However Long It Takes

I’m a community organizer here in St. Louis. I previously worked with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) and I’m the founder of Solidarity Economy St. Louis. When I first started getting involved in community organizing, I was part of a lot of direct action, which is of course what lead me to a lot of my experiences in Ferguson, like helping out with non-violent direct action trainings and providing different support systems for folks to be out on the street. I had been involved with sit-ins at my campus at Wash U and was involved in a 17-day sit-in there protesting corporate power and different injustices that were happening in the area. But I also started to see the ways in which there was a need for people to talk about what we did want, both from a sense of being able to develop those solutions and always asking for somebody else to provide solutions for us.

We’re always asking for a policy or a demand or something from someone in power. Over the last few years, I started to feel like we need to just own the power that we have and also recognize that these systems, these people in charge, are not going to create the solutions that we want. Only we can create those solutions. So, while we are dismantling these systems of capitalism, White supremacy, and patriarchy, we also need to be developing the kind of society and vision for the city that we do want. The premise behind Solidarity Economy St. Louis is to basically create a space for people to explore those alternatives and solutions, to connect with each other, and eventually to change the way that economic development is done here so that it really meets the needs of people.

The basis of my work is the relationships I’ve built and I’ve built those in different capacities depending on who I’m talking to. I was involved in starting APIs for Blacks Lives here. There’s the community of people I know through my work at MORE and that includes the Ferguson Commission people and folks who are out on the street every night, as well as a lot of youth groups that started during that time and people who were in other organizations and a part of coalitions that we are working with. Then it includes people who are fighting on a neighborhood basis or in their own areas to create solutions. It’s urban farmers or people who want to think about growing their own food on vacant land, and a lot of artists and people who are doing important cultural work in St. Louis as well as small business owners or entrepreneurs who are trying to find a way to fit the thing that they’re passionate about into their everyday work.

Julia Ho, photos by Lindy Drew

Being a young woman and being not Black or White in a very Black and White city has allowed me to enter a lot of spaces, to be flexible, and to listen to a lot of different people. One of the most compelling stories I can think of in terms of a person who approached me who has been involved in the work was with Roslyn Brown. She is an older woman in the city of Pine Lawn, which of course has been notorious for its role in the municipal court trafficking system. I met Roz while we were doing municipal court campaign work. We were trying to abolish the municipal court system, consolidate courts, and get traffic bench warrants removed. We were doing an action, blocking the front of the Pine Lawn City Hall, and we were stopping court for the night. So, Roz, who had been part of that community for a long time and had been organizing with mostly elderly residents in the neighborhood, came around the corner asking, “What’s happening here?” She was so excited by what we were doing that she immediately jumped into the campaign. She became a huge advocate for the changes and for speaking out against the corruption that had been happening in her city.

For the first time, possibly ever, they’re having conversations with residents about how they want to shape their city, where they want to put resources into, and how they can divest from other policing practices that have kept them going for so long.

From there she started getting more and more involved in the campaign, and after we had been doing that work for a year or so, she realized she could take the tools she was learning and start applying them in her own neighborhood. She revived the neighborhood group she had been involved in, restructured it, and changed it. And we pooled together some organizers to support her knocking on every single door in her community and having, for the first time in decades, ward meetings in her city. Just through that process of getting neighbors and residents together, they started to identify how they wanted to change the leadership in their area.

Over the span of about six months, they identified local leaders, local candidates who had similar problems with the police in their neighborhood, and Roz ran every single one of those campaigns along with her own. They completely took over the Board of Aldermen in Pine Lawn. They also asked themselves, “How do we want to allocate our budget?” We helped them put together a meeting to talk about what it means to invest in real public safety that isn’t just dependent on police. For the first time, possibly ever, they’re having conversations with residents about how they want to shape their city, where they want to put resources into, and how they can divest from other policing practices that have kept them going for so long.

For me, Roz’s story is really important, because it ties in everything that is so important about what’s happening in St. Louis. She wasn’t somebody who was speaking out before, but she believed all these things. Now she’s an incredibly powerful leader in her community and she’s opening her eyes to the solidarity economy in other ways, too. When looking at a budget for your city you think, “Okay, we don’t want to invest in X, Y, and Z. We don’t want to invest in over-policing, or whatever. But, what do we want to invest in? And what do we want to build up in our community?”

They’re starting community gardens in their neighborhoods. They’re creating summer programs for kids in schools. They’re thinking about how they want to use tools like participatory budgeting, which is basically a way for residents to have a direct say in how money is allocated in their neighborhood, or how public money is allocated. After working on trying to overturn the political system in Pine Lawn, now we’re asking, “What’s next?” So she’s approaching me about what kind of solidarity economy tools and solutions they can start building in the neighborhood. And what stood out from that story, honestly, is all the effort that went into community organizing to get that far to then say, “Now we’re having these conversations.”

The amount of work it takes to build relationships is fascinating. And none of those things would have happened had I not just run into Roz at City Hall one day about two years ago. There are many people like Roz in the area maybe who aren’t doing something that dramatic or that large scale but are in a completely different place than they were two years ago. Usually, “run-in” suggests something negative, but in so much of what we’ve heard from other people, too, all it takes is that one meeting and something really positive can come from that.

The priority of community organizers should always be to bring in new people. Not everybody has to be doing that or has to be prioritizing that, but I don’t understand an organizer that isn’t trying to develop new leaders. It’s more than just having new faces or having somebody new show up. Part of it is realizing how much work it takes to get a new person to show up. Having somebody step into a room that’s a new face, there are so many things that come before that lead to that point and that’s important. Also, when they enter the room, how do they feel coming in? Do they feel welcome? Do they feel like they can be a part of something? Do they feel confused? If this is really going to become a meaningful relationship, there’s so much work that needs to be done once somebody enters into that space, too. The other thing is that it really does take extremely intentional and diligent work in order to have someone feel like they’re welcome. If you ask most people who’ve gotten involved in anything over the last two years:“Why did you go to this thing?” or “Why did you start doing this?” 90% of the time they say, “Oh, my friend told me about it,” or “My family member dragged me to this.”

You don’t have to create new networks, you just have to really understand the networks that are already there.

You don’t have to create new networks, you just have to really understand the networks that are already there. Every single person is already connected to so many other people, and in a place like St. Louis those things go really far. Figuring out how all of those things fit together is also really important. It’s crucial that we are not always just talking to ourselves and that we’re not always preaching to the choir. It’s important that we don’t just look at somebody as a new face and think that we’ve done our work. We have to invest as much time and energy into that relationship and be ready to do that and not let those things fall to the wayside.

Community organizing is no joke. It takes so much effort. Some people have the skill to do it, and some people are like, “I prefer a one-on-one interaction.” But you’re offering these organizations the chance to meet and have conversations and move forward, especially with the economic factor, because a lot of people say, “You’re not affected by Ferguson. You don’t live nearby.” Well, our economy is suffering, so how can it be improved? And you’re doing things to help other people come forward to do those things.

A point of pain or something I think about a lot is the amount of trauma that people have experienced in the city because of their race and the amount of violence that people have to face on an everyday basis but also as a direct result of being involved in this movement and being part of that work. I see people who gave up so much to jump headfirst into this and weren’t thinking about their long-term health, their mental health, their physical health, their emotional health, and not taking those things into account when they’re in a moment of crisis. As a result, they burned out or didn’t have enough money to survive or eat.

Part of the motivation for me doing something like Solidarity Economy St. Louis is wanting to create the capacity and the structures for people to both engage in this work in the way that they want to, in a way that fits their passions and their skills, but also to do it from a place of wellness and health and not from a place of constant crisis and urgency. I have the mindset that if any of these things are going to change, it’s going to take a long time, and the only way for those things to actually happen is if people are well and feel healthy. There are so many ways in which people traumatize themselves even more by being engaged in work that they find is meaningful. I would like to be able to find a way that people can be passionate about changing our city without having to sacrifice their well-being in the process.

Now, I’m working on really building Solidarity Economy and there are a lot of things that I’m looking forward to being able to share. One thing that’s been encouraging is that I’ve spent a lot of this year traveling, and not just traveling on my own, but traveling with folks from St. Louis and being able to bring a lot of people that are really passionate about these ideas outside of our city for a little bit to see what other folks are doing in other parts of the country.

We can do the same things in our city or we can do them even better.

There are brilliant people here who know how to do all the things that we want to do and that we have everything that we need. We have the resources, skills, and knowledge to get all of our goals met, but sometimes it’s hard for people to see themselves that way. That’s why it’s been great to bring people from St. Louis to a place like Detroit and see the amazing work that they’re doing there to reclaim vacant land, to develop their own energy systems, to fight back against the emergency control or management that they have going on there to see the similarities in the problems that we’re dealing with, and have that confidence that we can do that, too. We can do the same things in our city or we can do them even better.

A lot of my last year has been spent learning from other people and thinking about what are the solutions that we can apply here? I’ve been talking to people about, “What do you want to create, what do you want to build, and what do I need to do to give you the support and the confidence to just build it?” I’ve also been noticing lately so many folks around me that are leaving their jobs and leaving the lives that they had known to pursue passions that they have had for a long time but haven’t felt like they’ve been able to go after. People are saying, “I don’t have to spend my time every day at a nine-to-five job in order to make the means to survive. I can use the relationships I have or I can find other ways to do that and to do the things that I care about.”

I never knew what an organizer was before I came to St. Louis, and I never thought that that would be something you could do all the time.

I grew up in Lubbock, Texas, a very conservative city. My mom is a huge part of why I do my work. She was raised as a farmer, and so farming and, particularly, organic farming have always been her passion. Growing up, we had an organic farm in west Texas that had a CSA program that fed hundreds of families. We would take field trips out to the farm for Earth Day at my school and my mom started community gardens at elementary schools in the city. She was clearly a very effective organizer and an effective advocate for many different things. So it’s taken me a long time to realize those things are connected, that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing had it not been for the things she did when I was growing up. I never knew what an organizer was before I came to St. Louis, and I never thought that that would be something you could do all the time.

I have a really hard time explaining to people when they ask me, “What’s your job? What do you do?” both because I don’t have a job and also because even when I did it was a very difficult job to describe. I remember one time I asked my mom, “What do you tell your friends that I do when they ask?” She said, “Oh, you know, I always say, ‘She’s a community organizer and she was really involved in Black Lives Matter and she’s a leader fighting against police brutality in St. Louis.’ “That’s what you tell them!?” She said, “Yeah!” and I was like, “How do they usually respond?” “They usually just stare at me blankly.” I was like, “Cool.” And she was like, “But they can’t say anything.” My mom’s very proud.

My family, in general, is extremely supportive of what I do, and that definitely helps a lot. My parents didn’t understand at first, and then once they realized that these things came from them… It’s important to me that there are some things in which I talked to them about that maybe changed their perspectives on things, but also that there are experiences that they have on a regular basis that inform how they feel, too. A lot of my work over the last year is realizing the amount of influence I can have on those personal relationships, and it’s not just about going out and talking to a stranger on a street and convincing them to go to a meeting. It can also be conversations that I have with my parents.

I always feel very supported by the groups of people around me, and I’m always getting inspiration from what other folks are doing around me. The biggest need I have right now is honestly just me figuring out and having clarity about being a part of so many spaces for the last couple of years, being and having a foot in so many different communities, and getting an understanding of different strategies, tactics, or things that people are doing. I’ve built up a powerful network of folks, and it’s a question for me of, “What do you do with that?” It’s not just enough to have those relationships, know a person, or connect people together. Really, it’s just me having my own clarity about what I want to do and how I can use those connections that I have made to further those things. I love St. Louis, and I definitely am very committed to being here for however long it takes.

There’s no single organization in St. Louis that can get all of these things done, and there’s no one entity or one group of people that you can point to and say they’re the ones who created this change.

There’s no single organization in St. Louis that can get all of these things done, and there’s no one entity or one group of people that you can point to and say they’re the ones who created this change. So, I’ve always been of the mindset that our job should be creating new things and trying new things and experimenting. That’s something that my work at MORE taught me. With that, a lot of my decision to lead and change my course was because I saw an opportunity to do something that MORE wasn’t doing. I felt like I could be more effective jumping into that and that there was so much incredible energy for a solidarity economy coming out of everything that happened in Ferguson and being able to harness that. That part of the work that I’m wanting to do is to figure out how we internally structure the work that we do.

There are groups doing amazing work that have amazing people but aren’t able to sustain themselves whether it’s because of access to resources or the ways we get stuck thinking that the structures that we see that already exist are our only options. Like, “Oh, well, if I want to be a group, I have to be a non-profit, or I have to look this way, or I have to look like this group of people doing this thing.” One of the major goals for Solidarity Economy St. Louis is to think beyond that a little more expansively as like, “How do we want our movement to look? How do we want to make decisions within our group? How do we want to get resources and allocate them?” Those are questions that seem crucial for whatever it is that we’re trying to achieve over the long-term, and I felt like the only way to do that was to create a new structure.

The whole point of a solidarity economy is that you’re relying on the people around you to not just align with your values and do the work, but that you’re actually relying on them to meet your everyday needs. I guess, for me, the distinction is that our collaboration has to extend much deeper into mutual reliance and that we actually have to trust each other, not just to do what we say, but also to rely on each other for things that we need that we currently rely on exploitative systems for. I think collaboration only goes as far as whatever is at stake for both parties and there’s a very shallow form of collaboration that comes whenever we want to do something, we want to be visible, and we want to have, like when we collaborate with somebody because we want to have their name on something. To me, a truly effective form of collaboration is in the form of cooperation where we both have something to lose here, and the only way for us to get it is for us to rely on each other and to trust each other. That’s much harder to develop, and that’s something that is much more difficult because it requires a deeper relationship than just a collaboration.

How do you share resources now with people around you? I would love it if I could share a car with somebody. Why do I need a car all the time or why do I need to own one? 99% of the things I own just sit there for 99% of the time. Why is that?

What are ways that you share? What are things that you do to share with people around you? People will say things like, “I cook food for my neighbor. I babysit for my kid sometimes. I trade something that I need with someone else.” Or, they grow their own food. Whatever it is, people do those things, in many cases, in order to survive, and especially in a place like St. Louis where it’s like the things you’re doing to make money aren’t giving you all the things that you need to survive. So, you have to rely on the people around you to meet whatever needs that aren’t getting met. It’s a hustle, and how do people hustle? What would it look like if you could rely on the people around you to help feed you, to give you a place, a roof over your head, to help give you clothes, and stuff like that? How do you share resources now with people around you? There are many different examples. I would love it if I could share a car with somebody. Why do I need a car all the time or why do I need to own one? 99% of the things I own just sit there for 99% of the time. Why is that?

It’s not just about making things more efficient. Ultimately, the goal of a solidarity economy is to completely change our relationship to the planet, to people, to money, and to things. When you think about something like money, we’re always thinking that we need money. And, of course, we need money in order to get certain things done, but at the end of the day, what is money? It’s like that old proverb, “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.” Do we need money, or do we need the things that money can get us? And if there are ways that we can get those things that we need money for now without it, then do we need it?

The bigger picture is that if we can structure the relationships around those things that we value, like around justice, then we can change our relationship to all of the things around us. Those things are just as fundamental to all of the work that we’re trying to do because you can’t go and fight all of these other systems whenever you have part of those systems inside of you.

You caught me at a very interesting time in my life because I’m not working as an organizer, but I’m doing organizing. I’m in the midst of trying to start Solidarity Economy St. Louis. I’m traveling a lot, being in a lot of different places, so I feel like I don’t have as much clarity as I have in the past about what I’m doing at this moment, but I feel hopeful about stuff that’s going on. It’s interesting how people do their work in so many ways. Of course, not everybody gets paid for the stuff that they do in this realm of things. Some people do it through the way that they care for their families, some people do it through the things that they do for their neighbors, and some people do it within an organization. But I think it’s important to take a step back and recognize that everybody is giving something to this in a different way.

– Julia Ho, founder of Solidarity Economy St. Louis