Out of the Lane

I was struck by a column I read in the Sept. 23 issue of The Nation. In it, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, discusses her dissatisfaction with the narrowness of her focus on mass incarceration.   In reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington she finds powerful inspiration in the fact that in the aftermath of that historic event, “Dr. King ignored all those who told him to stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights.” Dr. King’s subsequent initiatives – against the Vietnam War, for economic justice and in support of a living wage campaign, to name a few – push Alexander to conclude:

I am still committed to building a movement to end mass incarceration, but I will not do it with blinders on. If all we do is end mass incarceration, this movement will not have gone nearly far enough….Dr. King demanded we….connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism. I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.

I’m a fan of Alexander’s work and think she’s being a little hard on herself, but I’m intrigued by the importance of “getting out of your lane.” First, perhaps, because it echoes both the original title and goal of this blog, Out on a Limb, but also because I think some of the most important programs at the RFC came from my father’s (and our Board and supporters’) willingness to step out of their lanes.

The RFC’s birth is itself an example of a leap of faith. My dad, an unfulfilled tax attorney, stepped out of the lane (some would say he stepped all the way off the road), when he quit a well-paid job to start a non-profit foundation as I, his older daughter, headed off to college. I don’t think he’s ever regretted it.

We stepped in a new direction at the RFC when we started awarding grants to allow children to visit incarcerated parents and grandparents. Today these Attica Prison Visits are one of the most important programs we run. They help families separated for years, sometimes decades, maintain ties and pass history and resistance and values from one generation to the next.

Another potentially risky move resulted in our Gatherings, events that bring together activist parents and their school-aged children, or young adult beneficiaries, to play, learn and connect with other families who share their experiences of targeting.  And our entire program for targeted activist youth, and more recently development grants to support these young people--targeted for their own activism rather than their parents’--with their educational or emotional needs and help encourage their growth as activists, came from looking beyond our focus on the children of activists to include those young people targeted for their own activism (learn more about all of our granting programs here).

All of these choices have expanded and strengthened our community. As I finish my fourth week as Executive Director of the RFC, I’m committed to following Alexander’s lead by thinking about ways we can continue stepping outside our lane and expanding our work. I invite all of you to share your thoughts with me and I’ll update you in a future blog on what we decide.

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Comments

We may not be on identically the same track, but I believe we're moving in the same direction. I come from a Roman Catholic religious background, but one that is deeply immersed in activism, humanism, ecumenism, and social-political action. I see us as having a common goal; I define mine as the "Reign of God" (colored by my own religious belliefs and spiritual outlook); I see atheistic people like Noam Chomsky working for a better, more just society and world. They seem quite the same to me. I'm not sure of your terminology and it may not matter much; I think we have a goal that is quite common.

I suggest stepping out of the Right Wing lane by pushing for a minimum wage of at least $10 an hour, pushing for FULL employment and for a more progressive income tax and medicare for ALL.

I commend your readiness to "step out of your lane." Often, it is necessary to do so to overpass slower moving vehicles or avoid obstructions. However, you (we) must always take care to keep our agreed upon destination in sight. Care must be taken that we not become distracted and choose an off-ramp that takes us away from that destination.

Helping children of political activists is an important way to encourage and support that political activism necessary to improve our world. There may be other ways (other lanes) to advance that objective. Fine. But always keep in mind that the overarching goal is to reject and oppose the oppression that threatens all people.

Best wishes as you undertake these new responsibilities.

I think our future depends upon building activist, countra-cultures that live along side, fight against, and develop new ways to transcend the present reign of doom and destruction. I hope there will be a way that your efforts will find, and support such communities.
Bert Garskof

I think the idea of going out-of-lane is really important. Some of the worst mistakes that progressives and leftists have made historically derives from rigidly staying in a narrow lane.
But I would caution you against having RFC change or expand lanes too precipitously. What I have always loved about the RFC and why I am a steady, every-year contributor (in contrast to the host of other things -- all good I'm sure -- that come and go) is that it transcends particular left/progressive causes. What happened to your father and uncle is unbearable, almost as as unbearable as what happened to your grandparents.
The RFC mitigates the unbearable-- the suffering of people who are or who related to those brave enough to act for justice. As far as I can tell, the RFC supports activists who are anti-war, pro-labor, green, anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-LGBT rights, pro civil rights.
Out of lane? The RFC is like the I-95 New London/ Groton bridge with 8 lanes in each direction. You cover it all already, as far as I can see.
One of the problems with the left has been its difficulty achieving unity. (Look at Germany just now: they hail Merkel's "triumph" but combined, SDP+LEFT+GREEN beat her and could conceivably govern.) I am as guilty as the next person in this regard. I scrutinize different organizations and say "Oh, well I don't agree with THAT so I can't contribute, I can't support".
However, no matter how uptight one is about the details in principle or tactics of some progressive organization, none of us want the activists and their children to suffer the unbearable. That is something everyone can unite on.
That is where the RFC comes in.
Unity begins with the RFC.
Sorry for being so long, and sorry if I'm being overly conservative (in regard to changes at the RFC). I'm not suggesting not thinking about it, I'm just suggesting being careful. In solidarity,

-- David

Thank you for the interesting feedback to my blog. I'm hearing some common themes in these comments and the ones I've received via email: about the importance of building consensus with like minded organizations and individuals, while keeping the mission (goal) of the RFC in mind.

I agree completely. My thoughts about stepping outside the lane are within the context of our fundamental mission of supporting targeted activist parents by helping their children. I'm not suggesting that we move away from that mission, instead I'm wondering if there are new ways we can achieve those original goals. In the same way that we added new programs over the past 10 to 15 years that were not part of our original programing (like the Gatherings and Attica grants I mentioned in the blog), I'm curious about what the next step outside our lane might look like.

I'm grateful to be able to have this conversation with the RFC community.

Jenn

Organizations like RFC make me wish I didn't have to do as so many other seniors, and hoard money for medical expenses; looking at what you and other progressive organizations do, it's the one time I wish I were seriously rich.

Dreaming aside, I concur with those who want RFC to keep its focus. What is going on in our country and world is overwhelming--we all wonder what does it take to stop the destructive madness around us. We know that a bit of help to this or that one won't achieve this, but what *will*? So, to maintain sanity, it's necessary to accept limited goals and victories...which the work of RFC achieves, over and over.

One thought: as you help the children of activists, perhaps there could be a supportive network of not only those directly impacted, but other progressive-minded families--children and adults--that would offer mutual strengthening. Possibly RFC could encourage or help something like this, as a clearinghouse of sorts. It seems to me this would still be "in the lane" but also, as you suggest, also a kind of broadening.

Whatever you do, it is much appreciated.

Jenn -- I read your blog; thanks, it makes a good contribution. With all that's going on, on so many issues, all important, we are each forced to prioritize, while not being too narrow, we also need to see and act on the relationship between various causes. I feel a relationship with the RFC because of the feds' attempt to link my father, Oscar Vago, to the Rosenberg case; that's a separate though related history.
John Vago Philadelphia, PA

It's good to hear Jenn bring up focus for discussion. I have always felt that the RFC just by its diversity in it's giving to impacted families and the various struggles they represent touches many political aspects in our struggle for a better more progressive world. That's the beauty of its mission. However, being a larger presence in specific struggles and thus having a greater influence and expansion of those involved with the RFC would make us stronger going forward. Pat Levasseur, NYC

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