Movements Where People Can Grow: An Interview with Helen Hudson

Chris Dixon

Helen Hudson is a queer Black anti-authoritarian organizer living in Montreal. For over a decade she has been actively involved in immigration, prisoner justice, queer, trans and feminist struggles, and student organizing. She spent four years working as the coordinator of QPIRG Concordia, an activist resource centre at Concordia University that serves as a central hub for student and community activists in Montreal. Currently, Hudson participates on the board of the Institute for Anarchist Studies, the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair collective, and the Certain Days Political Prisoner Calendar collective. She also works full-time as a nurse.

This interview is based on a conversation between Helen Hudson and Chris Dixon. A longtime anti-authoritarian activist and writer, Dixon spent more than ten years on the US West Coast where he was active in student, global justice, anti-racist, labour, and anti-war organizing efforts. Dixon initiated this conversation as part of a project in which he traveled across Canada and the US to talk with other anti-authoritarian organizers about their work, challenges, and insights. Although what follows includes mainly Hudson’s contributions, these developed out of a joint exploration of their organizing experiences.

How would you describe your politics?

Although I don’t shy away from formal or intellectual descriptions, I still have a very hard time pinning down what I believe. I know what it is when I organize with people and see who I have affinity with and who I don’t. When I define how I organize on that basis, I find myself organizing with people who call themselves feminists and with people for whom all forms of oppression are central to their politics. Since coming to Montreal nine years ago, where the parameters are quite different than in English Canada, I keep ending up in organizations with “anarchist” in the title. I value organizing in anti-authoritarian ways that try to include people in decisions to the degree that they’re affected by the outcome. I value autonomy and self-determination but also community, solidarity.

I don’t have a very detailed vision of the exact kind of society I’d like to see, but I think the things that I value in organizing are the things I would value in a society. My hope is that if we address injustices now and organize in a just way, the society that follows will be the kind of society that I would want. I think that’s going to take an incredibly long time. I don’t necessarily see that achieved in my lifetime.

Some of the older organizers whose vision I really respect describe how certain they were in the sixties and seventies that the revolution was happening, and that they were going to see the type of society they wanted if they just gave it their all. They took incredible risks and did incredible things because they really thought it was very, very close. And I can see in world events at that time that it would make sense to think it was that close. Looking back, I see where they were coming from. On the other hand, I can’t fathom how anyone could have possibly thought that capitalism was about to fall. Capitalism was, and still is, quite robust and very good at adapting.

I want to learn from people’s mistakes, people’s disappoint-ments, and people’s misjudgments. I do want to be ready to give it my all, to give up things that I value, to take risks when it’s clear that it’s the moment to do so. But I also think it’s really important to organize sustainably and view this as something I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life. Similarly, I have to transmit what I’m doing to people who are younger than me because they’re going to be doing it for the rest of their lives. I’m not necessarily going to see the end result of it beyond the fact that doing it is its own end result. I’d much rather be living as an organizer, in the communities I’m involved with, than doing something else.

What does effective organizing look like to you?

Key to effective organizing is doing something that’s concrete and tangible to organizers with a long-term vision, to people who are newly politicized, and to whoever’s affected – whether it’s in a neighborhood or a campus or a prison or a workplace. To be effective, the goals have got to be clear to all those different participants, wherever they’re at in their level of consciousness of the political process.

I’m never sure how much of a distinction is useful between organizers as such, and people who are part of the community where the organizing is occurring. I do feel like consciousness is part of politics. I’ve heard the argument that everybody who is oppressed is conscious of their oppression and will therefore rise up and take back the world. I think that’s true to a degree. But being explicitly aware of the dynamics of oppression and exploitation, and then consciously acting to address them is a key part of being an organizer, or at least a participant in a movement, versus someone who’s part of an oppressed or exploited class, community, group, etc. So based on that belief, I think that effective organizing needs to recognize and speak to those differing levels of consciousness.

This idea was first apparent to me as I became involved in the student movement. In the mid 90s, tuition rose sharply in Canada, so in addition to those who were ideologically opposed to tuition, we began to see more and more people for whom it was a matter of “can I afford to come back to school next year?” In that instance it was relatively easy to build a campaign where the goal – a tuition freeze – encompassed both the tangible and the abstract in a way that was politically consistent. Although we weren’t successful in freezing (let alone abolishing) tuition, the fact that we were consistent in our politics did manage to politicize people in a way that lasted beyond the specific campaign.

More recently, I think of some of the challenges we’ve faced in migrant justice organizing, working with individuals or families who have very concrete concerns: they may have an imminent deportation date, they may be in detention, or maybe they don’t have access to vital medical care. We need to attend to those concerns, but also realize that doing so could keep us busy from now to eternity without ever addressing the larger oppressive system that draws us (as solidarity organizers, people who have papers) to these struggles – actually working towards status for all or for open borders.

Sometimes there’s been an effective balance of both factors. The campaign by non-status Algerians and their allies between 2002 and 2004 managed to win papers for the vast majority of those that sought them. It changed the terrain of non-status organizing in Montreal and launched a new level of mobilization around migrant justice. I was only peripherally involved in that campaign, but it strikes me that this balance existed in part because of external factors. When Canada lifted its moratorium on deportations to Algeria, about a thousand people suddenly faced deportation within a very short time. So the tangible-goal side of the equation was pretty much covered. Those thousand people were not that hard to mobilize. But the role of the solidarity organizers was also key. Some non-Algerians were very involved in the campaign, and they debated with their Algerian comrades about the politics, the strategy, and the tactics of the campaign. As a result of these debates, as well as the lived experience of struggle, some of the Algerians remained mobilized well after they got their papers. I don’t think those same material conditions have reoccurred since the non-status Algerians’ campaign, and as a result, that balance between concrete concerns and broader political goals is a tension that continues to be debated, rather than something that’s been adequately resolved.

What kinds of organizations and institutions do you think we should be building? Are there particular features or forms of organization that you think are important?

Organizing, movement-building to end capitalism is much more effective if there is an explicit, concrete form of organization. I’m talking about a radically democratic organization that exists over time, explicitly has a membership, explicitly has a set of politics, and has, for want of a better term, a process of membership development, so that people are doing the concrete tasks of organizing together while also learning how to do these tasks. There are lots of tangible skills that you learn informally over time. But we need a systematic way of making sure that people learn, for example, how to make a speech, how to do a door-to-door campaign, how to design a poster, how to write effectively, how to mobilize a bunch of people to fight around a demand, how to facilitate a meeting. It’s a huge limitation that we don’t have a formalized way of doing that.

I’d also like to see us be a lot clearer about how we can relate to organizations over which we have no direct ownership. The sorts of organizations I just finished talking about would be autonomous of any kind of state structure or structure outside of the movement. But how do we relate to organizations that can be a resource but aren’t autonomous? For example, the PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) at Concordia University does a lot of things for organizers. I think that’s great, but its funding comes from a source external to the movement – the student body of Concordia. When backlash occurs, that funding can be gone. When I was on staff at the Concordia PIRG, the political terrain on campus was quite left. Even in the backlash that followed 9/11, the PIRG was able to continue to function fairly well as a resource for organizers both on and off campus despite certain constraints. But I’ve seen a couple of PIRGs lose their funding, and many more have had to put significant energy into fighting against de-funding campaigns. So I’ve come to realize that we can’t operate as if we own those organizations. I do think we should continue to use them but we also need to be aware of the gap between the politics of the funders and those setting the group’s direction. The same is true of any organization with government or union funding. I think having a much higher consciousness and an explicit shared understanding about how we relate to those useful organizations that aren’t owned by the movement would be really helpful.

A third thing that we need is a series of institutions where we can, as a movement, explicitly and concretely elaborate theory, tools, and organizing approaches that can then be systematically shared among people and movements. This is what draws me to the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS), an organization whose purpose is to foster the elaboration of theory. The various methods the IAS uses to work toward this goal – its journal, the writing grants it provides to radical thinkers, and the annual Renewing the Anarchist Tradition conference it hosts – often seem less immediately important than working on frontline campaigns. But without theory, those frontline campaigns tend to flounder. We reinvent the wheel, or repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Could you talk about the dichotomy that frequently gets set up between “reform work” and “radical work.” How do we prioritize struggles to improve the lives of directly affected people while also retaining our radical vision?

I think we always need to be up front about why we’re doing what we’re doing. When we were fighting the tuition increases in Ontario in the 90s, the vast majority of people that came out to the rallies were opposed to the increases. But organizers were explicit that we were fighting the tuition hike because of the principle of accessibility to education. Not only did we not want tuition to go up, we didn’t want tuition to exist. Our demand to the university, as we occupied the president’s office, as we disrupted the board of governors meeting, was not “zero tuition now”; it was a freeze on the current tuition level. That was something we could rally more people around, but we were very clear that we wanted zero tuition. We were also very clear that, even with zero tuition, we would not have an accessible education because of all those things that make the University of Guelph, as it existed then and does now, inaccessible. We were talking about race and class and gender, about pedagogy and how the university is set up, and about the division of labor in the university. But we were talking about all of these issues in the speeches at the rallies against that specific tuition hike. We didn’t call a rally for an open university with radical pedagogy because nobody was going to come to that sort of rally in 1997 in Guelph.

We have to prioritize talking about why we’re doing what we’re doing and engaging people who are new to organizing. Things become reformist when the vast majority only see the specific goal and don’t connect it to something larger. There’s another element to this: all of these political goals are underpinned by caring about people – believing that everybody is good or can be good. I believe in the potential of everybody to be radicalized. There’s a lot in the world that makes people build up walls, especially in contexts in which people are oppressors at the same time as being oppressed, which is most of the time. But I think that struggle can be a really humanizing experience. If you’re struggling around a single-issue reform, but you organize yourself in such a way that the process is transformative for the people involved, then I think that’s what can make it non-reformist.

You’re saying that, through struggle, we experience our own humanity and the humanity of others in a really profound way.

Yeah, and in a really engaged way. I think a democratic society would look a lot like the way our movement is set up: people argue about things or elaborate what position would be the right position and try to convince each other. To be really engaged with your community is to have the kind of debates that are necessary to the movement, but I think they’re also necessary to any community. If there’s a problem or an injustice, you talk about it until it’s worked out. And that’s not always pretty. Sometimes horrific things happen in communities and people get really hurt. But I think engaging with that is a more human and humanizing experience than the ways in which mainstream society deals with injustice most of the time.

I’ve seen some feminist organizations I’ve been involved with really grapple with racism and transphobia in ways that were definitely hard, and sometimes caused deep rifts. But enough people stuck with the issue that real change was able to happen. All of the groups I’ve been part of that operated as women’s centres have since rethought their mandates to address the ways that patriarchy oppresses through transphobia as well as sexism. And at the same time, an analysis of white supremacy has become more commonplace in gender centres. These struggles are ongoing, but that’s sort of my point: there’s a willingness, at least on the part of some, to see this ever-developing politic as part of how these spaces operate.

It sounds like prefigurative politics, the idea that we should build ways of relating and social structures that reflect the kind of society that we want to create. How do you deal with the inherent contradiction that we can never build the perfect society in our movement as long as we have to keep fighting at the same time?

At the same time as we’re living in this movement, we’re living in this unjust world and we continue to soak up the poison of that, however much we fight against our own tendencies to be oppressive. It’s going to continue to seep in and we’re going to continue to be oppressed, both by the oppressive tendencies of other people in the movement and by the rest of the world we live in.

I see modeling what we want the world to be in our movement as key. Of all the ways we need to do that, one of the things I think we’re the worst at is having a very explicit structure. It’s also striking to me that we’re not that principled or caring in the way we treat each other. For example, if you look at discourses around security culture, there are very useful types of lists and tools that have been developed for how to treat each other specifically related to movement security. Similarly, quite a few “do’s and don’ts” lists and “how to” tools have been developed for responding to sexual assault in activist communities. Sometimes I think there just needs to be one overarching list of all the things we need to do all the time, period. The fact that we don’t owes, in part, to the fact that we don’t have an explicit, structured commitment to each other in a formal “we are in an organization” kind of way.

I think there’s humility and a lot of trust involved in treating people really well. And I think one of the things that oppression does is rob people of that trust. I don’t deny people their right to or justification for having a self-protective shell or being angry or putting themselves before others because I see how people have to do that to survive. But I feel like when I do that, I’m not surviving; it just makes me profoundly depressed to not be able to care for and trust people.

Are there particular examples that you feel are useful and replicable for developing healthy anti-oppression politics within groups and movement spaces?

For some reason, concrete examples don’t spring to mind as readily as lessons I feel I’ve drawn from working to undo oppression. Firstly, whatever else happens, it’s key that oppression be worked through and dismantled within the context of friendships. If people are going to anti-oppression workshops, reading the right books, and challenging each other on their behaviors, but they don’t also have close friends who really love them and trust them and whom they really love and trust, with whom they can talk about the ways that they’re being oppressive and really start to practice and model and learn other ways of being, it’s going to go nowhere. You can go to all the anti-oppression workshops you want, and read everything by everybody who has written good things about it, but it’s not going to go anywhere if you can’t stay up late in the night talking with someone about this dynamic where you realize you’re being oppressive but you’re not really sure how to work through it.

Secondly, I think it’s important to talk about oppression as a concept, but also specific forms of oppression – transphobia, sexism, racism, ableism, and others – and the particular ways in which those things play out. There are commonalities but there are also important differences. It’s important to talk about those things explicitly because otherwise you miss the importance of each particular history and each specific set of power differentials. That being said, it’s also important to keep sight of the underlying goal of treating people well, and treating them justly.

When we’re addressing oppression within the movement, I think sometimes the fact that we’re operating within a community that we’re committed to, that we love, gets lost. I understand why it gets lost. I’m not trying to say, “why can’t people be nicer to their oppressors?” Of course people are going to be angry. Of course people aren’t going to feel committed to oppressors that don’t even realize that anything is going on. However, the models I’ve seen most often for people of a particular oppressed group within a larger organization trying to address that type of oppression – it’s just this fast-burning flame that burns itself out and ends in a severing of the ties between the oppressed group and the other people. I’m most interested in seeing how you can find, but also how you can reach out to and nurture, the few allies that will be able to offer a bridge. An important task for those allies is to do that friendship thing I was talking about. And that only works if a general framework or skeleton of that type of friendship exists in community to begin with. It has to happen before a crisis occurs. It’s not going to work to build it once people are in conflict and emotions are flaring.

To come back to an earlier point, part of the problem with not having formal structured movement organization is that when oppressive behaviors explode, it’s very easy for people to just move on, saying “okay, I’m not welcome in this community. I’ll go organize somewhere else.” If the various movement organizations and spaces are all connected, we can’t do that.

In your political practice, how do you relate to the question of leadership?

I want to talk about the concept of elders. Most of the time this will mean people who are older but what’s key for me in the concept is people who have been organizing longer, people who have seen things in organizing that others maybe haven’t seen yet. I think the state actively tries to separate generations of organizers. One of the things that keeps movements down is having to reinvent the wheel and not having a sense of history. We can partly address this by having institutions, but we also need to connect with people from whom there are lessons to be learned. This has been fundamental to my own political development. Those elders include the political prisoners I work with on the Certain Days calendar, radical professors I’ve encountered as a student, or simply more experienced organizers with whom I’ve crossed paths. However, the anti-authoritarian left in North America remains in many ways a youth culture and so it’s not always easy to connect with elders – we have to seek them out. In fact, my analysis of the way that the state uses political imprisonment is that it is designed to disrupt intergenerational connections. Prison isolates the prisoners from support, but also deprives younger generations of radicals from the experience of revolutionaries who have much to teach us.

That being said, a “generation” of organizers can be a fairly narrow age-range. When I speak of generations, I’m not necessarily talking about a 20 year age gap. People who I wouldn’t think of as being from a different generation, culturally, can be marked by very different world events in terms of their politics. For example, I think of the first few years that I was in Montreal as being marked by the anti-globalization movement, which gave folks who radicalized before or during that time the context to develop a certain analysis of transnational capital, but also a different context for developing skills in direct action street tactics, a different relationship to police at demonstrations.

So while I don’t really think of myself as an elder, at a certain point I noticed that a lot of people I organize with have been organizing for a lot less time than I have. And I think there are concrete skills that need to be shared and need to be passed on. One form of leadership is considering it a central political responsibility to pass on what has been learned. I’m still fairly uncomfortable with that role myself, but I do see that as a form of leadership that folks of my “generation” need to begin to grow into: passing on what we’ve learned, as well as continuing to seek out what can be learned.

During the upsurge of summit mobilizations, there was a rich conversation about tactics, but almost no conversations about strategy. Do you have any ideas about how we can generate more strategic thinking?

Something I see in Montreal is we have a lot of fairly short-lived projects and collectives. In fact, if you’re talking about summit mobilizations, what I noticed in Montreal is that while a lot was learned in mobilizing for the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, there’s been a certain re-inventing of the wheel. Montrealers were very involved in mobilizing for the Take the Capital! convergence in 2002 when the G8 met in Kananaskis; there was the WTO mini-ministerial meeting in Montreal in 2003, and other summits since then for which we definitely applied much of the organizing model used in 2001. A lot of the same people were involved, but what struck me as more of these convergences happened was that there was not any structural continuity per se. There was a template: one or more Consultas, or large planning assemblies, the group would come up with a set of principles which tended to be quite similar from one convergence to the next, and then the mobilizing would proceed from there. With each convergence we refined our skills and our analysis, and there was quite a significant overlap in the people, but there was never one organization that provided continuity in structure or in politics from one to the next.

In fairness, I should mention that there was a definite effort to keep the Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes (CLAC) functional after the Summit of the Americas, and I should also mention that the methodology of starting the process more or less anew each time was in part a purposeful decision in the name of having an open, democratic process. But it also felt to me as if there was an element of reactiveness to it, and after several rounds of this it began to feel to me like we were losing some of what we built each time we disbanded. That ephemeral quality is not unique to organizing around summits.

I think people are pretty okay with having a strategy on the level of a campaign, where a demo is a tactic or a press conference is a tactic; the specific acts are tactics and we have a larger strategy of how we’re approaching this campaign. But on a larger level, if you see the campaign as a tactic – so for example, the tactic of disrupting a meeting of global capital – it’s not so clear where we’re going. What’s the larger strategy behind all these mobilizations?

Part of what makes that difficult is that we don’t have that ongoing organization. If the campaign itself is the largest level of organization that exists, your strategy is restricted to getting from the beginning to the end of that campaign. Within that, you have the specific things you do – the tactics. As another example, we might decide that whenever someone from Stephen Harper’s cabinet shows up, we’re going to disrupt him or, if there’s a deportation, we’re going try to stop it. In terms of the tactics, we might use demos, press conferences, community assemblies. But if the entirety of what you’re trying to do is that campaign and that’s the largest thing for which you have a structure, then you can’t think bigger than that.

The only larger thing that people with whom I organize in Montreal have, other than those campaigns or sets of demands (like “status for all” or “abolish the security certificates”), are principles that are common from campaign to campaign: we think that autonomy and self-determination are important; we think it’s important to include an analysis of all forms of oppression. But those things are so wide. We need structures to bridge those broad principles and those specific on-the-ground actions, and I have no idea what those would be. That’s just something I’ve never experienced in an anti-authoritarian context. I have to admit, I do think there’s a lot to be learned from authoritarian leftist organizations sometimes. If there would be some way to take a good, structured, in-depth look at how some of the least problematic far-left political parties are set up and then take what we like from that, that could be useful.

That we keep reinventing the wheel on the specific campaign level and never get to a larger strategy ties very directly to burnout and lack of sustainability. We don’t even have continuity of people beyond five years most of the time. The utility of having organizational continuity doesn’t cross most people’s minds because they’re not around long enough to see the wheel being reinvented. If somebody’s involvement starts after the beginning and concludes before the end of a given campaign, then how could they possibly see the need for something larger than that campaign?

As you grow older and look ahead to a life in struggle, how do you think about sustaining yourself for the long haul?

I think there’s this great reticence on a lot of people’s parts to establish a capital “L” life – something that people seem to equate with “selling out,” or ceasing to be part of the movement and start being a “regular person.” But I think those two ideas need to brought together if we’re going to sustain ourselves individually and as a movement. One of the things that worries me is that a lot of the people I organize with are not actually going be okay – concretely, in terms of food or shelter – because they’re not thinking past forty. I’m talking financially, but also about the way they build relationships – family, in the broader sense of the word – because we’re such a transient movement. Sometimes I think, well, others in the movement, myself included, will be there to support them. But we’re not going to be able to look after everybody. The proportion of people who are setting themselves up in such a way that they could do so is just too small.

When I look around, I see a lot of people who are really not thinking about how they’re going to survive materially or emotionally beyond the headlong rush into the next demo. It worries me to think about how people I care about are going to survive in the long-term. It’s certainly not encouraged by “peer pressure,” for lack of a better term. In fact, it’s actively discouraged. To be clear, I don’t think everybody needs to go to university and get a job and set up an RSP, etc. Also, not everybody can. There’s this whole conversation about privilege to be had there. But I think seeing your own long term survival – materially, emotionally, and relationally – as somehow being in conflict with commitment to the movement is just a bad idea. It’s not realistic.

And it’s not just people getting old, either. In other instances, people get quite seriously ill. There are some comrades who rally around them – go over and make them dinner and do their dishes and accompany them to the hospital or give them money when they need it – but it’s a small subset of organizers. There are a number of people that spring to mind who, currently or recently, have disappeared from the activist scene, and people are like, “oh, whatever happened to so and so?” And it’s because so and so is really ill or their parents died, and we’re not able to have them still be an integrated part of our community.

For me, the question of sustainability brings up the concept of family. Family is a pretty loaded concept; there’s tons there to unpack. Organizers I know have a wide range of relationships to their families of origin and to the concept of family. To take a Marx-and-Engels analysis of the family, I think there’s a lot of validity to saying that family is part of the problem. But, with respect to sustainability in long-term struggle, I think that having some kind of intergenerational connection – a unit of support that you know is always going to be there, whether that’s organized biologically, romantically, or in some other way – is so key for me. If more organizers could have that, I think it would definitely be good. There’s a lot we could do in the movement to create that.

One of the contexts in which I’ve seen organizers treat each other most oppressively is in their romantic relationships. I think that’s one of the things that causes people to drop out as well. Generally speaking, if the people you’re trying to build a better world with are just not good to each other, that can make you question why you’re organizing at all. But when it happens in the most intimate of settings, then it’s just utterly destroying. I see my personal life as existing within the movement. That necessarily means that I want my romantic relationships to be political spaces. But then, when things fall apart, it definitely affects organizing. I’ve seen too many good organizers – mostly women – leave the movement because of this.

The other way that there is a disconnect between the more positive conceptions of family and the way we’re organizing is when people have kids. It seems to be difficult for people to get past the notion of family as a nuclear unit. It’s one thing to have childcare for meeting and another to make time to homeschool your kid or deal with your kid’s school or health problems. All of this goes beyond taking narrowly defined collective responsibility for childcare. So many parents – mostly moms – disappear when the wider community doesn’t create space for children and parents. Fortunately, I’m starting to see some really heartening work around collective child-rearing.

The other concept that your question brings up for me is healing. The things that mark my political development are things that also could have destroyed me – traumatic events but also the dynamics of racism and growing up queer but more or less closeted. I think the degree to which movements can be healing – and the degree to which there’s space for that, for it to be messy but still okay – is directly proportional to the sustainability of the movement and the ability for people to stay involved.

Through my involvement in gender centres, I’ve counseled a lot of people dealing with personal trauma, some of whom were also organizers and others who were not. I’ve noticed that taking action to address not only your own oppression, your own trauma, but also the way that same oppression is manifested more broadly in society can be really empowering, really healing. Some radical communities seem more willing to make space for that than others. I mention this because the gender centre example is perhaps overly obvious. But even radical spaces that don’t explicitly place healing at the centre of their praxis, can – and I think should – foster that type of self-awareness and empowerment.

I noticed for myself, as a person of colour and as someone who spent a chunk of my childhood living under military dictatorship, that my relationship to armed agents of the state in general and riot cops in particular, changed over the period when anti-globalization organizing peaked. By confronting riot cops in the street, and then having spaces to think through those interactions – in affinity group debriefing sessions, in direct action workshops, and in informal discussions – I became able to place myself in situations that I previously would have avoided. If our movements can provide spaces where people can grow, can learn about themselves and become more self-actualized, those movements will be more sustainable both on an individual and collective level.