Learning from Organizers – Kerri Claire Neil

Kerri Claire Neil (she/her) is a community organizer based in St. John’s, Ktaqamkuk (Newfoundland). She is Co-Chair of the Social Justice Co-operative of Newfoundland and Labrador (SJCNL) and recently took over her family’s business, Downtown Comics. Currently, Kerri is actively involved in Tent City 4 Change, a grassroots collective that is advocating for housing justice and supporting resident protesters who are resisting the dirty, degrading, and dangerous shelter system from their encampment in St. John’s. She also helps facilitate the Activist x Anti-Capitalist Book Club that meets bi-weekly online – everyone is welcome! – and is known to show up at protests that advocate for a wide range of issues, from Palestine solidarity, to workers’ rights, to ending oil extraction.

Kerri began her activism in high school, when she started an Amnesty International chapter with some friends. Since then, she has completed a Master’s degree in sociology, run as a candidate for the NL NDP, was elected (and removed) from the Memorial University Board of Regents, and is generally known around town for being a rabble rouser and trouble maker. Online, you can often find her on Twitter.

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?

Kerri Claire Neil: Sadly, I have never been part of a workplace union, but I am so inspired by the workers’ movement and the historic gains that they have made. I especially like to learn about the very early days of the workers’ movement, when unions were a new concept, and employers and government were united in violently shutting them down. From what I’ve learned, it took a lot of education and trust building to encourage people to organize and improve their workplaces, which I think is sometimes missing from modern unions and non-profits.

One, I think education is key to growing the movement. We cannot expect that people will become fully realized activists randomly, especially when so many forces are actively spreading corporate propaganda. As activists, we have to nurture our own growth and support others. Sometimes I see activists get frustrated when others aren’t as caught up as them, and really that’s an opportunity to share information and have discussions. I started the book club with SJCNL because after finishing my master’s, I missed reading and learning in a group setting, and realized that I needed deadlines if I was really going to commit to life-long learning. When unions started, it was a novel concept, and union organizers had to teach workers what they were, how they worked, and how their bosses were exploiting them. While many people may now be familiar with the concept of a union, they may not know the details, and that is true for a lot of our activism.

Two, I think trust building is vital to strengthening the movement. It’s important to hold events, meetings, and rallies, but we should also make space to socialize and get to know each other. I know here in NL, there were union halls where people gathered to meet, but also play cards, drink, and have a smoke. We need to take time to get to know each other, so that if we take a risky action, like going on a strike, we can trust that each and every one of us is going to show up. Activism is not a business and we need to show our appreciation for every single person who takes time out of their busy lives to volunteer, to rally, to speak out.

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?

KCN: For unions, I have learned a lot through Briarpatch Magazine, and I really love the film Salt of the Earth for bringing the struggle to life. To learn more about the situation here in NL, I have learned a lot from the Badger Riot trilogy, by J.A. Ricketts, and A Class Act: An Illustrated History of the Labour Movement in Newfoundland & Labrador by Bill Gillespie. I also want to give a shout out to The Global City by Saskia Sassen, Caliban and The Witch by Silvia Federici, and Border and Rule by Harsha Walia for helping me better understand global capitalist structures.

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?

KCN: In the Social Justice Co-operative NL, we are fighting for a Revolution of Care, and trying to help people identify capitalism, specifically the exploitation of labour and the privatization of land, as creating the inequality and environmental ruin that we are experiencing, and thinking broadly about how to imagine a future post-capitalism. We have chosen “care” as our mantra, because it pushes back against the selfishness, loneliness, and individualism that is triumphing under capitalism, and encourages us to take care and be responsible for each other. This means that no one is disposable, and we will support each other through thick and thin – which, of course, is easier said than done.

One aspect of our organizing has included a transformative justice working group, which really came out of the book club and our reading on prison abolition. We were really grateful to have the working group in place when our organization went through a very significant upheaval with the discovery that our treasurer had been stealing our money over two years – which, unfortunately, the Board only learned about when all the money had been taken – totalling $60,000. Holding true to our values, we decided not to go through the criminal punitive system and set up a committee to help us through this devastating crime. Of course, this was an incredibly challenging decision that we worked through with our members, but we believed that we needed to hold true to our values, and were grateful to already have some structures in place to help us work through this conflict.

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

KCN: For books on mutual aid and transformative justice, I would recommend Mutual Aid by Dean Spade and anything by adrienne maree brown, including Holding Change, We Will Not Cancel Us, and Pleasure Activism; or Mariame Kabe, including We Do This ‘Til We Free Us and Let This Radicalize You (with Kelly Hayes). I also learned a lot through the Study and Struggle curriculum, as well as Halifax-based activist El Jones, who has recently written Abolitionist Intimacies, and is a frequent contributor to the online news source The Breach.

TMC: You say that you see education as key to growing the movement. In my experience, it can be easy for people or groups to fall into one of two extremes – to, on the one hand, get stuck in reading and talking about ideas and never quite turning that into action, or, on the other, to respond to the urgent needs in our lives and communities by lurching from action to action without ever taking time to learn about the bigger picture and reflect on it. How do you think about balancing, or integrating, or otherwise navigating those two components of movement activity – education and action – that can feel like they are competing for our time and energy?

KCN: I have been pondering this question and currently am reading Expect Resistance by CrimethInc, which has helped me articulate my thoughts. There’s an old saying, “Organize, agitate, and educate,” that I consider the “Holy Trinity” of the revolution, and I don’t necessarily think it means that every activist needs to engage in those three practices, but that every movement should have those three components. I think it’s great if some people want to focus on just education and reading, and that others are more activity-focused and show up to every protest, but I think there needs to be spaces where they intermingle. With the Social Justice Co-operative NL, we are trying to make spaces for people who have different interests within activism to come together, which can include meetings, protests, and book clubs, but also picnics, zine making, dances, theatre, road trips, etc. I believe we need to pursue our passions but also recognize that we’re stronger together, and build relationships and have dialogue by showing up for each other, which will hopefully foster a fluidity of ideas and tactics within the movement.

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

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

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