continue to spend all of my time doing free labor, free work, because I think or I believe in an action or a movement or a group of people and I want to support them, and then go home and you know, see my mom not be able to do any of the things that she wants to as an immigrant, who came here, with the intentions of me having a quote-on-quote better life and is this the “better life” she wanted me to have? And … she doesn’t say anything. But I’m not living up to those expectations or hopes and dreams that she had for me in terms of me giving back to her. But she’ll never say that. And I think that in some way means that she believes in what I’m doing um but I … I don’t know, it’s still something that I carry.

…Ultimately, Sherrie wants to move on with their life, go to law school, be able to help care for their mom and family, maybe even have kids. What they’re doing right now—the time that organizing is demanding from their life—none of it is something they necessarily signed up for. I don’t think that Sherrie would ever say they regret any of the work they’ve done by far. I actually think it’s really amazing what FANG has ended up doing and becoming and I hope Sherrie knows that. 

I want a future like the one Sherrie is dreaming of. Where community isn’t something people have to work so hard to make. I think that we could learn a lot from the FANG Collective right now, so that someday, a role like Sherrie’s, truly will be something we just all do.

Having a conversation with a person, that’s organizing. Listening to a person, is organizing, right. We just don’t use that terminology. Um. And we don’t need to, right that’s – we don’t need to use that language when talking about building relationships with people but… If we are building relationships with each other and are trusting each other, then we’re already winning a little bit more every day.

If we do a good enough job of organizing and supporting people and encouraging people to build relationships with each other, then we just won’t be needed, and people will just do it themselves. I think that everything that FANG is doing isn’t something that people don’t know how to do, it’s just, they don’t have the time to do it. And we’re taking the time to remind them that these are all skills that you have within yourself.

But I don’t think that it’s necessarily getting rid of my role its… it’s that people will already know that that role has been theirs the whole time.