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Stories of Activist Victories

Jacob Perl
October 22, 2017


by Jacob L. Perl

Discussed in this essay: When We Fight, We Win: Twenty-First Century Social Movements and Activists That Are Transforming Our World, by Greg Jobin-Leeds and AgitArte, The New Press, 2016, 208 pages.

Artwork, above: Maggie Crabapple; below: Melanie Cervantes -- from When We Fight, We Win

IN 2012, we were going to lose: Voters in North Carolina were going to ban gay marriage. A lot of people were working their hearts out to beat the ban, but it wasn’t enough. Paulina Helm-Hernández, an organizer with SONG, Southerners On New Ground, was one of those people, and even though the campaign was heading for a rout, Helm-Hernandez didn’t see it as a loss, exactly. She and her friends had goals beyond beating the law. They wanted to have one million conversations with their neighbors.

Committing to actually having a million conversations with North Carolinians about the future of our state, and about the divisive tactics of the Right, and about the reality of how integrated LGBTQ communities in North Carolina actually are to immigrant communities, to other communities of color — it really just became a huge opportunity for us . . .

Part of our role has been to push back on this notion that the Right has inevitable control in the South and we’re in a trajectory that can’t be broken. [We] try to interrupt that narrative, to structurally help create powerful political spaces where people do get to test their own power, to get to see there is momentum, to . . . learn from people that are doing things that are working in small towns and rural communities.

Greg Jobin-Leeds begins his book, When We Fight, We Win, with the story of the queer movement. He writes about how gay sex was illegal in several states as recently as 2003, how homosexuality was classified a mental illness, and how people worked to change the culture and the law. He talks about how they made themselves visible, told their stories, framed their campaign with love and family, and made allies. Most important of all, he talks about how they’re winning.

This book — thin, dynamic, and full of illustrations — is about winning. The LGBTQ movement. Teachers and parents bucking against Rahm Emanuel and his privatization agenda in Chicago. The California prisoners’ hunger strike of 2011. Immigrant “dreamers” who decide to tell their stories and risk it all. The new radical environmentalist. The Fight for $15. Occupy. These are stories of how people working for a better world find success using strategies that have worked — strategies like telling our own stories (think the Dreamers, the queer movement), having unreasonably big ambitions (think prison abolition), “building organizations and beloved communities” (think foreclosure resistance, potlucks, music with friends), talking to our neighbors, and building spaces for people of like-minds to connect.

When we fight, we win. It sounds naive. As Jews, we know many stories of fighting and losing. The universe might be ruled by humor or sadness, but it isn’t ruled by righteousness, and the results of an action don’t always mirror effort, at least not in the obvious way. But the title of the book is its big claim, and Jobin-Leeds offers a couple of different stories about the phrase.

In a passage about Occupy, he quotes Steve Meacham, an organizer against foreclosures in Boston:

When I was working in the shipyard twenty-five years ago, we heard of a struggle in Germany where there was a big effort to propose other kinds of products to keep shipyards open other than for navy ships. The workers engaged in this radical act of taking over a shipyard that the owners wanted to close in Bremen, West Germany, and they hung this huge sign from the gate that said, “If you fight, you may lose. If you don’t fight you’ve already lost.”

That was the first time I heard something like, “When we fight we win.” We started using that phrase at City Life/Vida Urbana because it symbolized the fact that even though we don’t win every battle, and we don’t win everybody’s case, when we fight we still win. Because people who even fight and lose would rather have fought than not fought. The movement always grows out of each fight.

When We Fight is meant to get people to do something. In service to this aim, the book is designed to engage. The design team, AgitArte, gets equal billing with Jobin-Leeds on the book’s cover and at its website, A lot of the communication in the book is done through drawing, often posters from leftwing movements. In the chapter on immigration, for example, there is a beautiful drawing of a sad child with his hand on his window next to a second drawing of a woman in jail, hugging her pillow. “Deporting and detaining parents shatters families,” the poster says. Another poster shows an elderly Chinese couple walking down a street in Chinatown. In front, a little girl stands, looking out at us. “Stop evictions of our elders in Chinatown,” the poster says. Both posters have more explanation of their ideas in smaller text below. The one about evictions is in two languages. But a casual reader will get the point right away.

THE PAGES look like a magazine. They have headlines, and text divided into columns. There are pull-quotes — exciting bits from the text repeated in big letters to catch readers’ eyes. The book isn’t completely accessible — Jobin-Leeds uses long words and long sentences sometimes. But the team makes up for this density with drawings, design, and stories that make the political personal.

The section on economic justice, for example, begins with the story of one family:

Aloysius Nwankwo has lived with his wife, four children, and mother in the Grove Hall section of Boston for two decades. After his small business failed, the family struggled to pay its mortgage. In early 2013 Nwankwo came home to find a notice from Bank of America that the bank would foreclose on his home on April 10, 2013, after which he would be evicted. The Nwankwos were about to become another casualty of the national foreclosure epidemic.

With four sentences Jobin-Leeds has told us the story of one family and connected it to the bigger story of foreclosures. He goes on to talk about how the Nwankwos connected with City Life/Vida Urbana, and were able, through the effort of neighbors and friends, to stay in their home.

Telling stories is a strategy for activists whom Jobin-Leeds highlights throughout the book. It is also one of the book’s more radical features. The corporate media talks a lot about politicians. Even alternative media often falls into this habit. “Donald Trump” they say, “Hillary Clinton,” “Ron Paul.” We’re invited to watch, and cheer, and analyze the psychology of our kings, to despair, and hope, and advocate on their behalf. Often, activists and community members are not part of the story at all. When we are included, we are outsiders, pulling on the pants legs of the powerful. Jobin-Leeds puts us at the center of the story.

When We Fight, in the end, is a community project, the product of many conversations. Jobin-Leeds credits community members throughout, talking about the ways he collaborated with them and the feedback he received from them. The book is so full of stories that it feels like Jobin-Leeds is its editor as much as its writer. He notes that the book was the product of five years of conversations with activists culminating in a two-day gathering. He says the gathered group “broke bread and discussed our challenges, big questions, and what we could do to make lasting change.”

We won’t beat racism in our lifetimes. It will take generations to lick wage-slavery and trans-phobia. But we begin by telling our stories — centralizing our stories. It will take being loud, and making pictures, and listening. It will take a million conversations in North Carolina, and in California. Maybe it will take ten million. Maybe that won’t be enough. But one thought offers hope, even though we know in our hearts, and by our history, it’s not quite true. When we fight, we win.

Jacob L. Perl, a member of our editorial board, is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin, and works in the medical field.