Learning from organizers – Stefan Christoff

Stefan Christoff playing guitar. Photo by Philippe Teixeira St-Cyr, obtained from Stefan Christoff.

Stefan Christoff is an organizer, musician, and broadcaster based in Tiohtià:ke, also known as Montreal. Across his decades of activism and organizing, he has been part of supporting lots of different struggles resisting systemic violence and oppression, including colonial systems here on Turtle Island (North America) and around the world. That has involved solidarity work with migrant, Indigenous, and racialized communities; organizing against police brutality, exploitation, and capitalism; and many other things. His political work is primarily grassroots rather than institutional, drawing on “the power of collective community organizing,” Christoff says, and a lot of it “has centred on the intersections of art and activism.” He is the host of Free City Radio.

The Media Co-op: What are a couple of important things you’ve learned from struggles that you, yourself, are not directly involved in, and why are they important?

Stefan Christoff: I think one of the main things that I learned from past social movements has been that the mainstream media narratives about power, and mainstream media narratives that try to locate and make sense of the world, are inaccurate.

Some of the most important voices that impacted me when I was in my early 20s as an activist were from the United States. As an anglophone living in Montreal, I was drawn a lot to New York City. And I first heard the voices of former members of the Black Panther Party around this time. Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, Ashanti Alston, Elaine Brown are three people that I saw speak in person in different cities – New York City, Washington, DC, Montreal. And I think that these voices really placed the power of community work at the forefront, in the Black Panther context but also more broadly, thinking about confronting state power and corporate power and the violence that is perpetuated by those systems in a direct way. I learned about that.

I also listen to lectures from Indigenous activists. John “Splitting the Sky” Boncore Hill is somebody that comes to mind. His lecture about the Attica prison uprising really had a huge impact on me, in thinking about the falsity of the fixed notion of colonial borderlines. And I think the members of the Native Youth Movement that confronted Canadian colonialism, particularly their struggle against Sun Peaks Ski Resort, and the Secwepemc Nation. I got to know members of the awesome Manuel family, including the late Arthur Manuel and Kanahus Manuel. I visited that community and spent time there in the context of the Sun Peaks Ski Resort blockade protest camp that they were organizing, which was to oppose the expansion of Sun Peaks Ski Resort, which was being built and extended on traditional Secwepemc land. That was a very important struggle for me to learn about, but also to see firsthand and to be present with Indigenous activists involved in frontline land defense.

And if we want to get into tactics, I think the first organization that I learned a lot from living in Montreal was the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). I learned about direct action tactics in real time. Although I wasn’t directly a member of the organization, I participated in a lot of actions and solidarity responses to post 9/11 policies of repression that were happening towards migrants and asylum seekers and undocumented people, [including] campaigns against deportations. And one of the things that I learned from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty was taking voices of people directly affected to the offices of those in power. So I remember a number of cases where OCAP sent delegations to government minister offices, and also government ministries, like Immigration Canada. I participated in some of them. I remember some actions for a woman from Nigeria named Dorothy Igharo. I remember some actions against the cuts to social assistance at the very tail end of Mike Harris’ Conservative administration in Ontario in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was actions that took place after Kimberly Rogers had died, in the context of cuts to social services. So this direct action politics, I learned a lot from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

And I think more generally, the other thing that has really taught me a lot is the intersection of art and activism. So, in sustaining involvement in these things for a very long time, I’ve been drawn to finding space for reflection in music and other creative outlets as a way to find a pathway to sustain the struggle. I think it’s really important to sustain involvement and retain a sort of spiritual health. And, you know, sometimes these aspects of things are difficult to describe in words. But I think a lot of state repression results in people either turning that violence against themselves, or internally in the movement. There’s a lot of issues that come up when people don’t take care of their mental health. And I think for me, the arts was really important and learning slowly about that process.

TMC: What are a couple of sources related to struggles that you aren’t involved in that you’ve found to be particularly useful or important?

SC: If we’re talking about media sources, I think that generally I have found community radio to be very important. You know, stations like CKUT 90.3. FM in Montreal was where I heard a lot of social movement voices for the first time. I remember listening to a lecture of Vandana Shiva on the program Alternative Radio. And at the end of that lecture there was somebody who came on the broadcast to explain where people could register to get on the buses to go to Washington DC for protests against the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank in April 2000. And that was my first mass protests that I joined. So community radio was a very important source.

TMC: What are a couple of key things about struggles that you are involved in or about your approach to activism and organizing that you would like other people to know more about?

SC: I think one key reflection that I would like to share around organizing is this idea that it’s really important to go into campaigns with, like, clear demands, and to be firm in those demands, especially when dealing with structures of power. But I don’t think that having firm demands means that you have an answer for the overall systemic questions that are at play in these types of campaigns. So I’ll think about that in relation to both, like, political solutions and change. But also in terms of organizational process.

I think that each campaign has its own context. And it’s very important to be open to understanding the context of how each campaign manifests itself in relation to the various actors involved, and the various community factors. I’ll think about very tangibly, like, doing work in support of migrant workers in the context of the pandemic lockdowns, where there was a lot of workers in warehouses – particularly in Dollarama warehouses in the Montreal area – that were facing unjust work conditions, low pay, and often were in various very dangerous conditions due to the lack of safety protocols. This is before the vaccines. So I think it was important to have clear demands around those efforts and that campaign.

But, you know, each campaign evolves in its own way, right? And I think it’s important to retain a fluid approach. And to be open to building coalitions. That does not mean, for me, that you water down your demands, but it means that you need to seek support from other political actors and networks. And that can also be at a very grassroots level, right?

TMC:What are a couple of sources related to struggles that you are involved in or related to your approach to activism and organizing that you would want other people to read/watch/listen to/learn from?

SC: I’ve really learned a lot from people I’ve directly worked with. So, a lot of asylum seekers. I really took the time to listen and learn from their stories. That informed me a lot about different contexts around the world, and the various through-lines between, you know, historical contexts of colonialism and violence, and the present day, and how that leads to displacement. I think listening to people at a grassroots level and learning from their stories is really essential. Because that is often a way for learning to take place that is not official, but that is deep and important.

And I’d say that right now, that sort of conversational style of listening and learning informs a lot of my work in community radio around my weekly program. Those conversations are really an opportunity to share different voices and to create a space to learn from people involved in social movements around the world. Free City Radio broadcasts on CKUT 90.3. FM on Wednesdays at 11am; CHLO 1690 AM in Tiohtià:ke Montreal on Tuesdays at 1pm; CKUW 95.9 FM in Winnipeg at 10:30pm on Tuesdays; CFRC 101.9 FM in Kingston at 11:30am on Wednesdays; CFUV 101.9 FM in Victoria BC on Wednesdays at 9am and Saturdays at 7am; Met Radio 1280 AM in Toronto at 5:30am on Fridays; and CKCU 93.1 FM in Ottawa on Tuesdays at 2pm. The archives are on SoundCloud. Thank you!

Talking Radical: Resources is a collaboration between The Media Co-op and the Talking Radical project. In these short monthly interviews, activists and organizers from across so-called Canada will connect you with ideas and with tools for learning related to struggles for justice and collective liberation. They will talk about how they themselves have learned, and about ways that you can learn from the grassroots work that they are involved in.

Scott Neigh is a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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