Welcome to this website that offers a political journey from the election of Ronald Reagan into the first decades of the 21st century. Here you will enter the life and times of social justice activism in the face of a growing rightwing and rapacious capitalism. Because so many wove the cloth of this story, it is only just that it live freely in the commons for all who are working for justice today.
In my eighth decade, I have a sense of wonderment when I look at the materials and speeches of this collection I share with you.
From a distance, they represent analysis and reflection in a time when we were witnessing a slow but seismic shift in this country, one that landed us today in the major crises of 2020-21. They bear witness to strategies and tactics used to divide this country and to grow authoritarianism built on wealth and race and gender. Though grounded in the present, they are predictive, beginning in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. But, as we know, prediction is not prevention, and today we have a sharply divided country, with growing state and civilian violence. However, the crises we face today are leading us to revisit the values we have known to be true in the past and are lifted up in these writings. There is a way forward.
Some of my wonder is how I came to write this analysis and commentary, what it was in my life that prepared and motivated me.
Was it that I was a child of the recovery from the Great Depression and World War II that showed me how communities had to pull together to survive? Or because I grew up the youngest of eight children on a small farm in Georgia where you worked with community because your wellbeing depended upon it? Or because of my deep love of basketball where you have to work as a team to win and to overcome your losses? Or was it just something as simple as growing up a queer girl in a time when there was no place to breathe the air of freedom and it made me forever push for places where that air could flow unimpaired?
There are many gifts in life that are what the novelist Carson McCullers called “an accident of fate.” I think of those moments as when life changes, for good or bad. My life was changed the day I read The Combahee River Collective Statement in the late 1970s. It was the first time I had heard or seen a clear intersectional analysis and the bold vision and collective power of Black feminists. All of my social change work since that moment has been touched by that statement.
Another life-changer happened in the late 1970s after I surfaced from living on feminist land and took a job as Director of Head Start in NW Arkansas. Within a year I was under serious attack for being a lesbian, and after weathering public hearings and keeping my job long enough to help create a shelter for battered women and another for sexually abused children, I fled. Freeman McKindra of Little Rock offered me a job as a VISTA worker interviewing elderly people about their need for services in rural areas. It was this job that taught me about the needs of rural Arkansans—that were so much like my childhood in rural Georgia—and the Women’s Project was born.
The majority of the articles collected here were written while I worked for the Women’s Project and published in Transformation, its quarterly newsletter.
The Women’s Project was a scrappy little Arkansas organization that from 1981 to 1998 worked across rural and urban communities to bring about social change. Its political mission was aligned with The Combahee River Collective Statement: to eliminate sexism and racism, with a focus on violence and economic injustice.
From our mission statement:
We take risks in our work; we take unpopular stands. We work for all women and against all forms of discrimination and oppression. We believe that we cannot work for all women and against sexism unless we also work against racism, classism, ageism, anti-Semitism, heterosexism and homophobia. We see the connections among these oppressions as the context for violence against women in this society.
We believed that people could be transformed and we practiced relational organizing that was intersectional. We strived for political integrity, believing that we could not demand fairness and equality and justice from the world unless we practiced these ourselves. A Black and white, straight and queer staff, we refused to talk about sexism without talking about racism and vice versa—they were always linked, and we linked all other oppressions to them.
We were determined to fight systemic sexism, racism and economic injustice from within, and we thought the critical areas for change were shared power and shared resources.
We paid all staff the same, believing that an hour of one woman’s hard work was equal in worth to another woman’s hard work, no matter what the job. Everyone participated in decision making about what the work would be and how the resources would be used. Our work was to create the structure to bring people from around the state into the work to change our communities and to build the political education and skills and resources to do it.
It was the work of these people—staff, interns, board and hundreds of people who became the Women’s Project around the state—that made it possible for me to observe up close the times we were living in, the threats, dangers, and the possibilities. Though never thinking of myself as a writer before, I became an organizer who also wrote to name our experiences, examine them, and describe what was happening in the world around us. For example, when the rightwing Good News Methodists attacked the United Methodist Church (our fiscal sponsor for the first five years) because we had lesbians on staff, we began our study of the religious Right and our work against it. That work led us to the observation of and opposition to far right groups such as the KKK and the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord.
What followed was the creation of the Women’s Watchcare Network, where we organized women around the state to document hate crimes against people of color, women, LGBTQ people, Jews and Catholics. In the end, we did massive painful documentation of the murders of women. Then, after we gained this experience, in 1992 the Women’s Project sent me to organize for the NO on 9 campaign in Oregon, a campaign fighting an anti-gay ballot measure created by a local rightwing group and supported nationally by the well-organized religious and secular Right. In the end, we had a story of the growth and strategies of the Right.
This social history begins with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the simultaneous rise of neoliberalism and the religious Right.
In these materials, you will see the deliberate blaming of black and brown people (particularly immigrants) for virtually all social problems: drug abuse and related violence, welfare fraud, crime, the failure of public education, high taxes, and deterioration of our neighborhoods. Built on this resentment and the creation of a false sense of scarcity (“there isn’t enough to go around”), there came a decades long plan to radically reduce taxation and gut our social programs and infrastructure.
Readers will recognize the evolution of movement language, analysis, and identities from the late 20th century documented here to the 21st century we experience today: a shift from focusing on multiculturalism to examining colonization, from defending the rights of LGBTQ+ people to expanding and demanding a broad understanding of gender, and from working for integration and equity to seeking abolition and reparations. Movements evolve or die. Our social justice movements have shown we can and will evolve—and we are growing.
In the two-plus decades these articles cover, you will see how the religious Right was central in the effort to create and mobilize resentment by creating wedge issues and fighting to maintain systems of domination—and how these wedges were purposed to organize people of color and low-income workers against the rising demand for the rights of women and queer people. And then these wedges were used among white evangelicals and working-class white people as indicators of the loss of the moral and economic center of the country. These divisions still live today.
This website is for those who long for and fight for social justice, for a world where every person counts and, as the old movement song says, has the right to the tree of life.
Within these documents, there are examples of our great collective work for social justice as well as examples of how we failed or fell short of our dreams or missed opportunities to replace division with unity. There are themes that run throughout—a focus on community and local work, a Gandhian belief that every step toward liberation must have liberation in it; the struggle between power /profit and community values/human needs; the affirmation that every person counts and we leave some people out at our peril; the belief that the reconfiguration of the family and community is at the center of the battle for liberation or dominance.
The overarching theme is the need to grow an inclusive and just people’s democracy, and an argument that it is worth fighting to defend and build the fragile unfinished democracy we have. In the spirit of this democracy, this collection is offered for any way you might use it on the path to ward off authoritarianism and to build a people’s democracy, to resist division and to build unity, to reimagine and bring about a radical transformation of the world.
– Suzanne Pharr