Bree Carlson

The Personal Is Political

Bree Carlson has been politically active almost as long as she has been alive. She learned the importance of political engagement from her mother who passionately demonstrated it as a board member of Planned Parenthood. Her mom was also active in fighting for union representation at the casino where she worked as a cocktail waitresses. With her mother as role model, Carlson knew that she wanted to make a difference, though she did not know it would be in organizing.

Bree Carlson with her mother
Photo Courtesy of Bree Carlson

She originally envisioned a career in public service or in electoral politics, but once she was introduced to the idea of organizing as a way to win change, she knew that was for her. She was working a service job with a gang intervention program when her friendship with Bob Fulkerson at Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada showed her there was another, more radical road. In her own words, “When I understood what an organizer was, that was clear it was what I wanted to do.”

Carlson counts herself lucky to have been raised by a single mother and a “flock of cocktail waitresses” who taught her everything she needed to know, including self-sufficiency. “I am the only child of a single mother who was a cocktail waitress. Single mothers are smart humans. The only things that ever got done in my childhood, everything that got fixed, everything that got solved, everything that was made possible, was made possible by a woman. I never learned there were things I was not supposed to be able to do because I was a girl and I am so grateful for that.”

Now that she is married, her self-sufficiency bumps into her partner’s helpfulness from time to time. “For example, I got a flat tire and though he knows I am capable of changing a tire he never considered that it’s my car, so I would change it,  it’s my tire and I never considered anyone else what going to change the tire but me. There’s all these things that most women understand and navigate have to overcome that I never learned.”

Photo Courtesy of Bree Carlson

Carlson’s first political act was supporting her mother working for a statewide referendum to protect abortion access and codify Roe v. Wade that passed by over 60% of the vote. She was on picket lines to support the referendum. “There was never a time in my life when that was not political active… I was queer and came out very early. The combination of all those things made being politically active the natural course of growing up.”

Carlson credits growing up in Reno with her understanding of and ability to see the humanity in the people who voted for Trump. “ I may not be white and I certainly saw the ugliest parts of white supremacy growing up, but I also saw the beauty of my working-class white community. I learned at the end of the day that being racist is not the worst thing a person could be.”

Q&A

Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The arc of the moral is long, but it bends toward justice.” Do you believe that?

I have come to realize probably not. My relationship to this work is spiritual, that it’s connected to a calling, for me. I was not raised as a Christian. Dr. King’s statement can imply a level of fate about the world and the inevitability of justice.  I don’t like ideas that do not center human will and responsibility for our choices and decisions. It is up to humanity to make it true. I believe in the moment that he said it there was evidence to support it, though I don’t know whether the evidence continues to lean toward his position

What gives you hope?

I think part of is my relationship to this work. I feel blessed, for lack of a better word, because I get to see evidence of small and large miracles happening around us every day. It is in what people are doing in their choices. I have a lot of good reasons to do the right thing on any given day. I may not do it, but I have all of the knowledge and opportunity anyone could ask for, so when I choose to do the right thing, the risk is not remarkable. But I see everyday people take tremendous risk with less information and opportunity to do the right thing. When they do, there is something miraculous about that.

This is the most horrific moment in my lifetime, with Donald Trump in the Whitehouse and the agenda he is moving. I am also watching people take tremendous risks and take public stances against him. Also, the people who voted for him….there’s a level of courage there, too. The reality of neoliberalism as the one and only way is deeply imbedded our country and in our culture. Some people probably voted for †rump because they’re horrible, but most people voted for him out of desperation, out of a real sense that the economy is broken. The people who are resisting Trump and his racist wall street agenda are so hopeful and inspiring to me. Evidence of hope is getting bigger as people resist what is happening in our country.

Is there a difference between organizing and activism?

Yes, and the difference is not just about criticizing activism. Organizing is a system. It’s not as glorious as activism. It requires more of us because it’s not just taking a position, but building collective power behind that position, which means the positions won’t fully reflect what you personally believe and won’t be as clean as individual decisions to care or not care about a thing. Of course, other people use the words interchangeably so people will say activism for organizing. But it’s the difference between individual action and taking collective responsibility to grow the power to make our position a real thing.

Photo Courtesy of Bree Carlson

People keep saying we need to show solidarity with people who will be targets of the new regime. How do you define solidarity? How do we show solidarity?

This is one of those word I have relinquished trying to control, meaning I can define it but I think a more meaningful distinction is between what it should be and how it is more often expressed. I don’t love the word, but I love the idea in the way I understand it. I think solidarity is when your sense of well-being and security is deeply tied to the circumstance of others and you are willing to take risks on behalf of others because of how important the issue or the situation is to you. It is taking action on behalf of others not just because it’s an issue you care about but because you understand their well-being is connected to your well-being. I don’t think it’s bad when people take action just because they think something is wrong. It’s just different. I believe solidarity is more permanent and deeply connected to self-interest. You can have empathy and take action based on that empathy. You can have sympathy and take action based on that sympathy. Solidarity is taking action based on your own interest, which is not the same.

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?

People’s Action Founding
Photo Courtesy of Bree Carlson

I think this speaks to the same tensions as solidarity, sympathy, and empathy. I don’t attribute much meaning to the word ally. Allyship is a way we demonstrate empathy or sympathy and you know, sometimes in courageous ways, but in general, being an ally is not taking a risk. Being an ally is often speaking up for other people versus the deep conviction that your fate is tied to that of others. And of course ally is used in the context of anti-racism and other target groups in  individual oppression power models where you are acting against structural oppression, which can be powerful. Sometimes, though,  being an ally allows you to do shit nobody asked you to do. It allows you to be an activist without considering the consequences of that activism for the people you are supposed to be an ally for. .

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?

The idea that truth always wins on the battlefield is nonsense. I don’t know how anybody can be awake in the world and imagine that is the case. Power always wins on the battlefield; truth is much more subjective.

Eliminating intolerance is in my experience unlikely to work because we refuse to tolerate intolerance. What happens is we are intolerant of people we perceive to be intolerant and make no effort to understand them or acknowledge the whole person. We have the ability to do better.  We have to understand the roots of intolerance and correct them, not be intolerant ourselves.

One of the big problems on the left is there is more work on enforcing liberal beliefs and behavior than work on rooting out the cause of the behaviors we don’t want. There’s something more to addressing intolerance than not tolerating it, and that includes addressing its source. We can’t universally label Trump voters bad people as though the only way to be good is to be more informed than most people have the ability to be, to be willing to sacrifice their family’s perceived well-being on behalf of an abstract other. No, there are some terrible reasons for supporting Donald Trump, but there are some damn good reasons to want a big change in an economy that has failed working people.

The utter failure of the left actually address economic devastation is the reason that Bernie Sanders performed so well in the primaries and it is also part of the reason Trump was elected. The idea that we can say people are bad or good based on something so complex is not only unfair, it is unwise. The idea we should address the behaviors of intolerance without addressing the causes of intolerance is short-sighted.

Photo Courtesy of Bree Carlson

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?

That is a stupid argument. The simple answer is I am so frustrated by it I can’t think of a reasonable answer.

What does justice mean to you?

I can give you a Martin Luther King quote (laughs). I am not entirely sure I can answer that. I think I can answer what justice looks like for more specific issues, but I am not sure what justice means writ large.

What is intersectionality and how is it reflected in your work? How do we pursue authentic intersectional strategies and policies?

I have not thought a lot about intersectionality. My organization is talking a lot about it lately in a really textbook way. Intersectionality has been the umbrella to assert that we must focus on gender justice, investing in that work in lockstep with we have done over the last six years to be more serious about race and racism. Again, that is textbook, foreseeable, and very frustrating. It’s not that I don’t get that intersectionality, I know quite personally that black women have a different experience than black men and white women, and that being queer is a different experience from straight black women. But intersectionality as a strategy can become a distraction that manifests in our work in a way that takes away from our ability to do anything very well. It sometimes seems we are more concerned with being able to name all the intersectional consequences of a problem than we are to build the power to fix the problem.

Bree Carlson & Lori Villarosa of Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity Photo Courtesy of Bree Carlson

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?

I am just hoping to create an opening; trying to create a break in the status quo. Even that seems tremendously ambitious. I miss the days when I thought we could actually fix the problems. I would like to leave the world with more possibilities for the next generation. A better strategic position or a stronger position from which to build. I don’t ever wish for a world without struggle because I know there will always be a struggle between forces. If we won, we would relax more than we should. I don’t know how I will feel tomorrow, but today the moral universe is not tending toward justice.

What can we do to achieve that vision?

We have to take bigger risks. I feel like the people who say we need to move away from expanding human rights in electoral politics want to appeal to the base they think we lost with Trump. I think we need to ask for more. The thing with Donald Trump is he has broken the status quo enough for there to be conversations about large-scale change. To work only with what is possible without imagining the impossible is not our job as organizers. Our job is to expand what is on the table. While they work as hard as possible to put worse options on the table, our job is to imagine a better life for the well-being our organizations and the well-being of our people.    

Photo Courtesy of Bree Carlson

Self-care is part of resistance. How do you take care of yourself?

I do all the things that are part of American culture. I online shop. I play solitaire. I watch things that are not at all good for me, but they clear my mind. I go to pilates. I work in my house, clean things or fix something, so I feel I have achieved something tangible. I suppose self-care is supposed to be elevated to something deeper, but I find this is the kind of self-care that works for me.

Where do you go for news and information?

Because I work in an organization where I can rely on the people around me to provide me with a deeper level of knowledge on the things I need to know, I don’t tend to consume a lot of news.

I am old enough and crotchety enough, I don’t really do well with podcasts. I listen to NPR in the morning and if there’s something I need more information on, I look to my colleagues.

Bree Carlson is the Deputy Director of People’s Action, a national organization that brings together the power of National People’s Action, Alliance for a Just Society, and USAction. Before that, she was the Director of the Structural Racism Program at National People’s Action,. She worked developing and implementing a Dismantling Racism curriculum with Dismantling Racism Works. She also worked for the Center for Third World Organizing for several years and before that worked for PLAN, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
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