Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba on Their New Handbook for Radical Organizing

Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba on Their New Handbook for Radical Organizing

Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba on Their New Handbook for Radical Organizing

Let This Radicalize You: ​​Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care offers fresh insights for youth activists coming into their own.


In Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care, Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes combine decades of scholarship, countless interviews with activists, and insights from movements across the globe to deliver a utilitarian and practical guide for youth organizers coming into their own. Kaba, a longtime abolitionist organizer and educator, has led numerous organizations to battle the prison-industrial complex and empower young activists, including Project NIA, the Chicago Freedom School, and Interrupting Criminalization. Her blog Prison Culture as well as her anthology We Do This Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice have garnered international acclaim. Hayes is an organizer and journalist whose work in outlets like Truthout and Movement Memos has chronicled some of the most important grassroots fights of our time. Kaba and Hayes sat down with Sarah Emily Baum to discuss their new book. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Emily Baum: The book’s title is a nod to a quote by Mariame: “Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.” What does it mean to be radicalized?

Kelly Hayes: I think about the word “radical” in terms of what Angela Davis tells us. It is getting to the root. Radical people are responsive to problems in a way that gives us options outside of the status quo. When something is wrong, we know we have to dig deeper. We know we have to sometimes uproot something to get justice. Radical means being willing to step beyond what is allowed or expected in order to make things happen.

Mariame Kaba: I posted that—“Let this radicalize you instead of lead you to despair”—on Twitter during the onslaught of yet another thing that was hitting people. Sometimes people misinterpret that to say I feel like people shouldn’t feel their feelings. Of course, people should feel their feelings. I just don’t think despair is a feeling. Despair distorts reality, like a cloak people use to protect themselves from having any expectation that anything is changeable. It’s a draining mindset.

I’m with Audre Lorde, who says despair is a tool for our enemies. It’s an attempt to remind us that we ought to be thinking about actions that will allow us to build towards liberatory futures, to remind us there is always a possibility for transformation, for us having agency. The idea that we’re all powerless is not true. We always have some form of power, if not individually, then collectively, as a force.

KH: I want to tack onto that bit about despair. “It’s not a feeling, but an experience.” That’s real. Despair is like a place. It’s a condition where hope has been evacuated.

Not feeling grief and not making space for grief is a big part of the problems that we’re experiencing. But when I’m processing my grief, I’m trying not to go to a place where I’m not letting anything else in, where all I see is the badness. That’s not real because there are other good things to reach for.

SEB: Do you recall what radicalized you?

MK: It’s not one thing that radicalized me. There were experiences I had of seeing state-sponsored violence against young Black people. It was reading books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X that gave me questions to ask about the world. It was all these teachers of mine, and I mean that in the broad sense of teachers. We say radicalization doesn’t “happen.” It’s not a one-time thing; it’s an ongoing process you will be engaged in your entire life.

KH: I also don’t think one thing radicalized me. What was more important to my growth than having particular ideas was learning to build relationships. I can talk about abolishing prisons, or how this or that is problematic, or how those folks over there are insufficiently radical. But the kind of radicalization that matters most is when we start to break the constraints of individualism and cultivate change together. For me, that happened over the course of many relationships and many friendships, including my friendship with Mariame.

SEB: In the book you write that transformation is slow work. A lot of young organizers seem attracted to leftism because they feel that liberal reforms are too slow to address imminent threats—such as the climate crisis—and that a more radical and timely alternative is necessary. How do we reconcile that incrementalism with ideas of radical change?

KH: Incrementalism is too slow, but that doesn’t mean radicalism moves at the speed of light. We have heated moments where we may make substantial gains in a short period of time. But there’s also a lot of groundwork. Nothing comes from nothing. We have a lot of times in between where we need to be able to do the less sexy work of building and fortifying our relationships, acquiring new skills, and honing our craft as organizers. There are seasons to this work. And you have to take care of your people in winter and continue to grow.

MK: [Immigrants’ rights activist] Carlos Saavedra speaks about this in the book, about the seasonality in movement work. That’s a real gift to understand, especially as a young person. The work is a marathon, not a sprint. You run. You find your pace. You figure out how to take care of yourself as you’re running. There’s a time when you’re pushing and times when you’re in a lull. You might have people along the way giving you water, and you might be taking a granola bar break as you’re running, but it’s long-term.

I’m less interested in the question of whether we’re gonna move through incrementalism or if we’re going to tear everything down immediately. We’re going to have to do different kinds of things in order to get free. My question is more about: What’s our strategy? What tactics are going to support that strategy? What are we doing—how is it increasing the possibility of freedom and liberation for everyone, period?

KH: I feel similarly about [labor organizer] Karen Lewis’s question she used to ask, which was: Does it unite us? Does it build us up? Does it build our power, and does it make us stronger?

SEB: As a now-retired youth organizer, but also as a reporter still covering these movements, I noticed this exceptionalization of Gen Z, especially by the media but also by some older activists, politicians, and even other Gen Z–ers. Some people martyr us; others say we are uniquely weaker. Is there something unique about Gen Z setting us apart from the youth of prior generations?

KH: You are probably better suited than us to answer that, but I’ll give it a shot. As for the negatives people may attribute to Gen Z, that’s always the case. There will always be people in older generations who act like there’s something shocking or newly wrong with the next generation.

As for the exceptionalizing of great potential: People always naturally assign some amount of hope to young people. But it’s a cop-out for any generation to point out any group or demographic, and say, “These people will save us!” If it’s not intergenerational, it’s not going to get us free. We are all accountable to the need to be intergenerational.

MK: I agree. We have to work alongside very young folks to save ourselves. We have to remain in the game. We’re part of that continuity.

I also think different issues take the cake for each generation. I grew up during a time of intensive criminalization, where AIDS was rampaging in our communities, when apartheid was one of the big social movements taking shape. It’s not surprising that by the time I went to college I was doing anti-apartheid organizing.

Today, there’s been a huge explosion of mass shootings. Of course young people would take that up. And in 20 years reproductive justice will come back with a vengeance for a generation that has all its rights being stripped away.

So when you say that some Gen Z–ers exceptionalize themselves, that’s also normal. We also thought we were the shit, that nobody before us had done anything like us. That’s a function of being young.

SEB: The term “youth industrial activist complex” has been popping up a lot recently in some spaces to describe the idea that youth activists, especially those who are particularly marginalized, are almost being commodified—getting brand deals, starting companies. I’m not condemning it. But I am wondering to what extent activists can ethically profit from their work.

MK: I don’t think there is a “youth activist industrial complex.” That would assume too much. As somebody who was part of the “industrial complex” popularization, I’ll say that doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t exist because there aren’t enough youth activists “living large.” The power differential is not there in the same way.

I would bet you couldn’t name 50 youth organizers who are getting brand deals. That handful is so dwarfed by the number of young people who are working towards liberation every day in ways we don’t see.

I get it. How annoying can that be sometimes, especially if people get perks who weren’t doing the deep, intensive work. But this is what people do: try to pluck people off and make them into something bigger than their community. The main problem is the young people who are doing this work aren’t getting any support, or are getting harmed while they’re doing the work.

KH: The ruling class will always try to co-opt certain people. This is part of how they try to defang movements. They’ll try to buy off somebody. Bring that person into the mainstream, make them the model “good activist.” Sometimes it involves money.

But people need to eat, and the bigger issue is whether folks are getting so caught up in money or celebrity that they’re losing their way politically. Selling out is not even an option for most people, if we’re being honest.

MK: Yes, please! Selling out is not even an option. This isn’t glamorous work. I know those in the peanut gallery are like, “These organizers are making bank!” And I always say, which ones? The three people you see on MSNBC you’re mad at?

KH: People can mistake hyper-visibility with having access to resources or getting paid. Activists who are highly visible are exposed to a lot of the same risks that come with “fame,” in terms of being surveilled, stalked, or doxxed, but they do not have any of the resources wealthy folks have in order to contend with it.

The bigger problem is making sure people are resourced. We need them whole, and I am not worried about anyone’s financial purity under capitalism, because that’s not a thing. The bigger problem is that poverty is out here eating people alive.

SEB: In reading your book, I highlighted a lot of phases like “hope as a discipline” and “waging acts of care.” Not protests and policy campaigns, but community and love as radical and revolutionary practices. Could you elaborate on why that is so important? What’s the utility of framing love, community, and care in this almost militant language?

KH: Care and militancy have always overlapped—the Black Panthers or the Young Lords. If you look at any number of radical groups across history, you will see people caring for each other out of necessity and in opposition to their own annihilation. My own people were not setting out to be radical by practicing reciprocal care, but doing so ensured our survival into the reservation era. It was care work that functioned in opposition to individualism and in opposition to the status quo, because we were not supposed to survive.

MK: Years ago, I took a class called “The Sociology of the Holocaust.” We read about how young people in the Warsaw Ghetto resisted—who stayed on and decided they were going to fight it out, even as they were being encircled and surrounded, and they knew they were going to be massacred.

They understood it. And all the things they talked about, the letters they smuggled out, were all about taking care of each other while they knew they were going to lose.

What their hope had been was that their fight would inspire other people to fight. I’m telling you their story in 2023, how many years after the siege of the Warsaw Ghetto? The fact that I’m naming their collective resistance means they succeeded. But they succeeded because they were caring for each other as they were fighting back. So these things are all part of the same fight. My father taught me years ago that in militant struggle, if you don’t have care, then you don’t have anything. That’s really true.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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