Today, the United States stands at a crossroads. The escalating climate and housing crises are devastating communities still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A resurgent Republican Party has escalated attacks against Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and trans people while embracing openly fascist tendencies, putting the future of America’s electoral democracy at risk. Meanwhile, incumbent Democratic President Joe Biden has entangled himself in regional war in the Middle East to defend the State of Israel and its alleged genocide in Gaza, even as he appears to neglect burning inequalities at home.
For many on the left who don’t feel represented by either party, the time is ripe for transformation. On the tip of many people’s tongues is one word: “revolution.”
However, the tricky thing about history’s great social revolutions — such as in Haiti, Russia and France — is that they are historical outliers, occurring in a relatively rare set of circumstances. Only in hindsight can we judge if an era contained revolutionary potential. German Jewish theoretician Max Horkheimer famously opined that without engaging the struggle for cultural hegemony, producing revolutionary writings in a non-revolutionary period can be futile.
So what is to be done to bring about that cultural and systemic change, that ever-so-tantalizing revolutionary era? What does it mean to be a revolutionary in a reactionary age?
Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton once said bringing about the conditions for a revolution required organizing the masses and “to dedicate ourselves to the revolutionary political power and teach ourselves the specific needs of resisting the structure of that power.”
But this call to organize can often feel abstract, especially for those with little experience in grassroots activism. In her new book “Be a Revolution: How Everyday People Are Fighting Oppression and Changing The World — and How You Can, Too,” renowned Seattle author Ijeoma Oluo invites readers to go beyond taking to the streets and instead engage with genuine community organizing.
Oluo interviewed more than two dozen movement leaders engaged in activism across sectors — including racial, social, reproductive, economic and environmental justice — to hear their thoughts and experiences about what it takes to make change. She then distilled those nuggets of wisdom into an accessible, refreshing and practical guide to organizing in the 2020s.
Throughout the book, Oluo maintains a revolutionary vision of overthrowing white supremacy while also holding a pragmatic outlook about the here and now. In her view, this mundane and painstaking work is what will lay the foundation for the eventual revolution and the abolition of all oppressive systems. Oluo held a video call with Real Change to discuss her journey to writing “Be a Revolution” and what lessons we can all learn from it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: In the introduction of “Be a Revolution,” you talk about being done, feeling wrung dry after five years of writing about racism and white supremacy. Could you talk about going from experiencing burnout to being in community and ultimately coming up with the idea of this book, which changed your outlook on social justice movements?
Ijeoma Oluo: I think it’s really easy to feel — and I think this is actually a product of white supremacy — that it’s the job of BIPOC to really torture themselves in the name of change and fighting systemic oppression. It’s unsustainable and honestly says a lot about how much we’re supposed to perceive our own value and wellbeing. It’s really easy, because we feel the urgency more than anyone else, to feel like we can’t afford rest. And I think, especially for Black women, the idea that we are the ones who are supposed to really carry everything and be forever suffering — never complaining, never really prioritizing ourselves is definitely something we internalize in ways we don’t fully understand.
I was really discounting the emotional and mental toll of spending all day, every day, researching, writing and reflecting on violence against me and my community. You try to ignore things, and your body’s always going to tell you. There were a lot of real physical responses I was having in trying to do the work, and I felt sick all the time, exhausted all the time. When I was going to the doctor trying to see if anything else could possibly be wrong and had every possible test, my doctor was like, “Look, we can run every test, but you’re gonna really need to address the emotional impacts of not only doing this work, but doing this work while being a Black woman targeted by these various systems.”
I felt like my community deserved writing from me that was based in joy, so my goal was to be done for a while and just not write. I was going to work on some fiction and take some time in classes. Then I just started to realize I didn’t really want to go out like that. I wanted to do something — to leave on a more positive note, something that felt enriching — and I wanted to prove I can do that for myself. Then in 2020, we had a house fire, and it was a total loss. The way that [our] community came out to support us, hold us and love us reaffirmed for me, “Oh, yeah, this is how we actually survive.” It’s these day-to-day things. It’s not just showing up in the streets, which is super important, but it’s also how we take care of people after a house fire, after all of these other everyday devastations caused by systemic oppression or definitely exacerbated by it.
Reading this book, it feels like you’re talking to movement elders. You have very intimate discussions with folks about their organizing histories, their failures and victories and day-to-day lives as well. I’m curious about the process of researching and interviewing folks for the book, and how that went.
It was a really organic process, and it certainly [wasn’t] something I did alone. I had an amazing research assistant who really helped me in the initial [step of] figuring out the areas I wanted to go. If you’re saying, “I want to do research on movement work at the intersections of systemic racism,” that’s not just one book; you could fill the whole room with books on that. So trying to find out where I found interest and extreme value for people, and then who [to interview], was a multi-step process.
Of course, there was a group of people I knew from the beginning I wanted to sit with that I had known. A lot of it was, I would sit down with someone, and they would say, “You should also talk to this person; they’re doing really interesting work.” What was really fun about that too is because of the intersectional nature of oppression, it was very rare actually someone would say, “You should interview someone who’s doing the exact same thing I’m doing.” [Instead it was,] “You should interview this person, and they’re doing something completely different, but we have come together for this [other] issue.” Then the level of trust and intimacy of the conversations and the way in which they were willing to confide and have some sort of faith that I would do right by them in their words was really beautiful for me.
I’m not always speaking with people who give a lot of interviews or are used to public speaking or being in any spotlight. Some people absolutely didn’t want that at all, but they did want people to understand the work they were doing. So that shaped the book more than anything. I had these ideas of where I wanted to focus, but it became really clear once I started sitting down with people — and this is after months and months and months of research — that any idea I had for the form of the book was going to have to wait until I was actually completely done. So I wasn’t able to do any real writing until I was done talking with everyone. That really threw me for a loop because I’m used to being able to write in progress. It was really impossible because people are so varied in their work. A lot of times I thought someone would go in one particular chapter, and they absolutely didn’t.
Did you have any content you missed and just couldn’t fit in the book?
There were a lot of things I really wanted to put more time into. I have an entire chapter on conflict resolution I had to cut for space. We were nearing 400 pages, and it was really like, “Oh, this won’t fit.” It’s a beautiful chapter, and I am still trying to find a way to get that out to people because I do think it’s really important. The other reason why I wrestled with [it] was I didn’t want to cut anyone’s voice, anyone who gave me that time.
One of the things that was a very thoughtful literary choice was that every chapter has a “Be a Revolution” subsection. Could you share more about the reasoning behind that and what you wanted readers to take away?
I feel like there are multiple purposes for books, right? Some books are “I want to escape.” Some books are “I want to think of something in a way I hadn’t thought of before.” Some books are diagnostic, and then some books are meant to propel people into action — this is what I wanted this book to be. That meant, for me, realizing that people come to this in very different stages. One of the really powerful tools of oppression, especially white supremacy, is this war on imagination — this idea that “oh, there’s nothing you could do, it’s too difficult [so] don’t even bother. Don’t even try.” So trying to be as explicit as possible, without cutting off people’s ability to lean into what they know about themselves, while also helping people who perhaps have been really stifled by that idea by giving them some ideas of where they could jump in and start, was really vital for me. Also because I really do feel that the emotional effort and intellectual effort expended by the people that I sat down with, there’s a debt owed for that.
Also, just as a reader and a writer, there are a lot of books that have come out that promise to show you how to start making change, and I read them and I can’t find it. I can’t find the “how.” And that’s really frustrating because I do think a book should be what it says it’s going to be. My book says, “be a revolution,” and I’m going to try to get people there.
One of the passages that really resonated with me was about how when organizers have been shut out of established spaces, they’ve had to create their own, which end up actually being more inclusive, authentic and responsive. To what extent do you think community organizing is an act of imagining new possibilities?
I really think it has to be. I’ve pointed multiple times in interviews and talks with friends to a discussion I was fortunate enough to have a few years back with N. K. Jemisin; she’s a speculative fiction writer and wrote the “Broken Earth” trilogy. [She’s] a Black woman, probably one of the most celebrated living speculative fiction writers. What’s amazing about her books is she’s imagining these alternate realities, alternate universes, but it’s all grounded in her lived experience as a Black woman. It’s so different from how many white authors think of speculative fiction, which is “what if we just reimagined Europe with dragons,” you know?
That’s where I often find some of our most revolutionary and widely applicable systems, because I firmly believe that what would serve a queer trans disabled Indigenous person will serve everyone. What will serve a middle-class white person won’t. So, unfortunately, it often has to come [from] people who are really having to create from scratch. But it also means the amount of creativity, and the way in which we’ve normalized that [creativity] in many of our movement sectors — and our closest-to-the-ground movement sectors, our most underfunded, under-resourced movement sectors — is really where the future of not only movement work, but our survival, really is.
Could you talk about the tension between having an abolitionist orientation and working on harm reduction and mitigation? This book’s title contains revolution, but oftentimes what people are doing and advocating for, even if it’s deeply transformative, is still reform. How do you reconcile that contradiction?
In conversation with nikkita oliver was where we discussed it most explicitly. Harm reduction is actually a really important part of revolutionary work because it is revolutionary to believe, even while these systems exist, that we deserve to survive, we deserve to even thrive, and the people doing the work of tearing down the systems deserve care. All of that’s harm reduction, right? Yeah, it may take us 20, 30, 40 or 50 years to abolish policing, but, in the meantime, the people caught up in these systems also deserve care. We don’t get to abolishing policing without that. We don’t get it because the people doing the work have to survive. It’s really important to challenge this idea that we all die for this, because that really does devalue us. It also threatens the very things that give us vision. We have to have art; we have to have joy; we have to have community throughout this process.
We saw a lot of harm reduction being repackaged as revolution, and that’s dangerous. One, because it gets us to settle for things that don’t actually help us, and two, [because] once it’s called revolution, it can be attacked like revolution. In 2020, we had the most minor of police funding reforms, right? That was turned into “we have abolished police” in the media, and what that meant was not only were a lot of people who maybe weren’t knowledgeable [saying,] “Oh, whew, I can rest; I don’t have to actually show up in protest anymore. I don’t actually have to follow the news about policing anymore. We did so much,” which wasn’t true. It also meant that the story that could go to white people, to carceral-minded people, to conservatives, was, “You see what they did? They abolished policing — what are you going to do about it?” It strengthened the ability then to claw back and get even more than they had before. So, we have to be honest, and that means we also can’t invest emotionally. We can’t invest our egos in harm reduction. The ultimate goal goes beyond that, and the ultimate goal may actually tear down the harm reduction we’ve done.
So [it’s about] being really honest and saying, “You’re not going to run for office, get elected and be anything more; best case scenario, you’re harm reduction.” It all has a place, but only if we’re honest about it.
This book does feel more relevant than ever after Oct. 7 and the genocide that’s happened and is happening [against Palestinians in Gaza]. Have you had any reflections, because I presume you already turned in your manuscript when this all came up?
I have been a supporter of Palestinian liberation for my entire adult life. I have Palestinian family; this is something that’s deeply personal to me. I know, unfortunately, that whenever this genocide leaves news cycles, it’s going to continue on. It’s going to come back into the news cycle in a different iteration. Writing to the thread of oppression, I think, actually can be far more useful. There are places where you’re saying, “I’m going to investigate what’s happening right now,” and that’s vital. And then there are places where it’s “we need to understand how this perpetuates itself through time.”
There have been inclusions in the book — and this book is very U.S.-based — talking about things like ShotSpotter, talking about things like the Deadly Exchange. These were things that were happening before that many people are just now becoming aware of in these discussions around Palestine, in these discussions around Gaza; [about] how deeply involved not only the U.S. has been in this genocide, and the ethnic cleansing and the occupation of Palestine, but also how much it endangers Black, Brown and Indigenous people in the U.S. How much this really is about worldwide control of Black, Brown and Indigenous populations and the exploitation of those populations in order to further white supremacist capitalism and colonization.
I think that people will read this and hopefully be able to see some of these connections, [and] be able to see another example of how we have to be paying attention to all of the spaces in which oppression shows up. And that it does look the same; it is recognizable, and it isn’t so different that we can’t speak out or act out about it.
I see a lot of Seattle in this book. A lot of the folks you interviewed [are from Seattle]. How do you think Seattle has shaped your perspective as a writer and thinker?
In a lot of ways, even from early childhood. The truth is that when you’re a Black person growing up in a majority white, wealthy area and you’re a poor Black person, there’s a lot that’s never said.
I don’t know if I would be the writer I am had I not grown up here. That’s not a compliment to Seattle because I had to be incredibly observant in order to get by. No one was going to say, “I’m uncomfortable with you here because you’re Black.” They weren’t going to come out and say it like they might in other places. I grew up having to have this really deep knowledge of what white supremacy looks like in action because no one was going to sit me down and tell me. I would research and read because I was being gaslit — why are people saying they love me? Why are people saying they voted this particular way and are doing these things? What is going on? And I think that that has had a huge contribution.
As I became older, it became really clear that the reason why Black and Brown and Indigenous people in Seattle are able to just survive in this place is [because of] the way in which we’ve had to come together and take care of each other, subvert this whole idea of the “Seattle freeze” and all of this stuff that doesn’t really apply to our communities. I have yet to meet Black, Brown or Indigenous people who can trace their roots back to isolationism. How we will survive in places that are hostile to us is by coming together, and Seattle is hostile to us. So, I think that a lot of where Seattle shows up is I’m looking at the people who I know are helping my friends and helping me get by that are part of why we’re here, and this little enclave in this very, very white space is what’s keeping us going.
Ijeoma Oluo will be holding a discussion together with Gabriel Teodros on Feb. 8 at 7:00 p.m. at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Oluo will also be at Seattle Town Hall on Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. in conversation with Michele Storms, executive director of the ACLU of Washington. Tickets are $10 to $50 with an optional $26.99 for a book add-on in partnership with Third Place Books.
Read more of the Jan. 31–Feb. 6, 2024 issue.