The work of dismantling oppressive structures and dreaming up new, more just futures is crucial on both global and local scales, and San Jose is no exception.
What does it take to imagine, nurture, and sustain this kind of work, and who is doing it? What role should institutions and nonprofits play, and where does autonomous organizing fit in? How beholden should institutions be to local communities, and how much transparency should communities demand from organizations that are “doing good work”?
These are questions we are pondering as individuals who are deeply rooted and invested in our hometown. We believe that there is no one model of what social justice work looks like, and different kinds of organizing can contribute to lasting change in San Jose.
While there is no shortage of organizations doing forms of arts, culture, and social justice work in San Jose, it can be tricky to decode what kinds of ethics these groups operate under. Perhaps, for folks who care about building a more just San Jose, our task is twofold: First, to push existing organizations to be more transparent, and second, to move toward creating and supporting autonomous collectives that can thrive outside sketchy partnerships and dependence on duplicitous funding sources.
Take these recent examples. Local grassroots organizations receive money from Big Tech even while pushing back against it. Placemaking funders and organizations appropriate social justice language in their efforts to fuel displacement. This spring, the new Garden at the Flea venue cropped up to host events with social justice themes, but developers (whose aim is to line their own pockets), own the land and fund the events. We know there are complex reasons that groups or individuals might choose to collude with gentrifying forces. Not the least of which: to secure a continued existence within the system. But we must also ask, at what cost?
When issues like these come up in conversation, often the responses is, “…but they do good work.” But “good” is a subjective measurement, and it’s unclear what goes on behind closed doors. Additionally, these kinds of responses often serve to protect people and groups with local power, shielding them from crucial questioning and feedback.
We aren’t questioning the quality or importance of local nonprofits’ work, nor do we question the need for space when affordable event venues are scarce. Rather, we ask, what are the limits to certain structures of social justice organizing, and how might we do things differently?
In San Jose, where opportunities for radical organizing are few, it may appear easier (and more appealing) to invest in more visible, structured, and supported efforts elsewhere in the bay. In doing so, however, residents miss the chance to contribute to work rooted in local concerns and communities.
We don’t disagree that efforts to push back on big tech are necessary. Nor do we contest that marginalized communities in San Jose need space to gather. We don’t oppose lauding individuals who put in hard work. Instead, it concerns us when those who are leading these efforts appear to depend on larger oppressive Silicon Valley ideals. These include individualism, entrepreneurialism, and heavy reliance on monied institutions.
Under what circumstances is it beneficial to hold hands with gentrifiers? When and how does it help or harm San Jose’s multiply marginalized residents? Do these behaviors endorse the very forces that fuel displacement in our community? Transparency would open individuals and organizations who uphold themselves as community pillars to critique, and would also enable San Jose residents to better understand their tactics and discern who is trustworthy and why. Additionally, it could give us the tools and knowledge to dream up ways to organize more interdependently, with care, humility, and transparency as the norm.
Building a culture of transparency wherein community members and organizations contribute to the labor of inquiry and information sharing would be a great benefit to San Jose.
Organizations might, for example, take on the work of documenting their funding strategies for the public. In so doing, they could show their commitment to communities facing displacement. Community members might opt to be more critical of the organizations they perceive to do good work, or decide to meet with neighbors to start collectives of their own. This wouldn’t be part of a “call out,” but a step towards building a culture that encourages multidirectional communication and collaborative work outside institutional walls.
Perhaps our charge as community members is to consider ways to create and sustain cultural and community spaces that operate independently of corporate and foundation dollars. Alternatively, we might think critically and generously about how to redistribute resources and create greater interdependence within our communities (as opposed to getting caught up in local celebritydom).
Working to create change is a challenge; it takes resources, cooperation and collaboration.
How can we create a culture in San Jose where different forms of community-led social justice work are happening throughout the city, outside of institutions and with greater levels of generosity and honesty? How can we redistribute resources to collectives who want to do autonomous work, and how can we hold existing institutions to higher standards? How can we envision a San Jose where everything doesn’t come from, and contribute to, cultures of entrepreneurialism, gentrification, and social capital, where culture, community, and history aren’t commodified? We believe that the first step is talking to one another—our neighbors and loved ones—to begin figuring out answers together.