Guest Post: Truth and Revolution and Parenting

This piece is by Nate Hawthorne, a friend and comrade to many of us in Black Orchid Collective. He’s a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and is one of the editors of a web site called Recomposition. He writes on his own at this libcom blog.

This is his reflection based off of Mike Staudenmaier’s new book, “Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization.” Nate’s views do not represent the views of BOC. In fact, we are only now reading and discussing this book. BOC has been heavily influenced by the writings of STO and they have helped frame our strategy and tactics in the recent struggles we have been involved in. Please look out for our discussions when we post them online!

Truth and Revolution and Parenting

A central character in John Dos Passos’ novel The 42nd Parallel is Mac, a working class man who gets radicalized and joins the Industrial Workers of the World. At the same time that Mac becomes a radical organizer, he begins a relationship with a young woman named Maisie. While making plans to marry her, Mac repeatedly doubts his relationship with Maisie, seeing the relationship as a source of pressure that might lead him to “selling out to the sonsofbitches” who run and profit from capitalist society. Mac proclaims his love for Maisie in a letter where he tells her he has left for a long-term trip to Goldfield, Nevada to help an IWW organizing drive. While Mac is in Goldfield, Maisie writes to him asking him to come back home because she is pregnant. Mac tells a comrade that he plans to return to Maisie, but the other man tell him that his first duty is to the working class and that as a revolutionary he should not have a wife and kids. Mac agrees to stay even longer than he planned. Dos Passos’ depiction of Mac’s involvement in the IWW is well researched and sympathetic, but he doesn’t flinch from depicting these ugly realities. Unfortunately, this dynamic was not just fiction.

I thought of this moment from Dos Passos recently while reading Mike Staudenmaier’s excellent new book Truth and Revolution A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986. (Buy it, it’s great. You can get it here.) There’s a lot to recommend the book; it gives an overview of important aspects of mid-to-late 20th century U.S. political and social movement history and the radical left; it provides a detailed account of the working of a small radical group that’s about the size of many of the groups on the left today and there’s a lot we can learn from reading about a group like the ones we’re part of; it gives a good overview of important theoretical points with regard to race, marxism, and organization. In this review I want to take the book as a jumping off point for a discussion of politics and parenting.

At one point in his book, Staudenmaier discusses a conversation that opened up in STO about parenting. (If there are similar discussions in other books, about left organizations’ responses to parenting, I would love to hear recommendations.) The first people in STO to become parents felt uncomfortable in the organization and ultimately left; their departure was tied to intense political disagreements so it’s hard to say how much of that was motivated by political views and how much by personal concerns. (The fact that that distinction makes sense speaks volumes, however.) One member later estimated that at one point 1/4th of STO’s members had children. STO was always a small group, however; they probably peaked at 100 members. which means that at their highest point of having parents as members there would not have been many parents in the organization.

In 1980 an ongoing argument about gender, sexuality, and feminism in the organization opened up into a conversation about how appropriate it was for communist revolutionaries like STO’s members to have children. Several parents wrote about this, defending themselves as parents and radicals. One member with children suggested, rightly in my view, that parenting did limit people’s abilities to do political work, but added that this was true of any important relationship or commitment people had other than politics. He pointed out that the organization had faced a good deal more drama due to people’s romantic relationships but no one in the organization suggested that communists must be celibate. Sexuality was taken as a legitimate human need despite the costs – and in my experience on the left the costs of people’s interpersonal decision in sexual relationships are often minimized or swept under the rug instead of owned up to directly – while parenting was taken by some to be an unnecessary hindrance and not a legitimate need. Another member argued that parents in the organization were held to a higher and unfair standard compared to nonparents – missing an organizational event for personal reasons was a bigger problem when that reason was parenting related.

I should say, the STO members who wrote on these matters were responding more to an atmosphere and an undercurrent than to clear positions. Staudenmaier suggests that this was a one-sided debate, not because the parents were unduly defensive but because the other positions were never clearly and directly stated in such a way that they could be engaged with head on. Some parents in the organization tried to point out ways that parenting actually made them better as people and helped them developed qualities that made them or would eventually make them better revolutionaries as well. As a parent of a young child,  agree with those points but they strike me as rather abstract and misleading. Parenting really is a lot of work and it really can be quite difficult to be a good parent and a good… well, anything else. And it’s particularly difficult to be good at activities that are largely the terrain of (and largely structured around the priorities of) childless people.

In the Dos Passos novel that I opened with, Dos Passos describes a speech by IWW leader Big Bill Haywood. “The workers must realize that every small fight for higher wages, for free speech, for decent living conditions, was only significant as part of the big fight for the revolution and the co-operative commonwealth.” (120.) This reflects the IWW argument about building the new society in the shell of the old – waging struggles against the capitalist order now in such a way that lays the groundwork for a new society. STO was influenced by the legacy of the IWW, wrote about it, and developed some ideas in parallel to IWW ideas. Among those ideas was the view that participation in collective action had the potential to transform working people and radicalize them. Action alone wasn’t sufficient, radicals still needed to engaged with people about ideas, but action was a precondition for radicalization. Upon hearing that speech by Haywood, “Mac forgot about Maisie,” Dos Passos writes. (120.) Some of the time the emphasis on radicalism and action is not only anti-parent but encourages a worsening of the gendered division of labor in shared parenting workload. Staudenmaier does not discuss this in relation to STO; I would imagine that former members would be hesitant to discuss something like this as it’s quite personal, but I would be shocked to hear that it never happened.

The sensibility of the early IWW and of STO’s emphasis on direct action reminds me of a remark from Marx and Engels’s German Ideology, where they refer to communism as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Traditionally this vision of communism is distinguished from the vision of a communist society, made up of people who are “freely associated” in labor and other relationships – that is, free from external constraints like those imposed by money and the need to get money to buy needed goods and services. As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” It makes sense to distinguish the movement of abolishing capitalism from the creation of a new “association” of free humans. We should not overestimate our ability to live in freely associated fashion under capitalism. At the same time, it is important to try to make our “associations” with each other as free – as liberatory – as possible now without limiting our abilities to collectively hasten the abolition of the present society. Often in our actual practices, however, the free development of some people is not created by the free development of all but rather comes at the expense of others. We can see this in a classic formulation from feminist criticisms of the left, that men often did the intellectual work of writing leaflets and pamphlets and planning how to use them, while women did the work of typing and copying and assembling the pamphlets. That not only made women do the less enjoyable work, it stifled women’s chances to use their creativity and abilities and to develop themselves further as radicals.

I thought about writing this article in part because of reading Staudenmaier’s excellent book (and I really do recommend it highly, there’s a great deal in there that speaks to present issues and concerns, I think we on the left should read it and discuss it collectively) and in part because of difficulties I’ve had as a parent and a radical. This was crystalized recently for me when I went to a political meeting on a day off work. I work long hours at my job. My wife and daughter and I were talking in the morning about our day. My daughter asked me if I was working that day. I said that I wasn’t. She said “daddy’s not working, mama.” My wife said, “I know, so what should we do today?” Rather than talk about how to spend our time, though, my daughter first wanted to dwell on the fact that I wasn’t working. She said “daddy’s not working so he’s not going to teach and he’s not going to the library and he’s not going to a meeting.” My heart sank a bit at that. I hoped that my wife’s plans to take our daughter to the beach would coincide with the meeting I was going to after dinner. We all had a nice day, managing to balance housework (I finally got all the dishes washed) and playing together, and I cooked what I thought was a good dinner (my wife liked it, my daughter was less keen). After dinner, I put my shoes on to go the meeting. My daughter said “where are you going daddy?” I said “I have to go to a meeting.” She said “but you’re not working today.” I said “it’s not a work meeting.” She said “why are you going? Do you want to go?” At that moment, I really didn’t. I said “well, it’s important that I go, it’s an appointment.” She didn’t reply.

On my drive to the meeting I felt frustrated for giving up this time with my young daughter, for my sake and for hers, and for increasing the parenting work that my wife has to do. She values parenting but it’s hard and my work hours mean that she does more of it than I do. At least some of the time, devoting time to left stuff means that I’m asking her to do even more of it, which at least to some extent comes at the expense of other things she could be spending her time on, or simply spending time together as a family. Like I said above, as an STO member pointed out, parenting, like any relationship someone is committed to, really does come at the expense of political involvement. And the reverse is true… In the depths of my bad mood while driving to the meeting (the meeting was great, by the way, very productive and I’m glad I went; I rarely do at this point), I thought that for me at this point my life it really is an either/or much of the time between being a good parent and a good partner vs making contributions as a radical. That’s difficult, because, to quote the STO member’s wife I quoted before, “I intend to be as good a parent as I can.” It’s rare that left politics is practiced in such a way that the “free development of each is the free development of all.” I don’t now what that would look like with regard to parenting. To put a finer point on it, it’s clear what it looks like when left politics makes people worse partners and parents. It’s somewhat clear what it looks like when people more or less adequately manage the balancing act between left politics and parenting and partnering. It’s not at all clear, at least to me, what it might look like if left politics was practiced in such a way that it actively made people better parents and better partners, and enriched the lives of the children involved. I am, frankly, skeptical of the degree to which this is feasible. This is not unique to the left, though I think the left is probably worse at it than some other institutions. Currently in our society it’s hard to do parenting and much else well.

To begin to come back to STO and Staudenmaier’s fine book, I think it’s worth having conversations about how organizational practices that seem unproblematic can actually be problematic. Many of us are familiar with this regarding issues like gender. Staudenmaier uses the phrases “premature universalism,” which is thought provoking. I’ve written a bit about a similar thing in Occupy, about ways in which “we are the 99%” can (but doesn’t have to) draw the lines of who “we” are in ways that exclude people. (Here) Similarly, activities that fit well with some people and the rhythms of their lives can feel natural and sensible for all involved, but not at all work for other people’s lives. My favorite (or least favorite) example of this is consensus decision-making processes in meetings. I have and friends of mine have repeatedly been involved in efforts that use this process in ways that lengthen meeting times greatly without increasing the actions that result. For people with the time, and especially for people for whom movement involvement is a lot of their social life, the deliberative aspect of consensus is a good in itself. For people under more time pressures who can’t stay for longer meetings, or who just don’t want to be in longer meetings, the result has been exclusionary.

Along somewhat similar lines, Staudenmaier attributes some of the negative atmosphere toward parenting in STO to an aspect of the organization’s politics that did not at first seem to have any connection to these issues. (That’s probably a part of what “premature universalism” usually means – something that makes sense to some of those involved and which they don’t realize has other consequences for people who aren’t like them.) Over its lifespan the organization did a good deal of long-term organizing but repeatedly changed direction and rushed into new projects because of its analysis that these new projects might constitute some kind of rupture with the larger social order or had the potential for new forms of radicalism to emerge. Over time that orientation prevailed in the organization, which had a very different pace and rhythm than the organization’s workplace organizing. This led to a kind of crisis-response mode which the organization continually operated under. Every project was incredibly pressing and important in the short-term, kind of like Mac needing to get to Goldfield, Nevada in Dos Passos’ novel. This crisis mode was in tension with the goals of some individual members at a very basic level. As one parent whose husband belonged to the organization put it, “I look at the years of being a parent as only a period of my life, and I intend to be as good a parent as I can during that time.” (214.) She concluded that ultimately “STO is an organization for people without children – or for those with children who wish to put themselves through unbelievable shit because of them.” Her husband said that at one point there was “an expectation” that members inform the organization “before you had a child, regardless of whether your spouse was in STO. Otherwise, it was ‘unfair’ to expect other cadre to help do childcare when they had no say in its procreation!” He added, “over all, people’s treatment in STO of families has been pretty dismal.” (214.)

While all of this portrays STO in an unflattering light, I want to say that STO members and the group as a whole accomplished a lot, as detailed in the book. There’s a lot of in the book to learn from and a lot to draw from the experiences and writings of STO. I’ve focused on some of the limits of STO here, but those limits make the book all the more important. We learn more from failings than from successes, much of the time.

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10 Responses to Guest Post: Truth and Revolution and Parenting

  1. John Mack says:

    Important comment. At one time there were actually working class communities – I was raised in one – where things were organized collectively without a lot of procedure, analysis or theory. Things were handed down within and among families. People were helped to pay their rent (rent parties). All babies were taken care of by far more than the mother – I, a boy, had assignments along these lines because I was good with cranky babies. The milk and food needs of babies and young kids were put first. My father had a big responsibility for securing milk. Men helped at home, especially by spending time alone with the kids, relieving the wife. All the women had a system for giving each other days off (to do anything) by minding each other’s kids, but always with the help of older children. My father was not allowed to do fixing chores because he always made a mess and since my mother hated doing them, we kids had to do them all, often enlisting the help of a knowledgeable neighbor who got us started or coached us as we proceeded. Such communities are rare, today, or are they? Politics? Union activity, the local Democratic Club, which effectively got action from elected officials and served as a source of jobs. It also brought Afro-Americans into politics right after world war II to support Truman’s desegregation efforts. It was not unusual for a parent with a problem to get a call from the US Rep or a Senator or the President’s office. Many of the neighbors were “Socialists,” no one was enamored of capitalism, but people did believe that they could get government to work for the benefit of the working class and the poor.

    I realize that I am describing a community with politics unacceptable to radicals but it had a culture radicals could learn from.

  2. az says:

    Hi Nate, I found this coincidentally and it speaks to so many things I’m thinking about, around gendered labor, time management, and the labor of “radical politics”. One of the solutions I thought of was, why couldn’t you take your daughter to the meeting? Maybe that’s impractical, but the assumption in most organizing milieus that children won’t be present (and that, therefore everyone doesn’t share in the childcare) means childcare becomes split off from the “work” of activism. Generally this does, as you say, split along gendered lines, meaning women or primary carers don’t get to spend as much time being revolutionaries. How to make meetings fun for everyone, including kids (and adults)? Or, how to manage childcare so that one person present at the meeting takes on childcare for an hour, and then another, and then another — meaning childcare is cooperatively shared, radicals without kids learn some communication skills, and everyone has more fun?

  3. jomo206 says:

    Thanks for sharing your reflections with us, Nate. This relationship between personal desires and the needs of being a revolutionary is something that is real and challenging to many of us. As you may agree, these tensions cannot be resolved outside of good organizational practice and communication. I have a few points that relate to your piece.

    These points are not directed at you as an individual, but more so to the issues that you have raised.

    1) Any form of organizing — workplace, community, anti police organizing, revolutionary organization building, our own leadership development, supporting the development of people around us, is not easy and it definitely takes a lot of time, determination, will power and support. This is just the reality of our desire/commitment to fight capital and all its oppressions. It is important to recognize that the time consuming nature of this is not just imposed by individuals/bad personalities, but by the reality of our lives within an oppressive capitalist system and our desire to fight/challenge that. I say this because we need to not personalize the tough demands of being revolutionaries who are committed to fighting the system, on individual “bad leaders” or “bad organizations.” Having the perfect organizational culture, or the perfect comrades, may make the work less hard, but undoubtedly still super challenging. It is up to us to figure out how to both recognize the challenges of the tasks involved, AS WELL AS develop good organizational practice and leadership practice as we grow, to the best of our knowledge and abilities.

    2) We need to figure out how to develop organizational practice that both recognizes that revolutionary work takes time and commitment, while also leaving space for individuals involved to adjust and determine their own capacity at various points in their lives. In my (trial and error) experience, this means having clear basic membership standards that a group thinks is the baseline/minimum commitment necessary. Also having constant structured check ins about how peoples’ capacities are changing as they have kids, go through challenging times in their lives, etc. It is important I think to still have a sense that a basic membership requirement needs to be democratically decided upon and then met by all members. Also to have a way for people to discuss what kinds of support they need from comrades, in order to meet those membership standards. If people need to take time out from the organizing effort, we should continue to keep in touch, keep people in the loop, not diss and hate on them/judge them, so that when they have more capacity, they can rejoin and continue from where they had left off. A non sectarian group culture is key.

    3) Having established the above points, we also need to have organizational cultures that support parents and other groups of people being involved in political work. I don’t have a blueprint on this, but “An Owie to one is an owie to all” explores this, as well as my conversations with political people around me who have kids.

    4) None of us were ever meant to be revolutionaries in this society. Recognizing this was a profound thing for me. I have seen myself, my friends, grow in ways that challenged everything we were supposed to/meant to be. It takes mental, emotional resilience and strength and a lot of support and friendship. It’s always a continual balance of our needs, desires, commitment to others, etc that we need to figure out and people we work with need to be empathetic to.

    5) I want to belong to an organization where the people are supported in the choices they make, where we don’t guilt trip one another for not being good parents because we arent being the kind of parents society want us to be — I think of my friends that I work with — society tells them that they are putting their kids at risk for taking them to rallies. I think of Assata who had her child in prison, of Yuri Kochiyama who took her kids to watch Malcolm X speak the day he was shot….I also dont want to be in an organization that tells people they are being bad revolutionaries because they are trying to care for their children or loved ones. There needs to be respect for the individual choices we all make, all the same recognizing that revolutionary work takes time and effort.

    6) We need to not guilt trip/judge people who work hard for being privileged; Similarly we need to not judge people for choosing to be good caregivers and parents which means they may have less time for flyering, reading, etc. This means our revolutionary work also needs to have a range of ways that people with varying capacities at varying times in their lives, can plug in to and have their work be valued. This is why I am such an advocate for organizational structure. I believe that structure facilitates this division of labor across peoples’ varying capacities.

    7) In my past, I have been judged and told that I am being unhealthy for working too hard, for being too committed. It is true that good faith advice can/should be given, and looking out for each other is good, but sometimes I think in organizing circles that talk a lot about “sustainability” there is also a culture of shaming and pathologizing those who are working hard. Rather than asking, why is this person working so hard? How can we take the load off of them? How can we support them? That would be the essence of sustainability. Instead, I hear people just pathologize and make it seem like something is wrong with you for wanting to be a good organizer. How to affirm our different visions of the kinds of revolutionaries we each aspire to be, while also have a positive sense of looking out for one another? I try not to judge other people for the kinds of revolutionaries they want to be, and neither should they judge me. We should hold each other accountable based on the membership standards that are democratically established.

    8) I recently saw this on facebook: “In the end when it’s all over, what matters is how we treat one another.” This is deep. I still thinking about what it means when things around us often seem rightly so (in my opinion) important and time sensitive. How do we not end up blaming one another for not doing enough work? I think that is why development of new revolutionaries holistically (not just to add another number to the recruitment!) is so important and should be a key task of organizations. Developing new revolutionaries and leaders make it possible for us to engage more sustainably in the urgent struggles ahead.

    9) No one ever knows whats going to happen to any of us. Our group cultures and expectations need to reflect the reality that our lives are transient and unpredictable. Tomorrow, who knows, I may be in a car accident, or have a huge family emergency, that could happen to anyone. Our organizational cultures need to show compassion for the changing situations of each of us and not put blame and shame. And yet, still be able to take on, distribute, and share the work that needs to be done.

    I hope these comments can be taken in good faith and we can continue to share our experiences and knowledge on how to build organizations that support us in our growth.

  4. R. Spourgìtis says:

    [from another libcom poster in reply to this piece:]
    “Why not see the nuclear family as a political issue? Rather than a personal choice? This would advance the critique of capitalist society, to explore how it is organized in such a way as to fracture the common into individual/personal problems.”

    [my reply on libcom:]
    This is a question I have been thinking about recently and is really overlooked, in my view.

    As a parent of an 8 yr old, and one on the way, I sympathize quite a bit with the issues Nate lays out in this piece. Tbh, I have not read the new Truth and Organization book, although it is definitely on the to-read list. Nor have I read much of the material I mean to get to on the subject. But in some of the contemporary pieces it arises, it definitely seems a rather shallow analysis rooted in personal choice rather than the social institution that people are compelled toward.

    Recently, a local reading looked at this piece (, which to be fair to that author, isn’t intended as an analysis of “the family” per se. But it drew out a discussion that revived for me a desire to see and understand a more substantive cultural/political/economic understanding of having kids and being a militant, or whatever your preferred nomenclature. So, for example, what concepts like patriarchy, heteronormativity and the nuclear family actually mean in relationship to those of us who are trying to live lives free of oppression (insofar as one tackles that on personal level), but still, you know, living our lives with our own families.

    Here is a recent piece I enjoyed talking about the issue within Seattle Solidarity Network:

    Here is a bunch of stuff recommended by others that I mean to get to:

    Wilhelm Reich Mass Psychology of Fascism
    Maurice Brinton The Irrational in Politics

    Joseph K. – Reproduction: Social & Sexual

    Alexandra Kollontai
    -These on communist morality in the sphere of marital relations
    -Communism and the family

    Engels- Origin of Family, Property, & State

    E. Moraletat- Women, State, and Family

  5. Nate says:

    Real quick – Jomo, Ryan, thank you.
    Az, nice to hear from you, been a while! I’d be for meetings be restructured to allow children to be present and active and not bored. With my daughter given her age and personality that would basically mean meetings of 1-2 people coming over to my house to have about 20 minutes of grown up conversation over the course of an hour or two. The other thing that I’m not sure I made clear in this piece is that it’s a two-way street. I lose out when I give up time with my daughter (I work too much and don’t have the time with her that I’d like to have), so restructuring meetings fully to work for me would also have to involve restructuring to such a degree that I could meaningfully interact with my kid and interact with the goals and processes of the meeting. That seems unlikely to me and I can’t picture it. (I realize as well that kids change a ton as they age so this isn’t a permanent condition.)
    Also folk interested in this discussion will probly be interested in the one on Lily’s post here –

    take care,

  6. truthaddict7 says:

    we all make sacrifices but whether we sacrifice quality time with loved ones or playing revolutionary is something only people can decide for themselves. but part of the trouble is that we no longer see community as being a part of our extended family. we are so atomized and isolated that our homes have become little prisons. thats why i think along with organizing workplaces its also important to organize communities. and this isnt specifically political. its not just to facilitate making a revolution. its cultural and kinship. if and when we organize communities it shouldnt just be to talk politics. but to shoot the shit. develop bonds and so on. whats the point of activism? who is our target audience? im not much of a fan of dominant models where like-minded people from different communities and workplaces come together and meet, organize and what not. it feels wrong to me. like an important step has been skipped. its as if weve removed ourselves from our most intimate places and are wasting our time when we should be focusing on our immediate communities and workplaces. maybe im wrong but it seems focusing on that would facilitate addressing these other issues like parenting and organizing..

  7. R. Spourgìtis says:

    You know, this is all based on hearsay, but someone I knew who has spent a fair amount of time in Latin America and South Asia talked about how the expectation of separating home life from activism/organizing is sort of an US, or maybe Western, thing. That it is expected that there will be children in meetings in many other places, crying and playing and running around.

    That anecdote has stuck with me, it was in specific reply to my complaining about how hard it was to make meetings and not really wanting to bring the kid along (for many of the reasons Nate lays out well). Now, I don’t want to fetishize globally southern cultures, but I am intrigued by an understanding of the family/home that reaches beyond the nuclear family – which is I guess part of where I’m coming from on the theoretical understanding and how it meets (or rather, doesn’t) the practical one.

    On a more personal note, I think some of this gets a bit easier as they get older. Now with my kid, I will, at times, offer up the choice of going to a meeting, and he totally loves protests and rallies. He brings the DS the occasions he comes along, and I let him play it for a while, or read a book, but he also will take part – sometimes giving really awesome insights! I think, like Jomo says, there’s some cultural/interpersonal stuff that people could go a ways in understanding and supporting their comrades and fellow organizers more than often is done. Because, as others have pointed out, because I am a caring parent and partner doesn’t mean I want to give up all my political action either, even if that’s gotta change with my circumstances.

  8. sadie.sabot says:

    I don’t know of any writings about this, but in Prairie Fire, an organization in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 80’s focused on anti-racist, anti-imperialist work, required every member to be part of a childcare team, so every kid ho had a parent in prairie fire had a crew of adults who took turns caring for them. because PFO was feminist and valued the participation of women, they saw this as a crucial thing for making sure women had as much access to participation and leadership.

  9. GregA says:

    Good stuff, Nate. For a lot of reasons, I think we need to work on a concrete organizing model for growing multigenerational organizations. We need organizations that have a much lower barrier to entry and cover a wide range of involvement.

    You mention that STO was a “small radical group that’s about the size of many of the groups on the left today” – and I think that’s a sign that we’re repeating many of the same mistakes. The model of small groups of highly committed young single people can make sense as a part of the solution, but by themselves they are a flawed strategy for long term impact. At the same time, parent organizing that is geered towards small, inward-focused self-help groups is likewise flawed.

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