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V. Changing Philosophical Practice

Grassroots Philosophy and Going against the Grain

Advocates of field philosophy—or philosophical projects that build working partnerships between academic philosophers and professionals outside academia—have sounded a warning about the future of philosophy. Given neoliberal pressures in academia to assess the value of educational efforts using market-based logic, some have argued that academic philosophy must demonstrate its utility and relevance in the “real world” to navigate an era of increasing divestment from the humanities (Frodeman et al. 2012). In this chapter, I use my experience engaging in philosophical projects outside of academia to argue why contesting neoliberal ideology can support the growth of philosophy. I propose the model of “grassroots philosophy” as a democratic approach to engaged philosophical work that resonates with some core principles of field philosophy while challenging others, which I hope will open future conversations. Grassroots philosophy reflects a praxis based in community organizing in which the norms of professional philosophy (specifically, views about who are considered philosophers, what work is understood to be “doing philosophy,” and where philosophical thinking emerges and thrives) are unsettled and reconceptualized.

This chapter begins with a case study of grassroots philosophy based on my own experience as a philosopher and Black feminist community organizer. Drawing lessons from this case study, I consider the implications of grassroots philosophy for academic philosophy, particularly as it relates to countering the influence of neoliberal ideology in education. This discussion also interrogates the structuring norms within professional philosophy to propose future pathways to sustaining philosophy.

Grassroots Philosophy: A Case Study

The organizing practices of Communities Against Rape & Abuse (CARA), a community-based organization based in Seattle in the 2000s, exemplify what I describe as “grassroots philosophy.” In what follows, I discuss the context of CARA’s emergence and my connection with it, as well as its development as a community center for political education and philosophical analysis.

After completing a BA in philosophy in 1997, I was fortunate to quickly find a political community in Seattle with a focus on feminist anti-violence community organizing. My interest in philosophy had a particular focus on rape and domestic violence, not only as a personal ethical failure but also as a pervasive political phenomenon that forms our world, including the social production of concepts such as agency, identity, borders and nation-states, relationality, and what it means to be human. I believed that the best way to think through this philosophical problem was through a practice of service. I volunteered as a crisis line victims’ advocate at the local anti-rape organization, Seattle Rape Relief (SRR). One of the first rape crisis centers established in the United States, SRR was closed in 1999 amid budget cuts. Troubled by the closure, many of the former volunteers and staff began to re-imagine what a radical feminist antiviolence organization might be like, eventually building the new organization, CARA.1

Established in 2000, our multiracial organization was composed of youth artists and activists; radical women of color; Black feminists and community leaders; rebellious queer, disabled, and working-class people; survivors of violence; and bookish organizers. This community instituted a contemplative organizational culture that intertwined critical thinking and community organizing, discussing a wide range of books and ideas—sometimes as a formal part of our staff and membership meetings, sometimes informally while developing workshop curricula and organizing strategies. Critical thinking shaped strategic organizing on a range of issues, including sexual and domestic violence, reproductive justice and coercive sterilization, disability justice and sexuality, immigration justice, and community-based accountability practices to address gender violence. Our ideas led to philosophical production in the form of toolkits, newsletter articles, op-eds, and workshops. We valued philosophical engagement because we believed that critical theorizing was essential to invent what was, at that time, a relatively unique community organizing approach to anti-violence work (Richie 2012; Kim 2019b).

It is in this context that several CARA members proposed that, as an antirape organization, CARA should join the growing prison abolition movement. The process that CARA undertook, leading to its organizational consensus about prison abolition, is at the heart of this case study. The national abolitionist organizations, Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, emerged in 1998 and 2000, respectively, creating a locus of activistand intellectual attention to the abolition of prisons.2 This epistemic and political context helped guide our process of evaluating abolitionism, but we did not immediately come to a consensus about prison abolition. On one hand, prisons were devastating our communities: as mass criminalization expanded through the 1980s and 1990s, it alarmingly exacerbated structural violence and was only getting worse (Gilmore 2007; Richie 2012). However, the growing abolition movement and other prison and police reform movements on the racial justice left rarely addressed the urgent problem of sexual and domestic violence in our communities. Could we endorse the abolition of an institution that some survivors understood as a resource for safety, even granting that prisons were a largely destructive force for our communities, including for survivors?3

We aimed to engage the question rather than resolve it, turning to organizing and education as a strategy to learn more through praxis. Local chapters of Critical Resistance (CR) were organizing film festivals that featured films about the structures and impacts of carceral systems. Several CARA members proposed that CARA host one of their film festivals, which we did in 2002 and 2003. So the first CR prison abolition film festival not hosted by a local CR chapter was hosted by an anti-rape organization, which we took as an opportunity requiring thoughtful and creative planning. Event organizers (predominantly young people in their late teens and early twenties) wanted the event to intentionally address sexual and domestic violence, so we added films that were not yet part of the CR library, such as clips of speakers at the INCITE! conferences who defined the intersections of carceral violence and gendered violence. The 2003 CARA event was entitled “Both Sides of the Bars: Resisting Prisons and Building Community Alternatives.” The phrase, “building community alternatives” flagged what was becoming a feminist abolitionist core principle—that abolitionism was as much a politics of invention as it was a politics of dismantling (CARA 2003b; Rojas Durazo et al. 2012). Organizers incorporated workshops, poetry sessions, and a breakout group for survivors, recognizing that diverse methods help create conditions for the emergence of new ideas, and active dialogical learning supports connection and collective action. These sessions expanded both our understanding of the scope of prisons’ impact and what was possible for abolitionist organizing, sparking ideas such as coalition building between local anti-violence and anti-prison organizations, the forced institutionalization of disabled people as a kind of carceral violence, and communitybased strategies to address gender violence that did not rely on police and prison.

In addition to being a community education and mobilization effort, the events represented a point of praxis that helped CARA members clarify our organizational stance on abolition. This is reflected in the event description in our outreach flyers that stated, “This is a two-day community event to help us understand how prisons are impacting our communities and how to empower our communities to resist prisons and build better alternatives for safety and accountability” (CARA 2003a). The word “us” in this description indicates that CARA organizers understood ourselves to be in the same learning boat as community members, and that we intended to advance our own learning through praxis. By “praxis,” I mean a myriad of practices that was both a means of organizing a community event and organizing the development of analysis. For example, determining what films to pick and why required research and analytical reflection on the needs of our communities and organization. Crafting the flow of the program illuminated areas that needed philosophical attention and growth in abolitionist discourse. Developing workshop curricula helped us reformulate activist strategies into pedagogical approaches. Finally, hosting the event compelled us to more clearly articulate our position on prisons, which ultimately clarified where we landed on the issue. In the 2002 event program, we wrote:

Any movement seeking to end violence will fail if its strategy supports and helps sustain the prison industrial complex. Prisons, policing, the death penalty, the war on terror, and the war on drugs all increase rape, beatings, isolation, oppression, and death. As an anti-rape organization, we cannot support the funneling of resources into the criminal justice system to punish rapists and batterers, as this does not help end violence. It only supports the same system that views incarceration as a solution to complex social problems like rape and abuse. As survivors of rape and domestic violence, we will not let the anti-violence movement be further co-opted to support the mass criminalization of young people, the disappearance of immigrants and refugees, and the dehumanization of poor people, people of color, and people with disabilities. We support the antirape movement that builds sustainable communities on a foundation of safety, support, self-determination, and accountability.

(CARA 2002)

In short, it was through practice that CARA fostered philosophical insight.

A practice-to-theory model tends to be counter-intuitive for philosophers who are trained to develop theory first through logical deduction and analysis, and then apply the theory to various scenarios to test its resilience. In fact, as a person trained in academic philosophy and who is drawn to linear thinking, I was personally wary of moving forward with the events without first having a clearly articulated and collectively agreed stance on abolition. Theory through practice, however, requires epistemic humility so that one may acknowledge the need to keep learning and be open to reaching different positions or discovering new ideas through practice. This cultivates an ethic of intellectual good faith and trust in a collective learning process as fellow thinkers pursue a practice that will hopefully be revelatory. Epistemic humility also supports people reaching for theoretical insight through practice, even if they are not completely clear about the implications of the insight. The core hesitation about abolition turned on protecting what was seen as a resource for survivors who needed safety from people who cause profound harm. When we pursued the events, we did not know how to resolve the “What else is there?” problem, we simply came to know, through learning and praxis, that reform efforts were increasingly untenable and prisons were ultimately counterproductive to survivor safety.

The openness to not knowing a firm resolution to “What else is there?” created an opportunity to conjure possible answers to this problem. CARA members slowly began to work with various social networks and groups of friends to consider possible non-carceral approaches to sexual and domestic violence. INCITE! asked CARA to translate these early experimental efforts into written form so this work could be included in their 2006 anthology, Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology, which led to our article, “Taking Risks: Implementing Grassroots Community Accountability Strategies” (Bierria et al. 2006). Again, for us, it was through practice that community accountability theory was formed, and this “from-practice-to-theory” methodology was reflected in the article itself. We described specific practices that demonstrated our integral commitments to the end of prisons and the end of gender violence, making it one of the first published pieces of writing within this era of U.S. feminist anti-violence organizing that outlined a detailed community accountability approach to gender violence. It was an important theoretical and practical contribution to a broad effort in the United States to develop transformative justice and community accountability strategies, and it has played a key role in the growing abolition movement.4 Since it was published, “Taking Risks” has been described as a foundational document for this body of work, and it has been widely distributed via zines and other media, translated into Spanish and German by feminist abolitionists outside of the United States, and cited by academics, including academic philosophers.

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