Se­cret tricks for rad­i­cals

The four se­cret tricks univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors don’t want you to know.


Are you an as­pir­ing po­lit­i­cal activist go­ing to univer­sity or col­lege in Hal­i­fax? Con­grat­u­la­tions on start­ing down a path that will ruin your life! I spent more years than I wish to pub­licly ad­mit vol­un­teer­ing and work­ing as po­lit­i­cal or­ga­nizer on univer­sity cam­puses; as an elected stu­dent activist, a union shop stew­ard and stu­dents’ union staffer. I won some cam­paigns, built some things and did a few things right—but mostly I lost a lot of cam­paigns and made a whole lot of mis­takes. The good news is that you don’t need to make all the same mis­takes I made, be­cause I have four sim­ple tricks that your univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tion doesn’t want you to know:

1 Chang­ing the world is a marathon, not a sprint.

The prob­lems the world faces are mas­sive—ram­pant in­equal­ity, cat­a­strophic cli­mate change, resur­gent fas­cist move­ments— and it might seem like ev­ery­thing needs to be fixed to­mor­row. That sense of ur­gency will get you through overnight oc­cu­pa­tions or 12 hours of sta­pling plac­ards to pick­ets, but you need to pace your­self and keep per­spec­tive. Put your­self into the work, but don’t burn your­self out or let a sin­gle loss de­flate you. When you can’t win to­day, make sure you’re set­ting the ground­work to let you win the bat­tles you need to fight two semesters (or five years) from now.

2 Re­mem­ber: Your cam­pus is not the en­tire world, but it is part of the real world.

Some peo­ple will tell you that cam­pus pol­i­tics are petty and low stakes, but those peo­ple are id­iots. Uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges are some of the largest work­places in this city. Uni­ver­si­ties are also some of Hal­i­fax’s largest, and of­ten worst, land­lords. They’re the places where you ac­cess public ser­vices like health care. The bat­tles fought on cam­pus are mi­cro­cosms of the bat­tles we need to fight ev­ery­where to win a more just world. At the same time, uni­ver­si­ties are pe­cu­liar places with spe­cific power struc­tures and bizarre so­cial norms, so be care­ful not to as­sume that what worked (or failed) on cam­pus will work or fail ev­ery­where.

3 You don’t know ev­ery­thing yet. In fact, you likely know very lit­tle (and that’s OK).

The in­ter­net has given you ac­cess to a wealth of sto­ries and the­o­ries, but don’t as­sume that you know what’s go­ing on just be­cause you’ve read all the Tum­blr posts about op­pres­sion, flipped through some Karl Marx or lis­tened to ev­ery episode of Chapo Trap House. Peo­ple at your school, and in the broader Hal­i­fax com­mu­nity, have been or­ga­niz­ing for decades, and if you barge in reck­lessly you’re likely to un­der­mine the work they’ve al­ready done. Start by ask­ing ques­tions, lis­ten­ing and al­ways re­mem­ber that you learn more by strug­gling with your com­rades than you ever will read­ing opin­ions on the in­ter­net or in the lo­cal alt-weekly. Find other peo­ple who want to change things and learn from each other.

4 Learn how to have con­ver­sa­tions with other peo­ple.

In per­son. Not on the in­ter­net. It sounds sim­ple, but this is the most im­por­tant thing you can learn as an as­pir­ing po­lit­i­cal or­ga­nizer. Writ­ing at peo­ple on­line or in print is fairly easy, but stop­ping and ask­ing some­one what they care about, lis­ten­ing to them and work­ing with them to dis­cover the ways that their strug­gles are con­nected to the strug­gles of oth­ers, is hard and re­ward­ing. Pe­ti­tions, tabling, pro­mot­ing ral­lies—these are largely just or­ga­niz­ing tools that let you have one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions with other peo­ple. Those dis­cus­sions are how you build move­ments and they’re also in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing and of­ten fun. The hun­dreds of con­ver­sa­tions you’ll have with friends or strangers while ask­ing them to sign a pe­ti­tion isn’t prepa­ra­tion to do the work of po­lit­i­cal or­ga­niz­ing. Those con­ver­sa­tions are the work.

Chris Par­sons (@cul­ture­ofde­feat) is a po­lit­i­cal or­ga­nizer, health care activist and oc­ca­sional writer from Hal­i­fax. His views veer hard to the left, and of­ten stray into the territory of polemic.

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