Guardian voices: Outside the Bay Area Bubble


This week I’m back in the midwest, where my roots are strong and my mother is approaching her retirement years. I’m thinking about the vast geographic and cultural distance –both real and imagined -- between the San Francisco, California where I now live, and the great state of Iowa, which made me so much of who I am.

Here I am, sweating through a ridiculously muggy midwest summer heatwave, thinking about how it is that I am black, a lifelong social justice activist and organizer, and a married, dyke mama who hails from a small, working-class Iowa town where sweet corn and tomatoes once grew in my own backyard.

When I tell people that I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, there is a kind of shocked silence I’ve become accustomed to. I’m used to people’s confusion about how I – given my politics and identities -- could possibly be from such a place. And, while I find it extremely problematic, I’ve also gotten used to a dismissive arrogance about Iowa, a comfortable ignorance about the heartland, and a total failure to comprehend why I long for my Nana’s lilac-lined house at 1339 10th Street and why I have so much hope for middle America.

I work, organize and am raising a family in the “Bay Area bubble” but being from Iowa has developed in me core values that are decidedly anti-bubble, and deeply pro-working America. My ancestors built the wealth of this nation, and I consider the whole place mine – to love and rage over, to listen to and understand, to organize and to challenge. I have not committed my life to social change just for a privileged few on the East and West Coasts. This is, fundamentally about all of us, the 99 percent in San Francisco, through the heartland, down South and all the way to upper tip of Maine.

My four-year-old son was born in San Francisco, and he is a proud Frisco kid through and through. We have a multi-racial community that dances and organizes for justice together, he considers Salvadoran pupusas a special treat, and he loves remembering the day the Giants won the World Series and it seemed like everyone in the city was a member of the same big family.

But today, I’m writing from a cramped apartment in a seven-story public housing building in Michigan where my mother now lives with her scores of books, photography equipment and cute dresses from QVC. She and I are from a clan of Gibsons, black folks from working-class Iowa where my great grandparents worked on the railroads, and where my grandfather slaughtered pigs and went on strike with his white coworkers to defend the gains of their union.

We’re from the Iowa, where my mother attended black churches as a child and found Islam as an adult, and where she, as a struggling single mother, read black feminist poetry and first fought battles with Ronald Reagan’s backwards welfare policies.

We’re from the Iowa that is a center of agribusiness and everything that’s bad about corporate food production in this country. We’re from the Iowa that rallied for Jesse Jackson’s run for president, voted for same-sex marriage, and where Obama won the caucuses back in 2008.

But Iowa has also gone from unionized, inter-racial meatpacking plants to non-union poultry factories that exploit undocumented Latino workers from as far away as El Salvador and Guatemela. We’re from the Iowa that is indeed mostly white, where my first best friend grew up – a sweet white working class red head – and our mothers shared survival stories of single, working-poor motherhood. And I’m from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa that, unlike San Francisco, is actually growing its black population and is home to a thriving center of African American community history.

For most of my adult life, as I’ve been marching against war and racism, I’ve also been defending this Iowa, fighting against the tendency toward self-righteous superiority I’ve found among too many activists in the Bay and on the East Coast. It’s the same arrogance that the Right exploits in its scandalous but effective pseudo-populist campaigns against so-called liberal elitism.

It’s my experience that people on the left think they know what it means to be Iowan. Iowans are used as stand-in for a stereotypical idea of backwards, irrationally racist white America that ‘doesn’t vote its class interests’; Iowa is a convenient marker for everything less cool, hip, cosmopolitan and liberal than, well, San Francisco.

This kind of dismissive arrogance leads to a refusal to develop, in any meaningful, long-term way, an organizing agenda for the majority of the country, and has been one of the errors of progressive politics for a long time.

We can change this. When we are thinking about the politics of immigration policy, Occupy Wall Street, gay marriage, the movement against corporate food policy, or the politics of race, poverty and labor unions, we have to think about Iowa. Think about the white working class Republicans. Think about my mom’s friend in Iowa, raised on an old fashioned farm and now leading an organic farming collective there. Think about the proud struggle for small farms, union work, and participatory democracy there.

And think about what it will really take to make the Bay, Iowa and the whole nation a place where we can all develop our full human potential, have true mutual respect for one another, and are able to struggle through our deep divisions without exclusionary moral superiority, top-down “we know what’s best for you” politics and where all of us who want to live out our old age on a quiet lilac-lined porch in Iowa, can do so in peace and dignity.
As we make our plan to build a new progressive majority, let’s stay open-minded and take our organizing to a whole new level.


In the time that N'Tanya has been active in advocacy for childrens' issues here in SF, children have become a more endangered species than before she started.

If indeed it is a problem that in a city with so many LGBT there are so few children, if indeed that child-centered project is not homophobic in its own right in this special context (progressives rightly don't get worked up in a bunch that SF "falls short" of homeownership compared to the rest of the US, but kids are different), then the failures that Coleman and crowd have met with in being unable to contest that tide mean that there is a significant failure to communicate with the electorate.

Four years ago, when Obama won the Iowa caucuses, any illusions of Iowans as being all racist rednecks who fear The Other should have been put to rest. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin is a liberal luminary who has been labor's strongest advocate as labor has been circling the drain and pulling us all down with it.

How much longer will Iowans buy into the labor and identity politics game if their votes for a black president and for a pro-labor senator will just end up further empowering wealthy white people and rolling back workplace rights?

One thing that Iowa and San Francisco have in common is that such politics no longer have traction because they have proven themselves not only incapable of delivering on their promises but incapable of preventing further rollbacks of gains hard won by previous generations.

This generation of activist will be known as the generation that coasted on the wins of their predecessors and who squandered that inheritance into political poverty.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 21, 2012 @ 8:09 am

I am not meaning to rip on N'Tanya, but Coleman and kids is but one example of where the progressive nonprofit and labor professionals fail to meet their political goals with no moral hazard for doing so.

So long as the response to failure is blustering denial instead of sober introspection and correction, we're going to continue to free fall of a political cliff and the neoliberals who are turning this town into a bastion of tea party economics will prosper at our expense.

One of my favorite quotes from Marx was from an earlier philosophical critique, in a letter where he calls for relentless critique of all things existing. One reason why popular movements are in the mess that we're in is that so many originating from the leftist tradition apply that notion to everyone but themselves.

Our opponents have no such compunction, they don't let romantic notions of friendship cloud their judgement when political success and failure are at issue. Nathan Nayman was axed at the Committee on JOBS and Kate White was fired at the Housing Action Coalition when they were not making the grade. They were replaced by neoliberal corporate functionaries who played a big part in out-organizing progressives like N'Tanya.

Our only option is to work twice as hard innovating and out-organizing them using techniques that work, discarding those that fail. If class struggle is really a battle between the hustlers and the slackers, then the hustlers amongst the slacker class need to either out hustle the corporate hustlers or mobilize the slackers to beat them with numbers.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 23, 2012 @ 8:00 am

The sad part about this whole thing is that you are actually intelligent guy. But instead of using the skills and information that you have, you act like a whiney baby. Did you get possessed by the ghost of Arthur Evans?

It strikes me as particularly strange that you always blame the evil non profit and labor groups as if you are a spectator who has had no impact or opportunity to try to have an impact in the past 15 years. Then you always talk about how "we" are going to fall off a cliff if "we" don't out organize them. What group are "we" a part of/ who are you talking about.

You can complain about other peoples failures all day but here is what's real;
N'tanya is an energetic person who has spent her entire adult life fighting for righteous causes, working extremely hard, mentoring a ton of young people and building a family and diverse community around her.

What do you do all day Marc ? Oh yeah, you sit on your computer attacking people, cutting and pasting the same shit that you have been writing since the Internet was invented.

Time for a reality check my man!

Posted by Nate miller on Jun. 29, 2012 @ 10:37 am

Nate, I waited silently for five years since Daly's reelection as this movement accelerated before careening off of the cliff to arrive at this point after effectively donating a decade of my life to the progressive movement.

I've built up a sufficient reserve of cred that I've banked that i get to draw on that for another 8 years. You want me to shut up? Quit defending your friends and start winning in politics and you'll hear nothing new from me.

The last straw for me was working on a MTA charter reform effort only to realize at the last minute that Newsom had threatened the nonprofits with losing funding unless the kibosh was put on MTA reform. Thus, a few tens of thousands of services recipients and a few hundred nonprofiteers interests totally eclipsed the interests of hundreds of thousands of Muni riders. I gave away hours of free time organizing folks only to create a chit to be used against me. Now you suggest I work with the people who have hijacked my efforts to save their own asses? Fuck that shit, I'm not a masochist.

Similar to Arthur Evans, the progressive movement has left me. Unlike Arthur Evans, I am not taking money from corporate San Francisco to disparage progressives and progressivism with intent to allow corporate SF to win.

Either the professional progressives take stock of what I'm saying or it is progressive doomsday and the east side of SF is toast for progressives. If the professional progressives don't take stock of what I'm saying, then the professional progressives reveal themselves as impediments to confronting corporate power and they are as complicit with maintaining downtown power as Arthur Evans was.

By any measure, progressives are worse off now than in 2006. Why is that? How did we get here? Are we doing the same thing that got us here? Is that desirable? What are we doing different now to bring us to different outcomes?

Is your only answer to those questions that it is disrespectful to pose such questions to your friends? Is it irrelevant as to why they have been paid to do work and continue to get paid to do work even though they not only fail to meet their goals but the end up worse off than before they started?

Nobody elects these people, there is no democratic accountability between the constituencies they claim to represent and the nonprofits, yet these entities and individuals are heavily active in politics. Why would progressives tolerate a vacuum of democracy in our political culture?

What I do all day is work for a health informatics research startup after a few years of unemployment and poverty. If not for my husband, I'd probably have ended up homeless. You try finding non-management work in a competitive economy once you pass your mid 40s after dedication to your political hobby has crimped the currency of your skillset and even progressive campaigns assert ageism.

Fortunately I've found a startup for grown ups with no foosball tables or plastic pop guns where I'm in the middle of the age range and the culture is one of sober, life-affirming non-sweatshop development that pays really well.

Given that I run database software that can take some time to execute, I comment on SFBG during the interstices.

What I see in N'Tanya's piece is emblematic of the malaise in the left in general, that the struggle has been fetishized almost to an end in itself. Instead of any imperative to move an agenda, we're seeing the clocking in of staffers who are marking time. It is not just N'Tanya, but we can look around to all labor and nonprofits that have staked claims on social and economic justice political spaces and see the same thing.

People continue to get paid even though we're getting our clocks cleaned. Perhaps they ARE being paid BECAUSE they lower our shields and we keep losing?

Meanwhile, the brunt of the burden is being borne by not by the nonprofiteers, but by the people that the nonprofiteers claim to be speaking by and for and you're doing nothing, nothing EFFECTIVE to stop that descent into political irrelevance, ethnic and economic cleansing.

My family's economic circumstances are clearly being negatively impacted by organized labor's inability to hold its own or advance the interests of working San Franciscans. Health care and retirement are two areas where labor has dropped the ball. I warned them to mind the gap between unorganized and organized workers' situations, they claimed, like you are now, that i was being a h8r. My husband got fucked on both accounts, yet professional labor staff still get paid.

When will any progressive nonprofiteer get fired for failing to achieve their goals?

When it happens on your watch, you own it.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 29, 2012 @ 11:20 am

Very interesting thoughts, Marcos.

I too have seen how non-profit inc. looks after its own little cabal and has no interest in the real working class.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 06, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

I appreciate your wise words. I think too often we forget that we in fact live in a bubble, and that there are many more of us progressive thinkers that live, survive, extist outside the bay area. The politic approach of red and blue states must be rejected by something more deeper, and more open to possibilties. Thank you so much for saying what many of us have not heard.

Posted by Victor on Jun. 29, 2012 @ 8:41 am

Great article

Posted by Nate miller on Jun. 29, 2012 @ 10:38 am