The Personal Is Political
JoAnn Hardesty was organizing long before she knew it was a career. She represented District 19 in the Oregon House before she ever thought of herself as an organizer. However, with or without the label, Hardesty has been organizing most of her life. “I remember that from a young age I was angry about injustice. I remember constantly questioning my parents? But why, that’s not fair! I realize how much patience my mom had when I was much older! I’m sure that she prayed a lot for me.”
Hardesty developed a fierce sense of justice as a child of the civl rights movement. “My idea of justice hasn’t changed, justice is an ideal that African Americans have never enjoyed in this country but we continue to strive for. Justice would demand that the social determinants of health would be the same regardless of your ethnic or racial background. Justice would mean that your ZIP code won’t determine your outcomes in life.
Hardesty’s first ZIP code was in Baltimore, Maryland, where the mothers in the community were M-O-Ms with all capital letters. “What I mean is they looked out for all the children,” she explained. “If you were somewhere you weren’t suppose to be, the neighborhood moms would tell your mom before you could make it home. At the time it was annoying but as I became an adult I realized how priceless that was.” Not only did it provide physical and emotional security for Hardesty, it also prepared her to resist internalizing the racist and sexist judgements that plague our society. As she continued, “It prepared me for the sexism, racism and other ism’s I experience regularly in Oregon…I have a strong sense of self and justice and I thank my family and community for preparing me for this ongoing challenge in our society.”
Her first job with the official organizer label was at Oregon Action, but she believes “I’ve been organizing all my life I just didn’t have a name for it!” As she clarified, “I didn’t consider myself an organizer for a long-time. I was committed to working with people to help them use their voice. I didn’t know there was a profession for it. It was just something I did.”
Living in Oregon, Hardesty did not for one moment believe Obama’s election brought a post-racial society. She believes we can never be “post-racial” so long as we refuse to deal with race openly and with intent. She said, “We like to pretend that our society is welcoming of all yet with the decades of disparate outcomes we can no longer afford the illusion of equality. Generations have been lost because we tinker around the edges of addressing the underlying white supremacy mindset that has created and maintained all our institutions. Without an intentional effort to reform our institutions we will continue to tinker around the edges.”
As President of the NAACP, Hardesty is not about tinkering around the edges. Of course, whenever people advocate for justice and against racism, there is always criticism and backlash from those who identify with white supremacy. To be very clear, the NAACP receives no public funding and all its leaders are volunteers. “Every time we are mentioned in the press there are those who write about us feeding at the trough of public funding. Also the NAACP has always been a diverse mixed of people from all walks of life who want to work towards a more racially justice society.”
She thinks Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been optimistic when he said “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” For Hardesty, justice remains elusive and she thinks it will continue to be. “I’ve learned in my lifetime that there are no permanent civil right wins! For every win there is an organized effort to roll back those gains.” This does not mean she has no hope. She is encouraged by “the renewed activism of young people on college campuses, high schools and in other visible leadership roles throughout the city.”
For now, Hardesty is redirecting her organizing priorities to a new audience. She believes it is important to expand the choir and reach out to a new audience by “engaging in deep racial justice training with new suspects…I’m spending a lot of time in Beaverton, Hillsboro and Lake Oswego talking with people who know something is fundamentally wrong in our country and they want to help but don’t know how to begin, I believe the best use of my time is calling in these people to join something bigger than themselves and have an impact.”
Hardesty understands that the greatest expression of love for your community is to make it better–not to let problems fester and scars to deepen, but to show up, to protest, to dissent, to reform and constantly agitate for improvement.
Is there a difference between organizing and activism?
Yes definitely! Anyone can be an activist, don’t like something go to the powers that be and demand they change it. Organizing is more strategic. Organizing requires a deep understanding of the impact of public policy decisions on the people most impacted by those decisions. Then it requires engaging with those most impacted and helping them gain their voice in advocating for changes to these same policies.
People keep saying we need to show solidarity with people who will be targets of the new regime. It’s a word thrown around a lot, but it has to be more than the closing at the end of a letter. How do you define solidarity? How do we show solidarity?
I was told this after making the decision to pull the NAACP Portland Branch out of the Women’s March on Jan 20th. To the people who were pushing me to rejoin solidarity met that regardless of the abuse my volunteers suffered attempting to create an inclusive march that would address those most at risk under this administration, we should just swallow it for the sake of standing together. Telling victims of racism to suck it up for solidarity shows those making that request didn’t consider the lived experience of my volunteer. That is unacceptable to ask or expect in this era.
Another word being used quite a bit is ally? What is an ally? Some anti-racist activists say they need fewer allies and more accomplices? What do you think they mean?
I have also moved away from seeking allies to seeking co-conspirators. Why? Being an ally is a passive action. You can click like on a fb post, write a letter to the editor, show up for a march, etc. but you don’t have to put anything on the line to be an ally. You just say it but don’t have to match it with action. A co-conspirators on the other hand are putting their privilege and bodies on the line and working cooperatively with community of color leaders. We need many more co-conspirators because they are active, engaged, building relations and learning and improving as they work to improve the community.
Karl Popper has argued that tolerating the intolerant inevitably leads to an intolerant society. On the other hand, John Milton says truth will always defeat error if speech is unrestricted and free. Where do you find yourself? Is it suicidal to tolerate those who do not tolerate us?
I believe it is a waste of time to spend energy on those who are intolerant of us. It is a better use of our limited resources to spend time bring in people who share our values and believe we can/are better than the current situation would lead us to believe is possible.
What is your response to those who say we must reduce the emphasis on human rights organizing (identity politics) in electoral campaigns so we are more agreeable to working class voters?
I believe the implosion of the Democratic Party is tied to their inability to embrace identity politics. The Democratic Party wants to appeal to an audience it has never appealed to and yet wasted significant resources every election cycle attempting to appeal to that same small group of voters. The far left and far right are in totally agreement that their political parties don’t represent them. I left the Democratic Party after they squandered super majorities in both houses and the presidency. Unless the Democratic Party conducts an autopsy of their failures I’m afraid we are in for one party leadership for a long time to come.
What kind of world do you want to leave for the next generation, or, to put it another way, imagine the world in 30 years, what do you hope it will be like?
It is my hope that the next generation figures out how to take money out of our political system so that regular people can run and serve in public office.
What can we do to achieve that vision?
Engage young people in our current organizing; provide support for their leadership development; encourage, train and support new leadership for public office
Self-care is part of resistance. How do you take care of yourself?
Self-care is vital–I check out periodically, take long weekends out of town, and plan at least 3 vacations a year. Once I put a get away on my calendar I treat it like any other appointment–required!
Where do you go for news and information?
- The New York Times is still the best newspaper in the country
- I also listen to Amy Goodman and public affairs on KBOO
- I read all the community newspapers–the best Street Roots