Alicia Swords: Connecting grassroots leaders

Alicia Swords, CUSLAR Advisory Board member second from left, represented the Poverty Initiative network at a global gathering of the Social Movements Working Group of the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights  in Peru in May 2014. Photo: ESCR-Net.

Alicia Swords, CUSLAR Advisory Board member second from left, represented the Poverty Initiative network at a global gathering of the Social Movements Working Group of the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Peru in May 2014. Photo: ESCR-Net.

For CUSLAR’s 50th Anniversary: Interview by Luna Olavarria Gallegos

Can you tell us about yourself and your connections to CUSLAR?

   Alicia Swords: I have been a part of CUSLAR since 1999 when I moved to town for graduate school.  I’ve been friends with a lot of CUSLAR people over the years — Hannah Wittman, Dana Brown, Dan Fireside, Marcie Ley, Meredith Palmer.  Among people I count as mentors are several who’ve been involved with CUSLAR, Mary Jo Dudley, Maria Cook, Bill Goldsmith, Sally Wessels, and others.

I’ve been a member of the CUSLAR advisory board since 2004.  Later, my students started getting involved, some as interns, Rachel Vanderpool as board chair, and Daniel Carrión as CUSLAR coordinator.  Essentially, for a number of years, CUSLAR has been a central part of the community I’m part of here in Ithaca.  When Tim Shenk moved to Ithaca to be with me, he ended up applying to become CUSLAR’s coordinator, so we think a lot about CUSLAR together.

   Since 2006, I’ve taught Sociology at Ithaca College, with a focus on social change and social movements in the Americas. I’m excited to be in a position at Ithaca College where I can continue to connect students to CUSLAR and continue to help CUSLAR have a megaphone here at Ithaca College and beyond. CUSLAR has always been an organization that people look to for cultural connection, for an expert understanding and analysis of how we’re connected to what’s going on in Latin America.

L.O.G.: I’d like to talk about when you first joined CUSLAR in 1999. That for me is a really long time ago. Can you tell me a bit about the global climate at the time?

   A.S.: Well, 1999 was five years after the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. I came of age at a time when people were looking at the Zapatistas and saying, wow, this is a really intense example of local people standing up against corporations and free trade. In 1999 the low-intensity war by the Mexican government against the indigenous people in Zapatista communities was in full swing.

   The School of the Americas was connected to this — it was clear there was U.S. funding for the training of military officers operating in Chiapas, in Colombia and all throughout Latin America. In the ’80s we had had Reagan funding the Contras in Nicaragua on the heels of several direct U.S. interventions. By the late ’90s, a lot of what was happening was through U.S. military and foreign aid funding, and also through development funding and projects.

   It was actually Chase Manhattan Bank that wrote a letter to the Mexican government after the Zapatista uprising and said basically, ‘You need to control what’s going on in Southern Mexico or we’ll pull out our investments.’ It was an intense time when a lot of us started to see the connections between state policies and capital.

   When I arrived in Ithaca, CUSLAR was involved in the Ithaca-based Coalition for Global Justice, which came to be called the Sharks because there was a group of people including me who went to Washington, D.C. for the protests against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in April 2000.  We brought along inflatable sharks and said the IMF is behaving like loan sharks. The Sharks was active from 2000 to 2003, as a network of organizations involved with demands for global and local justice.

L.O.G.: Would you say CUSLAR was more of an activist based organization when you joined?

   A.S.: More than it is now? Activism was always an element of what CUSLAR wanted to do, but I actually don’t think the organization was more activist than it is now. I think now, the board and Tim are very committed to systematically developing CUSLAR members and interns as people becoming leaders in these fields and in the world.  They’re people who maybe aren’t always out in the streets protesting, but they’re active in seeking justice on issues related to the economics and politics of the hemisphere.

   In 2000 and 2001, CUSLAR was part of a network that was more focused on street protests. Now what I would say as someone who thinks a lot about activism, is that sometimes we think there’s more activism when there are people out on the streets protesting. But building a social movement takes leadership development.  It takes creating communications infrastructure and global networks.  And it takes cultivating leadership among people who will be activists in all the institutions they’re part of, as parents, neighbors, teachers, social workers, policymakers, lawyers, journalists, etc.

L.O.G.: Can you tell me more about CUSLAR’s commitments and impact?

A.S.: Since its founding, CUSLAR has been solidly aligned with the interests and commitments of poor and dispossessed people throughout the Americas, and especially tuned into what the United States government’s role has been.

   CUSLAR has played a really interesting role particularly in the Ithaca community, from supporting the arrival of people coming from political and economic exile, to really being engaged with this community as an organization that has taken stands on the behavior of the U.S. government and military I think if you read the old CUSLAR newsletters, it’s really clear that the organization has played a role of naming the moral problem of what many people have understood as U.S. imperialism.

   So for a long time an analysis of U.S. empire has been a major framework for understanding the U.S. role in the hemisphere. Recently, something that Tim has been working on and something we’ve both been involved in is honing that analysis to realize that it’s no longer only a U.S. imperial reach that’s exacerbating inequality in Latin America — it’s actually transnational capital, and it’s affecting all of us. So we’re missing something if we’re only seeing the national political leadership as the main people to be critical of in this scenario.

   We increasingly understand the U.S. political and economic elites to be part of something bigger, a transnational capitalist class, really. CUSLAR has helped people name that and describe what’s happening.

   Along with that, CUSLAR performs an important role in the community in helping to have these conversations among grassroots leaders from all over the place, and really developing our assessment of what it is we’re up against.

   I can think of several visits sponsored by CUSLAR in the last few years that have had a big impact on me and have helped sharpen a lot of people’s thinking in the community.

   To give one example, in 2012 CUSLAR and several other groups hosted two leaders from the South African Shackdwellers’ Movement: Zodwa Nsibande and Mnikelo Ndabankulu. They were traveling with filmmaker Dara Kell, showing the documentary Dear Mandela, which is about the evictions and harassment the South African poor are facing when they demand the right to life with dignity. One of the lines that has stuck with me is a young man in the film saying, ‘You know, in the Apartheid era they were separating the black people from the white people. Now they’re trying to separate the poor people from the rich people.’

   South Africa is a place we have a lot to learn from, especially from folks like Zodwa and Mnikelo who are living the effects of these fundamental inequalities every day. In that way I think CUSLAR has been able to go even beyond the framework of the U.S. and Latin America to consider global relationships in our analysis.

L.O.G.: Is there anything else you’d like to add about CUSLAR in the present, as well as looking to the future?

A.S.: One of the things that’s really exciting about CUSLAR in the present is that student internships have come to be a very strong part of the organization! It’s clear to me that you all learn and contribute so much, develop your skills and develop your own sense of being connected to other people in the world.

   I think we have ongoing work to do to continue to remind the U.S. public of what it means to be thoughtful in our coexistence with other people on this planet, not just with Latin America. This is particularly important because of the geopolitical role the U.S. plays. The ongoing alignment of U.S. policy with transnational capital means the United States government often serves a proxy role as the political and military arm of transnational capital.

   We have an important role to play in educating ourselves and others about what that means. One thing it means is that we can no longer pretend we in the U.S. are disconnected from the sorts of extractive industries that have been imposed on Latin America for centuries. Nor are we disconnected from the repressive apparatus whose job it is to put down the uprisings of people who are legitimately upset about being forced off of their land.

   If we start to see things this way, we might start to understand that the poor and dispossessed of the U.S. have a lot more in common with the oppressed classes of the world than we have been taught to think.

   In a similar vein, one thing I’m excited for CUSLAR to consider for the near future is joining the global reigniting of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King was clear, in the last years of his life, that poverty could be eradicated if the poor and dispossessed could unite across the lines that have tended to divide us. This vision is more necessary than ever, and there are groups and organizations all over the country who are taking up the call to strategize and prepare for the 2017 launch of a New Poor People’s Campaign to move us toward what Dr. King called the beloved community. CUSLAR is well positioned, both in its legacy and in its mission, to have an important role in that campaign.

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