Accompanying Social Justice Leaders of the 21st Century as Mutual Teachers/Learners

Accompanying Social Justice Leaders of the 21st Century as Mutual Teachers/Learners

by Suzanne Pharr


A core commitment of NCOE is to accompany social justice leaders of the 21st century as mutual teachers/learners in the work to create a just world.  Here are two examples of how I am engaged in this work across generations:

First example:  Representing NCOE South (Joyce Johnson, Nelson Johnson, Shirley Sherrod, Aljosie Harding, Mandy Carter, Zoharah Simmons, Catherine Meeks, Janet Wolf, Lewis Brandon), I am a member of the Governance Council of the Southern Movement Assembly.  Here’s a short description of this continuation of the Southern Freedom Movement:

“The Southern Movement Assembly is an organizing process and a convergence space that centers the voices and experiences of grassroots leadership on multiple frontlines. Organizations coordinate actions locally and regionally to confront poverty, racism, and violence and to build political power in our communities. The Assembly is a movement governance process that is a combination of political education, discussion, planning, action, and synthesis.

Our coordinated actions achieve our shared purposes: to dismantle the systems that create and maintain racism, oppression and exploitation while also building the social and economic democracy that advances self-determination and sovereignty on multiple fronts.

We have the history, the relationships, and the commitment to build strong social movements based in the South. We cannot merely build our organizations to sustain themselves as separate entities. We cannot achieve our ambitious visions alone. We can chart our own course to liberation.”

I joined in the creation of the SMA (Southern Movement Assembly) because it is a strategy to build a movement infrastructure in the South that can

  • build and model a democratic process that can replace the fractured, inadequate democracy we have now;
  • connect organizations across the South in working together on mutual interests (such as a new social economy, a people’s democracy, and protection and defense of our communities);
  • build and grow movement strength, leadership, participation;
  • move organizations and individuals to unite in rapid response to crises in our region (such as the murder of Trayvon Martin or climate disaster).

Over the past five years, we have held 6 major regional assemblies and dozens of state and local ones.  And for those years, our governance council has met by phone every Monday to plan and build our work.

I was drawn to the SMA vision because I, like many others, was looking for a strategy that wouldn’t be changed every year in an effort to court funders, that would be multi-generational, multi-racial, and multi-issued, that would find a way to both build and defend, and that would commit authentically to developing power and voice with those who have suffered the most injustice in a fractured democracy.

For more information about the Southern Movement Assembly, go to Southern Movement Assembly and Project South


Second example:  This one is more individual in that I commit a good portion of my work to spending time with young organizers one on one  When I meet people who are doing particularly interesting or hard work around the country and they ask if they can be in contact with me, I offer them two possibilities:  either skype with me or come visit.  The latter one has a caveat, though:  they have to agree to do physical work with me, usually in my garden. The latter choice has been the most helpful and productive because it’s over several days, with plenty of work and talk and social time, and a relationship gets built.  It is a great way to do mutual exchange of ideas, history, and experiences without sitting at a desk.  I’ve always said that the thing I love most about social change organizing is the great friends it has given me, and that’s why I’m committed to this way of working with younger organizers (and almost all organizers are younger than I am…)—it just keeps on building friendships and the possibility of a just world.