“Who Trained You?”

Reflections on My Trajectory

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the “Who trained you?” question used in activist circles for credentialing purposes. In my line of paid work, adult popular education, we avoid the terms “train/er/ing/ee” as we seek to co-create knowledge in less hierarchical learning environments. But semantics aside, the question stands and is an important one. So I ask myself: Who are the people in my life whose mentoring, guidance, and co-conspiratorial collaboration lead me to develop the frames, skills, and tactics I use to approach anti-oppression justice work.

Development begins with family, formal school, and community settings. My grandfather, Abe Silverman, instructed me to always root for the underdog. My U.S. Government teacher at Nyack High School, Ms. Vicki, devised a mock court putting President Truman on trial for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and assigned me the role of the President from Missouri (I was convicted by a panel of classmate judges 5–1). And in Hebrew School, my people’s long history of oppression was ground into me — never again for us, I was taught.

Despite this early exposure, or because of the relatively privileged environment in which I was reared, I did not engage in overt, concrete anti-oppression justice activism until later. In my teens, I grappled with addiction; in the first two years of my 20s, I grappled with books at college, reclaiming intellectual avidness that had been clouded and submerged for the prior seven years. It was then, at University of Maryland, that I began to develop frameworks rooted in historical analysis.

My Poppa Abe, champion of the marginalized, beats the Democratic machine to become Mayor of Sedalia, Mo.

My UMD profs and TAs ingrained in me the concept of hegemony, that history is not written solely from the top down, but via an interplay between elites and communities in resistance. I studied and wrote about feminist resistance to the Pinochet dictatorship under the guidance of Dr. Patricia Acerbi, structural genocide of Afro-descended people in Vargas’s Brazil under Prof. Daryle Williams, indigeneity and socialism in México with Prof. Shane Dillingham, and colonialism, imperialism, and diasporic dialogues in the Caribbean with Prof. David Sartorius. But I did not activate this knowledge until my friend Rosa Lozano invited me to protests in DC in the wake of the 2009 coup in Honduras.

I remember those first protests, spearheaded by members of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, outside the Honduran Embassy, the Organization of American States, and the U.S. State Department vividly. And I remember the talks with Rosa, Burke Stansbury, and Alexis Stroumbelis that began to shift my orientation away from liberal fairness and equality toward radical justice and equity. If I had gone into my undergrad years planning to enter the State Department’s Foreign Service to work as a U.S. diplomat in Latin America (an admission that made Prof. Eyda Merediz hiss and make the sign of the cross and Prof. Dorith Grant-Wisdom raise an eyebrow), I was graduating with a commitment to oppose ongoing U.S. imperialism, racism, and patriarchy.

The summer after college, I engaged in my first act of civil disobedience, challenging the travel ban by traveling to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade. I was invited to participate by my high school friends, Maya and Emiliano Acevedo, whose father Jose had been on the Brigade in ’71, just three years after it had been established by Fidel and Malcolm X to bring North Americans to Cuba to materially aid the Revolution and learn from it. I have learned a lot from that family over the years, and consider Jose’s transition from militant Puerto Rican nationalist to other forms of struggle particularly informative. In addition to the deep education I gained on the Brigade, I met the woman who would be my girlfriend for the next two years (the daughter of Chicano Power Movement activists) and moved to Oakland, CA to be with her.

Working in a Cuban urban farm, June 2009

Oakland has a storied history of revolutionary movements. While hearing stories of the Chicano Power and student movements at home, I received some of my most specific tactical training on the streets when Occupy erupted in 2011. After participating in the direct democracy of Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly, I began attending meetings of OO’s Facilitation Committee. There, I received (and applied) training by expert facilitators like Yasin “Boomer” Southall, Sara Mizner, and Ali Hakimi. Along with learning more about direct action (port and bank shut downs, encampments, the importance of medics, A/V techs, and cooks to mass mobilizations) and direct democracy, Boomer’s ongoing mentorship in non-hierarchical meeting facilitation has been indispensable to my growth and development for which I am incredibly grateful.

After leaving Oakland and my relationship, I went to work for a small non-profit in El Salvador. I learned about the FMLN’s transition from left-wing revolutionary guerilla movement to an electoral party from my co-worker Pepe, who had been a scout during the Armed Conflict in the ’80s and ’90s. I also learned about what sustainability, impact, and solidarity means on both ends of a bi-national organizational relationship from co-workers Elba Funes and Noel Iraheta, Prof. Paula Beckman and Don Montagna. And I learned what it was to really work your ass off from Pablo Castellón, with whom I cut sugar cane and shoveled cow manure, before he was tragically murdered the same month I moved to Baltimore and his son crossed the border in the summer of 2014.

At Centro Cassie Stern in El Salvador with Noel Iraheta, Diana Liddi, and Elba Funes, January 2015

In El Salvador, I co-lead a delegation of U.S. American youth alongside my now partner-wife Mairin Srygley, a Baltimorean writing her thesis on access and barriers to education in rural El Salvador. From her, I’ve learned the importance of music in the movement, as well as the importance of stability, confidence, and love within oneself and one’s home to the long-term sustainability of an activist’s work. After five months in Central America, I moved back to DC to be with her while she finished her degree at UMD.

In DC, I worked alongside powerful, strategic, brilliant freedom fighters, both in organizational and grassroots settings. It’s important that this essay, especially as it covers the last year and a half of my life in DC and four years in Baltimore, prioritizes depth over breadth in describing my mentors. So without overshadowing the influence organizers like Luci Murphy, Kenny Nero, Sam Jewler, Keane Bhatt, Kat Henao, Kathryn Johnson, and others had on me during my sojourn in the belly of the beast, I’m going to focus on one mentor/co-conspirator in particular: Arturo Viscarra.

Arturo and I at the SOA Watch Vigil at the Gates of Ft. Benning, GA, November 2013

When I retrace my steps and ask myself how I came to the work I am doing now, Arturo played an instrumental role during our work together at School of the Americas Watch (a small, non-hierarchical staff that mobilizes huge anti-militarization, pro-immigrant, Latinx power annual actions and engages in ongoing transnational advocacy work) and after I left the staff collective to move to Baltimore.

When I came on as Legislative Organizer — an activante/intern position for which I received equal decision making input and a $500/mo. stipend — Arturo had just started as Advocacy Coordinator, a long-term staff position for which I had applied (the process of applying and being rejected for two long-term positions at SOAW lead me to realize the importance of people of color being hired to run organizations that primarily impact them). In the waning years of the Obama Administration and with a Republican Congress acutely hostile to immigrant solidarity, human-rights based foreign policy, and the pink tide governments whose spread was just then beginning to plateau in Latin America, Arturo’s and my task was to help establish the narrative that forced migration is created by U.S. foreign policy on an overarching level and push a bill to close the infamous SOA/WHINSEC U.S. military training facility for Latin American soldiers on a micro-level.

To pursue these objectives, Arturo and I used a broad range of tactics. We organized direct actions at the Capitol Metro station on Día de los Muertos to target Hill staffers as they left work. We engaged nationwide and hemispheric networks of activists in digital communications, popular education, and radical lobbying. Learning alongside Arturo as he grew into his role, I grew into mine, learning the importance of staying in my lane and supporting the work of more directly impacted organizers. A fourth of my work plan focused on engaging the U.S. Jewish community on Latin American human rights, and many of my workshops, conversations with staffers of Jewish members of Congress and NGOs, and others connected our peoples’ struggles by telling the story of the oppression of Jews by the SOA-trained Argentine junta in the 1970s and 80s, the most violent since the Holocaust but one little known by generations of Jews whose gaze centers Israel in the eyes of our diasporic people.

One of the most important skill sets I developed alongside Arturo, however, was radical issue advocacy. In a country where the far left is often caustically turned off by policy or electoral work, SOA Watch’s radical tradition gave us the space to activate coalitions of lefties, progressives, and faith-based communities to demand U.S. government accountability for direct and complicit responsibility for violence in Latin America, on the border, and within the country. I learned about the congressional legislative process, what worked in meetings with staffers and members of Congress (including what resonated when Arturo said it but didn’t when I did, and vice versa), and how to frame issues to varying groups within SOA Watch’s base. That experience of inside-outside radical issue advocacy in the context of one of the most important U.S. social movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has informed my work ever since. And I am grateful to Arturo for his role in that and for his ongoing comradeship.

After Mairin graduated, we decided to move back to her home, Baltimore. In the lead up to the move, I devoured every book and article I could find about the city. I arrived to a rapidly gentrifying Remington enrolled in the MA TESOL program at UMBC and with a part-time ESOL Instructor job at CASA.

Shortly after I arrived, Israel began its devastating 2014 bombardment of Gaza. In a new place, crisis leads you to find your people quick. That summer, I began organizing with long-time Palestine solidarity organizers like Mark Gunnery, Ameejill Whitlock, Kim Jensen, Zahi Kahmis, Gracie Greenberg, and Nic Powell. Sam DiDonato, Sammy Alqasem, and Jeff Crabtree soon bolstered the group. Building on an established network, we created Baltimore Palestine Solidarity, a volunteer-run grassroots solidarity organization that has since lead a successful BDS campaign against SodaStream, engaged in long-haul popular education through a burgeoning film series, disrupted celebrations of ethnic cleansing in Baltimore repeatedly, worked in coalition to kill anti-BDS legislation in Annapolis for several years running, and created a small but significant counterweight to powerful pro-Israel organizations in our City.

At one of several protest sites in a SodaStream boycott action on Black Friday, 2014

In some ways, by directing my first organizing in Baltimore to international solidarity work and focusing on organizing and opposing different subsets within the Jewish community, I avoided some of the pitfalls of activist territoriality and newcomer savior complexes. More recently, BPS has intentionally prioritized localizing international solidarity through campaigns related to Baltimore Police blue light cameras and training exchanges with the Israeli Defense Force. A natural outgrowth of this work has been my participation in founding Hinenu: the Baltimore Justice Shtiebl, a synagogue centered on empowerment of the marginalized, including especially Palestinians, and my service on its Board as Chair of the Membership Committee.

At a Hinenu Chanukah party in Waverly, December 2017

Another way I localized international solidarity was through my English teaching work at CASA in East Baltimore. Though I technically reported to the Education Department in Silver Spring, I was fortunate to find co-conspirators like Liz Alex, Trent Leon Lierman, Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, Monica Comacho, and Andrew Reinel. While everyone I worked with at CASA was influential, I want to highlight Liz and Trent, who taught me how to be an ally to immigrants and Latinxs as a White person.

My first week on the job I reached out to Liz and Lydia about better integrating the organizing and language learning that was happening under the same roof. Liz sent Trent to come talk with my class, and since then he’s been like a big brother to me. Beyond the in-house collaboration, Trent has always been supportive of my grassroots organizing, for example by making sure I highlighted Mexicana voices in an action I put together with Tanya Garcia and Maya Acevedo targeting Baltimore’s DEA Field Office as part of a national day of action in solidarity with the student-teachers murdered in Ayotzinapa in 2014. I will always remember when, during a conversation about Venezuela solidarity organizing I was doing, Trent told me, “Make sure you have a meta [goal], not just a method.” As someone who had often been charging at windmills during my first five years of organizing, those words had a profound impact on my work going forward in Baltimore: always fight for what’s right, but be strategic about the methods used to realize achievable goals short of a complete win.

Green Del. Candidate Jon Cook and I before being arrested on the steps of the Capitol, December 2017

Liz Alex is another person who has supported me in adding to my organizer toolkit and understanding the lay of the land in Baltimore, Annapolis, Maryland, and the Mid-Atlantic region. She has taught me through her actions about loyalty, both as a moral imperative and a pragmatic strategy. She has taught me by example about stamina, and longevity, prioritization, and delegation. She has taught me about intentional risk taking — a lesson I still haven’t digested fully. There is a lot more I could say about Liz’s mentorship, but it’s encapsulated in the knowledge that when I go out on a limb, or mess up, or say the wrong thing on Facebook, Liz will be there to listen — even if she doesn’t directly give me advice — and to credential me as an ally with people I haven’t earned it with yet. Sometimes she even goes out on the limb with me.

During my first two and a half years living and organizing in Baltimore, another source of mentorship came from my professors at UMBC, namely Profs. John “Dr. J” Nelson and Sarah Shin. They pushed me to center learner empowerment in my English language teaching and to recognize the educator’s role in the broader movement more clearly.

Until he passed away before a social justice-themed MDTESOL grad student conference I was organizing with Tabitha Kidwell, Dr. J was my mentor. At one point, sitting in his office after a rocky first semester, he asked me, “How many projects do you have going on right now?” and sheepishly, I couldn’t count them all on one hand. When I was running into a dead end with an ESOL Program Coordinator job I’d taken in Silver Spring, he met me at my office and we talked it through over Salvadoran sweet bread and ice coffee, leaving me with the awareness that dead ends are not the end of the road, just a great place to hang a u-turn. As someone who had worked one-on-one with immigrant leaders on English language acquisition, Dr. J taught me that our skill set must be used to amplify the voices of English language learners by facilitating their growth within the confines of grammar and semantics, while at the same time pushing back on the violent social hierarchies imposed by rigid applications of “the rules of English” by elites.

Prof. Shin (sixth from left), colleagues, and I at UMBC MA TESOL graduation celebration, December 2016

When Dr. J passed away, Prof. Shin called me to break the news. I remember sitting in my car after being fingerprinted for a new position in CASA’s Mi Espacio/Escalera youth program and weeping. We dedicated that weekend’s MDTESOL conference, “Breaking Down Borders: Grad Students Revolutionizing TESOL”, to him. For the next year, and after graduating, Sarah has been there to push me to critically examine linguistics, model principled career advancement within public higher education, and to drive home that empowerment language learning is a lateral community-driven process, not a top down teacher-student dynamic. As I carry Dr. J’s legacy with me, Sarah continues to be an invaluable mentor for whom I am deeply grateful.

In 2016, I took my first plunge into Baltimore electoral politics. I had volunteered on Dan Robinson’s Green House of Delegates campaign in Takoma Park/Silver Spring in 2014 after meeting him during credit union organizing work we’d both been a part of in DC. And I’d always voted Green when possible, promising myself when I turned 18 in 2006 that I would never vote for someone who had supported the Iraq war (the only Dem. I’ve voted for at the federal level was Obama in 2008). But in 2016, I ended up volunteering for a Democratic City Council candidate in Southeast Baltimore’s 1st District, Pastor Mark Parker, with whom Mairin had worked closely during her time at Highlandtown #215 Elementary/Middle School which sits across the street from Mark’s church.

Pastor Mark has been a great friend and mentor. He is “from here”, having grown up in the Otterbein in a dollar home, and for the past decade in Highlandtown has engaged in important spiritual and community organizing work. I learned my first door-to-door campaign work during Mark’s campaign, and deepened my understanding of this corner of Baltimore’s history. By the time he lost, Mairin and I had bought a home in Patterson Park and become part of the neighborhood.

Just a month after the 2016 primary, I finally changed my registration to Green. It wasn’t because Bernie and Mark (and every other candidate I’d voted for) lost; it was because my values much more closely aligned with the Green Party’s than the Democratic Party’s and long-time Baltimore Greens like Myles Hoenig and Brandy Baker were calling me in. For the next seven months, I threw myself into Green races up and down the ballot, including Joshua Harris’s, Ian Schlakman’s, and Margaret Flowers’s.

Refreshingly, BGP operated with a similar modified consensus decision making process as I had learned and implemented with Occupy Oakland. There was very, very little money or infrastructure then, but what we lacked in material resources we made up for with human resources. Leaders like Vince Tola, Reverend Annie Chambers, and especially Andy Ellis threw themselves into the work of upending one-party rule in Baltimore City with an organizing fervor that I had not experienced for years.

Looking back on where the Baltimore Green Party was when I got involved just over two years ago is another exercise in retracing my footsteps that yields clarity for the path ahead. Since the 2016 General Election, when BGP emerged as the primary opposition party to seven decades of largely failed Democratic governance in Baltimore, we have grown by leaps and bounds.

The Baltimore City Green Party discusses strategy, December 2016

At the start of 2017, we had three locals in Baltimore (combined City and County), Anne Arundel County, and Montgomery County. We now have 11 locals, including an independent Baltimore County local, as well as in Allegany, Charles, Frederick, Garret, Howard, Prince George’s, and Washington Counties. The Baltimore City local moved to a dues paying membership model shortly before I was elected to the Steering Committee as an Organizer in July 2017, and now has 35 dues paying members with dozens more predicted to join before the November 6th General Election.

In addition to the rapid base building growth across the state and in Baltimore City Green Party membership, a concerted candidate vetting, recruitment, and training process has lead to a larger class of Green candidates appearing on the General Election ballot in Maryland than in any other state in the country. There are nearly twice as many Green General Assembly candidates running this cycle for the Maryland Green Party as in all other years combined. And here in Baltimore, we have five strong delegate candidates challenging status quo regressive Democrats in the 40th, 41st, 43rd, and 45th Districts, in addition to a U.S. House candidate in the 2nd Congressional District and a gubernatorial ticket shared by Ian Schlakman and Rev. Chambers (seeking the 1% in a gubernatorial race mandated by Democratic legislation to maintain ballot access for the Green Party for the next four years). I believe this will be the breakthrough year for Greens in Maryland.

When I was elected as Co-Chair of the Baltimore City Green Party in December 2017, I was filling the big shoes of Andy Ellis, who was departing to lead party growth across the state as Secretary of the MGP before running for public office himself as a delegate in East and Northeast Baltimore’s 45th District alongside Glenn L. Ross. It was a time of national political miasma nearly a year after the inauguration of Trump, or at least it felt that way to me. That winter I struggled with depression, a difficult community arts partnership that ruptured a friendship with an artist I had previously worked with to help bring down four of Baltimore’s White Supremacist monuments, and watched a brief fissure emerge between the ideological left wing of BGP and its growing grassroots base. It was really only through the mentorship of Andy Ellis that I was able to muster the resolve to step up into the leadership required of Co-Chair, heal the fissure, and move forward with urgency as spring turned into summer.

The work I have done as Co-Chair has been built like a sturdy chair on four legs: popular education, issue advocacy, base building, and electoral campaigns. Popular education has included a training for BGP members by Boomer Southall on group dynamics, decision making processes, and consensus, another training formally certifying BGP as the first “Safer Space” political party by Shawna Potter of Hollaback! Baltimore, and collective research which yielded a public statement on trans empowerment and inclusivity in Green spaces. Issue advocacy has included collaborating with two dozen experts on various intersections of justice to produce the Maryland Higher Education Equity Act, which forwarded radical, redistributive policies within the University System of Maryland at a time when Ben Jealous was still a venture capitalist in California and Democrats were just beginning to push on free community college. Base building has lead to BGP’s dues paying, decision making membership to double over the last year, and to become much more visible on the street and in City Hall. And the recruitment and support of candidates has lead us to the point where we are running five House of Delegates candidates who are not only undeniably more progressive on well-articulated policy positions, but also closer to the grassroots of their respective districts than the regressive Democrats they are competing with for votes. As Glenn Ross and Dr. Marvin “Doc” Cheatham’s recent Baltimore Sun op-ed title read, “Go Green, Baltimore!”

Reflecting on how that work connects to the question of “Who Trained You?” has been an ongoing process, especially over the last eight months as I have stepped into a political party leadership position in a majority Black city where I did not grow up. Perhaps because I am not from here, much of my work has focused on empowering immigrants and refugees, pushing my own diasporic community on issues such as police accountability, housing justice, and Palestine, and building institutions — such as Hinenu, BPS, and BGP — capable of challenging the oppression of business as usual.

None of the work I have done, am doing, or will do would have been remotely possible if the people mentioned above and others had not invested their time, energy, and experience in me. I carry my co-conspirator mentors with me every step of the way. I slip, I fall, my community pulls me to my feet. I remember that dead ends are ideal spots to haul a u-turn. I “fail, fail again, fail better” and am only fortunate enough to do so because of my mentors. If you’re reading this, know that the extent to which I have succeeded is a tribute to you and this is a thank you card.

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