Solidarity Stories

I’m a teacher, so mostly what I do is to make students feel aspirational anxiety about what’s valuable about them. This situation can’t be good for anyone. So I’ve developed a thing to say in class about what it means to see a classroom as a solidaristic space. I say, I could lecture you via email, but there’s a reason classrooms exist. It’s to help you to practice sustaining a thought beyond what you can do now. Everyone has their own style of lapsing into incoherence: it’s our job to pick you up where your thought loses its shape, and to take it somewhere. In that way we create solidarity. It’s impersonal, it’s not about who you are biographically. It’s about what it means to collaborate. Sometimes this speech works, sometimes not. Recently I was at a meeting about teaching. I told some version of this story, and about how my experiences on communes had made me committed to collegiality as a form of collaborative support toward building a collective world that didn’t exist yet. Someone at the table began to cry, saying I’ve been here a decade and never thought I’d hear the word solidarity here. I conclude that whatever solidarity is as process, people sense its absence as a presence.

-Lauren Berlant lberlant@aol.com

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RPCAN (Rogers Park Community Action Network) has worked in solidarity with numerous tenants and nonprofits since the early 1980s. The collaboration between RPCAN and vendors of the Clark Street Mega
Mall in 2002 was particularly rewarding as it prevented, or at least delayed for several years, the destruction of the mall site for a new fire station. RPCAN recognized the need for a new fire station but located other potential sites because the mall supported 50 locally owned businesses and approximately 100 families. To date, the mall is still thriving.
-Rogers Park Community Action Network

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Frankly, it depresses how few actions I can think of that I’ve been involved in that have involved any substantial
solidarity. I’m in a group (the Hyde Park Committee Against War and Racism) that meets in the same building at the same time as another group with which we have political sympathy (the Committee to End the Death Penalty), and sometimes we chat and sometimes we go to each other’s events, so you could say that’s solidarity. At times I’ve managed to redistribute resources toward various groups and you could call that
solidarity. You could say it was solidarity when I drove out to a mosque on the far southwest side to stand outside protesting anti-Muslim attacks in the wake of September 11.
You could say it was solidarity when another group I’m in (Feel Tank) held a Depress-In on political depression and found ourselves inadvertently in solidarity with MadLib, advocates of alternatives to the mental health care industry. I feel a kind of mutual solidarity when I’m with a group out on the street on the south side protesting Bush and people in passing cars respond with black power salutes.

I think some would insist that solidarity means putting your body on the line – putting yourself in the way of power; putting yourself equally at risk with those whose work you want to sustain. Solidarity seems best when it’s group to group, when one group drops what it’s doing and joins in a strike or protest or action with another group whose immediate interests it might not share but whose larger struggle it recognizes and supports. But there’s a constant conflict between the focus and consistency of a political group – the need to not get dispersed and distracted – and the possibilities of joining in the struggles of others.

Solidarity isn’t charity. But sometimes it verges perilously close to it. Charity is like solidarity in that it can be an
action — or it can be a feeling. You can do something with charity; you can do something “in solidarity” and that usage emphasizes the intentions more than the effects. Maybe I boycotted grapes, maybe I buy Citgo gas, “in solidarity.” But aren’t the feelings you have when you engage in consumer choice doubly trivial? I think those gestures, trivial as they seem (and, for sure, they’re constantly derided by activists as trivial) are nonetheless the beginning of something. They imply an imagination of potential coalition (something that’s less subjective, more action-oriented). You have to imagine there are other people acting with you (as well as people you are acting for) in order to make them meaningful. So they might be the beginning of dialogue, participation, coalition –– but they’re not the end of it. In French they have an adjective, “solidaire.” I prefer the idea of being solidaire to being in solidarity. You can be in solidarity at a distance and to little effect, but I think you have to be there to be solidaire.

Solidarity is also a matter of how we respond to different group identities that intersect in us and claim our loyalties. Some come into focus as others blur. I’m a Woodlawn resident and an employee of the University of Chicago. It’s no surprise if I speak as a Woodlawn resident when I’m in Woodlawn or a University of Chicago employee when I’m at the University. But when I find myself speaking as a Woodlawn resident in a meeting room at the U of C — even as I don’t feel “representative,” even as I recognize that this situation brings into relief all the inequities of power implied within the group called “Woodlawn residents” – it still feels like solidarity to me.
-Rebecca Zorach

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The Student/Tenant Organizing Project, which combats gentrification in the predominantly African-American
community Woodlawn, turned out a group of neighborhood tenant and student leaders the May 1st Immigrant
Rights March. STOP members made the connection that displacement happens both across borders and across neighborhoods and that cross-racial solidarity means supporting each other’s demands and building power to address common issues.

-Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle

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Our student group borrowed a plan from our University’s development office that, if implemented, would have displaced hundreds of nearby residents.
We shared the document with residents and organizers who were working to make the University’s development practices more accountable.

-Anonymous History-

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My Experience with Solidarity
To me solidarity is a common sense of responsibility over a certain issue between a group of people. An act of solidarity in which I took part was in 1997 involved 7 people and I took the city of Chicago to court over the way development was going on in Pilsen. This case came to be known as the Pilsen 8 VS the City of Chicago.

I had moved back to Pilsen, a neighborhood southwest of downtown. Pilsen, like any place has passed through different stages. At the turn of the previous century, immigrants from Czechoslovakia and Bohemia lived in Pilsen. Lured by prospects of jobs in the US after the Second World War, Mexican immigrants began moving there. Up to the ‘80s it was mainly a Mexican neighborhood. But since the early ‘90s Pilsen is on a collision with gentrification.

Pilsen has a lot going for it, it’s close to downtown, to the lake, to UIC. Development is occurring everywhere. Including the construction of condominiums, duplex homes, loft apartments, but no affordable housing. The 8 of us met at Calles y Sueños Cultural Center and decided to take some action. How to stop something that seemed inevitable? We took the legal route and took the city of Chicago to court. We wanted participation from all members of the community and affordable housing in this “development”. We were represented by two wonderful lawyers pro bono. The Pilsen8 won the first battle but not the war of gentrification. We did manage to slow it down for a time.
-Leticia Cortez

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This past year I invited some local folks to join me in starting a giving circle – an autonomous model of philanthropy – to fund projects conceived by artists, activists and educators who are committed to creative ways of thinking about social change. I wanted to work with Crossroads to amp up their capacity for arts & culture grant making, and because they can write checks to groups without NPO status but that have a bank account.
- Kristen Cox

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My example of solidarity is the development of the South Side Community Federal Credit Union. The founding members include myself, a transplant from Boston’s Italian-American North End, a South Side Jew, a
Robert Taylor resident, several residents of Woodlawn, including a white guy who has been there for decades, a Hyde Parker (you have to be born here to count as one) and a few residents of other communities. Before it opened, we spent three years working together, meeting, folding envelopes, bickering about services, cajoling funders, working the streets for “pledges” to join the credit union once it opened, and generally having a good time. That began five years ago. The credit union is approaching the 1500 member mark and has $2 million in deposits, the overwhelming majority of which are modest savings accounts. We are chartered to serve residents of the South Side and to focus our resources on low-income members. Credit unions are not sexy but they are powerful tools. We capture resources that typically bleed out of communities and into the hands of bankers and currency exchange owners (sometimes one in the same). We lend money at rates below the banks, in amounts much smaller than any bank would consider, and our accounts bear interest above that of other financial institutions. I think this is the work of the future, developing alternative institutions in solidarity with a diverse group over time. I also think there’s something important about the geography of a project. We are chartered to only deal with the South Side of Chicago. That facilitates thinking in terms of a particular area, its history, its “assets” (cultural, spatial, monetary, etc.) and its residents.
-Gabriel Piemonte

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A few years ago (sorry, i don’t recall the exact date or year), members of COURAJ (Community of Uptown Residents for Affordability and Justice)–a group focused primarily on fighting for low-cost housing in
Uptown–and Queer to the Left–a group of queers fighting for social, economic, sexual justice–together blocked the intersection of Ashland and Wilson Avenues as part of an action along the entirety of Ashland
Avenue, called by an organization of day laborers fighting for amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
-Deborah Gould

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Earlier this year, Rob Kelly and Zena Sakowski (a.k.a. the art group Biggest Fags Ever) put up a basketball net and backboard over their garage door. Since the garage opens directly on to 50th Street rather than the alley, the net is accessible by anyone walking past their house. A huge amount of neighborhood young people have subsequently been playing basketball using this net.
Even though the nearest public park with basketball nets is only a few blocks away, many of the kids and teenagers are not allowed to go there because of gang boundaries and other general public safety concerns that their parents have. When Rob and Zena’s neighbors’ kids are playing at the garage net, their parents and older siblings are able to sit across the street on their front porches and watch them.
-Salem Collo-Julin

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Anarchist solidarity work in the south suburbs! Is it possible???
South Chicago ABC (Anarchist Black Cross) Zine Distro does solidarity work on an everyday basis. Our main goal is to provide serious political education and support to prisoners by working closely with prisoner writers and artists and activists, be they anarchists, Muslims, New Afrikans, Marxists, Native Americans, Chicanos or whatever. We edit and publish many new publications on an ongoing basis, but also carry publications of the Missouri Prison Labor Union in collaboration with Black Unicorn Press / P.O. Box 872 / Kirksville, MO 63501, the New Afrikan Black Panther Prison Chapter, through the Rising Sun Press / P.O. Box 4362 / Allentown, PA 18105 and many other such hook-ups. We have several ABC chapters who also do this type of work. Our publications are loaded with contact information, usually mailing contacts, as prisoners have little to no access to computers.
Each one, teach one!
-Anthony of the South Chicago ABC Zine Distro / P.O. Box 721 / Homewood, IL 60430