Ella, Peggy, Myles, and Jesus: Facilitating Transformation

By Andrew Krinks

Ella Baker at Highlander Folk School, 1960 (Source: www.sncclegacyproject.org)

Organizing, popularly understood, is about drawing up campaigns to bring about shifts in a political landscape. It is identifying the terms of victory in order to discern and utilize tactics comprising a strategy for winning. Organizing is indeed these things. But it is also more than these things, because lasting social transformation requires more than just the technical calculus deployed to alter political structures. Social transformation takes place when power and resources shift from the few to the dispossessed many, which requires that the many be not merely passive recipients but active agents of transformation, their own and the world’s alike. The role of organizers—and educators—under such a theory of change is to help create the space for people to become the agents of transformation that they are capable of becoming. “How would Jesus organize?” If Jesus was anything like an organizer, it is not because he engaged in the labor of definitively securing political victories (he didn’t) but because he carried out the work of facilitating personal and collective transformation.

Listening to the lives and practices of three organizers and educators from the twentieth century—Ella Baker, Peggy Terry, and Myles Horton—alongside the Jesus we meet in the Christian gospels can help us understand how organizing and education for social change are as much about the art of creating space for transformation as they are about deploying strategy to secure it. Indeed, the lesson from these three figures is that facilitating transformation is a political strategy that puts into motion now, however imperfectly, the world for which educators, agitators, and organizers struggle.

The Front Porch and the Kitchen Table

The work of organizing doesn’t just take place from behind bullhorns on the street, and the work of educating requires more than a podium in a lecture hall. Organizing and education for social change happen on front porches and at kitchen tables where people live their lives in the most mundane ways. Ella Baker (1903-1986) was a black radical educator and organizer who shaped the civil rights movement more profoundly and with less recognition than almost any of her peers. Wary of the grandiose, self-involved performance of the movement’s charismatic orators, Baker believed in education and organizing carried out collaboratively and democratically, because she understood that sharing power helps transform people and communities in ways that individual and instrumental organizing does not. As she put it, “You’re organizing to be self-sufficient rather than to be dependent upon the charismatic leader.”[1] To that end, Baker helped forge the organizing culture of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in such a way that organizing was understood to include sitting and listening to stories of family and survival for hours on “the porches of people who couldn’t read or write their names,” as SNCC organizer Prathia Hall remembers.[2] Without meeting oppressed people where they are and showing confidence in their capacity to understand and enact change in their own lives, Baker understood, lasting transformation will remain out of reach.

Peggy Terry, Chicago
Peggy Terry (R) with Pam Grey (L) at Hank Williams Playground Rally, Chicago, Summer 1967 (Source: http://www.youngpatriots-rainbowcoalition.org)

Like Baker, Peggy Terry (1921-2004), a white Appalachian-born woman who organized in the white working-class Uptown neighborhood of Chicago during the 1960s, knew that people’s conditions will not change if you don’t first give them the respect of meeting them where injustice interrupts their lives on a daily basis. Laboring through the organizational medium of Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) to help other working class white people see that they could stand up in defiance of exploitative slumlords, dehumanizing welfare office workers, and police who brutalized them for being poor, Terry made the kitchen table a site of consciousness-raising and transformation. Bridging the abstract principles of younger organizing groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) with the realities of people’s everyday domestic lives, Amy Sonnie and James Tracy write that “Terry triumphed at a politics of the kitchen table at a time when the middle-class Left’s messages failed miserably with most poor whites.”[3] By helping people see the connection between their individual struggles and the possibilities of collective improvement, Terry facilitated transformation in the sense that she accompanied people through the process of seeing that they could play a role in changing not only their own dire conditions but the larger society that creates their conditions in the first place.

Baker’s and Terry’s front porch and kitchen table conversations are practices in the spirit of Jesus in the sense that Jesus, an itinerant rabbi-preacher-educator, met and taught people in the mundane places where they lived, worshiped, and struggled to survive, including the kitchen table. His primary mode of teaching, the parable, invited listeners to participate in the process of arriving at new understanding by reference to their own political and cultural surroundings. Using images of landowners and bosses, conflicts over wages, agricultural metaphors, concepts of family, and the politics of powerful kings and powerless peasants, Jesus facilitated for his listeners the process of grasping and living into a vision of lives and society transformed. Connecting the stuff of everyday life to the possibility of life’s transformation requires spending time on the front porch, at the kitchen table, and everywhere people go about their lives.

Loving, Educating, and Organizing with Questions

Myles Horton, Highlander 3
Myles Horton (R) with Esau Jenkins (L) (Source: Esau Jenkins Papers, 1963-2003, Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston)

Like Jesus’s parabolic pedagogy that invites people into the process of uncovering truth, Myles Horton (1905-1990), co-founder of the Highlander Folk School, now known as the Highlander Research & Education Center,[4] believed that for education to be truly radical and transformative, it must take into account the whole reality in which a person exists.[5] And to take people’s whole experiences seriously, Horton believed, is to love people: “I think if I had to put a finger on what I consider a good education, a good radical education, it wouldn’t be anything about methods or techniques. It would be loving people first. If you don’t do that, Ché Guevara says, there’s no point in being a revolutionary.”[6] Indeed, for Horton, who studied with Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary, loving people isn’t just the core of revolutionary action, but a summary of the entire New Testament.[7]

Horton believed that loving people dictates a form of education that doesn’t lecture at or dispense information onto people but invites them into the process of entering new understanding. The primary tool of such a pedagogical approach, Horton held, was the well-posed question. Asking a question of a student doesn’t mean that you have nothing to offer as an educator. Rather, Horton understood that knowing something and wanting to impart it means allowing your knowledge to structure questions that provide an opening for another person to enter understanding through their own experience and frame of reference. Like Horton, who she worked with at various points during the civil rights movement, Ella Baker was known as a teacher who taught by way of questions designed to help people “see their own ideas” through their own life experience.[8] As SNCC organizer Prathia Hall remembers, Baker “was a consummate teacher, always opening us to new understandings. It was never the pounding, ‘you must do this, you must do that,’ but by raising a question and then raising another question and then helping us to see what was being revealed through the answer.” This, Hall says, was Baker’s form of pedagogical “leadership,” and it served as a model for organizing “in such a way that when we left, the people were fully capable of carrying on the movement themselves.”[9]

Participation in Transformation

Like Baker, Peggy Terry spent time at people’s kitchen tables because she “love[d] people who aren’t organized.”[10] To love people who aren’t organized, Terry understood, means not saving them from their problems, but showing confidence in people’s capacities in order to facilitate the process by which they might transform their own and their neighbors’ lives. Echoing Baker’s philosophy, Terry and her son Doug Youngblood made it clear that organizers facilitate—rather than mechanically secure—transformation for others: “No matter what background a person comes from, when he or she takes on the role of organizer their primary job is to find people to whom they can pass on their abilities, their skills. The job of an organizer is to organize themselves out of a job.”[11] That’s why they challenged the popular distinction between official organizers and everyday community members: they wanted everyday community members to understand that they have the capacity to understand and transform their own reality in a way that others can’t do for them.[12]

Baker, Terry, and Horton educated and organized through facilitation rather than manipulation because they loved the people they educated and organized, which means they wanted them to be free. And to be free, they understood, means the people they educated and organized would need to be allowed to claim their own agency and play a leading role in fighting for a better life for themselves and others. The hallmark of the tradition these figures emulated with their lives is a culture of active, democratic participation in the process of both individual and collective transformation. Transformation, in other words, can’t be something that happens to a person or a people; transformation is something people participate in—with others, and perhaps even with God.

Jesus might be interpreted in the tradition of Baker, Terry, and Horton because the form of his parabolic, question-posing pedagogy, grounded in love, facilitated processes whereby people awakened to the dignity and capacity within them to be transformed and in turn to participate with God in transforming the world toward the righteousness and justice for which the world was made. Moved by love, Jesus prayed for his people for the same reason that he educated (and to some extent organized) them. Contemplative scholar and practitioner Martin Laird conveys the facilitative nature of contemplative spiritual practice, writing that it “disposes us to allow something to take place,” just as “a gardener practices certain gardening skills that facilitate growth that is beyond the gardener’s direct control.”[13] Like prayer, we might say, radical educators and organizers deploy practices that facilitate transformation that is ultimately beyond their control. In so doing, they dispose communities to the divine and human work of shifting power and resources from the few to the dispossessed many so that the many may be free.

Andrew Krinks is a Ph.D. candidate in Theological Studies in Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Department of Religion. His research explores how Christian theological concepts both contribute to and critique the criminalization of black and economically dispossessed communities in the United States. In connection with his academic work, Andrew has served as an organizer with Nashville’s Ban the Box campaign; as a founding steering committee member of Showing Up for Racial Justice Nashville; and as editor and co-author of Gideon’s Army’s Driving While Black report, which details the racially disparate impact of traffic stops conducted by the Metro Nashville Police Department.

[1] Quoted in Charles Payne, “Ella Baker and Models of Social Change,” Signs Vol. 14, No. (1989), 893.

[2] Quoted in Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 362.

[3] Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011), 39.

[4] In its 85th year, the Highlander Research & Education Center is keeping alive the tradition of radical education for social movements in the south today. To learn more and support their work, visit www.highlandercenter.org.

[5] Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road By Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, eds., Brenda Bell, John Gaventa, and John Peters (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990), 176.

[6] Ibid., 177.

[7] Myles Horton, The Myles Horton Reader: Education for Social Change, ed., Dale Jacobs (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2003), 122.

[8] Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 362-363.

[9] Quoted in Ibid., 359-360.

[10] Quoted in Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011), 64.

[11] Quoted in Ibid., 56.

[12] Ibid., 56-57.

[13] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3-4.