Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Call to the Next Generation of Activists

as posted to the Queer Justice League listserv...

Like most of you, I attended Larry Kramer’s speech last Tuesday and was inspired by some of the things he said. What I heard was a call for ACT UP to reinvent itself, to incorporate new ideas, take advantage of new technologies, and think about going after new issues in order to tap into the energy and passion of a new generation of activists.

That’s what I heard. What I saw in the planning session that immediately followed was a bunch of existing ACT UP members trying to relive their past.

Largely white, male, and older – as ACT UP is often perceived to be – the crowd last Tuesday posed an intimidating space for new people to come into, let alone voice their thoughts and ideas. A few people tried. The “young woman in the back” made some important and provocative statements that have been referred to several times in the past week.

But it’s not just that her specific suggestion to change the time of the action was voted down, or that the real content of her comments was largely ignored. There were subtle ways in which new voices – hers and those who tried to expand on her comments – were drowned out. Collective murmurs of “that’s not how we do things” and the like pervaded the discussion.

At the end of the evening, a few of us chatted about these issues. But we stood in our own little clump of frustrated young people, separate from the clump of established ACT UP members and leaders.

I went to the ACT UP meeting on Thursday night to voice some of those concerns, because I felt that someone had to cross the divide. If we couldn’t get some communication going, how could there be any hope for change?

I told them exactly what I just told you. I told them that their organization, their space, is largely perceived as unwelcoming to young people. I told them that I believe strongly if the organization is to survive beyond its founders, young people MUST be incorporated – not just included but sought after. I told them that when I saw an email asking “Where’s the next generation of activists???!!!” I wanted to say “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you – we’re here, trying to be heard.”

I also told them I believed what Larry said was true: that AIDS, though still an important issue, does not excite the same quantity of energy and anger among our generation that it did in theirs – not having lived through the horror of seeing all our friends die, not being threatened with our very survival, we’re simply not mobilized around the same fight. I told Larry I appreciated his willingness to say it.

He was there that night – I don’t know how often he actually attends ACT UP meetings – and he was eager to continue the discussion he tried to start on Tuesday. Most of the people there were focused on planning work for the action on March 29th, but he insisted the conversation be had. And after I said my piece, as the discussion went on, several existing members admitted that they’d been thinking about the things Larry had brought to light for a long time.

Larry mentioned that when he speaks to students, he often encounters young people who want to enact change but “don’t know what to do.” I stressed the need for active teaching, mentoring, and cross-generational dialogue; the importance of saying “we’ve done this, and here’s what we’ve learned” instead of “that’s not how we do things.” I believe the real value of ACT UP is not in the brand but in the experience of its members. How fortunate are we to be part of a movement that has moved so quickly that many of its founders are still around? We’re not capitalizing on the opportunity to transfer knowledge across generations, and we need to be. And the “old guard” is still very much invested and ready to fight – but they could use our help adapting to the world we’ve created (“Some of us old farts don’t know HOW to use a listserv,” Eric pointed out).

Whether this new “queer justice league” should be an outgrowth of ACT UP, or a reinvention of it, or whether it should even be called “queer justice league” is all up in the air. We started to discuss it on Thursday and decided it was premature. This new group needs to come together, start talking, figure out what we want – which may be many different things – and ultimately define ourselves rather than be defined by the existing group.

A decision was made at Thursday’s meeting to form a committee to reach out to younger folks and explore all these possibilities, and I agreed to help lead that effort. 14 people signed up to work on that committee, many of them older ACT UP members. “There’s so much to learn from them!” one person said.

The point being that they really are interested in hearing from us, and they are looking for help in reaching out to and engaging young people. And more to the point, there is an opportunity right now, in the wake of Larry’s speech, for young people to come together and shift the course of this organization, maybe even this movement.

So I invite you to speak up, to start a discussion, to say what’s on your mind about politics, activism, or what makes you angry. Post a thought, a question, an opinion. And please invite others to join the conversation – let’s make it as far-reaching as possible. We need to talk and explore ideas as we start to figure out, collectively, what this new “army” will be. I’m calling for the next generation of activists to come together, start talking, and make this possibility, this vision, a reality. I know now that we ARE here, we WILL be heard, and the future is ours to create.

Please discuss…

Alex Kent
March 20, 2007

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1 comment:

Queer on Paper said...

Great post... I can't wait to see where all this leads...