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Leftist causes ring as true today as in ’60s

by Amy Kingsley

Those interested in making a difference in the world today need the help of veterans of past social change movements. Likewise, the older activists can learn a thing or two from their younger cohorts, said participants in a panel about intergenerational dialogue for leftist social causes on June 11.

More than a dozen activists with experience ranging from the early days of civil rights to the massive protests against globalization led the three-hour discussion in the Nussbaum Room at the Central Library. Political organizers from the Triangle and Triad convened the forum to coincide with a visit by author Daniel Berger in support of the books Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity and Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out.

Almost 72 million people belong to the generations born after World War II. They have witnessed the success of struggles against colonialism, segregation and the Vietnam War, speakers said. About 50 audience members joined the experts to discuss forming an intergenerational coalition to oppose the increasingly unpopular Iraq War and fight for social justice.

‘“It’s challenging because it’s important and it’s important because it’s challenging,’” Berger said. ‘“There are folks who have been doing this work for a very long time, but we’re not always working together. The challenge for younger people is, how do we get to know people? And part of the challenge for older folks is learning to learn from the younger activists.’”

Berger gave a brief history of activism since World War II. Members of the panel followed his presentation with brief statements on the challenges and strengths of activist movements.

‘“Because I have a longer view, I don’t get discouraged when something doesn’t work out,’” said Terry Austin, who became politically active with Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. ‘“I don’t lose hope when really bad things happen in the world.’”

Ed Whitfield, a longtime community organizer from Greensboro, spoke about the lingering trauma of colonialization. Anti-racism work figured heavily into the discussion, inspired by the South’s long history of struggle with the issue. Greensboro’s Nettie Coad spoke on that topic, particularly the importance of organizing locally.

Some representatives from the younger generation of activists noted the strengths and weaknesses of current movements.

‘“I feel like we have a very strong feeling of the need to take care of each other,’” said Nego Crosson, an activist who works against police brutality in the Triad. ‘“But we also have a tendency to become really isolated and insular. We have to fight against becoming just a subculture.’”

In addition to those fighting for civil rights, the panel featured two speakers involved with the recent struggles of illegal immigrants to fight legislation that would make them felons. Noe Juarez, an immigrant from Peru who works in Latino ministries at First Presbyterian Church, cautioned against supporting guerillas who terrorized his impoverished countrymen. But he also decried America’s culture of silence regarding issues like poverty and inequality.

One of the biggest challenges the speakers found in forming intergenerational movements is the tendency for activists to form groups with people who are similar to them. In addition, the last speaker acknowledged intrinsic differences in work styles between generations.

‘“There’s a difference in the approach and vision,’” said Dannette Sharpley of Durham. ‘“Yes I understand the tendency to find similar folks, but I think that’s an oversimplification.’”

After the panel adjourned, they formed groups with audience members to talk about several guiding questions. One group of four talked about the lack of clear leadership, like that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

‘“I’m not sure that’s a bad thing,’” said Malik Lewis of Burlington. ‘“We need not only one person but all of us together.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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