I recently returned to some collaborative writing from the “Breaking Consent” project. Our first paper from the project will be on group-centered leadership formation in contemporary racial justice organizing. The intention is to produce a contribution to academic and movement-relevant literatures that Ohio Student Association organizers can smoothly incorporate in the political education and leadership development processes of the organization.
The article intervenes in the context of “horizontalist” and “verticalist” arguments about social justice organizing (arguments quickly described at the outset of this post on the Mobilizing Ideas blog). Contemporary racial justice organizing in the United States is remarkable in part for how it fundamentally challenges the terms of this debate. Although contemporary racial justice organizing is often interpreted as “leaderless” in the mold of Occupy, and is sometimes revered for its spontaneous quality by people who presume to speak for the movement, people contributing to U.S.-based racial justice organizing since 2012 have explicitly described the work as “leader-full.” With this descriptor, racial justice organizers are naming a post-liberal turn towards group-centered leadership formation that revives subjugated histories of the Black Freedom Movement and disobeys the dichotomy in social movement theory and practice between “vertical” and “horizontal” modes of political engagement.
Our article maps connections between subjugated histories of Black Freedom struggle and contemporary organizing practices, and identifies challenges facing racial justice organizers who promote group-centered leadership formation. We are informed by an array of movement-relevant literature and data (video reflections, journals, fieldnotes, and interviews) from our process of “strategic reflection” in the Ohio Student Association. Our analysis follows post-Althusserian currents in political theory to characterize hero-centred charismatic leadership as a technology of policing, echoing a paper I presented at the 2016 Mini-Conference on Policing and Race in Cincinnati. In contrast, we characterize group-centered leadership formation as a mode of politicization. By framing group-centered leadership formation this way, we emphasize that, while these processes clearly disrupt an unjust configuration of the world, group-centered leadership formation is even more significant for how it ensures both escalation in movement moments and stability in organizational moments.
Group-centered leadership formation is not, however, an easy solution to organizational shortcomings of “leaderless” protest. Activists promoted leaderlessness because it seems to promise relief from ubiquitous oligarchical forms of political engagement. Organizers of “leader-full” campaigns have developed organizing practices that appear to address the problems of accountability, sustainability, strategic uncertainty, and individualism associated with “leaderless” protest, but they also must skillfully negotiate tendencies towards mediation and individualization that have historically been established through the lionization of charismatic leaders.
Readers interested in these themes might also enjoy the “Social Movement Leadership” forum on the blog Mobilizing Ideas.