Deva Woodly on Power, Organizing, and the Future of the Polity

Deva Woodly, Associate Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College and 2019-2020 Fellow in Residence at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University, has organized a new home at The New School for interdisciplinary research on politics in action. The Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States will hold talks, host a conference, and produce a publication on its 2020-2021 theme: The Politics of Care.

Research Matters talked with Woodly over Zoom to discuss the Initiative’s purpose, its theoretical foundations, and the role of organizing in our communities and universities. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Organizing and Political Power

Research Matters: Congratulations on launching the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the U.S.! Can you talk a little bit about what the inspiration for that was, and what the vision for it is?

Deva Woodly: The reason for the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics and Organizing in the U.S. is that The New School actually has relatively little in terms of research on American politics, and American politics is one of my specialties. I wanted to bring something to us that would be interdisciplinary in nature, and yet focus on the U.S. as a case.

I also wanted to highlight the intersection between power, politics and what I think is  a lesser-studied, and yet very politically important phenomenon, which is political organizing… In political science, we often talk about mobilization. In sociology, they talk about activism in social movements. But mobilization and activism are both distinct from organizing.

Mobilization is when you assemble people who already have the requisite knowledge and skill to do a thing—you get people who are already registered to turn up to vote, for example—and you remind them to get out and do what they know how to do.  

Activism is when people turn up outside the regular institutionalized boundaries of the state to make their voices heard. This is the thing that we normally associate with protest and direct action …But activism doesn’t necessarily involve sustained social  analysis or the idea that you’re trying to achieve particular goals, or that you’re necessarily working with other people over time.

Organizing, on the other hand, is the long-term process of relationship-building and the changes in our subjectivity that make us understand that we are agents who can act to make change, and that we are, furthermore, agents-in-context, agents in a collectivity—that it is the power of the people acting together, over time that makes change. Organizing teaches us not only that we can act in a particular instance, but that we’re the kind of person who can act to make political change. So, it creates a fund of knowledge and a disposition toward civic action that’s good for the long-term….Organizing changes who we think we are in the polity. It creates us as an active citizenry.

There’s a ton of organizing that takes place all over the United States, and indeed it’s accelerated in this moment, but we as scholars know very little about it, and the fact is that organizers very rarely write down what they know, so we have very limited texts to teach us about organizing …I think it’s a fertile ground for scholarship to explore the nature, impacts, and efficacies of organizing.

RM: I think the word “organizing” and “get organized” are things we see and hear a lot right now, and it’s possible to feel a sense of embarrassment at not knowing what that means. You can have a toe in it without knowing what it means.

DW: Yeah, but the nice thing about organizing — both the thing that makes it so powerful but also the thing that has caused people to overlook it — is that it’s an extremely long-term process. It’s something that takes place over years. So, what political campaigns have typically done and called “organizing” is not organizing; it’s mobilizing.

But we see now that particularly Black women, Black feminists, are revolutionizing organizing in political campaigns, and we see the results of that led out by folks in Georgia, like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and Nse Ufot. We see that happening in other communities, as well, particularly among indigenous folks in Arizona and New Mexico. These are long projects, they’re about engaging with people about the political problems that they identify for themselves in their communities, and trying to work with people and enable them to fight for themselves—resource them and give them the type of knowledge that they need to make changes locally. And as people get a taste of making changes locally, their political imaginations begin to expand and their political efficacy begins to increase. 

RM: I love to hear you bring up Arizona—that’s where I moved from before coming to The New School, and that’s where I learned about organizing. The different groups that are at work in Arizona are doing such good work. I’ve loved to hear them get a small portion of the recognition they deserve in the last week [following the 2020 election].

DW: Oh, absolutely. I so agree. So, another goal for this initiative is to have a space to bring together political practitioners and scholars where they can inform each other and think through the common problems and contours of this political time; a place to jointly imagine the political possibilities for the 21st century.

The way that I do work is inductive. That means that the way that I work is kind of opposite the Western tradition, which is deductive. If you take a deductive approach you start with a big concept and then you go down to the particular, or try to fit instances of the particular under the big concepts. I work from a deductive approach. I start with the particular, people’s lived experiences, and try to relate those to overarching concepts that we have or create new ones. Whatever I do, I always start with people, and one of the things that has led me to understand is that we, as scholars, need to be always in contact with practitioners in the world. We have a lot of knowledge to offer each other!  

I also think that universities need to have institutional pathways that allow them to have regular contact with people doing political work on the ground, particularly with organizers. So what I always try to do in any kind of educational initiative. Whether it’s creating a class I’ve taught called “Becoming a Generation Citizen,” which put [Lang] students in high school classrooms so they were interacting the world. Or with bringing in an Activist-in-Residence, which brought someone doing the work of political change to our community and providing them a space in the university to think, reflect, write, and teach which they usually don’t have time to do. And it also to informs the academic community about how our theories actually play out in the world and the questions that people who are actually doing the work would love to have answers to. This is the way to create an ongoing and fruitful interchange between theory and practice. My opinion is that the only way to achieve praxis is to actually have scholars and political practitioners in contact and helping each other think through the problems that we are witnessing and experiencing in common.

RM: I’m also curious about where “the politics of care” come into this. What makes that a research interest for you, and what made you decide to make it the organizing principle of the Initiative?

DW: Well, the politics of care is something that I became interested in as I was working on my forthcoming book, Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements (Oxford University Press, 2021). As I was researching that book, doing interviews with people in the Movement for Black Lives, there was a series of principles and values that people kept espousing. I ended up   codifying those ideas under the term “Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism.”

One of the key aspects of Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism is the politics of care…[which] says that we need to think about politics in a completely different way. The primary subject of politics is not “rights,” the subject of politics is not “institutions,” but is instead the fact that people matter and deserve care. So, if that is the basis of our political thought, if that is the way that we think about how to design systems and to collect and aggregate resources, then it changes the whole way that we talk and think about what is necessary for the governance of the world that we share.

Organizing and Activism on Campus

RM: What do you see as the role of campus organizing and activism, something we’ve had a lot of at The New School over the last few years?

DW: Campus organizing is critical. It’s part of political organizing writ large. A campus is a community. A campus is a locality. People who are members of that community, who are members at the campus as a polity, should absolutely be in connection with each other and organizing. They should be creating relationships of political friendship and reciprocity and it is an aspect of organizing in the polity.

RM: I think one of the challenges of campus organizing could be that, as you mentioned before, the thing about organizing is that it takes a long time.

DW: Right, and the university is full of a transient population: students. That is the nature of organizing at the university, but that’s also why students have to build institutions that can handle succession…Because of the nature of the population, the wins that you have are less likely to be driven only or solely by students. They often have to be in collaboration with people who have long-term stake at the university, like unionized staff and faculty. That’s also a lesson to learn, in terms of organizing: it’s coalitions that have the biggest bang, because everybody is structurally positioned in a different way…That’s why it’s not just organizing; it’s also power and politics. You have to understand power in the place that you’re trying to make change, and that’s really where the full expression and magnitude of influence will be realized.

Journalism and Democracy

RM: I have personal stake in this question, because I’m in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program—what do you see as the role of media and journalism in the way the average person understands their political environment and role?

DW: I think that media, in terms of political journalism, needs to focus a lot more than they often do on accuracy over trying to be unbiased. The “both sides” norm is actually really detrimental to the rendering of reality, so I think that the idea of objectivity insofar as it means “both sides” needs to be put to bed. Instead, we should be interested in facts, authenticity, accuracy, and nuance. These are things that are much more descriptive of reality than objectivity, which is a thing that just doesn’t exist.

I think that media, particularly journalism and political journalism, helps us when it gives us context, and hurts us when it deprives us of contexts and reproduces stereotypical narratives that are easy to digest but don’t expand our understanding.

In the actually existing world, there’s more than two sides to almost every story, and the power that those sides wield is very rarely balanced. Their intentions, their imaginations, and their impact will not necessarily be equal, so we shouldn’t pretend that that’s the case. We have to accurately render the world as it is, or journalism ceases to be useful and that’s bad for journalism and bad for democracy.

Movements, Crises, and the Political Future

RM: How do you see the pandemic impacting political participation moving forward?

DW: The pandemic, combined with the movements and the contentious cycle that we’ve been in, the #MeToo movement, the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives—this is just in the US, not to mention global movements—I honestly think that this confluence of circumstances has re-politicized public life in a really beneficial way.

Not that it’s smooth; it’s not all a happy story. Like, right now we’re in a moment in which autocracy is a real possibility, in which the current administration is trying to overturn the results of an election in which more than 150 million people voted. It’s a time of danger, but also one of opportunity. Democracy is always dangerous…You’re leaving everything up to people, and people can disappoint you and make catastrophic choices. However, people can also impress you and make revelatory choices. It’s a moment in which the contingency of everything is clear to us but it’s also a moment filled with possibility.

Organizations and practices among people are huge: the way that people have remembered that they can take to the streets to make demands; the way that people have started to actually educate themselves about civics, about the way that the American government works. This past week [of the election] was insanely stressful, but do you know how many Americans learned geography? Do you know how many Americans learned what the Electoral College is, and how many electors each state has, and what kinds of officials are in charge of making what kinds of decisions? All of that is amazing and really good for democracy, to have a politically educated and engaged populace that is capable of acting on its own, capable not only of pressuring the state, but also acting autonomously.  This is one of the reasons the rapid increase in the scope and coordination of mutual aid that has happened since the pandemic began is so interesting. These are the kinds of things that democracy needs.

What I’m saying to you now is basically the legacy of American pragmatism — this is straight John Dewey — which is to say that democracy requires democratic citizens, and for a long time, we haven’t had a democratic citizenry; we’ve had consumers. I think that, if we survive this time as a democracy, if the democracy stays intact, we will be really strong going forward and have the possibility to make really good changes in the future, just because so many more people will understand what can be done. So many people will have had their subjectivity reformed, having been organized in this moment. So many more people will understand that they are capable of being authors of the world that they want.

RM: That’s incredibly encouraging to hear.

DW: Well, we have to survive it. I don’t make any guarantees on that score!

The first event from the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States is a panel on The Politics of Care on Friday, November 13, at 4PM ET. You can register here.