Matthew White: Lightbulbs and Democracy

by | May 2, 2024 | Struggle for Democracy | 0 comments

The following passage was taken and edited from the July 7th, 2023 MLK Freedom Center intimate dialogue with West Coast Representative Matthew White of the AFSCME trade union organization.

What rights, what ideas, what resources do we have available that might change the way we interpret power for ourselves?

If you look at what lights are on in this room right now, I had to actually flip the switch for the light to come on. The power is here, but if you all walk into a dark room, sat down, and you’re sitting in the dark operating like it were any other day, that’s just you living your life. Until someone says, “Hey, let’s turn on the light”.

“Well, how do I do that?”

“Oh, walk over there, flip the switch, and see what happens” …Then there’s light. That’s how community organizing works. We’re sitting here experiencing something similar. We’re walking through a seem-lived circumstance and deciding for ourselves: are we going to sit in the dark? Or are we going to figure out if we want light?

“Can you see?”

“No…do we need light?”

“Let’s flip a switch.” And now we’re sitting in something powerful because collectively we’ve not only decided what we want, but the path that we’ll take to get there. Our communities are still deciding and determining what that means for themselves. We don’t all have the same resources. We don’t have all the same leaders and responsibilities and characteristics, but we do have each other.

Also recognize that power yields nothing without demand. So if someone is blocking the light switch and you can’t physically get there; if someone is locking you to your chair and you can’t get up; if the light switch is just too far away; or if it’s too high, whoever has access to that light switch you don’t have access to, we’ve got to either make them give you access to it or we build a ladder so we can do it ourselves. And so oftentimes we tend to look at that light switch and say: “Well, it’s too hard to get there, we’re just fine in the dark.” That’s not the case. How do we then speak the languages of those communities, of those people, and find out what’s gonna motivate them enough to figure out what they need to do to get off their seat and build the ladder? We can’t just let the person who’s blocking us from the power dictate everything that we need. 

Human nature says that that’s okay because there’s always gonna be power structures. Landlord, renter, boss, employee… those power structures will not go away. However, the relationships between those structures, those we can change. Those we can figure out how do we relight those pathways and build new ones for ourselves if we decide necessary.

You have to actually go out, spread the message to somebody else, and let them teach that message to five other people. Then let those five people disseminate that to five of their friends and so on.

No one is ever inspired to do anything because of the text message. No, it’s face-to-face conversation. It’s me sitting down with you and finding out: Where are you from? How did you get there? How did your family get there? Why do you stay? Where do you wanna go? What do you believe in? Other values. It’s finding out those things and then building a trusting relationship that allows us to then figure out what we can do with the resources that we have together. That’s organizing. It takes a very long time. It’s a slow process, but each light bulb is worth it.

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