Tales of Struggle for, by, and about Activists
A few days ago, I had a chat with Ellen Bravo, co-author of Standing Up, Tales of Struggle (Hardball Press, 2022). The novel follows two social justice organizers from their earliest organizing experiences, their falling in love during the (ultimately successful) campaign to “Dump Nixon” in the seventies, through to the present day. It’s fictional, but the characters’ stories closely mirror those of co-authors Ellen Bravo and Larry Miller—a couple about to celebrate their 48th anniversary—along with those of labor and social justice movement people close to them. As a longtime union organizer and a more recent fiction writer, I much appreciated the book melding these interests.
Standing Up contributes to fiction featuring activists in a number of ways: It’s an engaging story with well-rounded characters, one that truly centers activists. Likewise, it opens a window into the realities of organizing, challenges stereotypes, offers concrete tools for organizing, and provides a fun reading experience. Here are some specifics gleaned from my reading and my talk with Ellen Bravo:
Demystifying Activism. The story shows the activist characters as genuine human beings we can empathize and identify with, multidimensional people involved in real situations, facing challenges we have lived through ourselves, or which we can readily imagine, because they are similar to those faced by working people all over the US, at least, if not more universal still.
Defying the all too prevalent marginalizing of activists in fiction, and instead putting activists, and union and social justice organizing, at the center of the story. Of course, this marginalization in mainstream narrative is a reflection of the actual marginalization of the voices that are “deliberately unheard,” as Bravo calls them.
‘Normalizing’ organizing, as Rinku Sen, director of the Narrative Initiative puts it in her review of the novel. The book shows that organizers “… have fun and family, ...love and victories, just like everyone does,” as well the need “to get over … losses...” —just like regular people.
Inspiring people to join movements for justice. “If people see the work as joyful and exciting,” says Bravo, “they might want to come with us more often.”
Showing how change actually happens. Our individualist culture inculcates the message that, in Bravo’s words, “as long as you believe in yourself you can do whatever you want, be whatever you want!” “As if change happens by your own will,” she adds. Rather than argue with individualism, the story instead paints a more realistic picture of change: At a key moment a group of call center workers stand up at their desks for 60 seconds, an ingenious way to show their discontent without stopping work. Told through the viewpoint of one worker, Emma, we experience her apprehension at taking this action, the suspense of the moment when she is unsure if anyone else will join in, and the shift in her outlook when she feels her coworkers stand up around her and she realizes that,
“nothing will ever be the same. They knew what it felt like to stand up for themselves. (p. 134)
It is not a triumphalist story—not every worker stands up, a few run to tell tales to management, and there are repercussions. Yet it does give a clear picture of how an idea for struggle arises, how it is collectively planned, with debates about who should do what depending on the risks involved. Through this process, says Bravo,
“they sense the power of the group. They see themselves actually doing something they never imagined they could do. Not through some magical force of will, but ...the right set of circumstances... a vehicle to act, and others to act with. ...[T]hey see there’s a path, and [that they] can be on that path.”
Challenging stereotypes. In the novel, stereotypes are countered not by arguing, but by showing a different reality. For instance, the role of children, who participate fully throughout the book. In school I remember a classmate saying that if I wanted to be an activist I shouldn’t be a parent; indeed, the “neglectful activist-mother” is a common stereotype. In contrast, Stand Up shows children participating with their parents, not idealized, but in keeping with what I also observed as a parent—I didn’t follow the stereotype any more than Ellen Bravo and her co-author/co-parent Larry Miller did! Children provide solidarity and real support, as well as motivation and inspiration.
Here’s a little scene where Emma, a leader of the call center workers, who just before the “standup,” is at the breakfast table with her kids. She borrows her eight-year-old’s stopwatch so she can time the 60 seconds the protest will last:
‘You just push this button, Mom’…Max told her.
Sammy, smelling of maple syrup from the good-luck pancakes ... [said]: ‘if Mr. Henderson walks by, just pretend you have to stretch.’
‘Nah, Mom, just stand there,’ Max said… ‘You’re not breaking any rules.’
Helping organizers fight union busting. A book like Standing Up highlights an important tool of labor organizing, known as inoculation. In the novel, we see management engage in intimidation, including “captive audience meetings.” Such tactics are a major obstacle in worker organizing; see this, this and this for real-life examples. Stories that depict such schemes alert— inoculate—workers against employer moves to quash their struggle, so that they are not taken unawares.
Providing a vehicle for friendly self criticism. This novel takes a good-humored look at the foibles of activists and organizers, without coming across as an attack. This is tricky, and can easily become divisive. Fiction written from a position of love, of wanting the best for the participants, of poking gentle fun at the characters as they grapple with patriarchy, white supremacy, beaurocracy, ageism, and more, is something Standing Up does very well, showing that, as Bravo says, “even people who make big mistakes can grow and learn.” Including, of course, the authors themselves.
Finally, this book gives a picture of some of the many, and often unrecorded, grassroots victories, which consist not only of achieving better material conditions for work or school, but also the monumental changes that take place inside people, as individuals and as a group. As Bravo says, “We want to show that moment—such a joy to watch—when people get a sense they don’t have to put up with this shit anymore.”
That moment when they realize that “this shit” isn’t inevitable, somebody’s doing it. We can change that, and ‘we’ means me, too.”
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The National Writers’ Union, DC Area (my union) is co-sponsoring a book talk of the Standing Up co-authors in conversation with Dyana Forester at Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009 on May 11. 6:00 PM. I hope to see you there!
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Julie, this is a new movie suggestion, not a comment on this new book you're discussing! Mea culpa! The Duke is the name of the movie--British working-class autodidact's famous art heist and the ensuing trial that made the papers in a big way in 1961. Much teaching, delicious humor, touching, and great acting (Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren were the actors who got my attention in the ad and made me want to see it even before I knew what it was about; Matthew Goode is also delightful.)
Julie, I loved the combination book review and interview - with no spoilers. You and the authors present the story of union organizing as I knew it. Can't wait to hear them tomorrow night.