Lessons from November in NYC: Building for the Dialogue Between BA and Cornel West

March 2, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From a Revolution Club member:

In grappling with the editorial A Crossroads… A Time to Act, and the interview excerpt with Ardea Skybreak On Attending the Dialogue Between Bob Avakian and Cornel West on Revolution and Religion, I was reflecting on some of the experience building for the Dialogue when it happened live in NYC on November 15, 2014. 1,900 people filled Riverside Church.  These included people of all strata, but going into it, a number of revolutionaries did some concentrated work to bring people from among those who catch the most hell every day under this system.  We worked to project the message: this is for you! And a good number of people from Harlem, from the housing projects and the high schools, came. 

There is a lot to learn from all this – including, as we go forward, how the historic Dialogue itself impacted people’s thinking.

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But here I thought it would be helpful to learn from the work we did in the weeks leading up to November 15 – for all who are thinking about and working on how to meet the challenge posed by the situation we are in where the potential for revolution has been further cracked open by the developments over the fall, at the same time as we confront a crossroads with urgent tasks in front of us “to rebuild the fight against police murder much more powerfully, as part of building this movement for revolution, and to spread the word of the revolutionary answer to all this, especially through promoting the upcoming film of the Dialogue…” [from "A Crossroads"] and, I would add, through all this building and strengthening mass revolutionary organization.

A few overarching points to begin with:

This work flowed from and was measured by the strategy for revolution.  We understood the potential impact of the Dialogue on preparing the ground, preparing the people, and preparing the vanguard to make a real revolution.  And that this included how it was built for and who came to engage it and on what basis.  What I’m writing below doesn’t encompass all of it, but part of what was so important is that flowing from the understanding of the kind of breakthrough we were going for and why, we were able to identify and go to work on concrete qualitative and quantitative goals to make that breakthrough.  We forged a working, scientific collectivity that was measuring the back-and-forth relationship of “preparing minds” and “organizing forces.”

Key was getting clear on the argument we were making.  This was concentrated in “Three Reasons Why the Dialogue Between Cornel West and Bob Avakian on November 15th Is Something You ABSOLUTELY Won’t Want to Miss.”  And it was concentrated in the letter, “To the Youth This System Has Cast Off: This Dialogue Is for You.” People didn’t need to all be won to revolution, but to get a sense of what they were coming to, and that it was really for them. 

The work we did in this neighborhood and among this section of people interpenetrated with and was impacted by the work in the city overall and across the country.  This included making it a mass question in different areas of the city, work among students, in religious communities, and among progressive intelligentsia, work to sell blocs of tickets, a successful Indiegogo fundraising campaign, a lively portal on revcom.us, and more.

What follows is not a formula, but what I think are some of the key links from that work. 

1) Wide outreach and saturation, getting the Dialogue visible, getting it “in the air” in the sense of everybody in a given area or arena knowing it was happening.

We blanketed two housing projects with palm cards and fliers for the Dialogue, which means we put materials in every door in 20 buildings with about 200 apartments in each building.  Posters were posted up in the windows of businesses throughout the area, and often in the buildings as well.  And we had to keep assessing where we were at on that. We were continually stepping back and assessing all the way through in a way that was concrete and systematic.  If we had a plan to get posters in windows and it didn’t happen for one reason or another, we understood the difference it would make overall and worked collectively to change the situation the next day.  The same with chalking on sidewalks, thinking about how to do things to start to get visible.  With the door-to-door fliering, we did one round with the palm cards, then came back and did a second round with fliers speaking to ideological questions which had been sharpened up through the overall work we were doing with people.

2) Consistent presence, systematically reaching people and building off what’s been done before.

At the high schools, we started by going out to the schools every morning and every afternoon with the palm cards.  After about a week it was clear that most students who passed through where we were setting up had already gotten or seen the palm card, so we stopped going in the morning, but went almost every single day after school.  People saw us every day, and every day we were able to have conversations with individuals or groups of students or others passing through.  With some students, we began to have an ongoing conversation, where we’d talk again a few days later or a week later.  And this began to be part of a bigger conversation, where people saw their friends or others talking with us and came around to find out more.  When we were out at the schools in the afternoons, we usually didn’t have a great big crew.  We’d go out with three people, sometimes more.  But, because of how we were stepping – in a way that was bold but accessible, we were able to have an impact with just a few people.

3) Engaging the content of the Dialogue and who is Bob Avakian and who is Cornel West.

Every day our collectivity summed up lessons from the day as well as quantitative measures like how many palm cards we got out and how many tickets were sold.  After a couple days at the high schools, we realized we didn’t have a way for students on the spot to engage the content of what the Dialogue was about and though they were familiar with BA’s name, and some knew of Cornel West, they didn’t know the content of what they were about.  We made a poster, writing out by hand some quotes from BA and Cornel West and when we took it out to the schools, students stopped and read the quotes and this sparked deeper thinking and discussion.  We didn’t have a lot of high-tech stuff to show videos, so we used a phone and the students’ own headphones or we plugged a speaker into the phone and they were able to watch the video BA: A Long Distance Runner in the Revolution or listen to a reading of a letter from a prisoner about why the Dialogue was for them.  People watching/listening on the spot became part of what we were doing all the time, so that was also part of the scene that was being created every day.

4) Actually organizing people to come to the Dialogue, developing forms for people to organize each other to come.

At a certain point, we started dealing more consciously with questions of organization. There was a breadth of people hearing about and checking out the Dialogue, but how were people going to get organized to actually come to it?  We knew that this was mainly an ideological leap in terms of the work to overcome all the obstacles and difficulties that plague people’s lives, but that if there wasn’t the ability to come—knowing other people who were going, knowing where the neighborhood vans were leaving from, helping to solve contradictions of child care etc.—then people’s genuine commitment wasn’t going to be made real.

There were people who had started to engage with what the Dialogue was about and through hearing things like the interview Cornel did with BA and hearing other works of BA, were more unleashed in relation to the Dialogue. These individuals were going to be key in the whole plan.  Some of them had a longer relationship to the movement for revolution, some we had only recently met and begun to work with, but where people were stepping forward around the Dialogue, we could see the potential for them to be levers to others.  We called on them to become organizers for the Dialogue and we put concrete tasks in their hands, like people they were going to call, or be responsible for others in their building.  We identified them as “captains” and talked with them about what this would mean.  The captains who agreed to take responsibility for their building went around and introduced themselves to the people from their building who had expressed interest in coming to the Dialogue.  They told people where the buses were going to be to pick people up, and let people know that if they ran into problems or had questions, to ask them because they were the captains for the building.  This is how we went from disparate individuals interested on their own, people scattered here and there, to groups of people coming together to the Dialogue.

With the high school students we realized the teachers could be a lever.  We found the entrance where the teachers go into school and passed out a letter to them about why they should bring their students to the Dialogue.  And then with those who expressed interest, we followed up the same day and within a couple days we were giving brief presentations to their classes.  Then we worked through problems like how would a teacher who wants to bring their class be able to get tickets for their students if they don’t have money, and we worked at this in collective ways where teachers helped each other and helped their students.

5) Leadership, collectivity, asking the right questions, summing up in real time, and getting to the essential questions people are up against.

As I mentioned earlier, every day there was a collectivity that was stepping back to look at where we were in the process of our concrete goals of bringing forward basic people, from among the oppressed, to come hear the Dialogue, especially on the basis of beginning to engage BA’s work and thinking about what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of people we are going to be.  We were able to assess things quickly and get to essential questions of how to advance, how to measure up where we are, what are we learning, what contradictions are we encountering, from the standpoint of making advances day after day, minute by minute, instead of a situation where something interesting happens and we sum it up the next week.

A very important part of how the leadership of this collectivity led it was by helping us to ask the right questions.  A key example was about a week before the Dialogue, there was a question posed about the overall terrain in relation to the Dialogue in the areas we were working in.  Was there a building momentum for the Dialogue?  A  growing wave of people deciding to come to it and making plans to come to it and  talking about that amongst each other?  Or was there a lot of holding back still, that could become a wave in the other direction?  And if there was this holding back, what was the cause of it and how could we strengthen what WAS coming forward to change the direction of the wave?

We assessed that in fact there were a lot of people on the fence, interested but not actually deciding to come.  We understood what was being addressed in the letter from the former prisoner, who wrote “this Dialogue is for you” speaking to oppressed people who are taught to think that things like this, coming to hear prominent speakers digging into big questions of philosophy and morality, taking responsibility to get into questions involving the future of humanity and the planet, are not things they see themselves as capable of taking up or welcomed to be part of doing.  And we identified the heart-wrenching phenomenon among the youth especially to think they are too messed up to be part of something like this.  Like the girl who said to us that her friends would think she was a hypocrite for coming to something like this because this is good for the community and she uses drugs and does other things that are not good for the community.  At the same time, there were people who WERE deciding that they were going to overcome obstacles to be at the Dialogue, because they were deeply concerned about the injustices around them and seeking real answers to how to deal with these, how to get free, how to get to a different future, and many were really drawn to hearing something that was bringing forward a lot of love in a situation where there is so much hate, including among the people themselves.

We decided we needed to address in a MASS way the things that were holding people back.  The next day we wrote two short fliers.  One was addressed to the people in the housing projects that included quotes from other people in those projects about why they were deciding to go to the Dialogue, and challenged people living in this modern-day slavery to stop being so busy being a slave that they don’t have time to get free.  Then a team of us went out to start getting that flier into every door of the projects.  In the evening, we wrote a second flier addressed to the high school students, addressing their questions, inviting them in, and challenging them about what kind of people they are going to be.  We did work to identify how these questions were posing themselves and aimed to speak to these in a really living way that would reach into the thinking of our audience, and rupture them from the obstacles in their thinking.  The next day we went out in the morning before school and got out hundreds of these to all the students we could reach and came back in the afternoon where we read it through and discussed it with some of the students we’d been talking to.

These fliers helped things to take a leap, to change the terms of the overall conversation that was beginning to happen in these places, and not just from all the work we were doing, but in relation to other developments citywide and nationwide, including things like the full-page New York Times ad about the Dialogue which had an important impact on the teachers, etc. 

Again, my point is not to sum everything up in great detail, nor  is  this  a blueprint or comprehensive, but this was a really rich experience and we should all be able to learn the lessons from it which can be applied to what is in front of us right now.

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