Grassroots Theory: 10 Years of Upping the Anti: An interview with Sharmeen Khan

Chris Dixon

Issue One of Upping the Anti (UTA) came out in the spring of 2005. For more than 10 years, the journal has carried on through many shifts in the movement landscape as well as internal organizational changes. What can we learn from the first decade of UTA? To delve into this question, long-time advisory board member Chris Dixon interviewed Sharmeen Khan, a founding editor of UTA who has been essential to the journal’s 10 years of continued publishing. With tremendous vision, tenacity, and resourcefulness, Khan has navigated the journal through major challenges, including considerable turnover in the UTA editorial collective.

Sharmeen Khan is a South Asian feminist and socialist with more than two decades of experience in movements and activist media. She organizes with No One Is Illegal-Toronto and has been active in community radio for 15 years. She currently works at CUPE 3903 and is a Research Assistant at the Media Action Research Group through Lakehead University. She lives in Toronto.

How did you initially become involved in radical politics and movement media?

I first got involved in radical politics as a teenager when I was living in Regina. I came through the Regina punk scene, Food Not Bombs, and animal rights organizing, which I think is a beginning for a lot of radicals. But then I found socialist politics, and I began branching out into various issues around uranium mining in Saskatchewan, Indigenous sovereignty, and Cuban solidarity work.

I didn’t have a concept of “movement media” then. I saw media as an objective medium and I didn’t see activists having an integral part in it. My goal as an activist was to get favourable coverage by mainstream journalists. But during that time, I started writing for an alternative weekly called Prairie Dog Magazine, and they introduced me to folks at Briarpatch where I joined the board. I was really lucky to be in such a small city and have two really good options to do alternative print media. I also did zines and was part of zine culture. For me, those were two different interests; there was overlap, but I didn’t know the concept of “media activist.”

This was when the anti-globalization movement was starting. I was getting involved with organizing against free trade initiatives such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). I went to my first protest convergence at the APEC summit in Vancouver in 1997. Media was really integral to that. During that time, I began to actively integrate media with radical activism – through print and radio.

What are the origins of UTA? How did you get involved?

The conversation started in 2004-2005. I was in Vancouver organizing with the Bus Riders Union (BRU) and was really active with Vancouver Co-op Radio. At the time, I really missed print media. Also, with the BRU, we were doing a lot of political development, including running an organizing school and reading circles. It was an intense political project, and I was frustrated with how politics was being talked about at the time.

That period was really weird politically. The 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization were still so fresh in our minds, and we saw the decline of that movement. Also, the anti-war movement rose and fell quickly. So, it felt like a time of defeat, for me anyway. I wanted a place for activists to have longer conversations: Where are we politically? What are we doing? Are we just replicating the same old tactics and strategies?

At this time, I was in touch with activist friends in Toronto. A split had occurred in the New Socialist Group, and out of that my friends had started this formation called Autonomy and Solidarity (A&S). I went to the founding conference of A&S, which brought together radical anti-capitalist organizers, including both Marxists and anarchists. We discussed the weird political moment and asked, how can we articulate a new way of doing politics? I wanted to talk seriously about the links between socialist organizing and anarchism.

Out of A&S, there were three of us who started UTA: Aidan Conway, Tom Keefer, and myself. I worked on Issue One when I was in Vancouver, with great difficulty. It was so hard to formulate what kind of journal we wanted it to be, and I was working with two guys who were in graduate school. I hadn’t been in school for three years at that point. But we launched the first issue, and it took off from there.

Where did the money come from?

We produced the first issue very cheaply: we photocopied, made the cover cardstock, and coiled it. And then Tom lent the journal money for the first actual printing.

Why, for you, was it important to launch a journal? What were you hoping it would accomplish?

It began in Regina where I saw a big separation between activism and media. Then, from 1995-2005, I was involved in organizing and media production, and I developed a more integrated analysis of media. At first, I just saw media as something to report on our events so people would get inspired by our activism and join our movements. But over those ten years, I developed an analysis of media in relation to political consciousness, empowerment, and voice. I learned this especially through radio, where I saw a particular political consciousness getting engaged, with people who never hear their own stories and histories. So, I started to see media as not just reporting on activism, but as a way to develop people’s consciousness – and also as a forum for debate. And I saw that was limited in radio; you only have a certain amount of time and you can only go so deep.

There were some good print publications, but I was really drawn to this idea of developing an alternative journal. I wanted grassroots theory! I felt resentful that theory only came from academic institutions. At the time with the BRU, we were trying to develop our own grassroots theory. I saw a journal with longer form writing as a perfect vehicle for that, and something that didn’t exist.

Would you elaborate on the term “grassroots theory”?

My experience in the anti-globalization movement was being part of huge explosions of politics and mobilizations, and then not being able to assess amongst ourselves. Instead, I saw other people writing about our activities, and then we would apply that to what we were doing. So, for me, grassroots theory is us assessing our activism so that we can learn lessons and understand how our activism is linked to power and capitalism. I was unsatisfied with applying a purely academic Marxist analysis to everything, and I wanted to explore how grassroots organizing contributed to ideas and theories of history and change.

The BRU, for me, was very exciting because I had never used that base-building model of organizing before. We were experimenting with a lot of different things – such as talking about a public service, the bus – and I thought we had a lot of theoretical contributions to make. Academics and the institutions that create theory wouldn’t take that theory seriously unless they studied movements. That’s another part of what I mean by grassroots theory: it comes from direct organizing rather than academics looking in from the outside and creating theories for others. However, there hasn’t been much space to be able to formulate analysis, share them, debate and inform future actions outside of academia.

What were the political foundations of UTA?

A lot of alternative media engages in self-congratulation: “Everything we do is great! Look at us mobilize!” That’s not wrong exactly, but with UTA, we wanted to ask questions: What is going on with our movements? Is everyone else confused that we felt so organized and powerful, and we thought we could stop a war, and we couldn’t?

It’s not like we wanted to set up to be critical of movements, although a lot of critique happens in UTA. We wanted to have a longer form to unpack political ideas. For instance, in the first issue, I worked on a roundtable around anti-oppression politics. My first anti-oppression workshop was in Seattle during the WTO protests, and it was based on talking about how we could all engage in really risky activism while coming from different social locations. But I was seeing anti-oppression politics being disconnected from struggle and transformed into focusing on people’s individual behaviours. So, I wanted to unpack what people meant when they said “oppression” and “privilege.”

We also wanted to showcase voices that aren’t in a lot of media. We interviewed Grace Lee Boggs in issues one and two, for example. Many activists outside of Detroit weren’t familiar with her work at that time.
In addition, we developed an idea of where we thought politics were at during this time. We described this as the “three anti’s:” anti-oppression politics; anti-imperialism, which was around the anti-war movement; and anti-capitalism, more connected to Marxism and socialism. Those were the debates that were happening at the time. Obviously, things have changed since then.

It seems like another foundation for UTA was working toward a synthesis of socialist, anarchist, and other radical politics.

Many people who were engaged in socialist organizing felt that a lot of the success of the anti-globalization movement was because of anarchist organizing. They saw anarchists as people we had to connect with rather than win over. That’s been my personal experience. While I can be dismissive of anarchism, that’s more about the culture than the politics. One of the first theorists I read was Emma Goldman, who really inspired me. A lot of my organizing was with anarchists, and I enjoyed working with them.

Anarchism and socialism are needed for liberation. I was really annoyed by how separate these two are, even though I feel like they needed each other, historically and currently. So, I liked that UTA wasn’t sectarian in that way. I appreciated it was trying to mix things. Sometimes that comes through, sometimes it doesn’t.

In putting out the first few issues of the journal, who did you imagine the audience was?

At first, I wanted the audience to be the same audience as Briarpatch or any activist publication. But unless they’re students or academics, people are turned off by journals. Initially, there was talk among UTA editors of having a coffee table type big thing with theory and images, but that become too unwieldy and expensive. So, my hope with UTA was to engage activists to read longer publications. I wanted UTA to be an internal publication for the movement – for organizers and activists to talk to one another, and also to reflect on and archive particular moments. Briarpatch might have a wider readership, but UTA wasn’t to be for the general public.

How is UTA structured?

This has changed over time. UTA started with three editors and we put out a call for advisory board members, who would participate directly in the journal or give advice. Now the core crew who make the journal happen is the Toronto-based editorial collective. It’s self-selecting; we put out calls for editors and then we decide amongst ourselves who we’re willing to work with. In addition, we have an advisory board of people predominantly from North America and some in Europe who help us with distribution, fundraising, or reading over material.

Through the years, we also developed different editor positions. For a while, we had a book reviews editor that wasn’t part of the collective. We’ve now created a position called an associate editor, who can take on a bit more without being in Toronto. We keep trying to experiment with ways of involving people outside Toronto, which is consistently difficult.

How does the editorial collective make decisions about content and focus?

Essentially, there are two ways. Before every issue, we put out a call for pitches – short proposals for an article, interview, roundtable, or book review. After each issue, we talk about what political developments we want to pursue for the next issue. Often times we then have to find someone to write on a particular topic. We try to approach activists, especially people who’ve been active in particular struggles. But sometimes it would be easier if one of us just wrote an article.

What I find is that a lot of activists, first, aren’t used to writing or reflecting in the ways we’re looking for. Secondly, if they do want to, they can’t be real or honest; it’s like a puff piece. We’re not asking them to promote their struggle; we’re trying to get lessons and best practices, or elabouration of the politics behind their organizing. Getting people to articulate that is hard. And that’s when UTA has been accused of trying to formulate arguments for writers, being really pushy, or trying to bring out more than what’s actually happening.

I feel that the commitment to what you call “grassroots theory” has been one of the distinguishing features of UTA. Would you say more about how you all, practically, have tried to bring that into the journal?

It’s been easier when writers have had practice reading and engaging in theory, whether it is through school or through their organizing. But because theory is often relegated to the academy, there has been difficulty pushing some activists and writers to reflect or write about political struggle through a particular theoretical lens. Often, many don’t know what we mean when we say “theory.” I know a lot of people get frustrated with this project because contributors regularly go through five or six edits, and their first draft is usually very different from what’s published. We’ve been accused of being academic, over-editing, or trying to change people’s writing for this goal of grassroots theory.

How do we get people engaged in a regular practice of writing that’s not heady, but involves practical assessments of politics, vision, and organizing? I know that takes a long time. For a new writer to do that in four months, before we go to print, is challenging. So, a lot of drafts go back and forth, and editors have developed a lot of different practices. I often ask contributors to pretend they’re writing to a stranger and explain what their politics are, what kind of world they want to see, or what political theories inspire them or that they draw on in their organizing.

My goal is that people feel proud of their written work and that they keep doing it. But a lot of times we’ve made writers feel bad – not smart enough, intelligent enough, theoretical enough, political enough, or radical enough. It still happens. It’s really hard to want grassroots theory when that kind of reflection isn’t a common practice.

You mentioned your hope for UTA to serve as a movement archive. Would you say more about this? Have you seen examples of UTA content being taken up in activist work and used by educators?

So many of our radical movements don’t have the capacity for – or perhaps take for granted the importance of – archiving political processes, discussions of strategy and tactics, and histories of our movements. When I think of movement histories, I often think of the smaller struggles or the failed struggles that don’t make it into history books. And for me, being a revolutionary hasn’t always been about being part of a huge, exciting movement. Often, it has been a struggle to keep things going. And I feel being able to respond, reflect, critique, or celebrate movements in particular periods helps revolutionary work in the future. It’s not to replicate tactics or politics, but to see how activists experimented with different approaches in particular times. Especially being centered in Canada, I want UTA to be used by activists to speak to other movements in different areas.

I have seen examples in which activists have revisited old stories or interviews. Just recently discussions popped up around anti-oppression organizing and some folks posted the roundtable in Issue One on anti-oppression politics. Through the list of classes I see using UTA content, I also know that the journal has been used in more formal educational settings. Because we encourage activists from all backgrounds and levels of education to submit, UTA can provide a different historical record of movements.

As you look back on this decade of working with UTA, what have been the biggest shifts that you’ve seen?

For the longest time, I was the only woman on the editorial collective. That’s not an uncommon experience for me, especially since I’ve long identified as a Marxist and been engaged with the socialist movement, which can be male-dominated. But being the only woman created a particular dynamic. My organizing in Vancouver was at women’s centres, and I was facilitating anti-oppression workshops. So, I came from a different orientation of how to engage with people than some of the men in UTA, especially when it came to discussions around sexism and racism. I feel at many points the comrades I worked with denied relationships of racism or sexism in the project – and reframed it as a political limitation – as if I was engaging in crass identity politics. There were a lot of difficulties there.

When the editorial collective started getting bigger, it was always the women who were leaving. It’s not necessarily that they left because of sexism, but they did consistently leave.

So, I would say the biggest shift was in 2012 when some longstanding members left the project. Then, for the first time, the editorial collective was mostly composed of women and, with that, a lot more women approached the project to get involved. Now it’s different; we have a few men. But the conversations were really different when that male-dominated dynamic was gone. There was a shift in how we dealt with writers and deadlines. There was a lot more care, not to be totally gendered about it. I definitely felt a lot more support.

Part of the shift in 2012 was moving from a project involving mostly graduate students to a project in which we’re all working full-time as well as organizing. Before, for the majority of people in the editorial collective, UTA was their main political project. I was always involved with community radio or some other thing in addition to UTA. Now the journal is mostly made up of people who work for a wage, are part of different forms of organizing, and are involved in UTA as their media project.

So, UTA has become less central for us. And this affects how we treat deadlines; although we still strive to be a biannual journal, sometimes the months are longer. Just to be honest, this does hurt the journal.

What about shifts in the politics of the journal? In discussing the foundations of UTA, you described the “three anti’s” and also said that has changed. How so? Have you seen political shifts in the editorial collective?

The idea of the “three anti’s” was originally born from a specific context: the demise of the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. Struggles around globalization and imperialism continue to exist, but I find how people orient to them has shifted significantly. For example, how activists talk about anti-oppression politics now compared to 2005 has radically changed. Since those politics have been co-opted so heavily by various institutions, I rarely hear people using those terms. Since 2005, we have seen the emergence of some pretty huge movements such as the Arab Spring, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter. So, I think some orienting to the question of identity politics or the question of the politics of representation is still happening.

And yes, I have seen shifts with the editorial collective over the years. A lot of these have come from activists joining the journal and bringing their political experiences. When we began, most of the editors came out of explicitly socialist organizing. There was no intention of providing a vanguard publication, but the approach was to have extensive debate over particular political lines that we wanted in our editorial and from our writers. This might be too simple to say, but I believe we operated in a way in which we wanted to bring writers to a particular conclusion, even if they themselves were not there yet. There was a great deal of ideological work in that process. It was described as “immanent critique,” but I’m not sure if we all understood it as that. However, it came across as very top-down: pieces were re-worked and then given to the writer to approve or not approve.

The shifts over the years reflect the radical organizing that is happening. So, rather than explicitly socialist or anarchist organizers joining, we had and have members who describe themselves as radical anti-capitalists, sympathetic to Marxism and anarchism at different points, but who mostly come from more issue-based or identity-based politics – Indigenous sovereignty work, feminist and queer organizing, and so forth. They’re coming from movements that focus on a more non-hierarchical way of organizing, where structure and process are incredibly important. What is really absent from some of their experience is the rigour of socialist editing and organizing – a particular kind of political work that gives some folks unique experience. This is especially the case with Trotskyists and Maoists; once you have that particular training, it really directs a project. But there has been a huge decrease, I find, with explicitly Marxist or socialist organizing, so maybe this downturn makes sense.

Of course, we continue to work out contradictions of pieces and demand clarity and re-writes from writers. But what I have seen as a fundamental shift in politics is the emphasis on the experience or growth of the writer around ownership and voice. Now I see us taking great care in not changing people’s voices, even if direct edits may make pieces stronger. And politically, there seems to be more willingness or openness to publish pieces that I find vague or not well-developed. In some ways, this has been positive in that our relationships with writers have been better. In other ways, I find there is hesitation to push writers more.

And there have been shifts in the editorial process. As I mentioned already, one huge political change I experienced was a move from a predominantly white-male dominated project to one where it was mostly women and now predominantly editors of colour. Once this happened, there were immediately proposals for editorials about feminism and social reproduction. I experienced those conversations very differently than past ones, as they brought together not only study and discussion but also people’s experiences with feminist organizing. And now in this issue for us to write about self care – I just don’t think that would have been contemplated before.

How has your understanding of this project – what you see it to be and hope it to do – changed over time?

What I want with UTA is to create a high-quality form of media that engages with radical movements and is a space for grassroots theory. Sometimes this happens and sometimes it doesn’t. But I’m very committed to having the back-and-forth with contributors and doing the long-form editing. That hasn’t changed.

As I said earlier, the previous formation of the editorial collective had a pretty fixed idea of how they wanted to see articles to be in the end. Sometimes in the editing process, we would kind of take over. And a lot of contributors felt like the final pieces, even though they might read better, weren’t genuine representations of their ideas. People would get edits back and say, “this isn’t what I wrote at all.” The most depressing thing is when people write for us and then say they’re never going to write for UTA again. We’re a movement journal and our audience is only activists – and that’s not many people, to be honest. If we’re alienating some really awesome writers, we’ll cycle through them pretty fast.

The process orientation takes much longer. It involves offering suggestions. For example, I sometimes say, “I feel like the contradictions are pointing toward this, so if you agree, can you write more about that?” I want the piece to be better, but also in the contributor’s voice. As editors, we want to have buy-in from the writers, so sometimes we’ll publish stuff that isn’t the strongest, but it’s something we can live with. I don’t know what that means about quality per se, but if we can develop a relationship and have that writer write again, perhaps the writing will be stronger next time.

What have been the most difficult aspects of UTA?

A big one is money. It’s expensive to run a print publication, especially since we use a unionized print shop. We’ve had debates over the years about whether we should move online exclusively, but people involved really want to stay with print. People engage with theory in different ways, but I know I just zone out when I read a long article on a computer. Also, a big chunk of our readers are prisoners in the U.S. who hear through other projects that we give free subscriptions to prisoners. I probably get four or five requests per month. I don’t want to give up print because of that. So, we fundraise all the time for the printing.

Money is also a factor because, as with any publication project, activists doing it want to focus on content and process. People rarely come with previous experiences in publishing. The founding editors – specifically Tom and I – had some, but everyone newer has never really published anything, so everyone’s learning. And often we’re so mired in the content that we are bad at promotion, subscription drives, fundraising, and event organizing – all those parts that need a publisher. So, that’s no money for us.

My goal is that we would have enough money that we could have our own space. Right now my apartment is basically the office; it’s where we do production and store boxes of journals. So, it would be great to have our own space and hire someone to help with administrative work.

Are there other challenges you want to mention?

There’s been huge turnover. As I said, a lot of long-lasting members left. Because of that, it has been hard to get not only experienced editors, but people who stick around. Activists want to join the collective and they submit awesome writing samples. But then they’re stunned with the workload and weekly meetings, and they leave. So, how do we avoid burning people out or driving them away? If we’re volunteer-based, how do we have different levels of commitment?

At this point, I feel like everyone on the editorial collective except me can leave, and people have. If I had to leave, I don’t know what would happen to UTA. I have doubts that it could continue as I haven’t effectively passed on the institutional memory. So, I’d like to get to a point where I could step back or leave it, and it could still continue.

There is also the challenge of how to share skills in a way in which the quality is still maintained. When we first started, we had very experienced editors who were really intelligent and strong writers, and we had the amazing design skills of Andrew K. Thompson. And with those people gone, it’s definitely been a challenge to replace the skills and talents they brought.

Another major challenge is we’re so insular at times. With the exception of Shameless, we never really talk much with other activist publishers. I feel like activist publications are competing with each other and people are reluctant to help one another out. So, it feels lonely, and it’s really depressing to have different magazines shut down, one after another.

You’re talking about Clamor, Left Turn…

Yes, and then hearing about the difficulties that Canadian Dimension and Briarpatch Magazine are experiencing. I wish we, as people involved in alternative publishing, could find a way to connect long-term, not just at conferences or when we table beside one another. I wish there was a more collabourative way of doing activist media. I haven’t figured this out yet, but it was one of the aims of the Media Assembly I helped to organize at the 2014 People’s Social Forum in Ottawa. I would love to explore that more.

Another challenge is being an activist journal. My initial hope with UTA, as I said, was to change the culture so activists engage with theory more. When we started UTA in 2005, the remnants of the anti-globalization movement were there and there was a thirst for knowledge. And I think it’s less so now; people now mostly see theory as a very privileged thing to do, even though I think it’s a political necessity. It’s such a huge challenge: how to get people to take theory seriously.

What are the big things you’ve learned from working on this journal?

I did not know how long it takes to publish an issue. Contributors frequently say, “I can get this done in ten days.” But there was one piece I worked on for a year and a half with someone. So, I learned that it takes a long time to do this work well. I appreciate journals such as LIES that take something like three years between each issue. It makes sense because it’s really high-quality.

There’s also the issue of different platforms. Even though we’re print, it’s really important to have a website and engage with social media. Honestly, it’s annoying because if you’re just a web-based magazine, it’s all you need. But if you’re print, you always have to have a web presence, and that requires a lot of technical and creative work.

I will say that one thing I’ve learned is that many radical activists are open to learning and also very forgiving towards activist projects. People who hated us are willing to work with us – to come back and say, “I know it’s a really important project.” Even if we put out an issue that has some errors or we fuck up the cover, our audience is such that they won’t dismiss us. And we have long-time sustainers that give tremendous support. So, despite people leaving, the changing quality and content, there’s still a lot people who support UTA. I’m surprised by that, I guess.

What are your hopes for UTA in the next ten years?

If we are still publishing in ten years, that would fulfill one hope!

I have other hopes for UTA too. One is that it can grow and change with political shifts and continue to be useful for organizers. This means improving the website and social media elements. I also hope that UTA can be a publication that enables people to reflect on changes in social movements and the terrain they are fighting on. For instance, how has Indigenous solidarity work changed? As the G20 continues to meet, how have activist orientations to those meetings changed? How do we understand tactics with the rise of Black Lives Matter and Idle No More? And as people continue to organize, I hope they will document their experiences and politics in publications like UTA.

Finally, I hope that UTA will continue to contribute a unique perspective that isn’t found in other radical publications. I want us to keep publishing things that might not seem popular and to push writer-activists to talk explicitly about their politics. H