Ed Whitfield was the first guest on Jesse Myerson’s new podcast, From the Heartland (listen here). The following transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
Jesse Myerson: Ed, what is your organizing work?
Ed Whitfield: Right now I’m the co-founder and co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities. We do a lot of work to help communities and social justice organizations build authentic democracy and increasingly we’re doing work in the area of economic democracy. We are trying to find ways to democratize people’s access to wealth so that everyone has the full capacity to access what they would have to have in order to meet their needs and elevate the quality of life within the community in which they live.
We think that the whole democratic paradigm, which is that we are doing things “of, by and for the people,” is an essential feature of how to work for justice in the world. The alternative to doing things “of by and for the people” is that there’s some small privileged group of elites who structure the institutions of power and access for their own benefit and not for the benefit of peoples and communities more broadly. It’s this that we’re trying to break down. I think that’s the essential feature of what it means to struggle for justice.
The other piece of work that I’m working on is the Southern Reparations Loan Fund. This grew out of some work that we were doing several years ago, and up until very recently, with the Southern Grassroots Economies Project. We identified three areas of things that we needed to be doing together along with some other grassroots groups in the South, and some national organizations that supported our work . They were a means of financing cooperative economic ventures, a means of doing education around economic education, around building enterprises, and lastly doing policy advocacy work.
The Southern Reparations Loan Fund seeks to engage in kind of non-extractive lending to cooperative ventures in communities. We try to make sure that we make financing available to the most marginalized communities in the Southern region. Along the lines of radical inclusivity, we want to make loans available to people that regular lending institutions wouldn’t even dream of lending to.
In addition to that we’re looking to maximize the benefits to the communities by doing what we call non-extractive lending where we make sure that the terms of the loans are such that the loan can only be paid back out of the increased productivity of the ventures that we help to finance. Borrowing from the Southern Reparations Loan Fund should never make you worse off than you were had you not borrowed, even in the case of the failure of your business.
That puts us on the same side of the table as the borrowers because we have to work to guarantee that the ventures are successful ventures or we don’t get paid the money back and we consequently aren’t able to lend it to other ventures that are trying to develop. We do a lot of technical assistance in that regard. We’re trying to work in a 14 state area. That’s what we’ve kind of cordoned off as what we call the South.
A lot of people would have 13 of those states and not include Oklahoma. We stick Oklahoma in with the other 13 states to make a 14 state region which is just under one million square miles. It’s a very difficult area to cover and we quite frankly don’t have the capacity to cover it fully. But we are looking for projects in all of those areas.
JM: What is your freedom dream?
EW: You know that’s something I actually like to talk about because I think not many people articulate it very often. To me, people are free when they’re able to meet their own needs, elevate the quality of life and engage in kind of creation of meaning and ritual, in order to have a happy and full life. To me humans are their most human when they are, again, meeting their own needs. We are animals in the world but unlike the other animals that find what they eat on the ground in some place, we tend to cultivate food. We tend to build the machinery required to help make more efficient the cultivation of that food. We breed other animals as food stocks. We develop boats so that we can fish, go out on the water and fish for animal food that is there – for the fish that are available.
Humans engage in labor to meet their needs. The problem is that right now, we live in a world in which it is perfectly legal for a handful of people to own all of the resources that all the other people in the world need in order to stay alive, in order to meet their needs. A few people own increasingly larger and larger plots of land, big developers own huge swaths of land. The land grabs continue. The enclosure of the commons is a continuing process, and they haven’t finished it. So now we hear about gigantic parcels of land in Africa being bought by developers from someplace else, either in Europe or in Asia, which means, again, that it’s legal to own the things that other people need.
So to me freedom is a world in which we all have access to what we need. It has to do with reconstituting the commons, making available to people the resources they need to live. That includes not only the natural resources, the earth resources, but also the created, human-built resources, the machinery, the piles of money that have been invested, that can be converted into research or other things that help, again, meet people’s needs. We want to make the financial, mechanical, built resources and natural resources that everyone needs, widely available. That’s what we mean when we talk about democratizing wealth, that we want the access to wealth to be democratic.
A lot of times we talk in the course of the work about my freedom dream. That includes some transformation in ownership. That’s because the current concept of the ownership allows for this really absurd situation where people can own what other folk need to stay alive. That means that the people who own those assets have the virtual control of life or death over everyone else and we think that’s wrong.
Again my freedom dream is people being able to meet their own needs, to elevate the quality of life and to create meaning in communities. I dream of a time and place where people think together democratically to come up with the answer to the questions of what shall we do together to build this community.
JM: Where do you hail from and how did you come to your politics?
EW: I am originally from Little Rock, Arkansas. I was born in 1949, so I was eight years old when the President of the United States had to send federal troops there to allow nine black children to go to a high school that I later graduated from. My sister attended that high school before I did. She went there in 1960 and graduated in ’63. I went in 1964 and got out in 1967.
Little Rock is an interesting place. It was once an area where shortly after the Civil War, federal troops were located at the section of town that was built up by contraband, those are people who were being liberated from the system of enslavement, coming to Little Rock. That area later developed into a black business district along Ninth Street and the largest black church in town was there, Bethel AME church that was there, on that corner of Ninth and Broadway.
It was also the scene of a very brutal lynching in 1927, when lynch mobs basically came and took over the whole city, killed a man, drug his body through town, built a pyre on the corner of Ninth and Broadway. Used the church furniture out of the AME church to burn his body on. The mayor and the chief of police left town. They left the town to the mob. According to some reports, at six o’clock in the evening somebody was seen directing traffic around the lynch scene using the charred arm off of the body.
This was the Little Rock that my father grew up in in the late 1920s. He was 18 years old at the time and I learned after he passed away that he had known about that lynching. It turns out that I grew up in a house full of guns which is kind of interesting. Some people wouldn’t know. We used to vaguely talk about the guns as being for protection of the home and I didn’t quite understand what that meant. It wasn’t like we would have thought of shooting somebody for trying to steal something, and we didn’t have anything that anybody would have tried to steal. I never quite understood that until I read that story about the lynching that took place in 1927. It was like, “oh now I understand what daddy was trying to do when he was teaching us all how to shoot and how to be careful with guns and stuff.” They just sat most of the time. We didn’t hunt or anything. I grew up in that Little Rock. I grew up, I would say, in the shadow of Emmet Till.
I grew up in the South, in the 1950s. I was a young person growing up, when these jarring pictures of the mutilated body of Emmet Till had been in the press nationally. My parents certainly wanted to protect me from any such end as that. It’s a thing of teaching children to be careful in a world that was dangerous and highly unjust. From pretty early times, from I guess around the time in the 1950s when I was listening to the talk in a lot of the television shows about Little Rock Central, I had realized that I was going to spend my life doing work fighting in the struggle for justice.
I got involved early on in opposition to the Vietnam War while I was still in high school, probably trying to talk people I knew out of going into the military. I guess I was still in junior high school when I started doing that. Very early on in the war I was an anti-war activist. I became the head of the Youth Council for the NAACP Youth Council for the state of Arkansas. In a regional conference of the NAACP, I tried to get a resolution passed to have civil rights workers declared draft exempt because it didn’t make any sense, to me, that they would be going 10,000 miles away, halfway around the world, to fight for democracy when black people couldn’t vote in Mississippi and Alabama and parts of Eastern Arkansas.
That resolution didn’t pass but it did give me the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about what was wrong with that war. Some of the people I knew from the NAACP told me that this was the first time they’d heard a serious discussion of what was wrong with that war and why they should oppose it. Again, this was many years before Martin Luther King’s Riverside speech in 1967, where he talked about America being the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, but that was certainly true then. It remains true to this day and it’s something that I think people should put a lot of attention to, given that it tends to be a bipartisan part of American politics, that we travel around the world killing whoever we want to satisfy whatever addictions we have for oil or diamonds or whatever else it may be that other people have that we want.
JM: Ed the people you organize, what is the most misunderstood thing about them to the people that are not them?
EW: When you’ve been working with marginalized communities, the thing that’s most misunderstood about them by the privileged communities I think has to do with their actual capacity and passion for freedom and independence; their capacity to create meaning and culture is not readily understood. I was thinking about the idea of there being a meritocracy, which is just absolutely not real. This view makes hoarding wealth a virtue and it has poor people being poor out of some collection of vices.
The corresponding part of that would be that wealthy people and privileged folk are wealthy and privileged because they have no vices, and I think that’s pretty patently not true. The best indicator for becoming wealthy is that you have wealthy parents and most of us don’t in fact choose our parents. There’s a lot of stolen wealth that is passed along from generation to generation that probably has as much to do with shaping the contours of the economic distribution as anything else.
I know that while there are counter examples that have to do with people saying well you know, my folks came here from wherever and they were poor when they got here and they worked really hard, saved money and they’ve accumulated this and that. I would want to tell them that this is like somebody who comes into the room, a really good gambler, and he’s gambling at a table that’s loaded down with stolen money. I’m not arguing that the person is not a good gambler, nor am I arguing that they didn’t bring their own stake to stake themselves in the game initially. Nor am I arguing that they didn’t actually win at this table. I am arguing though that if the table were not already loaded down with stolen money that their gains from their clever skillful play would not have led to them walking out of the room with very much. So that as they go out of the room it’s like “You can’t keep that. That was stolen money.” “But I won it fair and square.” “Well of course you did, but it was still stolen money the whole time you were playing for it.”
I think that that’s one of the things that’s misunderstood — that there is this assumption that it’s the virtue of some people that makes them do well. There is little understanding that there is systemic theft from other communities which has left those communities without the kind of compounding wealth that would otherwise be constantly raising their standard of living; that this, rather than a lack of virtue is the broader outline of what shapes the economic distribution that we see.
JM: What is the greatest challenge facing your organizing?
EW: The greatest single challenge is figuring out how to build democracy. You know, people are born into the world and have widely varied circumstances and experiences. People have widely varied interests and passions. People have some basic needs in common but they have desires that are all over the place in terms of difference and yet these different people have a need to at various points come together, think together and decide what they’re going to do together.
It would be unfortunate if everyone thought that they could have exactly everything they want when part of the things that some people want contradict the things that other people want. The democratic challenge is how do you get people to think together in such a way that they can come up with kind of mutually acceptable paths of action to engage in, to do things together, as a community. That’s the challenge. How do we construct that?
To me that construction has several different aspects. On the one hand it’s important to approach it with the spirit of the fact that that’s possible, that is the assumption that we can get together and decide together things that will make sense and be mutually beneficial to us all. But then there has to be a certain art, a type of skillful engagement in it that we artfully do it. And at some point, we sum up our artistic approaches to doing it and systematize it that so that it becomes a science of how to do this thinking together. Then eventually we would do it so much that we develop the basic habit of doing it. I like to think of us needing the spirit, the art, the science and the habits of democracy to be developed and developing that to me is the largest challenge that we have. SASH, I call it.
JM: Lastly Ed what propels you through struggle?
This is all I do, basically. I decided at a very early age that the challenge and the need of trying to make a more just world is where I wanted to put my life energies. That and trying to make music are the only two things I actually do. I don’t have a lot of immediate direct family obligation. I have raised two children but I’m currently not married. I currently don’t have children here with me. I’m able to travel a lot and what propels me is going places and talking to people and periodically seeing a flash of understanding in someone’s eyes that they now understand more deeply and are able to more articulately explain to others a way of understanding what’s wrong with the current system and a path out of it.
I’ve been talking lately to people about the need for us to not talk about how we can all be free at some point in the far, far distance future but how can we begin to build pockets of freedom every way that we can now? You know there’s a concept of let’s develop some liberated zones. Let’s develop a place now where people are making sure that there’s enough food available for everyone. There is housing, clothing and other things that are available to meet people’s needs; where people are encouraged to be productive and part of what they produce is not only the things that meet their needs but also the things that make their life meaningful. So that they have a lot of cultural production going on.
I like the idea of advocating for and engaging with people, to start actually building these liberated zones as a means of having something that’s going to remain standing as this contradictory and corrupt capitalist system crumbles around us. These would become beacons of light for people who are wondering how to avoid despondency. Is there anything we can do differently? And the answer is yes. We can use these as models and build some more things like these. That’s what I’m looking forward to helping engage people to doing and that is what keeps me motivated.
JM: Thank you Ed Whitfield of the Fund for Democratic Communities and the Southern Reparations Loan Fund. That is it for this, the first episode of From the Heartland. Please let me know what you thought. Give me ideas, suggestions, questions, all that good stuff. Best way to get in touch with me is on Twitter @JAMyerson. The DMs are open. Thank you for tuning in and I hope you’ll listen again next time. So long.