From Silos To Sustenance: Claiming the Harvest of Memory and Migration
By Megan Douglass
What does it mean to build sustainable coalitions? Thinking about this question is one of my passions. I am immensely curious to know more about what causes any given movement to either break down or lead to partnerships that endure. And, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that in many ways, how we’ve been speaking about coalitions is all wrong. I believe we are headed in the right direction if we can find ways to just trust ourselves, our work, and where it takes us.
I was born in Grand Rapids, MI and raised in the Ypsi/Ann Arbor area, and now live in the Metro Detroit region. I am the daughter of an immigrant to the US, my mother is from Jamaica, and of a southerner, my father was from North Carolina. And while my particular story may be unique to me, I don’t think that this story is all that unique in the wider context of poor or brown people across Michigan. Indeed, for many of the poor or brown people I know who claim Michigan as home, either they, their parents, or their grandparents, came here from somewhere in the south (including diasporic populations coming from the global “south.”) Indeed, I am sure many of us grew up travelling to visit family members for holidays and reunions, or welcoming family from other places into our homes here in the Midwest.
And, if you think about it for just a moment, you begin to realize that the story of poor and brown bodies in the West has always been one of transience, of movement across borders. From our first ancestors who were captured and brought to the US during the Middle Passage; to the Great Migration of people across the country and globe; to people traveling to industrial cities seeking work, refuge, and stability; to cyclical patterns of relocation brought on either by predatory development practices, gentrification, or divestment in poor and brown spaces, there is a long history of motion for many of us. This transience is a direct cause of systemic disenfranchisement and displacement. Over and again it leads poor and brown people to have to figure out where they might carve out a space for themselves in a political and economic landscape that time after time denies many of us the kind of permanence that lies in the notion of the “American dream.” We’ve been denied the kind of stability most commonly associated with coalition and sustainable movement building.
And it is this notion, that as poor and brown people we are often in a sort of spatial flux, that has led me to think in new ways about what it means to be part of a community, what it means to sustain a coalition, and what it means to think past the limits of the borders within which we find ourselves on any given day, or within which we place ourselves simply because we were born in a particular place at a particular time. Imagine, if rather than seeing our issues or causes as bounded by space, we saw this great migratory experience, which is at times punctuated by being in one place long enough to make friends, have families, build lives, before we take flight again, as the opportunity to take our missions and our memories on the road. To know that even if we remain and others leave, that our investments in those relationships were assuredly not frivolous.
I speak of this as a grounding concept. As a way for us to think beyond the fears we may have right now that somehow we aren’t doing enough to “save the world.” If you’ve spent any time in grassroots and community organizing spaces over the last year or so, you’ve probably heard the term “silo” thrown around a lot. People are in silos, organizations are in silos, issues are in silos, the work is siloed. A silo, by its standard definition, is one of those giant towers you often see on farms where harvested grain is stored for future use. And, in the organizer world the term carries ominous connotations. To hear someone complain that they or their peers are in silos signals a sense of disconnection they perceive from their allies as they work to bring change in their communities. It signals that many feel as if the work they are doing, rather than feeding a wider movement, is being boxed in, going unnoticed, or in the worst cases that it’s self-serving and ultimately not having much effect at all.
However, having been back in Michigan for the last year and a half now, working in community organizing spaces, I’d like to suggest a different narrative. One that not only asks that we build beyond whatever specific borders we’ve erected in our minds, but also one that recognizes and exalts the hard work that organizers across the state, country, and globe are doing to push back against the brutality of oppressive systems.
At For Our Future Michigan, where I work, I am privileged to be able to engage with grassroots organizations across the state of Michigan. On any given day I may be attending a meeting of the People’s Water Board at Cass Commons, heading to Benton Harbor with the Poor People’s Campaign to build alliances and share stories, fighting for a complete reimagining of the criminal justice system with Michigan Liberation, standing against the destruction of our natural resources at the indigenous-led Water is Life festival in Mackinac City, developing my skills at a training run by the Pontiac Policy Action Fund, sitting in on a Detroit charter commission meeting, protesting the illegal tax foreclosures at Treasurer Sabree’s office with Detroit Action, or discussing what building “beloved community” looks like with my new friends at the Boggs Center. In sum, every day looks different, and every day I see dedicated people working hard not only to make their own community better, but to build relationships across spaces and issues and even at times across personal differences of opinion in order to put the work first.
And while I could take the stance that there isn’t enough being done to cross-pollinate these movement spaces in more formal ways, I actually think that with each silo erected we are harvesting our collective strengths and building up our community storehouses. Indeed, that, just as our bodies, and the knowledge and memory we carry with them are being spread across the globe, all of this so-called ‘siloing’, while seemingly destructive, is actually more productive than we may recognize. That in many ways we and our communities are already being nourished by our collective grains through the acting, thinking, building, exposing, demanding, and seed-planting we’ve all been doing together, even if, at times, it’s felt as if we’re doing it alone.
And this is what I think about when I think about the question of what it means to “build beloved community,” of what it means for us to embrace just social, economic, political, and spiritual ideologies. I think about the ways in which we refer to the names of ancestors long gone who still whisper into our ears about other ways things could go; I think about friends I’ve made in distant lands, who I know believe in my right to dignity and equity, just as I believe in theirs; I think about welcoming anyone who wants to get involved, and then understanding when they need to check out because it may be all too much, and that indeed they will have left an ally if we took the time to acknowledge them in the right way while they were here; I think about fighting right here, where I am, against injustice, against hate, against greed, against planetary destruction, all the while knowing that no matter where I go I will carry this fight with me.
Megan Douglass is the Deputy Communications Director at For Our Future Michigan, a cultural anthropologist pursuing her PhD with a focus on decolonized methodologies and sustainable movement building, a mother, and lifelong advocate for the human rights of anyone deemed “the underdog.” Her favorite saying is “if you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.”