Finding Your Path to Power

Jane Fonda and Alicia Garza on orienting yourself toward lasting change through relationships and collective action. Garza and Fonda close with guidance for everyone on finding and following their path to power. “Build communities,” says Fonda, “stand with love. Stand brave, stand fearless, because we’re in this together.”

Oh Maureen, Maureen, keep marching gal, just keep marching, and we’re with you, and we love you, promise you’ll keep marching” — Jane Fonda in a video message to my mother (November 8th, 2019)

My mom, Maureen Dolan, showed that sixteen-second video to everyone she knew in the four months she had left on this Earth. It was the best present I ever gave her. My mom was recovering from cancer surgery in the fall of 2019 when I recorded this video with Jane Fonda before we started marching to the U.S. Capitol for that week’s Fire Drill Friday rally and non-violent direct action.

My mom is the reason I am an organizer. She got involved in the welfare rights movement in Buffalo in the 1970s when I was a kid and we were on AFDC and food stamps. She was a peace activist who fiercely opposed the Vietnam War. She was a feminist who fought for every scrap of respect she ever got. She was a union worker who helped lead a multiracial local in an epic strike. In her later years she became a teacher, a swami, a founder of a limited equity housing cooperative, and an organizer of women’s spiritual and political circles. 

Jane Fonda was a lifelong hero to my mother and someone who also found fresh purpose throughout her life. She opens her latest book, What Can I Do? My Journey From Climate Despair to Action (2020), with a declaration: “Now here I was once again in need of transformation.” What Can I Do? is self-aware and intimate, and had me alternately crying and cheering.

Fonda describes feeling what a lot of us feel – overwhelmed and depressed about our climate emergency and at a loss for what to do. Yet she finds, and shares, hope. “What I have found repeatedly is when my body is feeling despair,” she says, “the moment I step into community and take action, the despair lifts.”

Inspired by the youth-led climate strike movement sparked by Greta Thunberg and others in the Fridays for the Future, Fonda then read her friend Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (2019) and realized that we have, “Ten years to reduce fossil fuel emissions roughly in half and then reduce to net zero by 2050 to avoid uncontrollable unraveling of the natural life-support system.” 

Once Fonda was clear about the problem, what next? What Can I Do? brings readers along this journey, asking questions to understand what science and justice tell us must be done to avert catastrophic climate change, and overcome a fossil-fueled opposition that is oriented only toward politics and profits no matter the cost to people and planet. 

The answers Fonda finds are simple: end fossil fuel expansion, pass a Green New Deal, and implement a plan for a responsible, just transition to renewable energy as rapidly as possible. To get there, we need direct action.

So Fonda created Fire Drill Fridays (FDF), which combine live streamed teach-ins with direct actions, calling together a diverse cast of campaigners, scientists and allies. The youth and climate activists who inspire Fonda are the stars here: celebrities are present only to amplify their voices. 

Fonda offers a hand to everyone who, like her, is alarmed by climate change but needs some help on what to do about it. The obstacles to ambitiously addressing today’s climate emergency are not technical but political,” she says. 

Each chapter in What Can I Do? tells the story of an FDF teach-in and the non-violent direct action that followed it. Each week, FDF examined the climate emergency through a different lens such as oceans, forests, plastic, militarism, women, and youth. Chapters are filled with long-form quotes and short vignettes from that week’s speakers, and close with sections on “What Can I Do?” that offer guidance on individual and collective actions readers can take. 

The book is a how-to manual for people who want to get to root causes. One big thing people can do, modeled by Fonda’s Fire Drillers, is ramp up the pressure on decision-makers. Fonda is clear about her privilege in choosing to be arrested, and acknowledges this is a choice many BIPOC and immigrant communities cannot make as easily. But for those who can put their bodies on the line in this way, Annie Leonard, Greenpeace US’s Executive Director and a close conspirator with Fonda on FDF, makes the case for civil disobedience: 

For forty years, we’ve been polite, we’ve shared the science, we’ve petitioned, we’ve marched, rallied, written, pleaded. We’ve used all the levers of democracy available to us, and our elected representatives haven’t listened. Now we have to do more, step it up. Risk arrest if that is what it takes. It’s the fossil fuel industry who’ve led us to this. It’s time to be bold. Science demands it. Morality demands it. The moment demands it.

What Can I Do? speaks directly to all of us who, like Fonda, “acknowledge there’s a man-made crisis; who support the climate movement and are thinking about maybe doing more but don’t know what that could be; who are confused, paralyzed, or tilting toward hedonism or fatalism.” 

This is the brilliant essence of Fonda’s journey. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication says at least 40 million Americans share her concern that our climate emergency demands action now. She articulates this in a way that can spur these millions into action.

Fonda’s first fans may be white, middle-class women who shared her outrage about patriarchy and the Vietnam War, yet are unsure of how they fit in today. Fonda dispels this, by placing class-conscious, anti-racist and decolonizing feminism at the heart of her climate activism. She calls on all of us to build a Bigger We that is millions strong, aligned with BIPOC-led organizations and movements, with the power to confront our climate emergency and win.

Organizers – veteran and new – will embrace Fonda’s wise advice: “Think solidarity, not savior.” And, most importantly, “Be sure to include those most affected by a problem in any proposed solutions, which results in better solutions overall. As environmental justice advocates demand, ‘Nothing about us without us.’”

This message is loud and clear in Alicia Garza’s The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart (2020). The Purpose of Power is chock-full of organizing stories and lessons from Garza’s experiences as a grassroots organizer and co-founding Black Lives Matter, a movement which has reignited the call for racial justice not only in the United States, but all around the world.

What connects Fonda and Garza is the decisions women can make to be powerful – by being in relationship with people on the frontlines, building community, and taking collective action. This is a path to power through relationships with others, never alone. 

While it’s not the focus of her book, Garza describes the deep influence that her mother had on her life, and the utter heartbreak of losing her to brain cancer in the spring of 2018. This was the same way I lost my own mom.

The Purpose of Power feels like two books in one: her own story and a primer on organizing for today’s movements. The connective tissue between the two is the hard-won wisdom Garza developed with groups such as POWER in San Francisco and through the birth and growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Every one of her lessons is spot on, so we should all pay close attention.

Number one, “You cannot start a movement from a hashtag. Hashtags do not start movements—people do.” 

Garza zeroes in on something many people get wrong: that somehow “finding a group of people who think like you and being loud about your ideas is somehow building power.” Or more explicitly, building organizations is the key to the success of movements: “Organizations are the places where we learn skills to take action, to organize to change the laws and change our culture.”

Number two takes this deeper. Movement building, according to Garza, “isn’t about finding your tribe—it’s about growing your tribe across difference to focus on a common set of goals.”

Number three is that movements shape the terrain upon which we fight, “Movements shape us, and we shape them—sometimes consciously, other times unconsciously. My generation was and is still being shaped by the conservative consensus and the right’s rise to power.” Once we understand the terrain, we can work toward changing it as we contest for governing power. This is called politics.

Garza explains, “Politics is a place where power operates, which means it’s a place where there are opportunities to move our agenda. Politics is also a space for learning: It’s a terrain where you can expose what priorities are dominant and who sets those priorities, and where you can battle for hearts and minds to reshape and reorganize those priorities.”

Number four is that, “organizing is as much about human connection and building relationships as it is about achieving a political goal.” If you are not about the project of building relationships, discovering self-interest, and moving people toward clarity about their vision and path to power as part of a greater collective, then you are not creating a political change that can last. 

Garza describes her early organizing with POWER in San Francisco. One summer they set a goal of recruiting one hundred people from West Oakland to learn about an outside developer’s plans for their neighborhood, and to make their own plans to have their interests drive decision-making in their community. Garza, along with fellow community organizers and leaders, knocked on thousands of doors and had conversations with one thousand people. That kind of fierce commitment to people-centered organizing and the discipline to do this work landed her a full time job with POWER that summer. “Community organizing is often romanticized,” explains Garza, “but the actual work is about tenacity, perseverance, and commitment.”

This brings us to lesson number five, “Organizing is about building relationships and using those relationships to accomplish together what we cannot accomplish on our own—but there’s more to it than that. The mission and purpose of organizing is to build power. Without power, we are unable to change conditions in our communities that hurt us.” 

Power, in Garza’s sense, is not about ego: it is about reaching down to the root. So if you are not power-hungry in this positive sense, she argues, then you are not serious about the structural change needed to improve people’s lives. 

Number six is that “without Black communities, a progressive agenda can never be truly achieved. Any progressive agenda that does not include the well-being and dignity of Black communities as a fundamental pillar is not really progressive at all. It will, at best, win big changes for some while still excluding others.” 

Taking this further, Garza says, “I believe that Black communities have the potential to unlock a new democracy, a new civil society, and a new economy in the United States. I believe that Black communities have the power not just to save the country but to lead the country.” 

Garza’s insight here is critical to our current moment and movement. There can be, she says, a broad-based and enduring movement in this country that unites different bases around the leadership of people whose lives tell us the most about what is wrong and how to fix it. The way in which many organizations aligned around the goals and leadership of the Movement for Black Lives last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and kept this momentum to defeat Donald Trump in November, is strong evidence this can work. 

Number seven is a lesson from Garza’s organizing with POWER on the Bayview Hunters Point campaign. “Building broad support did not mean we had to water down our politics. It didn’t mean we had to be less radical. It meant that being radical and having radical politics were not a litmus test for whether or not one could join our movement.” The Radical Right figured this out more than fifty years ago, when they began to expand their base on multiple fronts simultaneously, to expand corporate power and concentrated wealth. 

Garza’s lesson eight is about building Bigger We, a united front. Because, 

As organizers, our goal was to get those in the 99 percent to put the blame where it actually belonged—with the people and institutions that profited from our misery. And so, “unite to fight” is a call to bring those of us stratified and segregated by race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and body, country of origin, and the like together to fight back against truly oppressive power and to resist attempts to drive wedges between us.

Garza’s local and national organizing, and life as an outsider and a radical queer Black woman, led her to write the words #blacklivesmatter on Saturday, July, 13, 2013, at 7:14 p.m. Nothing earth-shattering happened at that moment because words don’t start movements: people do. Garza insists that her work in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of the police, which brought her international fame, would never have happened without her community organizing with POWER. If Garza hadn’t had that grounding in door-knocking and community organizing,she would not have been able to work with a team in Ferguson to knock thousands of doors over ten days, talk to 1,500 people, hold 50 house meetings, and get commitments from nearly a thousand to attend the weekend of action and join the movement. 

Garza does not set out to tell the definitive story of Black Lives Matter in The Purpose of Power:  she is telling her story of politicization and her orientation toward power and change. “My story is not the story of the Ferguson uprising,” she says. “My story is only of my time there, what I saw, what I did, and what I experienced.” 

In doing this, Garza draws our attention to the deeper lessons that she – and we – can learn from such moments. What really matters, she says, is that, “I’ve learned we need bases, not brands.”

Garza and Fonda close with guidance for everyone on finding and following their path to power. “Build communities,” says Fonda, “stand with love. Stand brave, stand fearless, because we’re in this together.”

“Hope is not the absence of despair,” says Garza, “it is the ability to come back to our purpose, again and again…I am not, and we are not, defined by what we lack—we are defined by how we come together when we fall apart.”

Put both of these books on your summer reading list. Then, as Fonda and Garza invite us to, get to work in new ways that will result in a future full of joy and justice. 


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